In 2011, senior vice-president of the private sector shipping company United Parcel Service (UPS) revealed the secret to the company’s growing profits and consistently expeditious deliveries: no left turns. UPS drivers are instructed only to turn right, since “turning right decreases safety hazards [e.g. side-swiping] and delays.” The result is a more efficient use of gasoline, leading to greater efficiencies in time and money for the company and its drivers.
For years it seems, Israelis have acted like UPS trucks: only turning right. Led by a series of conservative governments and under perpetual threat by neighboring states, the right’s message is appealing – promising both physical and psychological security. It saves time and effort: why contest the reality that Israel is constantly under siege? Why complicate the clearly drawn line between ‘us’ and the ‘other’? Trying to understand hate – its origin, what has nurtured it – is difficult and ultimately unrewarding. Better to ignore it, says the right, and then, when it turns into a summer rocket squall, counter it with our might.
This has happened, time and again. Yes, Israel has the right to self-defense. Yes, it is not fair – not at all – that the Israel Defense Forces has to take unprecedented precautions in wartime to avoid civilian casualties while fighting an invisible enemy whose goal is to harm civilians, who launches rocket barrages and sends terrorist infiltrators only to hides under the dresses of Palestinian mothers and the cribs of Palestinian children.
It is not fair. Nor, however, is it fair that people in the Gaza Strip have no control over their circumstances, and are held at gunpoint by a militant terrorist organisation that cares less about governing and administering than it does about killing Israelis. If Palestinians must die to fulfill Hamas’ damning 1988 Covenant, which claims all of Israel for an eventual Muslim caliphate free from all non-Muslims, then – thinks Hamas – so be it.
And in all of this unfairness, Israelis have been turning right, in an attempt to feel safe, seeking a sense of control.
William Saroyan, in The Human Comedy, put it best. Marcus Macauley, conscripted to the front in Europe, writes a letter to his brother, Homer:
“Though I have never believed in wars,” he confesses, “– and know them to be foolish, even when they are necessary – I am proud that I am involved, since so many others are, and this is what’s happening.”
I contend this is the Israeli mindset, what civilians and soldiers alike think, from all points of the political spectrum. But it is not this thought that is imperative – it is what Saroyan writes next.
Marcus continues: “I do not recognise any enemy which is human, for no human being is my enemy…My quarrel is not with him, but with that unfortunate part of him which I seek to destroy in myself first.”
It is the humanity of the ‘other’ that the far right rejects, insisting on perpetual enemies, within and without the state of Israel. It is so easy, so convenient, in fact, to point to someone and say, “This. This is an enemy. This is evil.” Easy, but misleading.
The reality – so eloquently put by Hitler scholar Ron Rosenbaum – is that “evil adheres in ideas more than in people. People are seduced by evil ideas.” Now, the ultimate question, the haunting one, is: How do you kill an idea? And, more pressingly, how do you keep an idea from killing you?
Prior to the screening of her new film “Self Made” at the recent Jerusalem Film Festival, renowned director Shira Geffen asked to address the audience. Her remarks were brief and poignant; she invited the audience to stand in silence for one minute to honor the four Palestinian children that had been killed on a beach in Gaza just days earlier.
It was an apolitical request. Death in all forms is tragic, particularly when it is so perversely premature. Geffen mutely acknowledged this, and asked that those about to view her film do so, as well. Sixty seconds. “You can sit, too, if you want.”
The audience did not oblige her. Seething with rage over Shira’s empathy, audience members took to their feet and loudly denounced Geffen for her attempted tribute, citing it as glaringly – profanely, even – ‘anti-Israeli.’
“What about our children? Do they not deserve to be honored, as well?” was their resounding cry. Throughout the onslaught, Geffen stood still, head bowed. After one minute, she calmly left the stage, replaced by an anxious usher who urged silence – the film was about to begin.
For nearly two decades, arguably since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin – Israel’s last great champion for peace with the Palestinians – Israel has been steadily moving right. Little progress towards regional stability has been made by center-to-right-wing Prime Ministers; paradoxically, the most significant step towards peace was made by one of Israel’s most staunchly nationalist leaders, Ariel Sharon: despite having been an ardent advocate for West Bank settlements and Zionist militancy during his political career, in August 2005, he removed approximately 10,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.
The Olmert and Netanyahu administrations have further inculcated Israelis against moderation and compromise, framing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a national security concern rather than an more solvable omnibus of intertwining social, humanitarian, legal, and historical issues.
