Coexistence and Hope in the Shadow of Occupation

Emma Brand

Last time I wrote for Zionish, I was quite critical of Israel. I received a fair amount of positive feedback from fellow 20-somethings, many of whom had difficulty articulating the conflicting feelings they had towards the Jewish state. But one response stands out. I was told I had omitted to offer a sense of hope for the future. I had said a lot of negative things, but left out some of the positive steps that are being taken to make changes in Israeli society.

If my last piece focussed too much on Israel’s inconsistencies and inadequacies, I would like to put a spotlight on some of the organisations working in Israel which inspire me and give me hope for the future.

There are a plethora of organisations working to improve the lives of those who find themselves at a disadvantage in Israeli society. But in the midst of another round of violence, I felt I should focus on the vital work of organisations set up with the aim of promoting coexistence in what must be one of the world’s most divided countries.

There are an inspiring number of groups that bring together Arabs and Jews to work on interfaith projects in which they share a common interest. Many of these groups are arts-focused; Jaffa boasts two interfaith theatres, the Arab-Hebrew Theatre and the Elmina Theatre, the second of which is headed by a husband and wife who are Arab and Jewish respectively. Both of these theatres promote coexistence in everything they do, from the writing, to the casting, to the audiences they reach. Also of note is the Western-Eastern Divan Orchestra, established by Daniel Berenboim and Edward Said in 1999, which brings Palestinian and Israeli musicians together for an annual tour. Similar initiatives abound in dance, film, and even clowning in the form of the Galilee Youth Circus, whose act requires Arab and Jewish teenagers to learn to trust one another and work as a team.

Sports initiatives have also been developed in response; PeacePlayers International, active in both Israel and the West Bank, brings together Jews and Arabs to play basketball, and the smaller-scale Soccer for Peace, is a residential soccer camp for boys in the north of Israel that was piloted this year.

The north is also home to the Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community Center in Akko, which is notable for its provision for women and children in particular, providing low-cost childcare for both Arab and Jewish children, and working to educate and empower Arab women.

Other incredible organisations also tackle the conflict head-on. The OneVoice movement seeks to empower the moderates on both sides, and has over 700,000 supporters in Israel and Palestine. In my last article, I mentioned the repulsive “Price Tag” – Tag Mechir, so here it is important to give a spotlight to the response; Tag Meir, an anti-racism campaign that acts as an umbrella for many other groups that are fighting the prejudice propagated by Jewish extremists in Israel. The Bereaved Families Forum, also tackles bereavement on both sides, with members promoting peace by standing as living examples of the human cost in continuing to fight.

Rabbis for Human Rights also tackle the injustice of occupation. They have recently been in the news for defending the Palestinian village of Susya from demolition, protecting Palestinian farmers during the olive harvest season, and being attacked by extremist settlers for it. Their work has inspired Jewish supporters to accompany farmers on the way to their crops as a sign of solidarity, but also to be a barrier against settler aggression. They put their lives at risk in doing this, because this is how they wish to enact Torah.

Givat Haviva, a kibbutz whose whole ethos is “a shared future”, is a particularly admirable organization. In line with this ethos it has established partnership programmes, twinning the Jewish town of Pardes Hanna-Kahur with the Arab village of Kfar Kara as an example. They are currently in the process of developing other partnerships due to the success of this trial. These areas are chosen specifically because of recent discussion of landswaps – the kibbutz seeks to promote coexistence in areas that might come under one rule or the other. Givat Haviva also promotes economic cooperation between Jewish and Arab municipal areas, and the NGOs and Special Interest Groups Forum supports local NGOs from nearby Arab and Jewish communities.

The people of Givat Haviva also operate on an incredibly human level. When I visited the centre, I was given a tour of a local Arab village, Barta’a, which was cut in half by the Green Line. We were really given the sense that our guide, Lydia, knew the village, and that she counted Arab-Israelis and Palestinians among her close friends. That their lives were driving some residents of Barta’a towards radicalism was clearly a source of personal pain to her.

