A state that emerged from the horrors of the Holocaust, Israel is still dealing with questions of legitimacy, reconciliation, and terror.
Question: What forces have shaped Israel?
Ross: Well I think you can’t understand Israel without understanding the Holocaust. The Holocaust is the seminal event in . . . in Jewish history; at least the seminal tragedy in Jewish history. And you have the birth of a nation state that emerges out of that. The Zionist movement was creating the basis for a state before that; but it’s the Holocaust that is a transforming reality. So Israel emerges, but it has that as its . . . its most important element of history and historical identity. And the significance of that is, for Israelis, the worst can happen. It’s not . . . It’s not their imagining or conjuring up what are false kinds of threats. The worst can happen. So in terms of affecting the Israeli outlook, number one you start with a premise of the worst can happen because of the Holocaust. Number two, you’re dealing with a reality that all your neighbors for the first . . . you know at least until 1977 when Anwar Sadat came to Israel . . . So for almost 30 years . . . 29 years of your existence as a state, all of your neighbors rejected you. Rejected your existence. Rejected your legitimacy. And even today, it’s still hard . . . You’re hard put to say . . . Even when the Arab world is prepared to say, “We’re prepared to live with you,” there certainly aren’t signs of a kind of reconciliation – a kind of genuine warmth. The peace Israel has . . . The peace Israel has with Egypt is a very cold peace. The peace it has with . . . with Jordan is also certainly not a particularly warm peace. And there may be all sorts of reasons from the standpoint of the Arab world, and particularly the Palestinians why that’s the case. But if you’re looking at it from the standpoint of the Israelis, they live in a world where their neighborhood has never really accepted them; and where the worst can happen; and where they’re constantly dealing with a kind of rejection which also plays out in terms of forms of terror, where terrorist outrages can be conducted. And from . . . Again, from the Israeli standpoint, the neighbors, even when they condemn certain acts of terror, it’s all kind of sloganistic. It doesn’t seem particularly genuine. So when the . . . When the Arab League Initiative was adopted in 2002 by the Arab League, a resolution that said that in return for Israel withdrawing to the June 4th ‘67 lines, there would be the establishment of full diplomatic relations with Israel. This came in a resolution adopted in Beirut, and the very next day there’s a Park Hotel bombing on the first night of Passover. And nobody who’s at this Arab League meeting where this resolution is being adopted is prepared to condemn it. So the message to the Israelis is, “Well the words are one thing; the reality is something else.” So the whole Israeli mindset is governed by a perception of not really being accepted; where terrorists seen against you is seen as being legitimate; and where security becomes a preoccupation, and you have to do it because you can’t rely upon anybody else. Nineteen sixty seven is a war where the Israelis have commitments from the Eisenhower administration which the Johnson administration doesn’t fulfill. And it reminds the Israelis, “Okay, we’re on our own.” Then of course when they win in a dramatic way, then there’s a feeling, “Not only are we on our own, but that’s okay because we can handle it.” So there’s a profound sense of self-reliance, but it’s also a function of feeling ultimately you can’t count on anybody else, and we always have to be the one to rely on ourselves. There’s a preoccupation with security because of that whole context I described. And security becomes a kind of sina qua non for how to see the world. Now as Israel develops and it becomes actually quite . . . I think quite effective in terms of its development economically . . . You look at it now, it’s a $140 billion dollar economy. It dwarfs all of its neighbors. So it’s very successful, and more and more of the Israelis see themselves connected to the world because of the global economy, and their success in competing in the global economy. So there’s a . . . there’s an interesting duality that’s emerging – the sense of being on your own; the sense of being preoccupied with security. Somehow you have this other reality where the world has shrunk, and economically speaking you’re an important part of it. So there’s . . . there’s an evolution taking place, although pretty hard to dismiss the preoccupation with security.