Why the ‘natives’ resisted Israel ‘going native’

Israel Independence Day, 1948

This incisive piece by Paul Johnson was written for Israel’s 50th anniversary, 13 years ago. The passage below sums up beautifully the paradox of leftwing Ashkenazim seeking to become ‘Jewish Arabs’ in their dreamy quest for peace, while Israeli Middle Easterners, with their history of suffering at Arab hands, pulled in the opposite direction. Via CifWatch:

Whatever hybrid political form the young state took, one thing it was not and could not be was a light unto its closest neighbors. The 1948-49 war ended not in peace but in an armistice, followed over the ensuing decades by a desperate arms race, Arab economic boycott, horrific acts of violence, and outright war. Although the returning Jews came eager to teach the arts of peace, they repeatedly had to confront their neighbors instead on the fields of battle, and constantly had to hone their military skills to stay ahead.

This is not to say that the old dream of reconciliation fell by the wayside. Some Israeli public figures, indeed, became fond of arguing that Arab hatred of Israel was a case of mistaken identity: the Arabs wrongly saw the Jewish state as a colonizing power, a foothold of Western imperialism, or a 20th-century version of the medieval Crusader kingdom. To correct this unfortunate image, Israel would have to “go native,” becoming a genuine Middle Eastern state with the geopolitical priorities and instincts of its neighbors. It would have to adopt a low profile, and a local one.

Despite the manifest utopianism of this idea, the ruling Labor coalition flirted with a policy based on it for many years. The idea was impractical for a number of reasons. In the first place, Israel could not dispense with its military and financial umbilical cord to the United States, the fons et origo of “Western imperialism.” Second, Israel was not, and could not become, a Middle Eastern state like other Middle Eastern states, nor could its people successfully pretend to be (as it were) Jewish Arabs.

An irony here is that there were indeed plenty of Jewish Middle Easterners in Israel: the (misnamed) Sephardim who flocked there in fear and poverty after being driven out of the Arab world. But these arrivals, far from leavening the Western-formed majority with a local yeast, pushed in the opposite direction. Having suffered at Arab hands, they had none of the dreamy good will of some Ashkenazi founders and their successors. To the contrary, the Sephardim saw Arab and Israeli interests as clearly distinct, and clearly incompatible. Having come to Israel precisely because it was not a Middle Eastern state like the rest, they sought to keep it that way.

In due course, these Jewish Middle Easterners played a crucial role in Israeli politics, decisively helping to bring about the fall of Labor and the end of the first phase of Israel’s existence: the phase of socialist ideals and illusions, of high hopes deferred and grand visions unrealized. Now, starting in 1977, came the second phase—the phase of resigned realism—which, two decades later, is still with us.

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  • Nothing new in the way they remake themselves a lily white character. Everything is someone else's fault. Look at the way they had the world forget that theirs was the exclusive ruling party till 1977 – they had the territories for 10 years after 1967, plenty of opportunity to get rid of them, yet did nothing. And who are they blaming?
    "The right" and "the orientals".
    Take also the double standards before the law: compare the treatment of Vanunu with the treatment of Kamm and Blau. All this for the show: to say here, THEY are the spies because THEY are the ones in jail.

    No, the greed of the kibbutznikim and the failure of that system in the era of global capitalism killed the socialist project. The socialist system and the kibbutz couldn't survive in Israel anymore than socialism and the kholkhoze have survived in the former Soviet Union.

    Also their lack of understanding of the Arab world and the importation of stereotypes from 19the century German orientalists were the false premises on which the likes of uri Avneri and other fascists based their dream "canaanite" society: A ruling elite of Ashkenazi Jews and Palestinian elites, and a "working class" of "Arabs" including both lower class Arabs of the region and what they mistakingly called "Arab Jews". In fact, this is still the idea behind the "one-state solution".

  • I think there's a lot of sublimated resentment on the Ashkenazi left for the 'orientals', they who keep throwing spanners in the works – their bigoted rabbis, their embarrassing support for 'right-wing' parties, and their claims conflicting with those of Arabs (Sheikh Jarrah, etc).

  • Sneeky….
    So if the "neo-Canaanite" ashkenazis didn't "go native" and didn't become Arabs, it's the "Oriental's" fault.
    If Israel has abandoned the socialist dream, it's the "Oriental's fault. As if they had any say – or presence – in the kibbutzim.


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