Letter from Israel: Leftists on Zionism's Past, Present, and Future
November 13, 2013
Nov 13, 2013
27 Min read time
While “left” in the West is now a virtual synonym for anti-Zionism, the same is far from true in Israel.
Grafitti in the West Bank city of Hebron.
It is no secret that the Israeli left is marginalized; the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada (2000–2005) killed not only individual Israeli civilians but the credibility of the left itself. The shredded bodies, especially those of children and old people—in supermarkets, at cafés, on buses—made it difficult if not impossible to speak of a peaceful, or perhaps any, solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Nothing that has happened since, either internally or externally, has caused the left to recover. But in a series of interviews I did with various leftist Israelis—journalists, academics, historians—this June in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I was struck not only by their despondency but also by their vibrancy, which seems to stem from the rich cultural, intellectual, and civic life that coexists with—and at the same time is separate from—a desolate political situation. I was impressed, too, by the complexity of the challenges leftist Israelis face, which are often simplified in the Western press. In addition to the occupation of the Palestinian territories, these include Israel’s rightward trend toward exclusionary ethnic nationalism; the violent turmoil in surrounding Arab countries, especially neighboring Egypt and Syria; the continuing rule of Hamas in Gaza; and the political apathy, or perhaps fatigue, of their fellow citizens. As Bar-Ilan University professor Ilan Greilsammer told me, “The big problem [among students] is depoliticization. They’re not for Zionism or against Zionism—they tend to be indifferent to any ‘ism.’” Then there are the deeply emotional, perhaps even unconscious, aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that in part explain its peculiar virulence. As journalist Gershom Gorenberg put it, “We have two pretty neurotic peoples facing off.”
Also striking were the frequent surprises—the originality of thought, the departures from simplistic stereotypes—that my interlocutors presented. Someone who unapologetically spoke of the need to “break the bones of the Egyptian army” in the 1967 war is a longtime advocate of a Palestinian state and a fierce critic of discrimination against Arab Israelis; another interviewee, who wants to “de-Zionize” Israel, opposes both the return of the Palestinian refugees and a one-state “solution.”
What follows is a report on what I learned. It is not a scientific survey but, rather, an impressionistic account. Nevertheless, it will, I hope, give a fuller picture of the contemporary Israeli left than the one often presented in the Western press, both mainstream and leftist. (The latter, especially in the United States and Britain, tends to publish expatriate anti-Zionist Israelis such as Ilan Pappé and Avi Shlaim, thereby exaggerating the import of their views, which, within Israel, is slight.) As Gorenberg, a self-described “left-wing, skeptical Orthodox Zionist Jew,” notes, “Distance erases detail. It’s easy to be extremely certain about a place far away.”
• • •
All of those with whom I spoke shared one overriding belief: put simply, that the occupation of the West Bank must end. This was described as the sine qua non, the urgent task—politically, morally, existentially—on which all else depends. Indeed, it is inconceivable that anyone identifying as a leftist would take any other stance. (There are, of course, Israelis who oppose the occupation but do not identify with the left.) The major division within the Israeli left is not over the occupation itself but between two-staters and one-staters, who constitute an extremely small albeit articulate minority. The two-state left—the Zionist left—believes in a secular state for the Jewish people, with equal rights for all citizens, existing next to a Palestinian state. The anti-Zionist left regards a Jewish state as inherently illegitimate and supports the creation of one presumably binational state. (Ironically—or perhaps logically, depending on your view—the one-state formula is embraced by some far-rightists, by some settlers, and by Hamas: all share the conviction that Mandatory Palestine is indivisible.) And within the two-state left there is disagreement over how, or if, the occupation might end, and over the place of the settlements in the politics of Zionism.
While “left” in the United States, Britain, and much of Western Europe is now a virtual synonym for anti-Zionism, the same is far from true in Israel. Most of the people I interviewed unhesitatingly and unapologetically spoke of themselves as leftists and Zionists, confident that there is no contradiction between the two. “I would define myself as a Zionist-leftist,” says Greilsammer, 65, a biographer of Léon Blum and a May ’68er in his native France. “On the one hand, we are very much against the Israeli right, the present government, the settlers. I’m in favor of a two-state solution—it’s so obvious that I am always surprised that people think another way. And I am a Zionist, because it’s the right of the Jewish people to have a state in Palestine.”
