Perhaps more than any country, Israel provokes strong feelings and violent arguments. Everyone, excluding the most fanatical Zionist or the Iranian President, seems to have complex, mixed feelings about it. Even the terms we use are booby-trapped. Does merely using the name Israel imply support of illegal occupation? If you call the region Palestine do you give succour to the suicide bombers? It is tempting to steer clear of the subject completely. Yet the fact of Israel’s existence and the arguments around it encapsulate so much that defines the present moment. As the frontier where memories of Nazism meet Islamic terrorism, as the continual reminder of the West’s hypocritical attitude to international law and as a profound contemporary case-study of the noxious influence of religion on politics, Israel has huge symbolic as well as strategic importance for all of us. To mark the 60th anniversary of its creation we asked two Jewish writers to reflect on what Israel means for them.

Photo of Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee “The secular founders would be shocked to see the power obscurantist religious sects wield.”

Israel’s 60th birthday is being celebrated lavishly in Britain. The programme includes a gala fund-raising dinner at Windsor Castle in the presence of the Duke of Edinburgh, a variety show at Wembley Stadium and street parades in London and Manchester.

Meanwhile, Palestinians and their supporters will be recalling the same event in entirely different tones, without the benefit of state support or vast sums of money. In meetings, conferences and exhibitions they are seeking to remind the world of the Nakba – catastrophe in Arabic – that accompanied Israel’s birth in 1948.

In 1947 there were 1,293,000 Arabs and 608,000 Jews in Palestine. Though Jews made up 32 per cent of the population, the UN partition plan (agreed in November 1947) assigned them 55 per cent of the country, including the economically developed citrus-growing plains. Israel’s Declaration of Independence on 15 May 1948 was preceded by several months of civil war between Jewish and Palestinian forces, and followed by more months of war between the new state and its Arab neighbours.

In April and May, before the expiry of the British mandate, the cities of Haifa and Jaffa fell to Jewish forces, and more than 100,000 Palestinians fled. To the north, in Galilee, the Haganah – the mainstream Zionist defence force – systematically conquered clusters of villages, emptying them of inhabitants and often levelling them. In June, the Israelis advanced further into territory designated for the Arab state, capturing the towns of Lydda and Ramle where they killed 250 Palestinians and expelled almost all the rest – 40,000 – at gunpoint.

In the course of 1948, 531 Palestinian towns and villages were abandoned, evacuated or destroyed. In the Jaffa area, 96 per cent of the villages were totally erased. As Jewish forces proceeded with the ethnic cleansing of territories both within and outside the UN-allotted borders of the Jewish state, a British army of 70,000 refused to intervene, despite being charged under the mandate with the protection of the civilian population.

When the fighting finished in early 1949, the Jewish state had acquired 78 per cent of Palestine. 180,000 Palestinians found themselves a minority within the expanded borders of the Jewish state. 750,000 had been made refugees.

The homes and lands they left behind were quickly occupied by Jewish settlers and the new Israeli parliament passed laws confiscating their property. Of 370 new Jewish settlements established between 1948 and 1953, 350 were on absentee property. In 1954 more than one third of Israel’s Jewish population lived on absentee property. Conquest and expulsion provided the material base for the building of the Jewish state.

For many years Zionists claimed that the Palestinians had left voluntarily, at the behest of Arab leaders. That myth has been repeatedly disproved: there’s no evidence of so much as a single broadcast or leaflet telling people to abandon their homes. There is, on the other hand, a great deal of evidence that the Zionists used the war to alter the demographic facts on the ground. On April 6, for example, David Ben-Gurion told a Zionist meeting: “We will not be able to win the war if we do not, during the war, populate upper and lower, eastern and western Galilee, the Negev and Jerusalem area, even if only in an artificial way, in a military way … I believe that war will also bring in its wake a great change in the distribution of Arab population.”

The facts of the Nakba are now well documented and beyond serious dispute. Yet Nakba denial remains widespread, and shamefully acceptable in polite circles. That is partly because its victims have been so demonised and dehumanised. Acknowledgement of the Nakba is also resisted because it undermines Israeli and Jewish self-definitions; for many, it is a truth that simply cannot be assimilated.

The Nakba is far more than a historical controversy. It’s an unresolved and pressing global issue. The Palestinian refugee population – descendants of those driven out in 1948 – now numbers more than five million, one half of whom live in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. One million remain stateless, with no form of identification other than a card issued by UNWRA, the United Nations refugee agency. This is the world’s largest and oldest continuing refugee crisis. Each year since December 1948, the UN General Assembly has reconfirmed Resolution 194, which enshrines the refugees’ right to return and compensation. The right of refugees to return to their homes is a necessary protection for all civilian populations in times of war. Without it, ethnic cleansing would be encouraged. Yet those who press for the implementation of that right are denounced as extremists who refuse to accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

There is today a huge Jewish population in Palestine whose rights as human beings must be recognised, but why should anyone anywhere be compelled to recognise the “right to exist” of a particular state formation? What’s being demanded here is ideological conformity: support for the right of the Jewish state to exist, in perpetuity, in Palestine, regardless of what that fact entails for others (or indeed for the welfare of Jews). For Palestinians, recognising Israel’s right to exist – as opposed to the fact of its existence – is tantamount to an historical seal of approval on the Nakba. Those who refuse to certify as legitimate a national project built on dispossession and ethnic supremacy are condemned as “anti-Semites” or, if they are Jews, as “self-haters”. The allegations rest on a false conflation of Israel and “the Jews”, one propagated by Zionists, who use it to exempt the Jewish state from the requirements of international standards of human decency.

