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Can Israel survive only in a dictatorial Middle East?

The revelation of Israel’s attempt to strengthen Mubarak’s regime evokes a powerful parable.

Detail from "The Holy Trinity" by Masaccio, 15th century, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

One work of art that strongly affected my world view as a teenager was a science fiction story: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by American author Ursuala K. Le Guin.

Omelas, its setting, was described as a city of enormous splendor, a place of ultimate prosperity and joy. There was a price for all this. In order for Omelas to remain so splendid, a child must be kept perpetually in a filthy basement. He is mentally handicapped and deeply terrified of two brooms that are leaning against the basement’s wall. Only as long as he is there and no one exchanges a word with him, will Omelas remain the perfect city that it is.

The children of Omelas are told of the child when they come of age. They usually respond with a degree of shock, but later learn to accept his sufferings and repress the memory. Only very few find that the sweetness of life in Omeles, with its summer festivals, its beautiful parks, its songs and dances, just aren’t worth it. They leave Omelas and vanish over the hills.

Even as a teenager I knew that there were people whose lives were controlled by my nation’s army, and who didn’t even get running water in their houses. I knew that there were people imprisoned for years without fair trials. I knew many more things. Israel was an Omelas, prosperous and happy while keeping children in a basement.

This morning we learned something of the number of these children. According to Haaretz, the Israeli government sent a message to world governments urging them to enhance their support of Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. The message urged that the stability of Egypt’s regime is beneficial to the stability of the entire Middle East and thus must be preserved.

What is the value of our so called democracy if it can only flourish when its neighbors aren’t democracies? We have been told for years that occupation techniques such as the construction of the separation barrier are necessary to ensure the survival of “the Middle East’s only democracy.” We learned to accept that our democracy is dependent on human rights infringements. Now we learn that the scale of these infringements must be fantastically greater.

For 30 years Israel enjoyed the status quo with Egypt, while Egyptians suffered from tyranny, lacked freedom of speech and could not affect their own destiny. What message is Israel sending now? Does it truly imply that only a dictatorial Middle East will permit it to survive as a Jewish state?

Is this Jewish state such a fragile fantasy, that an entire region of the world must be kept imprisoned in order for it to thrive? How many children are in the basement? Four million Palestinians? Eighty million Egyptians? How many more? How many people must be deprived of liberty so we can have ours? Can we only have our liberty by maintaining absolute dictators as allies? Are we really that scared?

Le Guin, the author of “Omelas,” once wrote: “Those who build walls are their own prisoners. I’m going to go fulfill my proper function in the social organism. I’m going to go and unbuild walls.” It is a tragedy that we do not take part in unbuilding the walls of the Middle East, but rather help reinforce them.

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    1. Beautifully written. Thanks for introducing me to this story.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Roger

      The writer’s name is actually Ursula K Le Guin (but that is a hell of lot of vowels to translate into Hebrew…).

      There is an introduction to the story in the collection The Winds Twelve Quarters where she points out that the name Omelas came from reading Salem O (for Oregon) backwards – and Salem is of course both an old English transliteration of ‘Shalom’ and a reference to Jerusalem – thus the many Salems founded in America.

      She also explains that the original idea for the story comes from the philosopher and psychologist William James.

      I’d also highly recommend her great political novel The Dispossessed which is in a way an exploration of the same theme.

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    3. Thank you. I corrected the typo and will seek out The Dispossesed. Le Guin has always been popular with Hebrew readers, so It may even exist in translation.

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    4. Confused mike

      Can Israel speak out against Mubarak before he is out of power?… Would that put it’s citizens in “danger”?… What character does it depict the Israel if they speak out against one of their strongest allies in the area? … I don’t know enough to answer these questions.

      i think this article has great points but Israel is in a catch 22, no? I somewhat think this is an “Egyptian issue” (obviously it effects more) and Israel should be a topic after we see what the outcome is.

      But if I was in charge of Israel I would not go against Mubarak after all he did to stabilize Israel and help their peace process even if he is making unjust decisions in his own state.

      What is the price for speaking out against Mubarak if he retains power? I don’t think you can put this pressure on the small state of Israel.. let the French, British, Americans, and Germans speak for those “children” they can are in stable areas where words against the Mubarak regime MAY go by less damaging to your own country.

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    5. There’s a great difference between not speaking out against Mubarak’s regime and what Israel does.
      If the Haaretz report is correct (and at least Haaretz themselves are quite confident of it, or they wouldn’t have made it the day’s chief headline in both print and internet editions) then Israel is assisting that regime, both by speaking on its behalf to the international community and by allowing its troops into the Sinai in breach of the peace agreements.
      Israel has the right to remain silent, it has no better option than to remain silent, and yet it gives up this right, expressing support for its tyrranical ally and gambling on him.

