The Power of Paradigms: Helping Israelis Grasp New Realities
We are all creatures of culture. As human beings possessing the ability for abstract thought, we live in realities that we construct ourselves, both collectively and individually. We construct everything; nothing is "natural." Our constructions of reality - embodied in ideologies, narratives and symbols - make sense to us. They rest on shared assumptions, experiences, identities, values and interests that shape our very way of perceiving the world and other people. They possess a compelling internal logic. We internalize these paradigms, as these constructions are also called, so that they exert a strong power over our actions and views. They are more "real" to us than "reality" itself. They are self-evident, "normal" ways of perceiving the world, events and others.
The connection between paradigms and political change is a complex one. Paradigms do define the positions of various social and political groups. They have the power to slow or hasten change, to make it conflictual (as in Binyamin Netanyahu's approach to the peace process) or to create an atmosphere and channels for each side to deal honestly with the claims and needs of the other. The longer the historical process, the more structural elements determine directions of change. But in the short run - over a period of months or even a decade or two - paradigms play a major role. A Palestinian state may eventually emerge, but the events on the way - house demolitions, massive expropriation of Palestinian land, the dislocation of thousands of people, closure and impoverishment, opportunities available or not to the young generation, violence, death - all these and more matter to actual people far more than historical processes. Paradigm change may not be sufficient to create new political realities, but since our lives are measured in the "short run," it can make a huge difference in the lives of the current generation (and more) of Israelis and Palestinians.

Paradigm Panic

Paradigms are hard to change. Even more to the point, the process of changing political realities without addressing the process of paradigm shift can be dangerous for a society, creating extreme reactions and even generating violence.
Since paradigms organize the world for us and make it coherent, we can enter into a "paradigm panic" when things change too fast. The consequences of paradigm panic can be catastrophic. Without minimizing the seriousness of the hate campaign waged against Rabin in the months before his assassination, one can assign it partly to such fear and panic. A common bumper sticker at that time was Shalom balahot (a nightmare peace), and one still hears people chanting "Death to the Arabs!"
We cling to our paradigms tenaciously, and feel existentially threatened if reality changes too quickly. The Israeli public had been raised for generations on several unshakable propositions: that "we" are the good guys and "they" are the bad guys; that "we" are the victims and "they" are murderers of children; that peace with the "Arabs" is impossible, that they have always hated us and always will; that Arafat is an absolutely unacceptable partner for negotiations; that, indeed, Palestinians don't even exist. Yet here was Rabin, one bright day on the White House lawn, having sprung Oslo on an unprepared Israeli public, shaking hands with Arafat and throwing millions of Israelis into a complete paradigm panic. People need time to contemplate and be convinced. There is not only a peace process, there is also a paradigm-shift process, and it must also be respected. Failure to appreciate the depths of paradigm panic can, indeed, be deadly and, for a society, ultimately polarizing.
To be sure, "paradigm shifts" usually follow rather than precede structural changes. Rabin could have softened the impact of his sudden political turnabout and better prepared the public for what was about to take place, but he could not have avoided paradigm panic altogether. Although Yitzhak Rabin died and Shimon Peres lost the 1996 elections, the process of paradigm change they initiated did in time take hold.
When Ariel Sharon, upon departing for Wye, announced he would not shake Arafat's hand, he came over as ridiculous across the political spectrum. The Israeli public had moved beyond that now-anachronistic position. With hindsight, we might say that Binyamin Netanyahu's loss in the elections of May 1999 was ultimately due to the paradigm shift that had taken place in the five years since Oslo. While Ehud Barak failed to present a coherent vision of where he would take the country, Netanyahu represented an old, now-irrelevant paradigm that obviously had no future. The notion that Israelis could make peace with the Palestinians, that a Palestinian state was probably inevitable, and that Arafat had a legitimate role to play, had finally sunk in.
What, then, are the elements of Israeli paradigms, and what strategies should we employ to change them in the direction of peace?

The Israeli Meta-Paradigm and Paradigms of 'Right' and 'Left'

