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Time to Decide

Dan Bar-On,
Co-Director of PRIME

The Jewish Israeli society has to decide now what are its goals as a society. A decision not to decide will actually be a bad decision. A lack of decision will lead, sooner or later, to political, economic and social disintegration, even if we will be able to survive, militarily, for quite a while. In that sense, the awful picture of the wedding at the Versailles Halls in Jerusalem, in which people were still dancing while the floor underneath was already crumbling, reflects, allegorically, our situation as a society. We go on dancing as if business is as usual, while the floor is already cracking and will soon vanish under our feet. Today we are using our violent struggle with the Palestinians (and theirs with us) in order to avoid the decisions. It is my estimate that the main threat to Israeli society does not come from the outside: Even a hundred explosions planted by Hamas suicide fanatics will not destroy Israel. The threat comes from within and it has to do with its indecisiveness as a society, accompanied by endless efforts to find a middle ground between conflicting groups who pull the society apart.

In the current twilight the groups who have definite goals become more visible: The Palestinians strive for independence and the Jewish settlers try to prevent it, dragging all of us with them. The Orthodox Jews strive for a religious state and the immigrants from Russia want more political power. The Zionist secular Jewish public - the one that initiated the State of Israel, stutters, is mixed up and walks as if frozen by the devil. Since Rabin's assassination this public demonstrates signs of helplessness that have become even more pronounced since Barak's (self)defeat and the violent outbreak in October 2000. The present crisis can be also transformed into an opportunity: to redefine a center based on a Zionist secular majority. This center would then have to redefine its goals, clearly and immediately. If it wants to maintain a role of leadership it has to make up its mind, even at the price of a tough struggle, which are the most important goals for the coming decades. Which goals are essential for the State of Israel to survive from this group's point of view. If this part of the Israeli society will not become active in this process others will decide for them, perhaps at the price of losing the common way. One of the characteristics of losing the way is the transformation from a struggle over goals to a personal power struggle, accompanied by a lack of communication between the leaders and the wider social strata, growing gaps between the rich and the poor, between the center and the periphery.

What are the main issues that this group will have to deal with in this process of redefinition of its goals? First, we need a State that has clearly definable, defensible, internationally recognized borders. The return to the 1967 borders (more or less) is a subject for dispute not only between us and the Palestinians, and we should not wait until they will be ready to negotiate with us on that. This topic requires a clear decision between the majority of the Israeli society and the settlers and their supporters. It involves a major decision on how to use national resources. The settlements not only need constant and massive military protection, but also a large portion of our economic resources that could have been invested in education, health and industrialization within the State of Israel. Thirty-four years of occupation and control over another national group have not made it more legitimate in any sense, not in our eyes nor in those of the world. More so, the occupation has corrupted us, making us indifferent to ourselves and to the suffering of our neighbors. Looking at the slogans of last week's settlers' demonstration "Death to the Arabs", to the way their youngsters humiliate Arabs whenever they can, calls for the conclusion that we have allowed among us the growth of a fascist and racist group, similar to the Neo-Nazis in Europe or the Hamas in Gaza. The only difference is that they lean heavily on the protection of the IDF, which was originally supposed to defend Israel, not these groups. The picture of the smiling soldier watching the settlers burn up Arab fields, after a baby was injured, should have shattered us all. The fact that it was accepted indifferently is a measure of how far we have gone astray.

Second, we have to decide what kind of State we want within the borders, once they have been determined. I believe we want a democratic state, with a Jewish majority that respects the minorities that live within its borders. Therefore, Israel will not be able to absorb most of the Palestinian refugees, even if it will and should acknowledge, morally, its share of responsibility in the creation of this problem. Here we have to clarify the difference between necessary moral acknowledgement and participation in the solution of the problem, economically, and between our need to maintain a Jewish majority in the State of Israel in the foreseen future. When I say Jewish majority I do not necessarily mean a Jewish State from a religious or national point of view. We have to look for creative ways in which our symbols, languages, festivals and institutions will reflect the national aspirations of the minorities who live within us. Such a decision means, first of all, a major change in our relationship with the Arab-Israeli minority, whose rights and suffering we have ignored for decades with no serious justification. It was mostly our attitude towards them that has made their leadership as militant as it is today.

The third goal we have to redefine is the relationship between religious and secular Jews in Israel. Again, it is the right of the secular majority to define its way and needs, taking into account those of the religious minority, while creating a common ground and shared responsibility for the State. This should include specifically a national service for all and sharing the economic burden by having the young study those tools that will enable them to participate in the national product later in their lives. Recognition of the special needs of the religious will not come on account of the right of the secular majority to determine its own marriage and divorce process, burial procedure, attitude to the role of women in society and ways of celebrating its festivals and ceremonies.

The fourth goal that the Zionist center has to redefine is the relationship between the social center and the periphery, including a drastic reduction of the gap between the poor and the rich in this country. I do not mean only a geographic definition of center (Tel Aviv-Jerusalem) versus periphery, though it partially overlaps, but mainly the social definition of the division of political and economic power within the society. We are a small society with few natural resources and cannot allow a gap between rich and poor as it exists in the USA. During the last three or four decades we have developed corrupted norms of power orientation and lack of social responsibility that have distanced us a long way from the original Zionist vision. We would benefit from reassuming some of the modesty that characterized the Zionist leadership at the outset. Here a lot has to be done in education, social welfare and openness to the different, which will mean a reallocation of resources that will reflect the change in priorities. We have here to decide if we want to drift into becoming a low-level third-world country or if we want to struggle to become part of the developed countries. This should be determined by our deeds and not by the moral debt that the world still feels toward us.

The is probably not the end of the list of goals we should redefine, but it provides a wide enough basis for discussion that has to start now and should not be delayed any further. Taking a stand on each of these topics, creating a moral and political leadership that will strive for the actual implementation of these goals should happen next, not as a personal power struggle but as a widely renewed social contract. The lack of such a new social contract will leave the social and political scene open to extremists whose narrow goal definition may tear this state into pieces, causing it to disintegrate within a short time. I am especially disturbed by the current weakness of those people who could have helped to create such a renewed social vision a long time ago. They seem today to prefer that someone else will do the job for them. First they trusted the Palestinians after Oslo to "behave nicely" and thereby get rid of the right-wing radicals power positions. Now, as they are "disappointed" with the Palestinians, they want international intervention to settle some of the political issues for them. Others dream of a "general war" that will end the slow burnout they cannot stand anymore. The common pattern for all these tendencies is the feeling of helplessness and lack of willingness to start the necessary internal struggle for the redefinition of goals. Those new goals should define what Zionism will be in the new millenium, not along this or that school or heritage but according to what the State of Israel has produced in its 53 years, for the better and for the worse.

Dan Bar-On's book The Others Within us: Changes in the Israeli Identity from a Social Psychological Perspective was published by Ben Gurion University Press & Mosad Bialik in 1999.

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