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In Order to “Save Israel from Itself,” Author Calls for a Secular Future

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
January - February 2005

Bernard Avishai, author of the book The Tragedy of Zionism: How Its Revolutionary Past Haunts Israeli Democracy, urges Israel to move toward a secular future in order to save its society “from itself,” in the lead article in Harper’s (January/February 2005).  

Avishai, who teaches business and public policy at Duke University, recalls his own early romance with the Zionist idea: “In the summer of 1967, I fell in love with the Jewish National Fund — the old Zionist holding company, which formally owned the land on which most of Israel’s farming collectives had been built. I was 18, and had just finished my first year at McGill University. In what still seems to me an exhilarating rush of events, I arrived in Israel about a week after the end of the Six Day War and wound up volunteering to work on Kfar Yehoshua, the moshav (or cooperative farm) of an indomitable couple whose close neighbor had been killed early in the war.”  

As time went on, Avishai became concerned about the treatment of Israel’s Arab citizens. He notes that, “On a visit with my cousins to the new campus of Tel Aviv University, I noticed huge posters with a puzzling map, which seemed exactly like the Arabic map of Palestine in which Israel had been effaced, only this was a Hebrew map of Israel on which the West Bank and Gaza were effaced, The posters ... were from a new Organization, the Whole Land of Israel Movement, which opposed returning any part of the conquered West Bank, even for peace, since (their statement read) ‘no government in Israel is entitled to give up this entirety, which represents the inherent and inalienable right of our people from the beginning of its history.’ The clear implication of the statement was that the West Bank should now be settled by Jews. Even then, this prospect struck me as oddly greedy, and provocative ...”  

Avishai writes that, “Thinking back to 1967, certainly, it is obvious that the settlers’ ideas and stridency did not just grow out of thin air. Both emerged from a revolutionary Zionist logic, and a powerful Zionist bureaucracy — right for their time, in the l930s and ’40s, but terribly wrong once the state was firmly established, after 1967 — a Zionism that automatically assured Jews privileges that other people, non-Jews subject to Israeli sovereignty, could not get ... When I finally moved to Jerusalem in 1972, I was given a virtually interest-free mortgage to buy an apartment in Jerusalem’s French Hill, a new neighborhood that the state ... was putting up next to Mt. Scopus in Arab East Jerusalem. All I had to do was prove myself a Jew by birth ... I did not think of the apartment complex as ‘a settlement.’ I did not think it strange that I was moving into a neighborhood stringently segregated by the very Zionist laws, dreams and management I had come to identify with liberation.”  

In today’s Israel, Avishai declares, “... the institutional discrimination ... has always been so routine as to be hardly noticed, especially among Jews. The most important continuing inequality is preferential residency on the land. Israeli Arabs, who are disproportionately engaged in farming, live mostly in separate towns having jurisdiction over 2.5 percent of the total land mass of pre-1967 Israel ... This segregated pattern of settlement results from the fact that about 93 percent of pre-1967 Israel is public land administered by the Israel Lands Administration, which since its founding in 1960 has essentially taken over the mission of the pre-state Jewish National Fund ... All citizens are entitled to equality in civil society, but people legally designated a part of the Jewish nation are entitled to immediate citizenship, and supplementary material benefits start from there.”  

Discussing Israel’s demographic concerns about a non-Jewish majority if occupation of the West Bank and Gaza continue, Avishai points out that if “a great proportion” of Israel’s current Arab citizens “are not absorbed as equals into Israel’s civil society, the country will face within its 1967 borders virtually the same dynamic that it began to face in the occupied territories in the l970s.” He laments that, “A June 2002 poll by Tel Aviv University’s Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies revealed that 46 percent of Israelis entertain the idea of expelling Palestinians. Benny Elon of the National Union argues openly that if Arabs are not willing to accept alternate citizenship they should be expelled. Efi Aitam, leader of the National Religious Party, proposes resettling Palestinians in the Sinai.”  

Avishai points to the fact that Israel’s Declaration of Independence declares it “a Jewish state,” but also promises to ensure the “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex ...” A hopeful future for Israel, he suggests, might be some kind of association with the European Union or NATO; “Israel would still be a ‘Jewish state,’ whose national literary and artistic masterpieces, created in Hebrew, would be open to the cultural and scientific currents of the developed world. But it would also be a country which any citizen of the EU could choose to work ... and eventually go through a defined process of naturalization. ... Israel would have to replace the Law of Return, but it could still have laws that prefer immigrants who are Diaspora Jews or victims of anti-Semitism.”  

He concludes: “A pipe dream? Perhaps. The alternative, however, is a nightmare, and not only for Palestinians. According to recent polls, nearly half of Israel’s young people ‘do not feel connected’ to the state, and a quarter of them do not see their future here. ... The absence of a coherent democratic vision cannot compete with the presence of a coherent, if outdated, Zionist vision. There will also be laments about how the Jewish state was supposed to be a ‘light unto the nations.’ Perhaps Israel could just learn from the European nations for a while — not too much to ask, with its nemesis dead, its champion backtracking, its patron in too deep, and its once noble revolution in doubt.”  

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