Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Israel’s “Arab Problem” – Part One

Zionism was intended to solve Europe's "Jewish Problem," the supposed inability of the Jews to assimilate and become equal citizens of the European states. In the late nineteenth century, which saw the rapid rise of nationalism and political anti-Semitism, some European Jews, especially in Russia and Poland, considered their main nationality to be Jewish (and were considered to be such in some of the multi-national empires), and even later, when the age of empire ended, they distinguished between their citizenship and their nationality in their own self-consciousness.

This model of separating nationality and citizenship, inherited from the multi-national empires of Europe, was adopted by the founders of Israel at a time when volkish nationalism had been discredited after World War II, although it did remain in some places, especially in ethnic communities with nationalist aspirations. In Germany, for example, originally one of the most ethnic of ethnic states, ethnicity has been made coextensive (at least in theory) with citizenship. When a Russian Jew today becomes a German citizen, she becomes part of the German people; her nationality on her passport is not Jewish or Russian but German. In some of the new emerging republics in the Former Soviet Union, by contrast, the distinction between ethnicity and citizenship is more pronounced, and in the New Europe we hear of legislation that wishes to promote that distinction because of fears of foreign immigration.

Some times it is said that there are two types of nationalism: one in which the state precedes and creates the nation (e.g., the USA), the other in which the nation precedes and is embodied within the state. This is a drastic oversimplification; in fact, each state constitutes its own type, and those types change over time, as in the case of Germany.

When the founders of Israel decided to create a state of the Jewish nation they ran into several problems: first, most of the world's Jews had no desire to live in such a state, nor did they see it as their homeland; second, the founders did not have a clue as to how to determine membership in the Jewish people (Ben Gurion famously solicited opinions on the question, "Who is a Jew"). But the greatest problem followed from the exclusion of the citizens from membership in the nation-state because they were of the wrong nationality. This, perhaps, could have been finessed if nationality carried with it merely symbolic rather than practical ramifications. But the practical ramifications were embraced wholeheartedly, and an ideology of not sharing power and resources with the Arab minority – a minority formed by the effective expulsion of the majority of Palestine's residents, arose. This ideology, it should be noted, preceded Arab resistance to the Zionist settlers; it was framed positively in the ethos of "Hebrew labor," for example, in the pre-state period. It was always conceived as pro-Jewish rather than as anti-Arab. But with the growth of Arab nationalism, and with the jockeying for power and control in a post-colonial Palestine, an Arab community that had always been excluded by the Zionists was now a hostile community, as it understood the statist-designs of the Jewish settlers. Zionist prophecy had become self-fulfilling; an exclusivist ideology had created enemy outsiders, and even when they did not act as enemies they were suspected of harboring hatred in their hearts.

Liberal Zionists in Israel often view the period between 1948 and 1967 as a sort of Paradise Lost, a peaceful period that preceded the occupation and settlement of the West Bank and Gaza. Yet for the Arab citizens of Israel, it is the period in which the Zionists imposed their vision of what it means to be a "loyal minority with equal rights" on what was considered to be a potential fifth column. On the one hand, there were genuine attempts by the Zionists to educate and to raise the standard of living and welfare of the "Israeli Arabs," following models of education that nineteenth century colonial societies had adopted, in which curricula and teachers were controlled by the state apparatus for the sake of the improvement and control of the minority. Unlike the ultra-orthodox or the religious Zionist sectors, no educational autonomy was given to the Palestinian Arabs for "security reasons" – the community had to be molded and carefully cultivated. Villages and clans were rewarded by political patronage if votes were delivered to the Zionist parties, mostly Mapai. Arab teachers who displayed signs of pan-Arabism or Palestinian nationalism were dismissed; attempts to divide and conquer the sector by fostering religious differences between Muslim and Christian and sowing ethnic divisions between Druze and other Arabs were rife. Vast swaths of territory, private and public, were expropriated for new and existing Jewish settlement; no Jewish lands, to my knowledge, were ever transferred to Palestinian Israelis, and no new Palestinian settlements were built; on the contrary, close to 500 villages were destroyed.

Israelis were at once proud of the achievements of "Israeli Arabs" and were ashamed at the growing gaps between the communities. "See what we have done for the Arabs" and "Compare them with their brethren in Arab lands," stock assertions in the paternalistic lexicon of colonialism, were very much part of Israel's positive self-image. Very few people saw the widening gaps between the communities as resulting not from the minority status of the Palestinians but because the very definition and raison d'ĂȘtre of the state excluded Palestinians from power-sharing and a just allocation of resources. This was not mere institutional discrimination against a minority; this was foundational state discrimination against the remnants of a native population, ethnically cleansed in order to create an ethnic state with a strong Jewish majority.

