If I told you that the lessons gleaned along the Shvil were clear and concise, set out like discussion topics in a neat, bulleted lecture itinerary, I’d be blatantly lying. I highly doubt anything in life is actually like that, all tidily packaged for easy consumption. Rather, my discussion and conclusions about Israel and its people are as diverse and complex as Israeli’s themselves are. But, perhaps that is the first lesson one should take to heart—much to the chagrin of those realists in our midst, Israel is not a collective unit to be characterized en masse, much less a homogenous society. This is not a history book, and I do not intend to tell you the general feelings and aspirations of an entire population. Why? Because there is no universal Israeli narrative, much less an all-encompassing Israeli identity. Hell, some Israeli’s wouldn’t even consider themselves Israelis; some Jews wouldn’t consider themselves Jews; some Palestinians wouldn’t consider themselves Palestinians. Above all else, my time on the trail made this fact painfully clear, especially when I, in poor scientific fashion, set out in search of the opposite conclusion.
My remaining days on the trail followed in the character of the first two (as described in part one of this series). Today, from a firmly settled position in Be’er Sheva, my time on the trail has begun to take on a rosy haze. The adventure was a slurry of pure adrenaline, awe, fear, sweat, blood, cow sh*t, more cow sh*t, and haphazard, enduring friendships. Much is to be said for the power of observation in gleaning information, but one can never understate the value of immersion. It was, after all, from my friends, hosts, and random acquaintances—the human component of the trail—that I learned the most. That is doubly true for the Israelis in their midst.
From the three girls that saved me on the way to Ramot Naftali to the old man who housed me in Dishon; from the four guys I came to know as my “achim” (brothers), who taught me almost all the Hebrew curses I know today, to the Orthodox Jew whose mosquito hive I slept in near Sofat, every individual I came into contact with gave me a greater insight into the Israeli identity, or lack thereof.
At every turn, when circumstances and my confidence permitted, I asked Israelis what they thought was the greatest threat to Israel today. Granted, it is quite the leading question. It is notable, however, that in all of my provocative interrogations, not one person stopped to say, “Well that’s rather presumptuous of you.” Or, “What an odd way of breaking the ice.”
No one admonished my poor journalistic skills, no one refused a reply, and no one questioned the inherent assumption that Israel always has a threat facing it. Perhaps, in the end, that is the true commonality uniting Israelis.
In 1932, Ze’ev Jabotinsky—a major figure in the Zionist movement and Israel’s early pre-history—wrote an essay in the Russian journal Rasviet titled, The Iron Wall. In it, he argues for a strong-handed approach to the problems facing Jewish aspirations in the Palestine Mandate. He opens by noting that Jewish immigration to the holy land, with the guiding vision of an eventual Jewish state, constitutes a form of colonization. Throughout history, he argues, indigenous populations have resisted colonization. As he puts it, “…There has never been an indigenous inhabitant anywhere or at any time who has ever accepted the settlement of others in his country.” In summary, he writes, “Colonization can have only one goal. For the Palestinian Arabs this goal is inadmissible. This is in the nature of things. To change that nature is impossible.”
Before I continue, let me note that this man is the arguable philosophical idol of current Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, whose own father served as Jabotinsky’s personal secretary.
Ultimately, Jabotinsky concludes, the Zionist movement has two options before it when faced with this inescapable, historically-consistent truth: 1) it can abandon the quest for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, or 2) it can continue to press forward with its colonization efforts without hesitancy or leniency. Considering the former option to be abhorrent and defeatist, Ze’ev (the “Wolf” in Hebrew)— founder of the Zion Mule Corps and Jewish Legion that served the British Empire in World War One, infantry officer under General Allenby during the Sinai and Palestine campaign of that war, director of the Haganah paramilitary group in the Mandate of Palestine, leader of the extremist, break-away Irgun faction that eventually splintered off of that group, and general forefather of the various Jewish resistance groups that followed— presses home with his sadly prescient conclusion:
All this does not mean that any kind of agreement is impossible, only a voluntary agreement is impossible. As long as there is a spark of hope that they [the Palestinian Arabs] can get rid of us, they will not sell these hopes, not for any kind of sweet words or tasty morsels… Only when not a single breach is visible in the iron wall, only then do extreme groups lose their sway… In other words, for us the only path to an agreement in the future is an absolute refusal of any attempts at an agreement now.
In my opinion, many Israelis evince, and suffer from, this “Iron Wall” mentality. I saw it in the three girls who, at a young age, “understood” the extreme danger of the Arabs becoming a majority in Israel. I saw it in the man who asked me if I was Jewish before providing me a bed for the night. I saw it in my four achim, who warned me so strongly against the dangers posed by Arabs in Nazareth. I saw it in one of my hippy hosts in Rosh Pinna who, being leftist enough to escape military service, still viewed the Jewish people as the “chosen” sect of human society, and the Jewish state as an essential, god-given right of the Jewish people.
I see it to this day. I see it in the gentleman who hosted me on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year), who told me that it was Obama that killed Ambassador Stevens by being too soft on the Muslims. I see it in the girl who, that same night, after singing of the beauty of Jerusalem, turned to me abruptly and said, “We will never giver her up.”
