Review: A Final Warning?

Against the Current, No. 113, November/December 2004

David Finkel

Apartheid Israel: Possibilities for the Struggle Within.  by Uri Davis.  London and New York: Zed Press, 2003. 242 pp. $24.95 paperback.

“ISRAEL’S MAD COURSE towards its own destruction” (7) is the theme of Michel Warschawski’s brief and terrifyingly direct essay.  The thesis is simply stated: Israel’s increasingly brutal occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza has fed straight back into Israeli Jewish society, leading to an accelerated process of ethical, social and political disintegration.

More than any other single book I’ve seen, this one should have the power to shake up pro-Zionist liberals, and I’m ordering several dozen copies to get into the hands of people who will read it more readily than a detailed historical treatise.

For this reviewer, what is new in Warschawski’s message is the rapid collapse, during these past four years of the second Intifadah, of the independence of the Israeli press and other institutions generally grouped in the fashionable catch phrase “civil society” (a term Warschawski avoids).  Here’s his description:

Without critical media, without a High Court ensuring respect for basic individual rights and democratic norms, with an education system whose mission has become militarizing society and with omnipresent police surveillance, Israeli society no longer has the brakes to stop it from sliding down the slippery slope from the rule of law to a gang culture ruled arbitrarily by violence.  The arbitrary rule of violence in the occupied territories is already spreading like gangrene through Israeli society.  There is a grave danger that the process of degeneration will speed up in the next few years to a point of changing the state’s structures to those of a fascist-type regime that will no longer need to bother about democratic pretensions or the principles of the rule of law. (64)

What I understand Warschawski to mean here is not fascism in the precise sense of a regime (as in Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain or Pinochet’s Chile) where unions are systematically smashed, workers’ organizations destroyed through state terror, and all political parties either banned or turned into direct state organs.  I believe he means something more along the lines of military Bonapartism, where the armed forces take over when political parties and parliamentary institutions are unable to regulate conflicts arising from a massive crisis.

Countries like Turkey and Pakistan have experienced episodes of this type. In the Israeli case, the factors pointing toward a potential crisis uncontrollable by normal methods include the Palestinian revolt, growing anger among the Israeli poor, the power of the religious extreme right and the settlers, the influence of organized crime and the decay of established mainstream parties, accompanied by an increased direct political role of military elites.  Declining social cohesion and the viciousness of social policy as well as personal behavior are among the symptoms.

Warschawski locates this process in a multiple context: the past four years of savage repression of Palestinian revolt; the failures of the “peace process,” to which Israeli liberal intellectuals reacted as if Yasir Arafat had personally betrayed them; the consequences of the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, ending a period of “normalization” of Israeli society; and September 11, 2001, which inaugurated a U.S. policy where previous restraints on Israeli conduct were lifted.

Warschawski places great emphasis on the importance of Rabin’s assassination.  Despite his visceral dislike of Arafat and the PLO, Rabin had undertaken important steps toward reconciliation with Israel’s Arab citizens.  His murder, and the failure of the aging and decrepit secular Zionist elite to respond with an offensive against the violent religious right, set the table for an Israeli “counter-reformation” and the degenerative decade that has followed.

Another factor deserving closer attention is the role of the Jewish community leadership in the United States—”fascinated by force, by the image of a Jewish paratrooper who can be as brutal as a U.S. Marine” (102)—in mobilizing their constituency to celebrate Israeli might.  This is a dimension of the tragedy that Warschawski mentions only briefly.

So far, the worst possible scenarios have not materialized—for example, the very real fear, reflected in one of Warschawski’s chapters written shortly before the 2003 Iraq war, that the attack on Iraq might give Ariel Sharon’s government cover for a massive physical expulsion of Palestinians.

This only means, however, that there remains an opportunity for the world to pay attention to the warning before time runs out. In any case (as other activists such as Jeff Halper point out) a massive expulsion isn’t necessary; the destruction of Palestinian society can be accomplished through driving out, imprisoning or selectively killing its leadership and educated elites.

The End of Israeli Democracy?  I have always been skeptical of claims that Israel’s parliamentary institutions about to collapse, given their structural and ideological importance for “the only democracy in the Middle East” and the infinite combinations of party coalitions that have been improvised by Israel’s political elites to meet any challenge to their entrenched power.

