I recently spoke to Alternet’s Joshua Holland about law and politics in Israel. Our conversation focused on the image of Israel as a Western style democracy coping with legitimate security concerns versus the reality of Israel as an ethnocratic state managing its demographic peril through authoritarian measures approved by the Jewish majority. The discussion can be heard here. Below is a transcript via Alternet:
Joshua Holland: Max, I don’t want to talk about Iran today. I don’t want to talk about the Israeli lobby in the United States, and I don’t want to talk about the Occupation. I want to talk about something I don’t think gets enough attention in this country, which is the sharp rightward turn of the Israeli government.
One of the great non-sequiturs of our political discourse is that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. And I say it’s a great non-sequitur because it’s usually used as a response to, for example, criticism of the Occupation. You say this Occupation is terrible, and people say it’s the only democracy in the Middle East.
Anyway, Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition Kadima Party, accused Benjamin Netanyahu recently of, “an attempt to transform Israel into a type of dictatorship.” Kadima lawmakers said that recent legislation passed by the Knesset represented, “the gravest challenge to democracy since the establishment of the state in 1948.” Tell me about the sharp rightward lurch. When did this happen, because I remember when I was a kid Israel was almost a socialist country.
Max Blumenthal: Well, by not wanting to talk about Iran you’re an anti-Semite and I condemn that.
JH: Max, I’m a self-loathing Jew — please get this straight.
MB: Part of Netanyahu’s goal in focusing on Iran is taking the Palestinian question off the table, and so it’s good that you’re talking about this. Israel has never been a democracy in the sense that we think about a democracy. It’s a settler, colonial state that privileges the Jewish majority, which it created through violent methods of demographic manipulation over the indigenous Palestinian outclass.
That’s true even inside Israel. So when you hear people like Tzipi Livni — who is for now the head of the Kadima Party but soon to be ousted, and actually came out of the Likud Party and was aide to Ariel Sharon – when you hear liberal Zionists, people on the Zionist left, warning that Israel is turning into a fascist state what they’re talking is the occupation laws creeping back over the green line, and that these right-wing elements are actually starting to crack down on the democratic rights that have been afforded to the Jewish majority inside Israel. So Jews who are left-wingers, who are dissidents and speak out against state policy are actually beginning to feel a slight scintilla of the kind of oppression that Palestinians have felt since the foundation of the state of Israel. That’s where this criticism is coming from.
I think we really need to get beyond the discourse of occupation and the discourse of fascism, and instead to talk about institutional discrimination and apartheid, which is what has been present since the foundation of the state of Israel.
JH: Now I want to talk about some of the specific measures that have been proposed, some of which have passed. There are some things that have been pulled back or tabled temporarily due to international pressure, and other have actually gotten through and become law. Tell be about the crackdown on NGOs.
The following piece was co-authored by Joseph Dana. A shorter version recently appeared at Alternet.
The men and women who set out to build a Jewish state in historic Palestine made little secret of their settler-colonial designs. Zionism’s intellectual author, Theodor Herzl, described the country he envisioned as “part of a wall of defense for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism.” “All the means we need, we ourselves must create them, like Robinson Crusoe on his island,” Herzl told an interviewer in 1898. The Labor Zionist movement’s chief ideologue, Berl Katznelson, was more blunt than Herzl, declaring in 1928, “The Zionist enterprise is an enterprise of conquest.” More recently, and perhaps most crudely, former Prime Minister and current Defense Minister Ehud Barak described the goal of Zionism as maintaining “a villa in the jungle.”
Those who dedicated themselves to the formation of the Jewish State may have formulated their national identity through an idealized vision of European enlightenedness, but they also recognized that their lofty aims would not be realized without brute force. As Katznelson said, “It is not by chance that I speak of settlement in military terms.” Thus the Zionist socialists gradually embraced the ideas of radical right-wing ideologue Vladimir Jabotinsky, who outlined a practical strategy in his 1922 essay, “The Iron Wall,” for fulfilling their utopian ambitions. “Zionist colonization, even the most restricted, must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population,” Jabotinsky wrote. “This colonization can, therefore, continue and develop only under the protection of a force independent of the local population — an iron wall which the native population cannot break through. This is, in toto, our policy towards the Arabs.” According to Jabotinsky, residents of the Zionist yishuv (community) could not hope to enjoy a European standard of life in the heart of the Arab world without physically separating themselves from the natives. This would require tireless planning, immense sacrifice and no shortage of bloodshed. And all who comprised the Zionist movement, whether left, right, or center, would carry the plan towards fulfillment. As Jabotinsky wrote, “All of us, without exception, are constantly demanding that this power strictly fulfill its obligations. In this sense, there are no meaningful differences between our ‘militarists’ and our ‘vegetarians.’”
