Blog: The Politics of Hope

The Two State Illusion, Racism in Israel, and Jewish Hubris

On October 16 The Christian Century published my review of Rashid Khalidi’s Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East. (Here is the text of the review). The fact that the Century reviewed Khalidi’s book is an indication of the media’s increasing willingness to present viewpoints that challenge the very basis of Israel as a Jewish ethnic nationalist entity. This shift reflects the reality that once you address present-day violations of Palestinian rights, you see that the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was the continuation of the program of ethnic cleansing that began in 1948 and continues to this day with the annexation and carving up of the West Bank and the inhuman siege of Gaza. You begin to understand that the dispossession of the Palestinians was the inevitable outcome of the project to set up a state for the benefit of one people.  It is also becoming frighteningly clear that oppression and frankly racist policies on the part of Israel are not limited to occupied areas, but to the territory within the de facto borders of the State of Israel prior to the 1967 war.

Israel’s new racism

A recently released documentary demonstrates this with horrifying vividness. Ali Abunimah, Palestinian writer and activist and publisher of the Electronic Intifada, has reported on a video entitled “Israel’s New Racism: The Persecution of African Migrants in the Holy Land,” produced by Max Blumenthal and David Sheen, a piece solicited — and then rejected — by the New York Times.  According to Blumenthal, it has since gone viral on YouTube, with close to one million views. The ten minute piece documents vicious, racist attacks on African residents of Israel incited by prominent demagogues and several members of the Israeli Parliament. The piece presents voices, not only shrieking in public demonstrations but speaking calmly in office interviews, proclaiming that Israel is the land of the Jews and that non-Jews (especially those with black skin) are not welcome. The video is shocking — but it is not surprising. From our twentieth-century perspective, we understand all too well that ethnic nationalism breeds racism – that it is racism – and that oppression and violence – the bloody as well as the structural, state-sponsored kind – is the inevitable result.  In his recently published Goliath:  Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, Blumenthal documents Israel’s escalating move to the political right, into what many would described as fascism.  The problem, as I pointed out in my 2011 blog post about Peter Beinart and his brand of “progressive Zionism,” (a piece accepted and then rejected by The Nation), is not the occupation, nor is it the religiously-based racism of fundamentalist Jewish settler-colonists — the problem is a state founded on an ethnic nationalist ideology.  “The late and deeply mourned Tony Judt,” I wrote then, “got it exactly right in his NYRB piece back in 2003: ‘The problem with Israel [is that]…it has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place.’”

For over half a century, much of the world, with the U.S. in the lead, has accepted and supported this anachronistic and, by Judt’s definition, illegitimate political entity. A central point of Khalidi’s book is how language has been used to deny the reality of a State of Israel that, by virtue of its founding principle of a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine has never been willing to share the territory. Khalidi describes the history of U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “a carefully constructed realm of obscurity, a realm in which the misuse of language has thoroughly corrupted both political thought and action.” He documents how U.S. policy since the 1970s has embraced that denial by sponsoring a “peace process” that has advanced Israel’s expansionism, demonstrating how, I wrote, “language functions to obscure the reality of a colonial settler project that has resulted in the dispossession of the indigenous Palestinians…language used to maintain the destructive illusion of a process of negotiation between equal parties, rather than the reality of a powerless, stateless, occupied people at the mercy of a highly militarized state supported by the world’s only superpower.”  Despite the futility of this approach to peacemaking, Khalidi points out, our government has pursued it doggedly, bowing to domestic political pressures and to Israeli stubbornness and persistence.

But things are changing. For an increasing number of Americans, the realization is dawning that the story they have been told is a distortion and that our government’s policies are bad, not only for the Palestinians, but for the citizens of Israel. Mainstream journalism, which, like politics, responds to the wind of public opinion, is reflecting this shift.  Ian Lustick’s September 14 New York Times opinion piece “Two State Illusion” represents a sea change in NYT editorial policy with respect to Israel. Lustick’s piece was followed closely by Yousef Munayyer’s “Thinking outside the two state box” in the New Yorker’s online edition. “The reality now,” wrote Munayyer, “is that there is a single state. The problem is that it takes an apartheid form.”  Rather than solving the problem that it was intended to solve, which is security and freedom from fear for Jews, Israeli policy has condemned the Jewish citizens of the State of Israel to continuing conflict. “It’s time” Munayyer writes, “to start thinking outside the Zionist box and look for solutions that secure the human rights and equality of all involved, not just the political demands of the stronger party.”

