A totalitarian democracy – Howard Cohen/Mondoweiss
This article has been a long time in the coming. In one sense it is a response to questions that I am repeatedly asked by friends, colleagues and strangers alike. Why did I come here to Israel? And why did I stay here? I have always considered these questions as wholly legitimate ones, and never more so than today, as I observe, with a painful sense of impotence, the supremacist mind-set, flagrant racism and abuse of human rights becoming ever more widespread and extreme under the growing entrenchment of the occupation. Nevertheless, it is not easy to give a satisfactory answer.
The realization of a need to formulate a reply (first and foremost to myself) took on a painful urgency in the summer of 2014 – and yet, as I write this now, it seems strange to refer to it as such. One thinks of the summer as depicting hot, humid languid days full of indolent pleasure and unashamed indulgence. But the summer of 2014 held up to humanity a canvas depicting a black, fetid winter of unabated and willful destruction; a mighty, armed and self-righteous colossus, invoking a biblical and wrathful god, tearing the limbs off of innocent children, splitting open the entrails of the old and infirm, and destroying the dreams and livelihood of those few still left with a glimmer of hope within their imprisoned existences. That almost indescribable devastation, that path of lustful vengeance, that ingrained belief that if force had not yet succeeded in silencing the cries of the oppressed, then an even greater and more wrathful force would serve to do so. At times I curse myself for this overwhelming empathy of mine as I conjure up the images before me. Those old men executed for no other crime than for searching pitifully in the rubble for their loved ones. Those entire generations wiped out in a fraction of a second by the indiscriminate bombings. Those children severed in two by the force of the explosions. Those orphaned kids lying in a pool of blood next to the ruptured bodies of their parents. Those petrified youths used as human shields by the invading forces. Those humble women humiliated by the laughing rabble in uniform. Those wretched survivors returning to their broken homes smeared with the excrement of the passing soldiers. I enter into the persona of all these human sacrifices and I cry and I weep for their loss and for the utter lack of compassion that is taking place in the name and glory of the Zionist dream; that is taking place in the very space that I inhabit. It was in the midst of such carnage and desperation, in a feeling of complete isolation, where all criticism was condemned and vilified by the state apparatus that smothered the country so effectively, where any show of outrage was effectively demonised and depicted as betrayal and even as treason by the state and its proud and bellicose citizens, that my voice was crying out the loudest to be heard; and yet at the time it remained trapped deep within me under a suffocating feeling of the most paralysing despair as I searched desperately for an island of humanity and compassion to take the place of the madness around me. Perhaps then it is only now that I feel the necessary strength and clarity to be able to channel that voice to the outside.
I grew up in London in a traditional Jewish family, attended synagogue with my family perhaps two or three times a year, on the High Holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, celebrated Pesach (Passover) with a traditional Seder night often at relations, and was made aware constantly, in one way or another, of the importance of my Jewish identity. In this respect, I don’t think my experiences were any different from most typical North London Jews at the time. I was given the best education that my parents were able to provide me at a rigorously traditional English public school to which I won a scholarship, and went on to study Medicine at Cambridge, and later, after living in Spain for a couple of years, to study a Masters in Continental Philosophy at Warwick University. Notwithstanding, throughout these years, I felt a sense of lack, a void in the very fabric of existence, which possibly could be put down to my own existential concerns regarding my place in life, but also, I think, to the symptoms and malaise of the post-modern era in the West. I was looking for a sense of belonging, and I wasn’t able to find it in the fragmented and drifting society of a post-Thatcher England. In 1995 I traveled to Israel to spend almost 4 months in a yeshiva in Jerusalem. My motive for doing so, was not one of a zealous will to become religious and “find God”, it was from a sense of shame at my own ignorance regarding the tenets of the religion and identity that I was part of. I had been brought up in a traditional Jewish home, but I had very little idea, from a theological perspective, concerning what Judaism actually entailed. Apart from a minimal preparation for the reading of a portion from the Torah for my Bar Mitzvah and attending the two annual High Holy day services at synagogue (which were incredibly boring and where it seemed to me that no one around me understood what was being recited whilst many could barely even follow the service in the book) I had had very little contact with Jewish thought and no understanding of what Judaism actually entailed. I had no idea what the Mishna was or the Gemara. I didn’t know about the distinctions between the Oral Law and the Written Law. I didn’t understand a word of Hebrew either. And so I chose to spend these 4 months at a yeshiva with an Ulpan (Hebrew language school) and in this way hoped to become acquainted with Judaism in the real sense for the first time in my life. I had no prior knowledge of the yeshiva itself and no knowledge of Israeli politics. I was extremely naïve in that sense. I lived wholly inside my bubble, perhaps like many other youths of my age who had grown up with a similar background to my own.
