Doves of peace (illustration)
Peace became a busy and buzzing beehive, preoccupied with discussions about the morality or immorality of the country. Photo by Haaretz
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A few years ago I got to know a “mixed” couple (he is Israeli, she’s American). Everybody, including myself, liked the man, who seemed to be a highly moral human being. Around dinner tables, he used to speak frequently about moral problems, just and unjust wars, politicians with and without integrity, redistributive justice for the poor. He had studied courses at university on “moral philosophy,” “justice” and “fairness,” and seemed to spend, in general, a great deal of his thinking on questions of equality and patriotic duty. He not only liked discussing moral topics, he also avoided all gossip, thus projecting a rare aura of trustworthiness. He was a moral man.

Yet, while I respected the husband, it was his wife who became my friend. She had a sarcastic sense of self-irony and displayed, beyond her assertiveness, a likable vulnerability. With time and the bond of our friendship growing, I became aware she was unhappy: Her husband, she said, spent very little time with her and the children; he resented trips to the grocery store, never cleaned, folded laundry, changed a light bulb or cooked. He was always busy at work, where he stayed long after everyone else had gone to their homes and children, frequently spending Fridays and holidays in an empty building, in his office.

His wife had other reasons to feel unhappy. Her husband, she confided, rarely gave her marks of love and affection, neither in words nor deeds. Conversations with him quickly turned into a set of moral commands – what she should or should not do. At this point, you will think what I thought to myself for many years but did not dare tell her: “Get a divorce!” But the tragedy of my friend was that she was very confused. Like everyone else, she viewed her husband as deeply moral and loved him for it.

But unlike everyone else, she felt an immense solitude in his presence. Her husband’s morality made her confused, unable to interpret adequately his absence and neglect. Was she to blame? What responsibility did she bear? She could not tell, precisely because her husband was morally impeccable. Our conversations made her more depressed, as she was struggling to make sense of her situation: the man she loved for his moral identity avoided gestures of love and care, presence and support. We increasingly avoided the topic of her marriage altogether, both knowing our conversations did very little to help her find a solution to her predicament. One day, however, her state of confusion morphed into a new and unknown anxiety: her husband – the moral man – announced he was leaving her for another woman. He had been quietly and carefully planning his exit for many months, and after 14 years of marriage left his wife and children in a few short days. When I asked my friend what he said before leaving, she said she could not remember, but was sure he never offered apologies or regret. He was practical about it, she said, and had “reassured” everybody, including their two young daughters, that they would all get over it soon.

This story is not interesting because it is about betrayal (a boring topic for stories). Nor because it is about a bad marriage (for which two people always bear responsibility). Rather, the story is interesting because of the role of morality here: the man’s emotional neglect coexisted with his wife’s and his own belief in his morality, a belief that was never altered by his actions. In fact, after he left his home – and after he witnessed the disorientation and general collapse of his family – he became more, not less, convinced of his own moral path. As he told common friends, he had sacrificed his own comfort for the sake of the truth his wife had not dared act upon. “Courage” was the word he used to characterize his behavior. He further convinced himself of his own morality by using a familiar technique: accusing the other side. It was she who was causing him pain and agony by not letting him have all the access he needed to his children. Whatever he had done, he remained the moral man because he remained oblivious to the path he had himself drawn.

In telling this story, I do not want to point to the discrepancy between the man’s actions and his self-image. Nor do I want to lament – one more time – the role of words in creating a false sense of morality. Instead, I want to point to the role this man’s morality – true or false – played in obscuring the self-awareness of all the protagonists of the story – mostly his wife, who, throughout the years, became paralyzed, confused and depressed because she was unable to align his “morality” with the emotional neglect she experienced. Despite what I assume to have been his many good intentions, the man was oblivious to his own absence and neglect because of, not in spite of, his morality. This man’s morality then obfuscated to him and to his wife the truth of their experience. This story has become my private paradigm to understand the relationship of Israel to peace.

Israel’s self-image

People, like nations, devote a great deal of energy to hold high and lofty images of themselves. Peace, for Israel, has been a crucial aspect of its self-image, to itself and to the world. The longing for peace is one of the most powerful sources of moral identity. At the end of the prayer Jews make a collective wish “that God brings peace to Israel.” Diaspora Jews rarely bore arms as Jews and viewed themselves as victims of others’ violence, not as perpetrators of violence. Historically, peace has been the default option of Jews. Zionism itself, while having colonial aspects, also aimed at peace with the bellicose neighbors. For Jews around the world, Zionism was not only a nationalist project, but a moral one as well.

In fact, Zionism has felt the need to provide endless more proofs of its morality than many nationalist movements: Israel accepted partition, which Arabs had refused; Israel has a democracy; Israel had the only democracy in the Middle East; Israel extended equal rights to its Arab minorities; Israel treated prisoners in a humane way; it made flowers bloom in the desert; it created great socialist utopias; Israel had a moral army. Like my friend’s ex-husband, Israel, in short, has been highly preoccupied with its own morality and has known to give many proofs of it.

