DevMode
Israeli identity, like all other national identities, is anything but primordial, natural or integral. Rather, it is contested and negotiated, incessantly constructed and manufactured by those who promulgate it so as to fit approximations of what they deem to be the national project.
The presence and proximity of Arabs, as individuals, as a culture, as a polity-in short as an essentialized category-is central to Israeli identity formation. This makes physical and symbolic points of contact with and separation from Arabs, in particular the Palestinians, sites in which Israeli identity and solidarity are acted out and reified.
This paper uses this theoretical context to look at some of the socio-psychological and political significance of borders for Israel and Israelis. The first part of the article looks at the recent fascination, on the part of the Israeli mainstream, with the notion of "unilateral separation" from the Palestinians. Present in Israeli politics in various forms and guises for decades, this obsession resurfaced to become particularly potent in the summer of 2001. It preached the withdrawal of Israel from its current positions in the West Bank and Gaza even if it means doing it without the prior agreement or approval of the Palestinians. However, this vision is far from promising in terms of progress toward a viable solution. Its popularity is better analyzed not in terms of solution, but as a part of the internal debate within Jewish Israeli society regarding Israeli identity and destiny.
To set such an analysis in motion, the second part of the article looks at the ironic ways in which realities since 1967 consistently obscured and obfuscated the demarcation lines between Israelis and Palestinians. This ambiguity was exacerbated with the violent events of 2001, when Palestinian suicide bombers crossed into Israel almost with the same ease in which Israeli armor penetrated Palestinian soil. This diffusion of the border further confused the Israeli mainstream, breeding a craving for a "real"--and preferably impenetrable--physical border between Israel and Palestine.
The third part of the article put this into a more general theoretical perspective through the use of Arjun Appadurai's concept of culturalism (Appadurai 1996). Zionist discourse, like other national narratives, promotes a particular bundle of cultural traits as an exclusive representation of the national project. A central tenet of Israeli culturalism is the binary opposition between Jew and Arab, which stands for a series of "Us versus Them" dichotomies: modern versus primitive, European versus Other, progressive versus stagnant. In such a context, the quest for the border, the need for psychological differentiation and the desire for a coherent Israeli identity emerge as different aspects of one, ostensibly uniform and coherent national project.

