Why Zionists should support critics of the Israeli Occupation

Photo from an Open Shuhada Street Demonstration by Kara Newhouse. Used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Nathan Geffen    

Shaul and Yuli Novak are two Israeli Defence Force veterans with the organisation Breaking the Silence. They are currently visiting South Africa, giving talks and promoting a book. Breaking the Silence publishes testimonies by Israeli soldiers of their actions, many of them human rights violations, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).

Shaul is a strictly observant orthodox Jew who is committed to Israel. Yet he is reviled by many of his Jewish countrymen because he speaks out against and exposes the awfulness of the Israeli Occupation.

He says that just as he wants a state and civil rights for his people, so the Palestinians should have the same. Many Zionists say this too, but in contrast to most, Shaul and Novak mean it and are dedicating their lives to achieving it. Shaul and Novak are confident that it is still possible to move the several hundred thousand Israeli settlers out of the OPT so that a Palestinian state is viable.

How to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a question that troubles many in South Africa. Not only is it a subject close to the hearts of Muslims, Jews and others, but Israel’s policies in the OPT are compared the world over to apartheid.

The Palestinians in the OPT live under the dictatorship of a foreign army of occupation. They have severe restrictions on their movements and rights. They have to use separate roads and amenities to Israeli settlers. They have no meaningful franchise. They are severely oppressed, and the Occupation continues unabated, with new Jewish settlements being approved all the time by the Israeli government. This is why Israel is a pariah state and why many people, myself included, roll our eyes when Israel’s supporters proudly proclaim that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.

There is a vociferous and even acrimonious debate among those opposed to the oppression of Palestinians. On the one hand, the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has three goals:

  • End of occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands including the dismantling of the infamous wall that runs through much of the West Bank;

  • Full equality and rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel; and

  • Promotion of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

Outspoken critics of Israel, Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky, have criticised the BDS movement. They argue that these three demands would result in the end of Israel, although the BDS movement does not explicitly acknowledge this, which Finkelstein says is dishonest.

The fulfillment of these demands would result in a single state in which Palestinians, supplemented by returning refugees, would outnumber the Jews and thereby end the Jewish state (in fact Palestinians might already be a majority if Israel is combined with the OPT).

Finkelstein, as far as I understand, explains that these demands mix up issues (such as the rights of Palestinians in Israel versus the demand for statehood by those in the OPT), go beyond what international law requires, and are incapable of mustering sufficient international political support. They won’t fly and are unrealistic. On the other hand, Finkelstein argues, there is an opportunity now to demand the end to the Occupation and that opportunity shouldn’t be undermined by an unrealistic political campaign.

Doron Isaacs, a South African, points out that while it is fair to characterise the situation, especially in the OPT, as apartheid, the analogy only goes so far: in contrast to blacks under apartheid, Palestinians appear to have no prospect of becoming the majority in Israeli cities.

The development of a single — albeit highly unequal — society in South Africa, which developed in spite of apartheid, and made separation impossible, is unlikely in Israel/Palestine.

The precondition for a South African solution is therefore absent, says Isaacs, and Palestinians are unlikely to mobilise for it. He says he supports the creation of a Palestinian state as the only practical way to advance equality and human rights in the present. Despite his unequivocal support for two states, Isaacs has been labelled a Jewish anti-semite by the rabbi of South Africa’s largest synagogue.

In response, it can be argued that it is doubtful that a Palestinian state is viable, that the Palestinians inside Israel will continue to be oppressed, and that the BDS movement is slowly generating worldwide support. Finkelstein has responses to all these points which you can listen to. (See “Finkelstein on BDS” part 1 and part 2. For the BDS view, see Omar Barghouti’s The BDS movement explained.)

The debate is a complex one and I am not yet sure where I stand. While I am a part of the Jewish community, I am an atheist and I have no attachment to the idea of a Jewish state. In contrast to what Zionists argue, I am sceptical that a Jewish state makes Jews safer.

But I respectfully suggest this to people who do want a Jewish state to continue existing and who would like that state to be democratic and not a pariah. Israel has a clear choice. If the Occupation does not end, and soon, Israel will continue to be a pariah state indefinitely. If the settlers entrench themselves further and the West Bank becomes a de facto part of Israel and Palestinians living there are not allowed to vote for the Knesset, not even Zionists will be able to argue that Israel is a democracy with a straight face.

Of course, if Palestinians are given the vote, the end of the Jewish state is a certainty. (I don’t lose sleep over this, but Zionists should.) The longer the Occupation continues, the greater the risk to a viable democratic Israeli state.

In contrast to Zionist propaganda people like Yehuda Shaul, Yuli Novak, Doron Isaacs, Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky are not the enemies of Israel; what they support is the only reasonable option if a democratic Jewish state, accepted by most of the world, is to remain viable.

On 24 August, this article was updated with a link to an article by Omar Barghouti.

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