Attending a Jewish Sunday school every weekend for eight years, few things are drilled into your mind as much as the greatness of the nation of Israel. From an early age I was told the story of how the Jewish people, still reeling from the aftermath of the Holocaust, established a state to ensure that, no matter what happened, all Jews would have a place to call home. The truly inspiring part of the story, though, doesn't start until the day after the country was founded, when five Arab nations declared war on the fledgling state simultaneously, setting in motion the near constant battle for survival that Israel has been engaged in with its neighbors for the past 64 years.
Perhaps no conflict was more significant though than the Six-Day War in which, in a preemptive strike, Israel defeated the combined powers of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Not only was the country saved from certain doom, but the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and West Bank were all captured in the process.
The consequences of this victory are still felt today, not only due to the fact that except for the Sinai Peninsula, Israel still controls the captured territories, but also due to the emotional outcome. In a matter of weeks the Israeli people went from expecting the complete destruction of their way of life to finding themselves the new dominant power in the Middle East. To many, this was seen as divine intervention, signifying that God wanted Israel to flourish, and that the newly occupied territories were his gift to the Jewish people.
This viewpoint is still a driving force in Israel today, and it is driving the nation into the ground. Israel still maintains control of most of the territories and settlers are still streaming into the West Bank, led by their own sense of divine entitlement and conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This same government lends an unequal amount of support to settlers and ultra-orthodox Jews at the expense of the more educated, secularist population that was responsible for creating the burgeoning, high-tech economy Israel now enjoys.
But the mistakes Israel has made in governing its own people pale in comparison to its treatment of the still occupied territories, where the Human Sciences Research Council went so far as to accuse Israel of practicing forms of colonialism and apartheid in 2009. Whether the country actually enforced such practices in the historical sense is fodder for debate, but what is clear is that Israel has shown a tremendous lack of regard when it comes to the well-being and livelihood of the roughly four million Palestinians it has yet to forfeit sovereignty over.
In the West Bank, a complex matrix of roads and territories separated by citizenship, a multitude of checkpoints, road blocks, barriers and an all encompassing permit and I.D. system, which applies solely to Palestinians, all serve to remind Palestinians that they are not welcome in their own homeland. Not to mention an eight meter concrete wall which weaves through the territory, restricting the movement of anyone who is not an Israeli citizen.
These restrictions are due to the system of settlements Israel has created in the West Bank, in which Israeli forces seize West Bank land, often kicking out Palestinians in the process, so as to create more communities for Israeli settlers. This senseless process of seizure and appropriation with a complete lack of regard for the property rights of Palestinians is continuing with full force to this day, thanks to Israel's hard-line government, despite it being considered illegal under international law and criticized by numerous countries, including the United States, as a serious hamper at any hopes of peace.
Meanwhile, Israel has established a blockade of the Gaza strip active since 2007 when the political party and widely recognized terrorist group Hamas took control of the region. Israel claims that this is only so that Hamas does not get its hands on anything that can potentially be used as a weapon; a valid argument considering the thousands of homemade rockets the group fired indiscriminately into Israel since 2001, killing several civilians.
However, to say these blockades are extreme is an understatement. Until 2010 it only allowed in goods that were "vital for the civilian population." Though there was no definitive list of what constitutes such items, things such as shoes, tea, and chocolate have all been refused entry multiple times. "Dual-use" materials such as wood, cement, and iron that can be used for both weapons manufacturing and construction were also not allowed in despite the desperate need for reconstruction following Israel's 2008-2009 war in the territory.
Following Israel's infamous raid on a flotilla headed to Gaza for humanitarian purposes, in which nine Turkish activists were killed, Israel made the list "limited to weapons and war material, including problematic dual-use items." However, Gaza still has one of the world's highest rates of unemployment and the remaining restrictions on construction material have worked to continue a severe housing crisis in the territory.
In both territories, Palestinians are ruled under military law, which significantly differs from the civil law ruling their Israeli counterparts, meaning that Palestinians lack many of the freedoms, protections, and services provided to Jewish settlers. Israel has justified such policies by claiming that the territories are not under the country's sovereignty or jurisdiction, but are instead part of a continuous armed conflict.
To be fair, this is hardly a stretch of the truth. Militant anti-Israeli groups have always thrived in the occupied territories and, through the use of suicide bombers and homemade rockets, pose a serious risk to the Israeli people. However, Israeli responses to such attacks have proved just as brutal. Over the years the Israeli Defense Force, Israel's military, has used a wide array of questionable tactics to ensure Israel's safety. Not only has the IDF been known to use excessive force and cause extensive civilian casualties, the use of torture, targeted killings, and even Palestinian human shields has also been recorded. Not only does such an extreme response antagonize Israel's enemies, it creates new ones in the form of Palestinians seeking retribution. This, in turn, gives Israel the excuse to use even more extensive force, thus creating a vicious cycle further destroying hopes for peace.
However, demographics may play an even greater role than national security in Israeli-Palestinian politics. The current population of Gaza and the West Bank amounts to over 4 million people. Should the state of Israel recognize that all of these people are deserving of the same rights as Israeli citizens, in essence making the Palestinians themselves citizens, then Israel would no longer have a Jewish majority, essentially destroying the dream it was founded upon.
The only other humane option, however, is to allow the Palestinian people to create their own independent state, which would require Israel to forfeit significant amounts of land won during the Six-Day War. In the eyes of the conservative government controlling the country, this can not be allowed to happen. The land simply holds too much religious and nationalistic value for Israel to give it up even, apparently, at the cost of the civil rights of millions of Palestinians.
Then again, Israel may not have the luxury of waiting for its leaders moral viewpoints to change. Even if a fixed mindset holds the nation's policies in check for the foreseeable future, it's still powerless when it comes to the effect such policies have elsewhere. According to a 2007 study by the Hebrew Union College, only 54 percent of young non-orthodox American Jews are now "comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state" and only 20 percent are "highly attached" to Israel. These numbers are growing as young American Jews, more used to seeing Israel as Goliath than David, are replacing their parents.
This has the potential to become an enormous problem down the road as Israel has relied on America from the start to supply the aid necessary to prop up the nation's overpowering strength. Should such support eventually wane, Israel will find itself in a much more precarious situation, being nearly surrounded by enemies without the relief of the world's only superpower.
Some would say, though, that I am being too harsh to Israel. After all, compared with many of its neighbors, Israel is still a beacon of light in one of the darker regions of the world. But this isn't good enough. Growing up, I believed Israel was a shining light of humanity. An advanced, just, and welcoming society that was a testament to what the Jewish people could accomplish. This is what the nation's founders envisioned, but now this is far from the case. As a Jew I have faith that the dream of Israel can still be fulfilled. But every injustice imposed on the Palestinians is another nail in its coffin.