Dissidents Looking Beyond Zionism

Against the Current, No. 140, May/June 2009

David Finkel

Israel’s Vicious Circle
Ten Years of Writings on Israel and Palestine
By Uri Avnery
London: Pluto Press (www.Plutobooks.com), 2008, 224 pages + index, $29.95 hardcover.

An Israeli in Palestine
Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel
By Jeff Halper
London: Pluto Press (www.Plutobooks.com) in association with ICAHD, 2008, 304 pages + index, $27.95 paperback.

IN 1968 — 1968! — a book appeared with the astonishing title Israel Without Zionists. A Plea for Peace in the Middle East. The timing was even more surprising, in Israel’s flush of euphoria in the wake of the 1967 war. This was also the moment when the mainstream American Jewish community and the U.S. intelligentsia in general had just discovered the State of Israel as the great inspiration and center of Jewish redemption — after two decades during which Israel had not been viewed with any such great enthusiasm, as chronicled by historian Peter Novick in The Holocaust In American Life.

The author, Uri Avnery (original family name Ostermann,  from Hanover, Germany) arrived in Palestine in 1933, age nine, his father having seen the handwriting on the wall and gotten the family out of Germany shortly after Hitler’s takeover.

He would take the biblically inspired name Uri Avnery when he turned 18. By then he was on a maverick path that took him through the right-wing terrorist Irgun Zionist militia, to a utopian dream of a Jewish-Arab “Semitic” unity that inevitably collapsed with the outbreak of the 1948 war — in which Avnery was seriously wounded leading a platoon on the southern front, in a battle with Egyptian troops that he discovered later were probably led by Gamal Abdel Nasser — to six decades as a journalist, activist and briefly a politician, tirelessly engaged in the quest for an Israeli-Arab peace.

He recounts meeting a seven-year-old Palestinian refugee boy in Gaza and learning that his family — 12 years before the boy was born — was evicted from the village of al-Koubab: “As a soldier of Samson’s Foxes I had taken part in the capture of the village [in 1948]…Upon entering the abandoned houses, we found ovens that were still hot, and dishes on the table.” Very few people, Israelis or anyone else, are capable of confronting our own past and responsibilities so directly.

Avnery is notable among other things for being in the vanguard of establishing contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its leader Yasser Arafat, with whom he became friends, when it was a criminal offense for Israeli citizens to do so, and for the founding of the Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc) movement

While many details of the book’s historical account are long outdated in the light of exhaustive new scholarship, Israel Without Zionists remains worth reading, if you can find a copy, for its critical insightful portraits of David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan among others. The book concludes with the proposal for a “federation between Israel and a new Arab-Palestinian republic” to be followed by a “Semitic Union, a great confederacy of all the states in the Region.”

To put it mildly, the wind was not in the sails of such a program then, at the height of Israel’s post-’67 euphoria, the rallying of the U.S. Jewish intelligentsia to the Zionist cause as it now enhanced their access to prestige and power, the cementing of the Israel-U.S. “special relationship,” and the poisonous marriage of secular Israeli nationalism with messianic-religious Zionism that produced the vanguard of the West Bank settlement movement (Gush Emunim) and the hideous four decades of Occupation.

Confronting the Vicious Circle

The books reviewed here, by Uri Avnery and Jeff Halper, are writings from inside one of today’s most painful realities. Both are published by Pluto Press; at this writing the best way to order them is through the publisher’s website, as the University of Michigan regents last year disgracefully bowed to reactionary pressure and cancelled Pluto’s U.S. distribution arrangement with University of Michigan Press.

In the new collection of Avnery’s writings, Israel’s Vicious Circle, the author chronicles the unbelievable cruelty and cynical brutality of the Occupation and the struggles of Israeli and Palestinian activists against it; the squalor and gridlock of Israeli politics and the sterility of the “peace process;” and the mutual tail-wagging follies (“the dog wags the tail and the tail wags the dog”) of U.S. policy and the Israel Lobby. This is political analysis and activist journalism from the front lines; Avnery is unmatched in both capacities as well as in his use of irony, dark humor and historical and literary allusions.

Both a pragmatist and a visionary, Avnery sounds notes of both alarm — serious alarm — over his country’s degenerative spiral, yet also hope “for a different Israel, an Israel one can be proud of — moral, democratic, secular, progressive, egalitarian, not lording it over its neighbors…an integral part of the region which is our extended fatherland…” (x)

This last phrase echoes the old dream of the Semitic union, which Avnery never relinquished, but believes can now be achieved only by means of a two-state solution negotiated with Palestine and the Arab world. Where he once was in the forefront of demanding Israeli negotiations with Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization, he now calls for everything-on-the-table negotiation with Hamas.

