The skeletons in the closet

Pluto author Alice Rothchild talks to Professor Yehouda Shenhav of Tel Aviv University about the failure of the two-state solution, the short-comings of the Israeli left and Jewish history in the Middle East.

6th January

I have been reading about the Israeli governmental criticism and talk of censorship of left wing academics in Israel and I am eager to meet a professor who has been under fire. Professor Yehouda Shenhav of Tel Aviv University has a way of exploding the assumptions that frame many of our understandings of the conflict. A brilliant and provocative thinker and author of “Bounded by the Green Line,” he describes himself as a member of the radical left. An older man in a light blue sweater and jeans, he starts out stating that peace negotiations are useless, the two state solution is a menace to Jews and Palestinians, and he believes in one space, (not necessarily a state) for two people.

He has definitely caught my attention.  He argues that there is no political theory on which to base the end of the conflict except the symbol of the Green Line which was an arbitrary ceasefire line that most use as a litmus test for further conversation. He notes that the Green Line has been erased by settlements, yet leftist political theory is founded on this vanishing line. He asks rhetorically, can you evacuate 500,000 Jews, or if you leave out Jerusalem, 350,000 Jews, or if you make border corrections, 135,000 Jews. Not going to happen.

The concept of a Jewish state is problematic as long as a Jewish state is a recipe for the future transfer of Palestinians. He explains that these racist, fascist tendencies are a continuation of 1948. The Jewish state was based on ethnic cleansing, with the destruction of villages, massacres, and dispossession of hundreds of thousands of indigenous Palestinians.  This is the Israeli skeleton in the closet. “Whoever holds on to ’67 as the beginning of the conflict is hallucinating and this is the Israeli left.” They participate in masking the atrocities of ’48 and thus keep that particular skeleton deep in the closet.

He further explores the ubiquitous refusal to deal with the refugees from 1948 and the anomaly of having Arab citizens of Israel who do not have equal civil rights with their fellow Jewish citizens. Israel is thus an ethnic/racial state which denies the rights of the Palestinian national collective within it. Sovereignty, territory, and identity are all interconnected. He then tells us this painful story of a Palestinian student of his who bought a house in a Jewish settlement on the Green Line. She asked Professor Shenhav if he would be the formal landlord so that she will be safe in case there is land transfer; she wants to be sure her children have access to their home.

Professor Shenhav reminds us that within the origins of Zionism there was tremendous debate on how to emancipate the Jews and the meaning of a Jewish homeland. He emphatically states that Jews have a right to live in this region.  He notes that in 1942 in New York at the Biltmore Convention, the Zionist movement for the first time, clearly stated that it wanted a sovereign Jewish state. That decision led to ethnic cleansing and to the homogenization of identity, but Palestinians and Jews remained entangled. He adds, we live in one state with apartheid, not only in the Occupied Territories, but also within Israel, and this critical point is not understood by the Israeli left.  This is a grave mistake. He questions, “What is the difference between a settlement in and out of the Green Line? Nothing.”  He does not suggest that all Jews return to Europe, he is in fact from Iraq, but he feels it is important to acknowledge that these are all settlements as well. Israeli is a “wannabe” democracy, based on a state of exception with emergency rules, a legacy of British imperialism and Jewish legislation. He reminds us that from 1948-1966 Palestinians within the Green Line lived mostly under a military regime, with permits to move, do business, etc. This is colonialism.  Since 1967 the colonialism has extended into the West Bank and Gaza, so Israel cannot exist as a democratic state without military rule of Palestinians. As examples he cites a series of racial laws that are percolating through the Knesset: the rules against teaching or commemorating the Nakba, the loyalty oath to the Jewish state required of all citizens, demographic laws such as family reunification that prevent partners of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship from moving into Israel.  He argues that this is a continuation of the 1948 war by other means.