These organisations, and many others, give me genuine hope. But this all feels trite when Israelis and Palestinians are dying in the streets. Whatever these organisations do, Israel has poison at its heart in the form of the occupation, and whilst these coexistence projects assuage its symptoms, that poison will always be toxic.

Could the friendship of an Arab actor and a Jewish actor, cultivated during interfaith theatre work, survive if the Jewish actor, now in a soldier’s uniform and following orders, raided the Arab actor’s home in response to other people throwing stones? And could it survive if the Arab actor, already vulnerable to radicalisation, joined the extremists stabbing Jews out of a combination of desperation and incitement? Probably not. And even if these two actors were not directly involved, would either be blamed for feeling suspicious or unsafe around the other?

These coexistence projects are absolutely vital for the future of Israel. They are a source of hope and offer a way for diaspora Jews who are aghast at the likes of Lehava to engage with Israeli society. But in order for Arab-Jewish relations to truly flourish, the occupation must end. The future of coexistence depends on it.

What makes a Jewish colonialist?

Carter Vance

Conception is powerful in political discourse. When an image about who a group of people are, what their history is and how they came to be where they are is created, it can take on powerful political implications. This is especially the case when this image fits a pre-defined narrative and it easily slots into an existing moral framework. The image can become too perfect to give up, even if the reality is a more complex beast.

In the discourse on Israel-Palestine, as it plays out on university campuses, on the choppy digital sea of social media and most importantly as lived reality on the ground, these conceptions are more than just idle thought experiments. Conception becomes weaponised, drawing easy narrative analogies of colonised and coloniser, or of nobility and savagery, or of rightful and illegitimate. The fundamental conception which underlies a majority of these narratives is that of who and what a Jewish Israeli is.

Who, then, is the Jewish Israeli? Many view the Jewish Israeli as in some core sense a Westerner, a European, somehow unlike and not “of” the place they now inhabit. This perception is fuelled by the fact that Israeli leadership, both historically and today, tends to be drawn from Ashkenazi Zionists, and that pro-Israel commentators and politicians regularly make claims that Israel is an extension of a collective Western “us”. This is evident in claims that Israel “shares our values” or is an “outpost of democracy”.

On the anti-Zionist left, this image of the Jewish Israeli is combined with a violent history between Jews and Palestinians to render the Jewish Israeli a colonialist of the European archetype. Israel is thus seen as a wholly imperialist imposition on the region, meaning Israel can be neatly slotted in with the broader anti-imperialist project of the global Left.

It is this basic idea (not, as is often claimed, anti-Semitism) which gives BDS-type activism such a sense of moral urgency and legitimacy. Apart from the oft-made comparisons to apartheid, it gives fuel to a claim that Israel is the last remaining colonialist project of the modern era. Israel is “singled-out” for its abuses because it is perceived as a European colonial project, something which other countries, despite their crimes, are not.

However, quite clearly, this conception of the Jewish Israeli does not hold up to proper intellectual scrutiny for at least two reasons.

Firstly, depending on how exactly calculations are performed, either a majority or just under half of the non-Arab population of Israel are not in any sense European. These are the Mizrahi and, to a lesser extent, Beta Israeli Jews who lived in the Middle East and Africa for generations until the former were mostly expelled in the aftermath of the 1948 War, and the latter were airlifted to Israel in Operation Moses and Operation Solomon.

On top of this is the fact that it is the Mizrachi vote that keeps Netanyahu in power. Likud’s greater Israel dream is seen as the logical extension of a European colonial project, but that European project is kept alive by Jews with no European origins. Netanyahu’s anti-Arab rhetoric is seen as symptomatic of a colonialist Orientalism, but as Aron Heller notes, Netanyahu’s “hard-line rhetoric taps into Mizrahi disdain for the Arabs who mistreated them in their countries of origin”.

