The myth of liberal Zionism

June 13, 2011

Israeli political parties that promote themselves as supporters of social justice have been part and parcel of Israel's war on Palestinians, explains Daphna Thier.

MANY ON the left in Israel today are horrified by the lurch of mainstream politics to the extreme right since the coming to power of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the right-wing Likud Party.

The ruling coalition government depends on the support of even further right parties, and Netanyahu gave the prized ministry of foreign affairs to the notorious Avigdor Lieberman, founder of Israel Beyteinu (literally translated, "Israel is our home") Party and a longtime proponent of the idea of "transfer"--namely a campaign to ethnically cleanse Palestine by forcing the Palestinian population from their homes to other places in the Middle East and beyond.

Since the establishment of Netanyahu's government, nearly a dozen racist laws have been passed targeting the Arab minority, while the conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank, particularly in the Southern Hills of Hebron, and also for the Bedouin in the Negev, have continually worsened.

To cite one example, the Knesset, or parliament, passed a law authorizing Israeli villages with less than 500 residents to exclude non-Jews in order to "maintain their cultural identity." There is already a law that Jewish towns and villages must establish committees to decide whether or not some someone may join the community. Practically speaking, these laws are designed to exclude Palestinians from Jewish settlements.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to a joint session of Congress
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to a joint session of Congress

Probably the most atrocious law in this slew of racist legislation was proposed by Lieberman and requires that Palestinian citizens of Israel swear allegiance to Zionism and the Jewish character of the state, or potentially be stripped of their citizenship.

But what should be even more shocking is that there are roughly 30 such laws that discriminate against 1948 Palestinians that have been in place for decades now, including the "law of return" automatically granting Israeli citizenship to any Jew in the world (even those who have never set foot in Israel); various laws restricting Palestinians representation in politics and policy making; the under-funding of education and social services for Israel's Arab citizens; and very restricted access to land and building permits.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu has the audacity to assert, "Of the 300 million Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa, only Israel's Arab citizens enjoy real democratic rights."

During his late May trip to the U.S., Netanyahu delivered a speech before Congress that landed him about a dozen standing ovations from Democrats and Republicans alike. While his speech dismayed many on the left, it perfectly expressed the ideas that have served as the foundation of Israeli policy since its founding in 1948. What's more, the ideological underpinnings of Israel's project were crafted, and for the most part enforced, by the Zionist left.

Echoing the leaders of the Zionist project in the 1940s, Netanyahu referred to the Jewish right to Israel this way: "This is the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one God...No distortion of history can deny the 4,000-year-old bond between the Jewish people and the Jewish land."

SINCE ANCIENT times, Jerusalem, also known as Zion, was a holy site of pilgrimage for Jews, a place that Jews of the Diaspora yearned to see. A little over 100 years ago, Zionism turned these longings into secular nationalist aspirations.

The Zionists needed a motivation for their colonial project, and such Biblical religious claims served this purpose admirably. Because of this, orthodox rabbis were given sovereignty over several would-be civil services such as marriage and funerals, as well as a strong influence in law and policymaking--despite Israel's pretensions to being a secular democratic state.

The Jewish National Fund (JNF) has played a leading role in rewriting the history of Palestine to fit this biblical right of return, planting trees over the ruins of Palestinian villages and selling lands confiscated from Palestinians. The JNF has airbrushed history with national parks describing biblical stories and then conveniently skipping over 2,000 years in order to connect these stories to the modern-day Zionist pilgrims who came to "resurrect" the land and "make the desert bloom again."

While in the U.S., Netanyahu also raised the painful and much-manipulated Jewish Holocaust. "As for Israel, if history has taught the Jewish people anything, it is that we must take calls for our destruction seriously," said Netanyahu. "We are a nation that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust. When we say never again, we mean never again. Israel always reserves the right to defend itself."

But it was the early leadership of Israel, under David Ben-Gurion and other left Zionists, that first used the Holocaust in such a cynical manner--in order to justify the ethnic cleansing that took place in 1947-48.

Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, portrayed Arabs as the new Nazis (a parallel drawn today only by the far right) and warned of the imminent threat of a "second Holocaust." In reality, the Haganah and its elite elements in the Palmach--the military organizations that spearheaded the drive to force the Palestinians from Palestine--greatly outnumbered Arab forces and wielded a far greater quantity of weapons that were also technically superior.

If Ben-Gurion was truly worried about a second Holocaust, he never committed this concern to writing. Not once does he mention such fears in hundreds of pages worth of diary entries. On the other hand, in a February 1948 letter to Moshe Sharett, who was Israel's second prime minister, Ben-Gurion writes:

We will be able not only to defend but also inflict death blows on the Syrians in their own country and take over Palestine as a whole. I am in no doubt of this. We can face all the Arab forces. This is not a mystical belief but a cold and rational calculation based on practical examination.

Most ironic were the names given to the two types of military action taken against Palestinian villages and towns--there was "le-hatrid," to harass, and then there was "le-taher," meaning literally to "purify" (see Ilan Pappé's description of this in his excellent book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine).

For those of you who didn't spend your high school years studying every aspect of the Jewish Holocaust, this was the term Hitler coined in regards to "solving the Jewish problem"--to purify, to cleanse, to annihilate.

Ben-Gurion also pioneered the use of the term "security," which now resides at the heart of all Israeli politics and crowds out all other considerations. "In the Middle East, the only peace that will hold is a peace you can defend," Netanyahu told Congress. "So peace must be anchored in security."

This trend has progressed so far that talk of "security" policy dominates every party's agenda and every electoral race. From the beginning, however, leaders of Israel's Labor Party and the Histadrut, or Jewish workers' union, made common cause with capitalists in the Zionist movement.

Particularly in the 1980s, Labor even became an enforcer of neoliberal economic policies alongside the now-dominant trend of right-wing Zionism within the Israeli political establishment. There is always a delicate balance to be maintained between Zionism and capitalism in Israel. Israeli politicians are always keen to mute class antagonisms--after all, "we're all in it together."

FOR ME, however, the contradiction between the dream of the "resurrection of the land," as we called it, and the bloody occupation, injustices and racism suffered by both 1967 and 1948 Palestinians became all too apparent with the outbreak of the second Intifada in September 2000.

At that time, I thought that had Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin--who signed the 1993 Oslo Accords with Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat, but was assassinated two years later--lived to realize his vision of the "peace process," surely we would have lived in peace. But I've come to see what a naïve and ignorant idea this was--and is.

It is precisely during negotiations to achieve "peace" that Israel has historically made its biggest gains. Negotiations in the 1930s allowed the Jewish colonists to carry out land grabs. In the 1950s, while the UN discussed the fate of the Palestinian refugees driven from their land by Israel's 1948 war, Israel destroyed their homes and villages en masse. And it was during Oslo that Israel carried out the most far-reaching settlement building and established a web of checkpoints and military bases that shattered any remnant of hope that Israel might grant Palestinians a state even in the tiny fraction of Palestine known as the 1967 borders.

And which party, might you ask, was in government during these time periods? It was the supposedly left-wing Labor Party, of course.

It came as no surprise to anyone in Israel that the Labor Party fared so poorly in this year's elections. For the past 15 years, the Labor Party has been in decline as the Israeli electorate deserted it for the right-wing Likud Party, a trend that was accelerated by the U.S. launching of the global "war on terror" in 2001.

But this was mostly a reflection of an underlying problem--that ever since Labor's embrace of neoliberalism, it has nothing unique to offer voters. And once the "peace process" achieved its desired results--to deepen Israel's grip on the West Bank while ensuring continued conflict with the Palestinians--more and more Israelis wondered why they should vote for less energetic advocacy of the core policies that both Likud and Labor share.

