On tour: imagining “After Zionism” in Israel and Palestine

My following essay appears on the American website Mondoweiss today:

The drive from East Jerusalem to Tel Aviv takes around one hour. It’s a stinking hot day and I’ve come from Ramallah in mid-August 2012. Despite flying into Ben Gurion airport in the morning I am stopped and initially refused entry by the Israeli border guard police when trying to come back into Israel. I’m on a private Palestinian bus, taken at the Qalandiya checkpoint, and asked to get off to explain who I am.

I don’t have any Israeli stamp in my passport because I requested at the airport for the officials to stamp a separate piece of paper to avoid troubles when travelling around the Muslim world. A customs official took that paper as I exited and I’m told by activists that this is an increasingly utilised tactic that only affects people who want to travel back and forth between Israel and the occupied territories.

Even when I arrive at the airport I am held and questioned for more than one and a half hours and asked why I have recently visited places such as Pakistan and Afghanistan and “how many Muslims did you speak to there?”

Of course, none of this harassment comes close to what Palestinians and minorities face on a daily basis in Israel proper and Palestine.

I am in Israel and Palestine for an independently organised tour of my new book, After Zionism (co-edited with Ahmed Moor). It’s a collection of new essays on today’s reality and examines the ways in which a one-state solution could be implemented. It features chapters by John Mearsheimer, Sara Roy, Jeff Halper, Omar Barghouti, Diana Buttu, Joseph Dana, Jonathan Cook, Phil Weiss and many others.

The owner of East Jerusalem’s Educational Bookshop, Mahmoud, drives me to Tel Aviv. He tells me that the Israeli establishment is increasingly keen to censor views they don’t like. He recalls stories of having books briefly impounded at Ben Gurion airport, and some stolen, that feature examination of Hamas, Hizbollah and the armed Palestinian struggle. He laughs that sometimes the books are taken simply because there’s photo on the cover that features a gun. Mahmoud fears that outright censorship of books in English, currently an unknown factor, is likely in the coming years considering the amount of anti-democratic legislation in the Knesset.

The event in Tel Aviv has been complex to plan. The message of the book should clearly be heard by Israeli Jews – the destruction wrought by Zionism, the failures of the Israeli Left to bring justice for occupied Palestinians and the growing and blatant racism within Israeli society – but Ahmed and I wanted to make sure any event complied with BDS conditions.

Associating with any Israeli government organisation or one supported in any way by the Zionist state is frowned upon and I didn’t have any desire in discussing our book that backs BDS with an event that ignores its key points. This would be hypocrisy on a grand scale.

I emailed Palestinian Omar Barghouti to ask his thoughts. He said he wouldn’t personally appear in Tel Aviv and didn’t see the point anymore in engaging liberal Zionists but he suggested one venue, run by the feminist group and BDS national committee partner Coalition of Women for Peace, in the heart of Tel Aviv. It’s an organisation that has fought a long-running battle against Israel’s more draconian policies and paid a price for doing so. 

The event attracts a full house and features +972’s Noam Sheizaf and political activists Hadel Badarni and Yael Ben Yefet. It’s a humid evening with an engaged crowd.

I begin by explaining the rationale behind the project, a desire to move away from the tired and redundant arguments about one-state or two and instead provide concrete examples of why true justice for Palestinians and Israelis can only come through one state. More essentially, I argue that Zionism itself is the issue. It can’t be reformed, re-defined or re-imagined. From its beginning, it was about subjugation of the Arab, a desire to colonise as much land as possible in the name of Jewish liberation.

From that perspective, the ideology has been remarkably successful at achieving complete domination of the land and today’s reality, something I see during my visit with hours waiting at checkpoints and clogged roads waiting for teenage IDF soldiers to let us pass, is now irreversible. The occupation is integral to Israeli society and resisted by very few. I tell the audience in Tel Aviv that it’s now our responsibility to both acknowledge the crimes in 1948, 1967 and beyond and imagine an inclusive future for both Israelis and Palestinians. What that state or entity will look like is the challenge. In my own personal view, it must equally include Palestinian and Israeli (not Zionist or exclusionist) culture and history.

Sheizaf says that his political journey has brought him to confusion today. A supporter of Oslo, then the two-state solution and finally the one-state and now uncertainty. He recalls a recent survey of Israeli public opinion that finds a majority of Jews happy with the status-quo. That’s my sense of the vast bulk of the Jewish Diaspora. Some are undoubtedly pained by the ongoing occupation but do little apart from mouthing platitudes against it. No sanctions. No boycotts. No divestment. A plea for both sides to return to the negotiating table. Just empty words.

