Activists on the Ship ‘Rachel Corrie’ Challenge Israel’s Unjust Gaza Blockade and Zionist Myths
ANALYSIS, 7 Jun 2010
Another ship is steaming across the Mediterranean toward Gaza, loaded with humanitarian supplies, posing another impossible dilemma for the government of Israel.
The MV Rachel Corrie is steaming across the Mediterranean toward Gaza, flying the flag of Ireland, loaded with humanitarian supplies, and posing another impossible dilemma for the government of Israel.
The root of the dilemma is not the conflict between Israel and the Free Gaza Movement, nor even the conflict between Israel and Palestine. It’s ultimately a conflict between two visions of Zionism that go back to the origins of Zionism itself.
Israel’s government is caught in a debate between two factions, representing those two visions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is no doubt searching for a way to act upon both. But it’s an impossible task, like trying to square a circle, because the two visions contradict each other. So however the Israelis choose to meet the MV Rachel Corrie, they lose.
One side in the debate sees Israel rapidly losing its respect around the world, which was once quite considerable. Israel’s famous novelist Amoz Oz speaks for them: “We’re putting ourselves under international siege, which is much more dangerous to us than the blockade of Gaza is to Gazans. Israel is turning into Apartheid-era South Africa, a country that the nations of the world do not want among their ranks.”
This faction warns that if Israel repeats the kind of bloody attack it launched on the Mavi Marmara, it could well lose whatever shred remains of its international standing. And they say that Israel simply cannot survive in a world that condemns and isolates it.
The thinking of this side goes back to the very beginning of Zionism. We Jews have been persecuted outcasts long enough, the early Zionists said. If we respect ourselves enough to break out of our long exile and become a normal nation, like all the other nations, we will earn the world’s respect and be treated as equals in the family of nations.
These first Zionists assumed that if they built a successful state they would escape the constant anxiety that had plagued their ancestors. They worked in a spirit of confidence that Jews could not merely survive, but thrive, as their nation developed friendly relations with the other nations of the world.
Yet ultimately they could not escape anxiety. Their test of the success of Zionism was how well the Jewish state was received by the gentile world. Though they broke free of the grip of the gentiles, they always had to be watching over their shoulders to see how the gentiles were viewing them. They are watching still, as the MV Rachel Corrie approaches Gaza, still worrying about what it will take to insure that the Jewish state survives, still feeling like the victims of history.
The other side in the Israeli debate within the government takes a very different approach. Why bother even thinking about the world’s response, they ask. The world hates us anyway. Nothing we do now can make the gentiles hate us more. Since we are surrounded by eternal enemies, let’s forget about world opinion. The only way to insure our survival is to maintain our strength and dominance — by any means necessary.
This viewpoint, too, goes back to the very beginning of Zionism. The same Zionists who confidently pursued the goal of a normal nation also assumed that, as long as Jews lived among the gentiles, they would always be victims of persecution. For them, anti-semitism was an eternal fact of life, to be escaped only by taking refuge in a Jewish state.
Today’s Israeli hawks see the world in much the same way, except that they see no escape. We’ve discovered, they say, that even though we have our own nation we still live among the gentiles, and they still hate us so much they’d like to see us disappear. Our only option is to keep on fighting back, and let the blood fall where it may.
They are cheered when they hear Defense Minister Ehud Barak tell the commandos who attacked the Mavi Marmara: “We live in the Middle East, in a place where there is no mercy for the weak. … You were fighting for your lives.” They see every fight that Israel wages in the same simplistic light. Thus a top Israeli Navy commander warns that Israel will use even more aggressive force in the future to prevent ships from breaking the Gaza blockade: “We boarded the ship and were attacked as if it was a war. We will have to come prepared in the future as if it was a war.”
Though each side in this debate throws barrages of facts at the other to prove its point, no facts can ever prove either side right or wrong. Both sides let their chosen narratives decide what facts they can see and what can count as a fact for them. When narrative takes precedence over facts, we are dealing with myth. In that sense, the debate within the Israeli government about how to meet the MV Rachel Corrie is a debate between two versions of the Zionist myth.
Since each side’s view is so narrowed by its mythic vision, both (though especially the hawks) ignore the most critical facts: the daily suffering of the Palestinians, in the West Bank and even more so in Gaza; the total military domination that Israel already has, which guarantees its ability to overpower a Palestinian state indefinitely; the anger at Israel that grows around the world precisely because it poses as a weak victim, despite its display of overwhelming strength; the fact that Israel lashes out in bully-like fury because it is caught in the contradiction between myth and fact, which it cannot see.
These facts are ignored because they simply do not fit into either version of the Zionist narrative. Both versions see only a Jewish state struggling desperately to survive and gain self-respect — either by being accepted as a legitimate equal among other nations or by doing whatever it takes to fend off enemies in an anarchic international jungle, where only the strong live to see another day.