Because the Palestinian birth rate exceeds the Jewish birth rate, the ethnic control and ultimate cleansing of the Palestinian nation is absolutely necessary for the Zionist project to continue. Programs such as Birthright Israel and the conversion to Judaism of indigenous Latin Americans and other immigrants are not sufficient to bridge the gap.

Since the rise of the second Intifada, Labor Party ministers have been the architects of the worst atrocities suffered by Palestinian civilians. Both the Labor Party and Meretz Party declared after the failure of Camp David in 2000 that Arafat was not a "partner for peace."

Well, if there is no partner for peace, than why would anyone vote for the parties that have historically been the champions of the peace process? As it is, the Israeli public has always preferred military men to intellectuals such as Israeli President Shimon Peres (constantly harassed for "never learning to use a gun") or Oslo architect Yossi Bellin. These men were always regarded with much suspicion.

The downfall of the Labor Party can certainly be linked to the outbreak of the second Intifada. In 2000, Labor Party Prime Minister Ehud Barak (now Israel's defense minister) responded with ferocious military force to Palestinian resistance--both in the Occupied Territories and within Israel.

Barak was a military man, but he too had championed the so-called peace process. As the 1990s wore on, Israel had still failed to completely pacify the Palestinian Authority, although a ruling Palestinian elite with interests tied to the Israeli establishment had begun to emerge.

In 2000, Barak met with Arafat and President Bill Clinton at Camp David to try to hammer out a final agreement. But when no agreement was reached, Clinton and Barak successfully portrayed the barren outcome at Camp David as the ideal "compromise" unreasonably rejected by Arafat.

But the reality was very different. The agreement proposed at Camp David was based on the following principles: Jerusalem would not be divided, Israel would not withdraw to the 1967 borders or dismantle existing settlements, and the right of return or any other solution to the situation facing millions of Palestinians refugees living in camps throughout the region would not even be discussed.

Considered in this way, it's obvious that Arafat had no choice but to reject the offer. These have always been the basic principles aspired to by the PLO--as well as the bare minimum for a just settlement. As Azmi Bishara wrote in the journal Between the Lines in November 2000:

The Israeli left did not really accept the principle of two states. What it supported was an agreement based on cantonization of the Occupied Territories. On the other hand, it is still shocked by the very possibility of one shared democratic state, based on national and citizenship equality. Therefore, it itself is leading to apartheid...

Therein lies the weakness of the left in Israel. It is politically bankrupt. With no social reforms to its credit and no success in the peace process, it offers no alternative. Furthermore Labor Party ministers have always rested peace negotiations on Israel's military capacity.

Netanyahu's speech to Congress reveals the culmination of the policies and ideas set in motion by the Zionist Left. "[It is] absolutely vital for Israel's security that a Palestinian state be fully demilitarized," said Netanyahu. "And it is vital that Israel maintain a long-term military presence along the Jordan River." He continued:

I appreciate [Barack Obama's] clear position on this issue. Peace can be achieved only around the negotiating table. The Palestinian attempt to impose a settlement through the United Nations will not bring peace. It should be forcefully opposed by all those who want to see this conflict end...Peace cannot be imposed. It must be negotiated.

But the words conceal Netanyahu's true meaning: peace cannot be imposed by the Palestinians, only by Israel. And Israel alone will decide the parameters for negotiations--all with the backing of the U.S government.

PERHAPS THE most interesting consequence of the twisted nature of politics in Israel is the effect Zionism has had on Arab Jews, known in Israel as Mizrachim (literally translated as Easterners). Professor Ella Shohat has written extensively on the experiences of the Arab Jewish community since the founding of Israel and of the effects Zionism had on the forced eviction of Jews from Arab countries.

"Zionism has always looked at the people of the East as inferior, including Jews from Arab countries," she said in an interview published in Bint Jbeil Shohat. In another article, she writes:

The pervasive notion of "one people" reunited in their ancient homeland actively disauthorizes any affectionate memory of life before Israel. We have never been allowed to mourn a trauma that the images of Iraq's destruction only intensified and crystallized for some of us.

