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More on the academic boycott

jfjfpPosted 18 October, minor update to last para of Greenstein’s first contribution on 19 October. Two additional contributions posted to this thread on 22 October; followed by two further contributions on 29 October.

In a posting The academic boycott of Israel revisited on our website last week, we carried part of a renewed debate on the topic, with a contribution by Ran Greenstein and a response by Robert Fine. Links to the wider debate were given. Ran Greenstein responded to Robert Fine and approached us  to carry his new piece. We did so below. Robert Fine provided a rejoinder to which Ran Greenstein has once again responded. A week later (28 October) there were two further contributions, from Robert Fine and Ran Greenstein

These five new pieces are posted below. In addition we’d like to draw particular attention to Engage’s collection of links to the entire debate.

Dear Robert,

Thank you for your response to my criticism of your article. Let me clarify my position: the academic boycott campaign is not a sacred cow, and you can criticise it without necessarily becoming an apologist for the Israeli state. Israeli scholars such as the late Baruch Kimmerling and Neve Gordon argued against academic boycotts without compromising their critical perspective. Unfortunately, most of those who take this position on Engage do become – wittingly or otherwise – such apologists. Your article falls, in my view, into this category. You are indeed critical of some Israeli policies and practices, but you present your views in a way that shields other policies and practices from criticism.

Allow me to elaborate on that point. You argue: “I hold that a Jewish-democratic state has a right to exist and defend itself, even as it has the responsibility to treat Palestinians in Israel as equal citizens and to allow Palestinians in occupied territories to form their own Palestinian-democratic state. It is quite normal for people in modern states to find ways of living with the contradiction between democracy and national identity.”

There may be a contradiction between national identity and democracy in all states. What is unique to Israel is that national identity is defined solely in ethnic-religious terms, and civic nationalism which encompasses all citizens equally does not exist. Further, it is the declared policy of the current Israeli government and its predecessors, backed by the courts, to ensure that such national identification never emerges, and to suppress all its manifestations by legal as well as coercive means. In this sense a Jewish democratic state is a contradiction in terms. As the saying goes, it is ‘Jewish’ for Arabs and ‘democratic’ for Jews. The exclusion of Palestinians (as second-class citizens, as occupied subjects, and as stateless refugees) has been the foundation of the Jewish state since its inception. What political thugs like Lieberman and Yishai (respectively foreign and interior ministers) say openly today, has been practiced since 1948 in a more diplomatic but no less oppressive manner by all preceding governments.

You argue that the analogy between Israeli and apartheid practices ends with the occupation and the views of the “ultra-nationalist right wing in Israel”. I beg to differ. In a long analysis, which cannot be replicated here, I argue that the analogy must be based on the realization that ‘Israel proper’ (in its pre-1967 boundaries) no longer exists. The occupation has lasted for 43 years (already a year longer than apartheid), and there is no going back from it. Greater Israel (with the occupied territories) and Greater Palestine (with the refugees) are the meaningful units of analysis, when we consider Israeli practices and compare them to apartheid SA (see detailed discussion here and here). I would welcome your comments on it.

You argue: “ It seems to me vital to get some perspective on what the state of Israel has done, of which we may strongly disapprove, compared with situations in which ethnic groups are slaughtered, oppositions forces murderously suppressed, students beaten up and removed, trade union leaders defenestrated, women stoned to death, and gay people persecuted.”

I agree that if we wished to construct a universal scale of human-rights violations, this would indeed be the case. That may be a worthwhile project, but not one I have any interest in. As an Israeli citizen my concern with what ‘my’ government is doing. As a Jew, my concern is with what the state that claims to represent me is doing in my name. That it is not the only or the worst offender violating human rights is irrelevant. Israel has done its share in expelling ethnic groups (80% of the indigenous inhabitants of the territories that became Israel in 1947-48), murdering opposition forces (defined as ‘terrorists’), beating up and killing students (in the occupied territories), and so on. That some other governments behave similarly is no consolation at all.