I had no idea that Machon Meir was a radical yeshiva, whose rabbis would come to teach us every morning from their settlements in the occupied territories fueled and embittered with hate and invective after battling with the Israeli police and army around their illegal outposts. Rabin was in power. He had managed to put together a government which, for the first time in its history, relied upon a small Arab political party for its majority in the Knesset. This was unheard of. The fact that Arabs could form part of the coalition was repugnant to the right. The fact that Rabin was attempting to implement the Oslo Accords and supposedly dispossess them of their homes and their vision of a Greater Israel was an anathema. I joined the English-speakers class for people who were called “Hozer leThsuva” (lit: “Returning to the Answer”), which refers to laic Jews who become religious and so return to the fold. Most of my class were young Americans. There were some Russians there too. An Argentinian boy, who was converting to Judaism (in order to be able to emigrate to Israel and so escape Argentina’s disastrous economy) was also in the class, and we became firm friends. I had come to the yeshiva to learn about the historical and theological tenets of Judaism, but every morning the rabbis would come into the class full of invective and hatred for Rabin and his government, and incite against them and the Palestinian population, cursing them and declaring how one day they would take their revenge. Instead of teaching us about Rashi, the Mishna and the Gemara, most of the class would be taken up with an account of the running battle and protests against the police and the army from the evening before or from that morning. The rabbis’ faces would be red and choleric and their words would be angry and vengeful. I am an observer and so I observed. I watched how the youths who had come to the yeshiva to learn, empty vessels full of a yearning for a sense of mission and meaning in their lives, were slowly and surely indoctrinated by the invective and spleen of their religious leaders. I saw them slowly being molded into ideological representatives and mouthpieces of the Greater Israel dream. I watched them take on the racist jargon and beliefs of their teachers. I heard them too refer to Rabin as a traitor and wish upon him and his kind their comeuppance, just as the rabbis did as they spewed forth their violent words into the classroom.
And when they did find time to teach us, it was often through the focus and writings of a supremacist ideology, emphasising details such as how it was permitted for a Jew to break the Sabbath only in order to save another Jew (but not in order to save a non-Jew), or to be informed how there were different levels to the soul, and how only the Jew was privileged enough to be endowed with the highest level. I observed how these hitherto empty vessels took upon themselves this sense of supremacism, together with the urgent, messianic belief based upon the writings and ideology of Rav Kook – who in may ways can be conceived of as the father of the settlement movement. Rav Kook, a brilliant and prolific Talmudic and spiritual scholar from the late 19th and early 20th century essentially gave rise to the Religious Zionist movement by effectively reversing the chronology inherent in Orthodox Haredi Judaism. For prior to him, it was deemed necessary for the Messiah to first come down into the world only after which the State of Israel would be declared. This essentially explains the strong opposition that traditional Haredi and Hassidic movements have to the presence of the State of Israel today and to Zionism in general. It is not that they oppose Israel’s presence on humanist, political or compassionate grounds. Their opposition is purely a theological one. They oppose Israel’s presence because they believe that it runs contrary to their messianic vision. Only through the deep and fervent practice of Judaism and Mitzvot (good deeds and prescribed actions according to the Jewish laws) will the Messiah come down into the world, and only then will Israel be proclaimed and return to how it was in the days of the scriptures. Rav Kook basically deconstructed this ideological belief and reconstructed it in the form of religious Zionism where (by reversing the chronology) the Messiah’s coming will actually be hastened and prompted by the Jewish occupation of the Land of Greater (biblical) Israel. The idea of a Greater Israel thus becomes an urgent prerequisite. The fervent belief of these rabbis and their students who follow today in Rav Kook’s footsteps is so absolute, that they are willing to sacrifice everything for the implementation of their ideology.