In short, the Zionist founders created, unconsciously, an ethnic state that matched in many respects a nineteenth century volkish vision of the European ethnic state, one that mirrored their own feelings of national exclusion, despite their being Russian and Polish citizens. As they themselves believed that they could never be equal citizens and members in a nation to which they did not belong, they created a state in which non-Jews, when they had nationalist feelings at all, would not find their nationalism appreciated or represented, nor would any substitute nationalism be offered to them. The expectation is that they would either accept their fate or leave. As the Jews had been considered "alien intruders" by anti-Semitic Russian and Polish nationalists, so would the Palestinians be considered aliens by the "returning natives," who would grant them individual citizenship rights as a sort of noblesse oblige, since the Jews "were commanded to show kindness to the strangers in their midst."

It is often said that the discrimination against the Israeli Palestinian minority is exacerbated because of the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. Some point to the fact that during the Oslo period, the lot of Palestinian Israelis significantly improved. That was not on account of a peaceful atmosphere in the country, or expectations of an imminent peace, but because the Rabin government rested on the extra-coalitional support of the Arab and Jewish Arab political parties. It is not that the peace-process enabled that support but rather vice-versa; the support enabled the peace-process to continue. Indeed, the integration of the Palestinian Arabs into the political system, even as opposition supporters outside the ruling coalition, is often decried by the right because Israel is a Jewish state, and only Jews have the right to decide its fate. This widespread view among Israelis is the chief reason for the discrimination and marginalization of the Palestinian Arab – they are expected to be disloyal or at least not to feel a part of the State. "They should be grateful for what we have done for them and for the liberties they enjoy" And why? Because they are strangers in their own homeland.

Israel's 'Arab Problem' was not the inevitable creation of Zionism, or even of the Jewish state idea. It was created by the specific kind of Jewish state that was founded in 1948, a state that embodied the exclusivist ethnic nationalist ethos of the founders, who passed and implemented ethnically discriminatory laws and policies in the early years of the state – and in recent days. The sort of Jewish state that Israel became is more discriminatory and marginalizing of its minority than most contemporary ethnic states. For example, whereas other ethnic-states accord preference in immigration to members of its majority ethnic group, Israel bestows automatic and immediate citizenship to anyone who is considered Jewish religiously or racially, provided that he or she was not an adherent of another religion. Again, unlike many other ethnic states, which accord preference in citizenship to native minorities, Israel's Arab minority is not considered favored in immigration; on the contrary, there are emergency orders forbidding spouses of Israeli citizens to become naturalized, if the citizens are Palestinian Arab. Again, unlike other ethnic states that have procedures for nationalizing those who are not members of the majority ethnic group, Israel has no naturalization procedure besides the fiat of the minister of Interior. A minister of Interior from a rightwing or religious party ensures that there will be no naturalized citizens.

The specific Israeli version of Zionism, then, is largely responsible for creating the 'Arab Problem' and has left it with three main solutions within which there are endless variations: a) replacing the Jewish ethnic state with a liberal democratic state that will be neutral regarding its principal ethnic groups, though respecting and even fostering the groups' cultural heritages and identities; b) modifying the Jewish ethnic state so as to empower the Palestinian minority through cultural autonomy and empowering it politically (at present it has virtually no political power); c) expelling the Palestinians forcibly and providing them wish a generous resettlement package.

I have argued for the first alternative in my Zionism without a Jewish Ethnic State; a more eloquent statement is in Bernard Avishai's book, The Hebrew Republic. The second alternative has been argued in several documents produced several years ago by various Israeli Palestinian groups.

As for the "transfer" option, it has been advocated in recent years by Rabbi Meir Kahane, Rehavam Zeevi, Avigdor Lieberman, and, recently, by Daniel Gordis in his book Saving Israel; Gordis does not enthusiastically support this option, but implies fairly strongly that it may be the best way to go.

In subsequent posts I will discuss Gordis's discussion of transfer as well as the various proposals to empower the Palestinian minority.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Why “Breaking the Silence” is Short-Listed for the Sakharov Prize

Update: Congratulation to Guillermo Farinas, the Cuban human rights activist, for winning the Sakharov Prize. Mr. Farinas had already come in first in the short-list voting and was favored to win; this was the third year in the a row that he was nominated.

This, of course, is an embarrasment to the rightwing critics of "leftwing anti-Israel Europe" for short-listing Breaking the Silence. For what they can say now? If "leftwing anti-Israel Europe" is treif, then how come it gave the first prize to a dissident of Castro's regime? But if that was a good choice, then how could it short-list "Breaking the Silence"?