You argue that there are progressive academics and radical dissidents in Israel. Of course there are, and I am proud to have met and worked with some of them. But, the universities as institutions have NEVER voiced the slightest criticism of human rights violations, the occupation, military abuses, bombing civilian targets, and so on. They have never raised their voices against suppression of academic and educational life for Palestinians in the occupied territories. That is why the campaign should target institutions and not individuals. No-one I know in South Africa supports the exclusion of Israeli academics as individuals from presenting papers, participating in discussion, attending conference, publishing articles, and other such individual activities. UJ [apologies for having ‘BGU’ in error at this point in an earlier posting – ed], Wits and other institutions have hosted Israeli academics of different political persuasions without any calls to boycott them. The campaign aims to sever institutional links rather than prevent relations between scholars. Read the UJ petition and talk to those who signed it if you are sceptical.

How can a campaign distinguish between individual and institutional targets? Here are some thoughts based on the need to convey the notion that things cannot proceed as usual, that there is no normal academic life in an abnormal society: do not attend any conference in Israel that does not explicitly address issues of rights and justice; link up with internal dissident forces and work with them to undermine discriminatory and abusive institutional practices; boycott any academic project that has military links; do not teach in specialized programmes dedicated to members of the security/military apparatuses; campaign against European or British financial support for any academic programme that does not have explicit progressive content (including ‘neutral’ or ‘value-free’ research); condition any further cooperation by insisting that the institution subscribe to something along the lines of the ‘Sullivan Code’, which was used under SA apartheid to enforce a minimum code of acceptable practice. I am sure you can come up with more ideas of this nature.

This is an ongoing debate. I am not the only one taking part and would strongly recommend that you read today’s Mail & Guardian for an effective response by Farid Esack to your article.

Best wishes
Ran Greenstein

Robert Fine, 20/10/2010

Dear Ran

Thank you for your considered response to my letter. I want to address one particular and important argument you raise. You pick out this passage from my letter: ‘I hold that a Jewish-democratic state has a right to exist and defend itself, even as it has the responsibility to treat Palestinians in Israel as equal citizens and to allow Palestinians in occupied territories to form their own Palestinian state. It is quite normal for people in modern states to find ways of living with the contradiction between democracy and national identity’

You reply:

‘What is unique in Israel is that national identity is defined solely in ethnic-religious terms and civic nationalism which encompasses all citizens equally does not exist… It is the declared policy of the current Israeli government and its predecessors, backed by courts, to ensure that such national identification never emerges… a Jewish democratic state is a contradiction in terms.’

We agree there is a contradiction. I say the contradiction between democracy and Jewish national identity is ‘normal’. You say it is ‘unique’ because national identity in Israel is framed in ethnic rather than civic terms and because the exclusion of Palestinians has been the foundation of the Jewish state since its inception. We also agree that the distinction between ethnic and civic national identity is an important one. It marks the difference between an idea of a nation based on allegedly common origin, blood, religion, history, culture, etc. and an idea of a nation of equal citizens regardless of origin, ‘blood’, ‘race’, religion or ‘culture’.

And now for our disagreements. I cannot see what by this criterion is unique about Israel. There are plenty of states whose national identity has an ethnic dimension. It seems to me that most states emerging from colonial domination or imperial rule have based themselves on the right of their particular nation to self-determination. In all such cases there are urgent questions concerning the treatment of people inside the territories of these newly emerging states, who are not deemed to belong to the ruling nation in question. In the Middle East, as I understand it, many states that emerged out of the Ottoman Empire and then European colonial rule have characteristically described themselves as ‘Arab’ or ‘Arab-Muslim’ and have faced the problem of how to treat non-Arab minorities in their territories, such as Jews. The Jewish state in this sense is no exception – it is the rule.