What of the Ashkenazi Jews, who can reasonably be defined as “European” in lineage? An image of these Jews as marauding colonialists is completely at odds with the historical context in which these Jews emigrated to Palestine. Early Zionist settlement was spearheaded by Jews fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe, and two-thirds of Holocaust survivors moved to Israel in the aftermath of the WWII. An analytical framework which transforms a Holocaust refugee into Cecil Rhodes is incredibly divorced from reality. But, as mentioned before, the image is too perfect, and the synthesis into anti-colonialist politics too smooth, for the framework to be given up.

It is often said that Israeli society is increasingly evincing a “bunker mentality”, telling the rest of the world they don’t understand the nation’s plight and should bugger off. If this hardening of attitudes is taking place, and there is indeed substantial amount of evidence to suggest that it is, it is not hard to see why. Israel’s foundation is that of a number of groups of traumatized people looking for refuge from their various existential dooms.

None of the preceding should be understood as justifying Israeli actions or policies. A colonial analysis is not the only possible framework from which to criticise Israel, or to legitimate rhetoric against the two-state solution. As other articles on this website have explained, there is a world of difference between explaining mentalities and condoning them. It should also not be understood as denying the trauma of the Palestinian Nabka. Indeed, it is precisely that ignorance of historical trauma which contributes to a sense of undue demonisation and moral superiority on the pro-Israel right. It is merely the case that this ignorance finds its mirror image in many claims of the pro-BDS left, particularly on university campuses.

Left without a humanising understanding of the traumas of the other side, our narratives drift ever further apart and harden ever more. Against this must be an effort at genuine compassion, a real recognition of generational traumas and the hope that our narratives can at least begin to converge. In that convergence, then, we may begin to see a path forward to the shared solutions that today seem more distant than ever.

Pro-Palestine or Pro-Israel? Why the discourse on Israel-Palestine Desperately Needs To Change.

By Jonathon Leader

Before I start the bulk of this article I thought I’d shed some light on who I am and what my background is. I’m a 23 year old Jewish graduate on the NIF Activism Fellowship. I’m what many would incorrectly call a “liberal” Zionist. I’m actually a socialist one, but that’s a different story. I spent my gap year in Israel. In other words, I’m a cliché.

Those of us interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will have watched the same scene repeat itself over and over again. Be it on university campuses, city centres or even on national news: In the red corner, flying the Palestinian flag, passionately cheering “Free free Palestine!” we have the Palestinian Solidarity movement. In the blue corner: flying the Israeli flag, vigorously bellowing out calls of “Am Yisrael Chai” (The Jewish people live in Hebrew) we have Pro-Israeli/Zionist activists. Each preparing to engage in a boxing match of facts; jabbing at each other with rhetoric until one manages to land the knockout blow.  All the while disinterested onlookers walk sheepishly by attempting to get on with their daily lives.

This image and this way of approaching the conflict is actually a highly problematic one. It captures the essence of how we talk about the conflict in the UK, you either “Stand With Israel” or “Stand with Palestine”, with the chasm where nuance used to be left all but intellectually barren, apart from the few advocating for genuine reconciliation and dialogue. What I will aim to do here is identify the most problematic elements of this discourse and attempt to remedy them.

The overarching problem with this image of the conflict is that it paints a picture where the interests of both actors are irreconcilable. This is the fundamental assumption which leads to such polarised positions as “Pro-Israel” or “Pro-Palestine” the fact is; you can be both, and some, although few, are. It’s perfectly possible to simultaneously support Israel’s “right to exist” and oppose the occupation of the West-Bank and the human rights abuses which Palestinians endure as a result. You can also support the existence of a Palestinian state and at the same time denounce Palestinian terrorism; they aren’t mutually exclusive.

The fact is that in order for both Israelis and Palestinians to get the peace they deserve, both sides will have to work together and come to a mutually beneficial two-state solution. If Israelis actually living under the very real threat of terrorism, and Palestinians who actually live under the indignity of occupation, can try and work together for a peaceful solution, then I see no reason why activists living in the UK need to be squawking at each other until our faces turn blue whenever the subject gets bought up.

