The aim of Israeli state: protecting settlement project and taking the land.
Discussion of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism
David Shulman, NY Review of Books
Issue June 7, 2012, Volume 59, Number 10
On April 15 of this year I was returning to Israel on an Alitalia flight from Rome. About forty minutes before landing in Tel Aviv, the captain informed us that Israel had announced extraordinary security measures, constricting its air space in response to an unusual threat, and that from that moment on—we were still high above the Mediterranean—until we would be allowed to leave the terminal, all photography was strictly forbidden; beyond that, we were to follow the instructions of Israeli security personnel on the ground.
My first thought was that Benjamin Netanyahu had decided to attack Iran, despite, or maybe actually because of, the seeming movement in the preceding days toward an effective and acceptable peaceful solution to the problem of the Iranian nuclear project. On second thought I decided that such an attack was still somewhat unlikely. So what was going on?
Upon landing we were diverted to the old, by now outmoded Terminal 1, then, after passport control, taken by buses to the new Terminal 3. There were police and border police everywhere, in large numbers, and we soon saw them arresting a demonstrator and forcing him into a police van. At this point it dawned on me that the extraordinary menace from the skies had to do with the arrival in Israel of a few dozen peace activists from Europe. They were, we later learned, trying to reach Bethlehem in the Palestinian territories in order to protest against human rights abuses by Israel.
These protesters clearly provided reason enough to call out the armed forces, as if a violent invasion were taking place. Some fifty or so were arrested; two managed to slip through the cordon and reach Bethlehem. Government spokesmen that evening proudly spoke of having warded off a threat of almost existential proportions. Their satisfaction was marred only by the fact that the TV news that day was full of one of those incidents that reveal in a flash the violent reality of the occupation.
Shalom Eisner, deputy commander of the army brigade stationed in the Jordan Valley and a settler himself, was filmed while brutally, and without provocation, smashing a Danish peace activist in the face with his rifle. The ugly, indeed horrifying, scene was broadcast dozens of times. I’m sorry to say that I’ve seen the likes of it rather often in demonstrations in East Jerusalem (Sheikh Jarrah, Ras al-Amud, Silwan) and in peace actions in the territories. Eisner has since been temporarily relieved of his command; if earlier cases are any indication, he will probably be reinstated after some two years in another post. Interviewed after the incident, he gave an honest statement of his moral stature: “Maybe it was a professional mistake to use the gun when there were cameras around.”
Why should a handful of harmless demonstrators elicit so severe a reaction? Netanyahu, in his official announcement, said that if these people were so concerned with human rights, they should check out the situation in Syria, Gaza, or Iran—as if such sites of egregious abuse relieved Israel of any responsibility for what is going on day by day in the occupied territories. The same logic—that of the endless war between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness—underlies Netanyahu’s constant dwelling on the Holocaust in relation to Iran. Like many Israelis, he inhabits a world where evil forces are always just about to annihilate the Jews, who must strike back in daring and heroic ways in order to snatch life from the jaws of death. I think that, like many other Israelis, he is in love with such a world and would reinvent it even if there were no serious threat from outside.
Buried somewhere inside all this is a bad Israeli conscience about the treatment of Palestinians since 1948—a conscience repressed but still somehow alive (not, perhaps, in Netanyahu). The rationalizing vision pasted over that bad conscience, a vision simple-minded, self-righteous, dangerous, and immoral, underlies the dilemma that Peter Beinart has eloquently and bravely stated in The Crisis of Zionism. He articulates it as a conflict, very familiar by now, between liberal, democratic values and a proto-racist, atavistic nationalism. This conflict has created two Jewish states in the Middle East. As Beinart says, “To the west [of the Green Line, the pre-1967 border], Israel is a flawed but genuine democracy. To the east, it is an ethnocracy.”
