Israel’s Relentlessly Growing Illiberalism

Israel’s future: Democracy and territory in the holy land | The Economist

A FEW days back, reflecting on Jeffrey Goldberg’s fears that Israel may at some point choose Judaism over democracy, Kevin Drum called attention to the opening of Benjamin Wallace-Wells’s recent profile of Martin Peretz, the ardently Zionist publisher of the New Republic, who has been living in Israel for several months. Mr Peretz apparently finds that the only part of Israel he still really loves is the cosmopolitan centre of Tel Aviv; he disdains Jerusalem’s religious population and the “super-patriotic” Russian Jews. Mr Drum takes the geographic shrinkage of Israel’s liberal zone to mirror the general political situation: “Israel will finish its transformation into a Jewish Saudi Arabia and even the chimera of peace will disappear. Whether Tel Aviv survives as sort of a semi-tolerated Dubai-like entertainment zone in the middle of a grim and relentless theocracy is anyone’s guess.” Matthew Yglesias thinks this overstates the significance of the “Tel Aviv bubble” phenomenon:

How much does my dad get around in the United States of America? Well, you could chart its perimeter on a map of New York City. It doesn’t include Staten Island. It doesn’t include the Bronx. It doesn’t include Queens. It doesn’t include Brooklyn. It really doesn’t include the Upper West Side, either. There’s a swathe of the city ranging from his apartment on East 79th Street down to the Village where we used to live and where his office is, and that includes the theaters and Madison Square Garden in between. I guess he also goes to Mets games.

There’s a certain parochialism that’s common to cosmopolitan intellectual types in all the major cosmopolitan cities of the world. I’m not sure there’s really anything unusual about Tel Aviv in this regard.

Good point. You might even stretch it further, in a literary rather than empirical mode, and hazard that this kind of parochialism runs particularly strong in New York Jewish culture. There are a huge number of wandering Jews in Manhattan whose wanderings are mainly confined to the area between Columbia University and Zabar’s deli. The famous New Yorker cover in which two blocks of Manhattan dwarf the rest of the country is the work of Saul Steinberg, and there’s something halachic about the boasts commonly made in the old downtown Manhattan scene, before the artistic centre decamped to Brooklyn, regarding the maximum northern latitude to which one would ever deign to travel. (For most, 14th Street was still kosher, but ultra-orthodox hipsters might consider anything above Houston treyf.)

But I also think this too quickly waves away the geographic element of Israel’s relentlessly growing illiberalism. For a great illustration of how Israeli militarism, expansionism and theocracy are caught up with geography, read Rajah Shehadeh’s “Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape“. Mr Shehadeh, a Palestinian lawyer, traces eight walks he began taking in the West Bank’s scrubby terraced hills and desert in the 1970s, and how they have been mutilated by thirty years of settlement development, highway construction, and finally the construction of Israel’s anti-terrorist barrier wall. As Palestinian farmland is confiscated, highways linking Jewish hilltop settlements slice the landscape into islands, and eventually barricades render it impossible to take the nature walks Mr Shehadeh once took from his home in Ramallah to other family members’ land, or along millenia-old trade routes into desert wadis. The political determination to create Jewish settlements necessitates segregation of Jewish and Palestinian populations; the segregation renders it impossible for Jews even to see the Palestinians they live next to, and vice versa; and that invisibility breeds oppression, fear, mutual hatred and violence.


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