On a recent panel, which they shared with Jeremy Ben Ami of J Street (watch it or you access unedited transcripts of the entire panel presentation) Lustick and Munayyer spell out the political danger of clinging to the possibility that negotiations can bring about a fair and sustainable two state solution. The addresses by Lustick and Munayyer are riveting — and an excellent adjunct to Khalidi’s book. A key point made by both of them is that the implausibility of a fair partition at this point not only makes the negotiations pointless, but worse, perpetuates the conditions that make two states impossible, playing into Israel’s hands even more effectively than handing them the entire territory on a silver platter.  In contrast, Ben Ami’s words give us a good look at the arguments that must be mustered to hold on to the “two-state illusion.”  It is pretty much the brand of “progressive Zionism” that Peter Beinart has been offering up to preserve the Zionist dream: nothing is impossible if we wish for it hard enough and believe in it deeply enough. Commitment to the idea of Jewish nationalist homeland trumps reality, and certainly any commitment to equality for Palestinians, despite the language to the contrary — duly served up by those committed to saving Zionism — about full commitment to a state of their own for Palestinians.

Sad Zionists

Recently, Beinart, in his blog Open Zion, has adopted a strategy similar to that demonstrated by J Street in its recent annual conferences:  broaden the tent to competing points of view, in particular to those advocating some version of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).  In her recent piece in Open Zion, “If you want two states, support BDS,” Kathleen Peratis freely admits that her commitment to two states has her standing “on very narrow ground…that the current peace process is at best a Hail Mary.”  “Sad Zionists,” is how she describes herself and those who cling to “our liberal Zionist dreams.”  My question to Peratis is this: how sad are you willing to be? Are you willing to tolerate the sadness of letting go of the concept that an ethnic nationalist entity, a concept carried over from the late nineteenth century, is the answer to anti-Semitism?  Are you willing to mourn the understandable mistake of political Zionism as the solution to our historic suffering, a forgivable (if and when we acknowledge the mistake) but all the same catastrophic wrong turn? Are we willing to be sad enough?  And having tolerated that sadness, are we then able to contemplate, as I wrote in my critique of Beinart, that “[t]he end of Zionism will not be the disaster that so many Jews – and some Christians — fear. Rather, it will open the Jewish people to a future where the Other is embraced, rather than back to a past in which armies are mustered, walls are built, and enemies, real and imagined, are vilified and attacked. “Saving” Zionism by trying to make it into something it is not takes us in precisely the wrong direction.”

Like other progressive Zionists, Peratis sees commitment to political Zionism as integral to Jewish identity. What I find most unsettling, however, is not Peratis’ sentimental clinging to the “liberal Zionist dream” or the even more dangerous notion that “Fortress Israel,” as Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has characterized the state, keeps Jews safe (indeed, it makes not only Jews, but the entire world less safe). As the title of her piece makes very clear, Peratis wants to say yes to (what she calls) BDS because it will help the two state solution. Here is what Peratis does not get:  BDS is a Palestinian project. It is a call from Palestinian civil society, endorsed at the time of its inauguration in 2005 by 108 Palestinian political parties, unions, associations, coalitions and organizations representing Palestinian refugees, Palestinians under occupation and Palestinian citizens of Israel. The goal of BDS is Palestinian human rights, not the preservation of the Zionist project. If we, as Jews, choose to support BDS, it has to be as world citizens (and if we are Americans, then in particular U.S. citizens) joining a global, universal human rights movement, a movement to say “No” to apartheid in our time. What hubris — what chutzpah — to attempt to co-opt the Palestinian call for BDS into supporting the failing, fundamentally flawed and, in the present scenario — it must be said — racist and anti-human rights cause that is the two state solution today.  Holding on to two states is holding on to the Jewish state. And holding on to the Jewish state means suffering the consequences of such a project, consequences on such horrific display in the Sheen-Blumenthal video.

