Regional Programs > Israel
& Palestine > Next Story
A Failed Israeli Society Collapses While Its Leaders Remain Silent
Avraham Burg, Israel
August 29, 2003
The Zionist revolution has always rested on two pillars: a just path and an ethical leadership. Neither of these is operative any longer. The Israeli
nation today rests on a scaffolding of corruption, and on foundations of
oppression and injustice. As such, the end of the Zionist enterprise is
already on our doorstep. There is a real chance that ours will be the last
Zionist generation. There may yet be a Jewish state here, but it will be a
different sort, strange and ugly.
There is time to change course, but not much. What is needed is a new vision of a just society and the political will to implement it. Nor is this merely an internal Israeli affair. Diaspora Jews for whom Israel is a central pillar of their identity must pay heed and speak out. If the pillar collapses, the upper floors will come crashing down.
The opposition does not exist, and the coalition, with Arik Sharon at its
head, claims the right to remain silent. In a nation of chatterboxes,
everyone has suddenly fallen dumb, because there's nothing left to say. We
live in a thunderously failed reality. Yes, we have revived the Hebrew
language created a marvelous theater and a strong national currency. Our
Jewish minds are as sharp as ever. We are traded on the Nasdaq. But is this why we created a state? The Jewish people did not survive for two millennia in order to pioneer new weaponry, computer security programs or anti-missile missiles. We were supposed to be a light unto the nations. In this we have failed.
It turns out that the 2,000-year struggle for Jewish survival comes down to a state of settlements, run by an amoral clique of corrupt lawbreakers who are deaf both to their citizens and to their enemies. A state lacking justice cannot survive. More and more Israelis are coming to understand this as they ask their children where they expect to live in 25 years. Children who are honest admit, to their parents' shock, that they do not know. The countdown to the end of Israeli society has begun.
It is very comfortable to be a Zionist in West Bank settlements such as Beit El and Ofra. The biblical landscape is charming. From the window you can gaze through the geraniums and bougainvilleas and not see the occupation. Traveling on the fast highway that takes you from Ramot on Jerusalem's northern edge to Gilo on the southern edge, a 12-minute trip that skirts barely a half-mile west of the Palestinian roadblocks, it's hard to comprehend the humiliating experience of the despised Arab who must creep for hours along the pocked, blockaded roads assigned to him. One road for the occupier, one road for the occupied.
This cannot work. Even if the Arabs lower their heads and swallow their shame and anger forever, it won't work. A structure built on human
callousness will inevitably collapse in on itself. Note this moment well:
Zionism's superstructure is already collapsing like a cheap Jerusalem
wedding hall. Only madmen continue dancing on the top floor while the
pillars below are collapsing.
We have grown accustomed to ignoring the suffering of the women at the roadblocks. No wonder we don't hear the cries of the abused woman living next door or the single mother struggling to support her children in
dignity. We don't even bother to count the women murdered by their husbands.
Israel, having ceased to care about the children of the Palestinians, should not be surprised when they come washed in hatred and blow themselves up in the centers of Israeli escapism. They consign themselves to Allah in our places of recreation, because their own lives are torture. They spill their own blood in our restaurants in order to ruin our appetites, because they have children and parents at home who are hungry and humiliated.
We could kill a thousand ringleaders and engineers a day and nothing will be solved, because the leaders come up from below—from the wells of hatred and anger, from the "infrastructures" of injustice and moral corruption.
If all this were inevitable, divinely ordained and immutable, I would be
silent. But things could be different, and so crying out is a moral
Here is what the prime minister should say to the people: The time for illusions is over. The time for decisions has arrived. We love the entire land of our forefathers and in some other time we would have wanted to live here alone. But that will not happen. The Arabs, too, have dreams and needs.
Between the Jordan and the Mediterranean there is no longer a clear Jewish majority. And so, fellow citizens, it is not possible to keep the whole thing without paying a price. We cannot keep a Palestinian majority under an Israeli boot and at the same time think ourselves the only democracy in the Middle East. There cannot be democracy without equal rights for all who live here, Arab as well as Jew. We cannot keep the territories and preserve a Jewish majority in the world's only Jewish state—not by means that are humane and moral and Jewish.
Do you want the greater Land of Israel? No problem. Abandon democracy. Let's institute an efficient system of racial separation here, with prison camps and detention villages. Qalqilya Ghetto and Gulag Jenin.
Do you want a Jewish majority? No problem. Either put the Arabs on railway cars, buses, camels and donkeys and expel them en masse—or separate ourselves from them absolutely, without tricks and gimmicks. There is no middle path. We must remove all the settlements—all of
them—and draw an internationally recognized border between the Jewish national home and the Palestinian national home. The Jewish Law of Return will apply only within our national home, and their right of return will apply only within the borders of the Palestinian state.
Do you want democracy? No problem. Either abandon the greater Land of
Israel, to the last settlement and outpost, or give full citizenship and
voting rights to everyone, including Arabs. The result, of course, will be
that those who did not want a Palestinian state alongside us will have one
in our midst, via the ballot box.
That's what the prime minister should say to the people. He should present the choices forthrightly: Jewish racialism or democracy. Settlements or hope for both peoples. False visions of barbed wire, roadblocks and suicide bombers, or a recognized international border between two states and a shared capital in Jerusalem.
But there is no prime minister in Jerusalem. The disease eating away at the body of Zionism has already attacked the head. David Ben-Gurion sometimes erred, but he remained straight as an arrow. When Menachem Begin was wrong, nobody impugned his motives. No longer. Polls published last weekend showed that a majority of Israelis do not believe in the personal integrity of the prime minister—yet they trust his political leadership. In other words, Israel's current prime minister personally embodies both halves of the curse: suspect personal morals and open disregard for the law—combined with the brutality of occupation and the trampling of any chance for peace. This is our nation, these its leaders. The inescapable conclusion is that the Zionist revolution is dead.
Why, then, is the opposition so quiet? Perhaps because it's summer, or
because they are tired, or because some would like to join the government at any price, even the price of participating in the sickness. But while they dither, the forces of good lose hope.
This is the time for clear alternatives. Anyone who declines to present a clear-cut position—black or white—is in effect collaborating in the
decline. It is not a matter of Labor versus Likud or right versus left, but
of right versus wrong, acceptable versus unacceptable. The law-abiding
versus the lawbreakers. What's needed is not a political replacement for the Sharon government but a vision of hope, an alternative to the destruction of Zionism and its values by the deaf, dumb and callous.
Israel's friends abroad—Jewish and non-Jewish alike, presidents and prime ministers, rabbis and lay people—should choose as well. They must reach out and help Israel to navigate the road map toward our national destiny as a light unto the nations and a society of peace, justice and equality.
Translated by J.J. Goldberg.
Avraham Burg was speaker of Israel's Knesset from 1999 to 2003 and is a former chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. He is currently a Labor Party Knesset member. This essay is adapted by the author from an article that appeared in Yediot Aharonot.
From the Forward, August 29, 2003.