By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
You’ve got to hand it to parts of Israel’s nostalgic Labor Zionist Left. It has the best of both worlds. It can be critical of the Right while at the same time advocating right-wing policies. It can bask in the limelight abroad as “liberals” and “leftists” and get applause for being “progressive,” while advocating policies that might make the National Front in France or the right wing parts of the Republican Party in the US blush. Really. The Right should be jealous in Israel.
Some people are catching on.
Tom Mehager at HaOkets (and posted at 972) notes “The explanation for ignoring the right of return lies, I believe, in the political roots of the Jewish Left in Israel, and specifically those who founded the organizations that strive for coexistence and civil rights. Those founders are the ideological descendants of the same political and ethnic group that is viewed in Israeli politics as “left wing,” despite being bearing a great deal of responsibility for the Nakba — both during and after the 1948 War — when they blocked the return of Palestinian refugees and settled on their land.”
His argument is that it is a modern convenience of the “left” in Israel to adopt a “coexistence” attitude precisely when it bears no responsibility for that coexistence, having removed minorities from its neighborhoods and kibbutzim and setting up acceptance committees. “On the other hand, the same “Left” decides the boundaries of the discourse in such a way that suits the historical and current interests of the ethnic group that makes it up. In Jerusalem. for example, Jews from the Israeli elite live in the neighborhoods that used to be populated by Palestinians and in homes that once belonged to Palestinians,” he writes.
Reflecting on US President Barack Obama’s praise for 1950s Israel David Bernstein at The Washington Post discovered the same thing. “The Israel of kibbutzim (kudos to Obama for using the proper Hebrew plural), Dayan, and Meir, was perhaps a more idealistic, and certainly more socialistic Israel. But it was also an Israel dominated by a secularized, Ashkenazic elite. Mizrahim (Jews from Arab countries), though more than half the population, were marginalized at every level of society. Discrimination was to a large extent institutionalized; the governing Labor Party was run by socialistic Ashkenazim, and given that state capitalism dominated the Israeli economy one’s political and social connections (protectsia in Hebrew) went a long way toward determining one’s economic prospects.”
Yitzhak Laor tried to diagnose this phenomenon in his 2010 book The Myths of Liberal Zionism. That was a good start; identifying the Eurocentirsm and euro-supremacist attitude of the “left” elites in Israel. The group that Laor, Mehager and Bernstein identified present the public with a double-worldview, one the one hand opposing the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and on the other seeking a divorce from the minorities inside Israel.
The article on May 23 by Carlo Strenger is the third piece he has written supporting a “canton” plan for Israel. He argues “to salvage its democracy Israel must be divided into cantons.” The theory is that “it turns out liberal democracy has its limites, it can’t bridge the yawning gaps.” So instead of making society more equitable and de-segregating its education (99% of Israelis go to Jewish or Arab segregated school) and de-segregating communities (90% of Israel’s rural communities are segregated, often officially by acceptance committees), he implies that the gaps can be enforced more rigorously.
Note how this is couched in “liberal” values. “As a liberal I am entitled to despite views of Ben-Dahan [a right winger]…but I am committed to safeguarding their right to hold them…still differences in core values even among Israel’s Jews have become so vast as to make it nearly impossible to live in the same polity.”
He structures his belief system as “the right vs. ‘the white tribe.’” White tribalism is a uniquely Israeli concept that argues Jews from Europe are a “white tribe,” and that just being born to a European Jewish family imparts a person with different values. It is a worship of whiteness, of the ethno-centirsm and European hyper-nationalism of the last century.
Strenger notes that “the mainstream press, the judiciary and academia are overwhelmingly liberal, so they are perceived as representing what is called ‘the white tribe.’ They [the right] therefore no longer see liberal democracy’s values and institutions as impartial tools, but as the tools of the liberal Ashkenazi elites to impose their views on the majority.”
In this view “we liberals” are seen as different than the rest of Israel. But Israel’s self-defined “liberals” are not liberal. They launder their right wing ethnocracy by simply calling themselves “liberal.” Benito Mussolini also thought himself a socialist. The right wing racist extremists of European history often wanted to perfect society along certain “progressive” lines. Eugenics and the belief that one’s ancestry and blood make one superior were derived from enlightenment ideas of social Darwinism and pseudo-science.
What is “liberal” in Israel in which one’s country of origin or religion determines where one can live? Why is there a kibbutz system of acceptance committees where people from Europe were allowed to live in certain communities and immigrants from the Muslim world or Africa were sent to separate and unequal communities? Why are Arabs and Jews kept apart? There is nothing “liberal” about the concept that certain communities are for a ‘white tribe’ or that universities, legal professions or the press are for people with a certain ethnic background.
The irony of Israel’s false-liberalism is that the very people who created a balkanized society, who discriminated against the other, are the ones who then claim they cannot live in the same democracy with the others, and must be provided special rights to continue their ethno-centrism.
Deflecting the “segregation” story to the West Bank
One of the tools that is used to launder right wing extremism as “left” in Israel is deflecting any discussion of racism to the West Bank. Aeyal Gross wrote on May 26 about a recent news story involving buses travelling to and from Israel from the West Bank where authorities wanted to divide them into Palestinian bus lines for workers and others for Jewish residents of the area. This was decried as racism and cancelled.
Claiming “Apartheid in Israel is about more than just segregated buses,” Gross claimed that the “apartheid” nature of the occupation was clear. “Israelis and Palestinians are segregated in the territories [West Bank] not just in terms of residential areas and housing, but also in the realms of education, health care and welfare.” Residential areas? Education?
