Deir Yassin Remembered

Beyond the mirage

One state or two, the real issue is the ethnic exclusivity of the state of Israel, argues Paul Eisen (as published by Al-Ahram Weekly, 3 July 2003)

Political Zionism's aims were always clear -- to establish, in all of Palestine, a Jewish state. There were exceptions of course, cultural Zionists, who dreamed of a religious, cultural and spiritual home in Palestine alongside the indigenous population. But for the mainstream, the objective, and the way to that objective, was clear -- Palestine for Palestinians was to be transformed into Israel for Jews.

And the strategy for achieving that objective was breathtaking. Above all, the Zionists knew how to wait. "The Negev will not run away" said Chaim Weitzman and, as he well knew, nor would the rest of Palestine. But wait for what? For what Ben-Gurion called a "revolutionary situation", meaning a situation in which the takeover of Palestine could be completed. The first of these "revolutionary situations" presented itself in 1947 and 1948.

For Palestinians, like so many times before and after, the UN partitioning of their homeland was a non-win situation. Like the Palestinian peasant farmer early in the century, confronted with settlers waving legal documents and demanding his eviction, Palestinians in 1947 simply could not win. If they resisted they lost their lands, and if they didn't resist they also lost their lands. In any event, Palestinian society was shattered by the Zionist onslaught, 750,000 Palestinians were expelled and 78 per cent of historic Palestine became Israel.

Since then, Zionism, now institutionalised as the state of Israel, has continued its policy of discriminating against all non-Jews both within and outside its borders, and of ethnically cleansing Palestinians from Palestine. And to this day, the state of Israel, which openly claims to be a state of Jews only, overtly and covertly discriminates against non-Jews.

So there's no nice way of saying it: Zionism is a discriminatory ideology and Israel, the political expression of that ideology, is a discriminatory state. In any other situation, in any other time and place, and with any other people, both would be termed racist. But not, it seems, when applied to here and now and to Israelis and Jews. So, why is it that individuals and organisations who found it a simple enough matter to apply the label of racism to apartheid and South Africa, find it virtually impossible to apply the same label to Zionism and Israel?

The answer is because white South Africans and Afrikaners are not Jews. White South Africans and Afrikaners have their own history of suffering, but this history has not been as protracted nor as intense as Jewish suffering, and nor has it become so central to Western emotional and spiritual life. White South African and Afrikaner culture, religion and mythology, unlike Jewish culture, religion and mythology, has not provided the bedrock for much of western culture, religion and mythology. And white South Africans and Afrikaners are not spread so widely, or so influentially, as are Jews. It has also been argued that because of the particularities of Jewish history and suffering, Jews may do what no-one else is allowed to do, meaning that, unlike anyone else, Jews are entitled to discriminate. It has therefore also been argued, that even taking into account all the attendant injustices, the creation of a Jewish state was, at the time, necessary.

But all this is of little use to Palestinians, the victims of Zionism. Whether the world chooses to see Zionism and Israel as discriminatory, and whether we choose to label Zionism and Israel as racist, or even whether we decide that the creation of the state of Israel was a necessary evil, the suffering of Palestinians at the hands of Zionism and Israel remains undiminished.

If 1948 was the first of Ben-Gurion's "revolutionary situations" another followed in 1967 when, under cover of the June War, Israel initiated the second phase of its conquest of Palestine. Since then the entire solidarity movement has united around the slogan, "End the occupation!".

This slogan, after over 35 years, so cosy and comfortable, seems like it has been with us forever and will be with us forever. To move on seems very dangerous indeed. For many, it has provided hope in an often hopeless situation. But this hope may be delusory since it can be argued that there is no "occupation" and there never was an occupation. If there were an occupation, and if the Israelis had ever the slightest intention of ending it, they would have done so years ago. The "occupation" is, in reality, the final stage in the 120 year-old Zionist conquest of Palestine.

So the slogan "End the occupation!" could not only be an illusory diversion from facing the real issues, but also a smokescreen for the true intentions of the oppressor. Palestinians and their supporters can comfort themselves that by working to end the occupation, they are working towards justice, whilst Israelis and their supporters can comfort themselves that whilst everyone is busy ending the occupation, they can get on with the real business of conquering Palestine.

But many Jews and Israelis do want to end the occupation. For some, still committed Zionists, ending the occupation and fixing Israel's borders along the 1967 lines, means legitimising and securing the ill-gotten gains of 1948. For others, Jews of conscience, the slogan conceals a deep and abiding wish for the return of the beautiful Israel of their childhoods. That Israel and Zionism never was beautiful, and never can be beautiful, is irrelevant.

"End the occupation!" whether on banners and flyers, bellowed through loudhailers or repeated in a million e-mails has, so far, taken us nowhere. Surely something is wrong. Perhaps this something is that we're barking up the wrong tree -- that it's not the occupation that's the problem, but the very nature of Israel itself, of which the occupation is a symptom.

The Roadmap is the latest stage in Zionism's eternal good cop/bad cop routine. Sharon the butcher, has softened up the victim. All he has to do is to sign and the pain will go away. Whether to sign or not is for Palestinians to decide, but before they do, they may note that the first condition of this roadmap; is the need for the Palestinian Authority to reform itself. Well, perhaps it should, but what about Israel? Should not Israel also reform itself? Should we not now call on the state of Israel to begin a process of transforming itself from being an ethnic state for Jews, to becoming a democratic state for all its citizens?

What's done is done and, to some degree, cannot be undone, but would not the pain of exile and dispossession be that much less, if it were no longer justified by the legal acceptance of Israel's right to discriminate? Would not solutions to the problems caused by past injustice be more easily found if that injustice did not remain enshrined in law and custom?

And within Israel itself, would not the daily discriminations and humiliations endured by its own Palestinian citizens be much diminished if Israel was their state as well? And the agony of occupation, would it not be brought to an end that much more quickly and painlessly when the notion of a land for Jews only has ceased to be recognised in law?

And finally, the right of return which, as many of us are only now beginning to understand, and so many more of us need to understand, can neither be relinquished nor withheld, would not the ending of Israel's ethnic basis provide new opportunities for generosity and compromise in the implementation of that sacred right? And for those Jews and Israelis who claim to want peace and acceptance in the region, they must know that states that define themselves along ethnic lines are probably not states with which most Israelis, Jews or anyone else would wish to associate themselves and that this type of ethnic state is utterly unacceptable in the modern world.

Is not the ethnic basis of Israel a major, if not the, major obstacle to the achievement of a just peace? Imagine how many more options would be open if there was not the insane need to maintain Israel's exclusive Jewish identity. Even with the terrible injustice of its establishment, a thriving Jewish community is now present in Palestine. There is a new nation in the Middle East. Now is the time, whilst acknowledging and rectifying the crimes of the past, to recognise the realities of the present and so move on to a new and just future. But can this take place whilst the basic injustice remains enshrined in the very being of the state of Israel?

Such a move could, but need not, preclude two states in Palestine. It could, but need not, preclude the name "Israel", and it certainly must not preclude the right of Israeli Jews to live where they are in peace and prosperity. Nor need it preclude, for the time being at least, a Jewish majority or a Jewish character, however defined. What it does, and must preclude are the rights and benefits of citizenship of that state, being conferred on one ethnic group alone.

And the time to make this call, is now, loud and clear. Not tucked away in obscure policy documents or vague statements about democracy throughout the region, and not only in articles and essays, but on banners, slogans and manifestos. Is it not now obvious to everyone that without such a development progress simply cannot be made? Let us say it now, loud and clear.

The writer is a director of Deir Yassin Remembered -- [email protected].

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