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Israel’s City of the Future: Portrait of a Smug Society

Excerpted from the book “No Country for Jewish Liberals.”

This is a political and personal story about Israel, about how over the years it went one way and I went the other. I’m going to start where I live, literally—in the city (actually the sprawling suburban bedroom community) of Modi’in, which is truly a showcase Israeli community. It’s kind of embarrassing to remember the dreams I had for this place when my pregnant wife, Philippa, and I bought an apartment off the blueprints in 1995. And when I think of the dreams the Rabin government of the time had for it, I can hardly believe they, or the rest of us, were really living in Israel, seeing how this country has long since stopped dreaming.

I was writing for the Jerusalem Post and had done stories about the startup of Modi’in, and how the government, then in the midst of the Oslo peace process, saw it as the embodiment of its vision for the country: a cornerstone of the “New Middle East.” They had a map showing Modi’in, which was still not much more than a mass of empty, rocky hills, as an Israeli stop on a future highway between Damascus to the north and Amman to the east. They were building this mammoth project right smack against Israel’s pre-occupation border with the West Bank to make a political statement, to show that while the previous Likud government had put its energy into building West Bank settlements, the Rabin government would forget about settlements and build on the Israeli side of the old pre-1967 Six-Day War border. (The Rabin government might have forgotten about building settlements, but the settlers, their friends in the bureaucracy, and the real estate companies didn’t.)

This was going to be a model city, unlike any place built in Israel before—with vast parks bounded by wide boulevards in the valleys and streets winding up and around the hills. Israel’s great international architect, Moshe Safdie, designed the master plan, taking his inspiration from Byzantine Jerusalem—it would be a place swirling with movement where people naturally met up with one another. On the practical side, Modi’in was centrally located, midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and commuter distance from both, and the apartments would be big by Israeli standards and relatively cheap, much cheaper than in metropolitan Tel Aviv, the better to lure the target population of young, middle-class families. The city, said its political patron, housing minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, would be a grand illustration of the new Israeli ethos, in which “the citizen no longer exists to serve the state, the state exists to serve the citizen.” Its founders gave Modi’in the official motto “City of the Future.”

Heady stuff. We bought our apartment mainly because it was big and affordable and because it was exciting to be moving into a promising new place—but for me, it was also all the New Middle East jazz, plus my now-embarrassing, nostalgic, socialist idea that Modi’in would be the modern-day Israeli version of my Aunt Rose’s apartment complex in the Bronx that we used to visit in the ’50s: a humble community where Jewish working people gather in the evenings on the benches on the big lawn to kibitz. A down-to-earth, decent, human place to live.

The funny thing is that more than 20 years later, Modi’in (pop. 85,000) actually is a down-to-earth, decent, human place to live—like probably any non-rich, non-destitute place in this country. The “architecture” is sterile—block after block of nearly identical beige stucco apartment buildings, mercifully broken up by lots of greenery. Still, the social vibe is very warm. People really do sit on benches in the parks and talk while their kids are playing. It’s hard to go shopping on a Friday and not run into someone you know. Our building has three other families besides us who’ve been here since it was built, and we go to each other’s kids’ bar mitzvahs and parents’ shivas. (At times we also fight like neighbors; one of the veteran families chased one of our favorite neighbors out with a lawsuit over noise, and we fell out with them—but we made up at the shiva for the husband’s mother.) My younger son, Gilad, is close friends with one boy from upstairs and another from downstairs. So in this way, Modi’in is a very homey place, like my Aunt Rose’s old complex in the Bronx.

But otherwise, this is not the Bronx, Toto. The Jews who live here are nothing like my socialist, garment-worker aunt and her Yiddish neighbors. Modi’in is the gleaming city on the hill that looks down on the Palestinians living in the West Bank, on the other side of the pre-occupation border a few hundred yards away, past the army checkpoint on Route 443, the Modi’in-Jerusalem highway. This highway runs through the West Bank but is off-limits to Palestinians. It is often referred to, imprecisely but fairly enough, as one of our occupation’s many “apartheid roads.”

When the Supreme Court decided in 2010 that it was unjust to keep Palestinian drivers off the 443 — the travel ban had disrupted their lives and, after all, the highway had been built on private, Palestinian-owned land — Modi’in’s mayor, Haim Bibas, fumed at the “judges in their ivory towers,” and promised that “we’re not going to take this lying down.” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reportedly “reacted furiously” to the Supreme Court’s decision. In the end, it was never implemented. When driving past the Arab villages on the West Bank hillsides overlooking the highway, you still don’t see any green Palestinian license plates, only yellow Israeli ones.

