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The Wall

How despair is transforming Israel.

Jerusalem, Israel

"The world hates us and always will," a neighbor said to me on the stairs before wishing me a good day. "What more do you need than the Holocaust?" He is Sephardi, without familial memory of Europe; but the bitter, new mood of besieged Israel has penetrated everywhere. In a full-page newspaper ad urging Israelis to boycott European nations that now refuse to sell Israel military equipment, employees of the country's military industry wrote, "In the moments of truth, we learn yet again that we can only rely on ourselves." Even the left isn't immune from the growing sense of siege. In a recent interview, the liberal novelist Amos Oz confessed he's haunted by his father's observation that, before the Holocaust, European graffiti read, "JEWS TO PALESTINE," only to be transformed in our time into, "JEWS OUT OF PALESTINE." The message to Jews, noted Oz: "Don't be here and don't be there. That is, don't be."

While international concern is focusing on the physical wall, along the length of the West Bank, that Israel is now building to ward off suicide bombers, Israelis have been increasingly concerned about the invisible wall of isolation that is rising between the Jewish state and much of the world. Israelis haven't felt so alone since the mid-'70s, when the United Nations declared that Zionism equaled racism and when more nations maintained diplomatic relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) than with the Jewish state. The eagerness with which most of the world adopted the Palestinian account of the Camp David talks and dismissed Israel's previously unimaginable concessions as irrelevant; the U.N.'s obsessive search for a nonexistent massacre in Jenin even as it ignores the massacres of Israelis; Europe's growing sympathy for suicide killers and its simplistic reduction of the conflict to occupation; anti-Zionism's emergence, since the Durban anti-racism conference, as a defining feature of the anti-globalization movement; the application of traditional Christian anti-Jewish imagery to the Palestinian conflict (like the new mural in a Scottish church depicting a crucified Jesus surrounded by Israeli soldiers)--all have convinced many Israelis that collective Jewish existence is again on probation. Last year, after the collapse of the Camp David talks and the renewal of anti-Jewish frenzy in the Arab world, Israelis began to suspect that the Middle East might never accept a Jewish state, no matter what its borders. After all, denial of the most basic elements of the Jewish story--from the biblical connection to the land of Israel to the existence of the gas chambers--has become routine in much of the Arab world. But in the last few months Israeli despair has broadened. Israelis now fear not only that they will never be accepted in the Middle East, but also that they will never be accepted in the world at large.

Along with returning the Jews to their land, a key Zionist goal was returning the Jews to the community of nations. Addressing the U.N. General Assembly in 1949, Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett declared that Israel's admission into the world body was "the consummation of a people's transition ... from exclusion to membership in the family of nations."

But today Israelis fear the transition is happening in reverse. "The suspicion slips into the heart that maybe the ultra-Orthodox were right when they warned that a sovereign state for Jews would annoy the nations and bring annihilation on the remnant of the Jewish people," wrote Peggy Cidor, a former left-wing activist, in Kol Hazman, a secular Jerusalem newspaper. "The state of Israel, which was intended to give the Jews an entry ticket into the family of nations, didn't deliver the goods. We're still being judged by separate standards; there is still no proportion between our actions and the responses around the world.... It was nice to feel like everyone else for a while, but that seems to be over.... The state of Israel has turned into the 'Jew' of the nations."

That last phrase--among the bitterest ever written by a Zionist--was first used by the late Israeli scholar of intellectual history J.L. Talmon in an essay in The New Republic, written in 1976 in response to the "Zionism=Racism" resolution. Now, though, the bitterness may run even deeper, precisely because many Israelis believed international stigmatization of the Jewish state had ended. In the 1990s Israel seemed to finally be realizing the old Zionist dream of normalization; Jews would be neither chosen, nor outcast, but simply a nation among nations. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United Nations in 1991 rescinded the Zionism=Racism resolution, and key nations--including India, China, and the entire former Soviet bloc--resumed relations with the Jewish state. Israelis reciprocated, tempering their defiant independence with a sense of global interdependence. With far greater enthusiasm than in the past, they joined international relief efforts, raising funds for Somali famine victims and Turkish earthquake survivors. The Israeli press even debated whether the Israeli army should participate in international peacekeeping missions. A new prosperity allowed Israelis to become travelers. Tens of thousands of young Israelis participated in the post-army ritual of backpacking in India, and Indian spirituality came to influence Israeli popular culture. In their new identification with far-off places, Israelis displayed a new embrace of the world.