By “ethnocracy” he means “a place where Jews enjoy citizenship and Palestinians do not”; it is a mini-state run by settlers, some of them violent and fanatical, that disenfranchises a huge Palestinian population and continually appropriates Palestinian land in the interests of expanding and further entrenching the colonial project of the settlements. Inevitably, the ethos of the occupation, now in its forty-fifth year, spills westward over the Green Line: “Illiberal Zionism beyond the green line destroys the possibility of liberal Zionism inside it.”
The evidence for this observation is overwhelming; Beinart discusses recent research that shows a dangerous erosion in the commitment by ordinary Israelis to basic democratic values and the concomitant rise of hypernationalist, racist, and totalitarian tendencies, some of them well represented in the ultra-right parties in the Knesset and in the current Israeli cabinet. In the last year or so, we’ve seen a spate of antidemocratic, “ethnocratic” legislation all too reminiscent of dark precedents in the history of the last century.
We could also describe what is happening, more simply, as a takeover by the settler mini-state of the central institutions of the Israeli state system as a whole. By now, Israeli policy is almost entirely mortgaged to the settler enterprise; almost every day brings some new, inventive scheme to legalize existing “illegal outposts” in the territories and to facilitate the appropriation of more and more Palestinian land. The inevitable result of such policies is the imminent demise of the so-called “two-state solution,” which would put a Palestinian state by the side of pre-1967 Israel (with whatever minor revisions of the old boundary the two sides would agree upon in negotiations). By now, a huge portion of the West Bank has, in effect, been annexed, perhaps irreversibly, to Israel. No state can be constituted on the little that remains. I will return to this question.
Even apart from the disastrous political consequences of current Israeli policy, it is critical to recognize that what goes on in the territories is not a matter of episodic abuse of basic human rights, something that could be corrected by relatively minor, ad hoc actions of protest and redress. Nothing could be further from the truth. The occupation is systemic in every sense of the word. The various agencies involved—government bureaucrats and their ministries and budgets, the army, the blue-uniformed civilian police, the border police, the civil administration (that is, the official Occupation Authority), the courts (in particular, the military courts in the territories, but also Israeli civil courts inside the Green Line), the host of media commentators who toe the government line and perpetuate its regnant mythologies, and so on—are all inextricably woven into a system whose logic is apparent to anyone with firsthand experience of it. That logic is one of protecting the settlement project and taking the land. The security aspect of the occupation is, in my view, close to trivial; were it a primary goal, the situation on the ground would look very different.
Take a few routine, typical examples, drawn at random from an endless series. In mid-January the civil administration sent its bulldozers, accompanied, of course, by soldiers, to demolish the ramshackle hut of Halima Ahmad al-Hadhalin, a Palestinian widow with nine orphaned children living in the deeply impoverished site of Umm al-Kheir, adjacent to the large and constantly expanding settlement of Carmel in the south Hebron hills. The bureaucrats claimed that the shack was built without a permit, which is no doubt true; Palestinians living in the West Bank “Area C,” i.e., under full Israeli control, only very rarely receive a permit to build from the committee, largely composed of settlers, that oversees such requests.
I saw Halima on January 28, a freezing, rainy day; she was standing barefoot, still shocked and traumatized, in a neighbor’s tent. Such demolitions happen regularly at Umm al-Kheir and have nothing whatever to do with the rule of law; they are part of a malevolent campaign to make life as miserable as possible for the Palestinians there (who, incidentally, claim credibly to own the land on which Carmel sits today) in the hope that they will go away.
Precisely the same line of reasoning applies to a wave of demolition orders issued in February of this year against the project of electrification and the building of energy infrastructures in a set of some sixteen tiny Palestinian khirbehs spread over the south Hebron hills. The shepherds and small-scale farmers in this region live in caves, tents, or shacks, in abject poverty. Volunteers and peace activists with technical know-how such as Noam Dotan and El’ad Orian, from the organization known as Comet-Me, have painstakingly built wind turbines and basic electric grids in many of these villages to serve a population of some 1,500 people.