Second, it seems to me important not to overstate the distinction between civic and ethnic national identity. In practice, ‘civic’ nations (including my own) may have their own ‘established’ religions, their own more or less official ways of discriminating against ‘alien’ people, their own differential allocation of rights according to some system of civic stratification (e.g. legitimate and bogus asylum seekers), their own controls over the boundaries, physical and symbolic, between nationals and foreigners, and so forth. We may not like it, but Germanness, Britishness, Frenchness and I imagine South Africanness have not been extinguished by the magic potion of civic national identity.

Equally, those nations labeled ‘ethnic’ may indeed at one extreme exclude, expel or murder those deemed not to belong to the ruling nation, but they may also establish civic guarantees to minorities or grant equal civic, political and social rights for all and not just for their own. Just as the civic nation is not necessarily as civic as it appears, so too the ethnic nation is not necessarily as ethnic as it appears. We are in the terrain of social being as well as ideology.

Third, it seems to me important not to slip from a valid and useful distinction between ethnic and civic national identity into the recreation of a moral division of the world between us and them: ‘we’ who are civic and civilised; ‘they’ who believe in the purity of the nation and act with corresponding barbarity. This is an old opposition but Israel seems now to play a peculiar role in this reconstructed binary. My belief is that the distinction between civic and ethnic forms of national identity is being employed to represent ‘Israel’ as the Other of civilized society, that is, as the incarnation of all the negative properties that civic nations now claim to have overcome. ‘Israel’ serves here not as a real country embroiled in real conflicts, but as a vessel into which civic nations can project all that is bad in their own past and present and thus preserve the good for themselves. In this scenario ‘Israel’ performs a symbolic function as the ethnic-religious state par excellence – one that denies civic, political, social and human rights to those who do not belong (the Palestinians) and has an inbuilt inclination toward exclusion, expulsion or genocide. Not only does this image of ‘Israel’ bear little relation to the real thing, it also justifies any kind of violence by the image-makers. Even the most valid of distinctions can be put to invalid use.

Today it seems to me that your position paradoxically dulls the nerve of outrage. In Israel it declares that Lieberman and Yishai merely say openly what has been practiced since 1948. So according to your account nothing has changed. It’s the same old story. There can be no drift toward ethnic-religious fundamentalism in Israel because Israel is by definition an ethnic-religious state. There can be no worsening of the treatment of Arab Israelis since they have always been second-class citizens. There can be no danger to the integrity of Israel since it always has been and always will be ethnic-religious. And what is more, it is unique. Would it be an unfair extrapolation to say that for you Palestine is equally timeless: a just cause whose essentially civic aims are not in the least tarnished by the Hamas Charter or the Hezbollah Manifesto?

You acknowledge I am ‘critical of some Israeli policies and practices’ but you say my criticisms are not enough. What would be enough for you, it seems, is the dissolution of Israel into a greater Palestinian entity (including all Jews and Palestinians with a right of return for all Palestinian refugees). To my mind, your approach contains the potential violence of imposing an ‘ought’ onto reality. We have to start from where we are – not from some ideal of where we ought to be.

In the Middle East the ‘Jewish’ state exists. It exists for historical reasons. So too do various ‘Arab’ states. In no case has there been an unblemished history of dealing with people deemed not to belong to the defining nation. In every case there have been political arguments within states between those inclined to ethnic exclusivism and those inclined to civic inclusion. This is a political battle within states, not a distinction between bad nations and good. It is a battle that has often been lost.

It is clear to me that Palestinians have been to varying degrees more or less excluded from the possession of civil, political and social rights by many states in the Middle East. Their political leaders claim the right to ‘their own’ state and Israel by virtue of the occupation finds itself in a position to grant this right. It has not done so for a variety of reasons, including or especially fear. This failure has become a terrible weight on Israel’s back and my belief is that the liberation of the Palestinian people will prove to be of great advantage to Israel. The obstacles to this desirable outcome come from many parts. To have any hope of achieving this outcome, our political need is not to heap on “Israel” absolute culpability, as the boycott call tends to do, but to support those in Israel, Palestine and surrounding Arab nations who share this hope and oppose a politics of despair.

