What is the Future of Israeli Morality?

“I see my father.  He is eighty-five.  He is a broken man.  He doesn’t know what happened, what hit him.  You see, he came here in 1911 from Greece.  My mother came in 1921 from Lithuania.  They say, ‘What happened to my dream?’  They are both socialists.  They came here to build a new society, a just society.  They believed it shouldn’t be at the expense of the Arabs, they really believed that.  And now when they see the turn, what is now the meaning of nationalism, and they can no longer reconcile it with the humanistic values, they are broken.”

Meron Benvenisti said this about his Zionist parents and the evolution of the Israeli state in 1986.  Say what you will about the socialism bit, the original founders of the modern state of Israel probably would be suffering the same broken dream after seeing what was supposed to be a bastion of morality and good turn into a military occupier.  Considering the atrocities of the Second World War, David Ben-Gurion and the other founders of the state certainly wanted a Jewish Israel to be a force for good in the world – not one that seems to be frozen in its role as oppressor.  From the Declaration of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Is this the Israel that was envisioned by those who worked so hard for its founding?  The stalemate in peace in ancient Palestine cannot be blamed entirely on Israel; Palestinian disorganization, anger, weaknesses inability to sometimes recognize reality has prolonged the struggle.  Yet with the recent announcements of more settlement construction that will inevitably complicate if not kill the peace talks, Israel is hardly presenting itself as a country that exudes morality and good.

Seemingly, Israel’s implied rejection of the indirect peace talks will prolong the untenable situation further.  As settlements continue to expand and an independent Palestine becomes more unlikely, the Jewish state will have to decide on its future.  Without concessions in the near future, Israel risks losing its Jewish character – the main component of its very existence – as voices supporting a two-state solution slowly are swallowed by increasing calls for a binational agreement.

In 1982, after the massacres in the Beirut Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, the young nation of Israel was forced to do some serious soul-searching to discover where the moral backbone of Israel went.  The massacres were, of course, committed by Christian Phalanges, but were done under the watchful eye of Israel.  Israel knew it needed to protect itself from further moral corruption.  From David Shipler:

A gathering storm of guilt and outrage burst from a large body of Israeli Jews.  Enormous numbers … demonstrated in Tel Aviv to press their demand that the government appoint a formal state commission of inquiry to define the scope of the country’s governmental and religious hierarchies, the citizenry itself mobilized into an explosion of conscious unparalleled in the modern history of Western democracy…  Suddenly the Palestinian had a human face behind the numbing label “terrorist.”  Suddenly Arab innocents stood close behind the facade of hostility.  Suddenly Israelis doubted their own morality.*

I often focus on the Palestinian need to a peace agreement.  The reasons are obvious: Palestinian land is being taken while Palestinian people discriminated against, unjustly imprisoned and killed.  The list goes on.  Rarely do I mention the pressing need for Israel.  But the need is there and ever increasing.

[tweetmeme] Israel was created for two reasons.  It was meant to be a Jewish state and – though the Zionist movement is much older – to be a lasting symbol of morality after the atrocities committed against the Jews by Hitler.  Today, Israel is in danger of losing both of these important pillars.  The country cannot remain Jewish if peace is not made and the military occupation – deemed illegal by most of the international community – is allowed to continue slowly eroding the moral fiber of the Jewish state.

In 1982, nearly one of every ten Israelis went to the street to protest their government and to question the morality of its actions.  Today, Israel needs another movement of self-criticism in order to save itself.  Today, perhaps more than ever, Israel needs to severely question its policies of occupation and discrimination.  It needs to demand its leaders to be good and to push for what is right and just.  It needs to salvage the present, limit the scars of the soon-to-be past and save the future.

*The Shipler quotation and the opening Benvenisti quotation come from Shipler’s book “Arab and Jew,” pages 464 and 461.  Look for a review soon.

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