One of the greatest misperceptions of Israeli politics is that the right-wing politicians who claim Jabotinsky’s writings as their lodestar perpetuate the most egregious violence against the Palestinians. While brimming with anti-Arab resentment, the Israeli right’s real legacy consists mostly of producing durable strategies and demagogic rhetoric. The Labor Zionists who dominated Israel’s political scene for decades bear the real responsibility for turning the right’s ideas into actionable policies. The dynamic is best illuminated by the way in which successive Labor Party governments implemented the precepts outlined in Jabotinsky’s “Iron Wall” under the cover of negotiations with the Palestinians. As early as 1988, the Laborites Yitzhak Rabin and Haim Ramon were advocating for the construction of a concrete wall to separate the Palestinians from “Israel proper.” When Rabin declared his intention to negotiate a two-state solution with the PLO, his supporters adopted a slogan that had previously belonged to the right-wing Moledet Party: “Them over there; us over here.” Then, when Rabin placed his signature on the Oslo Accords in 1993, Israel began surrounding the Gaza Strip with electrified fencing while revoking Palestinian work permits by the thousands.
Last night I went to Columbia University to see Omar Barghouti discuss his new book, “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights.” For those who don’t know, Barghouti is one of the BDS movement’s most effective strategists and promoters, basing his advocacy on a platform of human rights and international law while explicitly rejecting arcane ideology. His book offers the most in-depth and accessible analysis to date of the movement, its history, and why it is gaining so much momentum. Read an excerpt here.
During his talk, Barghouti mentioned that he had approached J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami about arranging a debate on BDS. The response from Ben-Ami was as follows, according to Barghouti: “We want to keep this debate inside the Jewish community. So we won’t participate in a debate with any Palestinians.”
Barghouti joked, “Why would BDS have anything to do with Palestinians?” He went on to describe Ben-Ami’s policy as racist.
Last December, I debated the issue of BDS against the director of J Street U, Daniel May. My debate partner was Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace. Daniel May’s partner was a Jewish student from Princeton also named Daniel May. Everyone involved in the debate was an Ashkenazi Jew, yet we were debating a movement founded and controlled by Palestinian civil society. If I had known at the time that J Street had an alleged policy of refusing to debate with non-Jews, especially Palestinians, I would not have participated at all.
Another person told me about J Street’s “don’t debate Palestinians” policy, but did not authorize me to report it at the time. The source explained that the policy resulted in the Jews-only debate at J Street’s annual policy conference in February, where Rebecca Vilkomerson debated in favor of BDS against opponents Bernard Avishai and Ken Bob of Ameinu.
It is worth noting that after the debate, Bernard Avishai took to his blog to tell a certain member of JVP (he left the person unnamed) that “you remind me, forgive me, of the Tea Party.” Avishai was apparently upset that the JVP member had asked him how he could argue against divesting from multinational companies and Israeli institutions that profit from the occupation while supporting a boycott of the settlements. It is unusual for someone of Avishai’s intellectual caliber to stoop so low to rebut a simple question about tactics. His response makes me wonder if the opponents of BDS, especially those who define themselves as politically liberal, are simply overwhelmed by events in Israel and Palestine.
To J Street’s credit, it is the only major pro-Israel group I know of that will debate BDS at all. None of the other established pro-Israel groups have participated in debates and none seem likely to do so in the near future. Last week, the Columbia University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) responded to a demand by the campus Hillel house for a “dialogue session” by requesting a debate instead. SJP’s leadership told Hillel’s director that he could choose the topic, time and place of the debate. Hillel refused the proposal. Besides international law and human rights, what do they have to be afraid of?
We insisted that Jews should focus their outrage not at us, but at the statements the subjects of our video made, and recognize the extent to which they echoed the rhetoric of leading Israeli politicians, military figures, pundits and rabbis.
American-born Israeli author Gershom Gorenberg argued on his blog that the statements of “a drunken kid in a bar” have no journalistic value, and therefore we were unprofessional (“Racism, Amalek and Videotape ” 13 June 2009).
