The moral bankruptcy of liberal Zionism

The moral bankruptcy of liberal Zionism
5 min read
23 Mar, 2015
Comment: Those considered "moderate" political figures in Israel still rely on a dangerous colonial narrative of racism and division.
Despite Amos Oz's "liberal" credentials, Zionism remains a racist concept, argues Ben White [AFP]

On the day of the Israeli election, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sounded a warning.

Palestinian citizens - "Arab voters" - were "heading to the polling stations in droves", he announced, before urging Jewish citizens to do their bit and protect the right-wing government.

The Likud leader's nakedly racist incitement, particularly in the context of an election, prompted widespread international condemnation, including from politicians and pundits supportive of Israel.

Bibi is an easy villain - even some of Israel's strongest supporters will condemn him.

But it is the moral bankruptcy of his political opponents, those who identify as "liberal Zionists" or the "Zionist left", which is more instructive about both the main obstacles to a fair, lasting settlement, and the roots of the question of Palestine.

On 13 March, Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an extended article by author Amos Oz, based on two talks he had recently given. The tone is desperate and pleading; without the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Oz says, Israel, and the Zionist dream, will be undone.

The visceral fear expressed by Oz is that Jews might live in a state where Palestinians are a majority. Not Palestinians, of course, but "Arabs". For Oz, the enlightened liberal, this spells disaster:

"We'll begin with the most important thing, with a matter of life-and-death for the State of Israel: If there will not be two states here, and fast, there will be one state here. If there will be one state here, it will be an Arab state, from the sea to the Jordan River. If there will be an Arab state here, I don't envy my children and my grandchildren."

The same idea was expressed in an op-ed by Oz published in the Los Angeles Times the week before:

"Let's start with a matter of life and death. If there are not two states, there will be one. If there is one, it will be Arab. If Arab it is, there is no telling the fate of our children and theirs."

Why? What is so terrible about this prospect? What's telling is that Oz never really explains, directly, why "an Arab state" would be such a terrible prospect for his children and grandchildren - it's just assumed. In other words, there is something intrinsic to "Arabs" that would make a state in which they form a majority unbearable for Jews.

Oz's vision of the future is thin on details, but we can assume that the kind of scenario he is envisaging by an "Arab state" is one where Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, currently living under a half-century-long military regime, receive citizenship and voting rights, thus erasing the Jewish majority established by Israel through violent displacement.

The terminology is also revealing. A state with, say, a 60 percent Arab majority of citizens, is not the same thing as an "Arab state". Oz's shorthand betrays the majoritarian, ethnocratic ethos of the "Jewish state" he seeks to preserve.

Oz does foresee an alternative scenario, "that, in order to avert the emergence of an Arab state from the sea to the Jordan River, a dictatorship of fanatic Jews will rule here temporarily; a dictatorship with racist features".

Yet even this, eventually, would "give way to the inevitable: one Arab state".

Oz's talk of "delusional" cohabitation, the "fantasy" of "equality" and a future "internal bloodbath", is reminiscent of the paranoia of white South Africans who similarly feared that a transition to majority rule would mean "violence, total collapse, expulsion and flight".

And this is not the only historical echo heard in the anxieties of Oz and Israeli "moderates".

Condoleezza Rice has recalled how Tzipi Livni once explained to her that a return of expelled Palestinian refugees would "change the nature of the State of Israel, which had been founded as a state for the Jews".

Writing in her memoirs, Rice reflected:

"I must admit that though I understood the argument intellectually, it struck me as a harsh defense of the ethnic purity of the Israeli state when Tzipi said it. It was one of those conversations that shocked my sensibilities as an American. After all, the very concept of "American" rejects ethnic or religious definitions of citizenship. Moreover, there were Arab citizens of Israel. Where did they fit in?"

It is in order to soothe these sorts of doubts, in order to draw a veil over the images of fleeing columns of Palestinian refugees and burning, demolished villages, that Oz deploys a series of analogies he hopes will square the circle.

So in his Haaretz piece, as in in other places, Oz presents Palestinians and Israelis as "neighbours" in need of "good fences", or as a married couple in need of a "fair divorce".

And so it goes on: there is "no choice", Oz writes, but to "divide this small house into two even smaller apartments".

On another occasion, Oz used the analogy of a painful amputation: "The patients, Israel and Palestinians, are unhappily ready for surgery, but the doctors are cowards." And then there is the parable of the drowning man, who has the right "to make room for himself on the plank, even if in doing so he must push the others aside a little".

But fables and analogies, no matter how eloquent, cannot erase the history of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, power asymmetry, or the ongoing settler colonial violence - both military and legal - that ensures the expelled remain excluded, and those who remain, subjugated.

There is a telling throwaway line in Oz's essay, when he claims that "Israel's existence or destruction was never a life-and-death question" for Syria, Libya, Egypt or Iran. But then he adds this: "Maybe it has been for the Palestinians - but fortunately for us, they are too small to overcome us."

Colonialism is always a "life-and-death question" for the colonised, and Oz knows this. His relief is that the Palestinians are "too small" to do anything about it.

It is precisely in order to keep Palestinians weak, fragmented by borders and ID cards, expelled and segregated, that Oz uses his intellectual energies - not to issue a rallying call for equality and decolonisation, but to incite fear based on denial, projection, and, ultimately, racism.