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A Stone’s Throw

In the center of Tel Aviv there is an embarrassing fountain, designed by the wellknown Israeli artist Ya’akov Agam, who lives in Paris. Its formal opening was attended by the then prime minister of Israel, Shimon Peres, and some other officials. They all surrounded the miracle with admiring Norman Rockwell faces: to the sounds of Ravel’s Bolero, the fountain spouted patterns of fire and water. But why should anyone be astonished at the sight of fire and water mixing with each other, one may ask. After all, the State of Israel has been living with kitsch for forty years now. That’s why Israel believes that a Jewish state could be “democratic,” that occupation could be “benign,” that weapons could be “immaculate.” Forty years, after all, cannot be proven wrong.

You see a similar face these agonized days, the face of the average Israeli after the uprising in the occupied territories. The average Israeli, of course, would call it “riots in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” or, better still, “riots in Judea and Samaria,” among other places. Then he would launch the wide-eyed question often asked by Israelis: “How can they do this to us, after twenty years of a prosperous, benign occupation, maintained by immaculate weapons? How can the Israeli Arabs, our fellow residents inside the old Green Line, express solidarity with these terrorist West Bankers? How can the Arabs of Jerusalem, who for twenty years have been living in coexistence with us—how can they throw stones at our houses?”

But the really bad news is that there are no Israelis in Israel, in the sense that there are Americans in the US, and that the State of Israel has not been established yet. The Israeli Declaration of Independence (May 14, 1948), which so far has had a semiconstitutional status in Israel, did not open with the sentence: “We, the People of Israel,” but rather declared “the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” The Jewish state, in a whimsically ardent moment, promised “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex.” And to cap it all, it promised them a constitution “not later than the Ist October, 1948.”

Forty years later there are still no Israelis in the nonconstitutional Israel. The rubric of “nationality” (in Hebrew, Leom) on Israeli identity cards reads either “Jew” or “Arab.” The two words “Israeli nationality” do not exist in any official document of the State of Israel; like the Soviet Union, it is a country where nationality does not coincide with citizenship. You can be an Arab citizen of the state (otherwise referred to as a Green Liner) and carry an Israeli passport that says “Israeli citizenship” on its front page; but you are not defined as an Israeli by nationality (neither are your fellow Jewish citizens; but they, of course, monopolistically call themselves “Israelis”). So when the Israeli Arabs went on strike in solidarity with the Palestinian people, they were acting, if we look at it from this angle, in complete accordance with the official policy of the State of Israel, which has consistently considered them a “national minority,” or even as Palestinians. (Moshe Arens, of all people, was the first high-ranking official to define them as such, in January 1981, when he was the chairman of the Security and Foreign Affairs Committee during the Begin government.) Fortunately, the Israeli Arabs were mainly acting as potential Israelis who can demonstrate under the nonexistent first amendment of the nonexistent Israeli constitution; that is, they were acting rather like American Jews who feel confident enough in their American nationality to freely express their concern about their people in Israel, and about their people’s territorial anguish.

The State of Israel, when established, did not define itself by territory or place, but rather by time. It looked at itself as the extension of the Jewish span through history. Israel, as a matter of fact, still looks at itself, forty years after its formation and twenty-one years after the occupation of June 1967, as an entity which is not bound to a given territory, but whose sole objective, by law, is to be the last link of sorts in the Jewish chain of time, the chain that will eventually lead, as the Zionist movement believed, to a secular Geulah, salvation on earth. It does not belong to its citizens, as does every state in the Western world, of which Israel considers itself to be a part; rather it belongs to the Jewish people wherever they are. According to the Law of Return, an American Jew—say, Philip Roth—has more shares in the State of Israel than all the Green Liner Arabs put together: including me, that is. If Philip Roth were to make Aliyah to Israel and, for some outlandish reason, decide to become minister of education and culture, he actually would have good chances of becoming one; mine are wholly fictitious. Yet, after all, I was the one who was born there, and raised to face my counterlife in Hebrew.

I have already, in another place, defined the ambiguous or, rather, beguiling relationship between the State of Israel and its 700,000 Green Liners, as “Kitsch-22.” The State of Israel demands that its Arab citizens take their citizenship seriously; but when they try to do so it promptly informs them that their participation in the state is merely social, and that for the political fulfillment of their identity they must look somewhere else (i.e., to the Palestinian nation). When they do look elsewhere for their national identity, the state at once charges them with subversion; and—needless to say—as subversives they cannot be accepted as Israelis. Back to square one.