Gorenberg even asserted that because some of the people who appeared in our video were American, their racist opinions had no little or no connection to the Israeli situation. At the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Ron Kampeas, who has disclosed that he purchased an apartment with an Israeli-government subsidized loan in a Jewish colony in occupied East Jerusalem, wrote that it’s “time for [Blumenthal] to grow up and put [his talents] to good use.” (“Best take so far on Blumen-journalism,” 5 June 2009).
Meanwhile, YouTube and Vimeo banned Feeling the Hate, while the Huffington Post’sRoy Sekoff refused to allow us to publish it, claiming in an email that it had no “real news value,” as though the soft core porn that accounted for the content on his and Arianna Huffington’s (now AOL owned) site each day did.
The most recent attack occurred on 11 February on King George Street, just blocks from the warren of seedy bars where we filmed Feeling the Hate. There, a group of drunken religious nationalist youths attacked Hussam Rwidy, a 24-year-old Palestinian from East Jerusalem, stabbing him while they allegedly chanted “Death to Arabs!” Rwidy and his friend, Murad Khader Joulani, staggered into a nearby restaurant drenched in blood and begging for help. Hours later, Rwidy was pronounced dead (“The final moments of the martyred Husam Rwidy,” Wadi Hilweh Information Center — Silwan, 20 February 2011).
“A drunken brawl gone bad” was how several reports described the killing of Rwidy, parroting statements by the Jerusalem police that his death was the result of a fight. The two main assailants were initially indicted for manslaughter before overwhelming evidence forced Israeli government prosecutors to charge them with premeditated murder. As with the reaction by prominent Israeli media figures to Feeling the Hate, the racist behavior of Jewish nationalists was downplayed as a product of intoxication, if not dismissed altogether, while the incident was portrayed as an aberration. Any reflection about the trend of racial murders inside Israel was officially discouraged (“Murder of Palestinian highlights Israeli judicial discrimination,” 972mag.com, 23 February 2011). And so the band plays on.
With Feeling the Hate, we edited an hour of footage into a four-minute video that focused on the hatred many Jewish nationalists in Israel and the United States felt towards President Barack Obama. Our unreleased footage contains statements by the same kids about Palestinians. The political science major who said “I know my shit” but didn’t know who the Israeli prime minister was told us that the Palestinians should all be transferred to a small corner in the West Bank and kept there in a virtual cage. The boisterous young man with the mesh hat who remarked, “We don’t want any Nazi shit, Obama!” defended Israeli Foreign Minister Avidgor Lieberman’s proposal to strip citizenship from “disloyal” Palestinian citizens. These drunk kids in bars had a coherent, if very simplistic, ideological basis for their racism. It is called Jewish nationalism.
Because Jewish nationalism is an exclusivist project that defines everyone who exists outside the Zionist spectrum as a potential threat and an obstacle to the ultimate ambitions of Israel, racism directed against Obama and anti-Palestinian racism form a seamless thread. This thread connects automatically to the African and Asian migrant workers who Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called “a concrete threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the country” (“Netanyahu: Illegal African immigrants – a threat to Israel’s Jewish character,” Haaretz, 18 July 2010).
It is no coincidence that migrant workers in Israel are increasingly targeted alongside Palestinians in racist vigilante attacks. They are seeking a place in a country that views the removal of non-Jews from as much territory as it can gain control over as a national goal (“Police: Sudanese men stabbed by Israeli gang,” Ynet, 12 February 2011).
While young rightists attack migrants in the street, the government may warehouse some migrant workers in what Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin has called a “concentration camp” in the Negev Desert (planners from the Israeli Prison Service described the camp as an “accommodation center” in official material) (“Knesset Speaker: Racist rabbi’s letter shames the Jewish people,” Haaretz, 9 December 2010).
Though Rivlin condemned the plan, he has simultaneously endorsed a $1.5 billion shekel proposal to build a wall along the border of Egypt. “The goal is to ensure Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature,” Netanyahu said about the proposed wall.
Her words rang hollow, not only because her party had co-sponsored many of the racist and anti-democratic bills winding their way through the Knesset (see “Can’t we all just get along — separately?” — David Sheen’s disturbing 24 February 2011 interview in Haaretzwith Kadima lawmaker Shai Hermesh on the “Communities Acceptance Law”), but because she has personally fanned the flames of extremism through her words and actions.