If this is not enough for you, then what exactly is enough? In my opinion, it is no answer to the ethnic-religious claim that Jews have a God-given, absolute and exclusive right to their own nation in Israel to say that Jews have no right at all to their own nation or that the Jewish state is uniquely illegitimate. The one is the negation of the other and like all negations can merely end up destructive.

You make a number of other points I should like to return to – especially on the apartheid analogy and on the universality of human rights – but perhaps we can pursue these on another occasion.

Best wishes,

Robert Fine

Ran Greenstein, 21/10/2010

Dear Robert,

Let me respond briefly to your thoughtful and useful discussion:

1. Is Israel merely one of many states that combine ethnic and civic nationalism, and therefore is not unique? My answer is that Israel is indeed unique as an exclusionary state. No other state is founded – historically and at present – on the physical and political exclusion of the majority of its indigenous population. No other state regards its ethnic identity as the sine qua non of its existence with such intensity. No other state is an ethnic ‘demographic state’ in the same way. No other state combines the inclusion of all members of one group (Jews), regardless of their specific origins and concrete links to the territory, with the exclusion of most members of another group (Palestinians), regardless of their specific origins and concrete links to the territory.

The combination of inclusion of one group of citizens (and their relatives and ethnic kin, however remote in time and place), with the exclusion of another group of citizens (and their relatives and ethnic kin, however close in time and space), is the source of the problem. Some states in Europe or elsewhere give immigration preference to ethnic kin, or use ethnic symbols in their flag or anthem, but none of them pursues such a dual policy of inclusion/exclusion vis-à-vis its own citizens.

2. Does Israel’s uniqueness mean it is uniquely evil? I prefer not to use theological concepts in political debate. So, Israel is not ‘evil’ (uniquely or otherwise). But, it does violate human rights on a massive scale, and it oppresses its ethnic ‘other’ – the Palestinians. It is nothing new, and the intensity of oppression has changed over time: from high intensity for the first two decades (when most Palestinian citizens lived under military rule), to a more tolerant policy for the subsequent 25 years, interspersed with bouts of repression (1975-76). In the last decade we have witnessed renewed intensity of racist oppression, culminating with the concerted campaign waged by the current government (led by Lieberman and Yishai, with the tacit support of Netanyahu).

So, in response to your query, Israel can fundamentally be an ethnic exclusionary state, and yet the degree of political oppression at any point in time shifts depending on contingent events and processes. There is no contradiction here. From your work on South Africa you would know that apartheid provided a stable framework of exclusion, and yet there were periods in which it was intensified or relaxed as the case may be. And, these variations led to sharp debates and political splits between the enlightened and narrow-minded factions (known as the verligte and verkrampte camps respectively).

3. You ask what kind of reform would be enough for me: the dissolution of Israel into a greater Palestinian entity (including all Jews and Palestinians with a right of return for all Palestinian refugees)? My answer is more complex. The crucial step is the transformation of Israel into a state of all its citizens. Not ‘dissolving’ or ‘eliminating’ Israel but sharing it equally as an inclusive non-ethnic democracy. Further steps would be termination of the 1967 occupation, and negotiation between Israel and representatives of the Palestinian refugees over implementation of a solution based on UN resolution 194.

Final point, do Jews have a right to self-determination as everybody else does? Yes, absolutely. Do they have a right to exercise their self-determination against the wishes and at the expense of people already residing in their designated territory? No, absolutely not, no-one has such right. How to square the circle then? We need to start from the existing situation and move forward: Israel exists and will not go away, but there is no reason why its residents cannot transform it from an exclusionary ethnic state into an inclusive democratic state, in order to meet their concerns. That is my primary goal and once we agree on it we can discuss what political strategies and campaigns can get us there.

