Israel is headed towards self-inflicted ruin - opinion

Israel should take note of a cautionary tale from Africa.

 "No entry dictatorship" sign at Ben Gurion airport during the protests on July 11, 2023. (photo credit: CHEN LEOPOLD)
"No entry dictatorship" sign at Ben Gurion airport during the protests on July 11, 2023.
(photo credit: CHEN LEOPOLD)

Readers familiar with South African history may recall the incredible episode known as “The National Suicide of the Xhosa.” I use “incredible” in the literal sense, impossible to believe. Sadly, in recent months here in Israel, irrational conduct based on unsubstantiated promises, and the subsequent destruction of means of production, takes on an ominous credibility.

In April 1856, Mhalakaza, a local healer and diviner, sent his teenage niece Nongquawuse and her friend to chase birds from a cornfield in what is now the Eastern Cape. Returning, they described an encounter with two mysterious figures who announced that a great event was about to take place, after which there would be no shortage, the dead would arise, and the British rulers would be swept into the sea.

Beforehand, all cattle would need to be killed, there would need to be no sowing or cultivation, stored grain had to be thrown away, and more. Mhalakaza recognized the figures as ancestor spirits. He killed his own cattle, persuaded the paramount Xhosa chief, Sarili, and the rest is history. Despite internal dissent and attempts by British officials, missionaries and others to halt action, some 400,000 cattle were killed. The population was decimated by starvation, and British control deepened.

Historians are perturbed: How could delusion lead to such self-destruction? How, indeed. To those who would condescendingly attribute Xhosa irrationality to their identity, please compare some actions recently undertaken by a country which is generally considered a modern miracle.

Israel has increased financial support to many ultra-Orthodox, the least productive segment of the population economically, and the fastest growing. At the same time, it has dropped requirements for basic education, further undermining the possibility of their employment, and deepening their reliance on the public purse. There appear to be no plans to subsidize these changes.

 Israeli soldiers guard at a checkpoint not far from the scene of a shooting attack, in the Northern West Bank, July 6, 2023 (credit: NASSER ISHTAYEH/FLASH90)
Israeli soldiers guard at a checkpoint not far from the scene of a shooting attack, in the Northern West Bank, July 6, 2023 (credit: NASSER ISHTAYEH/FLASH90)

To entice a political party which had no options to join any other potential government, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a man with a string of convictions, became minister of national security, aka police. His fellow messianic ideologue Bezalel Smotrich was appointed finance minister. He was also given responsibilities within the Defense Ministry, concerning the territories – please indulge me for using this brief designation, rather than its loaded and longer equivalents, such as occupied territories or Judea and Samaria. His new responsibilities undermine Israel’s own position regarding the territories.

A major dilemma in the West Bank

No Israeli government has annexed the territories. To do so could require granting citizenship to all residents, and the ballot would bring an end to Israel as a Jewish state. Alternatively, citizenship would be granted on the basis of ethnicity. Continuing our South African association, the dreaded A word emerges, and apartheid is not a good vista. 

Since 1967, the legal status of the territories has been defined as “belligerent occupation,” a term in international law that implies temporary military rule, and in which decisions are based solely on security considerations. By allowing a part time minister to circumvent such considerations, Israel has effectively renounced “belligerent occupation.” Do we want to face the consequences of annexation? Or do we expect the Palestinians, oops, the British, to be swept into the sea, as the Xhosa had hoped?

As for judicial “reform,” for argument’s sake, let us ignore principles such as the rule of law, equality, rights of minorities, and other values that define democratic countries, and let us stick to practical outcomes. Inter alia, investors will hesitate to put their money where laws are passed to suit partisan needs, and where judges do the bidding of politicians. With our courts no longer independent and respected, security personnel may be subject to international prosecution, from which they are currently protected.

Damage is already evident, yet the slaughter of the cattle continues, unabated.

What did the protagonists in that bizarre and tragic episode in Africa believe? Nongquawuse might have heard concerns about a cattle disease, and about British rule. Did she want to please the uncle who raised her? Did she have a dream? Mhalakaza, a diviner who was the first to destroy his cattle, what did he think? What about Sarili, the wily and respected leader? We will never know. Let us instead ask about our leader.

Benjamin Netanyahu, who served in what is arguably the army’s most prestigious unit, a graduate of that bastion of rationality, MIT, who prides himself on his prior contribution to the economy, including goading ultra-Orthodox toward employment, a staunch defender of an independent judiciary until he was indicted – which version of Chief Sarili does he see when he looks in the mirror? The leader that he once was, or the beaten man who died in exile, having caused irreparable harm?

The writer is a retired diplomat. She was twice congressional liaison at the Embassy of Israel in Washington (1985-1988, 1998-2000), Israel’s first ambassador to the Baltic Republics (1993-1996), and took early retirement after serving as ambassador to South Africa (2001-2003).