The first time I went to Israel, which was 1967, as I walked along the boardwalk in Tel Aviv, I thought I was in Miami Beach. Most of the adults were speaking Yiddish, not Hebrew, and they looked exactly like the Jews in Southern Florida who had moved down to Miami from The Bronx.
This was before Miami Beach became a hip and cool destination for the rich and famous. It was also when Israel’s population was overwhelmingly comprised of immigrants from Eastern Europe who came out of an Ashkenazi culture heavily influenced by Socialist beliefs.
That was then, this is now. And the Israel whose military is waging a scorched earth strategy in Gaza bears little, if any resemblance to the Israel which appeared in 1948.
Not only does the country now contain an intense community of ultra-orthodox Jews, who didn’t even recognize the political existence of the Jewish state in 1948, but between the religious groups, the Sephardic population from the Arab states of origin and the Russian immigrants, the liberal, Socialist-infused population which created Eretz Israel is no longer a majority of the country’s national count, which is the reason that an ultra-nationalist, right-wing coalition governs the Jewish State.
On the other hand, the current narrative of Israel as creating genocide both within and without the country’s original borders is simply not true. Nearly 20% of the legal residents in Israel happen to be Arabs, and with the exception of not being required to serve in the IDF, this population enjoys the same political ‘rights’ as everyone else.
I don’t mean to split hairs, but there is an immense social and cultural difference between the non-Orthodox American Jewish community and the non-Orthodox Jewish population in Israel, and any attempt to link these two populations together in a reaction to the current situation in Gaza is a big mistake.
Unfortunately, we can’t hold a discussion about anything having to do with Gaza without first acknowledging that Gaza now contains more than one million residents who lived on the West Bank for generations, and only came to Gaza recently as the wave of Jewish settlements forced them out.
At the same time, to refer to the uprooted Palestinians as representing some kind of nationhood displaced by Israeli bulldozers is to apply a definition of political statehood to an area which has never been a nation-state at all.
The Palestinians who lived on the West Bank prior to the 1973 Israeli occupation could best be compared to American Indian tribes who occupied the western half of the United States until the growth of homesteading, herding and extractive industries forced them either to enter reservations or simply disappear.
The Palestinians did not constitute a nation in the political sense of that word, the area known as Palestine having been a territory under the Ottoman Empire until Churchill took a pencil and a napkin and redrew the borders of the Near East to conform to British colonial ambitions and plans.
In 1949, with the addition of Israel, the United Nations counted 59 member states. Today that number has grown to 193, and most of the 134 countries that have joined the world body since Israeli independence were former colonial zones of what we used to refer to as the ‘big powers’ even though countries like Denmark and Netherlands were not so very big.
For those who were born after the mid-1950’s, it’s difficult to imagine a time when huge amounts of land, often containing vast natural resources, were shifted from the ownership of one country to the ownership of another country without anyone considering that the desires of the indigenous populations should be taken into account.
This was the geo-political situation from Morocco to Tibet, a distance of nearly 9,000 kilometers containing untold millions of who could not identify themselves as being citizens of any national state. Today, only the West Bank and Gaza fit that bill.
I don’t know, nor does anyone else seem to know how the tinderbox which has exploded in Gaza is going to work itself out. Both populations seem to be stuck in some kind of historical abyss from which neither appears able to climb out.
And I hate to end on a pessimistic note, but now that I’ve explained a bit of Near Eastern history, don’t forget that history always has its claims.