Surely it’s about time that we recognise that the current approach simply isn’t working. I don’t know any committed activists on either side who after their regular shouting match have turned around and said “shit, maybe they have a point” and proceeded to swap flags/slogans/chants/insults. Whilst many would say “ah, but you’re trying to convince the audience”, the audience aren’t being convinced by the apparent nutter waving a flag and screaming angrily on the street.

If there are any doubts about just how abhorrently uncivilised both sets of activists can be, look at videos of the LSESU Palestine and Israel societies physically brawling with each other on campus in 2012, or an incident in Galway where Pro-Palestinian protesters interrupted a talk and started screaming “you fucking Zionists, fucking pricks, get fuck off our campus” (ignore the names of both videos), and the list of similar instances is a long one. So in future if you hear someone saying something you disagree with regarding the Middle-East, try to not let your first reaction be to call them a terrorist, or a baby killer or any other such meaningless insult. You’re probably better than that. (I hope)

It’s also about time the Holocaust is left out of the debate, Godwin’s law correctly states that the first person to mention Hitler in a debate about anything but Hitler loses. We’ve all heard the accusations that Israel is the new Nazi Germany, over the last Gaza war we’ve also seen the coining of the term “Nazionist”. If you’re going to go around conflating Israel with the Nazis then first you better show me some kind of evidence that Israel’s primary goal is to slaughter every last Palestinian on the planet; including the numerous Palestinians living in Jordan, Syria and elsewhere in the region. This is Nazism; and the lazy, disingenuous and in this case; anti-Semitic use of the slaughter of the Jewish people and 5 million members of other minorities to gain cheap political points is frankly a disgrace.

Equally on the Pro-Israel side, let’s stop evoking Holocaust imagery to somehow sanitise or justify the policies of the Israeli government, including comparing all of Israel’s enemies to the Nazis, and calling Israel’s legitimate 1967 borders “Auschwitz borders”. It’s equally disingenuous and equally exploitative; as it happens, Bibi Netanyahu is probably one of the worst culprits of this; having compared a variety of different states and people to Hitler, including Iran and the Grand Mufti. The fact is that this isn’t the 1940s, its 2015, and the situation in Israel-Palestine is despairing enough without bringing up what is possibly the darkest period in modern history…so leave it out.

I think Amos Oz, an Israeli author was able to encapsulate far better than me what needs to change when he said that “There are only two sides that exist in this conflict, moderates and extremists”. It’s about time that both sets of activists decided which side of they’ll be on. Will they be on the moderate side; actively trying to engage in an honest, civilised, and productive discourse which may at least in a small way make a peaceful settlement more likely? Or will they be on the extremist side, creating an increasingly polarised debate more concerned about winning pedantic squabbles than actually making any progress towards peace?

This doesn’t mean that we all the sudden have to agree on everything that happens in the Middle-East, but let’s at least try and find a more productive way of disagreeing, because the old way really isn’t working.

Confused by Netayahu? Look at Likud

Jonathan Shamir and Aaron Simons

It has now been fourteen years since the Left were exiled to opposition in Israel. Despite the Zionist Union’s hopeful campaign, Netanyahu showed his political experience as he undercut his right-wing coalition partners (Yisrael Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi) by pandering to their supporters in the final stretch of the election campaign. The result is the most right-wing government in Israeli history.

Attempting to unpick what Netanyahu actually believes, especially in relation to the Palestinians, is a challenge. He has gone back and forth on the issue of a two-state solution innumerable times.  His 1996 election campaign centred on the backlash to the Oslo accords, whilst the campaign for his second tenure saw him unequivocally advocate a two-state solution. Then just before the 2015 election, he stated in Conservative newspaper Makor Rishon “If I’m elected, there will be no Palestinian State.” He subsequently brushed off this comment as an innocent faux pas after criticism from the international community, and on his recent visit to Britain stated “I am ready to resume direct negotiations with the Palestinians with no conditions whatsoever to enter negotiations, and I’m willing to do so immediately”.

