Learning the Torah while Standing on One Foot

Within a short period of time, there will be no Jewish workers in Israel. The Arabs shall be the workers, the Jews shall be the managers, inspectors, officials and policemen, and mainly secret service policemen. A state governing a hostile population of 1.5 to 2 million foreigners is bound to become a Shin Bet state, with all that this would imply for the spirit of education, freedom of speech and thought, and democracy. This corruption, characteristic of any colonial regime, would be true for Israel. The administration will be forced to deal with the suppression of an Arab protest movement and the acquisition of Arab quislings. We must fear that even the army and its officers, a people’s army, will deteriorate by becoming an occupation army, and its officers, turned into military governors, will not differ from military governors elsewhere in the world.

So wrote Professor Yeshayahu Leibovitz, the eminent Israeli philosopher and religious thinker, in Yediot Aharanot in early 1968, just a few months after the astounding victory in the Six Day War. In a few short weeks, it will be exactly twenty-five years since that momentous watershed in Jewish history. Nostalgia and celebration is fine, but what of the legacy of that deliverance from annihilation. How do we view Leibovitz’s prophecy through the prism of time?

For some, his comments are as unpalatable today as they were unimaginable then. For others, they demonstrate an unerringly accurate prediction. Yet the very harshness of Leibovitz’s statement confronts all Jews with the reality of twenty-five divisive, unhappy years. In the Territories, unlike in Israel, there has been a distinct lack of democracy, an absence of elections and a curtailment of political activity: in general, a quagmire of suppression and frustration with which Israeli conscripts have been asked to deal in the absence of any political initiatives from successive Israeli governments. Today it has become self-evident that, while power is an unavoidable factor in possessing and retaining the Territories, it cannot ultimately resolve a conflict of rights.

Anyone who has had the courage to read the regular reports of B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Territories, or to become acquainted with the work of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, knows that there are undeniable double standards of behaviour within the Jewish state and in the areas conquered in 1967.

Many undoubtedly coat their feelings with a protective myopia and a belief that such violations of human rights are necessary cruelties. But there are also many ordinary Israelis who do not deceive themselves and who have become troubled by this degenerating situation. They have continued to serve in the IDF—often with the express purpose of minimizing injury to militant Palestinian teenagers and controlling the macho tendencies of their own headstrong youngsters. Still others, often bemedalled heroes of past campaigns, have preferred to go to prison rather than to serve in the Territories—a desperate act which Yeshayahu Leibovitz himself has endorsed and promoted. They have, as a result, suffered social ostracism.

Opinion polls and surveys during the last few years have indicated a deepening fear of the Other, of the Palestinian depicted as a threatening phantom of demonic proportions. Before 1967, it was said by Israelis themselves—with a sense of pride—that they did not hate their Arab enemy. But can the same be said today? The growth of the far right in Israel during the last decade has provided the political means to ignite emotions. It has fed the hatred and, in turn, has gown through it. Indeed, the transfer of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children to any Arab country that would take them, has become the political raison d’être of at least one party in Mr Shamir’s outgoing government.

Palestinian terrorism and the often transparent international criticism has hardened attitudes, but there has also been a psychological distancing from the violence of ruling over another people. Likud took full advantage of this mindset to legislate against contact with the PLO in 1986. Contact legitimized and humanized the Other—and made dialogue possible. Indeed, several courageous Israelis who persistently attempted to persuade the PLO to abandon terrorism for diplomacy were regarded as ideologically subversive. Significantly, the anti-PLO law said nothing about the intention behind any contact, or about the nature of any accompanying dialogue. What was illegal was, simply, “contact”. Indeed, if an Israeli concluded that Menachem Begin had been right after all—that “the PLO is a bunch of murderers”—he or she would still have been guilty of breaking the law. This bizarre attempt to turn a political option into a criminal act reached the zenith of absurdity recently when Yitzhak Shamir calmly listened to the delivery of Dr Haidar Abed-Shafi, the leader of the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid Conference last November. The Gaza physician had been one of the original founders of the PLO in 1964.

In addition, there has been complete disregard for, and a wide divergence from, the lessons of Jewish history. In the year when we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews of Spain in 1492, there are many advocates of the total expulsion of Palestinians from villages and towns where they have dwelt for countless generations.

It is disturbing that so many Jews do not see a connection and a parallel. It is said that when a non-Jew approached Hillel the Elder and requested to be taught the Torah while standing on one foot, the Hebrew sage replied: “What is harmful to you, do not do unto others. That is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary. Now go and study.” Such a profound moral precept for Jewish behaviour seems to have been marginalized at the altar of redemptive nationalism since 1967.