He asks, “How does a Jewish racial state cope with non-Jews? There is no difference between Meretz and Lieberman except in degree of sincerity. When threatened, all Jews become [Avigdor] Lieberman.” In his analysis, many progressive intellectuals speak from a position in the map of Israeli identity politics as “white Jews.” Meanwhile 60% of settlers are from the lower strata of society. A few months ago in Sweden he was asked what is the best welfare state and he replied, “West Bank Jewish settlements.”  They have full employment, housing, education, health care; this is a very attractive deal for Mizrachi and Orthodox Jews. Should these folks then pay the price for peace when the Israeli government has sent them there and supplied them with electricity, housing, internet, etc?  He argues that the liberal Israeli community defines itself through “othering” the settler community that is supported by the government.
Provocatively, he also believes that while Israeli liberals are proud to be secular, being here is not a secular decision, a Zionist inherently cannot be secular. Jewish nationality is by definition religious and Hebrew is a religious language. In his classes he teaches that there is no “Jewish secularity,” even Barak was not willing to give up “the Holy Places” although he probably did not believe in them.

He begins to explore the Arab Jewish story, and states that the Zionists used violent methods to get people like his parents to leave Iraq. In 1951 an agreement was made between Israel and Iraq to “denaturalize the Jews of Iraq,” as they had little interest in coming to Israel. Ultimately six bombs went off in five months (one placed in a synagogue) and ultimately the 120,000 Jews of Iraq left; there is a lingering theory that the bombs were placed by Zionists, but the government of Israel claims these files are confidential. The Iraqi Jewish property was subsequently confiscated (somebody profited from this forced migration) and the immigrants arrived in Israel to find themselves second class citizens. The Jews of Iraq were highly educated, even more so than the Europeans, but after ten years of life in Israel, they were at the bottom of the Israeli educational ladder. This discrepancy has only gotten worse and he notes that in Tel Aviv University, 9% of the faculty is Mizrachi and 0.5% Palestinian.

He then explores the strange case of the recent Russian immigration which has unexpected consequences and shows that it is difficult to divide nationalism from religion. “What does it mean to be a Jew?” Professor Shenhav queries. Today some 300,000 people who came from the Soviet Union are not Jews but where brought here by the Law of Return. Professor Shenhav states that this is the mirror of the Nuremberg Trials: Hitler declared that if a person had 1/6 Jewish ancestry then he was a Jew. Ben Gurion used the same criteria. So now in Israel there are women from Kazakhstan who are Jewish by nationality and Muslim by religion! He hypothesizes that this may create fissures between nationality and religion as well as strange alliances. He sees right wing Mizrachi Jews in alliance with left leaning but ultranationalist Barak and wonders why the Israeli left supports an apartheid system? “If I have a right of return to a Jewish settlement, then why can’t a Palestinian have a right of return from Nablus to Jaffa?” He thinks it is important to rethink sovereignty, a 17th century concept that began with national borders. He claims this concept does not apply here, instead we have a continuous civil war. He speaks of a shared sovereignty that crosses borders, land, and populations where populations and territories can be in a space together with “horizontal sovereignty”; where for instance, a Palestinian in Galilee picks one or dual citizenship. This sounds intriguing, even if this is a bit hard to comprehend.

I am even more amazed when he states that he doesn’t like identity politics, but he thinks that we have to be focusing on what are the rights of Jews in the region. We all know that the rights of Palestinians are being violated, but who has defined the rights of Jews? He sees that the Israeli right has a totally military solution to that question. But, he states, we need to reverse this. How do we protect Jewish rights when the space is democratically organized? This was first discussed by Martin Buber who famously warned that the first victims of the Jewish state would be the Jews themselves. Professor Shenhav wonders if Jews are much like the crusaders, arriving like crusaders for a limited time, terrorizing the local population with no intention to integrate, and ultimately destined to be kicked out. The white supremacist aspect of Israeli Jews believe that Israel is a branch of Europe. “How many Jews speak Arabic?” he demands. This is all about power relationships.

Out time is up and we are filled with questions. Clearly this man has many provocative and exceptional observations that rile up Israeli authorities and lead me to want to read his books and understand his views further. If he loses his right to work or to speak and is branded a traitor, then that will be a sad day for whatever will be left of free speech in Israel.

Alice Rothchild is the author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience. She maintains a website at www.alicerothchild.com

Broken Promises, Broken Dreams – Second Edition

Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience

Alice Rothchild

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