Celebrating 1948?

Tomorrow Israel celebrates its 60th year of independence. Jews from all over the world will celebrate the existence of a state created uniquely for them and by them, a place where they can be safe from the persecution that has dogged them since even before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. At Williams, this commemoration will take the form of a cookout; in Jerusalem, there will be fireworks, a laser show, and a concert.

Israelis will have time to reflect on their country’s incredible success story in reclaiming Palestine on the eve of its expiration as a British mandate and in repelling a poorly organized (but nonetheless large scale) invasion from their Arab neighbors. Israel has gone on to become, in many ways, an international success story. It is a wealthy country (its per capita GDP is roughly on par with the EU’s) that can defend itself against attack and protect its citizens’ civil liberties; it is the global center of Jewish cultural and intellectual life; and its people are some of the most patriotic in the world.

Long before the 1948 war in which Israel won its independence, Palestinians comprised the majority of people living in what is now Israel and Palestine. After the declaration of independence and the resulting combat, most of them fled (whether of their own volition or as a result of the Israeli army’s efforts to remove them from the land remains unclear) to Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and other parts of the Middle East. Although the original number of Palestinian refugees is disputed, there are today more than four million, making them one of the largest populations of displaced people in the world. Most of them live outside of Palestine, with the largest population in Jordan. Those who have remained in Palestine live in hellish conditions in either the West Bank or in Gaza. As a result of the 1967 war, in which Israel occupied Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza and the West Bank (which had previously belonged to Syria, Egypt and Jordan, respectively), these refugees were put into limbo. Utterly dispossessed, they were denied entrance to Israel and discouraged from moving to neighboring countries, which, even if they hadn’t feared retribution from Israel for taking in refugees, had no room for an influx of unskilled laborers. The Sinai Peninsula was eventually returned to Egypt, and Syria and Israel seem to be moving towards a deal with Golan Heights; meanwhile, Palestinians are living in what we have to call “the occupied territories.” Many of them still have the keys to the homes they fled in 1948.

I mentioned earlier that Israel’s per capita GDP of $28,800 is more or less on par with those of EU countries. With this in mind, it may be surprising to learn that Gaza and the West Bank share an average per capita GDP of $1,100, on par with countries like Uganda and Nepal. Approximately 8 percent of Israelis are unemployed and about 22 percent live below the poverty line. Those numbers are perhaps a little high by U.S. standards, but compared to the West Bank (with an unemployment rate of roughly 19 percent and a poverty rate of 46 percent) and Gaza (35 percent and 80 percent, respectively), they look downright agreeable. Palestinians in the West Bank are allowed to use only one-fifth of the water in the aquifer atop which they live; by the terms set forth in the Oslo accords, Israel gets the other four-fifths. In order to leave either of the territories, Palestinians must pass through checkpoints, a process so inefficient that over 80 have died while waiting to enter Israel in order to receive medical attention.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the current Israel-Palestine situation is that the Palestinian population is so young: 47 percent of the 1.5 million people living in Gaza and 41 percent of the 2.6 million in the West Bank are under the age of 14. That means that there are a lot of children growing up dirt-poor, disenfranchised and angry. Moreover, as Jeffery Goldberg points out in the current issue of The Atlantic, in a few years Palestinians will outnumber Israeli Jews. In other words, if Israel does not radically reconsider its treatment of Palestinians, it will essentially be an apartheid state, with the minority ruling the majority. But handing over more rights is not as simple as it might seem, since by doing so, “Israel, a country whose fundamental purpose has been to serve as a refuge for persecuted Jews, and to allow those Jews to have the novel experience of being part of a majority, would disappear,” as Goldberg phrases it.

I will be the first to admit that I have no idea how Israel, Palestine, the U.S. or the College should proceed from here. I suppose all I’m really hoping is that when we look to Israel’s myriad accomplishments tomorrow (and I am sincere in hoping that we do celebrate them), we will also put to use the critical reasoning skills honed in this liberal arts environment by remembering that the day is not only Independence Day, but also al-Nakba – “the catastrophe.”

Elizabeth Kohout ’08 is an English major from Austin, Texas.