Yet Uri Davis in Apartheid Israel, writing from a somewhat different angle, offers a similar diagnosis:

Given what goes on in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, writing about political repression in Israel is like a guest taking residence in a Third World seaside resort hotel and complaining that his steak is not properly grilled, while the people in whose midst the hotel is located are starving…Yet it would be unwise to disregard the instruments of political repression inside Israel, if only because the political structures of the State of Israel are currently undergoing dangerous transformations.  (125)

Like Warschawski, Davis outlines a process of growing direct intervention in politics by the military command.  He also refers to the impact of Israel’s deep economic crisis, and the spectacular wealth gap in which the top ten percent of households’ gross income has reached twelve times that of the bottom ten percent.

The deterioration of the political structures of the State of Israel as reflected in the 2002 Knesset legislation [which sought to criminalize expressions of solidarity with Palestinian resistance, and led to attempts to bar leading Arab candidates from the 2003 elections] has been accompanied by manifestations of political corruption and economic deterioration of proportions hitherto unknown.

Over the past two decades, the discrepancies in access to income, property, capital, wage, education and consumption between the top 10 percent and the bottom ten percent have polarized to a degree that Israel is second only to the USA in this regard (Haaretz, 3 December 2002).  Taken together, against the backdrop of a protracted economic recession and the costly war criminal policies of occupation, the chances are that the tanks of the Israeli army deployed to level down the Jenin refugee camp in the Occupied West Bank will be directed to suppress food riots inside Israel, let alone the Supreme Court.  (144)

Again, whether or not the extreme scenarios materialize, the tendencies pointing toward them are dangerous enough.  Diagnosing the Crisis Michel Warschawski’s book can be read in an evening, while the work of Uri Davis is a rather complex and exhaustively documented political treatise.  They are complementary rather than contradictory, but come at the issues from somewhat differing directions.

Both are longtime activists dedicated to breaking the walls separating the peoples in the Palestine/Israel struggle.  Strikingly, both are authors of similarly titled autobiographies, Crossing the Border (Davis, 1994) and Sur la Frontiere (Warschawski, 2002).

Warschawski’s involvement in political and movement organizations extends from the post-1967 Matzpen (“Compass,” the Israeli expression of the anti-Zionist new left) to most recently the Alternative Information Center.  His column, regularly exploring the issues discussed in his book, appears in the AIC’s magazine News from Within.

Uri Davis has not participated in the parties of the left—among other reasons, “I was never a Marxist” he told me in the course of the interview accompanying this review—but has played a role in founding such campaigns as the Movement Against Israeli Apartheid in Palestine (MAIAP, see 175-78).  Davis also sharply differentiates himself not only from the official Zionist left but also dissident formations like Gush Shalom which in his view promote the vision of a reformed Jewish State.

Davis has written, edited or co-authored some fifteen books, including Israel: Utopia Incorporated (1977), a study of the Israeli trade union Histadrut’s now long-vanished economic empire and its small Ashkenazi elite.[*]  His other major contributions include a definitive history of the Jewish National Fund, co-authored with Walter Lehn.

The current work Apartheid Israel is a reworking of Davis’ earlier Israel: An Apartheid State (2001).  The changed framework in part reflects the author’s profound disappointment with the Palestine Liberation Organization, which he had championed as a national liberation movement.  Indeed, Davis was forced to live in exile for ten years for associations with PLO leaders which prior to the Oslo accords were considered criminal in Israel.

In his view, however, the PLO tragically missed the historic opportunity to play the role assumed in South Africa by the African National Congress, which proclaimed itself to be the movement of both the exploited Black majority and of all progressive white South Africans who wished to create, in the words of the Freedom Charter, “one nation, which belongs to all who live in it.”

Failing to adopt such a stance in Palestine/Israel led the PLO, Davis believes, to a disastrous policy in Oslo and afterward.  The PLO’s negotiating stance accepts what Davis argues can only become a truncated Palestinian bantustan, alongside an Israeli state with its structures of Jewish privilege and supremacy left intact.  A corollary of this collapse has been that the United Nations General Assembly was successfully pressured to abandon its declaration that Zionism was a form of racism.

Today, Davis along with other supporters of what’s called “the one- state solution” look to the democratic struggles of Arab citizens of the Israeli state—some 20% of Israel’s population—along with a minority among Israeli Jews who are willing to support those struggles as well as the right of return of Palestinian refugees expelled in the ethnic cleansings of 1948 and 1967.

What defines “apartheid Israel,” for Davis, is not the fact of racism, which sadly exists in many societies and often in forms as extreme or even more so than the Israeli case. Rather, Davis argues, after the democratic political revolution that ended South African apartheid, Israel is the only country where ethnic supremacy is officially enshrined through parliamentary legislation and the state’s self-definition.

