Wed, Jul 28, 2004 - Page 9 News List

How the zealots are killing the dreams of the kibbutz movement

The Utopian vision of Israel is being threatened from within, not by suicide bombers but by the weakness of the Left and the poisonous legacy of fundamentalism

By Will Hutton  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

It seems a long time ago now, but there was a time when Israel was not only the Middle East's only

democracy but a source of liberal inspiration. The kibbutz movement was a living example of how to build a new society based on genuine equality of opportunity and mutuality of respect in collective democratic communes that actually worked. I remember friends who had spent their gap year working on kibbutzim eulogizing about the experience.

That was then. Today, Israel's kibbutz movement is in crisis as a succession of right-wing governments has redirected subsidies to support settling the West Bank, where settlers now double those working on kibbutzim.

The movement is paying the price for clinging to outdated nostrums, like belief in caring, equality and collective action, building Israel within its pre-1967 borders while recognizing a Palestinian state and valuing the endless possibility of human development.

Like the rest of what constituted the once noble Israeli Labour movement, it has been shattered by the cruel marriage of religious and free-market fundamentalism. There is no more room for visionary ideas about building an Israel that will be a beacon for humanity whatever their faith. Israel is engaged in a fight to the death.

The resulting brutalization of Israeli society is no more vividly demonstrated than by the overwhelming opinion poll support -- 84 percent -- for building Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's security wall. It is a wall that the International Court of Justice, supported by last week's non-binding vote in the UN's General Assembly, considers illegal because it will effectively annex up to one-third or even one-half of the Palestinians' current territory.

Indeed, even Israel's Supreme Court, in a reminder of the ideals upon which Israel was founded, has insisted on a review of where it is built. But Sharon can bark his defiance at the world, confident of the scale of domestic support.

Yet the evidence from history is that building walls may look like the act of the strong but in fact they are the last gasp of the weak. Israel has come to a desperate pass if it clings to this as a solution to anything.

The trouble is that the liberal Israel, which might have offered a different vision, has been engulfed by Israel's religious zealots, with their insistence that it is Jewish destiny, warranted by biblical injunction, to create a Jewish state that will comprise all of the West Bank. The liberal secular traditionalists within Palestine, and with whom a genuine peace bargain might have been struck, are also beleaguered by fundamentalist religiosity.

Arafat's alleged corruption sparked the violent protests in Gaza last week, but it is not just about his personal failings; it springs from the deep factionalization within Palestine, as terrorist groups grounded in extreme fundamentalism insist on no quarter, suicide bombing and permanent intifada.

The objective is the annihilation not just of Israel but all Jews. Arafat's Fatah movement is driven into its laager; terrorist groups like Hamas are in another.

In western Europe, secular liberals wrestle with how to integrate Muslim communities into our societies to end discrimination. At the same time, Muslims insist we must recognize that their faith -- with traditions and practices that we sometimes find hard to accept -- is central to their identity.

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