HASSAN: De-Zionising Israel November 18, 2010

by Bassam Hassan  -  Al-Ahram Weekly Online -  11-17 November 2010

Recent plans by the Israeli government and the Knesset to amend existing laws concerning citizenship rights in Israel have generated waves of criticism in liberal circles, including Israeli ones. The proposed amendments would institutionalise a loyalty oath to Israel as a “Jewish state” and would allow residential communities to bar families that “disrupt” their “social-cultural fabric” from residing there. As refreshing as these critical reactions have been (after all it is good to know that there are still some liberals out there who are willing to defend the ideals of democracy and equality rather than justifying violations of human rights — especially those of Arabs and Muslims — as a lesser evil, as several leading liberals became accustomed to in the last few years), the views expressed still suffer a major shortcoming.

Liberal critics of these plans stopped short of pointing out the real issue at hand, namely Zionism. In other words, they focussed on the effect rather than the cause. This is typical of liberal critics of the Israeli state who do not mind objecting to some of its policies — for instance, house demolition and the construction of new settlements — but that always shy away from critiquing the ideology that underpins them. For Western liberals, Zionism is the ideology and national liberation movement of the Jews who were persecuted in Europe for centuries, and as such should be immune to critique. While opposition to anti-Semitism is the only honourable position any decent person should adopt in the face of racism against Jews, it should not make one overlook the racist character of Zionism itself.

The racist and colonialist characteristics of Zionism were quite evident since its inception as an organised political movement in the late 19th century. In his attempt to sell the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine to the colonialist powers of the day, Theodor Herzl explained that such a state would constitute part of Europe’s “wall of defence against Asia; [it] would serve as an outpost of civilisation against barbarism”. But he was quick to add that the Zionists would take any country the European colonial powers would agree to give them. Notice that this was almost half a century before the heinous crimes of the Nazis against the European Jewry. Needless to say, the opinion of the indigenous people of whichever country the colonial powers would choose to allocate to the Zionists was of no significance to the latter. For whether it would have fallen on Palestine, Argentina or Uganda — just to mention a few countries that were considered as a home for such a state — it would have been considered a “land without a people for a people without a land.”

Of course, the Zionists were aware of the presence of people in Palestine. However, to them, these people, unlike the Jews of Europe, were not developed and civilised enough to be treated as a nation worthy of a state. The fact that this attitude was the zeitgeist of 19th century Europe does not make it less racist or acceptable. Even when the European empires started to show signs of fatigue due to the resistance of colonised peoples and internal opposition, Zionist leaders remained staunch supporters of colonialism. As Jabotinsky put it, they had the “unshakable resolve to keep the whole Mediterranean in European hands… [F]or the West has represented a more superior culture than the East in the last thousand years… and we today are the most prominent and loyal bearers of this culture.” Golda Meir’s infamous denial of the existence of the Palestinians is in essence just another expression of this logic. The Oslo Process — which entailed some level of recognition by Israel of the Palestinians — did not lead to a major change in this respect as the continuous dehumanisation of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza at the hands of Israeli soldiers and settlers testifies.

These soon-to-be-implemented laws should be read in conjunction with the Israeli government’s insistence that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state and the frequent warnings made by Israeli politicians and scholars of the demographic threat presented by the Arabs of 1948. Considering a sizeable portion of the citizenry an existential threat would seem quite absurd to anyone who believes in democracy, but not for Zionists (including liberal Zionists) who believe that being the state of the Jews not that of all its citizens is the raison d’ĂȘtre of Israel. Thus those Arabs who managed to stay in the land on which the Israeli state was established in 1948 — following the ethnic cleansing of the majority of the indigenous population — were placed under martial law for almost two decades. Terminating this state, shortly before the Israeli attack on Egypt, Syria and Jordan in June 1967, did not mean that the life of the Arab community returned to normality. Over the years the Knesset made series of laws that were designed to forestall its cultural and economic development. Land confiscation, demolition of villages and denials of building permits are just some of the mechanisms employed to accomplish this goal. Persecution of leaders and massacres (eg Kafir Qassem) are also among the methods used to eliminate the “threat” of the Arab community.

The strategy — if there ever was anything that merits this description — of the Palestinian national liberation movement since the 1960s played into the hands of the Zionists and contributed to keeping the Arabs of 1948 off the radar. Until the Arab defeat in June 1967, the Palestinians had pinned their hopes on the armies of the Arab states to liberate Palestine. Following the battle of Al-Karama the fedayeen became the locus of hope. In both cases liberation was pursued through military efforts originating from outside historic Palestine; and throughout this period the “Palestine Question” pertained only to the segment of the population that was expelled from Palestine in 1948. Rarely, if ever, was anything mentioned about those who remained. Starting as early as 1974 and culminating in the Oslo Process, the transformation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation from a liberation movement into a bureaucracy interested in ruling a state on any part of Palestine — no matter how small — the Israelis were willing to withdraw from, seemed to have sealed the fate of the Arabs of 1948 for good.

Yet they proved to be as resilient as the cacti growing on the ruins of the 400 or so Arab villages destroyed in 1948, indicating their sites and serving as a living testimony of the crimes committed against the Arabs of Palestine. Of no less importance is the fact that this community’s presence in the heart of the Israeli state exposes the flawed logic upon which the Oslo Process is based — logic aptly described by the late Baruch Kimmerling as “separatist”. A few years ago, Martin van Creveld, the celebrated Israeli military historian, succinctly summarised this logic. The solution to the conflict as envisioned by him took the form of a wall that separated the Israelis from the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The wall was to be “so tall that even birds cannot fly over it… And then of course if anybody tries to climb over the wall, we kill him.” This is the essence of the Oslo Process in a nutshell. Far from being about peace, coexistence and justice, the Oslo Process is about a less costly form of control that provides the Zionist project with a lifeline.

However, confining a segment of the Palestinian people to Bantustans in the West Bank and Gaza, aka the “Palestinian state”, and dispersing another segment all over the world, will not solve the problem of the Israeli state. And its leaders know that, hence their pressure to secure Palestinian recognition of what they claim to be the Jewish character of the state and their latest systematic onslaught on the Arabs of 1948. Meanwhile, the same leaders never get tired of referring to their state as the only democracy in the region. Chutzpa!

Binyamin Netanyahu and company’s pursuit of a final and complete victory over the indigenous people of Palestine will most likely backfire. It will certainly draw attention to the plight of the Arabs of 1948 and their struggles, and might rekindle debates over Zionism. This might explain why some hawkish figures warned of the loyalty oath law’s potential negative consequences on their state’s image. It remains to be seen whether the Palestinians and the Arabs in general will take advantage of this opportunity to expose the real face of Zionism, or whether they will persist in chasing a mirage.

As for Israel’s liberal friends who support a two-state solution to “save Israel from itself”, if sincere they would start advising their friends to de-Zionise their institutions and laws. For without such a move the Israeli polity will continue to be nothing but a Herrenvolk democracy and an apartheid system. This is no recipe for peace. On the contrary, it is a cause for conflict.

Bassem Hassan is a lecturer of political science at the British University in Cairo.

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