Earlier this month, Israel paid tribute — a sinister tribute to be exact, but tribute nevertheless — to the consummate sway of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement, the global campaign that in 2005 began to promote an outright shunning of that entity’s institutions and products, when it detained a 22-year-old American student of Palestinian descent at Ben Gurion Airport and threatened to deport her.
The student, Lara Al Qasem, who was incarcerated for two weeks after she landed there (on her way to Hebrew University to begin a graduate course on Human Rights and Transitional Justice) hardly fits the profile of a BDS agitator, having been the president of the University of Florida’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, which had only 13 members. But the Knesset last year enacted a law that bans individuals connected with the movement from visiting Israel — including American Jews. Last August, for example, Peter Beinart, a celebrated Jewish American author and former editor of The New Republic, was detained at the same airport and questioned by Shin Bet after he arrived there for a private visit. Shin Bet’s beef with the man? Beinart had expressed support for boycotting products manufactured by Israeli colonies in the West Bank.
The detention and interrogation of Beinart was the latest in a series of similar incidents targeting not only progressive Jewish Americans, but also Jewish schmucks whose connection to pro-Palestinian activism is non-existent. At the time of Beinart’s detention, and marvelling at the lunatic extremes to which Israeli authorities would go to prevent anyone from even thinking about Palestinians rights, Ha’aretz, the liberal Israeli daily, wrote: “A Jewish American philanthropist who donated millions to Israeli hospitals and schools was interrogated because security at Ben Gurion airport found a booklet about Palestine in his suitcase”.
“Last week,” the Ha’aretz piece continued, “two left-wing Jewish American activists were detained for three hours at the border crossing between Israel and Egypt. One of the activists, Simone Zimmerman, who is one of the founding members of the anti-occupation group, If Not Now, claimed she was interrogated about her political opinions of the [BDS] movement.”
Why all the paranoia?
Some analysts advance the facile explanation that the aim of preventing liberal activists, Jews or non-Jews, from entering Israel is “preventive, not punitive”, since the government fears that these folks will visit the occupied Palestinian territories, and thus get to see for themselves the horrors that Palestinians living there under the rule of the gun daily endure in their lives — horrors which government policy has been consistent about denying, explaining away or concealing from the outside world.
Facile indeed. The root cause of the paranoia derives not from enemies without, but from demons within — demons in the Israelis’ archetypal consciousness and historical experience — representing existential fears of collective annihilation, of pogroms, of Kristallnachts, of gas chambers, of frenzied packs outside the shtetls, centuries-old fears harking back to Jews’ encounters with anti-Semitic rage in Europe, fears that to this day so bedevil contemporary Jews’ mindset that they have divided the world around them, improbably, illogically, into one inhabited by ‘Jews’ and another by ‘Gentiles’. And Palestinians, at this time in history, are an existential threat by their mere presence in Palestine. In May 2009, for example, Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the US, wrote in Commentary, a magazine founded by the American Jewish Committee in 1945, in which he defined “the Arab demographic threat” as being one of “several existential threats facing Israel”.
While we’re talking here about “existential threats” (a recent term in the lexicon born out of cliche), let us talk about the existential underpinnings of Israelis’ perception of their place in our own part of the world, which can be summed up in what Simon Rawidow, the well-known Jewish American scholar, said about the subject. “The world has many images of Israel,” he wrote, “but Israel has only one image of itself: that of an expiring people, forever on the verge of ceasing to be.” This primordial fear of death is, for Israel, a driving force that, for those afflicted with it, favours violent solutions to conflict, increases opposition to concessions for peace, relaxes one’s moral restraints when one robs, oppresses and kills, and reinforces one’s pursuit of the will-to-power. Though when we think of Israel we think of a bellicose, militaristic entity, the fact is that Israel is inhabited by a people afraid of their own shadow.
The reason this state of mind dominates the Israeli psyche — fear of death, fear of extinction, fear of life itself — despite the fact that Israel is the strongest military power this side of Nato, bristling with deadly weapons, is that, as Roger Cohen, the New York Times columnist wrote in October 2009, “Israel does not see itself as normal, rather it lives in a perpetual state of ‘exceptionalism’, a deep-seated existential fear of annihilation psychosis”. It will take as long, I say, for Israeli Jews to liberate themselves of that psychosis as had taken their European forebears — from whom they had inherited it — to become saddled with it. And that, folks, is a long, long time.
Israel will continue to seek being a mimetic state, much in the manner, in their colonial heyday, of Rhodesia, apartheid South Africa, Portuguese Mozambique and French Algeria, “a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism”, as Theodor Herzl, ‘the spiritual father of the Jewish state’, put it in his book, Judenstaat (1896), describing what the Zionist experiment in Palestine was meant to be all about — a pathetic heap of racist whimsy reviled by the entire world for its, well, embrace of barbarism and rejection of civilisation.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of ‘The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile’.