Best wishes

Ran Greenstein


Robert Fine, 28/10/2010

Dear Ran

Thanks for your latest response in our discussion and apologies for being far slower to reply than yourself!

Let me return to the question of Israel’s ‘uniqueness’. There is, of course, a sense in which every state is unique. Every state has a unique history, a unique set of circumstances that led to its emergence and development, a unique population, a unique place on the globe. But this is trivial. What you are talking about is exclusion. You write:

“Israel is indeed unique as an exclusionary state. No other state is founded – historically and at present – on the physical and political exclusion of the majority of its indigenous population. No other state regards its ethnic identity as the sine qua non of its existence with such intensity. No other state is an ethnic ‘demographic state’ in the same way. No other state combines the inclusion of all members of one group (Jews), regardless of their specific origins and concrete links to the territory, with the exclusion of most members of another group (Palestinians), regardless of their specific origins and concrete links to the territory.”

We know at least some of the exclusionary elements that went into Israel’s composition. One element was a political and largely secular Zionism that arose in Europe in the late 19th century and attracted a minority of European Jews in the first half of the 20th century. The point to remember here, I think, is that Zionism was one nationalism amongst many in Europe, itself a product of the exclusion of Jews from the nations of Europe. Nationalism was not exceptional; it was the norm. Nationalism for Jews co-existed with nationalisms for Hungarians, Serbs, Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, French, etc. All such nationalisms, not only Zionism, contain strong exclusionary forces.

A second exclusionary element has to do with the experience of the Holocaust. Many of the ‘unmurdered Jews’ of Europe, as Philip Roth called them, went to Palestine-Israel because there was often no other place to go, because they were understandably keen to get out of Europe, or because they were committed to establishing some kind of safe haven for Jews that seemed lacking elsewhere. The experience of exclusion, oppression and murder by Europeans was not unique to Jews, though Jews suffered especially badly, and in most cases it led those who suffered at European hands to seek to establish their own independent states. The newly independent states that arose at different times out of this experience often combined a vibrant sense of national freedom with exclusion of those deemed not to belong to the nation in question. Israel is not in this regard unique.

A third – and perhaps crucial exclusionary element – has to do with Israel being a ‘Jewish state’. As far as I know, many states in the Middle East and North Africa describe themselves as ‘Arab states’ and in some cases as ‘Muslim Arab states’. Yesterday morning I was reading an article in the Independent by Robert Fisk (no great admirer of Israel) who quotes President Sadat of Egypt referring to himself as ‘the Muslim president of a Muslim country’. Fisk focuses on the exclusion of Christians in ‘Muslim’ countries. The problem, he writes, doesn’t only come from fundamentalists but from constitutions: in all the countries of the region, except Lebanon, Christians are second class citizens. Both you and I are opposed to any exclusion that derives from the national character afforded to the state, but to think such exclusions are in any sense unique to Israel cannot be right.

The labeling of a state ‘Jewish’ or ‘Arab’ or ‘Muslim’ or indeed ‘British’ or ‘French’ is in all cases problematic. But it may be more or less problematic depending on whether the national epithet attached to the state refers merely, say, to the cultural motifs of a nation (e.g. whether Christmas or Pesach or Ramadan is a public holiday); or entails the subordination of those deemed not to fit the ‘national’ definition of the state as second class citizens or ‘minorities’; or worse still entails the expulsion of those deemed not to fit as ‘stateless persons’. The history of Israel seems to me equivocal. As far as I know, mainstream Zionists originally supported two states: one for Jews and one for Palestinians with rights of minorities built into both. In the aftermath of existential wars between Israel and neighboring states, Palestinians in Israel were considered co-citizens but were also discriminated against; Palestinians who left Israel (often in the heat of battle) were not allowed back; Palestinians on the West Bank and in different ways in Gaza have been subjected to occupation and to the denial of civil and political rights that flows from occupation.

