Breaking the Impasse

Against the Current, No. 198, January/February 2019

Donald Greenspon

Cracks in the Wall
Beyond Apartheid in Palestine/Israel
By Ben White
Pluto Books, 2018, 208 pages, paper $15, ebook $7.50

BEN WHITE’S NEW book Cracks in the Wall is on first impression a bleak account of the factual and political situation in Israel/Palestine. Yet in view of “cracks” developing among Israel’s traditional supporters and Palestinians’ growing militant and nonviolent resistance to Israel’s hard right policies, White optimistically envisions a just solution to the conflict. Those cracks in the pro-Zionist consensus are the heart of what the book is about.

Ben White is a freelance journalist, writer, and human rights activist in Britain specializing in Palestine/Israel. In addition to Cracks in the Wall, he has written three other well received books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide, Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy, and The 2014 Gaza War: 21 Questions & Answers.

The author begins by describing Israel as a “single apartheid state,” in the sense of a system of entrenched racial oppression, both in law and in practice, with different sets of rules governing the dominant and subordinate populations. (There are differences of course with the specific South African case, where the economy rested critically on Black labor, but White doesn’t discuss these distinctions.)

White starts his chapter on “Self-Determination, not Segregation”  with a 2007 quote from former Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Ohmert: “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African style struggle for equal voting rights, then, as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.”

White describes 2017 as a year of infamous anniversaries: 120 years since the first Zionist Congress when the Jewish population in Palestine was only 4%, 100 years since the Balfour Declaration of 1917 which gave British support for a Jewish “homeland” in Palestine, 70 years since the UN Partition Plan of 1947 when Palestinian Arabs still accounted for two-thirds of the population, and 50 years since the six-day war of 1967 which has led to the longest military occupation in modern history.

In 2017, the 50 year-anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, there were 400,000 settlers in the West Bank and 200,000 in East Jerusalem — all illegal under international law. This settler population has doubled since the 1993 Oslo Accords that were supposed to lead to an independent Palestinian state. In fact, during the two terms of the Obama Administration, the settler population in the West Bank increased by more than 100,000.

White describes the political situation in Israel/Palestine as an “impasse” with Israel’s maximum settlement offer being less than what the Palestinians could conceivably accept and also much less than international law requires. The current Netanyahu government wishes to maintain the status quo of creeping annexation and at the very most allow a demilitarized Palestinian “state minus” leaving Jerusalem the “undivided capital of Israel.”

Israeli politicians to Netanyahu’s right favor formal annexation of some or all of the West Bank where Israel incorporates Palestinian land and resources, but not its Palestinian inhabitants. Israeli “moderates” favor separation of Israeli settlements, leaving non-contiguous Palestinian lands as essentially Bantustans.

White next traces the historical support for Israel among Western European and North American Jews. While most of these Jews still define themselves as Zionists, support for Israel is no longer a great unifier but has rather now become a divisive force within these populations. Although most people believe that all or most Jews were political Zionists, White reminds us that historically this was not the case.

Left-wing Jewish socialists, such as the Bund, believed in the integration of the Jewish and non-Jewish working class in the communities where they both lived. Jewish liberals believed in integration of Jews with non-Jews, living with equal political rights. They saw Zionism as giving aid to antisemites who accused Jews as traitors whose ultimate goal was to form their own separate nation.

White points out that political Zionism was also opposed by religious Jews, both Reform and Orthodox. To the Reform Jews, Zionism was in conflict with their ethical values of Judaism. To the Orthodox, God alone could initiate an “ingathering of exiles.” The rising tide of antisemitism diluted opposition to political Zionism amongst all of these groups but although they adapted to the reality of Israel, their opposition never faded away.

Fragmentation of Support

White chronicles the growing fragmentation of Israel’s support among European and North American Jews, due in large part to Israel’s policies in the Middle East. These include its decades-long post-1967 occupation, its invasions of Lebanon, its violent reaction to the intifadas, its vicious attacks on Gaza, its opposition to the globally popular Iran nuclear deal.

