Has Israel succeeded as a state?

On its independence anniversary, scholars question the morality of occupation.

    Right-wing Israelis establish one of the first West Bank settlements on December 8, 1975 [GALLO/GETTY]

    As Israel celebrates its 60th anniversary on May 8, some academics, scholars and journalists are pausing to reflect on the ambitions and aspirations that fuelled the country's 1948 independence - and whether those reasons still resonate today.

    David Rubinger, an Israeli photojournalist who witnessed and photographed the country's birth in 1948, told Al Jazeera: "I will with absolute pride say never in history have 600,000 people achieved in 60 years what these 600,000 people achieved in 1948."

    "I think it's historically unprecedented. At the same time, I'm not proud of what Israel has done since 1967," he said. 

    Rubinger was in London in March, along with other Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian historians, writers and journalists for Jewish Book Week, an annual event which was this year dedicated to "Israel at 60".

    He has enjoyed a ringside seat - camera in hand - at every major historical event that has shaped the country's history.

    Rubinger - whose first professional photograph depicted a group of young Jews celebrating the UN partition plan - remembers the early idealism of those days, as well the difficulties that followed.

    "The early idealism of Zionism that this was going to benefit the Middle East didn't come true, unfortunately," he said.

    "The moment you become an occupying force, you lose your moral strength. I look at the Palestinians today and I say they may be suffering, but morally they're becoming stronger every day while we become morally weaker every day."

    Fighting for its soul

    Israel at 60

    Special series: The Promised Land?

    But Menahem Brinker, founder of the Israeli peace movement Peace Now, believes that Israel's morality 60 years on is not in question.

    He says it is kept alive by the fact that many of its citizens continue to protest the occupation, even when protest is unpopular.

    "Morally it is not collapsing, [Israel] fights all the time for its soul," he said.

    "Israel has been in a crisis from the day it was born. It survives with the crisis."

    Benny Morris is an Israeli historian and the founder of the revisionist New Historians whose writing was – controversially - the first to re-examine many of the documents relating to the founding of Israel.

    Like Brinker, he disagrees with the continued occupation of the West Bank but feels Israel's morality is not at stake.

    "Occupying another people in general is immoral ... but I don't think that has turned Israel into an immoral country," he told Al Jazeera.

    "In some way you can blame Israel for maintaining the occupation, but in some way you can blame the Arabs for forcing Israel to maintain the occupation.”

    Zionism has failed

    Herzl believed he was creating a western
    democracy in the Middle East [GALLO/GETTY]

    Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Jerusalem's Al-Quds University, believes the Zionist project in Palestine has been a failure.

    "Did the Zionist project succeed after 60 years? My answer is no. Assuming that it was aimed at finding a secure haven for the Jewish people, I don't think it has because it is neither secure nor is it a haven nor is it now a place where only Jews live."

    "It is, as far as I'm concerned, a tragedy. I understand it is for Israelis a very beautiful thing, but this is life."

    But Morris believes that despite its shortcomings and the occupation, there are many positive qualities about Israel.

    He told Al Jazeera: "[Theodore] Herzl [the father of modern Zionism] and most of the founders thought they would be establishing a Western democracy, an enlightened area in an area which they thought was dark and barbaric.”

    "And they did establish a democracy. It's got a lot of problems, but it's also got a lot of light."

    He agrees with Nusseibeh that the original goal of Israel's founders was only partially achieved: "Zionism has been a success in that it established a state ... but it's a very dangerous place for the Jews. It's a place which is ultimately under existential threat. In that sense it didn't actually realise the dreams of the founders."

    'Bloody birth'

    Arab Unity: War and Peace

    Nusseibeh, who has been involved in numerous peace initiatives and helped draft the Palestinian National Council's 1988 Declaration of Independence, also believes perceptions have changed, though there is still much more to be done, particularly on the Palestinian side.

    "Some 20, 30 years ago you had very few voices in Israel that were openly self-critical and they were not very popular in Israel," he said.

    "But I think people are coming to realise that Israel did not go through an immaculate conception. It was a bloody birth."

    "I think the Israelis are ahead of [the Palestinians] in terms of self-reflection," he adds. "With the Palestinians it’s still a process ... this kind of thinking is not something we engage in very much."

    For Morris, Israel's 60th birthday may not hold any special symbolism, but it does offer enough distance to closely re-examine the events of Israel’s establishment.

    "The closer you were to 1948, the more difficult it was to actually look at things objectively and critically. The further we are from 1948, the easier it is to take a step back and try to describe things truthfully."

    This emphasis on truth, in a history so often subject to interpretation, is raised many times during any discussion of Israeli-Palestinian issues. But, as Rubinger points out, it will always remain subjective and selective.

    "The best role you can play is telling the truth, but in the old days ... they could tell the whole story and go into the background," he said.

    "Modern journalism doesn't allow that. We're getting only glimpses of the truth."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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