The emergence of the new Israeli Left

Posted: March 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: The Left | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Joseph Dana and I have a cover story for The Nation this week on the Israeli activists who takes part in the unarmed protest in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. We discuss the history of the joint struggle, its political significance and the challenges lying ahead.

Though we say it in the text several times, it’s important to remember that this is a Palestinian struggle, and the Israelis who take part in it are neither its leaders nor its leading strategists. Jonathan Pollak, whom we interviewed just before he started serving his prison sentence, made sure we understand that:

“The participation of Israelis in demonstrations, unfortunately, does make a difference,” says Jonathan Pollak, one of the first activists to take part in the demonstrations and now media coordinator of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee, a Palestinian umbrella organization of local. “It makes a difference because of the racist nature of our situation. Open-fire regulations, for instance, are a lot more stringent, officially, when Israelis are present. It is, however, important to remember that we are not much more than a side note in the movement, and that it is the Palestinians who are at its center.

“People are often fascinated by the fact that a handful of Israelis cross the lines this way. But currently this is what we really are, a handful, and the real question, in my opinion, is, How come only so few do so? The sad answer is that most Israelis simply don’t care; to most Israelis, Palestinians simply don’t really exist.”

Still, I think that even those handful of activists, as Jonathan rightly refers to them, are important. The Israeli left is going through an ideological and generational revolution. The older generation – you can call it the Peace Now generation – is in decline, and new forces, ideas and tactics are emerging. In a very generalizing way, one could say that the new left is less committed to the Two-States Solution, more critical of Zionism and believes in direct action and cooperation with Palestinians and international activists. The new left is not represented in the Knesset; it mobilizes support through social networks and has reasonably good connections to human rights groups and none-governmental organizations.

The formative years of the older generation were the seventies. Back then, only few would dare discuss the idea of a Palestinian state or a full withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967. The big peace rallies came a decade later, with the Lebanon war and the Intifada, and leading activists from those days entered the Knesset in the nineties. The greatest political achievement of this generation was Oslo; that was also the beginning of its decline. In the next decade or two, the same process could happen with the new left.

It is interesting to hear what Avrum Burg, an old Peace Now activist and former Knesset speaker, has to say on those issues (that’s from the article at The Nation as well):

“In fact, the Israeli left never recovered from Rabin’s assassination (…) Later, Ehud Barak came and presented his personal failure in Camp David [in 2000] as the failure of the entire way. When the head of the peace camp declared that there was no partner on the other side, it opened the door for unilateralism (…) There was something unilateral in Zionism from the start, but it became the only way after Camp David… We built the fence unilaterally, and we left Gaza unilaterally. Barak brought us back to the days of Golda Meir, who denied there is such a thing as a Palestinian people.”

[…]

“The meaning of Zionism in Israel today is to be Jewish and not Arab,” says former Speaker Burg, who attends the protest in Sheikh Jarrah regularly… In that context, the left cannot go on calling itself Zionist. We should ask ourselves whether Zionist humanism isn’t a contradiction in terms these days. We should go beyond ethnic democracy and toward a real joint society, in which Jews and Arabs are really equal.”

I believe that the activists of Bi’lin and Sheikh Jarrah, isolated and marginal as they look today, would set the political tone for the Jewish left in the years and decades to come. In 15-20 years, we might even find some of them in Parliament.


Akiva Eldar vs. AIPAC and “self-loving Jews”

Posted: December 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , | 7 Comments »

Following House resolution 1765, which I wrote about yesterday, Haaretz’s Akiva Eldar goes after AIPAC:

The dominant view among the centrist group of the Jewish community – that “we support every Israeli government, right or wrong” – reminds one of a situation in which a parent finds out that his child is addicted to drugs and hands him his credit card.

The activists of Peace Now and the moderate group J Street, are called “self-hating Jews” by members of the Jewish establishment. People at AIPAC and their allies in Congress are, on the other hand, “self-loving Jews.” Indeed, they love themselves. Especially themselves.

Jews who truly love Israel go to synagogues in New York and tell people that if Jerusalem will not be the capital of two nations, it will never be recognized as Israel’s capital.