If we criticise exaggerated characterisation of these abuses as ‘ethnic cleansing’ or ‘genocide’, this does not deny the need to put an end to discrimination against Palestinians in Israel, to the occupation of the West Bank, and to the human rights violations that result from the occupation. The present-day problem is that disrespect for Palestinians is getting worse in Israel as a right wing government, religious fundamentalist movements and needy immigrant populations combine to give license to anti-Arab racism. The situation seems to be aggravated by the decline of antiracist currents within Israel and the difficulties ordinary Israelis and Palestinians have in meeting and conversing with one another.

But the drift to the right in Israel is not unique. In a number of European countries, including some within the EU, there is a disturbing drift to an increasingly ultra-nationalist right wing. In some cases not only is the party of government extreme right but also the main opposition party is even further to the right. In the Middle East, Jews have long since been encouraged to leave or actively expelled from most ‘Arab’ countries and many of them ceased to be considered refugees when they became beneficiaries of Israel’s open door policy to Jews worldwide (beneficiaries, in Zionist parlance, of a right of ‘return’). I am no expert on the Middle East but if Fisk is right there is an increasing problem for other minorities living within Arab states. I should like to know more about how Palestinians are being treated in those Arab countries which refuse to integrate them as full nationals. Certainly Israel is not their only problem. One would have to be willfully blind not to be aware of the growing dangers of religious fundamentalism on one side and authoritarianism among secular elites on the other in a number of Arab countries. Such anti-democratic forces pose dangers not only to Israel but more immediately to a culture of tolerance and mutual respect among Arab people themselves. In short, the drift to what we might call the ‘ultra-nationalist right’ is a threat that is not unique to Israel and indeed seems not to be isolatable in any one country.

From where then does the singling out of Israel derive? One source is perhaps displacement. Instead of the difficult task of addressing problems within ourselves and our own world, we can focus on denouncing Israel as if it were uniquely violent, uniquely exclusionary and uniquely powerful. Israel isn’t in my opinion any of these things but the accusation can open a can of worms. What is really unique about Israel is the Jewishness of the Jewish state as opposed to the Arabness of an Arab state or indeed the Britishness of the British state. It seems to me that the whole argument about uniqueness pushes us where none of us wants to go: not to political criticism but to an attack on Jews. You point your finger at Israel in the name of ‘an inclusive non-ethnic democracy’, but you do not ask why of all states it is Israel that is selected out for not meeting this ideal.

For various reasons, some biographical, I share your particular concern with Israel. There is part of me too that wants to be proud of Israel, though I do not share the conviction of some that there is nothing already to be proud of. We do not want Israel to be corrupted from within or threatened from without. We want it to succeed as an open society as well as to resist those who think Jews have no place in the Middle East. We are worried about what we hear and see of current developments in Israel, but it would be parochial of us to translate our particular concern, as it were, into the mother of all concerns. Democrats from Burma, Hungary, Tibet, Zimbabwe, Syria, Iran, Denmark, the UK, etc. all have their particular battles to fight with their own political elites. The point is not Zionism or antizionism but the need to defend and build democracy with the materials at hand.

You put forward the idea of an inclusive non-ethnic democracy for Jews and Palestinians together. Excellent! I am all for supporting those who try to build a sense of conviviality between Jews and non-Jews, those who oppose hatred and racism on both sides, and I don’t think we should make a fetish of the ‘Jewish state’. In this sense we are not ‘Zionists’. We agree we need to start from the existing situation and move forward, but I cannot accept the way you pose the issue. The idea of transformation from an ‘exclusionary ethnic state’ to ‘an inclusive democratic state’ does justice neither to the past nor the future. In this scenario the darkness of the past goes along with unlimited trust in the future. But those who see only darkness and light never learn to make distinctions between shades of grey.

