During this month of April 2013 – the month of the 65th Anniversary of the State of Israel – BBC2 aired a documentary about the country, entitled ‘Israel: facing the future’, and presented by journalist John Ware. The film, strangely balanced for once from the ‘BBC Voice of Palestine’ – but not beyond criticism – opened with some scenes from Tel Aviv, whose club-loving, gay-friendly, diverse, optimistic and resilient population leads, said Ware, a schizophrenic existence… living on the edge… living life now. Indeed for those of us old enough to remember, the description of life in Tel Aviv had shades of schizophrenic Berlin of the 1970s and 1980s in pre-unification Germany as the film panned towards security fences and border walls, and overlain with images of the strife of the post-Arab-Spring beyond these lines.
Perhaps the point about security fences and border walls was laboured somewhat because doesn’t the province of Northern Ireland still have so-called ‘peace lines’? Doesn’t Saudi Arabia have security barriers between itself and Iraq and Yemen? Isn’t there a fence between Mexico and the USA? The security fences and border walls are in place between Israel and the localities known as Palestine so that suicide bombers can be prevented from killing Israeli citizens. They have been very successful in preventing the murder of Israelis. They have been successful in Northern Ireland too. A somewhat irrelevant deviation was then made with the question, ‘Why does the State of Israel keep its people in a battle-ready condition?’ Hmmmm… let’s see now… Why would that be? Silly man.
He then went on to talk about the end of the peace strategy. What has such a strategy earned for Israel? The Israeli withdrawal of its citizens and remaining components of its administration from Gaza in 2005, for example, simply led to sustained rocket attacks and mortar fire from the Palestinian entity onto Israeli towns and villages in the western Negev. In an effort to end these attacks, Israel had twice engaged in assaults of short duration on Gaza. On both occasions foreign media made great festivity out of the photo opportunities offered by the assaults – always the dead and bloodied infant – and Israel found itself under verbal attack from traditionally friendly states across the world. What of the dead civilians – many of them women and children – killed by British and other nationalities in both Afghanistan and Iraq, however, asked an Israeli of Ware. No answer from Ware.
Then there was the matter of minorities within the broad Jewish religion, and the sense of strife and discord within Judaism. But then… this is nothing new… not a new phenomenon. Now in Jerusalem – the capital of Israel – Ware took his camera to Mea Shearim a district favoured by Orthodox Jews and one of the oldest Jewish neighbourhoods in the city. He talked about how modern secular Israelis object to the burden between placed on them by religious Jews – the Orthodox Jews, that is – who regard the State of Israel as a heresy. These extreme sects await the coming of the Messiah… and only then will it be time for ‘Israel’. Even so, from the very state which they denounce, they demand and expect exemptions from military conscription and to spend their lives learning religious law. As said, this is no new situation. Even at the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Orthodox Jews had expressed their views. The stand-off between secular Jews and religious Jews is as true of the 1950s and earlier (remember… Jews have been returning to the region since the 18th century), the 1960s, the 1970s and 80s, as it is true of Israel 65 years later in the 21st century. It is not a new phenomenon for Israel to cope with. What is new, and Ware tackled the issue in his film, are the political moves to end the exemptions granted to the Orthodox Jews.
Then.. on to the question of other ethnic and religious minorities in Israel… and to the fact that at this 65th Independence Day, the Israeli population stands at 8,018,000, of which 75.3% are Jewish. There are around 1.6 million Israeli Arab Moslems and some 290,000 Christians and Druze. Compare this to 1948 when the State of Israel was established. Then, it’s population was as small as 806,000. Ware referred to the Arab minority which accounts for around 1 in 5 of the population, and to how they (Arab Moslems) are poorer than the Jewish majority, and how they have the belief that they are treated as second class citizens. However… don’t minorities within a stronger majority collective always have this sense? What do Hispanics feel about their place in American society? Or.. what do Catholics in Northern Ireland feel about their place in society? Or, Moslems in the UK? Ware’s film tended towards portraying the stereotypical, and he paid no real attention to the (Arab) Christian minority in Israel. Christians in Israel are probably the best educated and most affluent segment of society. They have thriving churches, and they are increasingly thoroughly integrated into the reality of Israeli society. The important point though, and Ware did make it, was to emphasise that there is nothing in the Israeli Constitution designed to create a divided society. Every citizen of any minority has full and equal rights.
Stereotypical too was the brief foray into bigotry within Israeli football and particularly focussing on Beitar Jerusalem from the Israeli Premier League. Some fans are opposed to Arab players in the Club. At the Iztadion Teddy (the stadium named after Teddy Kollek, a mayor of Jerusalem) the camera panned to racist banners during a match, and then we were told that police were removing the fans and their banners. This scene could have been anywhere in Europe… fans opposed to gay players, black players, Catholic players. None of this is good, but it showed that Israel is not unique.
In circular composition Ware returned to the optimism and resilience of Israelis and to a discussion with Efraim Halevi, and Israeli intelligence expert and a former director of Mossad. There is no solution ideologically for the end of the conflict between Israel and its Moslem enemies beyond its borders, said Halevi, and so Israelis have to ask themselves what is more important… the land (to include Judea and Samaria, otherwise known as the West Bank, and ultimately a country with a falling Jewish majority), or the nation (a nation of Jews)? He believes that Israelis will choose the nation and to consolidate themselves as a democratic state with Jewish characteristics.
If this is what Halevi believes, then we can probably look forward to a quiet and very unexpected and sudden Israeli departure from the West Bank, without any formal peace treaty. Whatever happens after that, over time, is in the realm of the political pundit. However if the Palestinian state which does emerge in the West Bank is a belligerent one, then any military assault on Israel, in any form, will enable Israel to attack (legally, forcefully and definitively) in defence of its citizens. This is something that it has never been able to do, and one of the reasons for its 65 years of battle-readiness.