Descending From Utopia to Sodom

Gideon Levy

Masses of Palestinians were arrested without being put on trial; thousands were tortured in interrogations; hundreds of houses were demolished; dozens were banished arbitrarily; innumerable Palestinians suffered humiliations, and were victimized by cruel, unjust daily policies.


21 May 2000

   Here's the story: in the beginning, we really believed we were a virtuous, chosen people. With all our talk about purity of arms on the battlefield, brotherhood and equality in civilian life, we were saying that the world could learn something from our moral diligence. Maybe, for a moment, the world believed this was serious; maybe not. Nobody heard a murmur about injustices during the 1948 Independence War; nobody got agitated about the spraying of new immigrants with DDT; the kibbutz was perceived as an exemplary social paradigm; and Israeli assistance to African nations warmed hearts. We really thought at the time that we were do-gooders, and perhaps there was some justification for this self-image. Then came the 1967 military conquest, one which we believed was forced upon us. We marveled at our enlightened conquest. The increase in the number of tractors to be found in the territories, and subsequently the rise in the number of universities on the West Bank, were self-serving proofs of our enlightened ways, and the progress we were bringing to the Palestinians. We thought that the conquest was good for us, and good for them, and therefore it should continue forever.

And then came the cursed Intifada, and tarnished our immaculate self-image. The pictures of soldiers beating Palestinians, and testimony furnished by tortured Palestinians, couldn't be ignored; and the image of the enlightened conqueror was blemished, irreparably.

Nonetheless, in its own eyes, Israel remained attractively moral. The prevailing wisdom was that Israel was an exemplary democracy within the Green Line borders, one whose norms of equality and justice were without parallel, while out in the backyard, separated on the other side of the border in the areas of the military conquest, matters might a bit less perfect. Such imperfection, everyone knows, is an inevitable fact of military conquest; and the conquest had been forced upon us, as a kind of inexorable necessity.

The Supreme Court furnished legal and moral sanction for this state of affairs; and its judgments were supplemented by a set of emergency orders issued for circumstances which no longer could plausibly be defined as dire emergencies, and by secret reports formulated by parts of the security establishment, some of which were factually unfounded. An endless sequence of court verdicts ratified and whitewashed innumerable misdeeds in the territories; the court would never have sanctioned such wrongs, had they occurred within the borders of the state of Israel. But in conquered areas virtually everything is permitted, even by the Supreme Court, which gave an assenting nod to this dubious double standard - the theory being that a state can be a democratic upholder of human rights exclusively within its own borders.

Masses of Palestinians were arrested without being put on trial; thousands were tortured in interrogations; hundreds of houses were demolished; dozens were banished arbitrarily; innumerable Palestinians suffered humiliations, and were victimized by cruel, unjust daily policies. In this period, Israel's self-image was one of a democracy in its own, grade A, areas, and a military conqueror by necessity in grade B regions. This might have been unpleasant, but it was not too awful.

Recent years have unraveled the last threads of such tawdry self-satisfaction. Suddenly, it turned out that ill winds were blowing at home as well. Suddenly, it was disclosed that Arabs in Israel suffer discrimination and racism in virtually every walk of life, that Bedouins live in the Negev in insufferable conditions, that social clubs in our cities have exclusive entrance policies barring Ashkenazi or Sephardic customers, that new immigrants from Ethiopia are treated worse than newcomers from Russia, and that women routinely suffer sexual abuse.

True, Israel has in some spheres experienced genuine social transformations, as in the case of rights accorded to homosexuals and lesbians, but an overall gloomy social picture, one ridden with injustice and inequality, has taken shape within the borders of the state of Israel.

The disadvantaged have a harder time in Israel than in several countries animated by far less self-flattering moral images. Last week supplied two more proofs of these woebegone realities. An Amnesty International report revealed that trafficking in women prostitutes has reached a scale in Israel that is unmatched by most other countries; and the Bank of Israel disclosed that Israel is now the world leader, in terms of the proportion of foreign workers in the country.

It's impossible to say now that the problem is the conquest. The woes are here. This is a society which exploits the weak within its own borders, sometimes displaying fearful levels of wanton cruelty while doing so - the prostitutes and foreign workers being cases in point. The establishment which sanctions such exploitation can be characterized as being sick.

Why exactly us, of all nations in the world? Though it's hard to analyze all the sources of this corruption, it doesn't follow that those responsible for the ills must escape identification. Responsibility starts with the state. Just as the state stands behind most of the wrongdoing in the territories, so too has the exploitation of foreign workers and trafficking in women occurred within Israeli for years, without the state raising a finger to try to stop it. The state imprisons and deports exploited foreign workers, while exculpating their exploiters. The state detains and punishes enslaved women, while letting their enslavers off the hook. As always, the state authorities side with the advantaged and the strong - the contractor, the moshav farmer, even the pimp. They continue their misdoings unabated; it's only the victims who change from time to time.

Our local Sodom badly needs some undoing. The change can only come from up above. One should expect two morally sensitive ministers with authority in relevant areas, Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, to do something to stop this downward slide. Should they be determined and diligent, they are empowered with tools needed to enforce laws, and legislate new ones, before the slide from utopia to Sodom becomes a fait accompli.





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