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.