What Israel’s hyper-critical “left” fears the most, that people might listen to them
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Israeli society is constantly lurching from one culture war to another, a point highlighted by a January 29 piece in the New York Times. A lot of people take Israel’s debates at face value. Some NGO that support some cause truly believes in that cause. But a peak behind the curtain reveals a more disturbing reality. Most of the crusades in Israel launched by certain elements of self-defined “left” have little authenticity behind them. Often their real goal is simply to enhance the reputation of those spouting them, or to create “martyrs” or to put forward some theoretical paradigm. What many of these voices fear the most is that someone might listen to them. Being marginal and representing small numbers of people but getting a lot of attention is good. If it were the other way around, and large numbers of people supported them, the voicing supporting many of these policies would be the first to object to them.
Let’s look at a few examples
The bedouin of the Negev
For more than a decade a small group of Israeli Jewish pro-Bedouin activists have developed a theory that presents Israel as a “ethnocratic colonial settler state.” For them the Bedouin of the Negev are the indigenous people, and Jewish residents are colonists similar to the process of settlement of Australia, Canada or the United States. In a May of 2015 an Israeli radical “left” journalist went to Australia, and found a settler state. “‘I speak to you as one settler to another’ is how I usually start my lectures to the converted, namely audiences who oppose the Israeli occupation (it’s my habit to tell listeners things they don’t want to hear). My audience members clear their throats, pause and giggle with embarrassment.”
When I read that article I had an epiphany.
For years Israel’s bedouin had been told by these activists that they should embrace indigenous rights as a struggle. An academic from Australia named John Sheehan even came to Israel and gave talks at conferences on how Israel could learn from Australia. But then I began to look into the situation of Aboriginals in Australia. They are the poorest people, incarcerated at extremely high levels and lacking health care. Their communities are marginalized.
So this is what the pro-Bedouin activists actually want for the bedouin. An “indigenous” group, marginalized and permanently subordinate to the Jewish majority. Dependent entirely on handouts. I realized that being “one settler to another” was a wink-wink of being one superior caste to another. The Bedouin were expected to remain subordinate so a class of professional activists could live off them like parasites.
The one thing that the pro-Bedouin activists fear is that the Bedouins might actually get the 1 million dunams they demand and live on in the Negev. If they suddenly received all their land then they would also need equal rights in the Negev. That means they should have a right to the same level of government support as kibbutzim. That means they should have a right to go to the segregated Jewish-only town which have good schools in places like Meitar and Omer. That means that Bedouin would be permitted to be equal to the wealthy elite activists who work “on their behalf.” Not an Australian model, but an equal model.
If someone actually listened to the “colonial settler” paradigm, they might come to the conclusion that the Jewish communities in the Negev are illegal, built on the land of others. So why can’t Bedouin even live in those communities? If Bedouin are 25% of the Negev, why aren’t they 25 of Ben-Gurion University student body?
If the Bedouin actually got their rights and were not permanently subordinate, then those very voices who support them, would be the first to temper their support. Because in the end of the day, no one is fighting for the Bedouin to right to live equally, but merely to keep them as poor as possible and in need as much “saving” as possible.
From time to time we hear about Israelis who refuse army service. There are a small group of “conscientious objectors” who refuse outright on political grounds to serve in the IDF. Some are jailed numerous times. A larger number receive permission not to serve as unsuitable for service. Sometimes stories of the lengths people go to in order to serve where they want are revealed, “The army rejected all her pleas, as well as (civilian) medical papers attesting to the fact that she is unfit to serve and that serving would endanger her life. Only at the end of a long and exhausting process was she released, and she enlisted in the ranks of civilian national service.” There is evidence that many of those who receive “medical” exceptions for unclear conditions like “epilepsy” are from affluent families. Also some people have connections with experts who advise them to have a sham marriage. The poor are not so lucky.
The same goes for conscientious objection. Often organizations and ideologies that support objection are concentrated in wealthy high schools. These people are conscientious because they had the wealth and privilege to become conscientious. So the poor must serve for three years for $150 a month, while the wealthy can avoid service? Some of them pay a price in prison time, but for many of the poor who end up in army prison due to economic reasons (14,000 a year), it is also a prison.
What if a massive number of Israelis, primarily the poor, took up the cause of conscientious objection? They tend to serve in the worst army units. While their peers get skills in military intelligence or army spokesman’s unit or as pilots and lawyers that given them connections and training for future careers, the poor are shafted into dismal terrible jobs for three years. What if they decided that there is no reason they should stand in the cold rain guarding Jewish communities in the West Bank and at checkpoints, while their wealthy peers relax?
If conscientious objection became widespread in Israel, then the wealthy would have to shoulder the burden of the country’s decision to control millions of Palestinians. Suddenly those people who wax poetic about conscientious objection would be none to happy to have their families called upon to stand in the freezing cold and be paid nothing for years. Suddenly the need for “national service” might change, suddenly soldiers might be paid a professional wage. Conscientious can only work so long as most people are not conscientious. If 90% of the people, especially the poor, had the privilege to be conscientious, then the whole system that supports this protest would melt away.