A long-awaited, if not long-overdue, proposal for “A Constitution for the State of Israel” was published last summer. Some very respectable professors from Tel Aviv University Law School, with alleged roots in the now defunct “Dash” party (which was considered by its founder, the late Yigael Yadin, as “the party of the political center”), came out—with much ado—with a draft constitution. The first page of the draft shows that even after forty years of statehood, the prevailing trend of thought among Israeli Jews is that “the State of Israel is the state of the Jewish people, founded on this people’s eternal right to sovereign existence in Eretz (The Land of) Israel.” That is how the authorized English translation reads. The Hebrew original, however, puts it slightly differently: “The State of Israel is forever the state of the Jewish people.” The draft constitution, which was expected to set some goals for the future, some dreams to aspire to, merely makes the present status quo constitutional. Instead of establishing an Israeli nationality (Leom) that will be shared by the citizens of Israel, the English translation is unequivocal: the Hebrew word Leom, in the authorized translation, reads “ethnic affiliation.” Moreover, the coup de grâce comes in the fifty-seventh article, which quotes, almost word for word, without giving credit where credit’s due, an amendment (Basic Law: The Knesset, Amendment Number 12) passed during the final session of the Knesset, before the summer recess of 1985:

A party shall not participate in elections to the Knesset if the Supreme Court, in proceedings prescribed by law, has held its objects or activities to entail any of the following—(1) negation of the existence of the State of Israel as the State of the Jewish people….

This helps to explain why an independent, exclusively Arab-Israeli, party cannot, could not, and will not run for the Knesset. The honorable Benjamin Cohen, previously the president of the Tel Aviv district court, harshly refuted the law more than a year ago (Koteret Rasheet, January 1, 1987), saying that the parliament “has confused the issues, since what can be deduced [from the law] is that a state of the Jewish people coincides with a democratic state which is the state of its citizens…. A state cannot belong to a people, but to its citizens.” Incidentally, it might be worth mentioning that the amendment in question was meant to be an “antiracism law.”

In 1965 and 1974, respectively, the collective identity of Jewish youth in Israel was investigated by U. Fargo, from the Institute for Economic, Social and Political Research at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The results of his survey showed a very significant tendency on the part of young people to identify themselves as “Jewish” rather than “Israeli.” Today it can hardly be disputed that the main contribution of Gush Emunim settlers in the West Bank to the State of Israel, borderless as it is, is mainly their preference of “Eretz Israel” (Land of Israel) to “Israel,” and their obsessive use of the religious term “Am [the people of] Israel” rather than “Israelis.”

Be that as it may, the occupied territories are not under “Israeli occupation” and “Israeli military rule,” but rather under a “Jewish occupation” and a “Jewish military rule.” Which means, by simple logic, that the great majority of the American Jewish people, part “owners” of the State of Israel by its own laws and their own consent, are as responsible for the recent “force, might and beating policy” as its minister of defense. This might not be music to both sides’ ears, but someone has to face the music of Rabin’s clubs.

Rabin is still typecast as the vicious character in Israel’s ongoing drama. In his policies in the occupied territories he has long been accused of being the most iron-fisted of defense ministers. Once admired for his “analytic mind.” Rabin first became prominent when he was chief of staff during the Six Day War, otherwise referred to by the bitterly defeated Arabs as the June War of 1967. On Mount Scopus, immediately after the war was won, he delivered a brilliant speech calling for a new beginning. This made him appear the noble, peace-seeking victorious knight, the idol of the generation that fought in the Palmach volunteer forces in the 1940s. The speech (which was later revealed to have been written by Mordechai Bar-On, the chief education officer at the time, and until recently a Knesset representative of the dovish “Ratz” party) helped to create a façade that was slowly tattered by Rabin himself, especially during his years as defense minister.

The image of Israel, during all these long years of war against the Palestinians, was one of a highly aesthetic efficiency in which the bloody, brutal, emotional, and always repellent conduct of the PLO was always met with a cool, expert, utterly impersonal retaliation from the Israeli side. The clean-cut performances of highly trained pilots in the distant skies were juxtaposed with the earthy, sloppy, atrocious, and ghastly deeds of the Palestinians. Vulgar terror was juxtaposed with noble war, the stained knife with the immaculate weapon, Caliban with Prospero.

Then in December Rabin came and squeezed the scene into a TV close-up. The war, which had been too big and complex to handle in a single image, now came within reach of the camera lens: a soldier is seen shooting; a young boy is carried away. (The State of Israel hasn’t only confiscated the land from under the feet of the Palestinians in the occupied territories; it has also taken away their childhood. For twenty years now officially there has been no childhood in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The word “child” is never used in military announcements: they refer to either an infant or a youth, but never a child. So a ten-year-old boy shot by the military forces is reported to be a “young man of ten.”)

However, the shootings of December still smacked of aestheticism: a bullet’s trajectory is too short even for a snapshot, too neat to seem brutal. Rabin went further, and the picture was finally brought down to its earthly proportions: a stone in the fist and a crushed bone versus a club. The Israeli soldier, who had in the past to maintain an aesthetic distance from the Palestinian, is now facing him, and this suits the Palestinian down to the ground. Nobody knows anymore who is more stained now, Daniel or the lion. It is the good old tribal fight again, over the same family plot.

