From Ran Greenstein:
Thanks again for your considered and reasonable contribution to the debate.
Here is – in brief – my response, with headings to highlight remaining
1. Zionism as a national movement and a colonial project
You say that Zionism was one among many European nationalist
movements, all of which contained “strong exclusionary forces”. You
add that many new independent states combine “a vibrant sense of
national freedom with exclusion of those deemed not to belong to the
nation in question”. In addition, most countries in the Middle East
are defined in ethnic or religious terms and are exclusionary to
various degrees. You use these points to argue that Israel is not
unique in displaying exclusionary tendencies.
You are right that exclusionary policies are not unique, but you
ignore a crucial aspect of the Israeli state that makes it stand out:
it was born out of a project that saw immigrants – mostly of European
origins – moving into a territory populated by local non-European
people, and displacing them (politically and physically). As a result,
Israel is viewed as part of the colonial enterprise of subordinating
indigenous populations and territories to settler rule. Regardless of
the subjective consciousness of settlers, they are perceived in this
light in much of Asia, Africa and Latin America. That accounts for the
wide sense of solidarity people in these parts of the world feel for
the Palestinian struggle. They see it as similar to their own
struggles against colonial and settler forces: if you want to
understand South African responses to the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, look no further.
2. The Nakba as ethnic cleansing
You acknowledge the exclusionary consequences of Zionist policies
towards Palestinians but regard the notion of “ethnic cleansing” as an
exaggeration. What better term do you propose to refer to the
flight/expulsion of 80% of the indigenous population of what became
the State of Israel in 1948? What better term for their prevention
from returning to their homes, villages and towns (frequently located
a few miles away from their new refugee camps)?
3. Israel’s ‘drift to the right’
You recognize the “drift to the right” in Israel, but claim it is not
unique. In several European countries there is a drift to “an
increasingly ultra-nationalist right wing”. What you fail to consider
is that the nationalist right-wing in Israel argues that it is
resurrecting the original Zionist vision of exclusion. It describes
itself as a guard against any relaxation of segregation and
inequality. Its rallying cry is the need for an undiluted “Jewish
state” in the spirit of Herzl and Ben-Gurion. Of course, they may be
wrong or manipulative. But, ask yourself, what is it in the original
Zionist vision that allows them to claim it today to justify
anti-democratic abuses and exclusions? Why do their claims and
campaigns resonate with a large section of the Israeli-Jewish public,
born and raised on Zionist ideology?
4. ‘Singling out’ Israel
You raise the point that many Jews were ill-treated in Arab and
Islamic countries, that Christian existence increasingly is under
attack, and that democracy is threatened due to the rise of religious
fundamentalism and secular authoritarianism in the Arab world. All
true. You then ask “From where then does the singling out of Israel
The simple answer is that Israel ‘singles out’ itself by its policies:
it is unique in excluding the indigenous majority of its population in
order to clear the way for a group of settlers, who used force to
become a majority. That the settlers did not regard themselves as
foreigners, and in their minds they were returning to the land of
their ancestors, made no difference to the concerns of the locals: can
you think of a different response offered by any indigenous group in
Asia, Africa and the Americas to the prospect of European-originated
To be precise, what is unique is not the historical context – many
states were born in violence and conflict – but the re-enactment of
the founding act of exclusion of 1948 on a daily basis. Take for
example this week’s Knesset bill, sponsored by members of Kadima
(hailed by some deluded people as a liberal alternative to Likud):
“The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Wednesday
unanimously approved a bill which gives the right to absorption
committees of small communities in Israel to reject candidates if they
do not meet specific criteria. The bill has sparked wide condemnation
and many believe it to be discriminatory and racist, since it allows
communities to reject residents if they do not meet the criteria of
‘suitability to the community’s fundamental outlook’, which in effect
enables them to reject candidates based on sex, religion, and
socioeconomic status.” In the minds of all participants in the debate
there was not the slightest doubt what the target was: preventing
Arabs from joining Jewish settlements that control the bulk of land in
Israel. But let us be fair. The exclusion is not complete: “The
committee’s chairman, David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu), responded to
claims the bill was meant to reject Arabs from joining Israeli towns.
‘In my opinion, every Jewish town needs at least one Arab. What would
happen if my refrigerator stopped working on Shabbat?”
Can you think of another country (Western or otherwise) in which such
parliamentary debate can take place today? My point is not that racism
is extreme in Israel. Rather, it is that current legislation reflects
the uninterrupted practice of Zionist settlement from its inception.
