What Are You Proud of When You Think of the State of Israel?

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Protesters waving the Israeli flag during a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, July 2020.
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

A group of Palestinian laborers leaned on the felled trees that were dragged like corpses by a tractor, and sawed down the trunks into small logs. The first light was rising over the fields north of Tel Aviv. Only a few hundred meters from there, a luxury neighborhood was still asleep; the noise from the saws and the smoke had not penetrated the double windows of the elegant villas.

The workers in their worn and tattered clothing were working without any kind of protective equipment. They had left their homes in the West Bank in the middle of the night and gone through the humiliating checkpoints to cut down the trees along the Ayalon Highway, where a new lane is being built for the jammed road. Those traveling on the highway didn’t even spare a glance for the workers who will be making their journey easier in the future. That’s the natural order of things – Palestinians as the woodcutters for the Jews.

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They worked like that under the blazing sun the entire day. The Jewish contractor sat in the shade, supervising from afar. The sight recalled scenes of slavery in the United States, or of apartheid in South Africa; the upscale neighborhood in the background, the Jewish contractor, the Palestinian laborers, the starvation wages, the return to the Bantustan in the evening; in a white sea, a group of blacks does the picking.

Hours later, agreements were signed in Washington between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. One mustn’t underestimate their value or discount their importance, nor skimp on compliments to the prime minister for achieving them. They have advanced Israel’s acceptance in the region, after years in which Israel turned its back, and its weapons, in its direction. But nothing that was signed in Washington will change the reality of the field of felled trees north of Tel Aviv. The tyranny, exploitation and dispossession will remain as they were.

The agreements were signed on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. That’s a great time to ask: What are you proud of when you think of the State of Israel? What of everything that they told us in our childhood and taught us during adolescence remains to take pride in?

Israelis like to complain about their country, but are still very proud of it. Their pride, which very quickly turns into arrogance, is especially marked when they visit other countries: The Americans are naïve, the Germans are square, the Italians are stupid, the Chinese are weird, Scandinavians are suckers, Arabs are backward and Africans are primitive. Israel is tops. One can’t help but encounter the condescension, especially among the young people, on every trek in South America and in every Chabad House in Asia. It is born at home and nurtured in school and in the army. We’re the best. There’s nobody like us. It’s one of the greatest obstacles to achieving peace in the region.

Reality ought to have made every Israeli ashamed of their country – because of the occupation, but that’s not all. The violence on the road and on the sidewalk, the aggression, the ignorance, the racism, the ultra-nationalism, the boorishness, the collapsing health system, the army that’s heroic primarily against the weak and built on moral rot, the lack of consideration for others in all realms of life, and now the disgraceful handling of the coronavirus crisis. But wonder of wonders, Israelis are still convinced that they’re the best. The start-up nation. Start-up of what, exactly? Drip irrigation?

The miraculous founding of the state, which was an unparalleled, remarkable event, even if based on an integral and profound injustice, did indeed justify sky-high national pride. In the front of the bus carrying the youth delegation I was part of in the late 1960s, we waved the Israeli flag proudly. Nowadays in many of those countries one sometimes has to hide anything that identifies one as Israeli, out of shame.

We can and should be proud of our prime minister, who stood alongside the president of the United States and two Arab foreign ministers on the south lawn of the White House. But as long as the victims of Zionism and the occupation continue to cut down trees for us in another field, there’s no real reason for pride.

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