As Israel celebrates its 75th anniversary, the state-building project it cemented into place in 1948 by expelling 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland is showing the first signs of unraveling.
The surprise is that Israel’s woes spring not, as generations of its leaders feared, from outside forces – a combined attack from Arab states or pressure from the international community – but from Israel’s own internal contradictions.
Israeli leaders created the very problems they all too obviously lack the tools to now solve. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bombardment of Gaza in recent days, killing dozens of Palestinians, should be understood in that light. It is one more indication of Israel’s internal crisis.
Once again, the Palestinians are being used in a frantic bid to shore up an increasingly fragile “Jewish” unity.
Israel’s long-term problem is underscored by the current, bitter standoff over Netanyahu’s plan for a so-called judicial overhaul. The Israeli Jewish population is split down the middle, with neither side willing to back down. Rightly, each sees the confrontation in terms of a zero-sum battle.
And behind this stands a political system in near-constant paralysis, with neither side of the divide able to gain a stable majority in the parliament. Israel is now mired in a permanent, low-level civil war.
To understand how Israel reached this point, and where it is likely to head next, one must delve deep into the country’s origin story.
The official narrative is that Israel was created out of necessity: to serve as a safe haven for Jews fleeing centuries of persecution and the horrors of the Nazi death camps in Europe.
The resulting ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the erasure of hundreds of their towns and villages – what Palestinians call their Nakba, or Catastrophe – is either mystified or presented simply as a desperate act of self-defense by a long-victimized people.
This colossal act of dispossession, aided and abetted by western powers, has been reinvented for western publics as a simple morality tale, as a story of redemption.
Israel’s establishment was not only a chance for the Jewish people to gain self-determination through statehood so they would never again be persecuted. Jews would also build a state from scratch that would offer to the world a more virtuous model of how to live.
This tapped neatly, if subliminally, into a western, Christian-derived worldview that looked to the Holy Land for salvation.
Jews would restore their place as “a light unto the nations” by “redeeming” the land they had stolen from the Palestinians and offering a path by which westerners could redeem themselves too.
That model was embodied by the kibbutz – hundreds of land-hungry, agricultural and exclusively Jewish communities built on the ruins of Palestinian villages. There, a strictly egalitarian form of living would allow Jews to prosper by working the land to “Judaize” it, stripping it of any lingering Arab taint. Many thousands of westerners hurried to Israel to volunteer on a kibbutz and participate in this transformative project.
But the official story was never more than public relations spin. There was nothing egalitarian or redemptive about the kibbutz, not even for the Jews who lived in the new state of Israel.
It was actually a clever way for Israel’s rulers to disguise the mass theft of Palestinian land and entrench a new religious, ethnic and class divide between Jews.
Hierarchy of privilege
Israel’s founders were overwhelmingly from Central and Eastern Europe. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, immigrated from Poland. These European Jews were known inside Israel as the Ashkenazim. They founded the kibbutz system and kept these fortified communities – that would later become a model for the settlements in the occupied territories – largely off-limits to anyone who was not like them….