In order to escape the politicization of the lessons I transferred to the French section of the yeshiva during the second half of my stay there. It was led by a brilliant, philosophical rabbi by the name of Rav Sharki, and he, at least, spent his time teaching in French about the Jewish texts and commentaries rather than aiming at political indoctrination and incitement. A month after I left the yeshiva Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Jorge, my Argentinian friend, who was still there completing his conversion, told me about the festivities that took place in the yeshiva immediately following his murder. How the rabbis and the students were dancing and shouting and singing for joy, and how they even suggested that Jorge leave the yeshiva because he would not join in and show solidarity with them.
The following year, May 1996, I made Aliyah to Israel. How does one explain such a move following my experience at the yeshiva and the subsequent assassination of Rabin? The mind has the ability to compartmentalise events. I was still, in many respects, in my somewhat solipsistic bubble. What I witnessed at the yeshiva was, to my mind, no more than the manifestation of extremism. An ugly and pernicious extremism, it must be admitted, but it didn’t infringe on my life – which was still, at that stage, very much insulated and concerned about its own existential concerns rather than others. Hamas had blown up buses in central Israel, Rabin had been murdered for trying to end the occupation, but I was still wandering about trying to find a meaning and a sense of belonging to my life. My yeshiva experience had shown me where ideological extremism could lead, and from the very core of my being I naturally rejected every sense of supremacism, racism and injustice that I saw being fomented in such a hothouse.
And yet there was another and very different aspect that I observed at the yeshiva that I have not mentioned, and that was the strong sense of unity and belonging that existed among the community there. The word that they used to refer to this was the “clal” which in Hebrew means the “general”, as opposed to the “individual”. This “general” being, this being part of a something that was greater than the individual, ego-seeking self, attracted me. It seemed to hold in it everything that Europe and the West had lost and rejected. I’m not saying that I came to Israel in order to join a yeshiva or anything like that (I think my experience at Machon Meir in Jerusalem sufficed) but I am saying that perhaps I made the decision to come over looking for and believing in that sense of the “clal” that I hoped to find. A sense of belonging to something that was beyond myself and which gave a sense of meaning to this being-in-the-world.
That is not to say that I came as a Zionist either. I was still very naïve concerning Israeli politics (despite my experiences at the yeshiva) and didn’t come over with any ideological or political visions. But I did come over looking for something nonetheless. Needless to say, it did not materialise. Very soon after arriving, I was exposed to the ugly election campaign that heralded Netanyahu into power for the first time. I witnessed his manipulative TV campaigns where he would continuously show the images of exploding buses and injured civilians and saw how he cunningly worked upon maintaining and augmenting the fear of an entire nation in order to delegitimise Peres’ campaign and legacy. And then, when the demagogue was elected, I watched the video footage of a hall packed full of his supporters saluting him with right arm outstretched into a fist rising high up in the air above their heads whilst screaming out like a mob of pugnacious thugs “Bibi Melech Israel” (Bibi, King of Israel). It was a truly frightening scene, reminding me of the footages of the Nazi salutes from an ecstatic crowd following Hitler’s election in 1933. Little was I to know that it would serve as a harbinger of things to come.
