Karl Sharro







On the coverage of the 60th anniversary of Israel in the French Press

What next for Israel?

 By Fadi Abdallah 

The 60th anniversary of the State of Israel received significant media coverage in France, exceeding in some newspapers and magazines the attention given to the 40th anniversary of May ’68. Some of the staunch advocates for Israel, such as Marek Halter in Paris Match, insisted on calling this event the anniversary of ‘independence’, as if the Jewish presence in Palestine has been continuous over the past two thousand years. The anniversary was also marked by several films and documentaries, such as Serge de Sampigny’s From Auschwitz to Jerusalem which utilised amateur films made in the 40s by Jewish and Arab families, one of which featured Edward Said as a child.  

Remarkably, the French press avoided interviewing Israeli politicians in office and decision makers, with the exception of Paris Match’s interview with Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak’s memoirs in Libération, and a few short quotes from Shimon Peres, Tzipi Livni and Benjamin Netanyahu. By contrast, Avraham Burg dominated the media coverage with his ubiquitous presence. Burg was speaker of Israel’s Knesset in 1999-2003, then quit Israeli politics and moved to France. In the rare instances were Burg was not present, such as in Le Figaro Magazine, he was replaced by the former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami who echoed Burg’s ideas. This article examines the significance of the focus on Burg’s ideas and the relevance of this choice from the European perspective. Burg and Ben-Ami are re-examining the concept of the Israeli identity and advocating a future for Israeli politics that aims to take it beyond Zionism. The Israeli project today faces continual challenges and transformations, and it no longer forms a coherent continuation of the process that began with Herzl. Some influential politicians such as Burg and Ben-Ami are trying to set Israel on a new course, a process that requires an understanding of the current dynamics influencing Israel. In attempting to do this, they have removed themselves from Israeli politics and its power struggles.  

Praising Israel 

The 60th anniversary of Israel is of course also the 60th anniversary of Al Nakba, the Palestinian exodus. The anniversary of the Palestinian plight did not receive the same level of media coverage as the commemoration of the Jewish state. The discussion of Al Nakba was a subtler affair, and came in the wake of the frenzied media coverage of the foundation of Israel. The Palestinian angle revolved specifically around the increasing politicisation of the Palestinians within Israel and the end of the era of their subjugation in a society where they form one fifth of the population. The idea of the bi-national state resurfaced on both sides, alarming Israeli and Palestinian elites equally. Laila Shahid warned that this idea could lead to a system of apartheid, whereas Burg feared a bloodbath in such bi-national state and considered it a Palestinian dream of demographic superiority. He considered this ambition the flip side of the dream of religious settlers of controlling all of the Promised Land.  

The Israeli media ‘festival’, by contrast, lasted for more than two weeks in the press. Journalists heaped praise on Israel, celebrating its agile democracy despite the problems of political corruption that followed the era of the founding fathers. They wrote at length about the thriving tourism and the delights of Tel Aviv and its Bauhaus architecture, and about its rich archaeology and the conflicts between the Jews and the Arabs over the remains and catacombs of Jerusalem, a city which is sacred to the three monotheistic religions. French magazines discussed at length the modern state built by successive waves of immigrants, and recounted the tales of the early ‘pioneers’ and their struggles. Some of those pioneers, admitting without remorse that they employed terrorism as a means of establishing their state on top of the ruins of abandoned Palestinian villages, today vehemently oppose the tactics of Hamas. Burg described the achievement of those pioneers as a miracle, they had built a democracy that is radically different from the totalitarian dictatorships they had fled.  

The press also discussed the popularity of Israeli art around the world, and the accomplishments of Israel science especially in the fields of medicine and biotechnology. Israel today is at the top of world ranking in the proportion of patents granted per capita. Olmert expressed his pride when he was told by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett that Israel is the source of the most remarkable inventions in our age. The economic success of Israel was also discussed in the press, many writers praised Israel’s continuing economic growth (at 5% annually) despite continuous wars and crises, and Israel’s attractiveness to foreign investors. (Foreign investment in Israel had reached $21 billion in 2006, a three-fold increase on the previous year). The Israeli economy, contrary to what we might wish, is very sound. It has deviated from the old Zionist dream of the kibbutz and agriculture, as Peres says with a mixture of pride and sorrow. This deviation has increased the gulf between the rich and the poor, who represent a quarter of the population of Israel today. The poor are concealed like ‘tears and anxiety’ as Marianne claimed. Israeli society has also failed in accommodating more recent immigrants and integrating them in the Zionist dream which abandoned socialism and equality in favour of harsh individualism and liberalism. (According to Le Nouvel Observateur and Le Monde).  