Underlying the polarization of Israeli society are a number of competing ideological "camps," each with its particular experiences, views and interests. Some of the major ones include: Labor Zionism (shading off to the left); the populist Revisionism of the Likud; Ashkenazi and Sephardi ultra-Orthodoxy, and the diverse Palestinian-Arab population. Over the years, however, a kind of meta-paradigm has emerged to which most Israelis - Palestinian and segments of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox excepted - subscribe. It contains a number of critical elements:
• National Homecoming. Beginning in the later half of the 19th century, a highly detailed and compelling narrative of national homecoming and liberation began to emerge, later given form and substance by the various Labor Zionist organizations. Its central tenet held that the Jews constitute a nation in the secular-political sense, and therefore possess the same inherent right to self-determination in its historic homeland that other nations claim.
At this point the Left and the Right diverge. Labor Zionism came to consider the state its primary vehicle of national expression. While, in this conception, the Jewish state had to be located in the historic Land of Israel, it did not have to encompass the entire Land. Thus there is nothing in the Labor Zionist paradigm that precludes territorial compromise with the Palestinians. The Right, by contrast, developed a "territorial" Zionism. Whether based on the biblical "tribal" concept which by definition excludes competing national claims and thus considers Palestinians "intruders" in the Land, as in the religious paradigm, or a secular tribalism deriving from the Fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s, as in the case of the Revisionist (Likud) paradigm, these models place exclusive Jewish control over the entire Greater Land of Israel over all other considerations.
Despite these fundamental variations on a theme, the meta-narrative of national homecoming and the right of the Jews to the Land became the basis of what is called by Israeli politicians, educators and the media "the national consensus." The narrative of national homecoming became a compelling, self-contained and self-evident "truth," beyond the realm of critical discussion and dissent.
• The Arabs Just Want to Kill Us/There Are No Palestinians. From the very start the national meta-narrative was an exclusively Jewish one, able to maintain its internal logic despite the realities on the ground and the major events that took place over the past century. Thus, even before setting foot in Palestine, Zionists coined the famous phrase: "A land without a people for a people without a land." (The early Zionist Nordau was reported to have been shocked to find the land populated by Arabs, and expressed the fear that Zionism was perpetuating an injustice against the local inhabitants.)
Eliminating Palestinians from the story as a national collective took several forms: (1) Palestinians were turned into "Arabs" indistinguishable from the masses of the Arab world; (2) acts of resistance to Zionism were decontextualized and portrayed solely as acts of unthinking and hate-filled "mobs" or individuals against peaceful Jews; and (3) the Palestinian leadership was either demonized (Haj Amin al-Husseini as a "Nazi") or, if it did not fit the narrative (such as the peace-seeking Musa Alawi), was simply ignored. Thus the meta-narrative reduced the Palestinian economic and political revolt of 1936-39 into a series of violent yet marginal "events," "disturbances" or "riots."
These depictions eliminated the Arabs as a legitimate presence in the country whose claims had to be dealt with. From the 1910s until today, the major upheavals affecting the Palestinian people - the rise of Palestinian nationalism, the intifadas of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1980s, the Nakba and its massive dislocations, the contact with Palestinians following the 1967 war - took place without ruffling a feather of the Labor Zionist ideology. Its paradigm of 1999 would be easily recognized by its paradigmatic ancestors of 1919, if not of 1899. Even from the standpoint of Israel's own experience - the destruction of 418 Palestinian villages and urban neighborhoods in 1948, the subsequent "Israelification" of the landscape, official denials that a Palestinian people even exists, the "liberation" of "Judea and Samaria" in 1967 and the vigorous settlement campaign of the past 25 years - all these demonstrate the power of a paradigm to relegate real people to non-intrusive abstractions. "Let them [the Arabs] go live in one of the other 22 Arab countries" is still thought and heard.
• Security. If the Land-of-Israel paradigm dismisses Palestinian claims on the basis of exclusive Jewish rights to the Land, the concept of security as used by the Labor Zionists achieves the same conclusion, even though the Labor Zionist paradigm is able to conceive of territorial compromise. Unlike conventional inter-state conflicts where one side defends its territory against the enemy "over there," the Jewish-Palestinian conflict took on characteristics of colonial struggles, where the conflicting populations are geographically intertwined and concerns of "internal security" outweigh those of external threats. The Palestinians became a kind of "enemy-within," leading the bitkhonistim - the generals, secret "security services" officers and allied politicians who rose to prominence in Labor (and subsequently Likud) - to adopt an all-encompassing notion of "security" that virtually eliminated any other kind of political consideration.
In the best case, security prevented Israeli leaders of all camps from perceiving, creating or exploiting the numerous opportunities for peace that emerged over the years. At its worst, security becomes a convenient pretense for occupation and oppression. Anyone who has suddenly found a Palestinian house declared a "closed military zone" because peace activists wish to visit, has followed Israeli Supreme Court decisions allowing torture, extended administrative detention or house demolitions out of unspecified "security concerns," or has been unable to hold a workshop on peace because the Palestinian participants could not get permits to enter Israel, realizes the degree to which security has been transformed from a legitimate concern into an irrational obstacle to normalization and peace.
• Fortress Israel. The combination of a self-contained national narrative, a concept of security verging on paranoia and an effective military and security system, has turned Israel into an insulated fortress in the Middle East, effectively sealed off from its Middle Eastern context. Jews from the Muslim world have been de-Easternized as part of the process of absorption; Palestinian-Israelis are referred to vaguely as "Israeli Arabs" and kept safely on the margins of social and political life; and the broader Middle East has been reduced to little more than a general but vague presence. Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank, someone commented, are further from Israel than Thailand, a terra incognita kept distant by fear and disinterest. Within fortress Israel, values of peace and democracy flourish, supported by a liberal Labor Zionist paradigm that allows Israelis to live with house demolitions, closure, torture, the exploitation of cheap labor and other aspects of occupation.
• The Self-Serving Victim. Labor Zionism attempted to distance itself from the image of the Jew as a helpless victim. The idea of a tiny David versus an Arab Goliath was always a popular image in Israel.
But casting oneself as victim can be politically expedient and effective. Victims (or the David underdog) generally win public sympathy. More important, perhaps, they have no responsibility. Since victims are not in control of events they cannot be held accountable. Golda Meir used this devise effectively when she termed Israel's wars as "wars of ein breira" (no choice). She even berated the Arabs for "forcing" us to kill their sons. Presenting itself as the victim lets Israel claim the high moral ground of "self-defense," "persecution" and "security." Begin was the first to bring the Holocaust into Israeli political discourse, and it has been used cynically by the Right ever since. It also sets up a false symmetry. Israel, with its powerful military machine, including a nuclear arsenal, a GNP that is 35 times that of the Palestinians and billions of dollars more than the economies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine combined, casts itself as the weak and vulnerable party in its conflict with the as-yet stateless Palestinians. Nothing, U.S. President Bill Clinton said in his address to the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza, infuriated Israelis more than his suggesting that Israel does not have a monopoly over suffering in this conflict.
(As Coordinator of the Israel Committee against House Demolitions, I can testify to yet another unfortunate aspect of Israel casting itself as a victim - cruelty. Victims can have no victims, and can have no compassion for other victims. Thus Israel pursues policies in the occupied territories - home demolitions being foremost among them - that can only be described as persecution. And since claiming a monopoly over suffering is crucial to maintaining one's status as a victim, the suffering Israel inflicts on the Palestinian population cannot be acknowledged, something that will make the task of reconciliation all the more difficult.)

