In Tel Aviv, the windows of tall office buildings blaze all night long, conspicuously consuming. The brightest lights of Jerusalem, during Chanukah week, were those of a huge electric candelabrum at the city’s gate: an expense for which the municipality, dominated by religious factions, was much criticised – the holy city is notoriously the poorest in the country. On the Tel Aviv seashore, private yachts share the sea with armed patrols. ‘Lady, you’re in a closed military zone,’ a guard mutters, when I stray beyond an elegant new marina. In shabby downtown Jerusalem, by contrast, there are two guards for every bus: one at the stop, one on the bus itself. Many restaurants have barricades around them, and there is airport-style security at the Western Wall plaza, with separate entrances for women and men. Tel Aviv is Israel’s pleasure-loving seaside, Jerusalem its austere, clerical face; Tel Aviv the ‘normal’ city, Jerusalem the disputed, divided heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict – the contrast between them is ever more striking. Despite the presence of that secular powerhouse, the Hebrew University, religious orthodoxy rules in Jerusalem, and young ‘secular’ Israelis are deserting the city in droves. These are not just two different cities; they are two different Israels.

A desperate longing for ‘normality’ exists alongside stern reminders, from the new ideologues of the right, of Israel’s unique and embattled destiny. The word ‘normality’ itself (transliterated: it has no exact Hebrew equivalent) appears again and again, in articles, talks, new journals, signifying political compromise, a more relaxed way of life, cultural openness. At the same time, the right-wing education minister, Limor Livnat, has been proposing to assign high-ranking army officers to every secondary school to encourage ‘military motivation’. Outraged, more than five hundred school and university teachers signed an open letter arguing that ‘Israel’s children deserve to be educated in an environment which encourages civic values of peace and brotherhood.’ Nonetheless the Knesset’s education committee has just accepted Livnat’s plan.

The president of the Hebrew University, Menahem Magidor, has proposed privatising university education as a way of escaping government control, hoping to get by instead with loans and scholarships. This would inevitably produce a dramatic rise in student fees, which at present are very low, while government loans would themselves provide opportunity for intervention. In the meantime the Ministry of Education is debating whether to force the orthodox schools, which receive taxpayers’ money, to adopt a minimum ‘secular’ curriculum, and to deny support to extreme sectarian schools. It may not be accidental that this is happening at a time when the settlement ethos, like the place of religion in Israeli society, is being re-evaluated. A left-wing agronomist I know, playing devil’s advocate, argued that ‘Zionism was always about expansion – acre after acre, kilometre after kilometre, wherever we could.’ In other words, the settlers of the land conquered in 1967 were doing no more than taking the Zionist ethos to its logical conclusion. By the same token, the extreme orthodox are to many the most ‘authentically Jewish’ Israelis. This explains successive governments’ tolerance of the wildcat settlements as well as the support all Israelis are forced to give the orthodox community.

It is not difficult to understand the longing for normality. Three years of intifada, and now the imminent disengagement from Gaza, affect different parts of the country, and different groups, in different ways, but the tensions are everywhere. Israelis live on a political switchback: from fear of annihilation before the Six Day War to intoxicated victory after it; from military arrogance before the Yom Kippur War to deep insecurity after it; from dismissal of the Palestinians as a political force before the two intifadas to fear of their terrorist potential since their outbreak. The current nightmare is of armed clashes between the army and the more fanatical of the Gaza settlers when the evacuation begins – scarcely civil war, but a threat of rebellion unknown since the sinking in 1948 of the Altalena, the right-wing arms ship, on Ben Gurion’s orders. For his (belatedly) uncompromising stand on Gaza, Ariel Sharon, until recently a hate figure for Israeli liberals, is now called a ‘Mapainik’ – a pragmatic and forceful leader in the Ben Gurion mould. But political life today is different from what it was under the old, socialist hegemony, when politicians held regular discussions (sometimes confrontations) with intellectuals. Few of Israel’s intellectuals are today actively involved in politics, apart from signing letters of protest.

That most of the country’s intellectuals are liberals disturbs the politically dominant right wing: so much so that a few years ago Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon’s potential successor, set up the Shalem Centre, a neo-con foundation funded by, among others, Ron Lauder, the American cosmetics millionaire. Shalem’s quarterly, Tchelet (‘Azure’ – because blue and white are the colours of the flag), purports to mirror ‘the latest cultural and intellectual trends in the Jewish world’ but is actually a mouthpiece for the right. The first issue asserted that Zionist ideology had given way to a ‘post-Zionism’ that ‘sanctifies disempowerment’, and attacked the Oslo Accords and negotiations over the ‘ancient Jewish cities of Hebron and Bethlehem’ – centres of the Arab West Bank – and ‘Shilo and Jerusalem’. Israel, the editors said, was sliding into a bitter cultural war, the result of an ‘empty desire for normality’ and ‘the calamity of forgetting Jewish history’. Too many Israeli intellectuals were ‘wrecking the basic faith of the Israeli public in its own history and replacing the nationalist agenda with the world view of the European New Left (think of John Lennon)’. Their targets included Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, who were criticised for peopling their work with neurotic characters; leading artists, for following cosmopolitan fashion; educationalists, for the decline in the teaching of the Bible, the Talmud and Jewish history in schools; and the then attorney general, Yitzhak Zamir, for his ‘campaign’ against the notoriously racist Meir Kahane (whose party was later outlawed).

