Somewhere along the way, security for Israeli Jews became utopia: it will never be achieved, but it exacts an infinite price of destruction for its own sake, on the road to nowhere.
Isaiah Berlin’s seminal critique of utopia holds that no matter how noble the idea at hand, the assumption that one truth can be universal and overriding denies the reality of conflicting, but equally vital, human truths. We may believe all humans agree on the right to life and physical security. But we also cherish other human rights and freedoms, and sometimes these are in conflict. Acknowledging and struggling with that tension makes us human; automatically trampling one value for the other results in disaster.
The notion of perfection requires us to suspend other basic human and political values to achieve it. This is Berlin’s point in the famous metaphor: to make the perfect omelet, there is no such thing as too many broken eggs.
Nineteenth century ideologies of both the right and the left based on utopian visions led to Nazism and Communism, which perpetrated grand-scale destruction of human lives and minds.
In 21st century Israel, a utopian notion of security has evolved, perhaps as a natural outcome of Jewish history. Utopian security in this vision is the total absence of Arab-on-Jewish violence or even anger. In utopian security, there would never be attacks from rogue cells, unbalanced individuals, or borderline ethno/national-cum-criminal/hooliganism. No non-Jewish adult or child would ever throw a stone at an Israeli, nor at Jews anywhere in the entire world. No scrap of anti-Semitic literature would ever be found in any Palestinian hands. Naturally, this serves the interests of the right and often mainstream centrists, who argue that Israel must not make peace or even negotiate as long as our security is threatened, including psychologically.
On a personal level, I dream of a world where nobody hurts anyone, Jew or non-Jew, for any reason.
But to place utopia at the center of a political project, to predicate political solutions on a fantasy and end all creative debate by pulling out perfect security as a trump card – usually as proof of why the search for peace is in vain – is a grave historic mistake and an injustice to all people in the region. It is shamelessly hypocritical, because Jewish Israeli security in this vision is, of course, unidirectional. The fantasy rests on an absurd denial of human nature the world over.
Expectations have gone overboard as a result. Daily conversations over coffee often end with some version of “how we can negotiate when their textbooks don’t even show Israel on the map?” because that too, is a breach of utopian – psychological – security.
The zero sum complex: Either utopian security or total destruction
In current Israeli Jewish discourse there are only two options: utopian security, or full-on existential destruction. There is nothing in between. A reserve soldier expressed this well in a recent op ed in Ynet (Hebrew), explaining that he was “proud to serve in Judea and Samaria,” because he helped people celebrate the Seder without getting murdered, prevented the stabber or the suicide-bomb-belt [sic] from crossing the Green Line, prevented murder and harm to human life. The entire article was hypothetical, as I understood it – he never told an anecdote or referred to real-life events. Yet he knew that his presence had saved Jews, because there had been massacres in 1929. In his mind, the fact that there had been no attacks while he served was the same as saying he prevented a scenario of certain and total destruction. This despite the sharp decline in terror-related casualties and attacks over the last seven years to the point where the numbers can be measured in dozens, if that. By comparison, road accidents kill between 370-600 Israelis annually. Criminal murders number between 100-200 annually.
Yes, there are very real security violations from external enemies. But these are not an existential threat. Yes, there is an Iranian nuclear threat – just like the one I grew up with under the shadow of the USSR, which actually had the bomb. When I was in third grade, after a particularly impressive social studies class, my friends and I discussed somberly in the school lunchroom that we probably wouldn’t live to see the turn of the millennium; we were told there were enough nuclear weapons to blow the whole world up 10 times over. There were nuclear fallout shelter signs everywhere.
I lived with it then, and I can live with it now. This is unrelated to the increasingly desperate need to reach a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It’s ironic therefore that the right has succeeded in branding the left as naïve. What’s truly dismaying is that the left has fallen for it.
It’s time to inject some unapologetic realism into the debate.
Sacrifices at the altar of utopia
When security for Israel became utopia, there were two profound ramifications: the paralysis of the peace process and the simultaneous de-legitimization of the broad left camp (inside Israel and in the diaspora), particularly over the last decade – with the left’s stuttering acquiescence.
Peace process sacrificed to security. Since the outbreak of the Second Intifada (and in truth, beginning in the Oslo years of the mid-1990s), Israelis have come to believe that peace – an umbrella term that they frequently confuse with the process (the Oslo Accords, Camp David negotiations) – actually harms security. The notion was injected by the hard right, those responsible for the infamous “Bring Oslo criminals to justice!” narrative. The notion that peace-related policy causes terror caught on in the mainstream, and then stuck.