Davis devotes the book’s central chapters to the details of this system, and sums it up thus:

(T)he official Israeli claim that the record of the State of Israel on the question of racism is not better, but also not much worse relative to many other members of the United Nations Organization is basically correct.  But it also serves to veil the fact that Israel is probably the last remaining apartheid state member of the UN as well as the reality of Israeli apartheid, namely the regulation of racism in law through Acts of the Israeli Parliament (the Knesset), resulting in 93 per cent of all the territory of pre-1967 Israel being designated in law…for cultivation, development and settlement by, of and for Jews only. (39)

Apartheid Israel includes substantial additional material that can’t be adequately covered here: documentary and eyewitness background on the destruction of hundreds of Arab villages by Israeli militias in 1948; the author’s direct involvement in struggles against housing discrimination; and a reflection on the meaning of communal and linguistic “identity” and how it can be constructed in a secular and non-racist fashion.  (178-187)

Davis has for many years identified himself as a Palestinian Jew (he was born in Jerusalem in 1943), even if this designation brought disapproval from both Jewish and Arab nationalist sectors.  He expands it here to “Palestinian Hebrew anti-Zionist Jew of dual Israeli and British citizenship.”  (185)

Seeking Solutions Davis sees the potential solution to the Palestinian tragedy as an anti-apartheid movement, both internal and throughout the international community, following the South African example.  Accordingly, he supports applying against Israel the kinds of international sanctions, boycotts and other measures that isolated the South African apartheid state.

Among the differences that Davis does not explore here is one that seems critical: South African apartheid arose not only as a systematic form of racism, but as a fiendish system of labor control to deny basic rights of citizenship to Black South Africans whose labor was the base of the country’s capitalist economy.  Despite its best efforts, however, South African capitalism brought into being a powerful Black labor movement that made the whole system unviable.

Political Zionism, in contrast, has sought to drive Arab labor as much as possible out of the economy.  It cannot do so entirely, of course; but while working class Arab Israeli citizens have made substantial progress in integrating the Histadrut, many Palestinian laborers from the West Bank and Gaza been displaced from jobs in Israel by “guest workers” from Romania and Asia. The economy of the Occupied Territories has been shattered to the point where trade unionism is largely fictional.

The result is that the real working class in Israeli is substantially multinational, contrary to Zionist fantasy and mythology, with a majority of darker-skinned Jews alongside Arabs and assorted legal and illegal immigrant labor.

It may be added here that South African apartheid served also as a massive “affirmative action” program for the Afrikaner whites, eliminating white poverty in South Africa, while the neoliberal privatization mania in the Israeli state is creating deeper Jewish working class poverty.  Despite the economic militancy of Israeli unions, however, it appears unlikely that a workers’ movement of the South African type will spearhead the freedom struggle in Israel/Palestine.

Both Uri Davis and Michel Warschawski, if isolated in their own society, are prepared to carry on for the sake of a better future and the hope of international solidarity.  Warschawski offers less programmatic prescription than a pledge of ongoing resistance:

Israeli dissidents, marginalized but more determined than ever, are gambling that (the catastrophe) can be averted.  They know that by defending rights—the Palestinians’ rights to begin with, but also rights in general as the foundation of the society they live in—they are fighting to save their own existence as citizens.  (103)

The message is a warning not only to the American Jewish community, much of which is being mobilized around Israel’s apartheid-colonial war—on the wrong side—but to the people of the United States and the globe.

It is obviously not that Sharon is giving orders to George W. Bush as some Arab ideologists wrongly claim…The reason why Bush’s total war is so much like that of Barak and Sharon is that both have been grown in neoconservative, racist and unilateralist think tanks (which have) been strategizing that New World Order, which is in reality the New World disorder of the new American empire…It is the Israelis who tested out the neoconservative strategy with its principles of elimination of international regulation, unilateralism, and permanent menace of preventive war…(And) with the current policies being carried on by the Bush dministration it is the whole planet that is driving at breakneck speed toward catastrophe.  (106-107)


[*] In this work, Davis documented the surprisingly narrow base of the Histadrut’s founding elite, who originated mostly in the Galicia region of southern Poland.  Resentment of Ashkenazi (European Jewish) privilege among the growing non-European Jewish working class of Israel was the key to the toppling of the Labor Party by the right-wing coalition of Menahem Begin in the election of 1977—coincidentally, the same year Davis’ study was published.

ATC 113, November-December 2004