How did the West Bank Jewish communities end up the way they are, not just how they look, but the education system, the acceptance committees in many of them? It was borrowed directly from the ethos of pre-1967 Israel. There is a myth that pre-1967 Israel was “egalitarian” and that post-1967 Israel is bad. But the reality is there is not one discrimination in the West Bank that was not exported from inside the Green Line. The Border Police, the checkpoints, curfews, all of it was used during the military administration of the Arab citizens of Israel before 1966 (it was cancelled one year before the conquest of the territories).
The architecture and management of the various Jewish communities in the West Bank was modeled directly on the settlements inside the Green Line. In many cases the same kinds of Nahal volunteers who set up new communities in the 1950s and 1960s Israel were called upon to build the first kibbutzim in the Jordan Valley and Golan.
The separation from the Arab population wasn’t something new, it was something from the 1950s. The only difference of course was that voting rights were not provided to Palestinians. While that is an important anti-democratic detail, the fact is that when it comes to notions of dividing society, every one of those notions was borrowed from the Labor Zionist movement. In face the religious Zionist early settlers called themselves “pioneers” and aped the youth globes and ideology of the Labor Zionist settlement. These were not two different groups, but two branches of the same tree. One branch calls the other “extreme right” and “racist,” but the reality is that the racism problem, the segregationist problem, spans the tree. If you want to cure the tree’s ills, you have to go back to the roots, back to 1948 and the 1950s.
This was made clear in a recent story about how Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ensured that the Arabs who had fled Haifa during the war would not return. “We don’t want a return of the enemy.”
Take the clothes out of the laundry
The laundering of extreme-right values as “liberal” has left Israel in a problematic situation. It allows manifestly anti-democratic, anti-liberal ideas to pass themselves off as “left” and it is difficult to challenge them because the only people that normally would challenge them are their right wing ideological opponents, who tend to be illiberal anyway. Does the Israeli right oppose acceptance committees and segregated education? No. Most Israelis who vote right wing don’t even understand how the acceptance committees are working against them to prevent them from moving to the “European only” rural communities in Israel. When Sderot residents wanted to move to a kibbutz, one acceptance committee member said that their “blood” was the wrong kind. This is actually how these communities talk. Ethiopians, Arabs, Mizrahi Jews, Haredi Jews; they are all unwanted, not part of the country, to be kept in ghettos, and segregated away. And this policy is called “left” in Israel.
Consider the normal way people talk about Jerusalem. Ari Shavit wrote: “The battle for Jerusalem is almost lost. Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) students currently account for 39 percent of all the capital’s school children. Arab students account for 37 percent of the capital’s school children. Zionists account for only 24 percent of the capital’s school children and, of those, only half are secular. Demography has had its say: Barring some dramatic change, secular Jews will have no hope in Jerusalem and Jerusalem will have no secular Jewish hope. As of now, Zion’s future is a non-Zionist one – and the future of its secular residents looks gloomy.”
Think about if this was written about London. “Demography has had its say, Muslims make up 39 percent of the capital’s schoolchildren, non-whites make up an addition 37 percent. London is lost.” That wouldn’t even be said by the rightists at UKIP. But in Israel that is the normal way a “left” wing person talks. Cities are “lost” because there are too many Arabs in them. Haim Ramon, also raised in the Labor party, wrote on May 26 that “Netanyahu is destroying Jewish Jerusalem.” He parroted the Shavit view, “two-thirds of the city’s residents are non-Zionists…the root of the evil sprouted in 1967….[when the government] adopted a proposal made by overenthusiastic senior officers to annex 28 villages, refugee camps and neighborhoods populated with Palestinians.”
To understand the major difference between the Israeli “left” and right on the view of the Palestinian issue is to understand this: The “left” doesn’t want Arabs, the right doesn’t want Arabs voting. The existence of Arab citizens in Israel is seen as a sort of burden on the mainstream “left.” They are not wanted. At worst they are seen as a demographic enemy.
It’s time to take out the laundry. It is time to stop pretending that the Israeli “left” is a left or a liberal progressive anything. There is nothing progressive about segregation. There is nothing progressive about disliking the existence of Arabs in Jerusalem, or the existence of the Haredi Jewish community. Religious Jews and Jerusalemite Arabs are the native community. Before Zionism arrived in the 1880s, they were the ones in Jerusalem. They were here first. Jerusalem isn’t “lost” to them, it is their city. One can celebrate a diverse Jerusalem of all its groups, or one can admit that, but one cannot say that the only “real” Jerusalem is the “Zionist” one. Real Zionism should applaud having Arabs and Orthodox Jews. And anyway, one’s right to be in Israel and one’s value to Israel as a democracy should not be predicated on being sufficiently “Zionist.”
Don’t talk about “democracy” if you view it as only for one group, one ideology. That isn’t democracy, that is narrow mindedness, and it is an extreme-right wing view. It is time to call a spade, a spade. These manifestations of the radical right on the left must be confronted. Speak truth to their power. Those who suggest more segregation rather than less, more acceptance committees and those who refuse to address the internal apartness of people in Israel, cannot be trusted to discuss the issue of the West Bank. Policies in the West Bank are a symptom of the policies inside the Green Line. Until the internal policies can be made just, the policies in the West Bank cannot be made better either. They are two branches of the tree.