Afterword: A Memoir Continued From Canada to Israel Some Reflections on Political Matters Back To My Two Worlds A Final Word Notes References

Ricardo It's An Ill Wind

Some Reflections on Political Matters

I now temporarily take leave of academic issues and turn to the political dimension with particular reference to my adopted country. I readily concede that my perception of current Israeli developments reflects value judgment. But since this is my autobiographical statement I feel justified in offering my value judgement not someone else’s. I have been cautioned that my perspective will provide ammunition for “anti-Semitic” critics of Israel. I certainly hope not; and in fact it strikes me that “philo-Semitic” critics of Israeli government policies might take heart from my remarks.(3) In any event, for my part, I pray for an Israel that acts according to the rules of equity and humanity, which I perceive to be quintessentially Jewish values – the Prophets, after all, took this for granted – an Israel that fulfills the promise of its own Declaration of Independence. To remain silent when I believe that the present government continues a policy opposed to these standards would be reprehensible, for there is at present no threat of imprisonment or worse as in totalitarian countries where criticism of government policies is made a crime against the state. Were that true in this country I might not be writing this memoir since I do not see myself as excelling in physical courage. What is the point in having freedom of expression if one forebears to use it? How long such a window of opportunity will remain open is, however, a worrying matter.

There is a further preliminary to put out of the way. I shall have something to say of religious pressures towards settlement of the West Bank to the end of de facto annexation. As will become apparent, I am strongly opposed to such policy; but I would not like to give an impression that my opposition carries with it hostility towards religious practice as such. That this is not the case will become clear from my frequent citations from the writings of Professor Y. Leibowitz (1903-94), a strictly religious Jew but also firm opponent of the occupation of Palestinian territories. My concern rather is with clericalism and the threat posed by clerical interferences with civil institutions.

 I have heard it recently declared by an acquaintance residing in my old home-town that “the Torah states that God granted Erets Yisrael [the Land of Israel] only to Yisrael. Nobody else, including Arabs, has any right to Erets Yisrael according to the Torah.” This I think sums up accurately the position of the religious Zionist movement, and also of traditional orthodoxy not preoccupied to the same degree, if at all, by the national issue. It is certainly taken for granted in the various synagogues I have attended in Canada and Israel. In recent years there can be no mistake since the national-religious synagogues all serve up, along with the prayer book and bible, a menu of newspapers, magazines and pamphlets championing settlement, both theoretically and in more practical terms, along with commentary on the weekly Torah portion. One such pamphlet even sports a map as its masthead including the Sinai peninsular and Jordan within the borders of the envisaged entity, and with a clenched fist as background into the bargain. I should make it clear that some Rabbis, though to little avail, object to the distribution of such literature on the reasonable grounds that the synagogue should be a place devoted to prayer.

 Now Jewish biblical commentary is famously sophisticated. In the first place one must ask what territories are granted to the Jewish people in the Bible? There is no simple answer, since all depends on which particular text one selects. But I allow that all include the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), the main bone of contention between Israel and the Palestinians. Some versions, however, such as Numbers 34: 1-12 or Ezekiel 47: 13-20, exclude the Negev and an outlet to the Red Sea. So be careful what you claim on biblical authority. On the other hand (or rather I think that should read: “on  the third hand”), Maimonides – twelfth-century legalist, moralist, philosopher, biblical commentator, and physician – maintains that the Holy Land includes, for certain purposes at least, any territories that have been subjugated by a Jewish “King,” in which case the problem is nicely solved. Or perhaps not, for even King David’s Empire excluded part of ancient Philistia, the area today designated as the Gaza Strip plus a little more territory to the north.

The modern conquest, initially confirmed by the Declaration of Independence in 1948 and the 1948-9 combats, was primarily undertaken by secularist political Zionists without serious pretension to a religious justification; indeed, the document designates Theodor Herzl as the “spiritual father” of the new Jewish state.(4) The justification offered in terms of the right of self-determination by the Jewish people in the light of centuries of persecution culminating in the very worst imaginable is one with which I, naturally, sympathize; to this extent I perceive myself as a Zionist. But this justification I believe – also speaking as a Jew – must be balanced by recognition of the political and civil rights of the other claimant. To my mind, it is outrageous to wave a magic wand and obliterate Palestinian national sentiment, as did Mrs. Golda Meir: “There were no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? It was either southern Syria before the First World War, and then it was a Palestine including Jordan. It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.”(5) Well, they exist now, even though their self-perception as a national entity may have been encouraged by the example of Israel’s struggle for nationhood including lessons in tunnel-building and sundry illegalities (when many would have said, and did say, that a modern Jewish State was an oxymoron), and by the Zionist campaign after WWII for the recognition of statehood by the world community at the United Nations. And surely there can be doubt that the occupation itself has played a major part in stimulating Palestinian national awareness.