The immediate change in the quality of life in this harsh region was dramatic; my friend Ali Awwad from Tuba, proudly turning on a light bulb in the cave he inhabits, said to me, “For the first time in my life, I feel like a complete human being.” Can these minimal infrastructures, entirely benevolent in intention and effect, funded mainly by European donors at the level of hundreds of thousands of euros,4 constitute a threat of any sort to Israel?
Apparently, they can. The civil administration is keen on destroying them, once again on the flimsy excuse that they were put in place without permits—as if a request for a permit would have been forthcoming.5 Several electric pylons have already been destroyed and electric wires, undoubtedly worthy targets for the Israeli army, have been cut in some six villages. Pressure from European governments, especially Germany, has stayed the new demolition orders for the moment, but the danger that the bulldozers will turn up when opportunity arises remains very real.
Could the courts stand as a bulwark against such arbitrary acts by the authorities or the more severe instances of outright theft or violent attack by settlers? Occasionally, they do. In general, however, no Palestinian has the slightest chance of finding justice in an Israeli military court, and very few indeed have been justly treated in the civil courts over the last forty years. Any case having to do with an attempt to establish or maintain Palestinian ownership over lands taken for settlement is, ipso facto, unlikely to end in a decision that goes against the settlers or the government, although there have been some exceptions to this gloomy conclusion. Palestinians who protest against the occupation and the loss of village lands are treated harshly, sometimes imprisoned for long periods, sometimes killed in the course of the demonstrations.6
It is such matters that make Beinart’s deliberately understated description of the occupation seem, from a local perspective in Israel-Palestine, far too mild. His book is clearly addressed in the first instance to an American audience, one perhaps not fully aware of the real situation inside the Palestinian territories. The tone is polemical, as one might expect; inevitably, Beinart has been bitterly attacked as naive—the worst, also the cheapest insult in the lexicon of those who defend Israeli policies—and as oblivious to the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.7 He is, in fact, all too aware of those complexities, far more so than many who claim to speak to or for American Jews (most of whom, as Beinart points out, have probably never met a living Palestinian). He mainly focuses on the situation as it is today, under this particular American president and this particular Israeli government. Possibly the most revealing part of the book is the detailed and persuasive description of the political maneuvers that allowed Netanyahu to humiliate Obama repeatedly, first over the issue of a freeze on settlements, and later in Congress, in 2010–2011.
The settlement freeze, in which the Obama administration had invested considerable effort, pressure, and prestige, was never more than a sham; according to the reliable count by Peace Now, construction of new housing units in the territories in 2010, the year of the “freeze,” was only slightly lower than in 2009 (1,712 units as opposed to 1,920). In March 2010, on the day that Vice President Biden arrived in Jerusalem, the Israeli government announced that it was nearly doubling construction in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo—an obvious and probably calculated insult to the administration.
Even more outrageous was Netanyahu’s arrogant response to a key speech of Obama’s on May 19, 2011, in which the president stated clearly that “the dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.” Netanyahu announced that he “expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of US commitments made to Israel in 2004”—including acceptance by America of the annexation by Israel of huge chunks of Palestinian land in the so-called “settlement blocs.” Note the word “expects,” as if Netanyahu were dictating to a submissive president what the latter should or should not say. Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on May 24, 2011, a pastiche of myth and demagogic rhetoric of the extreme right, remained faithful to this tone, which Congress shamefully applauded.
Sadly, Beinart shows how Obama has consistently given in to pressure from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobby and other American Jewish establishment voices. He gives a withering critique of the leadership of central American Jewish institutions, by now blindly and rather crudely identified with the Israeli right and the Netanyahu line; he quotes Keith Weissman, formerly on the AIPAC staff, as saying that already in the mid-1990s dominant figures there “were sucking at the teat of Likud.” Beinart shows that this orientation, with its visceral aversion to the very idea of a free Palestinian state and its enthusiasm for the occupation, now largely dominates the Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organization of America, the Presidents’ Conference, and a large part of the Orthodox rabbinical establishment as well.