I didn’t find what I was looking for but I didn’t go back to Europe either. This is something that I find harder to explain both to others and to myself. Why did I not simply pack up and return to England or Spain, or somewhere else in Europe, after witnessing the gradual decay of my hopes and aspirations; and all the while beginning to feel more and more of an outsider and isolated in a society whose values, it was becoming increasingly clear, I could not identify with or respect? I think the answer perhaps lies with the notion that I employed above belonging to the word “gradual”. I see this now as a two-fold notion. There was both a gradual dawning inside me of my place, or non-place, in a society whose values were antithetical to my nature; but there was, at the same time, a gradual displacement of the societal values themselves which has taken place over the past twenty years that I have been here. For Israel today is certainly not the Israel that I joined my destiny with all those years ago. It might have been problematic then (and when I came over, it was still reeling from Rabin’s assassination) but it was still in some kind of dynamic limbo or uncertainty, looking for its own direction and voice. I think that Netanyahu picked up on that uncertainty, that still-unformed societal clay in the making, and saw this as an opportunity to begin molding it in the direction that he envisaged. The masses, as masses are wont to do, simply went unquestioningly along with him. But it was precisely this gradualness, both of my own realisations as to the situation before me, as well as of the changing situation itself, that has prevented me from moving. It is like when we stare up at the moon or the stars above us in the night sky. We do not ascertain that they are moving relative to us. We feel confident in maintaining that they are stationary cosmic entities fixed above us in the ether. It is only when we return to look at them after a period of time has elapsed that we realise that they have altered their position significantly in relation to us. Perhaps it was that semblance of stasis that fooled me and allowed me to believe that some form of adaption or resolution was possible, whilst all the time the occupation was cementing itself with ever greater greed and voraciousness, the values of supremacism were growing with ever greater surety, and the oppression of another people and the lack of empathy for the suffering that it was causing was standardising itself in the psyche of the people with full-blown encouragement from its leaders.
The turning point for me in terms of shaking me out of my solipsism took place at some instance during the Second Intifida.
I remember the moment very clearly. I was watching coverage from the television news as it reported on a student demonstration that took place at the Rafah border in Gaza. The students were unarmed and vociferous. I don’t recall exactly what they were demonstrating against now. It might have been related to one of the aerial bombardments in Gaza where, as was so often the case, innocent civilians were killed, or perhaps it was against Israel’s “pin-point” assassinations of suspected Hamas terrorists (which were then commonplace, and often were anything but pin-point as they all too often incurred significant collateral damage with the death of a large number of innocent civilians). Whatever the cause of their demonstration, I remember distinctly that the report stressed that they were unarmed students and that the Israeli military (who at that stage, prior to Sharon’s “withdrawal”, were still very much inside Gaza) aimed their cannons at them and opened fire. A large number of the students were killed. I was sickened to the core at such a cowardly and disgraceful act of barbarism and I knew then that I had to do something, however small, that allowed me to feel that I was not a part of this monstrous and murderous policy that was taking place in defence of the occupation.
I began searching and asking around and eventually I was put in touch with a group of Israeli women who opposed the occupation, called “Women in Black” and was told that they were looking for a native English speaker who would be willing to volunteer to teach a group of Palestinian women in the peace centee in a small Palestinian village called Bidya, in area B, near the Palestinian town of Salfit. I jumped at the opportunity. Every other Saturday over a period of several months I would travel with an Israeli woman from the Women in Black organisation to the unmanned roadblock near Barkan. I would leave my car there and we would then take a Palestinian taxi to the peace centre in Bidya. The young women, many of them religious, would come in from all around the area and I would teach them for two or three hours a time in the classroom there. The group was organised by a strong-willed Palestinian woman by the name of Fatima who wanted not only to afford the women a sense of hope and purpose within their imprisoned existences, but a sense of empowerment as well. I had a wonderful relationship with them. I am not sure who looked forward to the meetings more, me or them. But there was certainly a mutual respect and admiration, and they were so motivated and full of life.