Like my neighbors, and despite my political views, I drive the 443 whenever I go to Jerusalem. It’s much quicker than taking Route 1, the “old road” that runs strictly within pre-occupation “Israel proper.” On the 443 we travel along the separation wall that lines the highway and protects the all-Israeli cars from potential Palestinian stone-throwers, and that was actually painted in sections with blue skies and grass—an amazing illustration of Israeli denial but which you stop noticing after a few trips.

To us in Modi’in, the West Bank and the Palestinians are invisible. They’re only a few hundred yards away, but may as well be living in another hemisphere. Some of them come into the city early in the morning to work on the construction sites, where many of them sleep over, and sometimes the cops arrest the ones who don’t have work permits. In the second intifada in the early 2000s, I used to see them, sometimes dozens of them, sitting quietly in the fenced yard of the police station on my morning walks. After a while, the police covered the fence with green fabric (but no painted trees and blue skies) so no one could see them anymore. Once, in those fretful years, I walked up to the Titora, the scenic hill in the center of town, and saw a young Palestinian shepherd minding his flock. We were the only people up there, out of earshot of anyone down below, and I got a little scared. When I got close enough to see his face, I saw that he was scared of me.

That was then. The second intifada, whose early days saw a few drive-by killings of Israelis on the 443, as well as a female suicide bomber blowing herself up at the army checkpoint on the highway just outside town, is more than a decade past. With the exception of late 2015 through early 2016, when a wave of Palestinian knifings and car—rammings broke out, lethal terror is a rarity in Israel now; a few hundred yards from the West Bank, teenagers in Modi’in hang out in the parks until the middle of the night, with parental approval, and the only danger they may face is not from Palestinian infiltrators, but from packs of drunken Jewish kids looking for a fight.

Politically, the city is somewhat more liberal than Israel at large; over the years, local voters have given pluralities to centrist parties—Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert’s Kadima, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union —ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud. This is in line with the residents’ high educational level and general middle-class prosperity as well as their secular bent. But liberal is a relative term; based on the parties and politicians they vote for and the news media they absorb, the people of Modi’in sit very comfortably within the Israeli “security hawk” consensus: unhappy with the “isolated, ideological” West Bank settlements, but untroubled by the expansion of the large “settlement blocs” closer to Israel proper, not to mention the Jewish neighborhoods in occupied East Jerusalem. The majority of Modi’in residents are theoretically in favor of the two-state solution, but suspicious, at best, of even the most moderate Palestinians and resentful of foreign pressure on any Israeli government. And they are fully behind every Israeli war against Gaza, Lebanon, or anyplace else as a war “for our home,” a war “of no choice.”

People overseas don’t know this about Israeli life. They think Israelis are obsessed with politics, but this is a terribly outdated image. When I came here in 1985, and for years afterward, it was still accurate. For instance, while American comic impressionists’ repertoire of politicians was limited to the president, or at most the two contenders in an election year, Israel’s national mimic, Tuvia Tzafir, would draw from a gallery of at least two dozen local politicians in his TV appearances. The clichés of heated political debate around the Friday night dinner table, and of bus drivers turning up the radio for the hourly news headlines so the passengers can hear—I was at those dinners and rode on those buses, that’s really the way it was.

There used to be discussion about politics. The outbreak of the second intifada killed it all. In the space of one riotous, bloody weekend at the end of September 2000, the Palestinians, and with them the Arab citizens of Israel, turned into scorpions in the eyes of the Israeli Jewish public. The best description of the national mentality in the 21st century was given by Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy. “It used to be,” he said, “that if you asked two Jews a question, you’d get three opinions. Now you only get one.”

And when the wars are on — the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Operation Cast Lead (Gaza) in 2009, Operation Pillar of Defense (Gaza) in 2012, Operation Protective Edge (Gaza) in 2014 — polls find that 90 percent to upward of 95 percent of Israeli Jews support them, too.

One might think this has turned Israelis into terrible people, terrible on a personal level — callous even with each other, with non-Arabs. But what I’ve seen is actually the opposite. As Israeli Jews have grown more and more dismissive of Palestinians and Arabs in general, more blithely uninterested in the way we kick them around, Israeli Jews have become pretty nice people. They didn’t used to be, not when I got here and, from what I heard from veteran immigrants at the time, not before then, either. They were abrasive, they smacked you around verbally when you opened your mouth, standing in line with them was a nightmare. Around the middle to late ’90s, I began to notice a difference. A few years ago, I was talking with a South African relative who’s been visiting regularly since the ’70s, and she said, “It used to be such an ordeal going to a restaurant or getting on a bus. Now it’s a pleasure. Israelis have changed.”

I asked a 35—year veteran Jerusalem bus driver if Israeli passengers’ behavior had changed. “It’s better, definitely,” he said. “Now they’re nicer. They talk nicer.” Do they still push? “Nah, are you kidding? Now you don’t get that street behavior; now it’s civilized.”

