Robert Fine on the singling out of Israel for boycott

We have been having a debate on Engage for a couple of weeks now on matters concerning the campaign to boycott Israel, how we can help Israelis and Palestinians to move forward towards peace and on the issue of antisemitism.  The participants in this debate have been Desmond Tutu, Robert Fine, Neve Gordon, David Hirsh, Ran Greenstein, Uri Avnery, David Newman and Farid Essack.
The links to all the contributions to the debate are collected here.
This contribution, from Robert Fine, is a response to this contribution from Ran Greenstein and also to the comment from Ran Greenstein which appeared in the comments box in answer to Robert’s last contribution.

Robert Fine

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