Middle Israel to Middle Palestine
Many Palestinians Yearn for Moderation and Modernity, Characteristic of Their Jewish Neighbours
Haifa – Americans speak of "Middle America" and Britons of "Middle England." Both are near mythic places that supposedly embody the authentic character of the nation. Israel, too, has its "Middle Israel," but it is very different from the place that Americans and Britons describe.
Rather than being somewhat provincial, Middle Israel is educated, bilingual or multilingual, and extremely well connected to the wider world. It has provided Israel with the high-tech success that it has enjoyed over the last decade. Middle Israel is mostly secular, though it also includes the moderately religious. It is liberal, and despises any sort of fanaticism, whether orthodox or nationalist. It is based on a strong, legally entrenched (though never perfect) ethos of gender equality that has typified Zionism from its start.
Middle Israel is also gay-friendly and distinctly non-xenophobic. It is mostly Jewish, though a young Arab professional class is now coming out of the universities and making its way – with difficulties – into the heartland of civil society. And, lest we forget, Middle Israel is earning the money and paying the taxes that support a wide assortment of traditionalists, fundamentalists, chauvinists, and other extremists – Jewish and Muslim – from Gaza to Jerusalem to the West Bank.
This quiet majority is under-represented in the Knesset because its members steer clear of political careers. It is far too large to be considered an elite. It is not exclusively urban, and it includes people of different cultural origins. It has a powerful common identity, shared memories, and a rich culture. It is neither inward-looking nor atavistic.
Some Palestinians hope to become, one day, something like Middle Israel. They, too, would like life, pragmatism, creativity, and even joy to gain the upper hand. They, too, want moderation and modernity, if perhaps not full secularization, to prevail. These Palestinians are Middle Israel’s natural allies.
Fed by a meager diet of media reporting and some coarse think-tank buzz, European and American friends often ask me why our universities are awash with self-hating, anti-Israel "post-Zionists." But they are not. Post-Zionism is a much hyped phantom, a term flourished in the mid-1990’s, when it seemed that Israeli and Palestinian leaders were building a peace process. In response, Israelis quickly developed their own "End of History" thesis, suggesting that soon Zionism would be a thing of the past, primarily because there would no longer be a need for any ideology to support what would be a normal modern state, at peace with its neighbors and with its past traumas.
Back then, historians and sociologists dug into Zionism supposed "sins" – for example, that Israel’s Arab citizens have never, to this day, enjoyed equal civil rights. Others looked at crimes against Palestinians in the wake of our self-defensive War of Independence. Many people denied these facts; many others looked them in the eye. Those of us who were not post-Zionists, but liberal Zionists, were even proud of the way our society had entered this phase of self-inspection and self-critique.
The gravest problem for Middle Israel is the Palestinian predicament in the occupied West Bank and in deadlocked Gaza. Our leaders, from Levy Eshkol (and much more so Golda Meir) to Yitzhak Shamir, erred gravely in not seizing the earliest opportunity to arrange a territorial separation and a horizon of sovereignty for the post-1967 Palestinians. They erred gravely in allowing Jewish settlers to have their way on the Biblical mountaintops, while Middle Israel looked the other way. They erred gravely – and this is less often recognized – in discouraging the moderate Palestinian middle class, many of whom have quit the occupied territories, leaving behind a generation of young, ignorant, hungry, and angry warriors.
But there is a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is geographical: a division of territory and a separation of homelands that involves painful but conceivable compromises on both sides. Jerusalem will be divided, Palestinian refugees will not return to their ancestral homes, and Jewish settlements in the West Bank will, like their Gaza counterparts, be dismantled or (inconceivably) left to fend for themselves.
Of course, extremists will hate it. By contrast, moderates – all moderates – will accept it, albeit unhappily.
If the moderates win, then a "Middle Palestine" will at last rise to prominence. Paralleling Middle Israel, though perhaps not initially befriending it or liking it very much, this kind of Palestine will be the best news that the Middle East will have had for a long time.
For now, we in Middle Israel must curb our own extremists and hold out for the Palestinian moderates to prevail.
Fania Oz-Salzberger is a Senior Lecturer in History and Director of the Posen Research Forum for Political Thought at the Faculty of Law, University of Haifa, and Professor and Leon Liberman Chair in Modern Israel Studies at Monash University. Among her books are Translating the Enlightenment and Israelis in Berlin.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008