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Israel’s crumbling democracy blocks peace


The redeployment agreement reached at Wye Mills, Md., between Israelis and Palestinians does little to mitigate the predicament of the Palestinian people, who in reality will continue to be economically and politically oppressed by Israel.

While the memorandum gives the Palestinians authority over more land, the right to open an airport and seaport and guarantees the release of some 750 political prisoners, it does not constitute a real breakthrough. The Israeli government, disregarding President Bill Clinton’s advice, is unwilling to acknowledge the Palestinians’ right to an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. So long as this right is denied, the political freedom and integrity of Palestinians will also be denied.

The Israeli negotiating team’s inability to make a more courageous move during the Wye talks is intimately connected to internal politics and thus linked to an alarming development taking place inside the Jewish state -- the total erosion of democracy. Three groups -- the nationalists, the ultra-orthodox and the secular individualists -- have been instrumental in bringing about this frightful crisis.

Nationalism, in its most dangerous form, has become an integral component of the Israeli political arena. The propaganda of power, reminiscent of the most brutal fascist regimes, no longer manifests itself covertly but is openly put to use by the Likud, the Israeli governing party. “The people are strong” and “With Netanyahu we are powerful” are popular slogans that appear on thousands of car stickers and signs all over Jerusalem. Like Slobodan Milosevic’s dream of a greater Serbia, the Israeli nationalists believe in a “greater Israel” and adamantly oppose the emergence of a Palestinian state.

To augment their influence, the nationalists have formed a sinister alliance with the ultra-orthodox, willingly putting aside their differences. A nefarious interpretation of the biblical claim that Jews are the “chosen people” holds this alliance together; both groups conceive all non-Jews to be part of a subspecies. They espouse and institutionalize a two-tier system that elevates the Jews, thus undermining the basic democratic idea that unequal relations should be eliminated.

The different ultra-orthodox groups have been empowered by this alliance and embrace the Israeli political realm, using it to disseminate their beliefs. In the past couple of years, for example, the religious parties representing the ultra-orthodox community have used their political clout in order to procure government funds for establishing religious schools. These schools are unique because they provide social support for lower-income families.

Unlike secular public schools, which send students home in the early afternoon, religious schools hold classes until 5 p.m. and serve free lunch to all children. Partly because they fulfill a genuine need, these schools have mushroomed all over Israel, catering to both the religious and lower class secular Jew. Every child is welcome, but in order to receive the benefits a price must be paid, and the price, in this case, is a fundamentalist education.

A child who is sent to a religious school is indoctrinated with a rigid, authoritarian Judaism, while Darwin’s teachings and the Magna Carta have been erased from the curriculum. In other words, the religious political parties have made social welfare conditional in Israel: The state will provide a long school day and lunch so long as parents allow the ultra-orthodox to sow the seed of ignorance in their children’s minds.

The lack of outcry from the majority of secular doves contributes to this process of corrosion, since in politics silence amounts to support. The average middle-class secular Israeli, once a member of the peace camp, is now more entrenched than ever in his or her private life. These secular Israelis have appropriated the liberal credo “the less politics, the more freedom” and pay attention to little else but work and sybaritic pursuits.

They consider the ultra-orthodox Jews, who through legislation have managed to impose restrictive regulations on all Jews, to be their major enemy. If four years ago the major slogan of the Israeli left was “two countries, two people,” referring to the creation of a separate state for the Palestinians, today these secular Israelis use the same slogan to denote a desired separation between themselves and the orthodox Jews. The slogan, though, is no longer chanted during street protests but rather discussed in living rooms over coffee and cake; these Israelis have no time to participate in politics and instead of political demonstrations resort to cynicism.

Although these three groups together currently comprise the majority of the population, Israel’s predicament is not without hope. There are still many courageous individuals who are struggling for a two-state solution and recognize that the Wye memorandum is extremely limited. These activists realize that ruling a people without giving them citizenship is anathema to democracy, and since Israel does not intend to give Palestinians citizenship, they know that Israeli democracy is dependent upon the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Like the true prophets who on this very land were rejected and castigated by their contemporaries, it is, I believe, the struggle of these brave Israelis that will be remembered.

Neve Gordon writes from Jerusalem.

National Catholic Reporter, November 20, 1998