Rights are the key — and they're mutual

By Dimi Reider, September 6, 2012
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Over the past few decades, Israel has gradually merged its founding ethos of indigenousness and return with the image of a Western outpost, a villa in the jungle, to use the words of one of its more progressive prime ministers. Throughout the past decade's "War on Terror", Israel advertised itself, to the world as much as to its own citizens, as the West's foremost fortress of freedom against terrorism, the main and principal, front line in this battle - effectively taking an argument long used to justify the construction of settlements as a buffer zone shielding mainland Israel from the Palestinian West Bank, and writing it large across the map of the entire region.

It is not for nothing that the myth of Masada surged in popularity during these years, becoming a fixed highlight of any significant heritage trip for Israeli or diaspora Jewish students. Anyone who has been a participant on such a trip knows the feeling well - baking afternoon sun, the vast void of the desert condensed into the eerie emptiness of the sacked Jewish stronghold, and the tour guide's voice urging you relentlessly: "Imagine yourself in their situation, facing defeat after resisting for so long. How would you feel? What would you do in their place?"

Despite the anti-imperialist appeal and the pride one can easily take in the physical courage of the Masada defenders, there are two key problems with holding up the fortress as an example and a metaphor for the modern-day, beleaguered Jewish state.

On Masada, the Jews lose the war and everybody dies. The story shouldn’t serve as an inspiration but as a warning

The first is the more glaring: On Masada, the Jews lose the war, and everybody dies. If anything, the story shouldn't serve as inspiration, but as a warning. The second is more fundamental. By confining themselves to their land as to a fortress, and by ensconcing themselves further and further in as the region begins to shift its shape around them, Israeli Jews deny their rich Jewish heritage in the Western and especially the Eastern diaspora, and exclude themselves from any discussion of their own rights as Jews in the region.

Tel Aviv sociologist Yehouda Shenhav - in a surprising move for an academic long identified in the public eye as far to the left - forcefully argues the case for expanding the conversation to include Jewish rights in his new book, Beyond the two state solution: A Jewish Political Essay.

Originally published as Trapped by the Green Line and due for publication this month with my translation, the book caused quite a stir in Israel, demolishing virtually every aspect of the Green Line's image as a progressive artifact and, again, remarkably for an author identified strongly with the radical left, coming out in force against the eviction of settlements from a moral as well as a pragmatic perspective.

The book has drawn considerable criticism and consternation on the centre-left but was welcomed by many on the further left - and right - of the Israeli public sphere, including figures in the settler movement as prominent as Uri Elitzur, Benjamin Netanyahu's former chief of staff and the deputy editor of the main settler paper, Makor Rishon.

Shenhav points out that the question of Jewish rights as part of the overall, interdependent political framework of the Middle East has a long pedigree in the Zionist movement. He quotes Martin Buber at the Zionist Congress of 1921: "Just as Arab rights should not be reduced under any circumstances, so should the right of the Jews be recognised to develop uninterruptedly in their ancient homeland, according to their national selfhood/independence, and to share that development with as many of their brothers as possible."

Closer to home, fellow academic Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin argues: "The political discourse usually focuses on the rights of the Palestinians. This is both understandable and natural, as it is the rights of the Palestinians which are systematically and continuously violated. However, in principle, and especially since the point of departure is Palestinian rights, the picture should be upturned and we must discuss Jewish rights as well. Palestinian rights are clear and cannot be denied. The problem is created by the issue of Jewish rights… Only in a bi-national context can we discuss Jewish existence in terms of a democracy."

At present, the Jews in Israel have privileges, as opposed to rights. The problem with this is that privileges are secured, at the end of the day, by little more than the bearer's overwhelming brutal force. As a result, they become permanent targets of resistance and scorn. If man takes over a house with a gun, rather than acquiring it in good faith and with the approval of his neighbours, he will eventually be kicked out - when he runs out of bullets or his neighbours became willing to risk their own safety to drive him out.

Since he has forced his presence on them, the neighbours see his removal as synonymous with the restoration of justice, and see very little possibility, or need, to distinguish between his presence and need for shelter, and the violence he used to acquire it. If, or rather when, they overwhelm him, renegotiating his presence by gaining assent and becoming welcome is an extremely remote possibility. Rights, by contrast, invite reciprocity and interdependence; they exist only so long as they are mutually respected, but this respect allows both parties to put away the guns and devote themselves to other pressing engagements.

The settlers are a case in point. A mere 180,000 in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem when the Oslo Accords were signed, they ballooned to half-a-million by 2010. The eviction of the 20,000 Gaza settlers, while profoundly traumatic to the demolished communities and to the settler movement at large, did not create so much as a dent in the population growth - in fact, the sharpest localised hike in the graph was between 2005 and 2006, the year of the eviction.