There is a lot of pain and suffering in the world, and there are a lot of human rights violations. The European Parliament's Sakhorov Prize is "intended to honour exceptional individuals [and groups] who combat intolerance, fanaticism, and oppression. Like Andrei Sakharov himself all the winners of the prize have shown how much courage it takes to defend human rights and freedom of expression."

To understand why "Breaking the Silence", an organization of IDF combat veterans, is short-listed for the prize, one only need read the Wall Street Journal's editorial attack on the group and the Europeans for short-listing them.

The problem is not so much the organization's work, which makes sweeping accusations against Israeli soldiers….

False. The organization does not make accusations, much less sweeping ones. It collects testimonies from IDF soldiers, both veterans and those on active duty, that report human rights abuses that they witnessed or participated in. Hundreds of testimonies (some in English translation can be read here) have been collected and subjected to a rigorous verification process. To date, not a single question mark or doubt has been raised about any of the testimonies. At the same time, the IDF Spokesperson's office, which has itself relied on the organization's testimonies in its investigations, has changed its story time and time again on incidents and policies, e.g., the use of white phosphorus in the Gaza Operation or the bombing of the Gazan mosque during prayers.

The real insult is that an award meant to honor those who fight "intolerance, fanaticism and oppression" is being considered for activists operating in one of the world's most vibrant democracies.

False. Israel is a democracy for Jews, but it has ruled over a million and a half Palestinians for over forty years without giving them basic human or citizenship rights, during which it has expropriated their land and transferred its own population to the territories, in violation of the Geneva Conventions. And its discrimination against its own Palestinian minority gets worse daily, e. g., the government-supported Loyalty Oath law.

But the biggest threat Israeli activists face is a sunburn from those long meetings at Tel Aviv cafes. 

False. Israeli activists have been seriously wounded by live ammunition at unarmed protests, thrown into jail after protecting Palestinians, and harassed and demonized by the media, the parliament, and the government. Their "sunburn" comes from their joining Palestinians at protests against the Separation Barrier, protecting Palestinian children from settler attacks and helping Palestinians with the olive harvest before their trees are uprooted and their fields put on fire.

Israel is a noisy liberal democracy in which sitting prime ministers are investigated on corruption charges, a Supreme Court rules on behalf of Palestinian petitioners against the Israeli government, and a strong press routinely criticizes the government and military.

False. Israel is a country whose elected officials are increasingly suspected of corruption, whose supreme court's decisions on behalf of Palestinian petitioners are routinely ignored by the government, and whose press barely questions the government and military version of events, especially with regard to the Israel Defense Forces

Just how democratic is Israel? When "Breaking the Silence" published its Gaza testimonies in the summer of 2009, the group was vilified in the media and by the government, including the Prime Minister. Television interviews previously scheduled with it were abruptly cancelled. The IDF spokesperson's office refused to appear on television with its leaders. A popular radio host said, "The question is why don't the strong people among us break their bones and send them home with scars?" The foreign ministry asked the Netherlands to freeze funding for the group. Pending legislation in the Knesset, supported by the government, targets the group, and those like it; if the law passes, the group will have to register as a political organization, will have to fill out reams of forms yearly unlike rightwing NGOs who are exempt from the law, will have to announce at every public forum who its foreign governmental donors are, and if it fails to do so, its leaders will be subject to prison terms and heavy fines.

Why is "Breaking the Silence" short-listed for the Sakharov prize? Because Israel's decline as a democracy has to be stopped. First, Breaking the Silence was vilified and defended by the New Israel Fund. Then the New Israel Fund was vilified, and all human rights NGOs were threatened with legislation attempting to delegitimize them and to silence them. This is a very slippery slope, as is evidenced by the anti-democratic legislation proposed almost daily, not to mention the main story, which is the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territory.

Does the Wall Street Journal know about this? Does it care? After all, the human rights movement began as a weapon in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Activists like Andrei Sakharov and Anatoly Sharansky, were hailed and feted because they were anti-Soviet and an embarrassment to the Soviet Union, and this goes, mutatis mutandis, for the human rights champions favored now by the Wall Street Journal anonymous editorial.