In any event, your opinion and mine count for little. On the one hand, most people in Israel do not embrace the ‘transformation’ you seek, perhaps because they believe in the idea of a ‘Jewish state’ or more simply because for good reason or bad they are fearful of the consequences. On the other hand, many of the political forces who do embrace ‘transformation’ do not show much interest in sharing an inclusive democracy with Jews. We may want to see what exists dismantled in the name of our idea, but the one thing of which we can be sure is that what will replace the existing state will be driven by forces far bigger and more demanding than what is merely in our heads.

Best Wishes,

Robert Fine


Ran Greenstein, 28/10/2010

Dear Robert,

Thanks again for your considered and reasonable contribution to the debate.

Here is – in brief – my response, with headings to highlight remaining disagreements

1.   Zionism as a national movement and a colonial project

You say that Zionism was one among many European nationalist movements, all of which contained “strong exclusionary forces”. You add that many new independent states combine “a vibrant sense of national freedom with exclusion of those deemed not to belong to the nation in question”. In addition, most countries in the Middle East are defined in ethnic or religious terms and are exclusionary to various degrees. You use these points to argue that Israel is not unique in displaying exclusionary tendencies.

You are right that exclusionary policies are not unique, but you ignore a crucial aspect of the Israeli state that makes it stand out: it was born out of a project that saw immigrants – mostly of European origins – moving into a territory populated by local non-European people, and displacing them (politically and physically). As a result, Israel is viewed as part of the colonial enterprise of subordinating indigenous populations and territories to settler rule. Regardless of the subjective consciousness of settlers, they are perceived in this light in much of Asia, Africa and Latin America. That accounts for the wide sense of solidarity people in these parts of the world feel for the Palestinian struggle. They see it as similar to their own struggles against colonial and settler forces: if you want to understand South African responses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, look no further.

2.   The Nakba as ethnic cleansing

You acknowledge the exclusionary consequences of Zionist policies towards Palestinians but regard the notion of “ethnic cleansing” as an exaggeration. What better term do you propose to refer to the flight/expulsion of 80% of the indigenous population of what became the State of Israel in 1948? What better term for their prevention from returning to their homes, villages and towns (frequently located a few miles away from their new refugee camps)?

3.   Israel’s ‘drift to the right’

You recognize the “drift to the right” in Israel, but claim it is not unique. In several European countries there is a drift to “an increasingly ultra-nationalist right wing”. What you fail to consider is that the nationalist right-wing in Israel argues that it is resurrecting the original Zionist vision of exclusion. It describes itself as a guard against any relaxation of segregation and inequality. Its rallying cry is the need for an undiluted “Jewish state” in the spirit of Herzl and Ben-Gurion. Of course, they may be wrong or manipulative. But, ask yourself, what is it in the original Zionist vision that allows them to claim it today to justify anti-democratic abuses and exclusions? Why do their claims and campaigns resonate with a large section of the Israeli-Jewish public, born and raised on Zionist ideology?

4.   ‘Singling out’ Israel

You raise the point that many Jews were ill-treated in Arab and Islamic countries, that Christian existence increasingly is under attack, and that democracy is threatened due to the rise of religious fundamentalism and secular authoritarianism in the Arab world. All true. You then ask “From where then does the singling out of Israel derive?”

The simple answer is that Israel ‘singles out’ itself by its policies: it is unique in excluding the indigenous majority of its population in order to clear the way for a group of settlers, who used force to become a majority. That the settlers did not regard themselves as foreigners, and in their minds they were returning to the land of their ancestors, made no difference to the concerns of the locals: can you think of a different response offered by any indigenous group in Asia, Africa and the Americas to the prospect of European-originated settlement?