Fragmentation will undoubtedly grow as a result of a couple of events that have happened since the publication of White’s book: the 2018 Gaza March of Return where nearly 200 unarmed Palestinian demonstrators have been killed by Israeli snipers; and the Knesset’s July, 2018 passage of the “Nation-State law,” giving legal supremacy to Jewish citizens of Israel.

In addition to Netanyahu’s reign, White sees the Trump era as a catalyst for Jewish political fragmentation and dissent. Trump’s blatant Islamophobia, racism, and tepid reaction to Nazi demonstrations and the violence in Charlottesville have produced severe discomfort among American Jews, especially liberals and progressives who start to wonder: “I hate Trump, Trump loves Israel, how can I love Israel?”

Criticism is growing on an institutional level as well. The liberal centrist group J Street, formed as an opposition to the Israeli lobby (i.e. AIPAC), supports a two-state solution — less from respect for Palestinian self-determination and more because it sees Israel’s current right wing policies being detrimental to its objective “security interests.”

The Open Hillel movement started on college campuses, advocating for a dialogue on formerly taboo subjects such as Zionism and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Most important has been the formation and rapid growth of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).

JVP stands in solidarity with Palestinian struggles and advocates for full rights and equality for all people in Israel/Palestine. Unlike J Street, JVP supports justice for Palestinians in its own right, not just for concerns for Israel’s security, and the BDS movement which arose from a call by Palestinian grassroots organizations.

In addition to these opposition groups and movements, White aptly describes the shift in U.S. politics, especially within the once unquestioningly pro-Israel Democratic Party. Most notable was the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign:  although he’s been only mildly critical of Israel, Sanders’ advocacy for respect for Palestinians an end to America’s one-sided policies set him apart from mainstream politicians.

In a welcome and unusual move, Sanders placed critics of Israel — Cornell West, Keith Ellison and James Zogby — on the Democratic Platform Committee for the 2016 convention. They proposed first-time language in the platform (unfortunately ultimately rejected by the full Committee) calling for an end to the occupation and Illegal settlements in the West Bank.

Another illustration of the divisive trend away from uncritical support for Israel was the battle against Trump’s nomination of David Friedman as the U.S. Ambassador to Israel. Friedman is objectively an extremist who absurdly accused president Obama of being antisemitic, completely rejects the two-state solution, vehemently opposes the Iran nuclear deal, and has gone so far as accused a liberal American Jewish group of being “Kapos” (i.e. Nazi collaborators).

Friedman’s nomination was narrowly approved by the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee by a 12-9 vote and also barely approved by the Republican controlled Senate 52-46.

Far-Right Sympathies

Democratic Party divisions over Israel were also revealed in Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in March, 2015 in which he advocated rejection of the Iran nuclear deal. Netanyahu’s visit was not authorized by the Obama Administration, and his speech was boycotted by 50 Democratic members of Congress.

White concludes his discussion of cracks in U.S. support for Israel by referencing a Pew Research Center poll finding that sympathy for Palestinians among millennials (Americans born after 1980) rose from 9% in 2006 to 27% in 2016.

After discussing increasing progressive alienation, White next turns his attention to the far right’s embrace of Israel. This seems a bit ironic, since Zionism at its inception was a cause of the left in the West, for progressive intellectuals such as George Orwell in Britain and Albert Einstein in the United States.

As the full extent of Hitler’s crimes against the Jews became apparent in the wake of World War II, this support became even more pronounced. Progressive moral support for Israel left out an especially salient fact — Israel was not “a land without people for a people without land,” but rather was home for the Palestinians.

As this traditional support erodes, White delineates three reasons for the far right’s support for Israel today:

1) It sanitizes the current and historic far right’s antisemitic movements and traditions;

2) Israel and the far right are perceived to have a common enemy in so-called “Islamic terrorism”;

3) The far right is positively impressed with Israel as a ethno-national state. Richard Spencer, the American “alt right” white nationalist who envisions a white ethnostate in the United States, overtly calls himself a “white Zionist.”