There is an acute awareness among leftist Zionists that their political and ethical project—which increasingly diverges from the policies of the Israeli state—is grievously ill. Hebrew University historian Zeev Sternhell, 78, is an expert on European fascism and a harsh critic of the occupation, the settlements, and what he terms the “reversed trend” of Israeli domestic politics as they veer toward racist limits on citizenship. He may also be the only avowed Zionist ever published by New Left Review. Sternhell—who, in 2008, was injured by a pipe bomb planted by an American-born settler—says, “If we don’t manage to put together an Israeli state and a Palestinian state side by side—the Israeli state being an open and liberal state—and if the story is that we are becoming a binational state: this is the end of Zionism. And the beginning of something different, in which personally I am not interested. If all I wanted was to belong to some kind of a Jewish community, I could live in New York or in Paris. I am here because I want something else.”
What is that something else? He explains, “Not long ago I spoke with a well-known American liberal, a Jewish liberal, who told me, ‘So what’s wrong with a binational state? You could keep your language, your culture.’ This is precisely what I think is wrong. Because what we have been looking for is not only Hebrew culture and Hebrew literature; we have been looking for national sovereignty. I am not religious: in my Judaism there are not many elements other than statehood and sovereignty. So for me, [binationalism] would be the end of the story.” The blunt, urgent question that leftist Zionists such as Greilsammer and Sternhell face is: can the direction of what we might call actually existing Zionism be reversed? Can the story of leftist Zionism continue? Or will it join the other failed political projects of the 20th century—especially utopian projects—in the proverbial dustbin of history?
Students laughed openly at the idea of an Iranian threat to Israel.
Despite accord about the heinousness of the occupation, I sensed a generational divide in the Israeli left: in how it views the conflict, the international left, and Zionism itself. It is difficult for an outsider to know how wide or deep this divide is; some members of the older generation—those who came of age circa 1968 or earlier—insist it is minor. But I am not sure that Noam Sheizaf would agree.
Sheizaf, 38, is a thoughtful, quietly articulate journalist and a contributor to +972, a lively Web magazine that opposes the Netanyahu government on virtually all issues and other Israeli leftists on some. (Recent articles include “Goading Putin: The Insanity of Israel’s Military Policy” and “A Colonial Addiction: The Twisted Logic of the Netanyahu Government.”) Unlike those who came of age in the 1960s, Sheizaf has never known an Israel without the occupation. Of the international left’s animus toward Israel, he says, “In the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, the left was rebelling against their parents, who were silent during World War II. If they’re over 50, chances are that they’ll be actually sick at the idea of confronting Israel.” This is a dubious claim; some of the anti-Israel boycott leaders, for instance, are members of an older generation, as are the editors of journals such as the consistently anti-Zionist New Left Review and London Review of Books. (The editor of the latter, who is 75, has described herself as “unambiguously hostile to Israel.”) Sheizaf’s next point is more accurate: “If you’re under 50, and especially under 40, it’s almost a given on the [international] left that you need to reject Israeli policies and that Zionism is a form of colonialism that needs to be replaced. Zionism represents for them an ongoing effort to marginalize, to manipulate, to dispossess.” For Sheizaf—a Sabra who served in the Israeli army for more than four years—there is too little, rather than too much, international opprobrium directed at Israel. “Right now, the focal point [of the international left] is the occupation—and quite rightly so,” he says. “It’s the evilness; it’s on a level of its own. In my opinion, Israel is not getting enough [critical] attention.”
At a Tel Aviv dinner I attended with Sheizaf’s contemporaries—present and former graduate students in philosophy, some of whom were students of the philosopher and anti-occupation activist Adi Ophir—vehement opposition to the occupation was a given, support for the creation of one state seemed substantial, and scorn for the ruling establishment was abundant. (In that last sense, young leftist Israelis are a lot like young leftist Americans.) Some of the attendees laughed openly at the idea of an Iranian threat and mocked the thought that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic—something that, I suspect, their parents would not do. There is a wonderful historic irony at work here: though some of these young people would describe themselves as post-Zionist or even anti-Zionist, they are products precisely of Zionism, which aimed to create a nation of unafraid Jews.
