Israel is like all nations and different from all nations

by Jonathan Todd

1 December marks 40 years since the death of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s George Washington. Yitzhak Rabin, its’ would-be Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated 18 years ago last Monday. Following the Six-Day War in 1967, during which Rabin was Chief of Staff to the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), Ben-Gurion, by then no longer prime minister, favoured returning all the captured territories apart from East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and Mount Hebron as part of a peace agreement.

Peter Beinart last year published The Crisis of Zionism that calls for a revivified Zionism and recalls Ben-Gurion explaining: “Two basic aspirations underlie all our work in this country: to be like all nations, and to be different from all nations.”

Like all nations in providing a state for its people, a Jewish majority and homeland. Unlike all nations, as Beinart observes, in stressing: “Truly realizing the Zionist dream … required modelling various liberal or socialist principles for the world.” These principles led the Israeli constitution to commit to “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”.

In contrast to Ben-Gurion’s vision, Israel is like and unlike all nations in ways that drive Beinart’s crisis. Like all nations in failing to fully make real these liberal/socialist principles. Unlike all nations in being the occupying force that Ben-Gurion cautioned against.

The Palestinian conflict is entangled with Egyptian instability, Syrian disintegration and Iranian nuclear capability. Iran desperately props up Assad in Syria, partly to maintain supplies to Hezbollah, which now directs 100,000 rockets toward Israel from the north. Iranian supplied weapons may again hit Israel from the south via Hamas in Gaza, if this Sunni body can be reconciled to Shia Iran after seeking an alliance with the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt prior to them being swept from power.

If Israel seeks to remove by force the Iranian nuclear capability, Iran will strike back through its proxies in Hezbollah and potentially Hamas, which chides its Fatah compatriots for entering peace talks with Israel. These talks will be rejoined by Avigdor Lieberman. Until his trial verdict last week, he faced jail on corruption charges but now seems set to resume service – if service is the word – as foreign secretary. Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, consequently, laments: “The path to turning Israel into a Putinesque state is open”.

This spectacularly betrays Ben-Gurion’s liberal/socialist principles. As much as we bemoan our government, it is not Putinesque. Ben-Gurion’s Zionist principles are, though, being let down in Israel in ways that find more British resonance.

The Economist reports: “The “labour share” of national income has been falling across much of the world since the 1980s.” Inequality bedevils Israel as much as the UK. Both the British and Israeli left tend to blame these trends on big business, while the right unites in blaming big government. Yet trends toward inequality hold across different economic models. What seems more likely to be driving these trends, therefore, are exogenous factors, e.g. globalisation and technology.

Reviving Ben-Gurion’s dream requires approaches to these factors that do more to equalise their rewards as urgently as Ed Miliband’s Labour does. In this sense, our one nation projects are the same. But, in another sense, the challenges facing Israel are profounder. In the face of comparable existential threats, we can only wonder whether the UK would have remained a democracy. Not least as many Israelis descend from regions (eastern Europe and north Africa) with limited democratic traditions, it is to Israel’s credit that it has remained so.

To be both majority Jewish and democratic, however, necessitates a two state solution. While raised as an ardent nationalist, Tzipi Livni is committed to this logic and leads Israeli negotiations with the Palestinians. Success requires compromises: land swaps around the 1967 borders; protections for any Jews that remain east of what borders are agreed; division of Jerusalem; guarantees on Israeli security (e.g. an Israeli troop presence within a Palestinian state on the Jordanian border); and an agreement on Palestinian refugees that respects Israel’s majority Jewish status.

Whether these compromises can be made in this round of negotiations or in any between administrations led by Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas or any conceivable Israeli and Palestinian leaders remains unknown. Until they are, though, Ben-Gurion’s Zionism will remain unrealised – and the toddlers of the Second Intifada risk being the teenagers of the next.

Both challenges to this Zionism – the declining wage share, which the British and Israeli left should work together on, and the absence of a two-state solution, which the British left should support Israel in achieving – require the morally courageous and far-sighted leadership that Rabin embodied. The fanfare with which Haaretz have hired Beinart indicates that an appetite for such leadership persists in Israel.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist and last week attended a BICOM delegation to Israel and Palestine

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9 Responses to “Israel is like all nations and different from all nations”

  1. John reid says:

    Hopefully not many Gaurdian readers read labour uncut, or they’ll be screaming at this,

  2. swatantra says:

    1. Israel is as much ‘democratic’ as ancient Greece, where only the elite Athenians were involved in democray and the slaves (aka Palestinians) excluded.
    2. The Israeli Labour Party is an absolute disgrace.
    3. The reason why …’the Palestinian conflict is entangled with Egyptian instability, Syrian disintegration and Iranian nuclear capability. Iran desperately props up Assad in Syria, partly to maintain etc etc etc… ) ie the Middle East in such turmoil is because of Israel being parachuted into the middle off it without anyones say so, apart from the European Jews. If they’d wanted a separate ‘homeland why didn’t they sequester bits of Germany Poland and Austria, and stick Israel in the middle of Europe.
    4 A One State solution is the only solution, where Isarelis Jews and Muslims live side by side ie a Northern Ireland type of constitution in One Palestine.
    5.Zionism is abhorant.

  3. John reid says:

    Swatantra, normally I agree with you, but that’s twaddle,

  4. Dear Swantantra,

    It pains me to have to engage with your prejudices but:

    1) Israel is a democracy to a greater extent than the UK given that it has a proportional electoral system that guarantees minority representation, and it doesn’t have our un-elected second chamber. Israel’s 20% Arab minority have full civil and political rights. They vote. There are Arab MPs and parties in the Knesset. There have been Arab ministers, judges, soldiers in Israel. The current #3 diplomat in Israel’s London Embassy is a Bedouin Muslim. In the West Bank and Gaza there is also supposed to be democracy, but the Palestinian Authority has only ever held one election.
    2) Please explain your attack on the Israeli Labour Party to the Arab woman former MK I met in Tel Aviv 3 weeks ago who Israeli Labour members elected in a primary. Please explain how it fits with the role of Labour PMs Rabin and Peres in the peace process, which Rabin paid for with his life.
    3) The different crises in the Middle East may be entangled but the Israel/Palestine conflict did not cause the Arab Spring or Iran’s nuclear programme. Israel was not “parachuted” into the Middle East. Half of Israeli Jews are descendent from Sephardi communities who lived in Muslim countries in the region for 2000 years. The other half are mainly the survivors of the Holocaust – your suggestion they might in the 1940s have wanted, or been able, to live in the countries where their families were slaughtered by the Nazis is revolting. Israel was not created “without anyones say so, apart from the European Jews”, it was the product of a UN resolution and partition plan which also created a Palestinian state, which the Arabs rejected and started but failed to win a war to annihilate the new Jewish state.
    4) You are at liberty to argue the case for a one state solution from the comfort of the UK, but repeated polls show a substantial majority of both Israelis and Palestinians want two states living side by side. They have the right to self-determination – not to be rammed together against their will into an artificial country that would be bound to collapse into civil war, but to have the nation states each people aspires to, a Jewish state and a Palestinian state.
    5) Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, the belief that the Jews deserve a nation state as much as anyone else. If it is “abhorant” I hope you use the same terminology about Ghandi, Jinnah, the Dalai Lama, the Kurds, the PLO and any other person or group that has fought for national self-determination.

    It is disappointing when Jonathan offers a nuanced and thoughtful critique based on visiting the region, that you have offered a rather ignorant rant.

    Luke Akehurst
    (Director, We Believe in Israel, BICOM’s grassroots campaign)

  5. Henrik says:

    @swatantra: I’m disappointed, I don’t usually agree with what you write, but generally I can follow the logic – this verges on nasty, typically Leftist anti-Semitism (which usually masquerades, unconvincingly, as anti-Zionism) and also betrays a profound ignorance of history.

  6. Avigdor Lieberman has been acquitted of corruption, and he is now back as Israel’s Foreign Minister. The merger of his gutter mob with Naftali Bennett’s sewer mob can therefore proceed.

    With or without that merger, Lieberman will continue to use his position to agitate for the denaturalisation of the fast-growing population of “ultra-Orthodox” Jews, and for the denaturalisation of the Arabs, who are the emerging or existing majority of the population in half the territory within Israel’s 1948 borders.

    The Arabs include the original inhabitants of the Land, those whom the Israelites conquered, who founded Jerusalem, who became Christians when or well before the Romans did, who remain so to this day, who had comprised the entire population of Jerusalem for centuries at the time of the Islamic Conquest, and who embody the Holy Land’s historic norm of Christian sovereignty: Roman, Byzantine, Frankish, British.

    Such are the lengths to which the secular Ashkenazi nationalist project must go in order to save itself from the unwillingness of its proponents, either to move to Israel, or to reproduce once they have arrived there.