Sheizaf talks about the website 972’s attempt to broaden the conversation about questions ignored in the Israeli mainstream but there are lines (and laws) that will not be crossed. It is often a liberal Zionist site, not that this stops Sheizaf calling Israeli behaviour “apartheid” – and they clearly struggle ideologically and even legally to openly discuss some of the more controversial issues of the day, including boycotts, a one-state equation and de-Zionising Israel.

The conversation with all the speakers – the Israeli women articulate well the challenges in getting past the ingrained Israeli fears towards Arabs, Palestinians, Iranians and non-Jews and Badarni especially acknowledges the struggles within Israel to imagine a country that treats all citizens equally – is indicative of that rare thing in Israel today; deconstructing Zionism from the Left and wondering what could replace it.

The Q & A session is spirited. Many of the questions express despair at mainstream Israeli opinions and the disconnect between what’s happening down the road in Palestine and the desire for many Israeli Jews to simply not care. It’s less known that most Israelis continue serving in the IDF reserves until 45 years of age, often in the occupied territories, so a continual connection to the conflict is there every year.

One older woman says she’s been arguing for years that the Israeli Left has fundamentally refused to tackle the underlying issues here, namely that believing in a two-state solution paradigm has perpetuated the strife. Nobody with any power has ever had any serious desire to implement it. Up to 700,000 illegal Jewish colonists in the West Bank make that clear.

A number of audience members question the viability of the one-state solution, wondering how Israeli Jews will be convinced to give up their privilege. I respond that they won’t – white South Africans didn’t voluntarily end apartheid because they suddenly loved blacks – but increasing isolation and condemnation may well reveal to more of the world that a fundamentalist Jewish state is what the country’s leaders and many in the public have always wanted. Deciding between Jewish and democratic is easy; the former was the goal from day one.

It’s a fascinating evening, not least because I’m told such discussions are so rarely held here. The Palestinian issue has largely been pushed out of public discussion, a deliberate ploy by the government and Right, with the supposed threat of Iran dominating the media (a point I explained on BBC Persian TV recently). It could be argued that many in the settler movement are far more engaged in a future reality for themselves than the Israeli mainstream and Left. “Feckless” is the way a good friend describes the Israeli Left’s unwillingness or inability to challenge the pro-colonist reality in the last decades since the Oslo peace accord. Some anti-occupation protest here. Involvement in the Palestinian non-violence movement there. But virtually no differences on the ground itself.

The following evening After Zionism is discussed in East Jerusalem with independent journalist Joseph Dana and Palestinian Diana Buttu at the New Educational Bookshop. Before the event begins, famed nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu arrives, we make eye contact and he sits on his own in the back of a packed room. The audience is mostly Palestinians and foreigners. A few Israelis, too.

Dana argues that discussing one or two states ignores the broader questions, namely recognising the core of the problem, Zionism. “Israel long ago decided whether it wanted to be Jewish or democratic, it can’t be both.” It chose the former. Dana explains that spending any time in the occupied territories makes it very clear what Israel has had in mind since the beginning; colonisation, occupation and repression. Every Israeli leader has wanted the same thing and achieved its goal with perfection. The international community is neutered or complicit, including the EU.

Some of their diplomats are in the audience, including a senior one from Holland, who tells me afterward that the issue of Zionism never enters discussions with Israeli officials though the EU is trying its best to provide assistance to the Palestinians. I say that the EU is far too often happy to economically boost the Jewish state, including the recent news to upgrade Israel’s special trading status.

Buttu explains how the Oslo period has entrenched the rot inside the Palestinian Authority and allowed a Western and Israeli backed entity to manage the occupation for the Zionist nation. She offers no particular solution to this issue but states that the challenge for Palestinians especially is to create and imagine a different political reality where dignity and self-determination are central. She implies that neither Hamas or the PA will ever be able to prove this. The need for an independent Palestinian political movement, with mass appeal, is surely desperately needed. Buttu continued her arguments on a recent Al Jazeera English program filmed in Ramallah.

During the Q & A, a number of people questioned the viability of a one-state solution and Israel and the West ever allowing it to happen. The obstacles, detailed in After Zionism, are undeniably great, but the first step is once and for all excising the two-state equation as either feasible or just. It’s then the responsibility of all major players, both inside and outside of the region, to forge a future that brings peace with justice through a political framework.