For some, Israel’s fundamental mistake harks back to 1967 itself: not in fighting and winning the Six-Day War, which is viewed as a necessity, but in what immediately followed—or, rather, didn’t. Historian Benny Morris, 64, author of the pathbreaking book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949 and one of Israel’s original “new historians,” says, “In 1967, we had to defeat the Arab armies. And then we should have unilaterally withdrawn from the West Bank. Without a peace deal—just get out.” In this view the Arab League’s September 1967 Khartoum Resolution—which affirmed “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it”—was essentially irrelevant; Morris calls Israel’s failure to withdraw, even in the face of hostility, a “terrible historical mistake.” I found this somewhat surprising, given that Morris has veered far from leftist positions in recent years and does not believe most Palestinians will ever agree to—or at least adhere to—a two-state solution. No matter, he says, “We have to get out of the territories”—even, if necessary, without a treaty; remaining indefinitely is “not an option.” Yet unilateral withdrawal is not endorsed by all Israeli leftists, at least in light of subsequent, sobering developments. Literary critic and longtime peace activist Nissim Calderon, 66, argues, “The idea of unilateral retreat was very good in ’67, but it became wrong over the years. We must have a minimal agreement with the Palestinians—otherwise what is left behind will become a Hamas area.”
The sharpest disagreements I discerned, though, revolved around the post-’67 settlements—specifically, their meaning for Zionism. Are settlements the essence of Zionism, or the negation of it? In Israel this is a profoundly political, rather than theoretical, debate. In an interview I conducted last May in Berlin, the Israeli-German historian Dan Diner argued that the settlers—a small minority—have exerted such tremendous influence in Israel because they represent the unconscious collective will of the larger Israeli public. So too, Diner asserted, do the suicide bombers among Palestinians. In this view, the majority essentially subcontracts its deepest values, or at least its deepest fears and wishes, to the extreme fringe, which is, therefore, no fringe at all. Not surprisingly, Diner, 67, believes that the conflict is unsolvable: “You can divide real estate. But you can’t divide the sacred.”
Sheizaf puts forth a similar thesis, at least in regard to Israelis. Settlements outside the Green Line have been supported by all Israeli governments—Likud and Labor—since 1967; they are not the work of underground renegades. Therefore, Sheizaf argues, “The settlements were always a national project, a state-run project. The view that the state was hijacked by a minority” is a “self-serving fantasy” of the left.
Yet there are those who argue that the settlements represent a deformed mutation of Zionism rather than its true face. This view was articulated most compellingly in Gorenberg’s 2011 book The Unmaking of Israel, in which he argued that the settlements represent Israel’s failure to make “the transition from revolution to institution, from movement to state.” What was revolutionary in 1947 (or 1927)—the cultivation and building up of new areas—was reactionary in 1968 (or today). Post-1967 settlements, after all, undo the 1947 partition of Palestine, which Zionists supported. And they recreate the conditions of the ghetto by planting a minority of Jews amidst a hostile majority population, which is precisely the centuries-old predicament of the Jewish people that Zionism aimed to definitively change.
In an interview in a Jerusalem café, Gorenberg, 57, averred that the settlements are “the responsibility of all” Israelis. But he expanded on his original thesis: settlement, he said, was “a means and a value appropriate for a revolutionary period—but applied to sovereignty and statehood, it is like an autoimmune disease. It turns against itself, turns against the state.” Gorenberg, who was born in St. Louis and raised in California, draws a parallel with the American values of gun ownership and “rugged individualism.” These may have been useful, even necessary, in a frontier society, but are “completely inappropriate for an urban, post-industrial society—a complex society where everyone is dependent on each other. Rugged individualism is destroying America”—though many Americans would insist that it nevertheless represents an echt American value. Similarly, for Israelis, “military power and love of the soil were necessary to create the state, and once the state was created, they became incredibly problematic. That’s why it’s so difficult to free ourselves from all this.”
Sternhell, too, locates the settlement project in Israel’s inability to recognize the crucial differences between a revolutionary movement, which needs land, and an established democratic state, which needs fixed borders, stability, the rule of law, and a place within the comity of nations. “Acquiring the land was the real objective of Zionism,” he says. “It had been so before 1948, and it should have stopped in ’49. But ’67 on has been the continuation of the pre-1948 story. The conquest of the land has become, again, the main objective of statehood. This is the problem, which for half a century we haven’t been able to solve. And we created it with our own two hands.” The Israeli experience, post-1967, suggests that a state that does not mature out of its revolutionary phase risks, at best, the negation of its original raison d’être and, at worst, self-destruction (see, for instance, China during the Cultural Revolution). Here another irony emerges: a future Palestinian state will almost certainly have to confront the same problem of post-revolutionary transition that has proved so vexing for Israelis.