Jews who love themselves may know there is no two state solution without dividing Jerusalem, but they prefer to receive enthusiastic applause when making the empty declaration that “a unified Jerusalem is Israel’s capital forever.”

Read the rest here.


Now is the time to discuss the one state solution | A response to APN’s Lara Friedman

Posted: August 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Left, The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now (APN), writes in the forward against even talking about the one-state solution:

Anti-Zionists and some post-Zionists imagine a Palestinian-majority, secular, democratic state; some Israeli right-wingers envision Israel annexing the West Bank, using ploys to disenfranchise its Palestinian residents and finally getting rid of Gaza.

(…)

Those of us who care about the future of Israel and the Palestinians should be doing everything we can to capitalize on this realism and to realize the two-state solution, before the opportunity is truly lost. And we should be pushing back hard against casual talk about post-two-state paradigms — because the “alternatives” are just illusions.

I respect Peace Now’s work on the settlements issue in Israel, as well as APN’s lobbying for a more firm US approach towards Jerusalem (Lara Friedman herself is doing a great job on this issue). However, their insistence on regarding the two state solution as the only possible one is both mistaken and counter productive, even with regards to their own goals. Now more then ever, when the US is forcing the Palestinians to negotiate even when the two sides can’t agree what to talk about, it’s essential we discuss other approaches.

To me, it’s clear that even if you oppose it, the one state solution frames the debate better. The essential problem for the Palestinians in the West bank and Gaza is the lack of human and political rights, not the absence of an independent state. There are many ethnic groups in the world that are not independent, but he Palestinians are the only people without citizenship (not to mention under military rule). In the current international system, where rights go hand in hand with citizenship, this has a tremendous effect on their life. The Palestinian problem, at its heart, is a civil rights issue disguised as a diplomatic problem. An independent Palestinian state is a possible solution to this issue, but it’s nothing more than this.

Discussing the one state solution is essential, because is reminds Israelis that their choice is not between the status quo and two states, but between a joint state and ethnic separation. Right now, many Israelis might understand that, but it’s not a notion that shapes their political behavior.

Lara Friedman writes:

“…Still others are adopting a ‘variation-on-the-status-quo’ approach. They suggest that the current situation can be tweaked to be bearable for both sides, until Israelis and Palestinians evolve to the point where a permanent, conflict-ending agreement is possible. This idea is disconnected from reality.”

But the status quo is exactly what Israelis have been choosing for decades now, and will continue to choose as long as they can, because the cost of retreating is simply too high in the eyes of most of them, whether from security reasons or from ideological ones. In other words, faced with a choice between dismantling the settlements and leaving the West Bank or doing nothing, Most Israelis, and above all their leaders, will probably take the latter. On the other hand, if there was a clear choice between one or two state, things could have been different. So even from APN’s perspective, talking about one state might carry real political benefits.

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Like many in the Israeli Left, Lara Friedman praises the Oslo agreement and deems the one state solution as something that will promote violence and prolong the conflict. But in the last two decades, it’s the two state paradigm that led to bloodshed. After Oslo ended in the second Intifada and the Gaza withdrawal resulted in Cast Lead, what guarantee we have that the next round will be better? Yet the one state solution is still considered the dangerous one.

Here is just a thought: imagine the Israeli left had spent the time it argued for separating the two societies in fighting against the military laws enforced in the West Bank, and demanding the Palestinians to be tried in civil courts. Wouldn’t that have made the life of Palestinians – and ultimately, Israelis – much better?

This leads me to the most important point, which is the false tendency to see the solution in binary, mutually exclusive, terms. It’s not either the one-state solution or the two states. It could actually both, or neither. We could have a federation or one state with two parliaments, or a federal system, or a regional one. The two states could be a faze on the way leading to a joint system, or the other way around – we could have a civil rights campaign that will lead to the Palestinians gaining individual political rights, and only after that collective ones. That’s the power of looking into the problems in terms of people’s rights (like the one state solution suggests), rather than states’: a whole variety of ideas opens up.

