Oh, What a Wonderful Unity!
In all its 53 years, Israel has never been like it is now. The entire Israeli public seems to have become a flock of parrots.
No matter who is talking - the seller of fallafel or a professor of history, a taxi driver or a political correspondent, an army officer or a member of the Knesset - all of them endlessly repeat the same seven or eight slogans, in exactly the same words:
- "Barak turned every stone on the way to peace."
- "He offered Arafat (almost) everything he asked for. And what did we get in return? War."
- "Arafat (the villainous, cheating, lying, corrupt), instead of accepting the generous offer with both hands, started a campaign of violence and terror."
- "This proves that the Palestinians never wanted peace. They want to annihilate the State of Israel (throw us into the sea)."
- "The right of return is a plot to destroy Israel."
- "We have no partner for peace."
- "The struggle is not about the settlements, but about Jaffa and Haifa."
- "The conflict just doesn't have a solution."
Each of these slogans is wrong and can be easily disproved by the facts. But that is not the main thing. The main thing is the total uniformity of the public discourse in Israel, including the voters of Barak and Sharon, the members of the Labor and Likud, the far-right Moledet and the Meretz parties.
This by itself could be the subject of an interesting scientific research project. How does this happen? We have no Goebbels-like ministry of propaganda. Dissidents don't disappear in the Gulag, as in Stalinist Russia. Intellectuals are nor dragged to labor camps, as in the Cultural Revolution of Mao. They are not even compelled to drink castor oil, as in Mussolini's Italy.
So how does it happen? How does an entire people in a democracy behave as if hypnotized? How do the free media - the dozens of newspapers, channels and networks, with the hundreds of commentators and correspondents, turn themselves into the organs of a uniform, primitive propaganda? How does such a system of brain-washing come into being without a cruel, omnipotent dictator, but as a kind of voluntary auto-brain-washing?
This is especially odd, because the main message of this brain-washing is not cheerful and optimistic, but as pessimistic as can be. It says that there is no chance for peace, and never was. That the war is eternal. That "they" will always want to kill us, and that there is nothing we can do about it. That anyone who thinks otherwise (if such a person exists) lives on the moon.
Stranger still, this message does cause some depression, but that is not the only reaction. When the air escaped from the balloon of peace, one could hear a vast sigh of relief.
A foreigner will not understand this. We do.
The Oslo agreement, which descended on the public without any prior preparation, created a shock. I remember the day it was signed. I was in Jerusalem. In the Eastern part, there was euphoria. The Palestinians, together with some Israeli peace activists, drank champagne in the American Colony hotel, rejoiced together on the steps of Orient House. In the streets, bands of Palestinian youngsters were wandering about, waving the (forbidden) Palestinian flag and nearly kissing the Israeli border policemen. When I crossed into West Jerusalem, I found a strange, hesitant, thoughtful mood, cautiously optimistic. I was invited to a TV broadcast and found the same mood in the studio.
Since than, for eight years, Israel has been in the grips of a painful syndrome, called "cognitive dissonance". This is a situation where incoming new information collides with old, deeply rooted attitudes.
Every person (and, it seems, an entire people, too) has a world-view, a fixed pattern of perceptions, a kind of mental map that directs their thoughts and reactions. Without such a map, the person (or people) feel lost in a world of chaos. The map gives them security; they know where they are and where they are going. When they are hit by new information that contradict the existing pattern, they find themselves in a frightening situation of uncertainty, insecurity and anxiety. Whoever is responsible for this becomes the object of hatred and fury.
For hundreds of years, the Jews have been persecuted in many countries. Everywhere they encountered anti-Semitism, suffered from discrimination, became victims of pogroms, were murdered in the Holocaust. Even in enlightened countries, almost every Jewish child absorbed with his mother's milk the belief that the Goyim hate the Jews, always did and always will. Every year, on the eve of Passover, in the warm family circle, millions of Jews repeat the words: "In each generation they try to destroy us, but God saves us from them."
Zionism was supposed to create a New Jew, but in practice it only transferred the existing mental pattern to the new country. Arab opposition to the Zionist penetration appeared to the Jews as a natural continuation of the old story of persecution and pogroms. The existing Jewish pattern was not shattered, but became even stronger. It created a feeling of unity, permanency and order. A cheerful song, beginning with the words "The whole world is against us / but we do not care..." became a folk dance.
And then Oslo came. Perplexing new perceptions hit us. The Arabs want peace. Arafat, who only yesterday was the Arab Hitler, became a partner. The Arabs were reconciled to our existence. A New Middle East. Peace, conciliation, mutual respect are just around the corner.
This picture did not cause happiness. On the contrary. It caused deep anxiety. It was clear that something was wrong, The pattern was shaken, and no new one replaced it. The old map, which described a familiar landscape, did not show the way anymore. It was necessary to draw a new map, contradicting all that was known and doubting all that was thought and felt until then.
And then, suddenly, a powerful reaction set in. Ehud Barak, the man of peace, the representative of the left, killed Oslo and exposed the Arab plot. He proved that there was no partner. The Arabs want to destroy us. Thank God, everything returned to what it was before. What a relief!
After all, in a situation of war and conflict, everyone of us knows exactly how to behave, what to do. There is no cause for anxiety. The old map remains true. The pattern that served us for hundreds of years remains good for the future.
This causes deep satisfaction. Haven't we said all the time it's all a big bluff? As Yitzhak Shamir put it so succinctly: "The Arabs are the same Arabs, the Jews are the same Jews and the sea is the same sea."
In this situation, a wonderful national unity is reborn. All the Jewish parties from left and right can unite. Shimon Peres can sit in the same government with men like Ze'evi, Lieberman and Landau, who could give lessons to Haider and Le-Pen. The media and academia. almost without exceptions, can join the feast. Pseudo-leftists of yesterday confess their sins as if they were in a Soviet meeting of self-criticism. Oh, what a wonderful unity!
The most repelling exhibition in this orgy is the treason of the intellectuals. They, who should have drawn the new map that would lead the people towards the reality of peace, are betraying their trust. The few, the very few, who stay true to their mission, are despised and hated.
But on the shoulders of these few the fate of the country now rests. There is no future for Israel if it goes on behaving like an armed ghetto. A state is no ghetto, as the ghetto was no state. In order to exist, the state needs a new perception of itself and its surroundings, one that suits the new situation.
And that is, first and foremost, the task of the intellectuals.
Uri Avnery is a peace activist and former member of the Israeli Knesset.