After the Israeli assault on Gaza in winter 2008-2009, Livni boasted, “Israel demonstrated real hooliganism during the course of the recent operation, which I demanded” (I Lost Everything,” Human Rights Watch, 10 May 2010).
Now that some Jewish Israelis are “going wild” against Palestinians inside Israel, and demonstrating “real hooliganism” in racial attacks, does the opposition leader think she has the moral authority to condemn them? If the hooliganism starts in Gaza, where will it end?
Last summer, while living off of Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street, we regularly taped interviews with locals. After the murder of Rwidy, we decided to compile some of those clips into a short video so viewers could get a sense of the atmosphere we lived in. Now everyone can meet a few of our neighbors, like the Birthright Israel alum who believes that if Palestinian resistance becomes too acute, “you gotta just annihilate them.” Or the Canadian lone soldier who joined the Israeli Army’s Kfir Brigade, a notoriously abusive unit that serves exclusively in the Occupied Territories, who believes he’s defending the Jews “from terror, and such,” and that there is no such thing as the occupation (“Kfir brigade leads in W. Bank violations,” Haaretz, 11 May 2008).
Living among droves of heavily indoctrinated extremists on Ben Yehuda Street was not always a pleasant experience. But then again, had either of us been a Palestinian, it might have been impossible. Though many might want to ignore this fact, after Rwidy’s murder, it is increasingly hard to dismiss.
Inside the "Abu Eid Refugee Camp," 15 km from Tel Aviv (photo by Guy Botebia)
On December 13, 17-year-old Hamza Abu Eid was taken out of class and summoned to the principal’s office. “The Israelis are destroying your house right now,” the principal told him. “It is best that you remain here. The last thing we want is for you to have a confrontation with a police officer.”
But Abu Eid rushed to his family’s house, hoping to salvage whatever belongings he could. When he arrived, bulldozers from the Israeli Lands Authority had destroyed virtually everything — all seven homes belonging to the Abu Eid family were reduced to rubble. A black masked officer from the Israeli yassam (the anti-riot police) prevented Hamza from entering to attempt to save his belongings. Three refrigerators and a TV set were among the appliances that Hamza’s family lost in the demolitions.
In the end, 74 people were left homeless, including 54 children, forced to sleep under the open sky during the coldest period of the year. No government social workers arrived with assistance, nor did the state offer any temporary aid. The families gathered whatever belongings they could, pitched tents like so many Palestinian refugees have done in the past, and placed a sign over their land plot that read, “Abu Eid Refugee Camp.”
Over 70 members of the Abu Eid family sleep in tents next their destroyed homes
Although the area now looks like the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza after Operation Cast Lead, it is located only 15 kilometers from Tel Aviv in the Abu Toq neighborhood of Lod. All of Lod’s Palestinian residents are citizens of Israel, however, they are treated by the state like foreigners, or worse, as a threat to the survival of Zionism.
For years, the Abu Eid family applied for permits to allow them to renovate their homes to accommodate their growing family. But the state zoned their neighborhood as agricultural land and refused their requests (for obvious reasons, applications for renovation and building permits are almost always denied to the Arabs inside Israel). Finally, the state ordered them to seek residency elsewhere because their homes were slated for demolition.
Directly beside the Abu Eid refugee camp, building has begun on a yeshiva that will be directed by an Orthodox rabbi from the United States named Yaakov Saban. And plans have been authorized to build a road directly through center of the neighborhood. Pressure of Palestinian Israelis of Lod to leave is intensifying as a result of the far-right takeover of the city’s municipality.
Widespread corruption led to the collapse of the elected municipality, enabling the Israeli Ministry of Interior to install an emergency government consisting of hand picked military officials. Because the ministry is controlled by Eli Yishai, the leader of the extreme right Shas Party (Yishai was singled out in the Goldstone Report for saying “we should bombard thousands of houses in Gaza”), the new municipality has taken the form of an openly racist cabal. “They are poor in culture, poor in behavior. No ambition,” the mayor of Ramle, a neighboring city, said of the Palestinians of Lod.
Riyadh Abu Eid stands by the rubble of his home
While as many as 30 demolition orders hover over the residents of Lod, and 42,000 such orders have been issued across Israel against Arab residents, Yishai has declared his intention to settle thousands of Orthodox Jews in the city. At the same time, Arabs in Lod claim they are forbidden from living in a giant new public housing complex built in the heart of the city.
