A year and a half ago, a new highway interchange was inaugurated in Jerusalem, to great ceremony. Like most interchanges, it was meant to circumvent, and thereby speed up, traffic, and the process by which its name was decided certainly expressed an accelerated detour: It is named for Benzion Netanyahu, who had died at a ripe old age just half a year earlier. Protocol calls for waiting at least three years after the death of a namesake before naming a road after him or her.
The authorities also bent another regulation for the benefit of the incumbent prime minister. At his request, the interchange was for some reason called “Benzion Netanyahu,” though by the conventions of standard Hebrew grammar the first name should have been written as “Ben-Zion.” Yehuda Ziv, a member of the municipal advisory committee, protested vehemently, warning that in the future other families would ask to have streets named after their loved ones’ nicknames, such as Shmulik rather than Shmuel. But to no avail.
An inscription on the rock bearing the junction’s name describes Benzion Netanyahu as a “preeminent historian.” It’s just too bad he specialized in the history of the Jews of Spain, rather than the contemporary era. Had he done so, perhaps we would have been able to see clearly the direction in which he was leading the inhabitants of the Land of Israel — toward 1929, a violent, unbridled national struggle led by irresponsible extremists, inflamed by populist rhetoric, fed by existential fears, erupting along the “seam lines” between the Jewish and Arab populations, threatening to get out of control when combined with religion, striking innocents indiscriminately.
This might not surprise historian Hillel Cohen, who in his book “1929: Year Zero of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” (Hebrew only) argued that it’s impossible to understand relations between Jews and Arabs in the Land of Israel without understanding the silenced and unresolved drama of 1929. Cohen’s thesis is that the conflict did not begin in 1967 or even in 1948, but in 1929. This is likely to come as a surprise to those who have become accustomed to think the tribal gang war could be replaced by sovereign diplomatic agreements, however shaky and problematic, in order to make coexistence possible.
But the events of the last few months resonate of 1929 from every corner: the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, Hebron, Gaza, Jerusalem. Jaffa’s turn will surely come soon. Murderous violence, blood feuds, divisiveness and incitement. The familiar border lines are swiftly being erased. The 1967 Green Line never really existed as a proper border; the occupation and the settlement enterprise prevented it from becoming one. Now, the 1948 borders are being blurred — not only geographically, but with regard to fundamental principles.
The Declaration of Independence is being replaced by the Jewish nation-state bill. Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and Old City are becoming theaters of conflict; the soccer stadium in Sakhnin is becoming a battlefield between the Israeli and Palestinian flags. Calls to boycott Arab shops and stop employing Arab workers are proliferating. The Ashkelon municipality is firing Arab employees.
Ashkelon is on the map in other ways, too: A high-school teacher sent students a picture of a Muslim cemetery on WhatsApp captioned, “It’s important to remember that there are also good Arabs, and they can be found here.” He later apologized, explaining that he meant to send the message to a different group.
Presiding over this whole terrible tumult, with irresponsibility and atrocious leadership, is former U.S. citizen Benjamin Nitay (as the prime minister called himself when he lived in the United States). He and his failed, reckless government, which was established and is being maintained with the help of 25 Knesset seats borrowed from the ostensibly sane silent majority. The government of the Habayit Hayehudi party, which has forged a tightening alliance of shared interests with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Movement, with the goal of returning us to 1929.
History never repeats itself exactly. This time, there are no British here to impose order, and the potential for bloodshed and harm is much greater. Only one thing hasn’t changed: Two peoples have been sentenced to live — and to die — between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.