Moreover, the principal growth took place between the signing of the agreement and its eventual collapse in the Second Intifada. So even when the two-state-solution enjoyed a reasonably broad consensus and the land was ruled by government perceived as willing, in the long run, to evict settlers, the settler population grew and grew - with the enthusiastic encouragement of that same government. This makes short work of any hope that, today, with the Oslo-focused left in tatters and the Likud and its acolytes firmly in control, any Israeli government would find the will, or the will-power, to evict these communities.

The American commentator Peter Beinart, and others, have argued that the Green Line divides "democratic" and therefore legitimate Israel, within the Green Line, and the "undemocratic" Israel beyond it - the Israel of the West Bank settlements and the Gaza blockade. Shenhav, by contrast, highlights a curious exchange that has taken place. In his view, what he dubs the "new nostalgia" - the longing for pre-1967 Israel - and the establishment of the 1967 borders as the moral and political hallmark does three things.

It hallows Israel's highly problematic first two decades (with its military regime controlling the country's Arab citizens, racist discrimination against Oriental Jews, bloated cronyism in the ruling Mapai party, and so much more), it "outsources" the conflict and its dilemmas entirely beyond the Green Line, allowing most Israelis, especially the middle-class and elites, to feel comfortably detached. And it scapegoats the settler community by labelling them fanatic, ignoring the fact the settlements are, first and foremost, the greatest national project "mainland" Israel has ever engaged in.

In his book, Shenhav asks: "Are there indeed two states? If so, who provides the settlements with economic and physical infrastructure? Who provides them with telephone lines, sanitation, electricity and water? Who provides them with health-care and education? And what of the role of organisations such as the Histadrut Federation of Labour Unions, the JNF, the Jewish Agency and the United Jewish Appeal as subcontractors of the occupation? Why is there a special council for higher education (for Jews only) in the West Bank?

Who provides the legal infrastructure for the expropriation of lands? Who provides the engineering and construction services for the roads that cross the West Bank? As Israeli journalist Amira Hass has pointed out, the settlements are not a spontaneous and random undertaking by eccentrics, but rather a national project of the Israeli state."

For all their undeniable success, the settlements remain fortified, isolated ghettos sustained by nothing but fear. Some settlers have started to understand this and are actively pursuing accommodation and engagement with Palestinian neighbours, including joint ecological projects and solidarity visits to mosques defiled by extremist settlers.

Shenhav sees the settlements not only as a physical, military and legal issue, but a rights anomaly that can be rectified without necessitating the eviction of residents who by now have clocked at least a generation living where they live - which is to say, without requiring the fixing of one wrong by committing another.

The return of 350,000 to 500,000 settlers to within the Green Line is not a realistic option, Shenhav points out. "Many of the settlers hold prominent positions in the Israeli army and are controlled by their rabbis. What's more, the liberal left is not dealing at all with the moral questions and threat of violence pertaining to such an evacuation. Would it be possible to cast out members of the third generation because their fathers and mothers ate sour grapes? The settlement issue requires more serious consideration."

Shenhav's essay, subtitled as a "Jewish" one, is not a manual for utopia and does not present a road-map to bi-nationalism. But it does tell us where to look. It cleverly and strategically punches holes in the public discourse just where it has become most wearisome and stagnated: the definition of sovereignty, the issue of Jewish rights in the fabric of the entire Middle East, the idealisation of the centre-left and the demonisation of nationalists. Especially with regard to Jewish rights, the essay is not only a conversation starter, it's a catalyst for a conversation that desperately needs to be had.

For Shenhav, one of the key rights crying out for reciprocal recognition is freedom of movement and residence, for all those living and with a historical claim to the land between the river and the sea, whether Palestinian or Jewish. It is a powerful departure from current discourse.

From 1948 to 1967, and especially since Oslo, most of the negotiations have been conducted around immobility - buildings, concrete walls, barbed-wire fences, and lines on maps. The main dilemma of the current solutions is whether to move some of these or leave them be and reinforce them. The wheels of the conflict have been spinning in this mud for more than six decades. The issue of rights and freedoms is an infinitely more fluid, mobile and adjustable one. Palestinian rights for Jewish rights, as Shenhav suggests. Palestinian freedom of movement and settlement - throughout historic Eretz-Yisrael and historic Palestine - for Jewish freedom of the same nature.

Transforming the Jewish and Palestinian relationship from privilege and exclusion to reciprocal and equitable interdependence will bind together Jewish and Palestinian belonging, will plant Jewish political presence in the Middle East as equal among equals, and as ready and willing partners in the region's rejuvenation around the ideas of representation and equal rights.

Rights are established through ongoing discussion and renegotiation across the board, pushing everyone involved through a tortuous, but mutually beneficial process. Privileges, by contrast, only ever draw scorn - and gunfire. Insisting on exclusive privileges rather than rights will ensure that Israel will forever remain a target and an object of siege, an object which, just like the fortress in the Masada story will, inevitably, fall.

Dimi Reider is an Israeli journalist and photographer. His translation of Beyond the two state solution: A Jewish Political Essay (Polity) is published this month

Last updated: 3:23pm, September 6 2012