I arrived at the Abu Eid refugee camp on January 25. At the end of Lod’s Helen Keller Boulevard, men sit around open fires sipping tea, while small children clamber in an out of tents erected beside piles of rubble, debris and shattered home appliances. A middle aged man named Riyah Abu Eid met me at the entrance and took me into the makeshift camp.
“This place was here before 1948,” he said. “They destroyed it because they said we had no permit. But we can’t get permits because we are ’48 Arabs. We asked many times and were denied every time. They say we are terrorists. But look around, this is the real terror. Throwing children into the street on the coldest day of the year — that is terror.”
According to Riyadh Abu Eid, many children from camp are unable to attend school because they are unable to concentrate. A nine year old girl who was especially traumatized has refused to leave her bed for days. Riyadh does not try to conceal his desperation. “We do not feel safe here,” he said. “We want to ask the United Nations and Obama for international protection from a fascist government that has proven capable of massacring the unarmed.” He added, “The days of 1948 have come again.”
The destruction leveled against the Palestinians of Lod highlights a growing trend in Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens. Increasingly, the state is replicating the brutal methods it applies in the West Bank against Palestinians across the so-called Green Line. “For years I’ve been trying to say, ‘Don’t think the Occupation will stop at the Green Line,'” Amiel Vardi, a Jewish Israeli activist who accompanied me to Lod, told me. “Now we see it’s not stopping. They’re using the same methods with the settlements, with the courts, and with the Shabak [Shin Bet] on both sides of the Green Line. Go to the Abu Eid camp or to Al Arakib and there’s absolutely no difference from what I see in the Hebron hills.”
In the unrecognized Palestinian-Israel village of Dahmash, located next to Lod, the family of Ali and Farida Sha’aban defended their home for two years from demolition. When I met them last July, the couple was camped in front, awaiting the bulldozer that could come at any time. “If there is a democracy in Israel, then why are we forbidden from living here?” Ali said to me. “You are from the USA?” he asked me. “Well, we are the Native Americans in this place.” Building plans by the Lod municipality will effectively close off all or most of the entrances to Dahmash; already a wall separates the village from a Jewish housing development next door.
Demonstrators marched to the Lod police station demanding the release of Farida and Ali Sha'aban
On January 22, the Lod police violently arrested Ali, Farida, and five members of their family, accusing them of harboring illegal workers. Their detention in the city jail was unknown until Monday, when they were finally allowed to see a lawyer. A judge extended their imprisonment until Thursday on the grounds of secret evidence the Sha’aban family’s lawyer was not allowed to view — a tactic familiar to Israel’s military courts in the West Bank. Video allegedly showing the police kicking the Sha’aban’s while shouting, “Go to Gaza!” was shown during the court hearing.
Activists placed stickers on police cars mocking Israel's claim to be "Jewish and democratic." They read, "Yahudit V'Gezanit," or "Jewish and racist."
Last night, a group of Jewish Israeli demonstrators, including many from the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement, joined the Abu Eid family and Palestinian activists from Lod, including members of the renowned rap trio Dam (“I broke the law? No the law broke me,” is a lyric from their song “Born Here”), in a protest march to the Lod police station to demand the Sha’aban family’s release. The demonstration consolidated Lod as a new node in the growing solidarity movement inside Israel. On Friday, the Abu Eid’s will participate in the weekly Sheikh Jarrah demo, which was joined last week by residents of Al Arakib, and has been frequently attended by Farida and Ali from Dahmash.
Back in the Abu Eid camp, I spoke to Hamza Abu Eid, the 17 year old high school student, about what his life has been like since his home was destroyed. “I get distracted when I’m in class now,” he told me. “Sometimes when I think about the aggressive way the police treated the women — one of them kicked my brother’s pregnant wife — I get so angry I can’t focus.”
Hamza said his family plans to buy trailers to live in until the state delivers them “a solution.” He said, “For now, we have no solution. I expect that I will stay in this life and it will keep going on. The government has done nothing for me but destroy my house. As a citizen, I have no rights.”
He added, “I see a future full of darkness.”
Despite being homeless and traumatized, Hamza said he is excelling in school. He told me had just received 92 out of 100 on a chemistry exam, and that he has near-perfect marks in biology. When he finishes high school, Hamza plans to pursue a career in economics or medicine.
“I know there is a hope,” he said. “I just don’t know what it is.”