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    6. Michael W.

      I think you guys are over analyzing Israel’s stance on the Egyptian protests. All Israel has ever known to its south-west was a dictatorship. It wants to stay in peace with that dictatorship. The peace is important to Israel. What is Israel supposed to do? Even if Israel does something one way or another, it won’t be of any significance to this episode.

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    7. Ben Israel

      I love this righteous outrage at Israel supposedly supporting Mubarak’s evil regime. Yet the “progressives” are the same ones demanding that we give up the Golan Heights in order to strengthen Assad’s even worse regime in Syria. And it was the “progressives” who demanded that Israel bring Arafat and his FATAH gangsters to Israel after they had ignited civil wars in Lebannon and Jordan leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Now the “progressives” are on the one hand moaning about Abbas’ corrupt PA regime yet, at the same time, they are demanding we hand over Judea/Samaria to them in order to strengthen that same regime. I am really confused!

      Reply to Comment
    8. Ben Israel

      The term “Leftist” has become rather confused. There were Leftists like Tabenkin who supported Gush Emunim and the settlement movement. There are Haredim who oppose the settlements and at the same time support socialism, yet you wouldn’t call them “Leftists”. Blogger Bernard Avishai is a strong supporter of post-Zionism and despises the settlers, the religious and the Right, but he is militantly pro-capitalist and pro-globalization. Does that make him Left or Right?
      In the past “Leftist” referred to particular social and economic policies, now it is being used by Kibbutznik and others simply to mean “Anti-Likud”, or “anti-settler”.
      In spite of this, when I am speaking to people here in Israel, I do use the term “Leftist” in the way you do, but since this site is directed at Jews outside Israel, I use “progressive” because that is the increasingly popular term for these views.

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    9. Y.

      Yuval has good literary taste, but is somewhat weak in history. Israel has shown again and again it can defeat its enemies, so we know it doesn’t need a dictatorial Middle East in order to prosper.

      The one thing which may well need dictatorial regimes are the typically senseless “peace” deals (as these do not represent the will of the people on either side – just see the reaction to the hyped “Palestine Papers”). Thus, any worry for Mubarak is actually a result of the Left’s (and +972’s) agenda being fulfilled. One of the fortunate results of this upheaval is that Israel would be even more reluctant to follow this hopeless course.

      P.S. I’m know for a fact there’s a translation of the Dispossessed to Hebrew. Can’t remember the publisher though.

      Reply to Comment
    10. sh

      I’d never heard of the story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, but thought the analogy was wonderful. It isn’t a question of whether we can defeat enemies or not so much as whether our existence must depend on the eternal subjugation of neighbours who are not our enemies.

      For ignoramuses like myself, here’s a web link to the story:

      Reply to Comment
    11. Majid Jamali Fashi

      this comment was deleted by the blog owner for offensive content.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Arlosoroff

      A good article and its clearly not a simple issue.
      Israel made peace with the leader of the country.
      The leader of the country is a despot.
      Who else was israel going to attempt to make peace with?
      Of course this now puts Israel in the precarious position of defending her peace partner.
      While all Israeli socialists support the struggle for equality in Egypt, when the new leadership emerges there every effort must be made to extend a hand in a gesture towards regional peace.
      We should be aware – it needn’t be the case that a happier Egyptian population should result in a more dangerous middle east – but rather, quite the opposite.
      Im quite sure however that Lieberman will work hard to destroy any possibility of a peace between the two nations. How hard he’ll have to work to do that of course will depend on what emerges in the next week or so. And his job would be made infinitly harder were our interactions with the Palestinians improved.

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    13. aristeides

      I know former Israelis who have done exactly what Le Guin describes: they walk away. They leave Israel because their conscience can’t stand being part of the system of oppression.

      Maybe some of them hope they might one day be able to return when Israel becomes a just state. But there seems little hope of this, the direction it is taking.

      And when they have all left, the ones who believe in justice, what will Israel be then?