Orthodox hypernationalism and its sometimes violently antidemocratic, even racist voices partly account for Beinart’s pessimistic prognosis for mainstream American Judaism and its relation to Israel. “American Zionism,” he fears, “will become the province of people indifferent to liberal democratic ideals, and the American Jews most committed to those ideals will become indifferent, at best, to the Jewish state.” He cites studies showing that younger non-Orthodox American Jews, conspicuously liberal in their values and politics, are less and less attached to Israel. Here is the American Jewish version of the conflict I have described in Israel between democratic ideals and tribal nationalism. Both my grandfathers, like most American Jews of their generation, at once Rooseveltian Democrats committed to strong notions of social justice and ardent Zionists, would have been horrified by what has happened in Israel and by the consequent need for American Jews to make such a choice.
The book has a welcome pragmatic thrust to it, reflecting the urgency—and the immense difficulty—of generating change, but here again Beinart’s recommendations seem to me rather limited. He wants to strengthen liberal Jewish education in the US and to expand its funding basis; no one could take exception to this plea, though its potential effects on Israeli policy may be decades away. More immediately, he recommends a boycott by American Jews of products coming from Israeli settlements in the territories. This may seem a bold step in New York or Philadelphia, given the current climate in American synagogues and other Jewish institutions, though many of us have been doing it for years, publicly or silently, to no great effect. I once threw a fit in a well-known Jerusalem restaurant when it turned out that they had in stock only wine produced by settlers or in wineries located in the territories. The owner eventually appeared and apologized profusely, promising that in future he’d have a wider selection. That’s about as far as we’ve got, although there is at least one case—that of the Barkan wineries—where pressure from outside, probably mostly from Europe, apparently led to the closure of the main production unit on the West Bank, near Banu Hassan. Lest this example inspire inflated hopes, I should add that, according to recent studies, many if not most Israeli wineries process grapes grown in settlements.
By now, targeting settlers’ produce has a slightly anachronistic feel to it. Does it make sense to focus on wine from Hebron or milk products from the Susya dairy when the entire Israeli political system sustains the colonial project in the territories? I should make it clear that I oppose the call for an across-the-board boycott of Israel, and in particular for an academic-cultural boycott, which, in my view, can only be counterproductive, strengthening the prevalent paranoid mythology and its strident spokesmen on the right. Although I spend a portion of my time in often quixotic gestures in the south Hebron hills, in general I’m not fond of the ineffectual.
What is needed is something far more effective—perhaps something that a second-term Democratic president could achieve if he had the courage to confront the stranglehold of AIPAC on American politics, partly described by Beinart. In the meantime, we could use the kind of idealistic and hardheaded volunteers whom Arnold Wolf, the charismatic liberal rabbi who was one of Obama’s mentors in Chicago, took to Selma, Alabama, during the civil rights struggle. We need volunteers on the West Bank, to protect innocent Palestinian civilians from marauding settlers and the soldiers who invariably back the settlers up. Even a few hundred people would make a real difference.
But it may already be too late. Analysts like Meron Benvenisti, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, have been saying for years that the idea of the two-state solution is no more than a fig leaf, to which both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships pay lip service, hiding the recalcitrant reality of what is already a single state between the Jordan River and the sea. At the moment, this single state, seen as a whole, fits Beinart’s term—a coercive “ethnocracy.” Those who recoil at the term “apartheid” are invited to offer a better one; but note that one of the main architects of this system, Ariel Sharon, himself reportedly adopted South African terminology, referring to the noncontiguous Palestinian enclaves he envisaged for the West Bank as “Bantustans.”
These Palestinian Bantustans now exist, and no one should pretend that they’re anything remotely like a “solution” to Israel’s Palestinian problem. Someday, as happened in South Africa, this system will inevitably break down. In an optimistic version of the future, we may be left with some sort of confederated model that is more than one state but somehow less than two—and in which the Jews will soon become a minority. I do not see how that can happen without a struggle, hopefully nonviolent at least to some degree, in which Palestinians claim for themselves the rights that other peoples have achieved.