Netanyahu, like all Israeli leaders before him, is caught in the web of inherited myths, trying to act on both versions at the same time. He wants to lead a country that can get support from others and maintain good international relations. He also wants to lead a country that proves that it’s tough enough to overcome every threat by using excessive force.
He’s pursuing a self-defeating goal, for two reasons. First, it’s impossible, because the two views of Zionism contradict each other. The only point they agree on is that the Jewish state is imperiled and must survive. But no nation can expect to survive if it ignores reality and relies instead on its own mythic version of the facts. That’s the second reason Netanyahu’s aim is self-defeating. In trying to save his nation from imagined danger (the foolish notion that ships bringing humanitarian goods to Gaza could threaten Israel’s existence, for example) he is exposing Israel to very real dangers.
If the Israelis meet the MV Rachel Corrie with any kind of violence, they take another big step toward alienating their nation from the rest of the world, and especially from the European community, which is of critical importance to Israel. The Israelis are acutely aware that the Corrie is an Irish ship, and the head of Ireland’s government has warned them of “the most serious consequences” if any harm comes Irish citizens.
On the other hand, if Netanyahu allows the Corrie to dock at Gaza unimpeded, he can expect a stormy reaction and very possibly rejection from Israel’s powerful political right. They’ll say that he’s weak and shameful, because he lets Israel be pushed around by the gentiles. That charge could stick and move the nation much closer to political chaos.
Either choice will make it harder for Israel to gain the one thing it needs most to escape from danger: a peace settlement with Palestine. As long as there is no settlement, Israel remains caught in a cycle of conflict and insecurity that makes the Jewish state its own worst enemy.
As the MV Rachel Corrie approaches Gaza to confront the Israeli blockade, it forces the Israeli government to confront this dilemma. Perhaps at last, under this pressure, the Israelis will see that both of the dominant Zionist myths have reached a dead end. The effort to build a nation on imagined threat and constant fear of what outsiders will say or do was doomed from the start. Fear keeps a nation paralyzed, unable to see the facts clearly and respond to them creatively.
The voyage of the MV Rachel Corrie could give Israeli leaders a chance to awake from their paralysis and remember that they have another alternative. There is a third vision of Zionism, which is also rooted in the earliest days of the movement and can open the way to a future of genuine peace and security. It’s a vision of a Jewish state that embodies the highest moral values enshrined in the Hebrew Bible: the peace that comes only from justice.
There have always been Zionists committed to this approach. And they have always set out a clear test for the Jewish state: Will it act on those highest values in its treatment of the Arabs of Palestine? Anything less than fair, equitable, and peaceable relations with the Arabs would mean a failure of Zionism.
Sadly, these Zionists were always a minority in the movement. They still are. But their voice is still heard in the mainstream of Israeli life. And they understand the power of the mainstream myths that keep Israel locked in its self-destructive ways.
Listen, for example, to the famous Israeli writer David Grossman: “How insecure, confused and panicky a country must be, to act as Israel acted! … It killed and wounded civilians as if it were a band of pirates.”
The attack on the Mavi Marmara was the “natural continuation” of the blockade of Gaza, Grossman writes. And the blockade is “the all-too-natural consequence of a clumsy and calcified policy, which again and again resorts by default to the use of massive and exaggerated force, where wisdom and sensitivity and creative thinking are called for instead. Above all, this insane operation shows how far Israel has declined. … Already there are those here who seek to spin the natural and justified sense of Israeli guilt into a strident assertion that the whole world is to blame. Our shame, however, will be harder to live with.”
Or listen to Carlo Strenger, a regular columnist for Israel’s most respected newspaper, Ha’aretz, speaking to the faction that worries most about Israel’s image in the world:
“Israel’s policy of dispossession in Jerusalem and in the settlements is reactionary and repressive and cannot be justified by any security interest. Israel will have to decide: it cannot rebrand itself as a liberal, creative and progressive country without being one. Our business sector, our artists and academics are mostly progressive, liberal and creative. But their impact on how Israel is perceived will remain negligible as long as Israel’s politicians and emissaries keep harping on victimhood and survival and as long as its policies are repressive.”
Eloquent writers like Grossman, Strenger, and many others keep alive the vision of a truly moral Zionism, which was part of the movement from its birth. Since their voices do not yet prevail in Israel, we in the U.S. have a greater responsibility to make them heard. We must explain to our fellow Americans — and especially to our elected leaders — that Israel’s claims of victimization, persecution, and weakness arise not from facts, but from the Zionist myths that blind too many Jews, here as well as in Israel, to the facts.
Perhaps Barack Obama already knows this. If he does not, it is up to us to teach him. If he does, it is up to us to change American public opinion, to make it politically safe for Obama to act upon what he knows and push the Israelis toward the peace that they, as well as the Palestinians, so desperately need.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and American Jews on his blog: http://chernus.wordpress.com.
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