Israel Has Moved

  • Diana Pinto
  • Harvard University Press
  • 224 pp.
  • Reviewed by Eugene L. Meyer
  • March 14, 2013

A controversial portrait of Israel’s present and future.

Diana Pinto is a Jewish-Italian intellectual historian who lives in Paris. Educated in the United States and with a Harvard Ph.D., she is not, by her own description, a Zionist, and she is admittedly critical of the Israeli government under Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. Yet, she harbors the hope that, against all odds, the State of Israel will somehow return to what she sees as its more modest and idealistic Zionist roots.

Absent that, however, in her impressionistic and provocative book Israel Has Moved, she paints a bleak picture indeed of the country’s present and future. She manages to turn just about everything others might consider a positive into a negative. She sees an Israel increasingly self-absorbed and isolated on the international stage, even as it becomes more global in its entrepreneurial reach, exporting medical and computer technologies and products, as well as people, who easily and confidently travel back and forth between continents and time zones, often jet-setting between residences in Tel Aviv, London, New York and even California.

The book defies easy categorization. It is neither celebratory, like Dan Senor’s and Saul Singer’s 2009 Start-up Nation, nor an attack from the American Jewish left, as exemplified by The Crisis of Zionism by Peter Beinart, a journalism professor, pundit and former editor of the New Republic. Unfortunately, Pinto’s analysis seems overly facile and her choice of words sometimes offensive. Nor does she strive for a middle ground. Instead, she attempts to view the country through an entirely different lens.

She sees within the New Jersey-sized nation, in its various ethnic, political and religious strains, not strength in diversity but detachment and distance, physically, psychologically and practically, one from another. Their commonality, she writes, appears limited to a language, modern Hebrew, but also to a virtual abandonment of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict favored by international elites. Instead, the author asserts that most Israelis passively accept the status quo, and have turned inward almost exclusively toward domestic economic issues, a tendency she repeatedly describes as “self-ghettoization” and “autistic.” 

The author also likens the West Bank settlements to lebensraum, borrowing a word the Nazis used to justify annexation of foreign lands they said were needed as “living room” for Germans. Whether or not she has a point, her use of such incendiary language is more than provocative. 

Israel’s supporters in the West, from most sympathetic to most critical, will find Pinto’s conclusions unsettling. For if, in fact, “Israel has moved” on and there is little interest in the two-state solution, then what is the priority for the country’s majority? It would be wrong to call them the silent majority, because thousands rose up in protest two summers ago, pitching tents in the public squares of Tel Aviv and other cities. But it was economic inequality that motivated them, not the Jewish settlements on the West Bank or the failure of their government to negotiate a lasting peace, or even discrimination against Arab Israelis.

In the author’s view, “social justice and rational planning,” which earlier guided Israel, have given way to “science and business,” the new prevailing ethos for a country that no longer regards the Oslo peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinians as a viable path to a future of peace and prosperity. Even Israelis on the left suffer more from self-inflicted angst than from the pain inflicted on others, in her view. “Israeli pain is autistic,” she writes.

However, there are Israelis who actively ally themselves with Palestinians on many issues, who work with Israeli Bedouins to improve educational and economic opportunity, who champion the cause of Israeli Ethiopians and African refugees.

But any such countervailing and positive efforts go unacknowledged in Pinto’s anecdotal portrait of Israel today. She also gives short shrift to the very real security threats with which Israelis must live day to day. A 2011 visit to a kibbutz bordering the Gaza strip brought this home to me: Every house had a “safe room” in the event of rocket attacks; an olive tree stood as a memorial to a man killed while working in his garden. 

Pinto initially wrote the book in French and then executed her own “English adaptation.” She completed her work before Israel invaded Gaza, in response to unremitting rockets lobbed by militants intent on the country’s destruction, and also before the January 2013 elections that appeared to have produced a more moderate government under Netanyahu, with the ascendency of a new centrist party. The book also came before ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman resigned from his post as foreign minister as he faced corruption charges. 

But these seem like passing events, not seismic shifts that undermine Pinto’s basic pessimism. Moreover, what might seem to some like positive changes are counterbalanced by more recent reports, such as the fire set to the offices of the Jerusalem soccer team that recruited two Muslim players from Chechnya. But the torching only served to underscore undercurrents of intolerance which, she writes, many Israelis harbor towards “the other.” This is a term Pinto also uses to describe Arab Israelis and non-Jewish African immigrants, desperately fleeing famine and oppression in their native lands but with no legal claim on Israeli soil. 

However, she argues that, so long as Israelis can tout themselves as the “Start-up Nation,” with more companies on the NASDAQ than all of Europe combined, with its Wadi Valley outside Haifa akin to California’s Silicon Valley, and with the high-rise modernity of Tel Aviv, most Israelis don’t really care. The “tent protests” of 2011 were not about welcoming others into the tent but about improving the lives of Jewish Israelis not sharing in the wealth.

Israelis inhabit their “autistic” tent, she argues, and also a “bubble,” inside the sleekly modern Ben Gurion Airport. She seems surprised — and discomfited — that the airport gift shop sells Jewish objects exclusively. But that appears to this reviewer to be smart marketing to the Jewish tourists who come and go there. She also notes, a bit wistfully, the posters lining a main airport walkway evoking Israel’s heroic efforts from the 1940s and 1950s to live up to the Zionist — largely European — notions of a struggling young nation of idealistic pioneers.

So, she asks at the end of the book, if Israel has moved, “Where exactly is Israel ‘moving to’?” If not a two-state solution, and not a one-state solution, some Israelis foresee — and there are Palestinians who also subscribe to this — perhaps a bi-national confederation, two separate entities with a federal government overseeing some functions. Think of Canada, with its French and English cantons. Or Cyprus, where such an arrangement exists, if only informally, between Greek and Turkish Cypriots sharing the same island. None of these solutions is ideal, in her view. But for a people convinced of its “autistic national certitudes,” reinforced perhaps by its antagonistic neighbors, there may be few good options.

There is, however, the hope she expresses on behalf of those she calls the “non-privileged Israelis,” that they will lead their country, through their political participation, “back to its earlier modesty and its humanistic values, before it’s too late.” But she doesn’t seem very optimistic about such an outcome. Israel Has Moved offers a lot of food for thought, but also the risk of indigestion, and no easy cure for whatever ails America’s closest ally in the Middle East. 

Eugene L. Meyer, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, was last in Israel in 2011. 

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