Aqraba is an Arab village on the west bank of the Jordan River. These stony hills, beautiful in a rugged, sun-blanched way, formed the heartland of the Jewish tribes in biblical times. Here they picked their olives, just as the Palestinians would do today, if they could. But the Palestinians in Aqraba cannot, because modern Jews, settled in the hills around them, won’t let them. These Jews, from the US, Russia, or Israel, won’t let them because they claim the Old Testament as their deed of ownership to the land. They are followers of the fanatical rabbi from Brooklyn Meir Kahane, the one who advocated the expulsion (“transfer”) of Palestinian Arabs from the West Bank.

The Kahanite settlers are the gunslingers of the Wild East. Fifteen-year-old thugs from Brooklyn or Odessa or Jerusalem, armed with guns, run riot in these parts, and the Israeli army is either unable or unwilling to do anything about it. The Kahanites are so wild that even the other settlers regard them with disgust. When a Jewish academic came to Aqraba not long ago to offer help to the Arabs, he was shot.

I was there last week with a group of Israelis who wished to express their solidarity with the Arabs by helping them to pick olives. It was a gesture, a photo opportunity, if you like, aimed at the evening news, to show that some Israelis still cared. The event had been financed by a businessman and organized by Peace Now. Many of the participants were regulars on such occasions. Among them were the writers Amos Oz, David Grossman, and A.B. Yehoshua.

But there were others, too, who were less expected, such as Shlomo Gazit, the former head of army intelligence. And there was Rabbi Foreman, himself a settler, who read passages from the Talmud to demonstrate that stealing from the goyim was not permissible. Rabbi Foreman, with his shabby dark suit and long white hair, looked vaguely biblical, and at the same time strangely out of place: more at home perhaps in a yeshiva in Cracow a hundred years ago.

But then, in a way, all of us, except the Arabs, looked dislocated; a group of European academics, businessmen, writers, and journalists, in chinos and sneakers, trespassing on tribal lands. We were welcomed with plates of Arab sweets, and the village children holding up placards demanding the removal of the settlers managed a few smiles. The gulf separating the Palestinians and their Israeli visitors looked huge. Apart from formal greetings, hardly a word passed between them. The Kahanist gunslingers kept out of sight of the TV cameras, but the gulf between us and them would have been just as great.

The way the Palestinians are treated is of course indefensible, but there was something sad, even tragic about their well-meaning sympathizers, too. For they are the remnants of the old liberal-left elite, the Labor-voting Ashkenazi intellectuals who had hoped to build a decent, tolerant, democratic, secular society in the Middle East. Some were born in Israel, others came later. But all had fought for the survival of their country and lost friends in several wars. And now, stuck between fanatical settlers, Palestinian suicide bombers, and a right-wing government supported by poor Oriental Jews and hard-nosed Russians, it was as if they lived in a foreign country.

The harshness of Israel’s confrontation with the Palestinians has coarsened Israel. Old liberals feel isolated and abandoned in an increasingly brutal society. Several people in Jerusalem voiced surprise that I still dared to come under the present circumstances. Others told me how painful it was to be citizens of the world’s most hated nation. They said they lived in fear of what their government might do in case of further conflict in the Middle East. David Grossman spoke about the betrayal of Jewish idealism, the ideals that brought generations of Jews to Israel. And yet he could not see himself living anywhere else. This was, after all, his country too.

To declare that liberalism in Israel is dead would be foolish. Despite the loose talk of some swaggering politicians (and their supporters abroad), most Israelis are not ready to embrace fascism or ethnic cleansing. They just want to feel safe. Right now Sharon’s hard line makes them feel safer than more conciliatory alternatives. Moderation is not in fashion.

This could still change. But the liberals in Israel need support. The hard right gets plenty of help from Jewish chauvinists, neoconservative dreamers of a pax Americana, and religious fanatics, both Jewish and Christian. The left gets almost none, because liberals in the worldwide diaspora tend more and more to regard the Zionist enterprise as an embarrassment, a nightmare that gives Jews a bad name. To stay aloof from Israeli politics might seem like the enlightened thing to do, but we should know that once the crazies take over, we will all feel the consequences.


November 7, 2002

Copyright © 2002 by Ian Buruma

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December 5, 2002