I remember one day when I printed out for them a page from an English translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s prose poem of Lebanon, where he spoke of the smell of the Arab coffee and how it stimulated the memories in the Palestinians of their homeland. It was such a beautiful and moving piece of writing and I feel sure that it was inspired by Proust’s passage of the Magdalena cakes. The women were so responsive and appreciative of my efforts. Another time I got them to write letters to Oprah Winfrey, each one depicting their experiences of living under the occupation. Their letters were exquisite, sad and moving portrayals of life lived under humiliation and siege. But they loved the exercise. They truly did.
One day my parents, who were in Israel at the time, came over to visit me in Jaffa, and I made them a meal in the garden and made the mistake of telling them about my activities in volunteering to help the Palestinian women. I knew that they (and especially my father) were staunch Zionists and would not necessarily approve of what I was doing, but I felt that I finally was doing something so morally right and meaningful, however small in its scope, that I felt a sort of pride in my actions and didn’t mind if they would criticise me. But actually they said very little and I was quite surprised at this. The following day, I received a phone call from the Jaffa police. The policeman told me that he had been informed that I was traveling into Palestinian territory to teach Palestinians. He seemed to know all the details. Where I was traveling, when I was traveling, the name of the person who organised the group and such like. I was flabbergasted. I informed him that I was not breaking the law in any way, and that it was not illegal for me to travel into the area that I was teaching in. His reply was that he knew this but that he had phoned to warn me nonetheless. I can’t remember at what point in the conversation the policeman let drop that my father was sitting opposite him in the police station and that he had come to demand that the police intervene against my actions. I was speechless. It led, needless to say, to a long break in my relationship with my parents.
Needless to say, too, I continued to teach in Bidya for many weeks following that incident until the group eventually dispersed for reasons of their own. I later was informed that my father had acted in order to “save my life” (his own words) and that had he not intervened I would most likely have been “cut up into little pieces” (my mother’s words). What can I say except that “Fear Eats the Soul” and it is cleverly manipulated by the right wing in general, and Netanyahu in particular, in order to foment their insidious and odious policies.
Much of what I would have to say from an objective standpoint is already known to those who will read this piece. Sharon’s crafty “disengagement” from Gaza at the very moment that he was about to be investigated for severe crimes of fraud and corruption regarding his business dealings both in Israel and abroad. The idea in the Israeli psyche that the Palestinians in Gaza were not “appreciative” to the gesture of removing them from their occupation (and instead enclosing them in a gigantic prison with no infrastructure, dignity or means of escape) and responded in such a manner that Israel had no choice but to bomb the hell out of them and teach them a lesson. I don’t want to dwell here on the terrible offensives that have taken place and the tragic loss of so much innocent life. But I will say that with the continuation of the years, the sense of despair at ever discovering some kind of outside to this warped mind-set has increased.
I live inside a nation embedded and indoctrinated with a sense of victimisation whilst inflicting the most unjust suffering, the most cruel and senseless oppression, on another people. I live in a nation embroiled in a self-righteous defensiveness without any ethical conscience, without any wish or ability to scrutinise the sickness of its own psyche. Sometimes the sense of helplessness becomes overwhelming. It is as if, at times, I feel that I have woken up into dream in which all the characters apart from myself operate with a different set of rules regarding how humanity should be considered. A completely different set of ethics that to me seem all too perverse and frightful. And inside this dream I try to discuss and portray my sense of reality. I expound my moral beliefs about living a life of compassion and respect towards others, of upholding the dignity and well-being of others, and I find that there is no-one who understands what I am talking about. All the characters around me are living in a different paradigm. A paradigm which betrays the very humanity that I have been born into. The sense of isolation is often extreme.