Lurking Behind Prosperity: Anxiety and Desperation  

Behind this spectacular image that the French press drew of Israel, the judgement was conclusive: “Israël le miracle…sans la paix”. (Israel the miracle…without peace). The territories occupied in 1967 became an unbearable burden for Israel. (A view shared by Ilan Greilsammer in Libération). The feeling of power is the problem not the solution, it increases Israel’s sense of isolation. The triumphs of the IDF did not deliver security, and prosperity did not beget happiness. Secular Jewish society has fragmented into hard-line religious or ethnic groups, such as the immigrants from Russia, whose cultural biases are harsher than class conflicts. The Arabs live as second-degree citizens, and Israel isolates itself behind security walls that attempt to shield the Palestinians and their problems, refusing to acknowledge the tragedies that they experience. The real challenge for the future is the desire to be integrated in the orient and normalisation with the Palestinians, as an editorial in Le Figaro put it. The political solution is clear, but none of the politicians has the power to offer the compromises required to achieve it.

Benny Ziffer observed in Le Monde the sense of desperation and fatalism that Israelis are exhibiting today, Marianne even wondered whether they still believed in peace at all. Ziffer argues that Israel has monopolised despair, and denied the Palestinians the right of expressing their own desperation. Israel now exports despair, whereas terror has become a Palestinian specialty as Ziffer confusingly remarks. Nevertheless, it is still possible to get from his article in Libération a better understanding of the sentiments that can deeply influence Israeli public opinion, and an understanding of the entrenched terror and desperation that seem to mark the outlooks of both Israelis and Arabs for the foreseeable future.  

The Desire for a Normal Life and Emerging From the Shadow of Europe 

In this context, it is possible to understand Burg’s faith, not in hope, which is lost for the moment, but in despair as a way out of the long conflict and a source of a peaceful settlement. Burg, the author of Defeating Hitler was interviewed by Libération, Le Monde and L’Express. He was also interviewed by Régis Debray in Le Nouvel Observateur. Through these interviews we can observe a degree of convergence of ideas between the French Press and Burg, who argues that the Zionist project has almost completed its programme and is now going through various transformations. (An opinion shared by Le Figaro). Burg considers the three founding myths of Israel to be no longer valid, making Israel a fragile state. Jews around the world are no longer threatened which removes the necessity for Israel as a shelter. The dream of the Promised Land and the vision of the new Jewish Man entrenched in the land has been taken hostage by the settlers, making it an extremely divisive idea. This is an opinion he shares in general with the entire French press. Lastly, faith in the army and state security has been weakened by the speed at which generals today are entering politics, giving the impression that the army controls the state. Burg considers Zionism a chapter of Israeli history that should be left behind now that there are two solid foundations for Jewish survival: the state of Israel and Jewish Americans.  

Burg concedes that Israel has offered Jews protection from persecution, but it needs to reclaim religious Jewish values in order not to become a persecutor of others. Burg argues that the Israeli project, following a future peaceful settlement with the Palestinians, should be characterised by a human and international outlook, out of loyalty to the heritage of European Jews before the Second World War. Régis Debray observed that United States and Europe the are incapable of applying pressure on Israel, in the case of the United States because it is a product of the Old Testament, and in the case of Europe because of its feelings of guilt and moral responsibility for the Holocaust. Burg criticises the Zionist appropriation of the Holocaust and its imposition as a unique event that is elevated above history. He also criticises the condition of the Jews and the Arabs in continuing to exist underneath the shadow of Europe and its history, exhibited through the persisting references to the Holocaust, the crusades and imperialism. Burg argues that solution lies in a direct dialogue between the Arabs and the Jews.  

Shlomo Ben-Ami, in Le Figaro Magazine, argues that Zionism aimed at severing the links between Jews and their countries of origin and observes the disintegration of the fabric of Israeli society, which was based on the idea of the New Jewish Man, the Sabra, farmer, warrior and secular in outlook. Le Monde made similar observations. Israel must break free from its Jewish heritage, in the sense of its fear of annihilation, and this contradicts with its feelings of strength and superiority. No peace deal was ever achieved through its triumphs, and because the Jewish people have not persevered in building Israel so that they can hide behind its walls. Ben-Ami observes the difficulty with the Palestinian conflict: it is a conflict over justice, memory and the image of the victim and the exile, not a border dispute. A resolution will require a decoding of the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even the Islamic-Jewish conflict, to determine the historic rights over the land of Palestine. Ben-Ami attributes Arafat’s failure to his refusal to accept a historic connection between the Jewish people and the land of Palestine.   