The far right’s embrace of Israel has certainly been heightened in the Trump era. Trump’s former chief strategist and founder of the notorious racist Breitbart News, Steve Bannon, fancies himself as a “brazen Zionist.” Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017, while overwhelmingly unpopular worldwide, was hailed by his Republican base, 76% of whom (most notably evangelical Christians) supported this unprecedented move.

Despite the foregoing trend among the right, White optimistically recognizes a trend in the opposite direction. The Trump era is birthing an intersectional solidarity movement among groups opposed to his nativism, racism, Islamophobia, militarism and police brutality. The connection is being made between Trump’s ethno-nationalism and his security state policies and what is mainstream in Israel.

As White points out, this is reflected in the polls in which the younger generation of Jews and non-Jews alike in the United States are alienated from Israel in greater and greater numbers.

Fear of BDS Activism

White devotes the rest of his book to a discussion of the BDS movement, its backlash and his vision for the future. The BDS movement was initiated by Palestinian civil society in 2005, inspired in part by the South African anti-apartheid struggle, with three demands: 1) an end to the occupation; 2) equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel; and 3) the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

As BDS is gaining greater and greater international support. Israel and its supporters in the United States and elsewhere have gone on the offensive against the movement. This counterattack attempts to label BDS as being “antisemitic.”

As White correctly points out, in basic terms antisemitism is “hostility towards Jews as Jews.” The pushback against BDS improperly attempts to conflate criticism of the self-declared Jewish state and Zionism, a political ideology, with hostility towards Jews.

Proponents of the “new antisemitism” doctrine claim that BDS demonizes, delegitimizes and subjects Israel to a double standard. In reality, the BDS campaign is a political tactic designed to bring awareness to  what Zionism has meant, historically and in the present, for the plight of the Palestinian people. In fact, far from treating Israel more harshly, the U.S. and Western governments dole out special favorable treatment to Israel with diplomatic protection and military subsidies.

The Israeli-U.S.  offensive against BDS has consisted mainly of legal measures. Most notably, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (IABA) is designed to prohibit American citizens and companies from participating and supporting boycotts organized by international government organizations such as the UN and EU. It threatens to cut off all federal funds to universities that allow campus BDS activism.

Strongly opposed on First Amendment grounds by the ACLU, the bill and was ultimately tabled in the U.S. Congress in 2017 and its revival in the lame-duck session or next Congress remains possible. Meanwhile, as of July 2017, 21 states have passed anti-BDS laws. In Israel, the Knesset passed a law in 2017 which forbids entry visas or resident rights to foreign nationals who call for the economic, cultural or academic boycotts of either Israel or its settlements.

The anti-BDS offensive shows how fearful Israel is of losing its traditional supporters. Nevertheless, Israel’s support among liberals who believe in basis civil and democratic rights is also eroding as “cracks in the wall” become more open.

White concludes by envisioning a new reality — a single democratic state in Israel/Palestine. Rather than being a sanctuary for the Jewish people, the Israeli ethnostate has not made Jews safer but rather has exposed them to greater danger. Rejection of a “Jewish state” is not a denial of Israeli Jews’ rights, but rather a denial of Jewish supremacy.

White points out that international law and conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be an important guide in protecting Jewish and Palestinian rights in a future democratic state. According to White, such a state in Israel/Palestine is not a utopian pipe dream.

With expected increasing international support, White believes, the “single apartheid state” that already exists can be transformed into a single democratic state which will be beneficial to Jewish Israelis and Palestinians alike. He cites an April, 2017 poll by the University of Maryland on American attitudes to the Israel/Palestinian conflict, which found that 31% of Americans already support a single democratic state as a just future that the U.S. government should be supporting.

While such a trend in public opinion is encouraging, White’s book doesn’t really tell us how it would translate into a dramatically new U.S. policy — let alone change the realities on the ground in Palestine. That remains an open question.

January-February 2019, ATC 198