Why is "Breaking the Silence" supported in Europe? Partly because Israel asked Europe to silence the group by denying them funding. Partly because the group has led tours to Hebron for the last several years that have shown visitors to Israel (including European parliament members) the truth about the Occupation, not the propaganda written for the Wall Street Journal by the anonymous (Israeli foreign ministry?) hasbara-nik. And partly because Mr. Lieberman is the Foreign Minister of Israel. But mostly because the purpose of the group is to wake-up Israeli society about what some of their children are doing only miles from their home. It is precisely to reveal the secrets and lies that are the life-blood of a long term occupation army, to hold up a mirror to a society in denial that prefers to look elsewhere.

The Sakharov prize is not only for those who speak out against the world's tyrannical societies. It is also for those who wish to prevent seriously flawed democracies from becoming tyrannical societies. Short listing "Breaking the Silence" is Europe's ultimate compliment to Israel. The decision says that it is not too late for Israel to become a "decent society," to use the term of its best-known philosopher, Avishai Margalit.

Europe can help concerned Israelis break the silence and to stop the human rights hemorrhaging of its society. Israel needs that help now.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Seeing “Budrus” in Jerusalem

Julia Bacha and Justvision's "Budrus" was screened last night at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, and will be screened again on Tuesday night, I believe. I went to see the film and to see the people who would come out to see the film. "Budrus" has toured the festival circuit (winning important prizes) and is now entering into wider release worldwide (in Israel it will be only shown in cinematheques, which is a pity.)

If you care at all about what is going on in Israel and Palestine, you must see this film. And then support those Palestinian villagers and Israeli and international activists who stand united against oppression.

"Budrus" tells the story of the successful, unarmed struggle of the Palestinian village Budrus against the Israeli Separation Barrier – successful, because the wall's route was moved. Bacha accessed a lot of footage of the demonstrations taken by Palestinian and Jewish activists, and then went in and interviewed some of the main players, including the leader of the struggle, Ayed Morrer, as well as Yasmine Levy, a Border Police Captain, and Doron Spielman, an IDF spokesperson. The finished product is a moving film, with an uplifting, if bittersweet, ending. For Budrus' success has not been repeated so far in other places.

The audience in Jerusalem last night was composed of the usual mix of Israelis and foreigners, very young and (ahem) middle-aged and above. At the Q and A after the screening, Rula Salameh, a Palestinian journalist and co-producer, told of the impact of the film in the Palestinian territories. Last week it was screened in Gaza (for a report of this showing see Jared Malsin's post here). It has been screened in Ramallah, in Wallajeh, and in other places in the Territories. The message of the film is clear: According to Salameh, Budrus succeeded because a) the whole village was involved, including women; b) Hamas and Fatah representatives were united; c) Israeli and foreign nationals lent support to the Palestinian struggle, standing side by side by them; d) the demonstrations were not limited to a few hours a day. I would add that Budrus succeeded because it was the first, or one of the first, and caught Israel off-guard. The hope of the producers is that Budrus will set an example, and more and more people will become involved.

I noticed that the film gave voice to those who preferred nonviolent struggle over unarmed struggle, but one of the titles in the film implicitly conceded that the barrier route was changed after months of unarmed struggle. ("Unarmed" allows the throwing of rocks.) The demonstrations usually start out as nonviolent but, if necessary, switch to unarmed protest as a defensive measure against the IDF's violent measures to disperse the population. (This is a large topic; my own view is that hurling rocks is morally justified in a situation when there is a threat to your person by an occupying army who wishes to disperse violently a demonstration; the decision to hurl rocks then becomes a tactical and not a moral one. But this issue was not discussed in the film.)

There are lots of good movies to see about Israel Palestine, but Budrus is special and should be a high priority on your list. If you agree with the message, you should also considering support groups that are active in the struggle (the film ends with a long list of them, but I would mention specifically, in this regard, the Anarchists Against the Wall)

And tell your friends to see it, too.



Friday, October 8, 2010

Haber Goes On Holiday

I haven't been posting for a while since I am in the middle of a two-week vacation. And when I return I don't expect to be posting very frequently, since I am way behind in my day job. But in the meantime, I would like to offer congratulations to the IDF veteran's group, "Breaking the Silence" for being one of nine people/organizations nominated for the Sakharov Prize of the European Parliament by the Greens and the United Left party. See about that here.

Whether they win the prize or not (you better believe that Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, run by the Russian ethno-nationalist Yvet Lieberman, will do everything to prevent that happening), it is a feather in their cap, of course. I suppose that Lieberman, Netanyahu, and Gerald Steinberg's NGO Monitor deserve some credit for boosting the NGO's image in the world among enlightened, civilized folk. But, of course, the real kudos go to the group, which has done more than other group to raise the awareness of the price of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Even the IDF, the arch critics of the group, have relied on their testimonies indirectly in their response to the UN.