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    14. JOSH

      this article is invigorating and the comparison drawn is very poignant. Israel are acting logically, they don’t want another Nasser on their hands. The notion that the Israeli/US governments need Authoritarian Governments surrounding them in order to survive is an interesting one.
      One only has to look at recent history to see how US economic agents have created dictatorial regimes around the US in neighboring S.American states for the betterment of their ‘democracy’. A wolf in sheep’s clothing seems less harmful then just a wolf. In order for ‘Democracy’ in conjunction with Capitalism and underhanded oppression (wolf in sheep’s clothing) to continue its facade of security and prosperity it must be surrounded by real openhanded oppression.
      Israel, is even willing to infringe a 30 year old agreement, allowing Egyptian troops to advance into Sinai in order to protect their assets. Arguably, however, Israel is no longer in sheep’s clothing, but this is between us, the consumers of the information age, MANY people around me are oblivious to the atrocities taking place daily for the sake of the continuation of Israel.
      So where do we stand, we have tens of thousands of children in a basement, and we won’t go over the hill. The difference here is Israel can continue it’s existence without the children in the basement, compromising age old tradition is part and parcel to human survival, policies must be changed, representatives must be changed and citizens of Israel must enforce this. We as responsible citizens outside of Israel must approach our local leaders, our governments even and protest, we must boycott Israeli goods (M&S)and more importantly, we must tell everyone we know about the children in the basement.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Ilana Sebba

      This e-mail is for the board of +972 – why are Majid’s expressions of hatred and hopes for Israel’s demise never contested?

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    16. Ben Israel

      What are the currently dictatorial regimes in Latin America that the US is supposedly supporting? In the 1980’s, all the military dictatorships in Latin America went over to becoming civilian democracies. The country in which democracy is in most danger is the “progressive” Venezuela under Iran’s pal Hugo Chavez.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Majid’s comment was sent while it was late night in Israel and all of us slept (we don’t have an all night desk as we are all volunteers). I am removing it with sorrow, since I destest removing comments, but I consider any excitement expressed at the prospect of a demolished Israel a call for violence, and calls for violence will not be tolerated on this blog.

      Reply to Comment
    18. Kibbutznik

      ” The term “Leftist” has become rather confused ”

      Maybe to you Ben Israel , not to us and not to
      Haaretz :

      Rightists launch battle to block Facebook pages of left-wing groups


      freedom of speach is a wonderful thing Ben Israel as an ex american dont you agree ?
      so why is this necessary ?

      “I see this as an active and violent act aimed at silencing a voice that they do not agree with,” Aharoni said. “The right is trying to prevent human rights groups from continuing operations, and they will use any means at their disposal to do so.”

      Reply to Comment
    19. Ben Israel

      I don’t see how Ha’aretz’s misuse of a word proves anything. Are Leftists socialists or not? Are Haredim? Using the term “Leftist” simply to define someone who votes HADASH or MERETZ or dislikes settlers is grossly oversimplified.

      Do not assume that I agree with the Likud or the religious parties or the YESHA council. I prefer to think for myself. I think Israel has too little democracy and by guaranteeing rights for the Left, the Right will be helping itself, but of course, the Left has to guarantee the Right’s rights as well.

      Reply to Comment
    20. Kibbutznik

      I prefer the term secular humanist but its an awful mouth full so I will stick to Leftist if thats okay with you Ben Israel

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    21. I’ve come to learn that “leftist” simply means something else here than it does elsewhere (much in the same way that the word “chips” means different things in the U.S. and in Britain). I learned to add the words “In the Israeli sense” whenever I use the term with foreigners. “secular humanist” doesn’t really work, in my view, since many leftists I know (in the Israeli sense) are religious. “Progressive” is a good term, although many Israelis won’t immidiately understand it or equate it with their concept of leftist. Let’s just settle on “sensible”.

      Reply to Comment
    22. Kibbutznik

      ” “secular humanist” doesn’t really work, in my view, since many leftists I know (in the Israeli sense) are religious ”

      I accept that, I was refering to myself .

      ” Let’s just settle on “sensible”. ”

      Fine by me , so should we now settle on describing all of the right as senseless ? 🙂

      Reply to Comment
    23. They’re sensible by their book, and if there’s anything I love in the world it’s a right-winger (in the Israeli sense) who’s truly sensible and fun to debate with.

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    24. Stella Goldschlag

      Why did you remove Majids comment? It is a logical expression from a decent person who doesnt want a society that dependes on imprisoning children in the basement. What decent person would disagree? Also, how do you know that Majid was advocating violence. It may be that when the zionists are confronted with a united front of free Arabs, Turks, and Iranians, they may leave on their own accord

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    25. By some stretch of the imagination, a call for the destructon of Israel can perhaps be read as a purely political statement, a wish to see its current political structures altered completely. However, that would be an extremely optimistic reading. I’m more of a pessimist. Any comment that can be read as a call for violent solutions, is up for removal.

