APRIL 28, 2013
THE RECENT ROUND OF ISRAELI ELECTIONS in January 2013 revealed a society with deep divides. The diverse electorate faced questions that concerned strictly Israeli Jewish society: should the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, be forced to enlist in the Israeli army? How generous should state subsidies be to the ultra-Orthodox? Can the Israeli economy change to better serve all people?
Debates concerning international relations, including a possible attack on Iran and the ongoing Palestinian conflict, were strikingly absent. The results of the elections were thus an affirmation of Israeli Jewish society’s desire to look inwards — just as Syria is imploding and Egypt is wobbling on its borders.
The surprise kingmaker that emerged from the elections, Yair Lapid, was no exception. Lapid, the former journalist who led the Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, party, garnered 19 Israeli Knesset seats. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose right-wing bloc lost several seats, immediately courted Lapid, whose core issues concerned the Israeli middle class and the place of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society. Lapid, now the Israeli minister of finance, wants everyone to “share the burden” — meaning army service for everyone, including the Haredim, currently exempt from having to join. If he follows through, Lapid’s insistence on Haredi service could damage the pact struck between Israel’s secular founder, David Ben-Gurion, and ultra-Orthodox rabbis, which allowed for the deeply religious to skip out on army service (among other concessions) in exchange for political support. The election made it evident that the multiple walls and fences surrounding Israel are meant for more than just security; they’re a metaphor for a society on a path towards ever more political isolation, which seems to be just fine for the majority of Israelis, so long as the Israeli economy stays stable enough.
This complex web of identity politics is at the heart of Diana Pinto’s new book, Israel Has Moved. Pinto, a Jewish historian living in Paris, takes a reverent though critical approach to Israel. She paints a vivid, complex portrait of a country focused inward that, at the same time, is forging links with countries not normally associated with the Jewish state. This is no paradox if you recognize the country as “postmodern,” where “past, present and future and above all its multimillennial tradition are thus bent into a new continuity.” The central claim of the book is that Israel has moved from a nation inspired by Western, Enlightenment values to a rootless, economic power unmoored by geography. The country defined by a clashing yet coexisting mix of religion and technology has abandoned its liberal origins in favor of going it alone in a largely hostile world — and is most eager to escape its immediate Arab neighborhood.
The author makes the conceptual point that Israel can’t be located in a specific place anymore. Yet there is also a geographic layer to this take, though there is little convincing evidence to prove it: Israel is moving away from Europe and the United States and towards Asia. The values animating the country reflect this shift. Israelis are no longer interested in humanistic values and a peace settlement with the Palestinians, the issue on which the West rhetorically focuses. Israelis are much more enamored with technology and their economic prowess.
Yet the reality of Israel’s global position is more complex than this line of reasoning suggests, a flaw in analysis that undermines Pinto’s book at various turns. Israel’s largest trading partners remain Europe and the US. Countries in Asia, including China, are not about to afford Israel impunity as it continues to build illegal settlements in the West Bank. That’s the United States’ job. When Pinto astutely writes that “no one in Israel seriously believes” that China would come to their aid in the face of a crisis, the reality of Israeli political isolation kicks in. But her analysis begins to fall short with her overall claim of an Israeli move towards Asia. If China isn’t going to save the country, and the US is the main player enabling Israel, how can the Jewish state abandon the US? The elaborate political theater that accompanied President Barack Obama’s trip to Israel showed just how crucial the US remains to the country’s political calculus.
Pinto’s political analysis falls short on other levels, too. She explores a country riven by schisms between secular and religious Israelis, residents of Tel Aviv and illegal West Bank settlements, and diaspora Jews and Israelis, to name a few. Yet, in the process of focusing almost exclusively on internal Jewish society, she skirts around some of the most fundamental issues related to the Palestinians: an Israel that rules over Palestinians who cannot vote, who are harassed daily by settlers and ordered around by 18-year-old kids with guns, is an Israel that is emphatically not normal. Pinto’s book touches on these issues in a haphazard manner that misses the big picture. At times she focuses on Israeli security fears to explain the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, rather than an underlying ideology that is premised on colonialism — though there is also some exploration of why the occupation is disastrous strategically and morally.
Israel Has Moved does do a thorough job exposing a country with intense contradictions. We follow the author as she travels around, mapping them onto the topography of the Jewish state in different geographic spaces and metaphors. Ben Gurion Airport is an “intergalactic café,” the place where all Jews — the ultra-Orthodox, the Diaspora, the Russians, the Ethiopians — enter a state that privileges them above all. Jerusalem is “an aquarium,” where both Palestinians and religious Jews can show up at the same place and yet ignore each other with no problem. Tel Aviv is a “bubble,” where a growing tech-based economy has transformed the city, and parts of the entire country, into a secure space. She places the reader right in the thick of things, providing ample details of the sounds, sights, and smells of Israel, with most of the book full of beautiful descriptions — sort of like a travel guide largely restricted to Israeli Jewish society. Her description of preparations for Jerusalem Day, a holiday celebrating the Israeli capture of the eastern part of the city and its so-called reunification, is a good example of her detail-rich writing:
Thick electrical cables are everywhere, leading to huge loudspeakers, plugged into the most sophisticated electrical consoles, worthy of top-notch rock concerts. The cafés on the path leading to the Kotel display impressive mounds of fast-food pizzas and falafels next to piles of canned soft drinks. […] All along the pedestrian path, above the old Roman Cardo (the axis that cut through the Old City) and the ancient portions that have been re-excavated, bakeries rival with one another to display the most tempting cakes from the Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions: poppy, apples, and white cheese for the former; honey, almonds, and pine nuts for the latter. Even at the Jewish level, there is no intermingling of cultures. Each baker stands by his own tradition.