At times Israelis revealed an overeager provincialness, as in 1993 when the local media turned the opening of the country's first McDonald's into a major cultural event. Still, as the world opened up for Israelis, their sense of permanent ostracism began to recede. Many quietly stopped using the ugly word "goy" to describe gentiles or stopped referring to the nations outside Israel as "the world," as if Jews inhabited a separate planet. After the 1982 Sabra and Shatilla massacre, says Aharon Klieman, professor of diplomacy at Tel Aviv University, former Prime Minster Menachem Begin dismissed criticism of Israel by noting, "Goyim kill goyim, and they blame the Jews." "Can you imagine Rabin or even Sharon using the word 'goyim'?" asks Klieman. "Israelis learned to make distinctions among nations." Yitzhak Rabin caught the new ethos in his inaugural speech as prime minister in 1992: "No longer is it true that `the whole world is against us,'" he declared. "We must overcome the sense of isolation that has held us in its thrall for almost half a century. We must join the international movement for peace, reconciliation, and cooperation that is spreading over the entire globe these days--lest we be the last to remain, all alone in the station." Israelis were adopting a new national vision; the millennia-old dynamic of Jewish separatism and gentile ostracism seemed about to end.

But now the world is closing up again. I know Israelis who hesitate to write their home address on their luggage when they travel to Europe. When some Norwegian supermarket chains recently announced plans to mark Israeli products so customers could consider boycotting them, a spokesman for the normally understated Israeli Foreign Ministry caustically suggested that the chains use yellow stars. Increasingly, Israelis and the rest of humanity are speaking mutually unintelligible languages of moral outrage. Liberal-minded foreigners can't understand how Israelis elected Ariel Sharon, and many have taken his election as license to view every Israeli act of self-defense as aggression. Israelis can't understand how the world has forgotten the circumstances that produced Sharon's election: Yasir Arafat's terrorist war, launched in September 2000, against the most left-wing government in Israel's history.

The last time Israelis felt this besieged, in the mid-'70s during Zionism=Racism and the widespread severing of diplomatic ties that followed the Yom Kippur War and the Arab oil boycott, the political and social consequences were formidable. In 1977 a right-wing coalition of outsiders, led by Begin, unseated the Labor Party, which since Israel's founding had never lost a national election. The settlement movement, which until the 1973 Yom Kippur War had moved only a few thousand Jews into the West Bank, became an irresistible popular force, luring tens of thousands of Israelis with the promise of cheap, abundant housing and territorial annexation. A back-to-religion movement, attracting some of the country's leading artists and bohemian symbols, emboldened the ultra-Orthodox, who established yeshivas aimed at secular Israelis and grew increasingly aggressive in promoting religious legislation and won massive government subsidies for their insular communities.

True, those trends were directly influenced by factors that had nothing to do with Israel's diplomatic isolation. The Yom Kippur War, Labor Party corruption, Sephardi resentment of Ashkenazi hegemony--all boosted the settlement and back-to-religion movements and especially the Likud Party. Still, it's no coincidence that those three movements shared a contempt for the judgment of the outside world. The seeming failure of Zionism's experiment in normalizing Jewish relations with the world was the incubator in which isolationist movements grew. In the atmosphere of late '70s ghetto Israel, it somehow made sense that the prime minister was a Holocaust refugee whose passion was taunting Europe's leaders as anti-Semites and that Uri Zohar, the country's leading satirical filmmaker and symbol of the Tel Aviv beach culture, would suddenly appear on television wearing a yarmulke.