How did we reach this point? Why do Israelis cling to a policy so evidently irrational, indeed suicidal? The simple—too simple—answer is: we’re afraid. We’ve been so traumatized, first by our whole history and then by the history of this conflict, that we want at least an illusion of security, like the kind that comes from holding on to a few more rocky hills. Never mind that every inch of Israel is within range of tens of thousands of missiles currently stationed in Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza, not to mention Iran, and that a few more square kilometers make no difference to that threat. We’ll still take over those West Bank hills, and we’ll even put a few rickety caravans on them for anyone crazy enough to want to live there, and we’ll station a few dozen bored soldiers on top of each of them and all around them, and we’ll connect them to the Israeli electricity grid and the water system, and we’ll build a big perimeter fence to enclose the new settlement and to provide land for it to grow on (usually many times the size of the settlement itself). The land happens to belong to Palestinians, but that, clearly, is a consideration of no relevance here.
The fears of Israelis are no doubt real enough, and a generous interpretation of Israeli policy over the last four decades would give them due emphasis. As Ali Abu Awwad, one of the leaders of the new generation of Palestinian nonviolent resisters, often says: “The Jews are not my enemy; their fear is my enemy. We must help them to stop being so afraid—their whole history has terrified them—but I refuse to be a victim of Jewish fear anymore.” He’s right to refuse. But I think the reality we inhabit and have largely created by our own actions has more to do with the story we Israelis tell ourselves about who we are—a powerfully dramatic story that, like many such mythic stories, has a way of perpetuating itself, at continually escalating cost to those who tell it. This story more and more coincides with the primitive Netanyahu narrative I mentioned earlier.
To get away from it, we need to recognize certain primary facts, however uncomfortable they may be for some of us. As has been the case in the past, there are always easily available diversions and distractions that mask the true basis of the ongoing struggle; in Israel today, the main such diversion is called “Iran.” Along with such distractions we have the Israeli refusal to see the present Palestinian leadership in Ramallah for what it is, a more than adequate partner for Israel. Those who don’t agree should be thinking about men such as Marwan Barghouti, still biding his time in an Israeli jail. He’s no saint, to be sure, but he enjoys enormous authority among Palestinians, and he knows very well what is required to strike a deal. There is good reason to believe that he wants such a deal, along the lines that are by now recognized as reasonable by a majority on both sides of the conflict and, indeed, by most other nations. He has recently published a strong statement calling for mass nonviolent resistance in the territories and an end to the farce of a negotiating “process” that has allowed Israel to stall endlessly—and to hide its deeply rooted hostility to the very idea of coming to some form of agreement with the Palestinian national movement.
This profound antipathy to making a meaningful peace will undoubtedly continue to dominate the present Israeli government, now expanded by the entry of the Kadima party into the coalition; Kadima presents itself as “centrist” but is, in fact, hardly distinguishable from the Likud, from which it seceded under Sharon’s leadership, when it comes to Palestinian matters. The new cabinet will continue to entrench the occupation and to legalize the massive theft of Palestinian lands while loudly complaining that the Palestinians are responsible for the collapse of negotiations.
So again, it is worth stating the self-evident truths: at the core of this conflict there are two peoples with symmetrical claims to the land. Neither of the two has any monopoly on being “right,” and each has committed atrocities against the other. One of these two sides is, however, much stronger than the other. Until the national aspirations of the weaker, Palestinian side are addressed and some sort of workable compromise between the two parties is achieved—until the occupation as we know it today comes to an end—there will be no peace. It is impossible to keep millions of human beings disenfranchised for long and to systematically rob them of their dignity and their land.
To prolong the occupation is to ensure the emergence of a single polity west of the Jordan; every passing day makes a South African trajectory more likely, including the eventual, necessary progression to a system of one person, one vote. Thus the likelihood must be faced that unless the Occupation ends, there will also, in the not so distant future, be no Jewish state.
—May 9, 2012
David Shulman is the Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an activist in Ta’ayush, Arab-Jewish Partnership. His latest book is More than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India. (June 2012)