Personally, I don’t consider myself either a two-state or a one-state person. I oppose the status quo, and I want to explore all other options.

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After my Haaretz piece on the growing support for the one state solution in the Israeli right was published, I got many responses, both from Israelis and Palestinians. Curiously enough, the only person to criticize me from the Israeli right was one of those opposing the one state solution whom I talked to (he argued that his views were misrepresented in the article). Even more surprising was the fact that the Palestinians I heard were actually pleased with the piece. They didn’t share the settlers’ vision of one big Jewish state, but nevertheless, they tended to see it as some sort of recognition of their problem, and ultimately, a step in the right direction.

When I talked to Saeb Erekat, the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, he expressed his commitment to the two state solution, but he didn’t rule out the idea of a joint state. “I am ready to talk about it,” he said, and made it clear that the real problem is the occupation, not the nature of the solution. In a phone call from Gaza, the PLO’s Sufyan Abu Zaydeh expressed similar ideas.

The only real opposition my piece got was from the Jewish left. A torrent of articles, letters to the editor [Hebrew] and comments came, calling the rightwing people I interviewed “frauds”, questioning their motives and blaming me for asking them the wrong questions. Reading these comments, I started suspecting that at least some of these supporters of the two states solution never had the Palestinians’ freedom in mind, but something else completely.


Pro-Israel event that looks like a tea party

Posted: June 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: the US and us | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments »

When that’s the way your supporters look, you need to ask yourself what has gone wrong. Here is nutcase Rep. Michele Bachmann (1:06) winning applauses from a pro-Israel crowd in a California rally, while Peace Now man (3:25) is booed so hard, the organizers try to calm things down (with very limited success).


Apartheid Week in Columbia University

Posted: March 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Left, The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »
pro Israel posters in Columbia

pro Israel posters in Columbia

New York, NY – Staying in an apartment on Morningside Heights, Manhattan, I pass every day on my way to the Subway through Columbia University’s campus. Last Monday, as part of the Israel Apartheid Week, anti-occupation activists placed in the heart of the campus a small model of the separation wall, with some leaflets attached to it and a few Palestinian flags. In front of them, on the other side of the walkway crossing the campus, pro-Israel students had their own campaign going on, with their leaflets and posters, most of them detailing Israel’s security concerns.

From my point of view, the most surprising fact was that the “Israeli” campaign was launched by students who claimed to be pro-peace, under the title of Peace Week for Israelis and Palestinians. In Israel, peace is not a very popular notion right now, and human rights as well as peace groups are on the run, as the recent campaign against the NIF showed so well. But here in New York, and facing a Palestinian campaign, the pro-peace students seemed to be much more vocal than the Right wing people one would expect to find in such occasions.

This is one of those incidents that make the debate in the US so different from what’s going on in Israel. While the Israeli supporters of Meretz or Peace Now I know wouldn’t approve of Apartheid week, I don’t think any of them would take part in the Hasbara counter-attack either, especially not these days, and not with this Israeli government. Things are obviously different here, and I found myself wondering what to make of them. Is it a sign of maturity on the part of Israel’s supporters and an effort to handle the complexity of the situation, or simply another example of how out of touch they are with political reality?

Apartheid week in Columbia university

Apartheid week in Columbia university

Judging from the material I was handed by these pro-Israel-pro-peace activists, they seemed to be more in line with Avigdor Liberman than with Meretz. To justify the construction of the separation wall, they cited Israeli statistics regarding the number of terror casualties before and after the separation barrier was constructed. The posters wondered if US citizens wouldn’t support building such a barrier had their life been threatened by their neighborhoods.

A leaflet signed by LionPac, the Pro-Israel Columbia student group, read that:

“The Israeli Security Barrier was constructed not to mistreat or dominate Palestinians, but rather to save Israeli civilian lives and prevent terrorists from entering Israeli cities…

“Palestinian property owners whose land has been used in building the security Barrier have been offered compensation by the Israeli government for the use of their land and for damage to their trees.”