I put this down to the advent of prosperity, consumerism, careerism, foreign travel, even air conditioning. Life in Israel isn’t so pinched like it was before the mid-’90s; now people can breathe. Also, the old—timers for whom gruffness and abrasiveness were a point of national pride, who weren’t about to act like the soft, silly Jews in the fleshpots of the West—most of those Israelis, with all due respect to their sacrifices and decency of character, have passed on. Their children, and certainly their grandchildren and great—grandchildren, are not such boors. They’re okay, they’re friendly, you can get through a day in this country now without feeling pummeled.

But in a way, I suppose there is a unity between the new Israeli civility and the new political complacency: People here aren’t bothered enough anymore by the Arabs, morally or militarily, to let them get in the way of their middle—class fun, to ruin their cheerful, shopping-mall mood.

“What’s important to me is the economy. I’m a man of the middle class,” a Modi’in resident told me after the 2013 election campaign, explaining why he’d voted for Yair Lapid’s party. “I didn’t care that Lapid didn’t talk about the Palestinians and the conflict. It’s not important to me.” In the last decade, a key component of Israelis’ good humor is the near-absence of Arab violence, except during the wars, which are measured in weeks, and the low-level, “lone-wolf” intifada, whose six months of stabbings and car-rammings largely petered out in spring 2016. Maybe Israelis becoming nicer personally and coarser politically isn’t such an anomaly; taken together, they’re a portrait of a smug society.

In Modi’in, there isn’t a single Arab resident, certainly no Arab homeowner, unless one or two are “passing.” It’s not illegal for Arabs to rent or buy apartments here (or anyplace else in the country), but for a Jew in Modi’in to rent or, especially, sell his apartment to an Arab would be taken as an act of betrayal — political, social, and economic—by far too many neighbors for it to be a likely option in this neighborly city.

But ultimately, the politics of Modi’in, no matter for whom the residents vote, is embedded in the facts on the ground here — in the 443 “apartheid road,” for instance, and in the total absence of Arabs. It’s also there in the local rituals, especially those connected to school and the inculcation of “Zionist values” in the young, which has succeeded spectacularly: Year after year, Modi’in ranks number one among the country’s municipalities for percentage of army recruits signing up for combat units. The city puts on a pool party for each cohort of 18—year-old inductees. The chief rabbi of Modi’in addresses high school students going on the de rigeur trip to Poland and the concentration camps. There’s a three-day hike and a “citizenship” assembly for the 16-year-olds getting their Israeli ID cards. On Independence Day, half the town turns out for the fireworks and concert in the main park, and the air is rich with the smell of meat on the barbeque. During Operation Protective Edge, signs went up reading, “Modi’in salutes the IDF.”

Nationalism, patriotism, military service — Israelis imbibe this, as the saying goes, with their mother’s milk, and in all but a few cases drink it eagerly. The mindset here is very much like that in red-state America. I think of Israel as a small, Hebrew-speaking Texas, with Tel Aviv the country’s answer to Austin. Like Israel, Texas used to be split between its liberal and hardass wings, but in recent decades the hardasses have taken over completely there, too.

So it is here in Little Texas. Elections are no longer fought over how to solve the conflict with the Palestinians; they’re fought over security and economics, because the politicians on the so-called left know that the Israeli public does not want to hear any more about solving the conflict with the Palestinians. Let me rephrase that: The Israeli public is sick to death from hearing the same boring, monotonous shit year after year, decade after decade, about solving the goddamn conflict with the goddamn fucking Palestinians. Israelis don’t believe in a solution; they think that trying to solve things will only make them worse, like it did before, and get a lot of them killed. The army has the Palestinians under control—why tamper with the way things are? And why do these idiots overseas keep talking to us about it? It’s a dead letter, the deadest of dead Israeli political issues.

I used to think that if the Palestinians gave up terror, the occupation was finished, it wouldn’t have a leg to stand on anymore in the eyes of the world. Well, the Palestinian Authority has not only given up terror for more than a decade, it’s been fighting terror in conjunction with the IDF and Shin Bet — yet the occupation isn’t finished, it’s getting stronger every day, and the world is watching this happen. Israel’s mouthpieces liked to say once upon a time that if the Palestinians recognized Israel and gave up terror, they would be amazed at how generous we would be. Well, the PLO recognized Israel in 1988, and since then hundreds of thousands of Israelis have moved into West Bank settlements, and meanwhile Abu Mazen’s men are still protecting us, so Israeli generosity turned out to be somewhat less amazing than advertised.

Remember the old formula for solving the conflict — “land for peace,” meaning Israel gives the Palestinians land in return for the Palestinians giving Israel peace? Which side has kept their part of the bargain, and which side has broken theirs?