Is that sad enough for you?

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Talking about Israel at the Greenbelt Festival in the UK – a Yom Kippur Meditation

Dear Subscribers,

I’m back.  It’s been a long time.  Where have I been?  Helping found and run Kairos USA, writing a new book, and moving from Washington DC to wonderful Portland OR. Lots of travel, in the US and internationally.  So there is a bit of catching up to do.  I’ll begin by working backwards and posting something from my time last week in the UK at the Greenbelt Festival. How to describe Greenbelt?  How about as a Woodstock for followers of Jesus? — a 4-day gathering of over 20,000 people of all ages that has been held annually for 40 years.  I was honored to have been invited to give some talks and to participate in the launch of Kairos Britain. A future post on the emerging global kairos movement is in store.  For now, I’ll use this this posting to share a bit about the stir that was caused by Greenbelt’s invitation of me and others (including Sami Awad of Holy Land Trust) to speak, and the Festival’s hosting of the Kairos Britain launch.  The Council of Christians and Jews, a UK advocacy group that, in close coordination with the Board of Jewish Deputies — a Jewish advocacy group that bears some resemblance to our Anti-Defamation League — created a lot of critical press in advance of the Greenbelt Festival, claiming that it presented a biased and unbalanced view of Israel.  They also accused me, and by implication the Festival, of fostering anti-Semitic attitudes and speech. The full statement is here.  Very worthwhile reading is the excellent response by Robert Cohen, a British Jew who I had the pleasure to meet and hear speak at Greenbelt and who puts out a very fine blog.

Stay tuned for further postings.  In the meantime, timed to coincide with the Jewish High Holy Days, here is my response to the CCJ’s charge that in challenging Zionism I have committed a “sweeping rejection of traditional Jewish teaching” and revived “the oldest form of Christian anti-Judaism.”

RESPONSE TO CCJ STATEMENT ON ISRAEL/PALESTINE PROGRAMMING BY GREENBELT

In its recent comments on my remarks at the 2013 Greenbelt Festival, Council of Christians and Jews has charged that in asserting that the actions of the State of Israel are immoral, I am laying “collective guilt” upon the Jewish people and as such I am committing “the oldest form of Christian anti-Judaism (How as a Jew I can do such a thing is an interesting question. Is CCJ suggesting that I am no longer a Jew, the implied question being: can one say the things I am saying about Israel and still be a Jew? — but that is another discussion). The reference to collective guilt is of course an allusion to the historic deicide charge, the assignment to the entire Jewish people, in perpetuity, responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus.  The evocation of the deicide charge in this context is something that gets my blood boiling. It’s a particularly ugly bit of Christian-Jewish history, something that caused my people untold suffering over the ages. Furthermore, it is a distortion of history and indeed of Christian theology that is a great Christian sin, not only against the Jews but against the heart of the Gospels. Apologists for the State of Israel’s illegal and immoral acts invoke this particular bit of Jewish-Christian history when they want to bring out the heavy artillery against those who challenge the status quo of unconditional support for Israel. Do they do this cynically, knowing full well the logical absurdity of connecting criticism of Israel with blaming Jews for the crucifixion and choosing to play this card because they know the effect it will have on Christians, or do they actually believe this?  The first option makes me angry. The second makes me deeply sad. The fact that apologists or “defenders” of the State of Israel, and this includes not only professional advocates like those at CCJ but also some Jewish academics and clergy, appear unable to make a distinction between taking responsibility for current Jewish sins and the charge that the Jews killed Jesus – or, by the way, between the Palestinian call for boycott divestment and sanctions and the Nazi anti-Jewish laws — is an indication of how stuck we are in our past suffering and how catastrophic this is for the Jewish people today.