Israel is “Jewish” in a sense that no existing state is Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist. Though these religions are privileged in various states, none of those states claims to be the sole global representative of the faith; none grants citizenship to people solely because of their religion (without regard to place of birth or residence). Maintaining a Jewish state in Palestine means maintaining a sizeable Jewish majority population which enjoys privileged access to land, work and civic rights.

The founders of Israel were secularists; they saw Jewishness as a national rather than religious identity. Many were atheists and contemptuous of rabbinical culture. Like MA Jinnah, the secular Muslim founder of Pakistan, they would be shocked and dismayed if they could see the influence obscurantist religious sects now wield in the polities they established.

From the beginning, the notion that the State of Israel could be both “Jewish” and “democratic” was unsustainable, and was seen as such by significant numbers of diaspora Jews. Indeed, it’s important to remember that anti-Zionism was a Jewish ideology long before it was anything else. But in the wake of the Holocaust, and with the evolution of big power politics in the Middle East, Zionism came to dominate the diaspora. And the truth of the Nakba was shrouded beneath the myth of Israel’s “David versus Goliath” struggle for survival against irrationally hostile Arabs.

But what of the plight of the Jewish refugees in postwar Europe? Without Israel, what would have become of them? The answer is that they would have shared the same variety of fates as the general refugee population of Europe, of which they were part. The roots of that crisis lay in the refusal of the US, Britain and other countries to admit large numbers of displaced persons. It could not be resolved by allocating each group a “state of their own”, inevitably at the expense of another people. The right of refuge is a universal right (and need) but instead of shouldering that collective responsibility, the Western powers, with the support of the Soviet Union, dumped it on Palestine, demanding that a people who bore no responsibility for the Holocaust make way for its victims.

Many Zionists who do acknowledge the Nakba characterise it as tragic but “irreversible”. The Nakba was not, however, an isolated episode; it was a paroxysm in a process that continues to this day. The Jewish state remains incompatible with Palestinian rights and increasingly the very existence of Palestinians, as illustrated by the current siege of Gaza and the continuing assault on Palestinian society on the West Bank through the construction of the apartheid wall and the extension of Jewish settlements.

It has become ever more apparent that Zionism will not tolerate any meaningful form of Palestinian independence. The exigencies of maintaining a Jewish state will not allow it. Within Israel, expansionist claims – in which the Jews are declared the rightful owners of the whole of the West Bank and even beyond – are commonplace, as are calls for the permanent transfer of the remaining Palestinian population. Some respectable voices speak openly of the need to finish the work left undone in 1948 – in order to ensure the survival of “the Jewish state”.

As ever, much of this is cloaked in Biblical sources. The paradox of Zionism was always that it was a secular ideology whose foundation lay in a religious discourse. At its heart is an obscurantist claim to historic territory. There is indeed much in the Hebrew Bible that gives succour to the wilder Zionist ambitions. But there is also another strand, one that warns against the menace of marrying religion to the state. In particular the Prophet Amos, a champion of the universality of ethical standards, explicitly denies the exclusivism of the Zionist claim to Palestine:

To Me, O Israelites, you are
Just like the Ethiopians – declares the Lord.
True I brought Israel up
From the land of Egypt,
But also the Philistines from Caphtor
And the Arameans from Kir.

Photo of Eliane GlaserEliane Glaser “Israel itself is in denial, but I can’t deny my attachment to it.”

The last time I went to Israel was for my cousin’s wedding in the summer of 2005. When I got off the plane the air was excitingly warm, people were chattering away in familiar Hebrew and, as I walked along the airport corridor and saw a row of El Al aeroplanes, their blue and white tailfins bravely sporting the national airline’s Star of David logo, I suddenly felt warm towards a country that seemed to feel warm towards me. I was in a place that celebrated an important part of my identity. I’m not one of those people who believe that a new anti-Semitism is on the rise in Britain, but those Stars of David said: being Jewish is cool. And I liked it.

This reaction came as something of a surprise. I hadn’t been to Israel for many years and I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it. My mother was born in the northern city of Haifa and lived there until she was 13, and I have a large extended family dotted around the country. I used to spend holidays there every year when I was growing up, and in some ways I loved it: it was an exotic home from home. But I also felt like an outsider. Israelis love to tell you how great it is to live in Israel (they also love to tell you how hard it is to live there, which explains the need to big it up the whole time). And my Camden Town bookishness was somewhat out of place in a country where everyone speaks very loudly and at the same time, where queues are for losers, and where 18-year-old girls carry automatic rifles.