"Unilateral Separation" and the Border in Contemporary Israeli Discourse

Recent surveys indicate that more than 60% of the Israeli public now support "unilateral separation." This concept made an impressive entry into Israeli public discourse in the summer of 2001. It is heralded by ex-generals, security experts, some academics, a considerable number of Labor politicians and some influential members of the press. Unilateral separation is premised on the logic of territorial division that has guided political initiatives in Israel/Palestine ever since the partition proposals of the British Peel Commission in 1936 (see Shlaim 1990, 54-106).
However, unlike earlier attempts to divide Mandatory Palestine, which were premised on a formal agreement between Israel and a future Palestine, current Israeli thought on unilateral separation assumes that an agreement with the Palestinians is unattainable. This is of course a clear reflection of the view of Ehud Barak, who as prime minister of Israel convinced his public that the failure of the Camp David II negotiations in July 2000 resulted from irrational and dishonest Palestinian obstinacy vis-á-vis a reasonable and lavish Israeli peace proposal. According to this linear logic, Israel has no choice but to act alone: withdraw its armed forces and possibly some outlying settlements from the West Bank and the Gaza strip, re-group along lines of its own choosing, and hope for the best. Barak, incidentally, was forcefully in favor of separation even before he came to office in June 1999.
While Ehud Barak was the first to give it prominence, many of those advocating unilateral separation in 2001 are politicians identified with the dovish wing in Labor, such as Shlomo Ben-Ami and Haim Ramon. This must not be taken as an indication that the new border they envisage will run along the old green line and terminate Israeli occupation. The protagonists have never indicated willingness to dismantle all Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and to relinquish all territories taken by Israel in 1967. While they are, in principle, in favor of a nominal Palestinian state, the outcome of their proposal is likely to be a partial Israeli redeployment. The Palestinians will surely perceive this as a transgression of their sovereignty, and armed conflict will persist and chances for a comprehensive settlement will be badly damaged.
When supporters of the concept of unilateral separation rationalize it, they focus on two aspects, ostensibly congruent with fundamental Israeli interests. One is that separation, once consolidated by a real barrier in the form of a well-surveyed, controllable frontier zone, will curb Palestinian suicide attacks and bring security to Israel. The second is that separation is necessary for Israel to protect itself from the demographic threat posed by the rapid population growth of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Both claims are very difficult to defend. No credible security expert is willing to maintain that a wall or a fence can effectively stop terrorists willing to die in action. The chance that such a barrier might work in the hilly terrain of Israel and Palestine, where potential Palestinian vigilantes view Israeli territory as the homeland stolen from their parents, are as slim as they are on the United States-Mexican border (Kearney 1991; Rouse 1991), on Europe's eastern and southern frontiers (Driesen 1998), and along other interfaces dividing a strong economy such as Israel from a considerably poorer repository of cheap labor such as Palestine (cf. Borneman 1998). In fact, the economic interdependence between Israeli employers and Palestinian laborers is likely to ensure that the border, however well-buttressed, will in the long run be as porous as it has been since 1967.
The demographic argument is equally indefensible. The Palestinians who are under Israel's system of control, without citizenship and other basic human rights, will remain in more or less the same predicament until they can establish a viable state of their own. Separating them from Israel without catering for such a state is no more than incarceration-an intensified state of occupation in a different form and with tighter control. It reflects a well-disguised xenophobic impulse on the part of Israel to consolidate an apartheid-like system of segregation while maintaining internal cohesion and external support, and has little or no effect on demographics.
Some say the unilateral separation option is a device by frustrated Labor politicians to rekindle hope for a settlement that would be antithetical to prime minister Sharon's hard line and pave their way back to power. They know, the argument goes, that the ploy will never work, but preach it anyway, assuming failure could always be attributed to incomplete execution, external interventions, and unforeseen developments. In short, they cynically wave it as a trump card in a game they know full well is going nowhere.
While this may be so, it nevertheless begs the following question: how come an alert and generally well-informed Israeli public supports this seemingly improbable solution with such enthusiastic persistence? To understand this, I shall present a two-tiered analysis of Israeli identity, concentrating first, on the confusion associated with territorial blurring and second, on the role of separation from the Arabs.

The Geography of Occupation

The summer of 2001 witnessed renewed preoccupation on the part of Israelis with the notion of the border. The backdrop was a chaotic phase of the conflict in which a well-prepared Israeli army is capable of inflicting mortal damage on Palestinians in the occupied territories at will, and has been doing so incessantly, with or without immediate provocation. It seemed to operate, however, without a clear objective other than defending the settlers and its own troops, and occasionally making punitive retaliatory hits on Palestinian leaders, activists and facilities. More than two and a half million Palestinians in the occupied territories became subject to unprecedented disruptions of their daily lives: road blocks and closures sealed off villages and towns for days and weeks, condemning many to thirst and hunger. Commerce was stifled, poverty and economic hardship became the order of the day. Health and education seemed to be the only aspects of Palestinian public life that somehow continued to function.
By that time, the lives of Israeli settlers in the occupied territories had also been transformed, as attacks by armed Palestinians on vehicles traveling to and from the settlements took toll on life and limb. Palestinian suicide bombers proved practically unstoppable, sowing death, damage and fear in Israeli town centers. No real long-term political solution to the century long crisis was in sight.
This crisis threw the territorial incoherence of the conflict into sharp relief. The war of 1967 signaled the imposition of Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but did little to clarify the borders of the Israeli State. On the contrary, Israel established a policy of open bridges between the West Bank and Jordan to the east. It opened up the green line so as to enable hundreds of thousands of Palestinian laborers to commute and seek employment in the lower scales of the Israeli labor market. The occupation became a canopy for wide-scale expropriation of Palestinian land for Israeli settlements, triggering an ever-growing wave of Palestinian guerilla attacks against Israel and Israelis.
Over the years, Israeli governments of all political persuasions consistently attempted through settlement to undo the green line. The result further complicated by practices that followed the Oslo agreement of 1993, is a geography of occupation on the West Bank that looks like a jigsaw of protrusions and incursions. Israeli settlements are isolated by large expanses of pre-existing Palestinian towns and villages. Israeli-built bypass roads traverse Palestinian spaces. Army posts and holy sites venerated by both sides add to the territorial incoherence. A map prepared by Israel for the Camp David talks in July 2000 reflecting a partition possibly acceptable to Israel indicates the immense difficulty associated with translating the logic of territorial separation into an operational plan.
The occupation transformed the ultimate demarcation line between "Us" and "Them" that had been such a major component of Israeli and Arab realities until 1967. The role of such a dividing line in the daily lives of millions was largely suspended. For a while before the Oslo process of the 1990s, it looked as though the territorial mass of Israel and Palestine was turning into one large border zone, in which a fateful historic competition over control, identity and destiny was being waged (cf. Kearney 1991).
This geographical reality and the complexity of history and politics since 1967 go some way to explicate the desperate yearning of so many Israelis for separation. Clearly, they see the border as a replacement for an agreed settlement, a panacea for a torn and restless world.
The explanation is incomplete, however, without a concluding look at the symbolic role of the border for Israeli identity.

