I am in Kigali, Rwanda, right now. I came to Rwanda to learn about the process of reconciliation that has taken place here over the past 25 years since the genocide that left over one million people dead. Rwanda today is a democracy with the rule of law. It is one of the calmest, most peaceful, and certainly the cleanest country in Africa today. Under the slogan: “Remember, Unite, Renew,” Rwanda marked the 25th anniversary since the “Hutu tribe” butchered the “Tutsi tribe.”
It is illegal today to speak about tribes and previously held separate identities. Today they are all Rwandan citizens who share a great deal of pride in building a new nation without being tortured by the past, even though just about everyone I have met has suffered direct losses in the atrocities that took place over a few months two-and-a-half decades ago. In my talking to them I am trying to understand what happened, how it could happen, and how they have managed to overcome the pain and loss and to build a new nation.
It is simply beyond my abilities of comprehension to understand how a nation rose against itself and with unimaginable brutality used machetes to kill their neighbors and friends in a frenzy of rage and hatred. It seems that all it took was incitement from the elites of one so-called tribe against the other, believing that they were in some way superior, the invention of a narrative of existential threats, the creation of fear and hostility, the invention of enemies from the outside and enemies from within, and the dehumanization of delegitimization of a whole group of citizens. It is equally beyond my comprehension how from the bones, blood and destruction such a beautiful and peaceful country could be created and sustained, and that is living at peace within itself.
Could civil war or civil strife and violence of Jews against Jews ever take place in Israel? We too have become increasingly tribal. There is growing sense of alienation from Israel among those of us who are considered leftists, liberals, or secular Jews. I confess that I have difficulty in these times identifying with the State of Israel.
The victory of the right wing and religious parties led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the recent elections – along with the coalition negotiations that can easily be understood by people with my political views and my kind of Israeli identity as the ultimate demise of our democracy – are deeply concerned that Israel is becoming the kind of place in which we do not want to live. Israeli society is becoming more and more religious and conservative and less and less tolerant. The election campaign led by the prime minister and not really contested by the center parties delegitimized the Arab citizens of Israel and the Israeli Left.
I participated in the 14th annual Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day event in Tel Aviv (for my 13th time). As in previous years, there were about 100 right-wing demonstrators outside of the Tel Aviv fairgrounds denouncing the event and everyone there. We witnessed hatred beyond my ability to comprehend from those demonstrators. They called us names that I feel too ashamed to write in this column. I am quite sure that if the police were not there to separate them from us, there would have been bloodshed, and people from my side of the lines would have been killed.
I remember the same kind of hatred and violence during the war in Lebanon in the 1980s. I also remember it prior to the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
THERE IS little doubt in my mind that if let loose, these people on the Right who feel no problem in desecrating the memory of fallen soldiers and other victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would easily kill those of us who don’t believe that we have the right to oppose the occupation of the Palestinian people, or who don’t believe that God gave us a deed to the Land of Israel. These people are directly represented today in the Knesset, and will sit in the next government as they have the full support from the prime minister and his party.
Rogel Alpher wrote in Haaretz this past week that civil war is unlikely because the leftists and the liberals would rather leave the country than fight. This is probably true and is already happening. While Israel has much to be proud of, at this time in our history we also have much to be ashamed of. And yet the political culture of Israel has removed shame, and the country is becoming a place which for me and people who share my views and identity are seriously considering for the first time whether or not we and our children have a future here.
Jewish Israel is becoming a country with two kinds of Jews, and my kind are admittedly the minority. The dividing line is often a religious one. But even here the lines are sometimes very unclear, because there are those who don’t believe in God but at the same time believe that god gave us the land of Israel. The Israeli superiority complex which believes that we are above all others, especially our Arab neighbors, is something that I find abhorrent. Israelis who see the Palestinian people as an existential threat, and therefore justify occupation and the detestable behavior of our soldiers and the civil administration as legitimate and necessary, are not my compatriots or even people with whom I can share a common identity.
“Every person has a name,” and yet the victims of this conflict on the other side remain nameless and valueless. We seem to see our own victims as martyrs who are killed in the name of God or the name of Israel or the name of their being Jews, without taking any responsibility for the continuation of the conflict and the animosity of the Arabs toward us. We see the support for the Palestinians from others outside of Israel as an extension of antisemitism, once again failing to take on any responsibility of our own for the disgust of how others see our behavior.
Our willingness and even anxiousness to use much more force in Gaza, calling to kill more of our neighbors, is detestable to my values and my identity. Without much pretext, it would be very easy to move the willingness to bomb Gaza and its people to the West Bank Palestinians, should renewed violence erupt there. Even the so-called opposition competed with the Right in Israel over who is calling to inflict more pain on Gaza.
Too many of us who oppose Israel’s behavior and policies silence ourselves out of fear of being identified with the enemy or not being perceived as loyal Israeli citizens. I have been cursed by soldiers at checkpoints simply because I have Palestinian colleagues riding with me. The hate email that I receive and the talkbacks that used to appear at the end of this column relay to me the sense that the hatred that fed the mass killings in Rwanda could develop in Israel as well. I and others who share my views and my identity are already accused of betrayal, of loving the Arabs, or being anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist and a slew of other terms used to delegitimize our right to be critical of Israel or against our government.
Israel is becoming a place which is increasingly difficult for me to live in and identify with, and I fear that all too many of the readers of this column will be very happy to bid me farewell rather than fight for my right to be an equal and legitimate shareholder of our homeland.
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press.