07/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Existential Threat to Israel

There really is an existential threat to Israel -- a threat to its very existence. The finger, however, needs to point in the right direction, at the policies of the Israeli government itself.

If we're getting down to fundamentals, let's look at the reason for the founding of the state of Israel. The number one reason, which is still invoked, was for the safety of the Jews. After the murderous Holocaust carried out by the Third Reich, the formerly minority position of Zionism in the Jewish community came to be accepted as the only way for Jews to survive. By all rights, a Jewish state could have been established in the Rhineland as partial reparations for the Holocaust. But it was more convenient for the west to go to a colonial territory -- and to describe Palestine as "a land without a people for a people without a land."

Sixty years later, Israel has been able to carve out a Jewish state with the infusion of massive western economic and military aid and virtually constant war against its neighbors and the Palestinians. Iran may be developing a nuclear capacity, which is certainly cause for concern. But so is the fact that Israel already reportedly has over 250 nuclear warheads. Safety for the Jews? This founding reason for Israel is now a quaint memory.

Indeed, the policy of setting up a nation as the way to safeguard an ethnic group is a decidedly 19th-century idea. Many nations were built in this way from the 17th century on -- often at the cost of the destruction and expulsion of inconvenient "other" populations. France, Germany, and Italy all have their iron fists which sought to obliterate the diversity of peoples in their chosen lands. The Turks committed genocide on the Armenians in order to establish a Turkish republic. American attacks on Indian peoples bears a striking resemblance to Israeli nation-building, complete with charges of terrorism, the establishment of settlements, and the removal of peoples.

But there is no going back to a 19th-century reality. In an increasingly globalized world, borders have become porous, human rights demand a hearing, and diverse populations learn to live together. In the next 20, 50, or 100 years, this will be true in the Middle East as in the rest of the world. Israel joins the other medievalists, those who seek an Islamic republic here or a Christian nation there, in trying to turn the clock back.

The United States does not send its billions of dollars to Israel, however, because of a special affection for Jewish survival or even because of some powerful Israeli lobbies in Washington. It has its own rationale for wanting an aggressive, western-loyal state in the Middle East -- as a base to attack Arab independence movements and to support access to oil. Becoming complicit in this cynical strategy, the majority of the American Jewish community has endangered the security for the Jews as Israel has engendered hatred from Palestinians and from peoples around the region.

And, the biggest threat to the safety of the Jews, the fundamental reason given for the necessity of the founding of the state of Israel, is Israel itself. The secondary threat is the massive pro-Israel sentiment in the American Jewish community. Fueled by a sense of entitlement in relation to colonial peoples and guilt for not being in Israel themselves, this community has generally gone along with any militaristic plan emanating from the Israeli government.

Their stance reminds me of the dogged loyalty of American communists to the Soviet Union. Driven by a vision of safety and dignity, for working people all over the world, they sought to forward the cause of socialism. But they also felt a sentimental attachment to the Soviet Union -- the first socialist experiment, the homeland of the new world. They apologized for the fact that the Soviet Union was a bit harsh on neighbors, that they sometimes acted out of narrow national interest on the grounds that this had to be done in order to preserve the embattled homeland of socialism; and on and on. As the years wore on, the damage the Soviet Union did to the cause of socialism and workers' rights reached a fever pitch and finally the whole thing came tumbling down. Revolutionaries the world over would have been better to keep their own counsel than to continue apologizing for this entity which was betraying their very principles.

Israel apologists have used the same weak reasoning to rationalize Israel's collaboration with South African apartheid forces and Latin American dictatorships; for Israel's violent war-making on Palestinian communities and building of illegal settlements; for its roads which only Israelis are allowed to use, its forbidding of building permits to Arabs in Jerusalem, its unending checkpoints.

Terrorism, the use of indiscriminate violence on civilian populations, must be stopped by both sides. And it can end. Wars do end. People previously at war do learn to live together. That is a historical truth as reliable as the truth that injustice and inequity will generate resistance.

One of the real fears of the ultra-right nationalists of Israel is known by the euphemism of the "demographic problem." What that means is that the population of Palestinian Arabs is outgrowing the Israeli Jewish population, both in the occupied territories and in Israel itself. This is similar to the fear of white Anglo Saxons that they will soon be the minority in the US. This is really only a problem if you are committed to a project of an exclusive, privileged, elite control. Get over it, the day of diverse community is coming soon and the sky won't fall.

One solution for Israel is settlements, expulsions, war, and ethnic cleansing. Another would be to support the imperatives of an interconnected, interdependent world, to develop democratic, secular states which do not consider religion and ethnicity in civil law.

A diverse, secular state -- or a two state solution with two diverse secular states -- is where this is going to have to end up. The only question is whether it will take 100 more years of blood-letting. The building of walls, whether they are in Qalqilya in the West Bank or in Brownsville, Texas, is a desperate attempt to hold off the mandates of the 21st Century.

The best step that can be taken for the "safety of the Jews," would be for Americans to pull back from knee-jerk support for every crazy idea that comes out of the ultra-right in Israel. Indeed, the kinds of attacks this column will probably get will stand as an excellent map of the kind of sharp rebuke anyone who dares to question the party line faces; the intimidation and name-calling; and the continued commitment to a project which will have the opposite outcome as that for the founding goal, the safety of the Jews.