Israel's March of Folly

Israel is continuing on a path which has afforded it enormous success in defeating its enemies, primarily the Palestinian people, and establishing it as a major military power, with a prosperous economy and a leading edge in prominent technological fields. But like other successful powers in history, it has been unable to veer off a path that is rife with dangerous uncertainties.

These observations crystallized in my mind as a result of a 10-day visit that I recently completed with an American interfaith delegation to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories .

We visited Yad Vashem and saw the horrors that Jews endured in Europe as well as the heroism with which many of them fought back. For many generations, anti-Semitism prevented Jews from owning land in some European countries and forced them away from many sectors of the economy. Accordingly, Jews often turned to academic and intellectual fields as a way forward. Reacting to anti-Semitism, Zionism called for the "normalization" of the Jewish people, safely away from a Europe which had treated them with unimaginable cruelty. This was to take place in Palestine , where Jews would have their own state, farm the land, and constitute a nation like any other. To some extent, this normalization did happen, but few would deny that it was at the expense of the Palestinians.

On our delegation's bus ride from Israel 's Ben Gurion Airport to our hotel in Jerusalem , we saw the ruins of several Palestinian villages. Over 500 such villages and urban communities were destroyed or depopulated -- including one within eyesight of Yad Vashem -- during Israel 's formative years through the early 1950s. Without the accompanying flight of the Palestinians from their ruined communities, Israel would not have become a majority Jewish State.

Our delegation heard from Palestinians inside Israel about oppressive laws, such as the Orwellian Law of Present Absentees, which facilitated the transfer of the vast majority of the land from Palestinian Arabs to Jewish Israelis. Palestinians inside Israel (excluding the occupied territories) now constitute roughly 20 percent of the population, and they continue to face discriminatory laws and practices that govern where they live, the type of education they receive, and their place in the economy.

Israel 's dominance over its neighbors was consecrated thanks to its overwhelming technological advantage, enormous economic and military support from western powers, and the vast reservoir of sympathy from international public opinion due to the horrors of the Holocaust. Israel was generally very successful in pacifying the Palestinian minority within its borders, not only through the use of force, but also with the help of a process of fragmentation. Druze and Bedouin Palestinians were treated differently from other Palestinians, and Jewish "developmental" communities were established in areas where the remaining Palestinians constituted regional majorities.

Our delegation also learned, especially from Israeli human rights activists, that the original Zionist vision of "normalizing" the Jewish people was marred by a militaristic culture built on maintaining dominance over the Palestinians within and outside its borders. The occupation of the remainder of historical Palestine in 1967 has greatly compounded Israel 's problems of dealing with a now much larger vanquished population that deeply resents, and more actively resists, the expropriation of its land and a plethora of severe restrictions on every aspect of its life.

We saw for ourselves how, under the Netanyahu government, Israeli illegal settlements, the so-called security fence, and West Bank roads that are off limits to West Bank Palestinian drivers are reproducing Israel 's past -- transferring resources away from their rightful owners and pauperizing the Palestinians for the benefit of highly subsidized and militarized Jewish settlements. We saw entire Palestinian cities, like Bethlehem, that have become open-air prisons surrounded by the "security fence." We passed through checkpoints which fragment the Palestinians, cripple their economy, and tear their social fabric.

Another mass population transfer of the Palestinians like the one in 1948 cannot happen today, so the end-game for Israel 's leaders seems to be to confine them to isolated ghettos crisscrossed by Israeli settlement blocs and military reserves. This time, however, these Palestinian ghettos will contain far more than 20 percent of the population under Israel 's control before 1967. Now the Palestinian Arab population is not far behind the Jewish population in the land under Israel's control.

This is another "march of folly," to use the phrase coined by the American historian Barbara Tuchman to describe the relationship of powerful countries towards weaker interlocutors. Such was the case for Britain vis-à-vis the American colonies and the U.S. vis-à-vis Vietnam .

Palestinian and Israeli human rights activists told us that, because American tax dollars support more military aid to Israel than to any other country, we have an important role in helping to stop this march of folly. They also told us that the best way to signal to the Israeli government our displeasure is by boycotting Israeli goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements and by divesting from companies that profit from the occupation of Palestinian land.