How do we best understand Netanyahu’s continuous reversals? Netanyahu’s ambiguity is partly the product of the political tightrope he has to walk. Bibi must appear to be sufficiently enthused about a two state solution to placate the international community, whilst prevaricating enough to allow his right-wing Greater Israel coalition to believe it won’t actually happen.

However there are deeper reasons behind this apparent inconsistency on the two state solution. The best diagnosis of Netanyahu comes in Foreign Affairs, where Natan Sachs argues this back-and-forth reflects an anti-solutionist strategy, where Netanyahu simply believes there are currently no solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sachs diagnoses Netanyahu as a strategic conservative, choosing perpetual occupation over any potentially hazardous decisions.

This anti-solutionism is not based on nothing. The current administrative split between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Abbas’s diminutive mandate, persistent incitement from the Palestinian Administration and Hamas and the current wave of unpredictable violence all feed Netanyahu’s view that a realistic peace is currently impossible. Not that Netanyahu has much room to manoeuvre anyway. Any positive moves towards a two-state solution, such as a repeat of the 2010 settlement freeze, would shatter his fragile coalition.

Yet there is more to Netanyahu than conservative strategy and coalition politics, and this anti-solutionism is not merely a tactical decision. It would be wrong to portray Bibi’s worldview as traditional pessimism resulting from a sober and detached analysis. Netanyahu’s view comes right from the heart of Revisionist Zionism.

Netanyahu may be a political chameleon, but his party is not. Netanyahu’s habitat, the jungle of Israeli Rightist politics, provides the ideological view that shapes Netanyahu’s strategy. Netanyhu’s charisma and the Bibi persona may divert attention away from his party, but it is Likud ideology that holds the key to understanding Bibi.

Likud follows a secular Revisionist Zionism, rooted in the writings of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, which contains three key elements which influence Netanyahu today and produce his anti-solutionist strategy: the Iron Wall, a vision of Greater Israel, and a view of the Palestinians as the implacable enemy.

Jabotinsky’s seminal 1923 essay ‘The Iron Wall’ argued that Zionism would only survive behind a barrier of force – an iron wall. Violence was not only legitimate, but necessary in bringing the Palestinians to a point of desperation at which they would negotiate with the Jewish state. For Netanyahu, it is this idea of necessary violence that justifies continuing the occupation in perpetuity. This is the core of his anti-solutionist strategy.

The concept of ‘Greater Israel’ is prominent in right-wing Israeli politics today, in the form of both secular and religious nationalism. There is very little evidence that Likud MKs believe in a Palestinian state, or oppose settlement expansion. Danny Danon, on the right wing of Likud and the current Israeli envoy to the UN, promotes a three-state solution where Israel’s responsibility towards the Palestinian people is abrogated to Jordan and Egypt. Netanyahu’s anti-solutionism is not just a tactical decision, but one that also follows Likud ideology in allowing for the settlement project to continue. Netanyahu’s calls for Abbas to come to the table with no preconditions ring hollow as settlements are erected in the background.

Most importantly, underpinning Netanyahu’s strategy is his view of the Palestinians as an implacable enemy. This was the core of Jabotinksy’s justification for the Iron Wall – the belief that Palestinians would never accept Zionism. Netanyahu takes this even further: he views the Palestinians as radicalised Jew-haters, meaning that no political agreement can cure the conflict. It is within this mind-set that Netayahu can make the extraordinary claim (which he later retracted) that the Mufti, rather than Hitler, came up with the Final Solution. Anti-solutionism makes sense if you see Palestinians as inherently anti-Semitic.

Sachs is right; Netanyahu is a strategic conservative and anti-solutionist. But he is not devoid of ideology, and we view Netanyahu as a traditional pessimist at our peril. Netanyahu is much more than that. Jabotinsky lives on in Netanyahu today.