Opinion: Thoughts about Israel at 60

Feelings about the state of Israel occupy a broad spectrum of world opinion, from adoring admiration in some quarters to hate veering into outright anti-Semitism from some others. As an expression of the 19th- and 20th-century Jewish national emancipation movement, Israel has achieved what its founders dreamed of — a country like any other, with all the attributes, positive and negative.

Benefiting from ample U.S. aid, Israel has enjoyed unparalleled success at integrating and assimilating a majority immigrant population from all corners of the globe, many arriving as destitute refugees. Israel has revived the ancient Hebrew language and made it sing anew not only on the street and in the classroom but in world-class literature and film. Its artists and musicians are known internationally. Israel has a highly developed economy for a country with such a small population (about 7 million), and is a leader in medicine, agronomy and high-tech industries. Its per capita income of $33,000 ranks among the world’s highest.

Celebrations of Israel’s 60th anniversary have been muted, however, and seem more obligatory than ecstatic. Massive divides characterize Israel today. A fifth of Israel’s people live below the poverty line. One in three Israeli children suffers from “food insecurity,” i.e., hunger. At the same time that the social safety net has failed, particularly for the ultra-religious and immigrants of color, a class of billionaire plutocrats has arisen whose political influence is profoundly corrupting. A chasm likewise looms between the largely secular population and the religious minority that by historic convention holds not only the swing vote in government, but also regulatory authority over all life cycle ritual from conversion to marriage, death and burial.

The world hardly needs reminding, too, of the enormous gap between Jews and Israel’s Palestinian citizens (Muslim, Druze, Bedouin, and Christian), who number some 20 percent of the population. Israel at 60 seems a long way from honoring the promise made in its ringing Declaration of Independence in 1948: “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” and further, “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

The single most corrupting factor in Israeli life today is the occupation of Palestinian lands in the West Bank. Taken as war booty in 1967, these territories are increasingly being settled by Israelis in a movement toward expanding Israel’s borders that no other nation finds in concordance with international law. A constant assault on Palestinian pride, the occupation is a powerful impediment to the emergence of a viable Palestinian state. Sadly, two generations now of service in an occupying army, with all the degradation and humiliation that implies toward the native population, have created in too many Israelis an arrogant, chauvinist mentality that ill serves the ideal of peaceful resolution of contentious problems. For all its sophistication and prosperity, Israel is living in a virtual ghetto amidst its Middle Eastern surroundings.

Numerous proposals for solving the Arab-Israeli conflict have been offered. There is by now near-universal agreement that sooner or later a Palestinian state will have to emerge on the West Bank and in Gaza, the Israeli settlers will have to move back to Israel proper behind a mutually adjusted 1967 Green Line, and the city of Jerusalem will serve as capital of both the Israeli and Palestinian states. Compensation will be made for the forfeiture of settler homes, and acknowledgment made of Palestinian losses in the war of 1948 that accompanied Israel’s independence.

A one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian predicament may seem equitable on its face, but a miniscule percentage of Israelis or Palestinians actively seeks such a state. Israel is here to stay, and given a 2,000-year history of exile and oppression, most Jews will not abandon their national homeland. And most Palestinians would rather control their own government, institutions and land. Utopian proposals at this moment in time are illusory and counterproductive.

Most Jews in Israel and elsewhere support a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, and would negotiate with anyone to achieve it. Indeed, such an outcome is essential to Israel’s very survival. How many more generations of war, violence, occupation and global displeasure can the country take? Already, more than a million Israelis have bailed out by emigrating with their talents and families. For the sake of the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples, as much as for peace itself, our elected officials and the incoming U.S. president must devote everything it takes to bring about a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East.

Ari Goldman is active in the progressive Jewish American movement.