Debating Zionism’s boundaries

My following essay appears in the current edition of Jewish, American magazine Tikkun:

by Mark LeVine
Zed Books, 2009

by Leslie Stein
Polity, 2009

by Lev Luis Grinberg
Routledge, 2009

by Avi Shlaim
Verso, 2009

The question of Israel’s democratic features is as old as the country itself. Can a Zionist state, with Jerusalem as the “undivided, eternal capital of the Jewish state and the Jewish people,” in the words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ever satisfy the Arab population? Is Zionism capable of understanding the wishes and needs of a Palestinian people under occupation in the West Bank and under siege in Gaza?

Expanding colonies across Judea and Samaria are only supported by a minority of the Israeli population, yet decades of an American-initiated “peace process” have led to around 500,000 Jewish settlers on occupied territory.

Opponents of this creeping trend are labeled traitors to the Zionist cause. The Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick wrote in March that protests against Jewish expansion in East Jerusalem were “anti-Semitic,” and “leftist” media had conspired to ignore the Jew haters’ “stoking violence against innocent Jews for their crime of lawfully living where they choose.”

The question of defining the boundaries of the Zionist state remains unresolved. In the beginning of Politics And Violence In Israel/Palestine, Lev Luis Grinberg — chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ben Gurion University and founder of the conscientious objectors’ movement Yesh Gul — argues that Jewish Israeli citizens are convinced they live in a “Jewish democracy.” However, the reality is that, “according to Israeli discourse and institutions, full citizenship is granted only to Jewish citizens, considered the legitimate owners of the entire land, and therefore they have the right to decide where they can settle and where the borders of the state lie.”

Grinberg may be stating the obvious, but it fundamentally challenges the oft-repeated claim within Israel and the Jewish diaspora that Israel is a democracy for all its citizens, Jewish or Arab. The author, after painstakingly assessing the last twenty years of failed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians — offering more analysis than investigative work — concludes that neither a two-state nor a one-state solution will solve the conflict.

It’s brave to disregard the majority opinion and increasingly vocal alternative, but perhaps it’s honesty that drives the author’s proposal for an “Israel-Palestine Union” (IPU), “some creative combination of consociation, confederation and federative institutions with two separate national governments and one shared administration.”

After dismissing the viability of a two-state solution due to the fact that roughly eighteen percent of Israeli citizens of Palestinian descent would have to accept living in a Jewish state, Grinberg moves on to demolish the one-state equation. Both communities, he says, “still prefer to remain autonomous, independent and undetermined by the other.”

The writer doesn’t acknowledge the growing move within Palestinian society itself for a unilateral and coordinated campaign for equal rights with Jews in a single, unitary state. Political differences aside, it would be difficult to dismiss the idea as impossible when numerous other nations in the twentieth century implemented an end to partition. South Africa is the most obvious example.

The viability of the one-state solution is hotly debated. Although most studies find a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians opposed to its implementation, the continued occupation of West Bank land creates a de-facto one-state reality, albeit one with one law for Jews and another for Palestinians. Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada website, writes that the stated objections of the vast majority of Israelis are reminiscent of white South Africans during apartheid. What changed? “South African whites typically attempted to justify their opposition to democracy,” he argues, “not in terms of a desire to preserve their privilege and power, but using liberal arguments about protecting distinctive cultural differences.” Many Zionists make similar points.

But international pressure to force Israel to understand that its choice is either global isolation or equal rights for all its citizens is not enough. Palestinians who back the one-state proposal must suggest humane methods to comfort Israeli Jews scared of becoming second-class citizens in their own homeland.

It should be acknowledged that a transition to such a vision doesn’t come without risks. Forced attempts at unity throughout history, occurring without necessary safeguards, have been bloody. But the choice is surely no longer between the impossible-to-believe two-state solution and maintenance of the status quo. If Palestinian civil society and the political elites begin to coordinate their tactics and understand that a “one person, one vote” campaign could be highly effective internationally, how will Zionists who oppose its truly democratic nature look? We shouldn’t underestimate the power of a global solidarity movement to strip Israeli Jews of their privilege, not by force but by moral and political power.

The global shifts in public opinion toward recognizing the real state of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians have developed in two key ways. First, the frustrations over ever-expanding occupation in the West Bank have resulted in a small but growing boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against the perception of a belligerent Jewish state.

A leader of this phenomenon, Omar Barghouti, recently told Democracy Now! that the campaign is gathering friends across the world because: “This is about whether Israel is indeed practicing apartheid and colonial rule against the indigenous Palestinians ”¦ This is according to the UN Convention on the Suppression of the Crime of Apartheid. We don’t have to prove that Israel is identical to South Africa to prove that Israel is practicing apartheid.” BDS is seen as the only logical, nonviolent answer.

The other fundamental paradigm shift is the growing fearlessness of Israel’s critics, who are no longer willing to be silenced by the charge of “anti-Semitism.” Witness the ferocious attacks on distinguished South African judge Richard Goldstone after the release of the UN report on alleged war crimes committed by both Israel and Hamas during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009. Goldstone was mercilessly smeared, but his report continues to resonate around the world.