The Palestinians should be deeply grateful to the man who brought the conflict to its real, simple dimensions: either peace or a struggle over land (not to mention his offering the best television exposure the “Palestinian cause” has ever had).

At the Abu Khalaf boutique in Salah e-Deen Street in East Jerusalem the owners were not aware, apparently, of these coming vicissitudes when they decided to publish a full-page ad in the Friday edition of the Hebrew daily Yedi’ot Aharonot, which came out a few days after the uprising on December 9. The rhyming text described the store’s collection, and ended with the statement that a “10 percent discount for policemen is given on all items.” Two hundred and twenty policemen were appointed four days later to protect Arik Sharon’s invasion of the Muslim quarter and to throw tear gas at those who protested it. Meanwhile East Jerusalem went on strike and the policemen had no chance to get their discount. After five weeks, Mayor Teddy Kollek, of all people, was trying to convince Rabin, Peres, and Bar Lev, the minister of police, to force the East Jerusalem merchants to open their shops. Kollek argued that the merchants had been asking to have their stores forced open. But the three officials wouldn’t yield (Ha’aretz, January 31).

Kollek, charming as he is, besides being the best mayor that Jerusalem could have, bears responsibility for promoting the “coexistence” myth in Jerusalem for the last two decades. He is the best person to keep the lid on—if need be; but deep down he knows that coexistence in Jerusalem has not “collapsed,” as he said (correcting an earlier statement that it had “died”), because there never was coexistence. You cannot coexist with somebody who regards you as an occupier; you simply coerce him into living his daily life under your benign thumb.

The new poetics of violence were dealt with in the Hebrew press. The reporter Zvi Gilat, a meticulous observer of small details, revealed to his readers in the daily Hadashot (January 22) that a rubber bullet is not made only of rubber. It has a round metal core. Three days later the same newspaper ran an item about an owner of a carpentry workshop that manufactures wooden clubs in Tel Aviv. The owner, who had already supplied thousands of clubs to the army, expressed doubts whether he would be able to fill the order for five thousand clubs promised to the security forces; his Arab workers from Gaza hadn’t shown up for a while.

Two days later the weekly Koteret Rasheet published an item entitled “Clubs for the Iron-Fist Policy: Everything is Blue and White” (i.e., locally produced). The military authorities, it was said, in their search for a new type of club to fit in with the new policy, and because of the shortage of wooden clubs in the local markets, were browsing through different catalogs of domestic and foreign manufacturers. The catalog of the local ISPRA company, which produces tear-gas canisters too, was offering a variety of five different types of the allah, Hebrew for “club.” (Upper-case Allah in Arabic being the Almighty, the Israel satirist B. Mikhail suggested a counterslogan for use by the army: when facing a mob in Gaza shouting their battle cry of “Allah-hu-Akbar“—“Allah is the Almighty”—the army cry should be “allah-hi-akbar“—“the club is the almighty.”)

Then there were discussions about the pros and cons of using trained attack dogs to maintain “peace and order.” Rafi Eitan, the former high official who was involved in the Pollard affair, was on a popular talk show the other night, and gave some suggestions for riot control. Among other things he suggested the use of attack dogs; this went a little bit too far for the Israeli viewers and smacked of former dark days in Europe. It so happened that Koteret Rasheet (January 20), which was bitterly lashing out at Eitan, published in the same issue as its criticism of him a full-page ad for the Abir private security agency offering “attack dogs for special missions.”

On February 21 The New York Times reported that “the army has ordered 10,000 new riot clubs and distributed an Arabic language booklet to the troops with such handy phrases as ‘hands up’ and ‘Liar—go stand against the wall.’ ”

The Israelis, though, were exposed to the real dimensions of the new poetics of violence only after weeks had passed. Much of what took place was offscreen for them. The poorly equipped crews of the government-owned TV station were weary after a strike for higher wages. They didn’t have the spirit to challenge the self-censorship of the station managers. So many Israelis were not fully aware of what had been going on in their back yard. Nobody threw stones at Agam’s fountain, so the citizen of Tel Aviv went on with his Tel Avivan life, turning a blind eye to the offscreen street cleaners, dishwashers, and construction workers who mostly vanished behind the clouds of tear gas; these people knew that even the dreadful martyrdom, as they call it, “must run its course anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot.”

A sticker in circulation now in Israel draws on a biblical quotation: “And the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years—1948–1988.” Forty years of wandering had to elapse, the desert generation had to pass away and give way to the “salvation generation,” before the biblical Israelis were permitted to enter the Promised Land. It seems today, more than at any time in the past, that salvation is double-edged: it may bloom as well on the other side of the Green Line, a stone’s throw away.

March 3, 1988

Letters

Jews & Arabs July 21, 1988

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