Other less frank renditions of the Meir theme, which assume Arab residents to be second-class in one sense or another, are equally offensive. Nevertheless, the boundaries that emerged after 1948-9 (the 1967 lines) make pragmatic sense. If only it were possible to say with confidence and pride that all the following conditions specified in the Declaration of Independence had been satisfied: “The State of Israel will be open to the immigration of Jews from all countries of their dispersion; will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the principles of liberty, justice and peace as conceived by the Prophets of Israel; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race, or sex; will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, education and culture; will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions, and will loyally uphold the principles of the United Nations Charter.”

1967 marks a turning point. The religious component now becomes a predominant feature in the pressure for a Greater Israel, in a process commencing with an outpouring of Messianic sentiment upon the capture of east Jerusalem from the Jordanians. It has been reinforced by settlement of the captured territories led in fervor by the religious sector, in early days by fundamentalist immigrants from the United States, but for years supported – indeed financed – by governmental and quasi-governmental sources “left wing” and secular. Secular nationalist ideology – possibly encouraged by attitudes accompanying the massive immigration from the former Soviet Union (I cannot say since I am no professional sociologist) – has been added to the brew; but such ideology can also be traced in part to the influence of the European nationalisms of the 1930s including the Italian version.
The outcome of all this is an on-going trampling of Palestinian civil and political rights in the occupied territories by state and individual acts of land theft, destruction of property, collective punishment, “military justice,” a different legal system for Palestinians and settlers with far harsher penalties for the former and a nudge and wink for the latter, and spiteful obstructionism rendering a normal life impossible.(6) It adds up to a nasty occupation compared with which British mandatory rule was a picnic, in the specific sense that the Yishuv, or Jewish community, flourished during that period, as is recognized in the Declaration of Independence itself: “In recent decades they returned their language [sic], built cities and villages, and established a vigorous and ever-growing community, with its own economic and cultural life.”

Before those with eyes in their heads to see, were they only willing to use them, there looms the obscene “security fence,” justified to prevent terrorist attacks but constructed on Palestinian not Israeli land for much of its serpentine length.(7) The term “fence” to designate a huge concrete structure is as ridiculous as would be the Berlin Fence, not to speak of the Great Fence of China or Hadrian’s Fence. But terminology is important for those happy to be fooled.

I return to the religious case for a Greater Israel. To my mind, it is illegitimate, and not at all in the spirit of traditional methodology, to focus on one “commandment” in isolation and draw in unqualified fashion from the Biblical sources as justification for expansion beyond the 1967 borders. Two reasons lead me to this conclusion.        

First, the Bible does not grant carte blanche to conquest. A right to the land by the ancient Israelites was specifically justified on the grounds that the original inhabitants were idol worshippers of a vicious and immoral order; this does not apply today. It is also conditional on proper behavior by the newcomers. There is, needless to say, no lack of Biblical sources in this latter regard and warnings of the consequences of neglect of the condition. Indeed, certain of the relevant passages are recited by the reader in the synagogue in a modified tone to impress the congregants.

Secondly, Orthodox Judaism has no Pope. Professor Y. Leibowitz, who placed fulfillment of the commandments at the head of his agenda, stated at least as early as 1970, and with exceptional forcefulness, his opposition to the occupation: “The Rabbis who justify holding the Territories on ‘religious grounds’ are Rabbis operating under the aegis not of the Torah but of the secular authority – officers and agents of the Israeli government. They are not carrying on the tradition of the Prophet Elijah but of the 850 prophets of Baal…” (Leibowitz 1999: 397; 1 September 1970).(8) Leibowitz’s specific rationale for opposing the occupation, repeated over and again, is that the rule of one people over another can only result in the degradation of the former and, in the case at hand, a degeneration of Jewish values, the fostering of “ferocious habits” to use a term coined by John Stuart Mill in a different context (1963–91 [1848]: 952). All colonial experience bears out the dictum that power corrupts; and Leibowitz’s predictions, I fear, are in the process of fulfillment in the specific case at hand.

There are, thankfully, several human-rights organizations and others, including released servicemen, who speak up and engage in protests; for (as I reminded readers at the outset of this section) there is freedom of expression in this country, and a free press. These are no small matters. Nevertheless, there is reason for concern. Firstly, public opinion as a whole seems indifferent to what transpires on the West Bank. Major manifestations for “social justice” proceed during summer 2011 with little if any attention to the immoralities, or even the costs, of the occupation as though these are irrelevant considerations. Secondly, we have been brought face to face this year with a new and worrying phenomenon, namely a range of legislative proposals to limit criticism of settlement policy, to constrain human-rights activities including the right to make appeal to the High Court, and changes in the composition of the Court to render it more “reliable,” and also administrative measurers such as the closing of an Israeli-Palestinian radio station (The Independent, 21 November, 2011). Our freedom of expression and the press can no longer be taken for granted.