According to the Jewish Forward, one of the real sources of the Goldstone report’s power derives from a fear that its implications on the targeting of civilians in war could be used against other states, namely America and its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rep. Gary Ackerman, a Democrat from New York who is chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, has said that Washington has killed civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, “certainly a number multiplied by some huge multiple compared to the number of civilians that were killed as Israel pursued terrorists in Gaza.” If Israel must be protected from transparent investigations, logic dictates that most Western nations should similarly close ranks against a meddling United Nations.

Israel is no longer a protected species in global forums.

This argument is made throughout Mark LeVine’s small book, Impossible Peace. LeVine, an associate professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic Studies at the University of California, Irvine, (as well as a longtime contributing editor at Tikkun), has written a work that is refreshingly free of dogma. He destroys the inherent illusions of the Oslo years. Perhaps most significantly, he outlines the complicity of many Western-funded NGOs in the continuation of the occupation.

Although countless organizations provided essential services to desperate Palestinians during the 1990s and to this day, the “developmentalization” of the sector allowed some NGOs “to be seen by many Palestinians as an employment sector for the economically privileged. Like political parties, the NGO community was believed to have lost its popular legitimacy.”

It is therefore supremely ironic that the Netanyahu government is currently pursuing a concerted campaign against allegedly “anti-Israeli” NGOs, without which millions of occupied Palestinians, who remain second-class citizens in their own land, would be even more impoverished.

But alternative history lessons are the cornerstone of this contested subject. Leslie Stein’s The Making of Modern Israel: 1948-1967 recounts the tumultuous period before the country’s founding and provides some early indications of the post-1967 troubles between Arabs and Palestinians. Stein is a proud Zionist and never questions the murderous rampage of Zionist fighters against the British before Israel’s birth. The word “terrorism” is never used to describe Jewish actions, but Palestinian activities are routinely dismissed as “terrorism.” There is little effort to distinguish between attacks against civilians and military targets. The infamous bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946 was committed “in despair” toward perceived British reluctance to allow full-blown Jewish immigration to Palestine.

Although Stein acknowledges that “it can legitimately be argued that the [Jewish] settlers exacerbated Palestinian animosity toward Israel,” he blames the Arabs for violently resisting Zionist conquest. “Islamic fascists” have taken over the struggle, he claims, “in which compromise is inconceivable and a fight to the finish is theologically mandatory.” It’s unsurprising that both Daniel Pipes and Marty Peretz have endorsed the book.

Perhaps examining the general sweep of history is the best way to treat the Middle East (something historians such as Ilan Pappé, Benny Morris, and Tanya Reinhart, among others, have at various times perfected). Oxford University’s Avi Shlaim, whose new book is a collection of two decades of work, is uniquely placed to assess the shifts and continuities in that time. He remains committed to “the legitimacy of the state of Israel within its pre-1967 borders” while also acknowledging “dispossession and dispersal” of the Palestinians in 1948. His mind is open and he clearly feels pained by the actions of the Jewish state but his dedication to liberal Zionism requires him to cling to the wreckage of a two-state solution, “the only fair and reasonable solution.”

But ideological purity tests are often futile in this debate. Shlaim has dedicated his life to understanding the motivations of key players in the region. His 1996 conversation with Arab nationalist and eventual peacemaker King Hussein of Jordan (1952-1999), which is featured in Israel and Palestine, is fascinating — especially the details about averting war between Jordan and Israel during the Gulf crisis in 1990. Israel’s then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir met Hussein in London and told him that his generals were demanding the Jewish state mobilize and face Jordan, under threat of possible attack. Disaster was averted.

But something changed in Gaza in January 2008. During Israel’s war against Hamas, Shlaim’s moderation was ditched and replaced with anger. “War crimes” were alleged. “Ruthless destruction” by the IDF was condemned. He writes:

“A brief review of Israel’s record as an occupying power over the past four decades, and especially of its conduct during the 22-day assault on Gaza, makes it difficult to resist the conclusion that it has become a rogue state with ”˜an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders.’ A rogue state habitually violates international law, possesses weapons of mass destruction and practices terrorism — the use of violence against civilians for political purposes. Israel fulfils all of these three criteria; the cap fits and it must wear it. Israel’s real aim is not peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian neighbors but military domination. It keeps compounding the mistakes of the past with new and more disastrous ones. In Gaza it went too far: it sowed the wind and it will surely reap the whirlwind.”

It is the same point made in Norman Finkelstein’s latest book, This Time We Went Too Far, in which he outlines the “steady decline in [public] support for Israel” over the last decades and the younger, prominent Jewish bloggers who refused to offer Israel uncritical support during the recent Gaza conflict. These acts were unthinkable even a decade ago.

Shlaim’s gradual disillusionment is perhaps the most moving. A proud Zionist, his aching reminded me of Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston, writing in a widely circulated article in February entitled, “I envy the people who hate Israel.” He argued that, “unable to beat the forces who want to see Israel as one of the world’s primary pariah states, it has resolved to join them” (the rogue states) through building more settlements, shunning once-friendly allies, and turning on critical voices.

Israel and Palestine is the kind of book that reminds the reader that only blind believers don’t change or evolve their position on the Middle East crisis. It’s the sign of political maturity that events on the ground in the last years have caused profound disquiet amongst liberal Zionists, the bulk of diaspora support for Israel. When these people start to question their loyalty, the Jewish state will truly have an existential crisis on its hands.

Antony Loewenstein is an Australian freelance journalist and author of the best-selling book, My Israel Question, published by Melbourne University Press.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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