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SOMEONE ELSE’S LAND
- Sharon has been and gone, but the ethical challenge of Israel remains

Ariel Sharon has been and gone, but the ethical challenge of Israel remains. It is not just a country but an amazing human achievement that has a humbling effect on beholders. Israel is also a dream that soured when yesterday’s victim of oppression became today’s oppressor.

Understandably, some Indians found it galling to welcome a man who has the blood of thousands of refugees on his hands (like Amos Yaron, the security official who accompanied him), and who remarked only the other day that all the leaders of the Palestinian Hamas organization were “marked for death”. But morality is the luxury of commentators. Governments cannot ignore Lord Palm- erston’s famous dictum that a country has no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies. Even so, I wish the first Israeli prime minister to visit India had been someone less guilty — Shimon Peres, perhaps, or the late Yitzhak Rabin.

Ever the pragmatist, P.V. Narasimha Rao obeyed that thesis when he instructed Lalit Mansingh, now India’s ambassador to the United States of America, to open negotiations in Washington with the influential Anti-Defamation League of Bnai B’rith. His fears that India would be “the only country left out in the whole world” without diplomatic relations with Israel were strengthened when China beat India to it by five days. Also ever the statesman, Narasimha Rao took the precaution of clearing this drastic departure from Nehruvian diplomacy with Yasser Arafat, who visited New Delhi in January 1992.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s invitation to Sharon was a logical consequence of that move. Even Nara- simha Rao’s overture can be said to have flowed from Rajiv Gandhi’s decision in 1987 to allow the Israelis to play in the Davis Cup tennis tournament. Rajiv Gandhi certainly showed more courage and honesty than his grandfather who had no compunction about pleading for Israeli help during the 1962 war with China, but then refused to acknowledge the 120-mm Tampella mortars, ammunition and spares for two regiments that David Ben-Gurion sent.

Such political antics skirt the ethical question, distinct from statecraft, to which I can find no cut-and-dried answer. The ecstasy of militants in Zionist organizations like the Irgun and the Stern Gang, whenever they killed a British soldier, matched the exploits of Bengali terrorists. Zionist refugee ships voyaged as perilously as Sikh revolutionaries aboard the Kamagatamaru. The dream of a national homeland can be likened to the swarajist vision.

With many Jewish friends during my teens in Manchester, I was inspired by the romance of the Diaspora, moved by the horrors of the Holocaust and intrigued by the skill, labour and dedication that shaped the Promised Land. The few Arabs in our adolescent circle were well-to-do Iraqis and Egyptians with no direct experience of the Palestinian trauma. So it was Zionist lore that filled heart and soul, with friends from English Jewry bringing back exhilarating tales of life on the kibbutzim where they worked during the holidays.

A chance to visit Israel did not occur until much later, but I did eventually make it at my own expense and in my own time. I stress that to explain that Israel was a cause, not a commercial contact, as it is for many Indians today. Israel was the miracle of making the desert bloom. It was also the miracle of reviving a dead language and turning it into the vehicle of dynamic modern intercourse. Could Sanskrit follow Hebrew, I wondered. Israel had trium- phantly overcome race stereotypes and outgrown the ghetto complex. I was told — though I did not hear it myself — that one young sabra (someone born in Israel) would say to another, “Oh, don’t be such a Jew!” Finally, of course, there was the ideal community of the kibbutz that, at its best, blended the spirit and life of ashram, communist collective and military outpost.

That was 33 years ago and I still have the separate passport that the Indian high commission in London issued for the journey. What I cannot remember is the name of the kibbutz where I made friends with a couple who had moved from Leeds and in whose wellingtons I sloshed about the empty muddy fields. Two memories from those walks remain with me. One is of a broken and blackened bit of masonry. The other a young man, younger than I was then.

A crumbling couple of feet of wall and the remains of the buttress protruded from the earth like the stump of a rotten tooth. I have since seen its like in the villages of eastern Bengal, call it East Pakistan or Bangladesh, poignant reminders of a flourishing habitation that had been uprooted and erased, nostalgically evoked in a documentary called Going Back Home that was recently screened at Nandan. In eastern Bengal, they were the ruins of homes from which Hindus had been evicted, or which they had thought prudent to abandon. It was no different in Israel. “There used to be a Palestinian village here,” said my Yorkshirewoman hostess.

Wearing blue jeans and a leather windcheater, the youth was walking briskly away when I called out. I was curious because the European Ashkenazi kibbutznik I had met dressed as scantily as possible, liking the sun to tan their muscled bodies and bleach their fair hair. This man was dark and I thought he might be a Baghdadi Jew from Calcutta or a member of Bombay’s millennium-old Beni Israel tribe. I knew he could not be a Paradesi Jew from Cochin for they were dying out even then, pallid as medieval monks and racked by the problems of in-breeding. Nor was he one of the Black Jews whose settlement I had visited in the Negev, where they packed blue roses for export. Obviously full-blooded Malayalis, they were Jews only by courtesy of their Paradesi masters. We had no language to communicate.

The young man looked round when I called, flashed a grin and walked away even faster. He did not wish to communicate. He was a Palestinian, explained my host, and came in every day from the West Bank — this was not long after the 1967 war — to do the rough work on the kibbutz.

The brick ruin and the youth provided a different perspective on Jewish creativity. The ruin recalled the village of Deir Yassin, where Irgun or Stern Gang soldiers massacred every single Palestinian inhabitant; Ben Gurion deliberately magnified the death toll to strike terror in the heart of other villagers who might imagine that the Zionist homeland would be a multi-ethnic state. The youth comes to mind each time I read of the wall of brick and barbed wire that Sharon hopes will keep out the Palestinians.

No foreigner can demand employment in another country as a right, and West Bank Palestinians should not complain if they cannot go to Israel to earn a living. But a barrier would be permissible only if it excludes all the territory that Israel seized from Jordan, Egypt and Syria — the West Bank, east Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the GolanHeights. One suspects, that the wall is only an excuse to annex a large chunk of someone else’s land.

That makes Israel expansionist. Also imperialist. Its exclusive citizenship laws are racist. West Bank labour makes nonsense of the Jewish boast of socialist self-sufficiency. The kibbutzim are now luxurious holiday resorts. Atrocities against Palestinians mock the anguish of the Diaspora and the Holocaust.

All this has nothing to do with India’s need for military technology, equipment and anti-terrorist skills, or with American insistence on an India-Israel axis. Pakistani tirades about an anti-Muslim crusade are even less relevant. But talking of Israel’s own internal crisis, of the challenge of Jews having to live with their collective conscience, I cannot but wonder if the Hassidic orthodoxy, especially groups such as Neturai Karta, do not have a point when they denounce the Zionist interpretation and execution of the dream of a Jewish homeland.

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