Pinto also portrays Israel as “autistic,” a state that “cannot think” of itself as “living in a world populated by others,” a state that is brilliant yet socially isolated. This is true, for Israel desperately wants to ignore the neighborhood into which it is implanted. She also paints Israel as “fragile,” and writes that Israel’s antagonists have done their “utmost to aggravate the psychological condition of their neighbor, a neighbor that had fallen on their head without their being responsible for the Holocaust, but whose minuscule territorial presence they should have accepted early on.” Pinto argues that the “hatred of the Arab and Muslim world,” rooted in anti-Semitism, is disastrous for the fragile nation “with an autistic penchant.” The state is unable to “register the gaze or the emotions of others and are therefore unable to communicate or interact with them, because they do not grasp or understand what might motivate them.”
Oddly enough, the contradictions Pinto exposes have not lead to societal breakdown. Israel remains a cohesive entity (for Jews at least) whose internal divisions have yet to rip the nation-state apart. As Pinto observes, “Israel’s self-image is closer to a Cubist painting by Braque or Picasso: a subject that has been decomposed into different clashing planes while nonetheless retaining an intrinsic unity and intensity.”
Israel Has Moved is useful as a starting point for understanding issues that drive Israeli Jewish society, an area in which Pinto specializes: her primary scholarly work centers on European Jewry, where she has made a name for herself. But that’s where Israel Has Moved, which is missing adequate structural analysis of Israeli politics, begins and ends.
The book is less focused on Israeli geopolitics and more on the fault lines within Israel. There is indeed a need for books that hone in on Israeli society. But there are flaws in how Pinto executes her analysis of Israel’s internal problems. While the summer 2011 social justice protests are a theme on which Pinto touches, it’s mostly used as proof of Israeli society turning inwards. There is little traveling done to low-income Israeli neighborhoods, contained in a society with yawning gaps between the rich and the poor — gaps that drove the social protests. And other than some asides, there’s little exploration in the book of the harsh situation that African migrants face in Israel.
The book also suffers from an underlying schism that has less to do with Israel itself than with the author’s portrayal of it: while Israel stars as the book’s protagonist, it is not necessarily the hero. Pinto is not an Israeli apologist. She recognizes that the Jewish state is responsible for its own increasing political isolation from most of the world. Part of her analysis of Israeli society is that the mantra of being a “Jewish and democratic” state “implies an impossible political and philosophical squaring of the circle” — a trenchant argument, albeit one that doesn’t come out enough in the book. Yet one also gets a sense from Pinto that Israel, a state she acknowledges is immensely powerful, is a victim.
What seems to be missing most from Pinto’s discussion is a robust analysis of the Nakba. The Arabic term for catastrophe, Nakba refers to the campaign of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Zionist militias from 1947 to 1949, which largely contributed to the Jewish majority that now dominates Israel. Pinto fails to include this in her book. She acknowledges the work of Israel’s “New Historians,” and opines on “the Arabs who were expelled from their villages and lands during the war of 1948.” But she does not fully accept these historians’ conclusions. “Did [the Palestinians] flee following their leaders’ exhortations — the official Israeli historical line — or was their eviction previously programmed?” asks Pinto. She never answers. Yet the reality of the matter is that this claim — that Palestinians fled at their leaders’ behest — has been conclusively debunked. The concept of “transferring” the Palestinians was a consistent and major part of Zionist thought; a close look at the historical record reveals that there were plans for the expulsion of Palestinians.
The refusal to grapple with the Nakba and the ethnically exclusivist core of Israel is most evident in her discussion of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister. Pinto claims that after 1948, Ben-Gurion “changed his attitude radically on behalf of the rights of the Israeli Arabs. He also fought mercilessly against the right-wing extremist and Jewish organizations.” Yet Ben-Gurion was a key player in driving out the indigenous Palestinians from their land, as one of Israel’s “New Historians,” Ilan Pappé, shows in his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Ben-Gurion also forced the remaining Palestinians in what became the State of Israel to live under a brutal form of military rule until 1966.
If Pinto were to address the Nakba, she would also have to grapple with the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the descendants of those who survived the Nakba within the borders of present-day Israel. Palestinian citizens of Israel — referred to as “Israeli Arabs” in Pinto’s book — constitute 20 percent of Israel’s population, and are loud and clear about their links to their Palestinian brethren over the Green Line. Palestinian citizens remain largely segregated from their Israeli Jewish cohabitants. This source of division within Israeli society is one that Pinto does not comb over with her usual penchant for detail.
In the face of a country riven by so many contradictions, one can’t help but keep circling back to the question: how does a country as internally divided as Israel remain united? Pinto leaves the question largely unanswered, although she does accurately observe that security from external enemies is an important glue holding the country together. The example she uses is an apt one: during the height of the 2011 summer protests for social justice, an attack on Israel by Islamist militants distracted the demonstrators and forced everyone to unite under Israel’s right-wing government — the same government whose economic policies had been wreaking havoc on the Israeli middle class. The constant redirecting of Israeli energies towards external threats is still given short shrift in Pinto’s book.
Israel may be moving further away from liberal democracy, but what Pinto does not acknowledge is that it was never fully there in the first place. It can’t be said that a state founded on settler-colonialism and expulsion is inspired by Enlightenment values. Israel continues to move deeper and deeper into the abyss of institutionalized apartheid.