Fear and aggression, this has become the Israeli way — not only toward Palestinians, but toward tens of thousands of desperate African refugees, whom the government and media refer to as “infiltrators,” and whom the immigration police hound on the streets and in their apartments, locking up as many of them as possible in a “detention facility” in the desert, the declared goal being to drive them all out of the country. Fear and aggression is also the policy toward the country’s nearly two million Arab citizens, whose children not only can’t dream of growing up to become president, they can’t dream of growing up to become a high official in any Israeli civilian company, public or private, that’s even indirectly “security—related,” which is a whole lot of companies. Before an Israeli Arab family can get on a plane for a vacation overseas, they must endure lengthy, humiliating interrogations and searches at Ben-Gurion Airport, while Israeli Jewish families answer a few routine questions and are waved through. In countless ways, Arab citizens in this country are separate and unequal.

The same belligerent paranoia toward Arabs and Muslims guides Israel’s military policy beyond its borders. We bomb Hezbollah and Syria every few months to keep Hezbollah from getting Syria’s fancier weapons (this is one of the important ways we maintain our “qualitative edge” on the battlefield), and when Hezbollah hits back or tries to, that just proves we were right to bomb them in the first place, and sets the stage for us to bomb them again “at a time of our choosing.” We kill Iranian nuclear scientists because only Israel is allowed to have nuclear bombs, and if Bibi and his then-defense minister, Ehud Barak, had had their way and not been overruled by the comparatively sober military-intelligence establishment, they would have bombed Iran in the early 2010s. Fear and aggression—that is the modern Israeli political mentality. It’s always been a part of it, a big part, but never in the 32 years I’ve been here was it such a dominant feature as it is now.

In these years, again, Israel and I have gone in opposite directions. And in terms of political morality — how Israel treats other people, and above all how it treats Palestinians — my view is that Israel has gone beyond the pale. The occupation is not just a flaw, but a morally fatal flaw. It is different from apartheid, different from Jim Crow, but the same in one overriding way: It is a species of tyranny, a system of government in which the strong trample the weak. The system Israel runs on the three million people of the West Bank is military dictatorship. It used to run the same thing on the now nearly two million people of Gaza, before scaling back a dozen years ago from military dictatorship to a suffocating, often-lethal military blockade—a lesser species of tyranny.

And in the face of that, Palestinian terrorism, for all its hellishness and its innocent victims, amounts to self-defense. America doesn’t understand — much of the West doesn’t understand — but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a two-sided affair in which both sides are partly at fault. Since Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Six—Day War, it has been a one-sided affair in which Israel is all but completely at fault and the Palestinians are basically blameless. To describe things in the plainest terms, Israel is a nation of free people that denies another nation its freedom at gunpoint, and has been doing so for half a century. Believe me, this was not my view of things when I came here from Los Angeles in 1985.

In case it isn’t clear by now, I don’t hate this country. I hate what it does to Arabs and African refugees. I can’t bear Israelis’ political mentality, but I don’t hate Israelis, even with all their callousness toward the country’s victims. I don’t think Israelis are more racist or brutal toward their enemies than Americans or Europeans are when they’re at war. Moreover, Israelis, by and large, have good hearts. Very few have any inclination toward brutality against a random Arab. Very few are sadists in that way; the problem is that the general atmosphere inevitably produces acts of sadism.

Also, the cliché about Israelis being there for you in times of trouble is true, from what I’ve found. Once, on reserve duty in around 1990, an unusually introspective Israeli and I were bitching about local behavior (which in those days still seemed generally obnoxious), but then he told me a story that put things in some perspective. He and his wife were eating lunch once in a large, crowded restaurant in Bern, Switzerland, when one of the diners suddenly collapsed and was lying on the floor. “We rushed over there to help him, but he was unconscious, he wasn’t breathing. We shouted for someone to call an ambulance. But no one moved. We were the only ones in this whole big place who moved a muscle. Finally we made such a noise that the manager or someone called an ambulance. This was in Bern, the ‘height of civilization,’” he said.

The Israel that I root for is the little guy, the underdog, the pisher that goes and produces a Nobel Prize winner. That’s the Israel that makes me proud. That’s my idea of a Jewish country. But that, in the main, is not this Jewish country. In the decisive ways, in the way it treats others, in matters of war and peace, Israel is not the little guy, not the underdog; it’s the bully. And I doubt that’s going to change. It may, I haven’t entirely given up hope, but I know the odds are strongly against it.

This is my country, and I love it as much as I’m capable of loving a country, but it has done awesome damage to the Jewish soul and Jewish conscience by subjugating the Palestinians, which has led it into an ongoing series of wars and which goes hand in hand with its abusive treatment of its Arab citizens and African refugees. Israel, which has given my family and me a great life, has turned into what I would call a morally failed state. It didn’t used to be that, not by any means, but that’s what it’s become.

Larry Derfner is the author of “No Country for Jewish Liberals” (Just World Books).


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