chapter  1
23 Pages

Israel’s Unsettled Relations with the World: Causes and Consequences


Since independence, Israel has lived with a paradox. Israel needs and seeks legitimacy, understanding, and empathy from the world community while simultaneously also discounting the world, which David Ben-Gurion articulated so succinctly with his “Um Shmum.”1 (Um represents the acronym in Hebrew for the United Nations (UN) and shmum is a dismissive retort.) Discounting the world is also evident in the common Israeli expression “it matters more what Jews do than what the gentiles say.” One can find this sentiment’s roots in Jewish culture and tradition, for example, the biblical notion that Israel is a people that “shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.” These tension-laden tendencies reflect not only strong cultural dispositions along with issues arising from Israel’s troubled birth, development, and existence, but also some of the deep ruptures in Israeli identity: what it means to be Israeli in a globalizing world. “Pushed” by its Jewish past, Israel is shaped by encounters with the Arab “other” and its status as refuge for the Jewish people. But Israeli identity is also “pulled” toward the future by its hunger for modern global economic, cultural, and normative practices, and its desire to be Or Lagoim (a light unto other nations). This volume reflects upon Israel’s troubled attempts to balance its desire to be different from a world that it genuinely needs and wants to be a legitimate member of. Israel is without question in the world-it needs the world’s support and

understanding, and in difficult times, when the nation mourns casualties of war and terrorism, it also asks for the world’s compassion. For most Israelis, “the world” means primarily the United States, which supports Israel both diplomatically and militarily. Israel’s ties with the United States are also special because of the large and powerful Jewish community in America, partly because Israel has culturally become Americanized, and partly because of an affinity of values between the American people and the Israeli people. Israel is also economically and culturally deeply linked to Europe, although the memories of Jewish persecution in Europe (especially of the Holocaust) generate Israelis’ uneasiness and suspicion of Europeans. Israel is increasingly plugged into global networks that include emerging powers, such as China and India,

and it frequently asks Russia to play a restraining role in the Middle East. When it comes to explaining and promoting its position vis à vis the Arab world, and, in particular, the Palestinians, the whole world is important, country by particular country, including tiny sovereign islands. Jewish communities around the world are a serious concern for Israel, for example, in Latin America, which is why Israel promotes good relations there. In periods of relative quiet, Israel considers even the Middle East to be within the world, but, in times of deep strife, Israel jumps over its immediate neighborhood in order to reach “the outside world,” which then seems to start where the Middle East ends. Because of Israel’s economy, which is embedded in global networks, and

its industrial, technological, and scientific contributions to the world, Israel has become an important player worldwide. Israel’s economy is heavily interdependent with the world via trade, finance, raw materials, and knowledge exchange.2 One only need consider that Israel is at the top of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries when it comes to venture capital investment as a percentage of GDP,3 and is second only to the United States with regard to companies listed in NASDAQ. Millions of Israelis travel around the world every year. For example, in 2000, 4.8 million Israelis, or two-thirds of Israel’s population at the time, traveled abroad.4 Israel’s thriving art, music, literature, and cinema, which reach the four corners of the earth, and the fact that Israel is related through religion and culture to the origins of Judeo-Christian civilization, make Israel an inseparable part of the global community. For better or worse, there is probably no other country with a population of fewer than eight million people that receives so much media coverage around the world. Despite all this, Israel deeply mistrusts and discounts the world. Whenever

possible, it prefers going it alone. When criticized, Israel tends to fence itself off to protect Israelis from the inhospitable world. In so doing, Israel lives in a “bubble.” This “bubble” ideologically and emotionally isolates Israel from the rest of the world and prevents Israelis from reaching out to learn why the world is indeed “against us.” From inside their “bubble,” Israelis think of themselves as the “chosen people.” But they also think that gentile peoplewho exhibit a false morality and hold pretentious expectations about the “chosen people”—have marked Israel as a source of wrongdoing. This is the world that since antiquity has persecuted and killed Jews, and did everything to contribute to Jews’ deep sense of insecurity. Whether we look at Israel’s success in becoming part of global economic

networks or at Israel’s imposed-some would argue self-imposed-isolation in, and alienation from, the world, the same profound question arises: why Israel? Why us? The question of why Israel-a country with fewer than eight million people, without natural resources, and living in a situation of constant security danger-became an important “node” in global economy networks, particularly in high tech, has recently been extensively explored.5 This book focuses more squarely on Israel’s troubled and split relations with the world. From this perspective, the question “why us?” acquires a different meaning:

“why do they always target us?” Why, as Michael Barnett explains in his chapter, has Israel adopted a victimhood identity? Is Israel’s “split personality” a cause of the world’s attitudes toward it, or is

it a consequence of how the world has treated Jews living among gentiles, and now the state of the Jews? Is it “us” because there is indeed a negative bias toward Israel, lately demonstrated by the Goldstone Report on Israel’s human-rights violations in Gaza in 2009? Is it “us” because, as Michael Walzer argues in this book, Israel has still not overcome exile mentality and lacks experience with treating foreign nations and non-Jewish people living in their midst with civic responsibility? Or is it both in that cause becomes consequence and then consequence becomes cause? One approach to dealing with this question is historical. Although Jews

were persecuted and massacred since at least 135 AD, when the Romans killed more than 580,000 Jews and took the rest in captivity to Rome and to an 1800-year-long exile,6 Israel’s relations with the world have still known better days. Before the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel was seen by most in the world with benevolent eyes: as “David” confronting “Goliath,” as a new country of an old nation with a new lease on life, which many countries in the world, including most new African countries, wanted to interact with. Perhaps in its early days Israel’s support from the world rode on the back of fresh memories of the Holocaust. Perhaps its rather social democratic political ethos and system helped-the kibbutz and Israel’s pioneering spirit also promoted a favorable image. And then there were the non-democratic Arab states that vowed to “throw Jews to the sea.” Be this as it may, the occupation of Arab territories by Israel as a result of the ’67 war, and in particular, the growth of settlements in the occupied territories, helped change Israel’s image in the world from “David” to “Goliath,” from positive to negative. The more time passed, as settlements became cities and the Palestinians remained hopelessly homeless, the more difficult Israel’s position in the world became, to the point that in the last few years not only Israel’s behavior, but also its nature as a state of the Jews, has been called into question. Another approach to dealing with the victim-identity question is by focusing

on Israelis’ (and Diaspora Jews’) deep-seated beliefs about the world. Even if before 1967 most of the world saw Israel in a positive light, to many Israelis the world still “was against us;” let us not forget that Ben-Gurion made his famous remark about “Um Shmum” back in the 1950s. While they might seem simplistic, two dialectically opposed sets of beliefs

account for the dual approach toward the world. On one hand, those who take a pessimist, deterministic, and fatalistic view of Jewish and Israeli history believe that anti-Semitism is the Jews’, and more recently Israel’s, “other.” They thus point to persecution, massacres, and the Holocaust as the high point (or should we call it a low point?) of Jews’ deep-seated insecurity (see Barnett in this volume). From this perspective, “the whole world is against us.” While liberals around the world self-congratulate about human progress-human rights, humanitarianism, democracy, the rule of law, environmentalism, and the

development of a global culture-the world continues to single out Jews, and now Israelis. As a result, Israel should erect high fences, indulge in heightened patriotism, emphasize the uniqueness of the Jewish condition, reject criticism, and follow a defiant path, even at the price of the world’s delegitimization. On the other hand, those who take a more optimistic, non-deterministic,

and future-oriented view, while not denying the perverse existence and influence of anti-Semitism, the horrors of the Holocaust, aggression by Israel’s enemies, and, more recently, anti-Israeli sentiments around the world, argue nonetheless that nations’ attitudes toward Israel are not unrelated to Israel’s ambivalent attitude toward the world, and to Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians and Arab minorities within Israel. The argument, in short, is that our condition has become a somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy, but, most important, that it can be changed for the better. Those who suggest this view emphasize that Zionism was all about normalizing the Jewish and, later, Israeli condition, and that only a redefinition of Zionism’s main task today as making peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world will enable Israel to become a normal country. According to this view, Israelis must temper their belief that the “world is against us,” and their “bunker” or “ghetto”-like practices to radically change their behavior toward the world. Israel’s dual response toward the world can thus partly be traced to the fact

that Israel is both a “start-up nation”—which is sometimes euphemistically referred to as “Tel Aviv”—and the ultimate modern “shtetl,” sometimes euphemistically referred to as “Jerusalem,” where Jews fence themselves from old and new anti-Semites.7 In this complex “start-up-shtetl nation,” “identity is simultaneously universalistic and particularistic, constitutional and tribal.”8

In recent years, however, the balance between universalistic/constitutional forces and particularistic/tribal forces is clearly tilting toward the tribal, heightening Israel’s troubles in and with the rest of the world, including the United States. Israel’s troubled relations with the world raise tough questions. Can Israel,

or any country, maintain its sovereignty for long without the world’s legitimacy? Can Israel survive as a “Jewish and democratic state” by dwelling alone in a world that is increasingly global? Can Israel sustain a nationalist ideology that is out of sync with major normative and institutional trends in the world system, such as humanitarianism, human rights, and the increasing relevance of international law? Is peace a necessary condition for mending Israel’s relations with the rest of the world, or will opening Israel to a more constructive dialogue with the world help achieve peace? Is religion part of the problem, or, as Rabbi Michael Melchior argues in this volume, is it also part of the solution to Israel’s troubles with the world? All these are relevant questions that subsequent chapters try to provide answers to.