      Reply to Comment
    26. JOSH

      ‘Recent history’ as I quoted, I am fully aware of the progression achieved in S.America. You seem the be an opinionated and educated individual and I congratulate your zeal, I have read your posts in other articles. However it doesn’t take a genius to see you are very close-minded, and this close-mindedness will restrict your capacity to grow, eventually making you bitter. Which is what you already are becoming, bitter.
      I apologize for the seemingly personal attack, but I think you possess the potential to make a more positive impact.
      In regards to your opinion on Chavez, I am very disappointed. How you think that in one line you can dismiss Chavez’ consistent resistance to US influence is besides me. Do you feed into the US/Israeli media, peddling the image of Chavez as a strong arm dictator? and as for relations with Iran, well you tell me is ‘the enemy of my enemy my friend’? (this is not me suggesting that Chavez in any way condones the oppression many Iranian citizens experience)
      And at this point it is also important to note that a recent Brookings Poll rank Israel as the biggest threat to the M.E region at 88%, and if Chavez was to be associated with Netanyahu would this be a bad thing?

      Reply to Comment
    27. Ben Israel

      As surprising as it may seem, people attempted to read Hitler’s explicit threats against the Jews as “merely playing to public opinion” or as part of some internal Nazi political struggle. That explains why many Israelis react strongly to threats from people like Ahmendinejad, or can not understand apologists of his like Juan Cole who are always attempting to put a positive spin on his statements like “when he says Israel is a cancer and will disappear, he means it will be done ‘peacefully'”. The question is whether history is repeating itself.

      Reply to Comment
    28. Ben Israel

      You are quite right that I got emotionally riled up when I saw people here explaining away screams of “kill the Jews” as “mere rhetoric” or that “we need to understand the background”. Thousands of Israelis were killed or wounded by hate-filled Arabs in the suicide bomber campaign, so it is not just paranoia and closed-mindedness on my part when I get upset about it.
      It is this kind of behavior that has led most Israelis to marginalizing the Left politically. Such a thing is not good for Israeli democracy (in spite of what some people here think I do not think of myself as a closed-minded extremist–I do understand that not everyone thinks like me and I am willing to listen to contrary viewpoints). Thus, I believe it is incumbent on the Left to disassociate itself from such extremism , just as the Right must do. Like I said: one law for all. If a letter in Tzefat says that one should not rent to Arabs is wrong, then joining a demonstration where Arabs are screaming “kill the Jews” is wrong as well.

      Reply to Comment
    29. I tend to agree with you, Ben Israel (on the comment addressed to me). However just so you know, We are about to approve a set of guidelines for comments. As part of it, I’m intending to ban all WWII/Holocaust references. I think such references are often meaningful and important. Learning from history is crucial, but in such forums they nearly always cause the debate to deteriorate. We’ll all have to learn to do without them.

      Reply to Comment
    30. Ben Israel

      I don’t see how my reference to Hitler has caused this blog to deteriorate, no one else even commented on it, but the scope of discussion is now being narrowed. Lisa is also threatening to ban me since I disagree with her. I see the way things are going, and I am not at all surprised. But, I do find it instructive.

      Reply to Comment
    31. Stella Goldschlag

      I am not advocating violence or ethnic cleansing and neither is Majid. However, there is nothing wrong with extending the discussion to the voluntary evacuation of israelis from Palestine. There are many places they could be moved to. A democratic Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey and Jordan would be a significant force for the zionists to contend with, and they might leave on their own accord

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    32. Ben Israel

      How about “voluntary repatriation” of the Arab population of Israel to the Arab countries as a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict?. They are the same people, they speak the same language, and have the same religions. If you know anything about recent history you might realize that sending Jews back to Poland might not work out because our previous stay there was not very successful.

      Reply to Comment
    33. Ilana Sebba

      Thanks for your attention to my comment regarding Majid’s postings. I apologize if I seemed rude or demmanding (I am israeli-canadians, canadians like to apologize a lot, sorry…) I just meant that every comment he makes is of the same kind as the one removed… thanks

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    34. Ilana Sebba


      1.-May I ask a very naive question: Do you think Israel has no right to exist at all?

      2.- We are debating here the situation of Israel with respect to the occupied territories, and while my fervent hope is that Israel leaves the territories ASAP and the palestinian people get their own country, watch they way you are putting things: you are talking about “voluntary repatriation” and next sentence you say “there are many places where the could BE MOVED TO” – how would that be voluntary?

      3.- Where and how would you like to move us?
      (Just out of curiosity…)

      Thanks and look forward to hearing from you!

      Reply to Comment
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