Culture, Zionist Identity and the Border

Israelis have an inherent tendency, buttressed by the ideological concept that Zionism brings modernization and progress, to associate themselves and their collective project with a "cultured" Europe. This tendency is often played out through disassociation from the "primitive" and threatening Arab East-a trajectory the roots of which go back to early Zionist thought.
Tom Segev gives evidence of the deep-seated fear and alienation which Zionist leaders felt and perpetuated vis-á-vis the Arab East. For example, Theodore Herzl, who founded political Zionism in 1897, asserted that Zionism should provide the vanguard of (European) culture against (Eastern) barbarism. Max Nordau told the first Zionist congress that Zionism must attempt to do to Western Asia what the British did to India, "coming to the land of Israel as envoys of culture, with the aim of widening the moral boundaries of Europe as far the Euphrates" (quoted in Segev 1999, 125). The Jewish writer Mordechay Hacohen, who describes Arabs and Bedouins as savages "yet to be reached by world culture," was adamant that Zionists must neither imitate the Arabs nor become integrated with them. Aharon Kabak thought that Yemenite Jews, like other natives of the east, have a tendency to daydreaming, sloppiness, slowness, physical fatigue and nerve weakness (Segev 1999, 126). Zeev Jabotinsky, the charismatic leader of Revisionist Zionism, the forerunners of the present Likud party, was particularly outspoken about the need to distance Jews and Zionists from Arab culture. In his words:
We Jews have nothing in common with what is called "The East", and so much for the better. To the extent that our uneducated masses have ancient spiritual traditions and laws reminiscent of "The East" we must wean them--as indeed we do in every decent school and as, in fact, is happening successfully in daily life itself. We go to the land of Israel first and foremost for our national convenience, and secondly […] to finally sweep from the Land of Israel […] all traces of the "Eastern soul." As for the Arabs who are in the Land of Israel -- that is their concern. But if there is one favor we can extend to them, it is to help them liberate themselves from "The East." (Quoted in Bielsky Ben-Hur 1988, 173 and in Segev 1999, 126; my translation.)
Admittedly, there was a tendency among some early Zionist practitioners and writers to stress the similarities between Jews and Arabs. For example, founding members of the early Zionist defense organization "Hashomer," established in 1909 and seen by many as the institutional origins of the Hagana, formed in 1920. They modeled their attire, riding skills and field craft after a romanticized version of Arabness, many of them acquiring considerable language skill in Arabic (cf. Hurwitz 1970; Talmi 1955; Rogel 1979). This was echoed in the 1940s by language and other practices adopted by members of the Palmakh, as well as by hikers and geographers "discovering" the landscape in the 1950s, who preferred citing geographical names in the Arabic origins rather than their recent Hebrew innovations. In many ways, however, this superficial mimicking of native Palestinians, which was never accompanied by any tendency to lower barriers-let alone promote assimilation between Jews and Arabs-served to reaffirm symbolic borders. In fact, by highlighting a similarity between contemporary Palestinians and the biblical Hebrews, which many Jews did quite explicitly, expressed by Jewish writers like Moshe Smilansky and Yehouda Burla). The Hashomer version of Orientalism signaled that Arabness, in spite of its obvious claims to be an authentic representation of locality, is merely a secondary incarnation of ancient Judaism (See also Ben-Ezer 1999, Shaked 1989 and Morang 1986).