The settlement and back-to-religion movements have been called a "counterrevolution" against the Zionist vision of integration with the nations. The impact on Israeli Judaism has been particularly devastating. The settlement movement created self-ghettoized West Bank communities where religious stringency became the norm, driving many "modern Orthodox" Jews closer to ultra-Orthodoxy. Even worse, back-to-religion yeshivas transformed a tolerant Sephardi Judaism into a mimicry of Eastern European ultra-Orthodoxy. The most extreme example of this cultural climate was the transformation of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane from political militant into theological racist. Kahane had moved to Israel in 1971 and created a tiny far-right movement that advocated encouraging Israel's Arabs to voluntarily resettle abroad. But after the Yom Kippur War and Israel's growing international isolation, Kahane embraced religious fundamentalism and a policy of forced mass expulsion. Only by adopting anti-Arab policies that would transform Israel into a pariah state, he preached, would Jews prove their contempt for the nations and their trust in God. For Kahane, expelling Israel's Arabs wasn't so much a political as a religious strategy--a crazed bid to push the Jews into a splendid isolation in which they depended on God alone for their salvation. Kahane was a reminder that the great Jewish fear--an incurable otherness--is also a great temptation. And after a hiatus, that temptation is back.

The more that Israelis are treated as pariahs, the greater their tendency toward recklessness. The Likud's recent, self-defeating vote against a Palestinian state wasn't just a political stance but an expression of contempt for the world's judgment of Israel. And one friend, a veteran critic of the occupation, said to me with a terrible casualness, "If the world can't find space for a sliver of a Jewish state, then the world doesn't have the right to exist. And if it blows up because of a nuclear war in the Middle East, maybe that's poetic justice."

One tangible warning is the growing support for transfer of Palestinians from the territories. For now that support is a reflexive reaction to terrorism, not a program. But if Israel's isolation grows, so will the temptation toward extreme, repellent solutions. Earlier this year the National Religious Party (NRP) elected as its new leader a just-retired career combat officer named Effie Eitam. The NRP has long been a mainstay of the settlement movement, but until now it was careful to avoid extremist proclamations that would banish it to the political periphery. In the past, NRP leaders tempered their hard-line politics with compassion, as when the late NRP leader Zevulun Hammer called for a commission of inquiry into the 1982 Sabra and Shatilla massacre. Even Yitzhak Levy, Eitam's immediate predecessor and a rigid ideologue, was careful to repudiate transfer. Eitam, though, is the first NRP leader to flirt with mass expulsion. And Eitam's theological message--that the Jews are a divine people operating beyond normal rules and that the gentile nations matter only as passive recipients for Israel's spiritual greatness--offers a seductive justification for radical policies like transfer that would place the Jewish state outside international norms.

A benign or at least neutral international climate is a key precondition for Israeli willingness to take risks for peace. Though it's widely assumed that the Oslo process restored Israel's diplomatic standing, the sequence of events was actually the opposite. Only after the former Soviet bloc, China, India, and much of the Third World renewed diplomatic relations with Israel in the early '90s, following the Gulf war and the collapse of the Soviet Union, did Israel feel safe enough to begin negotiating with the PLO. The Madrid Peace Conference, precursor to the Oslo process, occurred at the beginning of a new era of reconciliation between Israel and the international community. Now, though, that era has ended. Almost every day the Israeli papers report another attempt to transform Israel into a pariah state--like the recent statement by Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lind accusing Israel of war crimes. Israel's attorney general, Elyakim Rubenstein, has warned that the new international criminal court about to open in the Hague could begin targeting Israelis for supposed war crimes, including the mere act of moving to a settlement or even a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem. In the current atmosphere, it's ludicrous to assume the Israeli public will feel safe enough to consider returning to the concessions offered by Ehud Barak, let alone the concessions envisioned by the Saudi plan. Barak himself has declared his Camp David offer irrelevant.

