The Jewish nation is divided today perhaps more than ever.  Between religious and secular, left and right, these divisions are gradually becoming more entrenched, more extreme and more intractable.  The defining issue of our time: how to solve the conflict with the Palestinians, has in itself obviously been a clear dividing line between Israelis on the left and the right side of the political spectrum for quite some time.  But in a very real and disturbing way, this divide is now shifting towards all out conflict.  The so-called “break-in” by at least 40 right-wing extremists last December at the IDF’s Efraim Brigade headquarters near the Kedumim settlement, represents a particularly worrying escalation amongst an overall picture of ever-growing tension.  In the aftermath of the incident, the IDF said that it is only a matter of time before weapons will be used by extremist settlers on soldiers and that the “age of innocence” is over.  General Avi Mizrahi of the IDF’s Central Command said that in all his 30 years of service, he had never seen such hatred by Jews directed against IDF troops.

Far away and yet geographically so close to this action, the Tel Aviv International Salon (an English-speaking lecture club) located on Rothchild Boulevard,  held a high-level debate last week on the issue of settlements in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The speakers included two highly accomplished and senior individuals representing the “left” and “right” side of the debate.  Unfortunately, due to the rules of the Salon chamber, they cannot be named in the media – a measure designed to encourage open and free debate – but their dramatic arguments and perspectives can (and should) be reproduced “in online print form” for a wider audience.

After winning the coin toss, the representative of the left-wing position (henceforth representative “X” for shorthand purposes), opened the proceedings by making an impassioned plea for the audience to consider that “nothing less than the future of the Jewish people” is at stake in this debate.  “If we are serious about maintaining the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel, X continued, the only option is to reach an agreement with the Palestinians which would divide the land between two states.”

Speaker “Y” of the right-wing position vehemently disagreed.  For him the idea of a Palestinian state was “pure fantasy”.  Starting with the tried and tested security argument, he told the audience that he was not willing to contemplate the possibility of losing “security control over the mountains that overlook my house”.

In a wide-ranging debate covering a number of different inter-related (and some unrelated) topics, the youthful British moderator, Jonathan Javor, who is himself involved in politics as a Foreign Affairs advisor to Kadima MK Otniel Schneller, asked the pointed question of whether we should consider East Jerusalem to be a settlement.  On this point, the responses by both speakers were revealing to say the least.  X clarified that under Israeli law, all of Jerusalem is not a settlement as it has been formally annexed and is officially part of the State of Israel.  In contrast, as no effort has been made to legally incorporate the West Bank into Israel, technically our own Foreign Minister, “does not in fact live in Israel”.  This, X stated emphatically and with comic effect, to which the audience responded with rounds of laughter.  Before making one more joke, this time regarding the current mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat – “not a leftist, G-d forbid” – X continued with a more serious line of argument.  Despite Mayor Barkat’s empty campaign promise to maintain Jerusalem as our “eternal and undivided capital”, X asserted that he has in fact taken a number of steps to divide Jerusalem, not in theory but in practical terms too.  For example, X said that under Barkat’s tenure, a checkpoint has been set-up outside the Arab neighborhood of Shuafat, thus effectively separating the town of 35,000 residents from the rest of Jerusalem.  Furthermore, X asked why East Jerusalem Arab suburbs such as Shuafat, Qalandiya or Jabel Mukaber, should be incorporated in a Jewish “united and eternal” Jerusalem in the first place? Y replied in defiant manner that, “Jerusalem will never be divided”, and asked the troubling question of whether the Mount of Olives would “belong” to Israel or the Palestinians in a future agreement.  The answer from his opponent illustrated the complex nature of the Jerusalem problem – “Palestinian sovereignty but Israeli control.”  Clearly a solution which is far from straightforward.

As the moderator moved toward the next stage of accepting questions from the floor, the fractious and rambunctious atmosphere of the proceedings quickly became more apparent.  Perhaps it was the heady mixture of wine, political controversy and restlessness, but the polite rules of question and answer neared breaking point on several occasions.  Despite this, the fresh-faced Javor did his best to maintain order by laying down the law and severely reprimanding unruly members of the audience when required.  In amongst this commotion, Y was however able to state that he too shared X’s end goal of ensuring that Israel remains a “Jewish and democratic state”, but that he had radically different ideas of how to get there.  With a note of despondency, X in return said, “we may want the same future, but one thing is for sure – we don’t live in the same present”.  Having said that, X repeated that it was his heartfelt desire and part of his Zionist philosophy to live together with other Jews as a democratic majority in Israel, categorically turning to Y and stating: “I want to live with you, but you don’t want to live with me, you prefer to live with the Palestinians in the West Bank”.

As the debate began to draw to a close, X concluded by making one of the most ominous and cautionary statements of the evening.  “We enjoy many great things here in Tel Aviv such as the bars, discothèques and the high-tech sector”, said X.  But (contrary to Y’s claims), the status quo both here in Israel and the West Bank is not sustainable.  “We enjoy all these things, but lets not forget, the passengers of the Titanic also enjoyed themselves greatly as they sipped on their champagne, blissfully unaware of the impending catastrophe which awaited them.  The metaphor was clear to everyone in the audience, and with that, the evening’s debate was over.


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