Stop romanticizing 1950s Israel and segregated communities


There is a bizarre and misguided nostalgia among some in the diaspora, particularly the US, for an Israel that never existed. It conjures up a myth of an “egalitarian” Israel of “social justice,” one that supposedly embodied the “tikkun olam” and “light unto the nations” concepts that are now in vogue. In a new piece at New York Magazine an article plods down this familiar false path in a profile of US Jewish leader rabbi Rick Jacobs.

“There is, to be sure, a battle raging between the power elite in Israel and American Jewish liberals of the Jacobs mold. It’s a struggle for the soul of Zionism. For much of Israel’s existence, the Jewish state was governed by center-left parties and individuals whose aims matched up with the liberal-leaning American Jewish community. The socialist kibbutzim, though never populated by more than a small percentage of the Israeli population, were nevertheless a cherished ideal on both sides of the world. When the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was in its prime, a lefty American Jew could speak confidently of a future with two states for two peoples. Income inequality in Israel was once not nearly as pronounced as it is now. The ultra-Orthodox were important, but did not have the political prominence they currently see. Those days are gone, and the hope for their return is fading with every passing day. The far right is emboldened; the far left is radicalized.”

Let’s talk about this imaginary pat that some “liberal leaning” American Jews identify with. Well, 1950s Israel was a country where Arabs were kept under curfew until 1966. An official curfew similar to the kinds of pass laws that once existed in South Africa in the 1950s. Hundreds of thousands of dunams were confiscated from Arab communities and transferred to the state and then to Jewish communal settlements, like kibbutzim in the 1950s. In the Negev the beduin population was concentrated, like the treatment of native-Americans in the 19th century, onto a kind of reservation called the Siyag. Torture was used openly as a method of interrogation until the 1990s. Palestinian Arabs who sought to return to Israel in the 1950s could be shot as “infiltrators” and during the 1956 occupation of Gaza widespread human rights violations occurred.

What was the “ideal” of the kibbutzim? Insular, segregated, European-Jewish-only societies. This was an era in Israel when there was widespread and open racism by the authorities against Jews from Muslim countries, against people of color. Under the regime of the 1950s the hundreds of thousands of Jews from Muslim countries were shunted into “development towns” which became ghettos of poverty and neglect that still overshadows inequality today. The concept was that they would be used for their “human material” as “labor” for the state. Discussions of how “useful” they could be were openly held at the highest levels. There were even discussions about keeping them out due to “genetic” reasons. In other cases Yemenite children disappeared at hospitals, leading many Yemenite parents to search in vain. Outright and clear discrimination was done against non-Europeans. These are terrible, awful, cases of abuse of the weakest and most vulnerable, often with state sanction. Nothing romantic or “liberal” about it.

This was all done in the name of “building” the state. Some say all these abuses were necessary or can be excused by the difficult period. But this is no ideal. It’s like looking at 1820s America and excusing its abuses by saying that it was trying to find its footing as a young republic. That’s fine, but don’t make it an ideal to go back to and identify with.

Israel was not “liberal” in the 1950s or 1960s. It looked more like the Soviet republics in eastern Europe. The party that ran Israel from 1949 to 1977 self-defined as “left” but it was the kind of “left” found in Hungary in 1958 or in Turkey. It was a statist left, which means security state, which means lack of civil rights and individual freedoms sacrificed for the “good of the state.” That’s not what American liberal values are about. When they talk about the soul of Zionism, which Zionism do you want? The European-only Zionism of the kibbutzim with official segregation and acceptance committees, or the one where people can choose where they want to live?

It’s bizarre to hear how some in the diaspora have a romantic uncritical attachment to the Israel of the 1950s and 1960s. The Jewish community in America in that era was challenging segregation, challenging laws that forbid interracial marriage in the US, fighting for equality, fighting against barriers of entry that forbade people of color from housing. In the US Jewish activism often meant fighting for diversity and multi-culturalism. Israel even banned the Beatles in the 1960s. That’s how illiberal it was. So how can this “liberal” cause today be shackled to the Israel of the 1950s which had more in common with the Old South and some aspects of South Africa of the 1950s than it did a modern liberal country? Why would any liberal want to feel connected to curfews and segregation, racism, land confiscation, and the distribution of land by racial and ethnic group?

Israel didn’t recognize any new Arab communities until the 1970s. It ignored Arab areas and often didn’t provide them infrastructure, public bus lines or even basic services. The origins of the abuses over the Green Line and lack of development in Gaza and the West Bank can be found in the pre-1966. The abuses of pre-1966 were exported to the West Bank and Gaza. Luckily since then the abuses inside the Green Line have been reduced.

There were no universities or colleges or hospitals built by the state in Arab towns. The legacy of inequality in education can be found in this today in Israel. Where are the colleges in Nazareth and Arab towns?  What’s “liberal” about that? What’s liberal about forcing beduin off their land and not providing for housing and land until the creation of the beduin-only townships in the 1970s? How can anyone call it “liberal” to bulldoze the remnants of Palestinian Arab villages in the 1950s and re-settle immigrants in them? How can that be described as “liberal”? While American Jews were supporting native-American rights in the US, in Israel they identify with the diametric opposite?

It doesn’t make sense how these myths still exist. It shows that there is a lack of education in US communities about Israel. There is no discussion about Mizrahi Jews, or Jews from diverse backgrounds, or even about Arab rights in Israel. There is basically zero discussion about what the 1950s looked like. Instead people are filled with kool-aid about some non-existent “liberal” past in Israel.

It’s mysterious how people in the US who fought against the draft and segregation can so uncritically embrace the draft and segregation in Israel. Segregation is normal in Israel because it was enshrined in the 1950s. This has had long-term negative affects. Many of the social problems in Israel, such as inequality and racism and beduin land rights issues can be traced to the 1950s. So why do some people want to go back to that?

What is a “kibbutz” in Israel? What if there were kibbutzim in America? That would mean allowing only white, Protestants to create whites-only communities where they would have a committee to keep everyone who was non-white and non-Protestant out. Would the US want that today or ever? A kibbutz in Israel is an example of one of the most racist things. There are no kibbutzim available for Arabs, for Ethiopians, for anyone except for European-origin people. Can the beduin have a kibbutz? When beduin in the Negev want to build a new community they are called “illegal” not “kibbutz.” What did Israel do with most new immigrants who were people of color from poorer countries in the global south? Well it put them in “development towns” in apartments. No kibbutz for them. Why make that romantic? It’s no more romantic than the Old South and its “agrarian” economy. There is nothing romantic about segregation. Nothing romantic about a committee that decides based on someone’s origin or race or religion where they can live.

A kibbutz is a form of an oligarchy reserved only for one group. Now, if kibbutzim had been open to everyone in Israel and if all groups in society had been permitted to form them, then it might be different. But Israel didn’t do that. It had one movement for kibbutzim and other groups were provided, usually almost by force by the state, different types of housing, on the Soviet model.

Israel is leaving behind the shackles of the 1950s today. After so many years it is trying to be a more diverse and multi-cultural society. Radio stations play different types of music and there are more of them. There are more TV stations. People have more access to choices. But the shadow of the 1950s remains. Kfar Vradim recently cancelled new housing plots because Arabs were seeking to move in. This is “left leaning”. No, it’s not. It’s not liberal. It’s racist and segregationist. Stop being romantic about it.



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