It would be easy to rubbish the journal, with its strange roster of contributors (obscure journalists and the odd advertising copywriter), were it not for the participation of the historians Yehoshua Porath and Robert Wistrich, and, most surprisingly, the civil rights activist and professor of law Ruth Gavison. One of Gavison’s two essays proposes introducing an American-style constitution; the other reassesses the legitimacy of the Jewish state, which she now believes is questioned not only by foreign critics and Israeli Arabs (whose civil rights she has consistently defended) but by many liberal Israelis. This second article carried a disclaimer by the editors – presumably because it included criticism of the occupation of the West Bank and Israel’s policies there. What makes it interesting is Gavison’s clear disquiet at the views of those Israelis who ‘knowingly or not’ are ‘assisting efforts to turn Israel into a neutral, liberal state’ or ‘a state for all its citizens’. Gavison puts the case for an unapologetically nationalist Jewish state, but one which nonetheless recognises the civil rights of its non-Jewish citizens.

Meron Benvenisti, who studied the fate of the Arab villages in former Palestine in a book translated as Sacred Landscape, believes that an Israeli-Palestinian binational state will inevitably emerge within the next twenty or thirty years. The Palestinian elections, he told me, were a fiction, votes for a ‘rais’ who would have no power, a view shared by many Palestinian intellectuals. The Israelis, he said, were struggling with an identity crisis: their belief in a secular, ‘Canaanite’ existence is in shreds, and they are uncertain of their relationship with the Jews of the Diaspora. Israel was afraid of annexing the Territories, with their huge Arab population, but could not let them go; the Palestinians were desperate enough to agree to a binational state within which they could erode Jewish domination. Ethnic cantons might solve the problem of representation, with Jerusalem as a federal city, while the refugees would be resettled in the other Arab states.

The result of the Palestinian elections (moderate vote, low turnout) has raised few hopes on either side. Abbas is unlikely to be able to restrain the militants; Sharon’s aim clearly remains maximum territory, minimum number of Palestinians under Israeli rule. On the Israeli side, anxiety seems to be increasing that the Palestinian problem is complicating Israel’s relationship with the Jews of the Diaspora. Another new journal, Eretz Acheret (‘Another Country’), in part financed by Jewish organisations abroad, and moderate in outlook, has devoted recent issues to relations between Israel and the Diaspora and the ideological conflicts between settlers and the rest. An issue entitled ‘Against Normality’ examines Israel’s increasingly problematic relationship with world Jewry: ‘problematic’ especially for Jews in the United States puzzled by ‘secular’ Israelis, and for others uncomfortable with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. In the view of the journal’s contributors, Israel cannot be a ‘normal’ country in the Western sense because its destiny is so intricately bound up with that of the Diaspora.

Gideon Aran, a Hebrew University social anthropologist who has made a special study of religious fundamentalism in Israel and the Middle East as a whole, envisages a return to more ‘normative’ Judaism in Israel after the ‘messianic’ extremism of the last few decades. He is also less pessimistic than most about the likelihood that the militant settlers will use violence when evacuated, despite all their rhetoric about the sanctity of the Land of Israel. The toxic blend of nationalism and religion, he pointed out to me, is Ashkenazi, European: the old Sefardi, Oriental communities practised a family-based, traditional Judaism, without an aggressive ideology. ‘Our hope,’ he concludes sardonically, ‘is the Russians’ – few of them are religious – ‘and the Sefardi Jews.’

Ideological tensions are highest in Jerusalem: the Negev, Israel’s southern desert region, which amounts to 60 per cent of its total (pre-1967) territory, has more ‘normal’ preoccupations, ecological and environmental – a result of the rapid growth of chemical industries there, the proximity of many settlements to the toxic waste disposal facility at Ramat Chovev, and the fast development now envisioned for this underpopulated part of the country. Its only Arab residents are the Bedouin – at least half of whom live on disputed land and so enjoy no municipal services – who serve in the Israeli army and expect better treatment. Those who live in the Negev are both hopeful and apprehensive about the spurt of growth expected to follow the withdrawal of thousands of settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

Omer, a Beersheba satellite town, was once a farming settlement (moshav) of near destitute North African Jews, but with the arrival of agronomists and other professional Israelis it became a model garden city. Sidney Loeb, a retired professor of chemical engineering, was one of the inventors of practical reverse osmosis, the process by which pure water can be produced from saline in drought-prone areas. All the drinking water in Israel’s Red Sea port of Eilat today undergoes this process, and Loeb deplores the sale of ‘spring’ bottled water, which he says is about a thousand times more expensive to produce. His wife, Mickey, was one of Beersheba’s first psychiatric social workers, dealing with some of the most diverse and troubled immigrant communities in the postwar Jewish world. Their pride in the Negev reminded me of all the pioneering social and scientific work for which Israel – before its disastrous occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – was celebrated. If part of the Negev is set aside, as planned, for those evacuated settlers, the desert could be the scene, as it has been before, of a fresh Israeli start.

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