Fania Oz-Salzberger has challenged my characterization of her comments at the Nexus Institute’s “Return of Ghosts” symposium. Here is what she wrote in the comments section of my post:
I am befuddled by your representation of what I thought had been a cordial and thoughtful exchange. The snippets you report of my symposium input are inaccurate and out of context. My arguments in the symposium and the accompanying article are far more qualified and complex than represented here. I do stand by the claim that Israel is a vibrant democracy, but it is also – as I said clearly – a flawed one. Wilders is unwelcome to many Israelis, certainly not the handful in which you purport to place me. More crucially, I never “proclaimed” “that occupation has little or nothing to do with the motives of suicide bombers”, but spoke against any insinuation that suicide bombings could be justified by occupation. Finally, I did not “jump in” but politely awaited my turn, despite being an Israeli. In our public and private exchanges I gave your opinions the respect that your blog has now denied my own views. You have good arguments in your arsenal, why the cheap shots?
I have been waiting for video of the symposium before responding to Oz-Salzberger or clarifying my own account, which was based on my impressions from the panel and recorded without the benefit of notes. Now that we are able to view a portion of the symposium’s first debate, let’s go to the videotape:
In her opening remarks (at around 2:45), Oz-Salzberger went on at length about Israel’s democratic tradition. I did not take her comments out of context. Oz-Salzberger said, “My own experience, I come from Israel; 62 years old. Always a democracy ever since it was founded, it was made a democracy which was quite an achievement for its generation, but always a democracy under siege from outside and from within.” I did not hear her describe Israel as a flawed democracy, though she did make a general statement against majoritarian rule and in favor of protecting minority rights in Israel and Europe.
To restate what I wrote in my previous post, I thought Oz-Salzberger’s remarks about Israel’s uninterrupted democratic tradition underplayed the severity of the situation in her country, and seemed incongruous in light of the other panelists’ remarks about the decline of democracy in their own countries. Reasonable people can debate whether Israel is a democracy. Personally I agree with MK Ahmed Tibi, who says that Israel is indeed a Jewish and democratic state: it is democratic to its Jewish citizens and Jewish to its Arabs. Just ask the residents of Dahamash and Al-Arakib — all Israeli citizens — if they think Israel is a democracy. I also think it is critical to note that Israel controls everything in the West Bank, administering a kangaroo court system that railroads non-violent activists and jails people for organizing against the occupation. Is that democratic? Whether or not it is, my only objection with Oz-Salzberger was that she downplayed the authoritarian and racist trends being advanced by Israel’s government, in the Knesset, and in the streets of Tel Aviv — and which beg for exposure.
I did not write anything in my first post about Oz-Salzberger’s reference to Israel as “a democracy under siege from outside and from within,” but after watching the video, I think this remark demands clarification, especially because of Oz-Salzberger’s claim to Ofer N. in my comments section: “I don’t believe in “enemies within”, and young (or old) Israelis holding such opinions [my note: she was referring to supporters of BDS] are no traitors. But I think they are wrong.” I distinctly recall Oz-Salzberger complaining to the audience about the leftists in Tel Aviv, presumably referring to supporters of BDS. There is no video yet to confirm my recollection, but I would be surprised if she thinks, as Avigdor Lieberman does, that this small element is besieging Israel “from within.” So whom or what was she referring to? Arabs? Leftists? Extremist settlers?
As for my characterization of Oz-Salzberger’s response to my comments on suicide bombing, I am still awaiting video of the exchange (I never accused her of interrupting me, but perhaps my use of the American colloquialism “jumped in,” which is the same as “weighed in,” but could be misconstrued as “cut in,” was unclear to her). Oz-Salzberger claimed she said suicide bombing could not be justified by occupation, but when did I say that it could? I was making an objective point about the motives of suicide bombers, not justifying their actions by way of insinuation. If video appears of the exchange, I will clarify this dispute.
If I took anything out of context, it was a comment by Mitchell Cohen. I originally reported that he “enthusiastically seconded” Oz-Salzberger’s remarks about Israel’s vibrant democracy. In fact, he seconded her opposition to majoritarian rule and made an important point about demagogues who exploit the language of democracy to advance an anti-democratic agenda. (I think he would have agreed with her characterization of Israeli democracy, but that is beside the point).
Based on our public and private interactions, which were indeed cordial and thoughtful, I think Oz-Salzberger represents an element within the Zionist movement that is reasonable and worldly, but is standing by passively with a sense of bewilderment while the colonial, ethnocentric aspects of Zionism consolidate their hold on Jewish Israeli society and gain strength in the Jewish diaspora. If a solution to the conflict ever appears on the horizon, I am confident that she and others like her would a part of it, especially if it preserves the fundaments of Zionism through two states. However, a solution has never been further away. Soothing a foreign audience by telling them that everything is basically kosher with Israeli democracy only furthers the problem because sooner or later, that celebrated democracy will may be nothing more than a ghost.