Robert Cohen has done a superb job of responding to CCJ’s charges, speaking for himself and – not officially but in my view very much in spirit – on behalf of the Greenbelt organizers, and I cannot add to or improve on what he has written in his blog, Micah’s Paradigm Shift.  I will however, point out that I have been misquoted and will offer a few words about that.

CCJ has misquoted me as saying the following at Greenbelt:

“My people behind that wall – and I include Jews outside of Israel as well, because the wall is psychological and it is spiritual – have learned to hate.”

What I said was in the context of a discussion about the effect of the wall on the Jews of Israel.  I said that the Jews living behind the Separation wall (that is what Israel calls it — in Hebrew, hafrada — separation, which can also be translated apartheid) are in a sense the most profound victims of the barrier.  My point — made in the context of my story of the Palestinian child who asks her mother, “Why do they make the Jews live behind that wall?” — is that the wall may be stealing Palestinian land, but what the child sees is that it is really stealing the Jews’ souls. I did not say that the Jews “have learned to hate.”  My words were: “They live behind a wall of soul-killing racism.”

It’s a nuanced difference but it’s key.  My point was not to characterize Jews as hate-filled or acting in a hateful way. It is the wall that is the subject of my words, not the attitudes of Jews about Palestinians.  I am not commenting about Jewish character or beliefs, but about the structure of separation and occupation that creates the conditions under which people learn to hate and fear.  Living behind a wall such as that constructed by Israel effectively makes people into racists.  And the point is that Israelis don’t see themselves that way.  The ugly comments you can hear Israelis making about Palestinians (dirty, thieves, bad parents) and the fear-based beliefs (they want to kill all of us, they hate us, want to push us into the sea) originate because they do not know the Palestinians.  That’s what the wall does, and it does it with chilling and horrible effectiveness. Israelis don’t know that they are racists any more than the Afrikaners identified themselves as such.  I have a friend raised in South Africa, of old Afrikaner stock, who tells me, “I didn’t know about apartheid growing up. In a sense there was no apartheid for me.  It was the air I breathed, the water I swam in.”  The American soldiers who went off to fight in Vietnam, returning shattered psychologically and spiritually because of what they witnessed and in many cases what they did, did not identify the Vietnamese soldiers and civilians as human beings – they were “gooks”  — a less-than-human enemy towards whom the American values and even laws governing respect for human life and dignity did not apply. This is what Israel needs to be rescued from, and we only have to look to the Jewish prophets and to the Gospels to find the roadmap for that rescue mission:  speaking truth to power and nonviolent resistance.

So besides my horror and my anger about what Israel is doing, my heart hurts for my people.  And out of that I call for the wall to come down and for Israel to become something that is sustainable (the current course is a fast lane to self destruction — morally, politically, spiritually) and that can provide a decent future for its citizens.

This week begins the holiest season in the Jewish calendar.  In ten days time Jews the world over will stand in the synagogue on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), beat their breasts (literally – we do this) and recite the vidui – the confessional prayer:  We have sinned, we have betrayed, we have stolen, we have spoken falsely… It is a confession recited in the first person plural – and only so. Indeed, unless there is no other option, Jews are required to stand before God as a member of the congregation, of the collective whole of the people.  We pray as a collective, we confess as a people.  We take responsibility for ourselves as a people.  What Israel does in my name is my responsibility and I have the right and the duty to speak to it, not only to my own people but to Christians, who, in following the teachings of that prophetic and fiercely faithful Galilean Jew of 2000 years ago, share the responsibility to seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly, and above all to put compassion for those who are suffering today – “the least of these my brothers” in Jesus’ words, above all other responsibilities.

Next week Jews will stand before the Ark of the Covenant in countless synagogues and pray for forgiveness.  When I do that I will, like every other Jew in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, have in front of me physically the scrolls of the law, but in reality what I stand before is an 8 meter-high wall of concrete and steel that now stands between me and my maker, between me and my faith, and between me and my sisters and brothers in Palestine who in their call for justice and coexistence are calling me – and my Christian brothers and sisters in the UK and around the world – to faithfulness.  We Jews can be forgiven for our sins – this is without question – but we must begin by acknowledging them.

Mark Braverman

September 4, 2013

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