If Americans want to understand 'Israel', they should think of 1950s Alabama, with an air force

OpinionYossi Gurvitz 

“Bull Connor’s Dogs,” a statue outside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. (Photo: kschlot1/Flickr)

If there’s one thing Israel is good at, it’s public relations. Forget military successes – we’re down to fighting barely-armed teenagers, and not doing all that a good job at it. Forget “Silly-Con Wadi”: Much of what the Israeli hi-tech sector deals in is espionage and monitoring. The orange groves are long gone, too, replaced by pricey apartment buildings.

But we’re really, really good at is PR. None better. Remember Rhodesia? Bet you needed Google for that one. Apartheid South Africa? We started the same year, but they croaked 25 years ago. They died mostly of international hostility. The Zionist state, a good friend of both late regimes, is still around and kicking.

Of course, it wouldn’t be easy with American know-how and experience. Remember the movie Exodus? It painted an unforgettable picture of silent, strong, Aryan-looking Jews fighting the dastardly British (with the aid of an anti-British Irish exile, to boot). Then, once the battle is done, they return to their Kibbutzim. It’s one hell of a piece of a propaganda, touching on all the right themes: Hatred of British imperialism, Westerners fighting Barbarians (perhaps the oldest theme of their old), and the image of the warrior-peasant returning to the field. Shades of Cincinnatus and George Washington.

None of this was true, even at the time. Ari Ben Cannan (Lion Son of Canaan, a name so preposterous even hardcore Zionists would shudder at it), as a topos, may have existed for a while; but he hasn’t been around for 40 years or more.

If you want to think of a better metaphor for Israel, don’t think of Spartan farmer-soldiers, not just because the Spartans didn’t farm and were pretty sucky soldiers (though they did excel at PR – we’re still suffering from it), but because a better metaphor would be 1950s Alabama, with an air force.

The basic premise of Israel, as understood by many Americans, is:

  • It’s a Jewish country fighting for survival.
  • The Jews here kick ass, unlike their pale, nerdy cousins from abroad.
  • You don’t mess with the Zohan.
  • It’s a secular, liberal country.

Wrong on all counts, but it does provide a shadow of reality. The average Israeli is xenophobic and racist (it’s a good argument of which derives from which) on a level which would make a Trump rally go pale. The racism comes from the form of Jewish Orthodoxy practiced in Israel, and yes – most Israelis are some shade of religious. Secular Jews here have belatedly understood they’re on their way to becoming an endangered species, which is why anti-secular rabbis are suddenly news. They’ve always been anti-secular, anti-women, anti-gay – but the comfortable world of the secular Jews have been shaken to the core by understanding this may be the last secular generation, so there is much whining and great gnashing of teeth.

Ah, yes – the rabbis have always been anti-Gentile, as well. But, then again, so are most of the great Israeli liberals. A useful acid test is asking them would they approve of their children marrying a non-Jew. Ask it, and wait for the uncomfortable silence. Violating the sacred blood is still taboo, it’s a terribly important one – and it is what leaves our good liberals with no effective anti-toxins against the religious right.

Most Israeli Jews haven’t spoken to an Israeli Palestinian, since we live apart, and the latter face insurmountable hurdles in renting an apartment or finding a job that will treat them decently. Jewish racism is prevalent in everyday life.

The most sacred institute is the army, even as it deteriorates and becomes a national tragedy: the army is too big for the country, and is the main reason why most of us won’t have a chance of social services when we grow old. Why does support for the army grow, even as the army fails time and again, and then demands more money?

An American friend of a friend showed me the light more than a decade ago: When I described how Israelis have been indoctrinated to fear a second Holocaust, and that they have to trust the army to save them, she said simply: “So, criticism of the army is Holocaust denial?” Bingo.

Israeli society has been described by many – including by President Rivlin, the gods preserve him – as not a society but a collective of mutually hostile tribes: Secular Jews, Orthodox Jews, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Palestinians. There are, of course, social tensions as well: A fifth of our children live under the poverty line. Israel is the second-poorest country in the OECD, after Mexico. The levels of inequality are staggering, and one of the major issues of the 2011 social justice movement was the rule of the “18 families” – an oligarchy of robber-barons, who made much of their money by influencing the government to give them all sorts of benefits.

Severe inequality, of course, is not unknown in other would-be democratic countries. The problem here, the ideal was Ari Ben Cannaan: people were supposed to make sacrifices – for instance, be conscripted for three years – but were promised equality. The Jews, anyway. Needless to say, no such equality ever existed; but under Netanyahu and Sharon, not even the illusion of equality remained, and the government stressed a libertarian economy.

But you can’t have both libertarianism and conscription, “each to his own and the devil take the hindmost” economic policy and the demands of a bloated military. So tensions rise. The Jews are then promised by the government that their Jewishness will always secure them a better place, at least officially; that’s what the Nationality Law was all about. And when you have no future and all you have is your Jewishness, racism and xenophobia rise. So does the oppression of the non-Jews. The government is corrupt to the bone? Yes, but it’s anti-Arab.

So, will we see a Palestinian Martin Luther King? Ayman Odeh tried, of sorts, last week. He said he was willing to be a partner in a Blue-White coalition. The offer was immediately shot down by Blue-White: They are going after the average-racist vote, and they can’t be seen to be consorting with Arabs.

Yet, if there will be a Dr. King, he will be facing not some Bull Connor with water hoses and attack dogs, but police and army who have been trained – indeed, raised from birth – that shooting Palestinians is not only okay, but also essential and, to some extent, their destiny. And Alabama, when all is said and done, was a part of the US. Israel is independent. And it’s very likely no one will do much if another massacre takes place.

We will still be the masters of spin, after all.

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