More recently, in an attempt to find an outside, I have taken to volunteering with a grass-roots organisation called Taayush. Taayush consists of a small group of Israelis who travel to the South Hebron Hills every Saturday in order to help the Palestinian farmers reach their lands which are separated from their villages. Without the presence of these volunteers, the settlers would regularly come down from their hilltop settlements overlooking the Palestinian lands and attack the Palestinians who are working there, whilst the Israeli soldiers look on passively. At other times the soldiers simply make up all kinds of pretexts to prevent the Palestinians from accessing their lands, declaring suddenly, for example, that it has become a closed military area, or simply barring the way without rhyme or reason. The presence of Israeli Jews often prevents the army from acting in this way, and prevents the settler youths from attacking the farmers. Before Taayush began to act in the area, many of the Palestinians were simply too scared to access their lands at all, and they lay abandoned for a long time.
Last week I went to the Asfur area in the Hebron hills with Taayush and there helped the Palestinians plant olive trees in their fields. It is the fifth time now over the years that they have set about planting the orchard. The past four times the settlers came down and uprooted and burned their trees and blocked up their wells with cement. For people like myself watching them toil the land each time anew with such painstaking love and dedication, the work seems so Sisyphean, but these people have a will and a belief in the future despite their painful travails. Nevertheless, today in Israel, the work of activists is denounced more than ever and they are regarded as well-nigh traitors. Just recently Guy Butavia and Ezra Nawi from Taayush were arrested and thrown into prison on a trumped up charge after a member of the extreme right infiltrated the group and secretly filmed them in action – footage of which was sensationally shown in a distorted way on a prime-time Israeli television show. They have now been released from jail, after being abused and tortured and vilified by the state and the media, because the judge found that there was no evidence with which to charge them of any crime, but not before the police tried unsuccessfully to take out a restriction order on their entering the Hebron area again.
Ezra has been so mentally damaged by the ordeal that he no longer leaves his house from the trauma. The public regard him as one of the most despised people in Israel today. The onslaught by the state and its organisations against those opposing the occupation grows daily. The names of artists (writers, actors, artists) and members of NGOs who oppose the occupation have appeared as lists in the press through a private campaign to “out” left-wing public figures and they have been labelled as traitors to the state. The Ministry of Culture has ensured that artists who do not swear their full allegiance to the state will no longer receive state funding. And there is now a law being proposed to fine them for their “transgressions”. The list goes on. The future looks bleak indeed.
I would like to spend some time in my conclusion here looking at the Israeli psyche that defends such actions, and that, more to the point, defends the continual offensives, onslaughts, oppressions and collective punishments against the Palestinians, and that has allowed them to be perpetrated again and again with alacrity and almost unchallenged support. For this, for me, is one of the most disturbing and terrifying aspects of my being here in Israel. It is the almost complete lack of empathy for the suffering, death and destruction caused by the evils of the occupation and an almost complete lack of critique against what is so obviously the most inhuman and abject of policies. How can this be explained? How can one come even close to trying to understand this collective psychosis that appears so wholly detached from the values that any form of humanity should hold dear?
This is perhaps the most difficult part for me to write about, because to a large extent, it remains incomprehensible to me as well, so I ask the reader to excuse me if I become too speculative at this point in trying to do so. But I don’t think I have any choice in the matter. There are many epithets that Israel enjoys bandying around both for the benefit of its own citizens and, it would appear, for the benefit of the world at large (as if there exists some unquestioned notion that the world at large has much to learn from the way that Israel behaves towards its own citizens and towards those that lie under its subjugation). To name but two of these, one would be that Israel has “the most moral army in the world”, and a second would be that Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East”.
