Branding the ’00’s: Israel’s decade of death and disengagement

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-22-09

As we approach 2010, we should say good riddance to this past decade. For Israel, this decade began with great hopes of peace that Palestinian suicide bombers blew to bits. What quickly became a Decade of Death ends on an upturn, as a Decade of Disengagement.

On January 1, 2000, thrilled that their TVs and computers worked despite Y2K Millennium Bug warnings, millions welcomed the new decade watching a seemingly inspiring scene in Bethlehem. The Palestinian Authority celebrated what reporters called “a new dawn,” by releasing 2000 doves into the air.

The doves were probably pigeons. And the fireworks shot off immediately thereafter terrified the birds. Many plunged to their deaths in Manger Square to the sounds of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Ma’ad Abu-Ghazalah, a Palestinian-American witnessing the scene, noted the irony that the birds’ value as symbols of peace caused their deaths. Bethlehem residents responded: “The PA doesn’t respect its own people! Why do you expect them to respect a few pigeons?” Nine months later, Yasser Arafat’s PA showed even more contempt for its own people – and its neighbors – by launching what Palestinians called “the Intifada,” and what we should call Arafat’s War of Terror against the Peace Process.

With Arafat’s War in September 2000, terrorism became one of the decade’s defining forces. In a cruel betrayal that still haunts Israel, the world blamed Israel for the Palestinian turn from negotiations to terror – and condemned every Israeli response to the violence. Even worse, for months Israel failed to protect its citizens on the streets and in cafes, on buses and at bat mitzvahs. The violence peaked in March 2002, when terrorists slaughtered 134 innocents, including 30 celebrating a Passover Seder. Israelis remember the sick feeling from those days, desperately calling in loved ones after each massacre, guiltily relieved that it was someone else’s life that had been shattered – this time.

Following that March of mayhem, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon changed the dynamics. Rather than simply reacting to Palestinian terror, he launched Operation Defensive Shield, taking the fight to the terrorists on the West Bank. We forget that Sharon had already been flailing about as prime minister for a year, as civilians were murdered. We also forget that it took September 11 to mobilize American Jewry and sensitize then-president George W. Bush to the problems. And only after Arafat lied to Bush in January 2002, denying knowledge of the Karine A arms shipment, did Bush give up on Arafat as a “peace partner” and give Israel the green light to attack.

Israel eventually won this war against the Palestinians. The death toll of over 1000 was so great and Israel’s position in the world so compromised, that the country never celebrated this hard-fought victory. The Palestinians’ worldwide anti-Zionist campaign triggered an ugly resurgence of anti-Semitism, embraced by too many intellectuals. And Palestinian suicide bombers forced Israel into building a separation barrier. The barrier is the burial ground of the delusions of the Right that Israel could ignore Palestinian aspirations and of the Left that the Palestinians were ready to compromise.

Arafat died in November, 2004. In August 2005, Sharon tried locking-in the cold peace that had settled in by withdrawing 7000 Israelis from Gaza. The half-decade of Death ended; the Decade of Disengagement began.

Tragically, the Disengagement misfired. Although the number of Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza plummeted, the unilateral disengagement emboldened Hamas to take over Gaza as a barrage of rockets pounded the Negev – for years before Israel responded effectively. Moreover, in what will be remembered as an act of tremendous shortsightedness by the Israeli Left, rather than ensuring the settlers’ smoothest possible reintegration to ease future withdrawals, the resettlement was sloppy and traumatic. Four years later, many of the disengaged Gaza settlers remain unsettled.

With Sharon’s incapacitating stroke in January, 2006 and Ehud Olmert’s emergence as prime minister, Israelis experienced a different kind of disengagement in these aptly-named “oh-ohs.” Israelis wallowed in a defensive, post-traumatic mental state wherein individuals disconnect from memories, emotions, actions. According to Dr. Patti Levin, a Boston-based psychologist, even when people do not experience traumas directly, mass disasters such as the terror wave become “vicarious traumas,” puncturing individuals’ myth of the “just world,” as they discover that “no longer do bad things only happen to bad people – or to others – but they can happen to anyone, including themselves.” Some then succumb to a “detached, hopeless (not even daring to hope) state of passive victimhood,” what Dr. Martin Seligman termed “Learned Helplessness.

The Olmert era was an era of collective PTS – post traumatic stress – with too many Israelis resigned to a stalled peace process, corrupt leaders, and the world’s growing hostility. Many Israelis no longer dropped everything to listen intently when the “beep, beep, beep” announced the hourly news on “Kol Yisrael MiYerushalayim.” Increasingly, the West’s individualistic, shop till you drop mentality trumped the traditional collective Zionist ethos. The outbreak of two wars under Olmert – in Lebanon in 2006, and in Gaza in 2008 – engaged Israelis temporarily, and unevenly, as one region in each of those conflicts suffered directly, while others thrived.

Israelis’ passive, amusement imperative amid such great disasters and threats reflects both political weakness and social resilience. Amid such trauma, despite a depressing level of political dysfunction, Israel is proving to the Palestinians and the world that living well truly is the best revenge. The Israeli economy proved more buoyant than most during the global economic crisis. Israel continues to rock the high tech world, as Dan Senor and Saul Singer recently illustrated in their inspiring book Start-Up Nation. Moreover, Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse accurately calls Israelis “reverse hypocrites.” Hypocrites’ actions fail to live up to their noble rhetoric; Israelis act more nobly than their rhetoric, as many denigrate their country yet fight valiantly when necessary.

The United States, too, suffers from collective Post-Traumatic Stress, and experienced a far more disconnected “Whatever Decade.” As Israelis leave this Decade of Death and Disengagement, the challenge is to follow the Biblical imperative – Choose Life! – while following the democratic dicate – engage! Israelis have emerged from the cauldrons of terrorist hell. Hopefully, this coming decade will be an opportunity to apply the genius Israeli have demonstrated in developing software to nurturing a society that is just, strong, caring, and engaged.

Please email your own suggestions of what to call this decade in Israel’s history to namethatdecade.israel@gmail.com. The person sending in the best suggestion will receive a free book.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution:  A Very Short Introduction, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

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