Soon after the Six-Day War, Israel became even more like my friend’s ex-husband: the territories became a source of endless moral reflection and discussions. The territories were the moral stain on Israel; getting rid of them became the moral mission of many. More than that: with the difficulty to accomplish what should have been, after all, fairly trivial (giving back or getting rid of the territories), peace became a verbal industry with its own workers on the payroll: peace declarations, peace treaties, peace agendas, peace politics, peace movements, peace organizations, peace international conferences, secret meetings, semi-secret meetings, NGOs devoting training workshops to youths for the sake of peace, high school students meetings, demonstrations in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Peace became a busy and buzzing beehive, preoccupied with discussions about the morality or immorality of the country.

Throughout the years, outstanding moral figures were the moral display-window of peace: Shlomo Ben-Ami, Sami Michael, Uri Avnery, Yael Dayan, Yossi Beilin, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Yossi Sarid, Amoz Oz, Shulamit Aloni, Zahava Gal-On, Gilead Sher – these are only a few names who showed the beautiful and moral conscience of Israel.

The Right wanted a part in this morality and aligned itself with peace: Menachem Begin became the moral compass of Likud because of his commitment to peace. Peace was, thus, not only a foreign policy program, but, more deeply, a moral identity that Israel could proudly display to itself and to the world.

Yet, on the ground, while so many different political groups were busy reaffirming the country’s moral identity, Israel actually engaged in policies of neglect, obliviousness and harsh domination. Israel built settlements; used the Israel Defense Forces to defend settlers against victimized Palestinians; rarely enforced law in the territories; engaged in illegal practices with administrative arrests; seized land; strangulated commerce and economic development; decreed embargoes; created roadblocks breaking apart families and geographical movement; destroyed houses; hurt Palestinian children, women and the elderly; incarcerated a huge number of Palestinian men, let trigger-happy soldiers off the hook; retaliated on Palestinians for wanting to be accepted by the UN or for forming a unity government.

Legitimizing brutality

As with my friend’s ex-husband who could maintain a sense of moral self-righteousness, all the while trampling on almost every standard of moral behavior, Israel has destroyed the lives of Palestinians without doubting fundamentally its own morality. In fact, the more Israel destroyed the fabric of Palestinians’ lives, the more it explained and legitimized its own brutality with lines such as “There is no partner on the other side;” “There is no one to talk to;” “We made unprecedented offers;” “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”; “The Arabs want to destroy us”; “The Arabs are undemocratic”; “Ask any Israeli Arab if they want to go and live in the New Palestine.”

I never talked to my friend’s husband after he left their home, but I am sure he could easily have told me: “I made an unprecedented offer” and “there was no one on the other side.” Moral self-righteousness is crucial to accomplish harsh deeds and to remain blind to their meaning and consequences.

Like my friend’s former husband, Israeli leaders never doubted the legitimacy and necessity of Israel’s actions, since Israel was the naturally born peace lover. Ironically, the moral hyperactivity of the Left helped Israeli leaders maintain a positive image of Israel to the world. A country – like a neglectful husband – can contribute to the collapse of another people and ultimately of its own society, and yet keep its sense of morality intact, because morality can easily become a feeling sustained by discourses, words, university courses, dinner-table discussions, readings and circle of smartly chosen friends whose function is to support one’s choices and actions.

Peace, of course, is a necessary ideal. I am not suggesting we should get rid of it. Of course Israel is more beautiful with rather than without peace movements. I am simply observing that the moral hyperactivity of Israelis has also obfuscated and mitigated the consciousness of the meaning of Israeli domination over an entire people. It has created the same kind of confusion that paralyzed my friend for such a long time. It creates apathy because, after all, “things are not that bad”; after all, “there are worse regimes” and “we are the more moral ones.” Ironically, moral hyperactivity simply makes it more difficult to recognize callousness and harshness for what they are.

And thus Israelis and Jews around the world who support Israel are confused because they cannot align their belief in Israel’s morality with an interpretation of the actual political experience created and denied by Israel. The peace industry has, ironically, kept the belief in Israel’s morality strong, further confusing many outside and inside Israel. Israel has drifted far from the initial vocation of Zionism and has become a moral bully, entrenching itself deeper in the conviction of its own morality, forever transferring the moral responsibility of its actions onto others. Israel’s violence cannot be justified any longer by a logic of war or self-defense. Maybe the time has come to put the moral mask down, and abandon the comfort zones afforded by morality as the mirror in which we can avoid looking at the ugliness of Israeli occupation.

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The articles that appear in this section have also been published in Hebrew and Arabic