The socialist, egalitarian Kibbutzim and collective Moshavim were/are
just as exclusionary as the unabashed racists under the leadership of
Lieberman and Yishai, who receive the tacit support of Netanyahu,
Livni and Barak. They all follow what Israeli historian and analyst
Meron Benvenisti called “the genetic [historical-cultural] code of a
settler society” (see here the useful discussion by ‘The Magnes
Zionist’ on http://www.jeremiahhaber.com/).
5. Does Jewishnsess matter?
You say: “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.” No. What is unique is that Israel
alone is based on historical dispossession of the indigenous
population, which continues to this day. Israel is not the only – or
worst – oppressive regime. It is not the only – or worst – state that
practices discrimination and violation of human rights. It is not the
only – or worst – state that emerged out of a violent colonial-type
conflict. It is not the only – or worst – state that dispossessed
indigenous people. But, it is indeed the only state that continues to
re-enact such historical dispossession today, in an ever intensified
You say: “you do not ask why of all states it is Israel that is
selected out for not meeting this ideal” (of non-ethnic inclusive
democracy). But of course you know very well that Israel is not unique
in this respect: I happen to live in a state that experienced
precisely that kind of selection. How can you make an argument about
‘Jewishness’ as a reason for excessive criticism, when you are fully
aware that Afrikaners (or white South Africans generally) were
subjected to similar – and frequently much harsher – treatment?
If the Jewish state of Israel is treated in the same way as the white
Republic of South Africa was treated, it cannot possibly be because of
what they do not share (‘Jewishness’). It can only be because of what
they do share: exclusionary policies towards their indigenous
6. What is to be done and how
Finally, you agree that change is necessary, but say that “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.” I am afraid that this has nothing to do with my
understanding of politics. What I call for is a process of political
struggle and change, proceeding through education, growing awareness,
and numerous campaigns, which would culminate – hopefully – in an
overall change of the system. It is likely to be a slow, gradual and
painful process. It is not a messianic transformation from one extreme
to another, and it should build on all the positive – but partial –
achievements of past struggles.
Most Jews in Israel are indeed fearful of this prospect, and most
Palestinians embrace nationalism and religion rather than non-ethnic
inclusive democratic notions. So change is not likely to be immediate,
easy or unproblematic. It may be a journey of a thousand miles, but
even such a journey must begin with one step, as long as we are moving
in the right direction (see today’s useful insights by historian
Dimitri Shumski on the need for an Israeli democratic state in
http://www.haaretz.co.il/hasite/spages/1195906.html – only in Hebrew
for now, but surely to be translated).
Where can we go from here despite our disagreements? Towards a common
struggle on what we agree on: the need to fight the occupation, the
need to make Israel a state in which all citizens are equal, the need
to respect international human rights law, the need to redress
historical injustices. Whether the academic boycott is a useful step
to take in this struggle is a minor point. Don’t let it distract us
from the more substantial task of transforming Israel into a democracy
that acts for the benefit of all its residents, past and present.
And this, hot off the press, the most irreverent independent
e-magazine in Israel:
Yossi Gurvitz, “Introducing ethnic segregation: the Q’aadan curse”:
And, Ami Kaufman, “Every Jewish community needs its nigger”:
From Robert Fine:
Sorry once more for the delay in replying to your note. I won’t respond directly to each of the points you make – and to do them justice may require a historical knowledge I only wish I had – but offer you my general thoughts.
What strikes me most about your way of seeing your home country is the harshness of the language you use about it and its people – settler colonial state, exclusion, ethnic cleansing, segregation, racism, etc. – and the readiness with which you dismiss what you call the ‘subjective consciousness of settlers’. It seems to me that the story you construct about Israel is not false but lacks reflectivity.
First, it is selective in the way it picks out certain aspects of Israeli history and society at the expense of other aspects. A ‘Zionist’, so to speak, could equally well pick out these other aspects to construct the conventional laudation of Israel’s achievements in building modernity (democracy, a vibrant economy, worldliness, etc.) in its part of the Middle East. Neither story is right when turned into an absolute, not the ‘Zionist’ tale but not yours either. The point is not to say that one story is right and the other wrong, but to be open to the equivocations, the limits, of both.