    By contrast, Theodor Herzl denied the possibility, once the Zionist State had been founded, that Jews, as such, could then continue to exist anywhere else. They would have lost the right to call themselves Jews, according to the founding father of Zionism.

    Not only is the population within the pre-1967 borders 20 per cent Arab and growing, but the majority of the rest is of Middle Eastern rather than European origin: dark-skinned, linguistically and culturally Arabic, and with little or (overwhelmingly) no connection to the victims of Hitler.

    How is it, then, that the place is run by Avigdor Lieberman, who was born in what is now Moldova, who did not move to Israel until he was 20, and who continues to sport an obviously European surname; by a white man called Bennett; and by Benjamin Mileikowsky, who affects to be called Netanyahu, a name inscribed in Ancient Hebrew on a 2800-year-old signet ring which he displays in his office?

    Why does this overwhelmingly brown country in the Levant have an apparently irremovable white ruling class which is basically and ultimately European or European-American?

    Why, indeed?

  7. steve says:

    Luke: “Israel’s 20% Arab minority have full civil and political rights.”

    But experience of Israel’s Arabs suggest the reality is very different.

    A report by the Or Commission* found that Israel’s Arab minority were subject to discrimination. According to the report this discrimination “has been documented in a large number of professional surveys and studies, has been confirmed in court judgments and government resolutions, and has also found expression in reports by the state comptroller and in other official documents.”

    And a 2004 report by the U.S. State Department** found that the Israeli government had done “little to reduce institutional, legal, and societal discrimination against the country’s Arab citizens.”

    Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu’s likening of the treatment of Arabs by the Israeli government to the practice of apartheid in South Africa is not without substance.



  8. Hi Steve,

    I think the key point you have missed is that the Or Commission report was commissioned by the Israeli government.

    There is a problem of a big socio-economic gap between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs and this has to be addressed, just as I hope we would want the socio-economic gap between different ethnicities in the UK to be tackled. You might want to have a look at the website of the UK Task Force on issues relating to Arab citizens of Israel, a UK Jewish (and explicitly pro-Israel) NGO which campaigns on this issue:

    But there is a difference between the ills of inequality and discrimination in society – which have to be tackled in Israel as in any society – and apartheid. Archbishop Tutu played a fantastic role in the struggle in South Africa but his comparison of that system and Israel doesn’t stand up to any examination. In apartheid South Africa from 1948 to 1994, state policy made black people second-class citizens in every aspect of life and forced them to live separately from and subserviently to their minority white rulers. Black people could not vote, could not hold political office, were forced to live in certain places, could not marry whites, could not use the same hospitals, restaurants, beaches or even public toilets and benches as whites. This whole system of white minority rule over a vastly larger black majority was enforced by a vicious use of police and military violence. None of these restrictions apply to Israel’s Arab minority. They have always had exactly the same political and civil rights as all other Israeli citizens, there are towns and cities in Israel with mixed Jewish and Arab populations, Jews and Arabs are treated in the same hospital wards, Arabs can and have held high office in the state etc. To give one simple example from my most recent trip to Israel we met an Arab woman who had been a Member of the Knesset, elected through a Zionist party’s list, and met her at a community centre that brought together Jewish and Arab children to promote co-existence.

    Israel’s relationship with its Arab minority is far from perfect and needs improving, but it is nothing like apartheid.


  9. steve says:

    Luke, thanks for your reply.

    For Archbishop Desmond Tutu the policies of the Israeli state are not identical the practice of apartheid in South Africa. There are obvious differences but also there are strong similarities. These have been noted by Tutu:

    “I have been to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and I have witnessed the racially segregated roads and housing that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under the racist system of Apartheid. I have witnessed the humiliation of Palestinian men, women, and children made to wait hours at Israeli military checkpoints routinely when trying to make the most basic of trips to visit relatives or attend school or college, and this humiliation is familiar to me and the many black South Africans who were corralled and regularly insulted by the security forces of the Apartheid government.”*

    William Madisha, former president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions went further:

    “As someone who lived in apartheid South Africa and who has visited Palestine I say with confidence that Israel is an apartheid state. In fact, I believe that some of the atrocities committed against the South Africans by the erstwhile apartheid regime in South Africa pale in comparison to those committed against the Palestinians.”**

    Both Tutu and Mashida are commenting on conditions endured by non-Israeli Arabs. The attitude that underpins the outcomes they describe, I would argue, also motivates the unacceptable treatment of Israeli Arabs, characterised by discrimination, racist policies*** and the resultant inequality.




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