August 26, 2005

No Mourning for Greater Israel

I briefly felt sympathy for the Israeli settlers forced to evacuate Gaza and some of the northern West Bank settlements. But it didn’t last long. They should never, ever, have moved there in the first place. Anyone with sense should have known the Palestinians who lived there already would need to be made citizens of equal standing in a new larger Israel if Israelis would not eventually withdraw from the territories acquired in the war of ’67.

The Greater Israel movement in no way excuses the Greater Palestine movement to abolish the state of Israel “from the river to the sea.” Likewise, the Greater Palestine movement can not excuse Greater Israel. I am not playing a moral equivalency game here. Far better to build a house where it does not belong than blow up a cafe or a bus. But it is not necessary for the Israeli settler movement to be as morally bad as Hamas or Islamic Jihad for the movement to still be morally bad.

In a perfect world, both “greater” movement would be defeated simultaneously. But the world is far from perfect, as it always has been, and Palestinian society is more dysfunctional and corrupt than Israeli society. So the Greater Israel movement is being defeated before the Greater Palestine movement, if only because the intifada has been largely walled off from Israel proper. (Critics of Israel’s security fence should acknowledge that it is the very thing that makes Israeli withdrawal even possible.)

Leon Weiseltier in the New Republic says those who support Israel’s right to exist and it’s right to defend itself should not shed any tears.
Even faced with the idea of Greater Palestine, it is impossible not to rejoice in the defeat of the idea of Greater Israel. It was always a foul idea, morally and strategically. It promoted the immediate ecstasy of the few above the eventual safety of the many; it introduced the toxins of messianism and mysticism into the politics of a great modern democracy; it preferred chosenness to human rights; it subordinated laws to visions, and the Jewish state to the Jewish millennium; it worshiped soil in a primitive, almost un-Jewish way. The settlers of the West Bank and Gaza are not a Jewish vanguard, they are a Jewish sect; and in their insistence that the destiny of their state and their society should be held hostage to the fulfillment of their metaphysical and historical conceptions, they have always displayed a sectarian self-love.

In the settlement of Netzarim earlier this year, the settlers published a book whose title might be translated as Super-Natural Living: Tales of Life in Gush Katif, a collection of testimonies about the idyll of Jewish existence in Gaza. It is chilling to read, because of its unreality. “The Arabs say to each other, and to their Jewish neighbors, that until the Jews arrived to settle in this region, there was almost no rain. It was impossible to grow anything in the sands. But since we returned here, the rains have started to fall, and the land generously produces its bounty. … This is without a doubt the fulfillment of the prophecy [in Ezekiel] about the redemption of Israel: 'But ye, O mountains of Israel, ye shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to my people of Israel.'” There are no mountains in Gaza, but never mind. The settlers in Gaza created a magical world for themselves, an introverted universe of endless miracles. They were indifferent to, or contemptuous of, the decidedly unmagical and unmiraculous effects of their enterprise in the bitter world beyond.

For this reason, when I behold the photographs of the settlers in Gaza uprooted by Israeli soldiers, empathy almost completely deserts me. I seem to have a heart of stone, and I am not entirely embarrassed by it. More precisely, I regard the eviction of the settlers as the appropriate reward for their own hearts of stone. For many other Jews gave their lives and their limbs so that these Jews could grow their holy tomatoes and study their holy texts in this desert. In order to satisfy their individual and collective aspirations, the Israeli civilians who lived in Gaza required the sacrifice of Israeli soldiers in Gaza. In the years of Jewish settlement in Gaza, 230 Israelis were killed there. A substantial number of them were soldiers. Why is the life of a Jew in a uniform worth less than the life of a Jew in a greenhouse? That is stone-heartedness. And yet one hears mainly about the sacrifices of the settlers. Surely the same stirring revival of Zionist agronomy could have been accomplished in the equally arid zones a few miles to the north or the east, in a place called Israel…

These settlers were not pioneers, they were pawns—the eager and fervid pawns of various Israeli governments acting on a grandiose geopolitical scheme whose futility has finally become apparent to a majority of the citizens of Israel. For a few decades the settlers seemed to be winning, and now, at least in Gaza, they have lost. That is all. It is a tragedy for their movement, but it is not a tragedy for their nation. “As Israel prepares to withdraw from Gaza,” wrote a prominent rabbi in New York, “it is not only natural but also proper that we experience a keen sense of mourning over our loss.” But the disengagement from Gaza is not our loss. If our interest is in the delineation of defensible borders for Israel, it is our gain. The withdrawal is an act of historical wisdom. I will not squander my powers of sorrow over these dangerous and delirious places. In the years in which 230 Israelis were killed in Gaza, moreover, 2,600 Palestinians were killed in Gaza. Many of those deaths are plainly attributable to internecine Palestine violence, and more generally to the virulently rejectionist character of Palestinian nationalism; but Palestinian costs are human costs, too. Empathy is not a tribal faculty, it is a universal faculty, and such universalism is also a teaching of the Jewish tradition. The suffering in Gaza has been everywhere too great.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at August 26, 2005 2:16 PM
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