So Israel is building 2,610 new housing units in East Jerusalem and in contiguous areas on the West Bank at a time when international sentiment against its unending occupation of Palestine is growing, particularly among Europeans if one goes by recent developments in Sweden, Britain and in Ireland. The administration of President Barack Obama is reported to be “deeply concerned” and even seriously annoyed by the latest Israeli thumb inserted squarely in the American eye, but has not taken any action to pressure Tel Aviv into reversing course.
Pardon me while I yawn. In the absence of any serious consequences coming from Washington Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will do whatever he wants in the firm belief that there is no one who can force him to do otherwise. Israel owns Congress and the mainstream media while its proliferating think tanks and promoters in a score of major Jewish organizations continue to spew out self-serving nonsense. So who is going to say nay?
Obama’s mistake lies ultimately in his apparent belief that Israel is somehow a nation guided by tangible interests much like any other, which is particularly ironic as he shares the same type of delusion as the Israeli leadership. Both he and Netanyahu somehow believe that their respective countries are not bound by any internationally accepted standards that determine how one should behave, Washington somehow having designated itself as “leader of the free world” while Tel Aviv defines itself as a chosen people living in a land granted by covenant from Yahweh himself.
Obama would be well served by considering how the majority belief that the United States is somehow exceptional, blessed and guided by God, has taken firm hold of the American psyche. Which makes it not so very different than Israel. Indeed the founding fathers of both nations were not particularly religious, more the products of the French enlightenment than the Bible or Torah, but it has been largely the successor generations in both nations who have rediscovered God in its most exclusive and retributive form. This has meant that tens of millions of the current generation of Americans are insisting on a need to return to their versions of Biblical morality while Israelis keep step by maintaining that Israel is an exclusively Jewish State .
Netanyahu believes that Israel has a manifest destiny to exercise complete control over the West Bank so any talk of a two state solution is only so much wind. Whether he believes that because of the argument that the historic state of Israel included that region as a gift from God or because he genuinely considers a Palestinian State to be a permanent security problem is somewhat irrelevant. What is relevant is that many Israelis share the view that East Jerusalem and the West Bank are there to be colonized, a view expressed by Netanyahu when he challenged anyone to “To come and tell Jews not to live in Jerusalem – why?”
A majority in Israel believes that it is both fit and proper that Israel should be allowed to expand without regard for the native population, which they look down upon and by some accounts hardly consider human. The devil inevitably being in the details, the only real question becomes what to do with the pesky Palestinians who remain – kill them, force them to leave or permit powerless Bantustans that might easily be controlled by constructing walls and checkpoints while exploiting the inhabitants for cheap labor if for nothing else.
While the “moral majority” in the US exploits what it perceives to be the ethical high ground in its attacks on critics so too the friends of Israel promote two particular favorable narratives that permit their largely unprincipled behavior. They are first that Jews have always had a substantial presence in what is today’s Israel, which means that the creation of the country and its expanding borders is little more than a coming home, and second that Jewish suffering is unique and therefore justifies a free pass and plentiful reparations for the foreseeable future. Critics of the legitimacy of either narrative are routinely silenced by being called anti-Semites, which until recently denied to them any serious consideration or even civility, though the tag is currently losing its efficacy through overuse. Former Israeli government minister Shulamit Aloni once admitted regarding the anti-Semitism label that “It’s a trick. We always use it.”
The US media, in which friends of Israel are heavily overrepresented, generally toe the line on promoting Israeli national myths, just as they do regarding the American counterparts. It should surprise no one that even archeology is run by a department of the Israeli government in an effort to establish historical legitimacy and to demonstrate Jewish claims to the land that is currently part of the state as well as of those adjacent regions that it seeks to absorb. Per one critic, “archeology thus becomes a national tool through which Israelis can recover their roots in the ancient past and the ancient homeland.” Demonstrating continuity of significant Jewish presence and suppressing the evidence relating to other inhabitants supports the false belief that the first generation of Israelis settled a land that was largely empty.
Both the continuity and suffering narratives come together in a particularly odd article that appeared recently in Yahoo news. The article, entitled “Jewish revolt written in stone,” states that “Israeli archaeologists said Tuesday they have discovered a large stone with Latin engravings that lends credence to the theory that the reason Jews revolted against Roman rule nearly 2,000 ago was because of their harsh treatment. Israel’s Antiquities Authority said the stone bears the name of the Roman emperor Hadrian and the year of his visit to Jerusalem, a few years before the failed Bar Kochba revolt in the second century A.D. The inscription backs up historical accounts that Rome’s Tenth Legion was present in Jerusalem in the run-up to the revolt.”
The inscription is actually a dedication from the Tenth Legion, which had constituted the province’s military establishment at least since the time of Domitian in 83 AD, to commemorate a visit to Jerusalem by the Emperor Hadrian which took place in 130 AD. Hadrian famously was the first Roman Emperor to visit many of the provinces of the Roman Empire to celebrate the prosperity and peace that Rome had given to the Mediterranean world. Whatever Hadrian’s attitude towards the Judeans might have actually been, there is no suggestion anywhere in the inscription that there was any “harsh treatment” of anyone, but the author of the article relying on commentary from Israeli government archeologists made that the central theme relating to the discovery, combining Jewish presence (even though Jews are not mentioned) with unique historical suffering (also missing). Mission accomplished.
So President Obama is running head on against a rigorously pursued national myth about Israel and there is no reason why he should expect to be victorious. National myths are inevitably tricky things but they are ignored at one’s peril. Israel has no intention of ceding the West Bank to anyone because it believes in its own destiny and righteousness. It will continue to expand at the expense of the Palestinians until the tide of history turns against it, a process that can be slowed by the protection afforded by its patrons in Washington but which nevertheless will eventually be completed. Reasonable voices in Israel argue that the country is on the wrong course and is facing disaster, but they are likely to be ignored just as their counterparts in the United States have been largely excluded from the debate on how to extricate the “exceptional” nation from an endless cycle of war and economic decline.