Arye Deri, who was the right-hand man to Rabbi Ovadia Yossef in the religious Mizrachi party, Shas, once declared that "Zionism brought about the spiritual and cultural extermination of Mizrahi Jews." This statement explains why impoverished socioeconomic status of the majority of Mizrachis should be drawn to anti-Zionism--and it also explains why Deri was thereafter shunned from the party by Yossef.

Shas' rise and fall evolved around the promises--and later the broken promises--of representing Mizrachis. When they failed, when they were exposed as corrupt and politically bankrupt, most Mizrahi Jews turned back to the Likud.

Mizrachi Jews in Israel rarely refer to themselves as Arabs. In fact, despite centuries of cultural prosperity of the Jews within the Muslim world, today, most shun this world. The Mizrachi Jews' tragedy is that not only did they lose the world they lived in before Israel, but now they live in a state where they are never fully accepted in what is a transplanted European heritage and culture.

Over the decades, they have done everything they could to be accepted and deemed "Israeli," often becoming the most vehement "Arab haters" and comprising the bulk of the electorate of right-wing parties such as Likud.

The Labor Party (and in its original version, Ben-Gurion's Mapai) has long been the party of the Ashkenazi (that is, Jews from Europe or their descendants) middle class and the intellectual elite. They looked down upon Mizrachi immigrants, first forcing them to flee their own homelands and then packing them into "development towns" where they had limited work options and their labor was easily exploited--as was their presence as Jews on lands that previously belonged to Palestinians.

Fifty years later, the conditions of Mizrachi Jews in Israeli society have changed little. Politics and academia continue to be dominated by Jews of European descent.

ZIONISM CANNOT encompass peace and justice, because it was founded on a nationalist ideology based on the exclusion of the native inhabitants of Palestine and legitimized itself by attempting to erase history.

There is a saying in Hebrew though that every lie has legs. In light of the attack on Gaza in 2006, Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9, and the attack on the Mavi Marmara, public opinion in the world is starting to shift significantly. Gone are the days of total impunity. We live in an era in which a growing campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel is spreading around the world to unions, community groups and college campuses.

The Arab Spring in the Middle East is, as Netanyahu rightfully characterizes it, a "great convulsion...shaking the earth from the Khyber Pass to the Straits of Gibraltar. The tremors have shattered states and toppled governments. And we can all see that the ground is still shifting."

As he praised their aspirations to live in democracies such as Israel and the U.S., a Jewish Palestine activist interrupted his speech calling out, "Equal rights for Palestinians!" Members of Congress booed, and as she was violently pulled out of the assembly room they cheered.

Referring to her outburst, Netanyahu said, "You know, I take it as a badge of honor, and so should you, that in our free societies you can have protests. You can't have these protests in the farcical parliaments in Teheran or in Tripoli. This is real democracy!"

This got him yet another standing ovation from his audience. Of course, after the woman was hospitalized due to her injuries, she was arrested on charges of disruption of Congress. I guess what he meant when he said she was "free" was that she was free to get arrested and injured.

Netanyahu then went on to warn of threats posed by the Arab uprising, reminding Congress of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 that swept another U.S.-backed dictator from power.

Democracy according to the Israeli establishment needs to be contained. And controlled. And maneuvered into serving U.S and Israeli interests. Israeli leftist activists will tell you that they do not feel they live in a democracy. The level of state repression and violence towards left-wing protesters who express solidarity with Palestinians is telling in this so-called democracy. Even as Jews continue to enjoy a higher legal status, the rights of those with dissenting opinions continue to worsen.

The freedom of the Palestinians, though, lies not in the hand of a few hundred Jewish martyrs, brave as they are, but in the hands of Palestinians and the Arab peoples across the region wishing to be liberated from their imperialist oppressors. Tens of thousands of Palestinians courageously descending upon the borders of Israel in the past few weeks proved just this. The "tremors" felt by Israel in the last few months are only the beginning of the fight for a new Middle East.

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