Towards a New Paradigm of Peace: The Need for a Strategy

Israel today is in a pivotal position. A major paradigm shift has taken place in which the vast majority of Israelis are prepared for a Palestinian state and for major redeployments (including settlements) on the West Bank, in Gaza and even in East Jerusalem. (Because it has been ringed by massive Israeli satellite cities, Jerusalem is much less amenable to physical change.) The defeat of Netanyahu indicates that old paradigms have been rendered largely irrelevant. But no new paradigm or vision has yet taken the place of the old ones. Unless the shift in the readiness for compromise is reinforced by a compelling and specific paradigm of peace, the elements of the old paradigms will reassert themselves and prevent new paradigms, and their structural prerequisites, from emerging.
The Israeli peace movement is an uncoordinated and gangly collection of peace organizations, dialogue groups, academic institutions, human-rights organizations, concerned individuals, a few Knesset members, some performers, a number of legal groups and information centers. Identifying the talent in our ranks and formulating a concerted campaign of paradigm change would measurably increase public support for the peace process. Such a campaign would involve several steps:
• Presenting the Public with a Coherent and Self-Serving Vision. In order to have a coherent something to shift into, the public has to be offered a coherent and compelling alternative vision. Israelis tend to see peace in negative terms: as giving up territory and security, or becoming more vulnerable to people (Palestinians and the wider Arab world) whose intentions cannot be trusted. (Working-class Israelis of Middle Eastern origin tend to see peace for its own sake as an "Ashkenazi peace," something else to distract national attention from their economic and social plight.) And Israelis are also not convinced that peace will bring any tangible benefits. A necessary first step is thus simply demonstrating the connection between peace, economic development, social mobility and security.
• Pursuing the Political and Structural Requirements for Peace. The peace camp, in conjunction with the Palestinians, must identify the elements of a just and viable structure of peace, and then develop effective strategies to secure them. How much of the paralyzing matrix of settlements, bypass roads, industrial parks, army bases, expropriated lands and checkpoints must be dismantled, for example, for a truly viable Palestinian state to emerge? New paradigms of peace depend upon a structure of peace that substantially satisfies the claims of the various parties.
• Towards a New Meta-Paradigm. As we have mentioned, people cling to the paradigms they grew up with and feel threatened if reality changes too quickly. Paradigm shift is a process, and so is paradigm replacement. Strategies of engagement, of dialogue, with the "unpersuaded" (as far as peace goes) are essential. The issue of peace is only one component of a broader process of paradigm change. For example for Jews originating in Muslim countries, the issue of identity and de-culturalization at the hands of the Ashkenazim are still burning issues, as questions of identity are raised, the historic relationship between Middle Eastern Jews and Arabs might be renewed, with great implications for Israeli-Arab reconciliation. A process of genuine communication, reflection, learning, dialogue and critical analysis must accompany paradigm change for peace, since in the end new paradigms must be accepted and integrated rather than merely "taught." In this process of paradigm change, the peace camp can take a leading role in articulating a new meta-paradigm, since it has the breadth of vision, knowledge and critical ability to articulate the outlines of a paradigm of the future.
• Let a Thousand Paradigms Blossom! That is as far as an induced process of paradigm change can go. Once the conditions for peace are met and a process of paradigm change is begun - which means reconciliation among the Israeli camps as well as with the Palestinians - the different paradigms of Israel's cultural mosaic will take care of themselves.