While Leibovitz’s prediction of an “Arab protest revolt”—the Intifada–has proved sadly only too accurate, the degeneration of Israel into a “Shin Bet state” has certainly not come to pass. The civil rights of the individual have been upheld strenuously by the Israeli judiciary which has shown itself to be willing to restrain the excesses of politicians and government. In 1987, an academic survey showed that 68 per cent of Israelis agreed that “where a law goes against a person’s conscience, he or she should be required to obey it or else all laws lose their meaning”. Indeed, on the surface, Israelis have shown a remarkable ability to adapt to different behavioural systems—serving in the Territories and returning to civilian life in Israel itself.

Neither has there been a dramatic backlash against government policy despite dissatisfaction with Shamir’s leadership; instead there has almost been a quiet resignation “to do the job” in the Territories as quickly as possible and return to normality in Israel. This internalization of political views does not, however, mean that tensions and fears have evaporated in a cloud of apathy.

The press in particular has become a target of rising suspicion. In a survey at the end of 1989, nearly half believed that the press had too much freedom of expression while one-third were convinced that it was biased and expressed the view of the Israeli left. The fear of the Other has thus deepened in recent years. Those who advocate “openness” are a threat while those who preach strength and survivalism are deemed to be the protectors of safety and security.

This spiralling picture of gloom and depression may not, however, be the way of the future. Last November, backed by 91 per cent of the people of Israel, Shamir rejected the advice of Arik Sharon and the far-right parties to ignore the International Peace Conference in Madrid. This was the first time that Israelis and Palestinians had actually sat down together and negotiated since 1948. Shamir finally had to choose—between the Americans and the far right.

Although it is often said that it doesn’t matter what the non-Jews say but what the Jews do, it is only the non-Jews—meaning the Americans—that can guarantee the financial burden for the great Soviet aliya. The prediction is that one million will have arrived by 1995. Michael Bruno, the former Governor of the Bank of Israel, has estimated that it will cost in total upwards of $30 billion. The Israeli government has asked the United States for $10 billion in loan guarantees, and President Bush has not been forthcoming, citing his opposition to the settlement drive, to which a majority of Israelis are also opposed.

According to Yitzhak Modai’i, the Israeli Finance Minister, unless Israel receives the loan guarantees, she will eventually be plunged into social and economic chaos. And today, unemployment is at its highest level since the great slump of the mid-1960s.

At the end of 1991, Modai’i ordered a former Director-General of the Finance Ministry, Ya’akov Lip-shitz, to compile a report on the economic prospects if the loans were not forthcoming. It predicted that there would be an unprecedented rate of unemployment of 16.9 per cent by 1995: 360,000 people would be out of work; the standard of living would drop by one-half per cent each year; the government would be forced to raise taxes to intolerable levels; there would be an exodus from the country of highly qualified Soviet Jews and the brightest and best of young Israelis.

Even if a partial face-saving formula is devised, to say that President Bush can exert leverage on the Likud government is an understatement of his power and his commitment to seek a resolution of the Palestinian question. The harsh truth is that if a desperate future is to be avoided in Israel, Shamir knows that he cannot have both loan guarantees and settlements—nor by extrapolation, both peace and territory. The hard reality is that America will not allow it.

At a time of recession and in an election year, the American voter is in no mood to help others. Even appeals from the new Commonwealth of Independent States have not been received sympathetically. The contemporary failure of liberalism in the United States is in part to blame. Ironically for Shamir, it is the advance of conservative forces in the United States that has forced his hand. Indeed, Pat Buchanan’s virulent opposition to the loan guarantees has made the White House all the more reticent. As Thomas Byrne Edsall recently commented in the New York Review of Books: “The moderately egalitarian New Deal liberalism that produced majorities [for the Democratic Party] from the start of the Great Depression through the election of Lyndon Johnson has been undermined by constituencies and interests that now differ sharply about the meaning of equality”

History may record that whether he believed in the peace process or not, the choice for Shamir in 1992 was “ain breira”—no alternative. And that this in turn started a historic process which was carried on by his more pragmatic successors.

Of course, as Leibovitz now knows, it is dangerous to prophecy, but a realignment of the pragmatic right with the centre left under Yitzhak Rabin may now be the only realistic possibility remaining to extricate Israel from a continuation of the misery of these twenty-five wasted, inglorious years. It is sad to reflect that it has been pressure from a superpower which has broken the political log-jam and not the moral teachings of Jewish tradition down the ages. To use David Grossman’s phrase, “Israel’s moral slumber” may finally be drawing to a fateful close—let us hope that this year may witness the commencement of a remarkable re-awakening.

Jewish Quarterly Spring 1992




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