Second, your story is interpretive in the way it characterises the elements that it does select. Take, for example, the epithet you use to describe those who came to Israel in its early days: ‘European settler colonists’. Clearly the status of Jews as ‘European’ has not been unproblematic over the centuries. On the contrary, it has been fragile and often denied, no more so of course than when the Nazis organised the murder of ‘European’ Jews. Equally it is difficult to accept that the status of Jews as ‘colonial’ can be the whole story at a time when some Jewish people formed one small part of a world revolution against European colonialism and for national independence. I don’t want to deny that there is a ‘colonial’ aspect to Jewish history in the Middle East, especially in relation to the exclusion of Palestinians and occupation of Palestinian land, only to say that your interpretation appears to me as one-sided as that of the ‘Zionists’ you criticise. I am not convinced, for instance, that it does much to illuminates the history of ethnic conflict in the Middle East to say either that the exclusion of Palestinians from Israel or the exclusion of Jews from Arab countries was a case of ‘ethnic cleansing’ – except, that is, in those instances when extreme violence was employed: like the massacre of over a hundred Palestinians by the Irgun in 1948 in Deir Yassin and the subsequent expulsion of the inhabitants of the village.
Third, it seems to me that your story offers a deeply unequal distribution of compassion and blame. All the compassion is for Palestinians, all blame for Israeli Jews. The two appear interlinked: the more you blame the Israelis, the more you feel for the Palestinians; the more you feel for the Palestinians, the more you condemn the Israelis for their suffering. In this scenario compassion for the victim becomes your justification for condemning those you declare victimisers (in this case Israeli Jews and only Israeli Jews) and on the other hand for substituting your voice for the many voices of the victims. Paradoxically, both sides end up dehumanised in this scenario: one side demonised, the other, as it were, ‘victimised’. Palestinians become only victims and victims only of Jews. This is not to deny that Palestinians are victims but I do protest against the epithet of victimhood overshadowing all other aspects of Palestinian subjectivity. Conversely Israelis becomes only victimisers. Against the pathos of ‘Zionist’ narratives of Jewish suffering no space is left for compassion, and against ‘Zionist’ narratives of only responding to Arab aggression no space is left for understanding the multiple subjectivities of Israeli Jews – or for that matter of Jews elsewhere.
You make many valid points. Of course Israel has and always has had its fair share of bigots, racists, ultra-nationalists and fundamentalists, but democracy in Israel is not simply a sham. It’s easy to say that today’s exclusion goes back to an original Zionist idea but the damage this does is not only to the complexities of history, it is also to democracy. It blunts the nerve of outrage to dismiss what right wingers in the Israeli government are now trying to impose on Israeli Palestinians as simply the same old logic of Zionist exclusion. In any event exclusion itself is not an absolute evil. The case I am making is that if we want to end the occupation and make Israel a state in which all citizens are equal, one step in this direction is to understand where different people are coming from, not to construct a tale of nationally defined villains and victims. It seems to me we need to place the issues we have discussed side by side, to let them breathe, not to squash them into a single non-negotiable narrative. The erasure of qualifications creates a comfortably reductive story, but to enable people to live together in peace requires that we assign to Israelis the same capacity to be ambivalent, wrong, thoughtful, anxious, wounded, reactive and strategic as we do to Palestinians.
To return to the question that triggered this dialogue, I was reading this morning a public letter written by a fellow academic, Denis Noble, resigning from our University College Union because of its boycott campaign against Israeli academic institutions. He writes that successive boycott resolutions passed by our union ‘discriminate against certain colleagues (Israelis) on the grounds of their nationality… and hold Israeli colleagues responsible for, and punish them for, the actions of their government via a type of reasoning (guilt by association) that is never applied to the academics of any other country’. Surely this is right. We can all accept that the Israeli government is guilty of human-rights violations and that the union is entitled to criticise it, but as the author of this letter goes on to write, it is instructive to compare motions supporting boycott of Israel with motions about China, a country which has also occupied the territories of a different national group for many years and encourages its own nationals to establish settlement in the occupied territory. The motion on China reaffirms that UCU “will continue to condemn abuses of human rights of trade unionists and others” but at the same time recognises “the need to encourage collegial dialogue” with Chinese institutions. We must ask ourselves why these double standards exist, why Israel is singled-out in this kind of way.
Finally in your letter you write understandably that ‘regardless of the subjective consciousness of settlers, they [Israelis] are perceived in this light [as part of the colonial enterprise of subordinating indigenous populations and territories to settler rule] in much of Asia, Africa and Latin America. That accounts for the wide sense of solidarity people in these parts of the world feel for the Palestinian struggle. They see it as similar to their own struggles against colonial and settler forces: if you want to understand South African responses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, look no further’. You may well be right that many people in the non-Western world see the situation in Israel/Palestine through this anti-colonial lens. However, our task, as I see it, is not to confirm that this simulacrum of anti-colonialism is the real thing but to reach out beyond these categories to some foundation of human experience.
Best wishes, Robert Fine