Commentary in the Swedish daily Expressen June 4th 2017

Measuring Israel

It is sometimes said that Israel is measured on a different scale than other countries, which is probably true, and moreover quite explicable, and for me a given as well. When the idea of a ”Jewish state”, Der Judenstaat, was born at the first Zionist congress in Basel hundred twenty years ago, and when the British government in the Balfour Declaration hundred years ago committed itself to a ”Jewish National Home” in Palestine, and when the UN General Assembly seventy years ago voted for the partition of the British mandate in a Jewish and Arab state, and when fifty years ago the new state of Israel won what looked like a David’s victory over Goliath, no ordinary scales applied. Someone would say that biblical scales applied, and there is some truth to this as well.

The return of the Jews to “the holy land” was a project too firmly steeped in the deepest dreams and traumas of our civilization, for expectations not be over-excited and fears not to have an apocalyptic ring. When I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, Israel was the realization of the social utopias of our times, the miraculous response to the Holocaust and the final solution to the "Jewish problem," to name only some of the scales by which the new state was measured.

But the higher the expectations, the deeper the disappointments. If Israel's fifty-year-occupation of four million Palestinians and the ongoing colonization of their land and the emergence of a society in which one population oppresses another, can be said to be measured by a harsher scale than, for example, the Syrian regime's massacres of its own citizens, then it arguably has something to do with the higher expectations - and their letdown. Not least a letdown measured against the scale of expectations that the authors and proponents of Israel once set to themselves.

Israel was not supposed to be like this.

Not in 1897, nor in 1917,  nor in 1947, nor in 1967, was it supposed to be like this.

This is not to say that the makers of Israel agreed at every juncture of the road about which way to go and where it should take them, far from it, and you would often be amazed by the gap between what they thought and what they did. Not least when it came to the population that already inhabited the country, and that owned most of the land, and that from the very beginning became the invisible elephant in the Zionist room. Which did not prevent the project of a Jewish return to Palestine from remaining a project with high social and moral ambitions.

Not least for all those who in the Zionist project wanted to see the embodiment of particular Jewish ideas and ideals and to whom it was clear that whatever was to become, must be measured on a scale apart. Even those who expected Israel to be a state like all others, to be judged according to the same standards, soon discovered that they were on a mythically mined territory, in which fiction at any moment could explode reality.

This became perfectly clear on those days in June fifty years ago, when David defeated Goliath in six days and on the seventh day rested at the foot of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and myths took hold of expectations and turned the head of politics. Regardless of the causes of the war, it did not take long before Israel’s conquest of East Jerusalem and the West Bank was described as a historical return and a broad movement under the name ”The Whole Land of Israel”, Eretz Israel Haschlema, demanded that ”Judaea” and ”Samaria” be retained. The actual (and later formal) annexation of East Jerusalem (within greatly expanded city limits) occurred almost immediately. Just a year later, the first Jewish settlements on occupied land were a fact, including the aggressive national-religious enclave in central Hebron.

Thus, the ”biblical” victory had given birth to a historically new form of Judaism. For two thousand years, Judaism had been shaped and developed as a non-national and non-territorial civilization based on the community of interpreted law and messianic hope. With the return to The Whole Land of Israel, the military, political and territorial conditions were created for a Judaism based on the belief that Jewish dominance over a piece of land was the fulfillment of Biblical prophecies, and that the millions of Palestinians who happened to live on it had no rights to it.

A person who early on understood what an ideological witches’ brew the victory had concocted was the Jewish-Orthodox thinker and chemist (I have a weak spot for that combination) Yeshayahu Leibowitz, as he wrote: ”On the seventh day, we must decide – and we were free to decide – whether the purpose of the war was defense or conquest. We decided to make it a conquest, with all what that meant. It not only changed the character of the state, it gave a new dimension to the very foundation of its existence [...] Israel ceased to be the state of the Jewish people and became a state apparatus for the oppression by Jews of another people.”

Fifty years later, the Israeli political landscape is dominated by parties and opinions that openly believe that ”The whole Land of Israel” belongs to the Jewish state and that that the Jewishness of the state (defined in ethnic terms) is more important than the principle of equal rights to all citizens. If the primacy of Jewishness demands that the Palestinian people be suppressed and displaced and that Israel turns into an apartheid state, so be it.

Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann (another chemist) wrote in his memoirs that the world would judge Israel by its treatment of its Arab population, and in this regard nothing has changed. Neither have the measures of judgement. Fifty years of occupation is a serious crime judged by any scale, but it is a disaster judged by the Jewish scales that at least until 1967 had their own measures of expectations and hopes.

Fifty years later, the question may be asked if there could have been another way. For a few short years in the wake of the Oslo agreement in September 1993 (with the breathtaking handshake on the White House lawn between Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat) we were many who wanted to believe that. We wanted to believe that a policy based on occupation, conquest and oppression had come to an end, both strategically and morally, and that a policy based on mutual recognition, coherence and reconciliation was both conceivable and possible. But soon Yitzhak Rabin were to be described as a Jewish traitor and be depicted in a Nazi uniform by the followers of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Nemesis of Oslo. Only two years after the Oslo agreement, on November 4 1995, Rabin was murdered by a national-religious extremist, and what might possibly have become became impossible again.

It is sometimes said that the Palestinians have only themselves to blame for their misfortunes; that they have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, that Israel never had a partner for peace, that Israel never had a choice, etc., but regardless of the truth in such allegations and noting their self-exculpating purpose (who occupies whom after all), I am like Chaim Weizmann more concerned with what Israel has done or not done to the Palestinian people whose fate it has taken in its hands and what it thus has done to a project that was thought to become something else than an ethnic occupation power.

Regarding the people whose only crime is that they happened to inhabit the areas occupied by Israel in 1967, there is no other choice, according to the particular scale of measure I carry with me, but to offer them either full and equal citizenship in that Israeli state which has ruled over them for fifty years, or to offer them a state of their own, side by side with Israel.

”If you will it, it is not a tale,”  the founder of Zionism Theodor Herzl once wrote in trying to sell the high-flying idea he had brought forth at the Congress in Basel.

If hundred and twenty years later, the state that has risen from this idea seems to will no more than to remain a Jewish-ethnic occupation power, then I believe that Herzl would have considered this to be a most unhappy ending of his tale.