I think one can learn quite a lot about the Israeli psyche by looking at these two examples as case histories to how that psyche is created. The first adage is accepted as a given by almost all Israeli citizens. One hears it on the news, one reads it in the newspapers, and one hears it constantly on the lips of all its good citizens ardently defending Israel’s belligerent actions. What would seem surprising to an outsider, however, is that this adage is heard most of all, and with the greatest of force, whenever the amount of destruction incurred by the army’s activities is at its greatest, whenever the number of deaths of innocent civilians from collateral damage is at a maximum, and whenever the infringement of accepted international rules of engagement concerning international resolutions that Israel is signed up to is also maximised. The more human rights are blatantly abused by vengeful cadets or officers humiliating the enemy, torturing them at times in the most sadistic of ways, and killing them with trigger-happy fingers in what is quite obviously no less than a series of unchallenged extrajudicial executions, the more one is deafened by the slogan of the army’s unquestioned morality. Not simply unquestioned, but unquestioningly more moral than any other army in the whole, entire world. There is no outside to this deafening noise of branding. It is everywhere, and it is this totalising space that simply does not allow for criticism to take place. For how can it take place when there is no place for it to occur? All the places have already been occupied by the totality of the force with which the adage is composed and implemented.
It is this notion of “totality”, this totalising phenomenon, which is, I believe, the secret to understanding why critique has virtually been eliminated within Israeli society. One can understand this more when we consider the second adage, that of “the only democracy in the Middle East”. At first sight, this would appear a more complicated scenario to unravel, for this epithet is accepted not only by Israeli Jewish citizens, but by virtually all governments and many peoples throughout the Western world and beyond. And even when the words are held up to a light and scrutinised by liberals and leftists both in Israel and without, the adage will be necessarily accepted with a small reservation: “It might be the only democracy in the Middle East,” they say, “But that is only for its Jewish citizens”. I would like to stay with this last comment, the one that includes the reservation. For it is here, in this belief that democracy does truly exist here in full glory for its Jewish citizens, that I believe we can come to understand how it is that in such a so-called democratic state there is so little genuine criticism against the ferociously inhuman policies that are taking place under the aegis of Zionism. And it is here too that a gradual realisation has begun to dawn on me regarding the illusion of the democracy that exists here. We understand democracy as being a “rule by the people”, where the people freely choose their elected leaders to rule in their stead. In other words implicit in democracy is the belief that the people within it are free and use the privilege of their unfettered freedom to elect their represented officials. This would be as opposed to totalitarianism where there is absolute control by the state and where that state controls the behaviour of its citizens and infiltrates all aspects of its citizens’ lives to such an extent that even the way its citizens think are controlled (even if not knowingly) by the state apparatus. (We only have to look towards North Korea and observe how its leader receives such overwhelming support and love from its citizens to understand how totalitarianism can impact so forcefully upon the psyche of its people).
What I have gradually come to realise regarding Israel, is that Israel is, in many ways, a democracy by name alone. It is true that its citizens vote for and elect their represented officials but they do so under the auspices of a state apparatus that insidiously controls the very way they have come to think and act – that control takes place under the aegis of Zionism. Zionism is the totalising and ubiquitous force that underlies all aspects of the citizens’ development and behaviour. It infiltrates and defines their lives from kindergarten, through primary school, middle school and secondary school, through the army, through the work place, through the media, through public discourse, in short through every conduit imaginable. The citizens of the state are formed and created by that state in the most exacting and totalising of ways. There is no outside. There is no other or outer space for its citizens to occupy and from which they can take up a critical perspective upon the behaviour of the state to which they belong. Its citizens are always inside this confined and defined space within which policies are enacted. It is within this fabricated space that the occupation continues and is defended. It is within this fabricated space that the army takes on the epithet of being “the most moral army in the world”. It is within this space that all perceived criticism against the state and its behaviour from the outside is considered as an anathema to the state’s existence and is automatically and unquestioningly condemned as being “anti-Semitic”. It is from within this space that new leaders take form and come into being. It is within this space that the Palestinian is dehumanised and her presence and rights delegitimatised. It is within this space that Israeli democracy is heralded and upheld.
It is this suffocating societal space from which the very possibility of an outside has been eradicated and within which culture and policy are determined. It is when one begins to understand the presence of this “totalitarian democracy” that the fearful sense of reality takes hold. For when there is no outside, there is no hope.
Howard Cohen is a writer in Israel.