Editorial: Jubilee Blues

The western world showered affection upon Israel on the occasion of its jubilee. Washington marked the event with ceremony, conjuring up the ghost of Harry Truman, dispatching Vice-President Al Gore to the area, and carefully refraining from anything critical till after the celebrations. The U.S. thus helped Israel to puff up the apparently inexhaustible myth of itself as a divine blessing for the families of the earth. In Great Britain, Tony Blair and Robin Cook took pains to show how sorry they were for the unpleasantness that the latter had caused during his visit to Har Homa. The western media went all out. Arta, the famous French channel, devoted a full day to Israeli film. The BBC too put its focus on Israel, broadcasting the ceremony for this country's fallen soldiers, followed by a full day for the jubilee. The Chicago Tribune asked Omer Granit, an officer serving in Lebanon, to write a daily personal column about life in his unit. The army approved.

Netanyahu was able to use the event as a kind of quick recharge for the long-drained batteries of global sympathy. Much credit may be given to Israel's embassies abroad, which put a fantastic amount of work into organizing the celebrations and events. At home, however, the general attitude toward the festival bordered on revulsion and loathing. The official slogan went, "Together in pride, together in hope." There was neither pride nor hope nor togetherness. Encountering squabbles and intrigues, the heads of the planning committee resigned twice in succession. Finally, the regime appointed a right-wing commissar, a Netanyahu yes-man who served up a shallow jubilee show that will be remembered only for the controversy it aroused.

Among the well-known Israeli performers who were to participate, the committee had invited the Batsheva dance troupe (as in "David and Bathsheba"). Batsheva planned to put on its most famous dance, called Anaphaza, based on a song sung at the Passover seder, "Who knows One?" It has done the piece hundreds of times in Israel and throughout the world. During the performance the dancers gradually strip to their underwear. But the National Religious Party was going to be present. The NRP could not very well have people stripping to their underwear during a religious song. Batsheva, however, had its artistic principles. In solidarity with the dancers, the other performers also threatened to stay away. Attempts were made at compromise. Israel's President, Ezer Weizman, suggested that the troupe wear long johns. For a time it looked as though Batsheva, which gets most of its budget from the government, would embrace this solution. (If the original Batsheva had worn long johns, Uriah the Hittite might still be alive today.) In the eleventh hour, however, the company could not quite stomach such a surrender. It made its stand and refused to appear. The other performers – unaccustomed to having their principles tested on such short notice – went on. The next day, to offset the apparent complicity, they staged a stormy demonstration against the NRP.

The smoldering "war of the cultures" had again sent up a flame. Happy Fiftieth. The events of the jubilee have only succeeded in making plain the enormous gulf between the mythical Israel, which the western world is so eager to identify with, and the cruel, conflict-ridden reality. The Israeli people (if such a thing exists) were too cynical to rejoice. And why shouldn't they be? In order to celebrate their fiftieth, they had to clamp a hermetic closure on the Territories. What was true in 1948, it seems, still holds in 1998: for Israelis to live, Palestinians must disappear. No new leadership and no new consensus have arisen to replace that principle. In the most important sense, therefore, no time has passed at all. It is all the same year.

Israel was a contradiction from the start: a Jewish democracy with Arabs in it, which came into existence against the will of the Arab world. Not only has this contradiction remained – it has given rise to or nourished others: the war between the secular and religious, or that between Ashkenazi Jews and Mizrahi. One group pulls toward assimilation with Europe and America, another toward dictatorship, another toward theocracy. But all huddle closely together, as if spellbound, whenever a threat arises to the shaky structure they've built, these fifty years, at the expense of another people. At the heart of the contradiction is the Arab population. It has grown seven-fold in the fifty years, from 156,000 in 1949 to 1,120,000 today. (The Jewish population has grown six-fold in the same period.) Yet the Arabs received no demographic boost from waves of immigration, like the recent one from the former Soviet Union. On the contrary, Israel has done all it could to motivate the Arabs to leave.

How can a Jewish state cope with the increasing Arab electoral weight? Or has this been the deeper tendency behind its policies all along: to separate potential Arab leaders from their people, bringing them into the Zionist establishment, and to legitimize anti-Arab discrimination as a political norm? New contradictions develop out of the old. Take, for example, the policy of economic " liberalization" announced on the eve of the jubilee. This marks the end of government interference. From now on, economic decisions will proceed unfettered by broader national considerations, such as maintaining a high level of employment. By this step, the Israel of the nineties has made clear its wish to become part of international finance. As the economy undergoes privatization, more and more people are losing their jobs. The growing population of the poor is liable to take mass action, destabilizing the society – and weakening it both in the eyes of the Arab world and in those of foreign investors.

Here, then, is the conflict: Israel must privatize in order to be part of the western club, but a society that is so riven with conflict, inside and out, cannot afford the social tumult that privatization will bring. Politically, indeed, Israel has succeeded in gaining time. By the Oslo agreement, it managed to co-opt the main branch of the PLO and weaken the Palestinian demand for a sovereign state. Nevertheless, time will run out. A strong army, nuclear power, economic clout – all these amount to ways of borrowing time. At the jubilee Israel is no securer – and no less apprehensive – than fifty years ago.