In the ongoing if temporarily muted culture war between ultra-Orthodox isolationists and Israelis who embrace the outside world, the burden of proof has shifted to the normalizers. "You might as well oppose the law of gravity," an ultra-Orthodox friend said to me, referring to those of us who believe gentile hatred of Jews is not immutable. While it's too early to see an increase in ultra-Orthodox ranks, the growing hatred of Israel around the world emboldens our theologians of despair.

Crucial to the ultra-Orthodox worldview is that secular Zionism was a false messianism, promoting the absurd idea that the nations would welcome a Jewish state into their club. And so the fact that Israel is the target of more hostile U.N. resolutions than all other countries combined isn't only a political crisis, but also a theological one. Why, indeed, has the state of the Jews, the very instrument intended to end ostracism, become the Jew of the states? The answer is happily provided by dozens of ultra-Orthodox pirate radio stations operating throughout the country and drawing tens of thousands of listeners. Soft-spoken rabbis offer the beguiling message of Jewish chosenness, an exalted otherness. The word "goy" is constantly evoked, as is this despairing rabbinic quote: "Esau hates Jacob"--that is, it's a law of nature that Esau the gentile hates Jacob the Jew. Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak, a secularist turned ultra-Orthodox preacher who draws packed crowds with his insider's mockery of secular culture, maintains a website that has tracked the world's latest anti-Jewish outbursts--ongoing proof of Zionism's failure to normalize Jewish fate.

"The Israeli debate about our place among the nations is essentially reduced to two alternative worldviews," explains Klieman. "The first is the isolationist position of am l'vad yishkon, a nation that dwells alone. The second is a nation like all others. That's the position of the younger generation, but it's fluid. If Israelis feel they're being given their day in court, they lean toward integrationism. But when they get slapped down, they recoil behind a protective shield. And that's where we are now."

The growing pessimism threatens Zionism's great psychological achievement: protecting the Jews from a fatal, post-Holocaust bitterness. Israel's founding preempted a massive Jewish rejection of the world, allowing survivors to turn rage into reconstruction. Israel even forced the Jews to make their peace with Europe. When David Ben-Gurion negotiated the German reparations agreement in the early '50s, resisting the violent opposition led by Begin, he compelled Israelis to choose pragmatism over history. But that choice should not be taken for granted. Perhaps the Holocaust's deepest long-term wound on the Jewish psyche isn't the actions of the murderers but the passivity of the onlookers. Jews must continually resist the suspicion that even the enlightened world cares little for their survival. The consequences--political, social, and theological--of feeding that suspicion could be shattering.

Most Israelis, of course, still realize that "the world" doesn't hate the Jews. Even now, says Klieman, many Israelis insist on distinctions within the Arab world, let alone the world generally: "We still speak of Egypt and Syria rather than 'the Arabs.'" The expansiveness of the '90s remains imprinted on the Israeli psyche and won't be easily forfeited. That's why Israelis seize on every sign of support from abroad. A recent pro-Israel demonstration in Rome, for example, received more coverage in the Israeli press than far larger demonstrations by American Jews, precisely because most of the participants in the Italian protest were reported to have been non-Jews.

Most of all, it's American support that keeps Israelis from total despair. The United States is the great exception that doesn't prove the rule. It challenges the subversive Jewish voice that whispers, "Don't trust the goyim; at the moment of truth, they'll betray you." Israelis know that in moments of truth, the United States has stood with them and presumably will do so again. President George W. Bush's tacit endorsement, in his Rose Garden speech this week, of Sharon's strategy--denying Arafat's terrorist war any political gain--has reinforced Israeli faith in the United States.

Israel's psychological struggle is between the optimism of the '90s and the despair of the '70s. International detractors who turn every Israeli act of war into a war crime and subject the Jewish state to a level of moral judgment not applied to any other nation are inciting the very hard-line forces they deplore. Effie Eitam and Amnon Yitzhak have no better recruiters than Kofi Annan and Javier Solana. Those Israelis who cling to Zionism's promise and insist on remaining part of the world are fighting for their lives.