Vanunu asks one of the last questions. “Tell me”, he says, “where is this conflict going?” Tough question. We all argue that that until there’s acknowledgement that the status-quo isn’t working, we’ll be stuck in the same tired formulations. A solution won’t come through a sound-bite or a return to “negotiations” with two unequal sides. Dana is perhaps the most pessimistic about the future, believing that any serious talk about one-state today is pointless when this falls into the trap of a paradigm that is tired and favours the more powerful entity, Israel. Besides, he continues, we haven’t even admitted what’s been happening since 1948, ethnic cleansing by force and stealth. With Israel’s huge natural gas reserves, its economic stability will need to be challenged in a variety of creative ways.

I disagree with some of Dana’s points, as surely it’s important to imagine a different, more just outcome. After Zionism offers some practical examples.

Speaking personally, I believe that until there is less ignorance in the West about Israeli behaviour – how often do we continue to hear talk about “democratic” Israel and its striving for peace in the region? – the responsibility of writers and other engaged parties is to remind the world that the Oslo rules were broken from day one and benefitted the occupier. If the idea of being an “intellectual” means anything substantial, it’s about not accepting the frame given by a state and its proud adherents and offering an alternative vision.

Speaking to The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) founder, Jeff Halper, during my stay confirms this paralysis. He, like so many other people I see, realise that there are increasingly limited spaces for any interaction between Israelis and Palestinians, as the anti-normalisation movement deepens.

***

A few days after the East Jerusalem event, I watch with Dana the wonderful new documentary, Under African Skies, about Paul Simon and his controversial visit to apartheid South Africa in the 1980s to record Graceland. It’s mainly about the glorious music but the issue of Simon breaking the cultural boycott of the country is canvassed. It’s relevant today, in the context of Israel, where Simon played last year, because the film reveals Simon to naively believe that music and art can overcome oppression and boycotting South Africa was not something Simon, without consulting the ANC, who strongly backed BDS, had any intention of following.

I find the film moving on a number of levels; being in Palestine and Israel and talking about the ways in which today’s deadlock can be shifted. BDS is one way of pressuring Israel and it’s already having a major psychological effect (with minimal economic pain, thus far). The black South African musicians were desperate to be heard internationally, despite the cultural boycott technically blocking locals playing outside the country. Their position was understandable, if still contentious. But Simon, who speaks the language of reconciliation, admits to arriving in South African with no real understanding of apartheid. He soon becomes an unlikely critic of the regime but willfully ignores the demands of the cultural boycott movement because he believes he’s more important than the wishes of an oppressed people’s leadership who were calling to completely isolate a repressive state.

Similar arguments are made today by musicians and artists who want to come to Israel. Talking will help. Understanding can only come when both sides get together. But this fundamentally ignores the inherent power disparity in the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Intellectual independence is vital in any political struggle but individuals don’t have the right to oppose a liberation movement with clear political goals if they believe that collective action is the only way to bring down oppression.

Simon’s recent visit to Israel shows he understands nothing more today than in years past, completely oblivious to the solidarity required. Any cultural association with the Israeli government (Artists Against Apartheid explain) must not happen because Palestinian civil society has demanded it. Groups under occupation are in a far better position to dictate these rules than (sometimes) well-meaning people in the Diaspora. However, it would be wrong to say that there aren’t Palestinians who challenge BDS dictates, including at the movie theatre in the West Bank town of Jenin.

***

The final event for After Zionism is in Ramallah at the Quaker’s Friends Meeting House with Omar Barghouti and Joseph Dana. Being the last night of Ramadan, the space was still quickly filled with a smattering of Palestinians, Western aid workers and writers. Barghouti explains how the challenge for a democratic future is to decolonise Israel both ideologically and practically. There needs to be a just way to compensate all citizens, Jews, Palestinians or others, who have been expelled since 1948. He says that a distinction between public and private land and property would be taken into account in one, democratic state. Barghouti’s chapter in After Zionism outlines how this could happen.

His key point is that colonial privileges currently enjoyed by Jewish colonists in the West Bank must stop immediately, like at the end of apartheid South Africa. I like his line that Jews living in Brooklyn can’t behave in a brutal way towards Arabs as they do if they move to the occupied territories. Barghouti sounds an optimistic tone by arguing a combination of the Arab Spring, BDS and a multi-polar world is making it easier to imagine the end of Zionist exclusion. It will be increasingly hard to maintain a ghettoised Jewish state in the heart of a democratic region.

I’m encouraged to hear Barghouti say that in the last 12-18 months, BDS is suddenly taking off across the world. He says he can’t keep up with the number of university campuses wanting to initiate programs against Israel firms and campaigns to convince Western musicians and artists not to play Israel. I’m told that Israeli music promoters are paying 2-3 times the normal rate to convince foreigners to come because the political price for doing so is growing.

