“Moshe was simply not willing for the State of Israel to run him over anymore.”
Moshe Silman, a son of Holocaust survivors, was an Israeli man who died last week after suffering second and third-degree burns on 94 percent of his body. In an Israeli first, a week earlier he had set himself on fire during a large protest in the heart of Tel Aviv. He was desperate, poor and felt ignored by the neo-liberal, Israeli state.
But don’t tell the New York Times that editorialized recently how Israel is a “democratic state committed to liberal values and human rights”.
The reality for an increasing number of Jews is the exact opposite. A fellow activist told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that, “Moshe chose to harm himself in protest. It’s terrible when a person has to commit an act like that to explain their situation to people”.
The facts are stark. Israel spends only 16 percent of its GDP on public services compared to an average 22 percent across the OECD (http://www.oecd.org/). After Silman’s self-immolation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the act a “personal tragedy” but in reality Israel is increasingly withdrawing welfare, education and employment opportunities and a safety net for Israeli Jewish citizens.
2011’s J14 protest movement was designed to highlight the growing inequalities in Israeli society, though demanding justice for Palestinians and ending the occupation were notably excluded from the list of demands.
Last year, at least 400,000 Israeli Jews took to the streets to demand a fairer society. It was a middle class revolt against the rising cost of housing and living. But in 2012 organisers are aware that the corporate media, many very close to Netanyahu himself, are far less sympathetic to their message.
Daphni Leef, the initiator of the protest, told the New York Times in mid-July that, “I do not feel that we live in a democracy,” she said. “I feel we live in an oligarchy. A few wealthy families control this country.”
The one group excluded from this conversation are the Palestinians, on both sides of the green line. Their views are largely ignored in the Israeli mainstream and yet they’re expected to serve in the IDF. It is a fanciful idea that most Palestinians are dismissed from a state that clearly sees them as a demographic threat to a majority Jewish population.
What has focused the mind of many Zionist lawmakers is a recent report by former Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy who found that the occupation isn’t in fact an occupation and the Israeli presence in the West Bank is legal. Despite the fact that every respected international legal body decides that Jewish colonies are against international law, the Israeli government now has a document that merely confirms its belief that ever-expanding settlements can be covered by a legal document.
Levy’s decision has caused heartache in liberal Zionist circles. However, a curious response from JJ Goldberg in the Jewish Forward newspaper wasn’t so worried about the occupation as upsetting allies against Iran’s nuclear program. Rather than condemn the Zionist state for attempting to legitimize the over 600,000 Jewish colonists in the West Bank, Goldberg was scared that Levy’s decision would anger Washington when “Israel is threatened with extinction” from Tehran.
This is ludicrous hyperbole and reveals the dishonesty in supposedly serious journalistic circles. But it’s little different to mainstream Israeli media pundits who simply don’t bother talking or thinking about the Palestinian “problem” but obsess over Iran and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The occupation can be ignored until tomorrow, next week or forever. Soon enough, a person like Levy will create a legal fiction and legalize what the whole world knows to be illegal. The US issues muted criticism and colonization continues apace.
What remains fascinating about the Levy findings – American Zionist organizations still can’t bring themselves to speak clearly and honestly about Jewish housing in the West Bank – is what it means for Palestinian rights under occupation. If there’s no occupation, then surely there would be no problem granting full voting and civil rights to all citizens of the West Bank and Gaza. If that happened today, Jews would soon find themselves a minority. It’s called democracy and it’s something the Zionist leadership fears.
In the meantime, Israeli politicians and most commentators are wondering what the Arab Spring does to their country’s bunker mentality. In short, old friends are now seen as potential enemies (Egypt and Jordan) and allegedly ongoing threats, such as Syria, Hezbollah, Iran and Hamas, are in a period of transition. The Palestinian Spring has yet to happen, not least because the Palestinian Authority is an extension of the Israeli occupation, but Israel is today paying the price for years of seeing itself, as Defense Minister Ehud Barak one quipped, as a “villa in a jungle”. Such attitudes are increasingly challenged in elite political circles, including Britain.
Zionist supremacy and nationalist fervor has convinced many Israelis that the bunker is a comfortable place to reside. Unrivalled military might has allowed this delusion to grow to the point where, according to Israeli historian Tom Segev, “Israelis tend not to be interested in Arabs as people but as enemies. Sure, people will be pleased when Assad falls, as we were when Saddam went. But it won’t make any difference to the cost of renting an apartment in Tel Aviv.”
A viable alternative is the one-state solution, a state in which Israelis and Palestinian live equally. These views, once residing on the fringes on the debate, are increasingly going mainstream. Even a British conservative MP, Bob Stewart, who spent 28 years in the UK military, visited the West Bank and said he was “deeply upset by what I saw.” His response? “Unless the settlements stop, there can be no chance whatever of a two-state solution, and the only alternative … is a one-state solution. One state where Jews and Palestinians recognize one another as equals.Surely that is not totally utopian.”
Zionist fundamentalists also talk today proudly of a one-state equation but a reality in which Arabs remain second-class citizens.
In a new book I’ve edited with Ahmed Moor, After Zionism, we explain both the justice and sense of imagining a one-state future. One chapter, by Nazareth-based journalist Jonathan Cook, highlights the case of Ahmed and Fatina Zbeidat, a Palestinian couple who face systematic discrimination simply because they’re not Jews. It is one case but its message is universal. A partition of land to entrench division in a nation that has spent over six decades of Zionist leadership determined to separate Jews from Palestinians has caused nothing other than pain and racism.
The Israeli social justice activists highlight key concerns of many middle class Israelis, but it will remain a blind movement unless it tackles the historical injustice of Jewish privilege over democratic equality for all.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, author and co-editor of After Zionism (Saqi Books)