Naturally, all these claims could have been taken seriously had Israel built the security barrier on its own land, or on the Green line. but Israel chose to build it’s fence/wall deep into the west Bank, cutting through Palestinian villages and neighborhoods, separating people from their relatives, children from their schools, farmers from their land. If the US felt threatened by its neighbors it might have build such a barrier on its northern or southern border, but it wouldn’t dream building it in the heart of Canada or Mexico, and that makes all the difference.

As for the claim that Palestinians were compensate, this is something between a gross exaggeration to a blunt lie: not only that the IDF or the government never had the Palestinians’ rights in their minds while building the barrier, even now they are violating our own Supreme Court rulings regarding parts of the fence that needs to be moved west.

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Another item distributed by the pro-peace students was a “Pocket Facts” booklet produced by the pro-Israeli organization Stand With Us. After recycling some historical myths, and just before stating that “Israel has enacted affirmative action policies to help minority citizens achieve full social and economic equality” (I would love to get examples), these booklets actually have two pages titled “Israeli Communities beyond the Green Line”, which make a case for the legitimacy of the settlements!

“Israel built settlements to ensure its security, and Israelis resettled land their families owned in the West Bank” [the truth is first settlements had nothing to do with security, but with return to so called holy sites; and in all but a handful of cases, they were built on either private or public Palestinian land]… Most Palestinians in the West bank live in built-up cities and towns… With peaceful negotiations, [80 percent of the settlements] can be incorporated into Israel with some minor border modifications and do not impact Palestinian population centers.”

I’m beginning to wonder what kind of peace the people of Stand with Us and LionPac have in mind.

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I won’t go to more details regarding the rest of the stuff on the leaflets and the Stand With Us booklets, but rest assure that it suffers from the same poor arguments or distortion of facts. My point is that this sort of reasoning explains why many people view today the peace process as a tool to legitimize the Israeli occupation. What these pro-peace students saw as peace had to do only with the security concerns and with the anxieties of Jews, and nothing with the rights of the Palestinians. They failed to address the two key issues raised by the pro-Palestinian side: that the separation wall is not (only) a security barrier, since it was built deep into the Palestinians territory; and that the ethnic separation regime used under the military occupation in the West Bank could be labeled as a de-facto Apartheid (as oppose to a de-jure one), now that it has been going on from more than 40 years.

But what saddened me most, and not for the first time, was the total lack of empathy towards the Palestinians that I sensed from these pro-Israeli students. And while I can understand why Israelis can be so blind to the realities of the occupation, considering the very real (if not always justified) existential threat they feel – something Israel’s critic fail again and again to grasp – I don’t see what prevents a Liberal American student from imagining, even for a moment, what it’s like to live almost two generations under military rule.

In all the “pro-peace” material I found in Columbia, I never saw any mention of the restrictions on freedom of travel and of freedom of speech on all Palestinians; of the fact that Palestinians are tried in military courts and not allowed due process for more than forty years now; and of course, of the fact that they are the only people in the world who hold no citizenship. On occasions I tried to raise these issues, I was met with indifference, even some hostility. In short, people wouldn’t even listen. It seemed that for these Columbia students, “peace” was desirable only as a mean to serve one party’s interest. To them, it is as if one should support “peace” not because it might end an unjustified occupation or promote the values we supposedly share, but just because it might be good for Israelis.


Peace Now on the run

Posted: October 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Left, The Right, The Settlements | Tags: , , , , | 7 Comments »

peace nowThe right wing is recently running an extremely successful campaign to de-legitimize Peace Now, the once powerful left wing grassroots movement.

A few weeks ago, the deputy for PM Benjamin Netanyahu, minister Moshe “Bugy” Yaalon (Likud), referred to Peace Now as “a virus, which causes the state great damage”. Today, following a bizarre incident in which three Peace Now activists (Update: see Amitai’s comment below) tried to conduct a mock interview with the most extreme MK in the Knesset, Michael Ben-Ari – a friend and a student of the late Rabbi Meir Kahana – the Knesset’s chairman, MK Rubi Rivlin (Likud), forbid Peace Now Director-General Yariv Oppenheim from entering the Israeli parliament. Meretz party – which was always close to Peace Now – has filed an official protest n this matter. Read the rest of this entry »