And then there was the politics. I started to realise that all those Zionist youth groups and holiday camps had painted Israel in something of a rosy light. I started to get into regular political arguments with my Israeli relatives about the plight of the Palestinians that would always end in exactly the same way: at a certain point, my relative would say, since you don’t live here, you can’t express an opinion. I found this unbearably irritating, and would invariably storm out of the room. I only realised much later, long after I’d learned to avoid these arguments altogether, what my response should have been: namely, that living in Israel means that your opinion is valid, but also highly subjective.

But arriving on that August day in 2005, those Stars of David struck me afresh as naïvely and archaically symbolic, and they reminded me of the early socialist idealism of Israel; something that, in some ways, I still find very attractive. But in other ways, I find even that idealism to be a corruption of what my ancestors stood for. My great-grandparents were bohemian, Middle-European intellectuals. My great-grandfather, Peres Zadik, was a charismatic and eccentric doctor well known among the German community of Haifa, with its Bauhaus apartment blocks and pine-tree-lined streets. He was married to Rebeka, my great-grandmother, a Russian communist revolutionary, a passionate social reformer and a member of a lesbian ménage a trois.

Some of these immigrants recreated an atmosphere of European cosmopolitanism in their new Mediterranean outpost, but the majority embraced a very different set of values. My late great-aunt Leah, the formidable matriarch of my mother’s family, came from a liberal and erudite German family, but when she arrived in Israel she became a truck driver for the British Army and learned how to rear poultry. These Zionist pioneers took their Enlightenment secularism with them, but in throwing out the bathwater of religious ghettoisation they also lost the baby of cosmopolitan intellectualism. The move back to the land was a decision with tragic consequences.

Most of my Israeli relatives live in a village near the Sea of Galilee called Shadmot Devorah, or “Fields of Deborah”. The men of the family, Leah’s sons, look like benign versions of Stalin: they are burly, moustachioed farmers who ride horses, give you bear hugs and like to cut to the chase. In some ways, I’ve always loved Shadmot Devorah. It’s surrounded by olive groves and eucalyptus trees; the gardens are filled with bougainvillea, bird of paradise and banana trees. Children swim in the village pool in the late afternoons and at night they all meet in the basketball court and play games under the stars, the air still warm and humming with frogs and crickets. But the village is changing. Shadmot Devorah was originally a “Moshav”, a collective community like a kibbutz but where the families live in separate houses. In recent years, however, this arrangement has gone the way of most kibbutzes and people keep their finances as well as their families separate. Like the whole country, Shadmot Devorah is being transformed by American commercialism.

Although my teenage hostility towards Israel has subsided, I don’t like the way things are going. Politics has shifted to the right. While religion has in some ways fallen away, in others it has become more fundamentalist: trendy restaurants in Tel Aviv have pork on the menu, but hard-line settlers invoke the Bible as fact. The early “tough Jew” embrace of military excellence has hardened into a situation where military pragmatism trumps all political and diplomatic considerations and where “security” is always the bottom line. The peace process seems to have irrevocably faltered, and to have been replaced by cynical demographic considerations and “facts on the ground”: in other words, who can breed and build fastest. The historian Tony Judt seems to me to have it right when he uses the phrase “macho victimhood” to characterise the Israeli position. But what many non-Jews in Britain don’t appreciate is that the embattledness that Israelis feel, although not rational, is for them viscerally real.

If the political spectrum is narrowing, though, modern Israel is becoming much more culturally and, to some extent, ethnically diverse. There are burgeoning and sophisticated youth subcultures which make the political and military situation seem less of an overbearing presence. But there’s also a sense that the situation is more acute than ever. This split is for me encapsulated in the figure of the writer David Grossman. He argued passionately that Israelis should be able to think and write about issues other than politics and war: about being young, being in love, about social issues and underground culture. See Under Love and Someone to Run With explored that territory beautifully; but then Grossman’s son was killed in the 2006 Lebanon campaign, and it was terrible to see him yanked back into the rawness of life-and-death concerns once again. Modern Israeli life is rich and sophisticated, but it is also still shot through with such basic concerns as land, race and death.

As a secular Jew living in London, and for all these reasons, I don’t feel very close ties to Israel. But on that trip in 2005 I realised that I still have some kind of attachment to the place. My cousin’s wedding was a lively, joyful affair, high up on a hill in the Galilee, in a lush garden at night, with twinkling fairy lights in the trees and not one but two enormous meals (the bar area, in true Israeli style, was entirely deserted). A couple of days later I walked through the streets of old Jaffa with its bookshops, artists’ studios and cafes selling Moroccan salads, pitta bread, houmous and German-cooked meats. Part of me was thinking the whole scene was dependant on an unforgivable denial of the political big picture, but another part was thinking: this isn’t all bad.