It is this mentality which manifests itself in the “Security Fence” around East Jerusalem, the blockade of Gaza, and the continued occupation of the Golan. It is the driving force behind Israel’s incessant settlement construction; it’s the misery of the Bedouin in the Negev, living in dozens of unrecognized villages without water, electricity, or sanitation; it’s the symbolic food consumed in Rosh Hashanah traditions as we implore god to smite our enemies; it’s the umbrella of the aptly name “Iron Dome” missile defense system, under which so many Israelis live, work, and play.
It’s the security dilemma in the flesh and blood. Do not yield an inch; do not twitch, blink, bat an eye. Do not show even one sign of weakness, lest we be overrun.
I could regal you with tales of the soldier I spoke with on a train to Haifa who, having just directed the airstrike on an abducted Egyptian armored personnel carrier in Israeli territory, frankly told me that Israel’s greatest threat is now Egypt. I could speak in hushed tones of the girl I met on the way to Kibbutz Dan who, having scored high enough on her IDF vocation tests to now stare at real-time security feed of the Lebanese border every day, told me that the coming storm will be from a rearmed Hizbullah in the north. I can speak to you of the many who said Syria’s violence is already lapping the border and will eventually crash over the breakers, or the many more that argued that outright war with Iran looms ever larger before us. I, however, will talk of the one girl in Nazareth who took my question, paused, look me in the eye and said, “Our mind. I think the biggest threat is our mind.”
Out of all the people I questioned, this one girl stands out. She didn’t get to elaborate—her bus made an oddly punctual arrival to whisk her off to the next destination—but she didn’t need any elaboration. Israel today undoubtedly has its enemies. It goes without saying that current conditions in the region offers many potential threats for the Jewish State. I, however, believe we often make our own enemies, and produce our own threatening conditions.
Perhaps I’m a liberal apologist, but I think that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon because Israel maintains a couple hundred illegal ones of its own (and is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty); I think that Assad’s Syria was and will remain a threat because Israel still occupies some of the most water-rich and arable land in the country; I think that Hizbullah was born out of, and lives on because of, Israel’s violent role in Lebanon, such as enabling the Sabra and Shatilla massacres (whose anniversary just passed). I think that Israelis are always looking for the next threat, and, thus, sadly, inevitably find it.
Now, let me be clear. I could not be more thankful for the men who stand on distant and not-so-distant walls with guns (or the young women who spend hours staring at computer screens) so that I can sleep safely in my provided apartment with full amenities. I could not be happier to have the Iron Dome system in place, having just experienced my first-and-a-half (the second being a false alarm) rocket attack. I could not be more understanding of the threats perceived by Israeli Jews from a fiery Iranian regime, and a rising, Islamic populism across a region previously characterized by the relative safety of secular authoritarianism. I could not think more highly of the friends I made on the trail, nor the lessons they imparted.
I do, however, think that the Iron Wall inherently corrodes itself; that its presence and imposition undermine the very objective it was meant to meet. For too long we have said that peace isn’t possible. For too long we have shrugged off responsibility onto the scapegoat of past occurrences. There will always be intricacies, and it will always be difficult to extricate ourselves from them. The key will be ingenuity and a willingness to accept some risks. Jabotinsky’s resoluteness, however, does not allow deviation; the Iron Wall does not entertain risk. In the end, it is as much a prison as a guard. In his own words, “We hold that Zionism is moral and just. And since it is moral and just, justice must be done, no matter whether Joseph or Simon or Ivan or Achmet agree with it or not. There is no other morality.”
As we look to the New Year (our 5773rd since Adam and Eve’s little binge), we are supposed to reflect on the one which has passed, and consider how we may incept a better future. I’d like to propose, in the spirit of my acquaintance in Nazareth, that we revise our outlook on the world; that we adopt a new morality. Let us consider alternative solutions to the bayonet. Let us seek out the truth wherever it can be found. Let us tear down our walls. In the end, there may not be as many enemies beyond them as we think, and there may be more within than we’d care to acknowledge.
All of these are lessons from the Shvil– simple gems picked up along the trail. They won’t be applied easily, nor taken to harvest quickly. No. Rather, their tale will be a slurry of adrenaline, awe, fear, sweat, blood, cow sh*t, more cow sh*t, and, hopefully, one day, a world of many, haphazard, enduring friendships, and hardly any walls.
Shana Tova, Everyone.
This article is part two in a series in the Tales of the Nomad section. See part one, “The Shvil: Learning Israel by foot.”
Associated Media, Content, and References
Jabotinsky, Ze’ev. The Iron Wall. http://www.marxists.de/middleast/ironwall/ironwall.htm
*Please note, there are various translations of Jabotinsky’s Iron Wall. I hope the reader will forgive any disparities in the semantics of this version and others.
Latest posts by Alex Green (see all)
- Expect the worst, hope for the best - January 24, 2013
- The Occupied Territories: What does it all mean? - October 30, 2012
- Abstract for upcoming article: “The Occupied Territories” - October 23, 2012