The political program of Avnery and his Gush Shalom movement appears as the book’s first chapter, “’Truth Against Truth,’ A Completely Different Look at the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” a 101-point manifesto that concludes with an outline for the creation of two states that “will lead to an end of the historic conflict and the reconciliation between the two peoples, based on equality, mutual respect, and the striving for maximum cooperation.” (27)

Jeff Halper approaches the problem from a different background but arrives at parallel conclusions. I won’t detail here his “two-state-plus” proposal, which appeared in full in the previous issue of this magazine (“Apartheid or Confederation, The Future of Israel/Palestine,” Against the Current 139, March-April 2009). He does trenchantly warn of the danger of a “two-state solution” driven by the goal of separation:

Israel seeks “separation” from the Palestinians, lest it open the door to Palestinian demands for equal civil rights in a binational state…So some kind of Palestinian state will be finessed, but at a risk. Even if Israel proves strong and clever enough to engineer the emergence of a Palestinian state which nevertheless leaves Israel in control of the country’s borders and resources, that state will by definition be little more than a bantustan, an artificially supported prison-state. This form of two-state ‘solution’ represents nothing less than apartheid, the only possible outcome acceptable to exclusive Zionist claims, besides transfer and ethnic cleansing. (An Israeli in Palestine, 80-81)

We can add that this apartheid model of the two-state “solution” is exactly the one pursued by the outgoing Israeli government (Sharon-Olmert) and its predecessor (Barak), and by the now-departed George W. Bush administration. One can only hope, without much optimism, that Barack Obama is paying attention.

Rebuilding Homes, Building Resistance

Jeff Halper’s road to Palestine and solidarity activism was quite different from Uri Avnery’s. “Zionism saved our lives. I never forgot this when later I became a non-Zionist, maybe even an anti-Zionist,” Avnery wrote in Israel Without Zionists (remember, this in 1968!).  Halper, whose home town of Hibbing, Minnesota also produced Bob Dylan and the American Communist Gus Hall, “sought a return to my ethnic roots, but Jewish life in the Midwest resembled nothing more than warmed-over Protestantism.” (An Israeli in Palestine, 25)

Discovering Israel while in transit to study the Jews of Ethiopia as an anthropology student, Halper moved there at age 27, in 1973: “The ‘Jewish’ [i.e. religio-ethnic] part of my identity melted away in favor of an Israeli one upon my arrival in Israel, and it has never returned.” (27)

Halper worked among Mizrahim (Jews from Arab countries) and also joined the Israeli New Left peace camp, but that isn’t where he dates his baptism of real solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. It’s 25 years later, in his account, in July 1998 when he learns first-hand how “a post-Zionist is a Zionist who has witnessed a house demolition.”

Called away from a nearby demonstration to the scene of the demolition of the home of Salim Shawamreh, Halper “did almost instinctively what I have done many times since: I threw myself in front of (the bulldozer) to stop the demolition.”

The soldiers shove him down the hill, where he winds up in the dirt lying next to the distraught Palestinian man as the roof antenna, the water tank and the home disappear into rubble. “Nothing could reconcile what I was witnessing and experiencing with the Zionist narrative I had learned.” (20)

The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) would rebuild the Shawamreh family’s home multiple times, only to have it destroyed again. The place became the site of a monument to the murdered American activist Rachel Corrie, who died in 2003 defending a home in Gaza.  

From describing this transforming moment, Halper’s book goes on to trace how the brutality of the Occupation is rooted in the entire development of the conflict, from “The Impossible Dream: Constructing a Jewish Ethnocracy in Palestine” (chapter 3) to “Expanding Dispossession: The Occupation and the Matrix of Control” and “Concluding Dispossession: Oslo and Unilateral Separation” (chapters 6 and 7).

The concluding chapters offer a more extended argument for the “two-state-with-confederation” propositions put forward in the ICAHD pamphlet that was reprinted in ATC 139 as referenced above.

Halper’s most important analytical contribution, here and elsewhere, is the powerful depiction of the “Matrix of Control,” strangling the possibilities of Palestinian economic and social development.

The Matrix of Control is intricately designed with no details left to chance. (I am reminded of the revelation in Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, of how Zionist planners sent social scientists to research the structure and layout of Palestinian villages many years before the 1947-’48 war, so that the most important human and physical targets were set well in advance.)

Here and in his speaking tours of the United States and Europe, Jeff Halper insists that the world must not passively stand by as a new apartheid system arises before its eyes. Uri Avnery, whose essays continue to appear weekly on the internet, writes of “the different Israel” that “I hope that I shall see it with my own eyes. With the approach of my 85th birthday, there is not too much time left.” (x) There may not be too much time left for any of us.

To follow Uri Avnery’s current and recent columns, you can visit www.avnery-news.co.il/English.  To support the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, go to www.icahdusa.org.

Most important of all, there is today a worldwide wave of anger against Israel over the destruction of Gaza. This anger is entirely justified and to be welcomed; now is the time for the Palestine solidarity and global justice movements to organize it effectively and constructively to give maximum support to the forces of democracy and resistance that can break the vicious circle from within. These books are powerful tools for education to assist these efforts.

ATC 140, May-June 2009

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