The Israeli extreme right wing, once anomalous and marginal has now, somehow, become the norm. This faction rejects withdrawal from the West Bank, values heritage above process, is wedded to the legitimate but ultimately xenophobic notion of a ‘demographic threat’ to the Jewish nature of the state and derides the integration of – or equality for – Israel’s quickly growing non-Jewish minority.
This right wing faction is held together by fear and a parochial nationalism that, ironically, only serves to weaken Israel by feeding its diplomatic and regional isolation. The mainstreaming of religio-political radicalism has shifted the bell curve of Israeli voters rightward, towards a self-righteous conservatism, marginalising the Israeli left and alienating the international community.
Operation Protective Edge, and before that Operation Brothers’ Keeper, galvanised the far right, fueling its irredentist “Peace Never” credo. Meanwhile, a weakened and discredited left, finding no solace in retributive justice, fought feebly against the sharp, dumb anger of the Israeli majority and looked to the international community for support and an audience.
It found neither. International vitriol intensified with the frequency of missile exchanges, and blanket anti-Israel protests broke out worldwide. In Europe, opposition to Israel served as socially acceptable camouflage for anti-Semitism: Parisian synagogues and Jewish businesses were burned with impunity; cries of “Judenschwein” (Jewish pigs) echoed once more down the streets of Berlin. In Turkey, Israeli flags were set ablaze, Prime Minister Erdogan deflecting domestic disapproval of his governance with a blind and gasoline-fuelled hatred of Israel.
In the United States and Latin America, pro-Palestinian rallies do nothing to ameliorate the situation of the Palestinians in Gaza. The international community’s rage and revulsion delegitimises Israel, dismisses it as a monolithic entity, at once and wholly the oppressor, its people – all of them – cruel, nationalistic, and ignorant. Meanwhile, the Palestinian people and Hamas are neatly categorised as ‘faultless victims’ or ‘technically-terrorists-but-hey-can-you-blame-them?” Such careless dichotomies push Israel away from the international system of norms and customary law and empower Hamas. Hamas is, and I will say this very loudly because many entertain contradictory delusions, a terrorist organisation. It is not a legitimate diplomatic actor will therefor never willingly give up its arms or accept pacific and amicable relations with Israel, much less abide by an international network of regulations that polices inter-state relations.
What’s more, loudly condemning Israel also strengthens and justifies the far-right mantra: that there is truly no one but the Israeli government that understands and protects its people. This paves the way for more years of conservative governance, of continued attacks by terrorist groups, of restricted rights to protest and an ongoing vicious cycle of suspicion, anxiety, and death. Anti-Israel marches and protests, the glaring anti-Semitism that has emerged from the European woodwork, will not make the Israeli Likud party and its über-religious cohorts reconsider their goals and beliefs. Such de-legitimation only strengthens the ‘us against the world’ mentality (which I previously wrote about here) that shuts down any possibility for negotiation or diplomacy leading to a two-state solution.
Furthermore, blanket censure of Israel effectively isolates the embattled groups in in Israel that acknowledge and are willing to advance Palestinian national aspirations. Treating Israel as the diplomatic equivalent of a cartoon villain – thuggish, intractable, and domineering – dismisses the Shira Geffens, the Dov Khenins, the politicians, academics, artists, and activists who have been working hard to ensure an empathic, equal, and humane Israeli society.
That Israeli left, harassed by the bullish nationalist zealots in Israel for being empathic to the Palestinian condition, and ignored by the international community for being equally sensitive to the Israeli right to exist and live as humans, is weakening. Having no one to speak to, the left turns inwards, squabbling within itself and splintering ever more as moderation – both on the part of the international community and the Israeli right – becomes passé. It is unsure of itself, a mosaic of good intentions and generally non-violent tendencies that do not translate into conviction – only hope.
What the left asks for, and provides, is trust. Trust that there are well-meaning Palestinian moderates in Gaza and the West Bank who are willing to participate in open discourse. Trust that the Israeli people, when presented with a viable solution removed from the context of war will choose tolerance rather than hate. Trust that conversation is the only truly lasting ceasefire.
But trust is fragile, and has to be constantly renewed. Fissures are spreading.
There is a saying that “war does not determine who is right, only who is left.” In Israel, war is determined by the right, and the left is left – out.
 Examples of this are already frighteningly apparent, with the dismissal of various professionals and the suspension of students for anti-Israeli views: http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/.premium-1.607517