– Similarities exist in the political landscapes’ of both the US and Israel, which left unaltered, could be of grave harm. –
“I’m not a witch… I’m you.”
With these words, Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell attempted to convince voters that despite admitting to have dabbled in witchcraft and holding many extreme views, her values and views are closer to those of her state’s voters than those of the “Washington elite,” represented by her opponent, Chris Coons.
We can pass this comment off as just political sloganeering, but in fact it well summarises the sad state of affairs in the “Thelma and Louise” of global politics, the United States and Israel.
Like the angry, self-loathing drunk unable to recognise himself in the The Who’s seminal anthem “Who Are You,” Americans and Israelis are reaching such depths of distrust and despair that the coarsest appeals to right wing identity politics – represented by the rise of the Tea Party and the current Netanyahu government – will ensure the perpetuation of policies that will doom both countries to an even darker future.
In so doing they are moving so far from their founding ideals that it’s becoming impossible to recognise them anymore.
Weaving a Powerful Spell
O’Donnell, or at least the Tea Party from which she sprang, is involved in a base kind of witchcraft, using superstition and the lure of identity with some mythical past to manipulate people into acting against their core interests and forgetting their own history.
There is surprising resonance between O’Donnell’s message and what is being put out to Israeli society by its leadership in the current “loyalty oath” controversy, in which the cabinet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has drafted a law that would force new non-Jewish citizens of the state to swear an oath to be loyal to Israel as a Jewish state.
In both countries, the confusion about and opposition to extremist policies reveal a startling lack of comprehension of just how similar the “mainstream” has long been to the Right of centre (for example, Democratic Administrations brought us both Vietnam and the disastrous first dalliances with the Afghan resistance).
In Israel, Labour Party Minister Avishay Braverman declared that “Ben-Gurion would be turning in his grave” over the new law. Indeed, a large demonstration was held in front of his Tel Aviv home, where the countries Declaration of Independence was read over sixty years before.
But Ben-Gurion was a primary architect of the very policies of Conquest of Land that made the zero-sum conflict with Palestinian Arabs inevitable. Even as he read the Declaration of Independence, which described Israel as a “peace-seeking country based on the principles of equality and civil liberties” he knew full well that the only way the new state could survive and prosper would be if the country’s indigenous Palestinian Arab population – those that were left inside Israel – were denied basic rights and equality well into the future.
A report from the Israeli peace group Gush Shalom described how “beneath the statue of Meir Dizengoff, first mayor of Tel Aviv, actress Hanna Meron read out from that Declaration of Independence,” but she should have known that Tel Aviv – long the symbol of the rational, modern Israel – was itself built upon on the conquest of Palestinian land, the forced incorporation of surrounding Palestinian villages, and ultimately of Jaffa (minus most of its residents). When lamenting that the “reality of Israel is very different than what the country’s Declaration of Independence envisaged,” she missed the fact that while its different from the rhetoric of six decades past, the reality actually bears striking continuities to that bygone era.
Indeed, when activists decry the supposed arrival of “fascism” in Israel, they forget that while the “forcible invasion of the hallowed realm” of individual conscience might now be hitting close to home for Jewish citizens, its long been at the heart of the Palestinian experience of living in the country – either as citizens, or obviously worse, as occupied inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza.
Even as the Israeli peaceniks made their stand, untold numbers of Palestinians languish in Israeli jails, and scores have been injured and killed, precisely for refusing to accept the expansion of Israeli ideology on the ground, for peacefully imagining another solution and then trying to actualise it on the ground. And so Palestinian activists such as Ameer Makhoul or Abdallah Abu Rahmah, remain imprisoned merely for asserting the core ideals of the Declaration of Independence: that they deserve and are owed the same full rights as their Jewish co-citizens.
The sad reality is that the line towards what protesters describe as fascism was not crossed last week; not 20 or 30 or 40 years ago, but at the beginnings of the Zionist project, which was built on a conquest of land and exclusively Jewish identity; this is historical reality. And when Palestinians met that discourse with an equally exclusivist nationalism on their part, the mold was set for the zero-sum, irreconcilable conflict that continues to this day.
Of Tea and Potions
Say what you will, at least Israelis don’t bother sugar-coating their occupation anymore except to the most gullible foreign visitors.
With the horrors of Vietnam still fresh in America’s historical memory, military leaders feel compelled to present their presence in Iraq or Afghanistan in the softest manner possible, at least for the natives’ benefit. And so the Iraqi invasion was labelled, in all seriousness, “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” In Afghanistan, thanks in part to the huge success of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, the US military created a program in which female soldiers, who are increasingly part of the kill chain, are being sent into Afghan homes to drink tea with women in order to help smooth relations between the occupier and occupied.
Perhaps the soldiers are slipping some sort of potion in the tea when the women aren’t looking to convince them of America’s benign intentions (this is a military, after all, that has actually spent money training soldiers to knock over goats with their minds). Or maybe the military is just drinking its own Kool-Aid. But the Afpak brass claims that this program is a “success” that will help pacify the often recalcitrant population.
Of course, the fact that the tea parties have been dubbed by commanders “tea as a weapon” suggests that, whatever the PR spin, the military has not lost sight of the program’s function and purpose.
Back in the United States, however, the witchcraft seems to be working perfectly. If Israelis lounging in Tel Aviv’s famed cafés rarely need bother about the troubles caused by their settler compatriots and stubborn Palestinians, a just released poll reveals that only 4% of Americans rank the almost decade long war to be a major issue as in advance of the mid-term elections. It’s not that most support what General Petreaus and other commanders openly describe as an “endless” conflict (although a shocking number still do).
Like Israelis who complain that Palestinians don’t want peace while the bulldozers clear away ever more Palestinian soil, most Americans are so focused on the lousy economy that they apparently feel they don’t have the luxury to worry about the war. That the hundreds of billions of dollars spent annually on the war could be spent productively to stimulate the economy, retrain workers, rebuild infrastructure and educational institutions, and otherwise improve the employment prospects and economic situation of most Americans doesn’t even cross their minds, so successful has the voodoo first practised by President Bush and now by his successor been.
Even the dean of American newscasters, Tom Brokaw, has been bewitched, complaining in a New York Times Oped recently that “we all would benefit from a campaign that engaged the vexing question of what happens next in the long and so far unresolved effort to deal with Islamic rage,” as if America – its politics, its economic interests, and its toxic consumerist culture – hasn’t played a significant role in fomenting and sustaining “Islamic” anger.
And so now we have the prospect of politicians like Christine O’Donnell and Avigdor Lieberman holding some part of the fate of their countries, and everyone else’s with it, in their hands. Smiling giddily, they drive their countries ever closer to a precipice over which neither will be able to avoid careening, never mind returning in a form that resembles the ideals upon which they were founded – however flawed they may have been in practise.
At least in the movie, the audience could take comfort in the idea that Thelma and Louise would achieve a measure of peace as they sped off that desert cliff. There will be no witchraft powerful enough to make put a positive spin on where the United States and Israel are heading if they don’t turn around before it’s too late.
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. He has authored several books including Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine (University of California Press, 2005) and An Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).
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