We hear a lot about the “right to resist” for Palestinians. A number of these commentaries are concentrated at universities. At Hebrew University one professor even sketched out a method of resistance. “Many in Israel, perhaps even the majority of the voters, do not doubt the legitimacy of the armed resistance in the territories themselves. The Palestinians would be wise to concentrate their struggle against the settlements, avoid harming women and children and strictly refrain from firing on Gilo, Nahal Oz or Sderot; it would also be smart to stop planting bombs to the west of the Green Line.”
Since students attending that university have to pass over the Green Line to get to the university, the statement actually makes them legitimate “resistance” targets. What if Palestinians really did “resist” the way some intellectuals and academics suggest they do? Say everyday dozens of students on their way to university were subjected to “armed resistance”? How long until there would no longer be classes? All of the academics themselves have to pass the Green Line to get to the university also. What if they were subjected to “armed resistance”? Suddenly this romantic concept would not be so romantic.
Those who support “resistance” don’t actually mean it should harm them. They tend to support violence among Palestinians that doesn’t even help Palestinians. But the thing they truly fear would be Palestinians really embracing this concept in totality.
Withdrawing from the West Bank
Many on Israel’s more radical left support a total withdrawal from the West Bank and perhaps even a Palestinian “right of return.” What if someone listened to them and brought the 600,000 Jews who have moved over the Green Line, back inside it. Where would those 600,000 people live? Would they move to the Negev and take the land that was taken from Bedouin? Those who say “leave” the West Bank, have no idea where to put those they want to take out and they certainly don’t want those “settlers” living next door to them. They have acceptance committees anyway to keep out those who are more right wing.
And what about this right of return? What if the Palestinians came back to the 450 villages that were bulldozed in 1949. Most of those villages are not the homes of wealthy kibbutzim or artists colonies. The very people that support the “right” of return, live on the land upon which the return would happen. Most of the poor in Israel who didn’t benefit from the expropriation of 1 million dunams from Arab villages, won’t be affected.
Foreign workers and migrants rights
There are numerous NGOs that make money off supporting African migrants, refugees and foreign workers. Some of them do worthy work, some of them are just a form of welfare for the wealthy connected college students who set them up for a job while in University.
Those who campaign hardest for the rights of African refugees in Israel, tend to want them to “stay” but never want to really give them rights. If you push to hard with questions for those who support the migrants, you’ll find they rarely have any solution for them. So give the 40,000 Eritreans citizenship? No one who supposedly “supports” them actually advocates that. That is because despite all the “support” for the Africans, no one wants them to become equal citizens and live a normal life. No one would accept Jews being kept in limbo as non-citizens in another country, but the same voices that “support” migrants, don’t want to actually give them full rights. What they want is a permanent underclass or second class.
An end to racism and segregation
Many people talk about fighting racism in Israel. But the root of that racism is tied up to the very nature of Zionism of the 1950s. The segregated education and acceptance committees that keep the country divided into different groups, is responsible for extreme inequality and racism.
Let’s de-segregate the schools and let people live where they want to live? Even in places that talk about “coexistence”, the concept of mixed Arab-Jewish couples is not acceptable. That is the lie that hides behind stories of coexistence and ending racism. For racism to end there must be diversity and freedom of choice for where to live and where to go to school. But the same voices who say “end racism” are the same ones who believe Arab and Jewish neighborhoods must be homogenous.
Scared of its shadow
Generally the concept of the radical left and parts of the “left” in Israel is to present itself as a martyr. There is a tendency towards provocation and controversy for its own sake. For instance someone will write on Holocaust commemoration day that they don’t want to stand on Yom Ha-Shoah or that Israel should cancel the day. So don’t stand. It’s all about making a scene. So cancel it. If you call the Israeli’s bluff about these things, you’ll see, it’s just critique for critique’s sake. They won’t really cancel their Shoah day.
There is a constant story about changing Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah. So change it? Let’s see if the people who supposedly support changing it, actually want to change it.
An Israeli basketball coach gets fired in America and Israelis celebrate his firing because they call it “fascism” for Jews to like a Jewish basketball coach. Fascism is always the word for everything. Stasi, fascism, McCarthysim. Nazism. Nuremburg laws. Hungarian racial laws. Gulag. But if it was really fascism then why aren’t you in the woods with your rifle resisting like the Yugoslav partisans? If it’s the Gulag then why aren’t you escaping? If Israel is enforcing laws like Nazi Germany and doing “Kristalnacht” and “pogroms” to Palestinians. Then why aren’t you fighting it?
It’s just talk. Talk not meant to convince too many. Talk for talks sake, to feel good about oneself for being controversial, to feel moral by critiquing and saying “I spoke out” and feeling like a hero for “opposing fascism”, even though the people who actually opposed fascism faced death, whereas these people just face rush hour traffic.
If it was Apartheid then it would be a moral obligation to leave Israel or truly resist those policies. Either those who claim it is apartheid are lying to themselves or they believe it is apartheid but are willing to keep on collaborating with it and profiting off it.
At the heart of all of it is a tremendous fear that anyone would listen to these theories. Palestinian resistance must be at a minimum. Bedouin must not really demand indigenous rights. Not too many should be conscientious objectors. Racist structures must not be dismantled. The occupation must not end. Foreign workers and refugees must not have citizenship.
Call this bluff. Re-write the national anthem, cancel Yom Ha-Shoah, change the flag, give rights to bedouin and migrants, abolish conscription, open up communities and schools to free choice. Those who were once “liberals” and “left” will be the first to bar the gates to all these things.