The campaign to turn the clock back is, for example, reflected in and reinforced by proposals for a Basic Law designating Israel as “the national home for the Jewish people.” On the surface this seems innocuous enough; after all, there is similar language in the Declaration of Independence. But in fact the formula disguises rejection of the principles of the Declaration cited above. Consider the private-member’s bill in question: “Israel is a Jewish, Judaic and Judaistic nation state whose purpose is to enable the Jewish nation to Judaize itself in a national manner and to nationalize itself in a Jewish manner, in order to fulfill its nationalism and its Judaism” (Haaretz, 14 August 2011). (One Judaizing feature would be abolition of Arabic as second official language.) This embarrassing monstrosity originates with a central figure in the Kadima party, the official opposition party, and has considerable support across the spectrum of parties. A prominent figure in the main government party has been equally frank, justifying the proposal on the grounds that it gives the courts the ability to deal appropriately with situations where “the Jewish character of the state clashes with its democratic character” (Haaretz, 4 August 2011). I would like to think that these legislators “know not what they do,” that their apparent preparedness to walk the same path and even adopt much the same perverted language as those who, slowly but surely, undermined the authority of the Weimar Republic, can be explained, if not condoned, in terms of a poor education and ignorance of history and fearful precedent.

However, do I discern a break in the gathering clouds? I note that the Speaker of the Knesset and member of the main coalition party has protested against members of his own party for their championing a bill to restrict petitions to the High court by non-governmental human-rights organizations – as he sees it, out of self-interested rather than ideological motives – and has appealed to the Prime Minister to put a stop to their machinations (Yisrael Hayom, 27 November 2011). The Prime Minister himself has announced withdrawal of his support for such a bill (Haaretz, 27 November). And I welcome his recent declaration to the effect that “so long as I am prime minister, Israel will continue to be an exemplary democracy” (Ynet, 21 November 2011). Yet I fear there is little reason for optimism. This declaration by the Prime Minister, even if taken at face value, effectively concedes a threat and implies that it may well materialize once he is no longer in power. And if he has hesitated it seems to me to be because of pressures from abroad rather than on grounds of genuine commitment to democratic norms. It is also the case that  there is no need for the attacks on democratic institutions within Israel proper, which only embarrass  Diaspora Jews and western allies, provided that the broad processes of effective annexation pointing towards the achievement of a “Greater Israel” continue apace. 

The creeping annexation which has now gone on for some 44 years – longer than the Japanese presence in Korea 1905-45 – indeed continues apace. It is also apparent that there is no intention of creating a political entity that will accord all residents equal voting rights regardless of religion and other ethnicities. Indeed, an important study of the economic dimension to Israeli policy towards “the territories” argues convincingly that the objective from the beginning of the occupation in 1967 has been to prevent a two-state solution and at the same time avoid a genuine single-state outcome (Arnon 2007). Unfortunately, what Leibowitz wrote regarding “simple” occupation applies yet more strongly to an apartheid Greater Israel which he forecast as early as 1970:

…within a short time there will no longer be in such a state a Jewish worker or Jewish farmer. The Arabs will be the working people, and the Jews will be the managers, inspectors, officers, and policemen above all secret policemen. Such a state will be entirely a state of the security services, such as will destroy education / upbringing [heb: chinuch], free speech and thought, and democracy in the regime (Leibowitz 1999: 396; 1 September 1970).

A harsh picture indeed, although Leibowitz saw it as necessarily impermanent: “Greater Israel is … not the state of the Jewish people, and never can be. It is only the framework for violent Jewish rule over a mainly Arab population, which can never exist without violence and terror, and therefore can never be permanent” (254; 6 September 1984).

As I said, it is all a matter of values and a majority of those with a right to vote, at least their representatives in the Knesset, would appear either to oppose a two-state solution, or not to care enough to perceive what a Greater Israel will amount to. Ezekiel, it is my impression, would not wish to be included among their number; after all, following his formulation of the ideal boundaries of the Holy Land, he adds:

“You shall allot it as a heritage for yourselves and for the strangers who reside among you, who have begotten children among you. You shall treat them as Israelite citizens; they shall receive allotments along with you among the tribes of Israel. You shall give the stranger an allotment within the tribe where he resides – declares the Lord God” (Ezekiel: 47: 23-4).