Cultural isolation for Israelis is far from complete but it’s undeniably on the rise. For example, the fact that Madonna recently felt the need to try and bring peace activists from both sides during her show - Israeli liberal Zionists came while anti-occupation activists refused - shows the campaign is starting to bite.

During the Q and A – many in the audience were Westerners working for Western NGOs in Palestine – there was a palpable frustration with the role of these organisations in perpetuating the conflict rather than solving it. “Are we helping manage the occupation for Israel?”, one Australian asks. Some Palestinians, while liking the idea of a one-state solution, wonder how it will be achieved with such a powerful Zionist state next door. Dana says that now is not the time to be talking about the composition of a future state but rather we should better understand today’s reality and act accordingly. I say that Western audiences are yet to be seriously exposed to the idea of a anything other than the two-state equation and a “peace process” so if not now, when? Similar discussions occur during book events in London, including at the Frontline Club and SOAS.

Palestine is a contradiction. Dana and I hang out at a public pool in Ramallah. It’s full of parents with their children swimming in the cool water. There’s a pool bar serving beer on tap. Palestinian women are sitting in skimpy bikinis. This is not the image of Palestine that we’re used to seeing. Ramallah is a relatively liberal and Christian-dominated city and it’s unlikely many other places in the West Bank, and certainly not Gaza, would allow such behaviour, but despite growing conservatism, liberal life goes on. It’s yet another example of the Ramallah bubble.

6 comments
  • http://www.red-jos.net Mannie De Saxe

    It really is amazing how people become abusive without any argument to back them up.
    Israel gives everybody trouble because it is an oppressive apartheid police state as well as being a theocracy.
    Democracy has been a joke that Israel continues to perpetuate and the westerners swallow without looking into the situation with any depth at all.
    Most of our journalists are also pathetically backward in what they write or what their proprietors permit them to publish.
    It would be helpful if contributors to articles such as this one stopped being so one-eyed and looked at the world around them.
    In fact the question is, why are they still living in Australia when they feel that Israel is their country?

  • http://hoffmanchronicled.wordpress.com/ Watchful Iris

    You probably know who the person was that asked you the idiotic question at SOAS the other day and that they are making hay of "the answer"…see here:
    http://richardmillett.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/an
    http://www.thejc.com/blogs/jonathan-hoffman/how-m

    Jonathan Hoffman is a disgrace to the Jewish community. Find out all you need to know about him here:
    http://hoffmanchronicled.wordpress.com/the-zionis

  • http://hoffmanchronicled.wordpress.com/ Watchful Iris

    You probably know who the person was that asked you the idiotic question at SOAS the other day and that they are making hay of "the answer".

    Jonathan Hoffman is a disgrace to the Jewish community. You can find out all you need to know about him at Hoffman Chronicled Facebook page.

  • http://hoffmanchronicled.wordpress.com Rich A

    That is pretty standard and common. The US State Department recommends Americans to ask for that and the Israelis oblige.

  • john nemesh

    (A) Stop for a minute!

    Lets just assume that the 2 state solution IS possible and very likely.

    Now are you still besotted with allowing all national groups their right of self determination except the Jews?
    Not withstanding that you are one as well?
    Is the two state solution still anathema to you?

    Your latest article is the closest you have come to actually elucidating your beliefs and then strapping on whatever facts you can, as a propagandist would,to back you desires and/beliefs.

    You are obsessed with the dissolution of Israel.

    And with it you are obsessed about the evils of the Jewish enterprise, whilst totally identifying with Israel's enemies.

    Does it not even twinge your conscience , knowing that the most virulent antisemites use your efforts and reasonings to pursue their ugly racist Jew hatred beliefs?

    Post Zionism?
    We have as Jews just escaped annihilation from the Nazis.
    But you would have the jews disappear as an entity with its own determination and freedom.

  • john nemesh

    (B) Are you not behaving as a racist and antisemite by extension, from your stated pro Arab-Palestinian advocay?

    And all this effort, all this time and input against Israel, whilst only next door Syrians murder and bomb each other to pieces in the tens of thouisands.

    Especially when a TRULY small minority of Syrians-Allawites–15%, indiscriminately slaughter their Sunni countrymen.

    Antony, I am led to the conclusion that you are indeed acting as a massive hypocrite, who earns his living like a parasite feeding on the back of the sacrifices of six million murdered Jews.

    And for this alone , I for one ,will not cease but remain your inexorable adversary.