Ben-Ami observes how the Israeli psyche oscillates between the images of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Tel Aviv represents modernity, progress, economic growth, the culture of pleasure and the rule of law. The ‘concept of Jerusalem’ is an idea that is sustained through belief, and a ‘rural Jewish village’ that regards the Arabs with fear and the international community with suspicion. It opposes Tel Aviv’s desire for normalcy, considering that a crime of indifference to the depth of Jewish memory and the lessons of history.  

Jewish Echoes in the French Mind 

It is worth questioning the reasons for the French, and consequently European, reliance on those ideas, instead of pursuing the news of the peace process, or reporting the triumphs of the Israeli army. With the exception of a single article in Le Figaro about the history of Israel’s nuclear programme and the French support of that programme, news stories about the army were mainly concerned with the social and not the military aspect. For example, there were stories on the decreasing popularity of the refuseniks, and on the army having to adapt to new elements of religious extremism. This is probably caused by the diminishing prospects of peace, and the French realisation that what Burg and Ben-Ami are arguing is that the conflict is at the heart of both Israeli and Palestinian societies and is not simply a matter of redrawing the borders.  

Burg’s and Ben-Ami’s ideas are close to an expressed European desire for Israel to overcome the sharpness and rigidity of its founding myths. The French press is attracted more by Ben-Ami’s characterisation of Tel Aviv than by Jerusalem. Tel Aviv receives a much wider coverage, its beaches and nightclubs are much more attractive than the historic buildings of Jerusalem. Concluding that the process of building the new Jew, the Sabra, is completed relieves the European consciousness because it signifies the end of the Jewish metamorphosis from the Ghetto to the State.  

Similarly, this explains the European celebration of Burg’s vision: emerging from the shadow of Europe, refusing to elevate the Holocaust above history, granting the Jews a human and international outlook, and the completion of the Zionist project of rescuing European Jews. (70% of them today live outside Europe, either in Israel or the United States).  

Consequently, it appears that the perception of Israel in France is linked to two factors. The first revolves around understanding Israel as a western state, the one with the largest Muslim minority, (Les Echos) and comparing its economic conditions and social problems with those of advanced western countries, (Le Figaro). With that, Israel is encouraged to integrate in the Arab context and normalise its relationships with the Palestinians. This will ultimately end the stage of its existence as an extraordinary state haunted by the spectre of the Holocaust, its victims and its survivors. The second factor is European salvation, not from the legacy of the Holocaust, but of the entrenched image of the ‘Jew’ inherited from the Middle Ages, which when combined with the technical Nazi mentality culminated in the Holocaust. Those two concerns, the quest for integrating Israel and its citizens in the west, and dispelling the stereotype of the Jew as a shylock and a conspirer, is what the French media hopes that Israel will overcome. This desire ignores how crucial the history of those perceptions is to the Israeli identity.   

Jews in Europe are clearly still insecure. For example, Jewish immigration from France to Israel rose from a thousand people annually to about 2800 at the end of Chirac’s term in office. Chirac was generally considered to be close to the Arabs. The levels of immigration decreased again when Sarkozy became president. We as Arabs know that this does not justify Israel’s massacres and crimes against the Lebanese and the Palestinians. Nevertheless, we need to accept the fact that Europe is seeking to end its problematic history with its Jewish population. Reference to a common Judeo-Christian civilisation will come to an end when this troubled past is resolved. Paradoxically, European attempts to resolve the ‘Jewish Question’ do not comfort Israel: it still clings to the idea that its two strong foundations today are the military might of Israel and the support of the Jewish American community.  

Tom Segev remarks that the Israeli identity is still a work in progress, constantly troubled by the instability of its borders. As long as those borders continue to be drawn with fire, Israelis are destined to remain warriors despite their dreams of security. They are destined to violate the peace that they claim to wish for. Perhaps this is Israel’s Achilles’ heel. 


Fadi Abdallah is a Lebanese writer. 


First published in Arabic in Annahar cultural supplement, no 848, 8 June 2008.


Translated from Arabic by Karl Sharro 2008.