To be precise, what is unique is not the historical context – many states were born in violence and conflict – but the re-enactment of the founding act of exclusion of 1948 on a daily basis. Take for example this week’s Knesset bill, sponsored by members of Kadima (hailed by some deluded people as a liberal alternative to Likud): “The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill which gives the right to absorption committees of small communities in Israel to reject candidates if they do not meet specific criteria. The bill has sparked wide condemnation and many believe it to be discriminatory and racist, since it allows communities to reject residents if they do not meet the criteria of ‘suitability to the community’s fundamental outlook’, which in effect enables them to reject candidates based on sex, religion, and socioeconomic status.” In the minds of all participants in the debate there was not the slightest doubt what the target was: preventing Arabs from joining Jewish settlements that control the bulk of land in Israel. But let us be fair. The exclusion is not complete: “The committee’s chairman, David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu), responded to claims the bill was meant to reject Arabs from joining Israeli towns. ‘In my opinion, every Jewish town needs at least one Arab. What would happen if my refrigerator stopped working on Shabbat?” (

Can you think of another country (Western or otherwise) in which such parliamentary debate can take place today? My point is not that racism is extreme in Israel. Rather, it is that current legislation reflects the uninterrupted practice of Zionist settlement from its inception. The socialist, egalitarian Kibbutzim and collective Moshavim were/are just as exclusionary as the unabashed racists under the leadership of Lieberman and Yishai, who receive the tacit support of Netanyahu, Livni and Barak. They all follow what Israeli historian and analyst Meron Benvenisti called “the genetic [historical-cultural] code of a settler society” (see here the useful discussion by ‘The Magnes Zionist’ on

5.   Does Jewishnsess matter?

You say: “What is really unique about Israel is the Jewishness of the Jewish state as opposed to the Arabness of an Arab state or indeed the Britishness of the British state.” No. What is unique is that Israel alone is based on historical dispossession of the indigenous population, which continues to this day. Israel is not the only – or worst – oppressive regime. It is not the only – or worst – state that practices discrimination and violation of human rights. It is not the only – or worst – state that emerged out of a violent colonial-type conflict. It is not the only – or worst – state that dispossessed indigenous people. But, it is indeed the only state that continues to re-enact such historical dispossession today, in an ever intensified form.

You say: “you do not ask why of all states it is Israel that is selected out for not meeting this ideal” (of non-ethnic inclusive democracy). But of course you know very well that Israel is not unique in this respect: I happen to live in a state that experienced precisely that kind of selection. How can you make an argument about ‘Jewishness’ as a reason for excessive criticism, when you are fully aware that Afrikaners (or white South Africans generally) were subjected to similar – and frequently much harsher – treatment?

If the Jewish state of Israel is treated in the same way as the white Republic of South Africa was treated, it cannot possibly be because of what they do not share (‘Jewishness’). It can only be because of what they do share: exclusionary policies towards their indigenous populations.

6.   What is to be done and how

Finally, you agree that change is necessary, but say that “the idea of transformation from an ‘exclusionary ethnic state’ to ‘an inclusive democratic state’ does justice neither to the past nor the future. In this scenario the darkness of the past goes along with unlimited trust in the future.” I am afraid that this has nothing to do with my understanding of politics. What I call for is a process of political struggle and change, proceeding through education, growing awareness, and numerous campaigns, which would culminate – hopefully – in an overall change of the system. It is likely to be a slow, gradual and painful process. It is not a messianic transformation from one extreme to another, and it should build on all the positive – but partial – achievements of past struggles.

Most Jews in Israel are indeed fearful of this prospect, and most Palestinians embrace nationalism and religion rather than non-ethnic inclusive democratic notions. So change is not likely to be immediate, easy or unproblematic. It may be a journey of a thousand miles, but even such a journey must begin with one step, as long as we are moving in the right direction (see today’s useful insights by historian Dimitri Shumski on the need for an Israeli democratic state in – only in Hebrew for now, but surely to be translated).

Where can we go from here despite our disagreements? Towards a common struggle on what we agree on: the need to fight the occupation, the need to make Israel a state in which all citizens are equal, the need to respect international human rights law, the need to redress historical injustices. Whether the academic boycott is a useful step to take in this struggle is a minor point. Don’t let it distract us from the more substantial task of transforming Israel into a democracy that acts for the benefit of all its residents, past and present.

Best Wishes

Ran Greenstein


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