In the 2000s, the players changed slightly but the paradigm remained. The 1990s notion of ‘peace’ was replaced in Israeli minds by unilateral Israeli withdrawals. The 2000 IDF withdrawal from Lebanon was viewed as the cause of rocket fire in the north (as if Israel didn’t suffer casualties and rockets for 18 years before that). Dismantling settlements from Gaza became the reason for the electoral victory of the Hamas, rocket fire from Gaza, and the capture of Gilad Shalit – all violations of non-existent, utopian security and the basis for the policy that Israel does not talk while under fire.
Before he was murdered, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin coined a pithy notion of advancing the peace process as if there is no terrorism and fighting terrorism as if there is no peace process. But the concept died with him. What seemed so logical to Rabin – rejecting the interdependence of peace and security – seems impossible for Israelis to comprehend 17 years later.
The left assists its own de-legitimization. The left has completely failed to mount an effective argument on the question of security; the typical answers have probably done more damage than good. Intellectual, moral, legal, political, pragmatic or rational angles are smashed apart in daily conversations, by the inevitable silver bullet: how can we make peace when they conduct terror?
That was the question that defined the decade. The left failed to dispel the utopian paradigm, and instead became defensive. Failing to provide an adequate answer to the demand for perfect security, the left lost political relevance in Israel.
Instead, typical left-wing responses were reactive, never proactive – envision a whole figurative political camp trembling whenever the issue is raised, which is all the time.
When backed into a corner, the left usually proffers one of three main arguments: first, the occupation is the source of anger, hatred, poverty and hopelessness, which create the conditions for terror; second, that peace will advance security; and third, the rare argument, coming mainly from small pockets of the more radical left, that Israel has no right to expect security when it is the aggressor in an asymmetrical conflict.
When the right is right
Shooting these arguments down has been child’s play for the right. After years of lamenting that there’s no left left, it’s time to admit when the right is right: terror and violence against Israeli Jews (and other Jews) existed before the occupation, continued through the earliest advances and concessions for a peace process and continue today (as did Israeli violence against Palestinians). The first argument fails.
The notion that peace advances security is no match for the deeply entrenched interpretation of events described earlier. Worse, the hope that peace will bring security does nothing to dispel the utopian aspect and thus strengthens it; every lull that ends with a stone or a rocket is a victory for the utopists.
Left-wing groups have wracked their brains considering how to convince Israelis that the peace-causes-terror interpretation is wrong, one-sided, ignores the Palestinian reality, is biased by our media or missing critical facts. But of course: all human beings see their reality first. It’s natural. Trying to enlighten Israelis about the truth may be a worthy cause in itself, but it is hopeless to imagine that left-wing truths will cause people to give peace another chance or bring perfect security. The irresponsible, quixotic crusade to get Israelis to see the light, or put someone else’s narrative first has earned only accusations of arrogance or betrayal.
The notion that Israel as the aggressor cannot expect security is plainly immoral in my mind, because civilians always deserve security, Palestinians and Israelis. This line exposes the genuine hypocrisy of some within the camp that I call my own, which is personally painful for me. Perhaps the height of this argument was reached with the demented apologia for the horrific killing of a whole family, including tiny children, in the settlement of Itamar. Aside from being simply wrong, such commentary again advances the fatal notion: if we stop killing them, we can expect perfect security.
I am not writing this in order to conjure a brilliant strategic message, provide talking points, copywriting or slogans. This is my experience of a tragic reality. This is my analysis of why many mainstream, centrist and even some right-wing Israelis whom I am privileged to interview through my public opinion research – or whom I know as friends and family – actually seem as pained as I am: they genuinely want to reach a solution, but nobody is helping them cope with the security problem. This was the left’s job, and we have failed them.
Here’s how I view reality: there is no perfect world. Everyone lives with a security threat, even on remote islands in Norway, the state that symbolizes peace.
If there’s one thing I trust the military and intelligence establishment of Israel to do, it’s their job. The occupation is not their job. Keeping me as safe as possible under an imperfect, non-utopian political reality, under the best possible political compromise the Israeli and Palestinian people can reach, is. That’s what I call defense.
It is time to expose the fact that our prevailing notion of security is a dangerous fantastical nightmare perpetuating the conflict forever, by demanding that unacceptable deeds be committed in its name. But the right can hardly be expected to give up a vision that serves its political interests. Instead, the current leadership abuses that vision for rapacious gain, sacrificing the well-being of Israel as a country in the process.
The left must show people that they are being exploited and misled to dream of an unattainable myth. The left must admit that there is a permanent security threat instead of ignoring it. The left must make the case that an immediate political resolution to the conflict is not a formula for an impossible, flawless level of security, but for a better Israel – something we’ll be proud to protect.