Between Us and Them

The mainstay of Zionist ideology was thus confined to a consistent --and on the whole successful-- attempt to sustain a new identity against a negated ultimate Arab Other. The representations of the East so rife in formative Zionist musings on this subject are thus politically and historically significant: they isolate rural Palestine, incarcerating it in a time capsule with rudimentary technology and marginal economy, and make it into a prototype of Arabness at large. By doing so, such representation repeatedly obscures contemporary Arab and Palestinian urban culture, Arab contributions to Western thought and learning, and many other aspects of Arab culture and society, which signify modernity and progress. The old dichotomy between "Us" and "Them" is reified.
These convictions thus became the substrate against which Zionist identity was shaped. Of course, this placed a formidable load on geographical border and other demarcation lines purporting to reflect and signify it (cf. Barth 1969). When the time came in 1949 to draw an international border between the newly-born Israeli state and the Arab states around it, it was construed not only as a line that separates physical communities, but as an interface of cultures and civilizations. The 1950s saw the border being socially constructed as a fetishized entity (Kemp 2000), a space where the nation defines itself against the ultimate Arab Other, perceived as a malicious, faceless mass conspiring across the sealed frontier.
This notion, blurred beyond recognition following the 1967 occupation, began resurfacing after the 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, and once again, as I have indicated earlier, in the mid- 1990s. It made a powerful re-entry, albeit in a different version, in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks on New York's World Trade Centre on September 11 2001, as Israel was scrambling to identify itself with the USA's "coalition against terror".
Appadurai's thesis defines culturalism (1996) as an active and conscious attempt by states to establish composite notions of "culture" and present them as defining features of the national projects. Israeli culturalism, to follow this logic, is characterized by an ongoing attempt on the part of the state to fabricate a new, essentially secular identity for immigrants from a variety of territories, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. While much was (and still is) actively done to imbue it with a positive inventory, Israeli identity remains premised to a considerable degree on a dual negation: that of the Jewish Diaspora (cf. Raz-Krakotzkin 1993; Boyarin and Boyarin 1994) and that of anything and everything remotely associated with the Arab East. Defining a border thus becomes, to use Mary Douglas's term, a tool to think with at least as much as it is a tool with which to actually attain political, demographic or cultural goals.

Border and Identity

There are elements in the current desire of Israelis to have a border, which were absent in earlier periods, which further amplify the role of the border as an identity marker. The first Intifada (1988 to 1993) illustrated the Palestinian capacity to attain self-definition and activate democratic processes under occupation. It did, however, lack involvement of two important segments of the Palestinian nation: the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Palestinian diaspora. The 2000-2001 al-Aqsa Intifada, which came about partly because of Israel's refusal to discuss the Palestinian right of return, admittedly takes place predominantly in the occupied territories. However, and unlike the earlier Intifada, it was echoed in October 2000 by mass demonstrations inside Israel, leading to violent clashes with Israeli police that left 13 Palestinian demonstrators dead and hundreds wounded. Abroad, the al-Aqsa Intifada became immensely relevant for diasporic Palestinians, for whom the right of return carries concrete and personal ramifications. This turned it into a unifying process, integrating Palestinian communities in unprecedented fashion and seriously impairing the symbolic role of the Green Line.
This created more confusion among Israeli liberals of moderate leftist persuasions. The traditional Israeli Left needs the Green Line so as to define whatever happens on the other side as "temporary occupation" (Shenhav 2001). This allows them to treat the territory within the line as a coherent, self-explanatory component of the Israeli project. More importantly, it exempts them from the awkward task of coming to terms with the catastrophic implications of the war of 1948 for Palestinians, and with its moral consequences.
The collapse of the Oslo process at Camp David in July 2000 left this important segment of mainstream Israel suspended. The al-Aqsa Intifada brought home the imminent dissolution of the green line. The dependence of Israeli identity on the existence and viability of an exclusive ethno-territorial project in the form of a well-bounded Israel came under direct threat. Demands made by Palestinian negotiators for a Palestinian return into Israel proper, coupled with strong signals sent by Palestinians from within of their feelings for Palestine rather than for Israel, are interpreted by Israelis as challenging the very stability of the Israeli project.
This is a serious threat. The notion of re-defining Israel as anything other than an exclusive ethno-territorial project, for and by the Jews alone, is unthinkable for the majority of Israelis. Modifying Israel is thus not only a matter of national importance, but one that carries real significance on an intimate and personal level. Once, though uninvited, these notions entered Israeli public discourse Israelis tended to scramble for a border-any border-to save and reconstitute the national project, and through it their identity.

References

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