Most leftists reject the idea that the settlements represent the essence of Zionism.
Despite the settlements’ entrenchment, Gorenberg believes—pace Diner—that their evacuation is eminently achievable. This is also the view of Bradley Burston, 61, who writes the “A Special Place in Hell” column for the liberal-left daily Haaretz, one of Israel’s most influential newspapers. “To get rid of the settlements, you need a leader on the right who is willing to do it,” Burston says. “Sixty-seven percent supported Sharon’s pullout from Gaza. That is not the reflection of a society that has tacit support for the settlers. It’s the reflection of a society that says, ‘Let these people hang.’ [Menachem] Begin disbanded the settlements in Sinai—the entire state of Israel was behind it. When the chips are down: support of the people—it’s there.” However, Burston’s relatively optimistic outlook is far from widely shared. Among other factors, the Gaza pullout involved relocating approximately 8,500 settlers, as opposed to the estimated 350,000 who now live in the West Bank and the 185,000 in East Jerusalem. Moreover, as Sternhell points out, even when the settlements were few and the settlers weak, the “energy,” “courage,” and “political will” to stop them didn’t exist.
Hebrew University linguist David Shulman, 64, writes about Israel for the New York Review of Books and is a longtime activist with Ta’ayush, a grassroots Jewish-Israeli/Palestinian-Israeli anti-occupation group whose name, in Arabic, means “living together.” The West Bank is not foreign territory to him; the Palestinians are not an abstraction. Shulman’s main hope for change, he says, lies not with his fellow Israelis but with the Palestinians—or, more precisely, with the possibility that the latter will build “some kind of mass nonviolent or partially nonviolent resistance. Which doesn’t mean they’ll be capable of carrying it off. I don’t know if they are.” Shulman argues that Israel cannot—and will not—massacre large groups of nonviolent protestors: “There’s no way she can mow down thousands of Palestinians.” Nevertheless, he warns, even a nonviolent movement will entail significant Palestinian causalities: “Some of them are going to be shot.” In spite of these risks, Shulman says, the nonviolent imperative has “filtered down to mainstream [Palestinian] activists. I’m not thinking about Hamas and all that—that’s a different story.”
Despite the metastasizing of the settlements, most of those with whom I spoke reject the idea that settlements represent the essence of Zionism any more than, say, the Stasi represented the essence of socialism. Even Sheizaf, who has lived with the occupation all his life, says, “I don’t think ideologies are ‘inherently’ anything. I’m a materialist.” Eyal Chowers, 54, a professor of politics at Tel Aviv University, expands on this. “There is no ‘essence’ of Zionism,” he argues. “Zionism is a very heterogeneous movement.” It has been embraced by secularists and believers, socialists and capitalists, militarists and pacifists, nationalists and internationalists; indeed, one might wonder what a proto-fascist such as Ze’ev Jabotinsky had in common with a Marxist theoretician such as Ber Borochov. Chowers continues, “To look at history as if the occupation is necessary is very limited. We know that history is built around contingencies.” Strangely, those in the international left who argue most forcefully for Marxism’s capacity to flourish in different ways—and to constantly regenerate itself—are often the very people who insist that Zionism can have only one, ironclad fate.
In his 2007 book Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine, Shulman wondered how Israel, “once a home to utopian idealists and humanists, should have engendered and given free rein to a murderous, also ultimately suicidal, messianism.” He called this development “a mystery, a historical conundrum.” Sitting in the living room of his Jerusalem home, he expresses a similar, horrified puzzlement—which suggests the opposite of inevitability—at the trajectory of Israeli politics. The occupation, the settlements, the racism: “You have to say there was some potential for this darker side that has come out and taken over,” he says. “I don’t think it was inherent. In the early decades, I think the kind of stuff that is dominant today would have been seen as an aberration. Now, we’re in a situation where you’ve got a whole system of the occupation. I don’t think anybody can go there and see it in operation without coming to the conclusion that it’s something monstrous. The whole crazy thing that’s developed: it’s hard to believe that it’s come to this.”
For Chowers, the biggest challenge that Zionism faced—one that, he thinks, Israel has failed—was state building. This is a somewhat surprising analysis, since the early Zionists—even before independence in 1948—were so successful in creating the institutions necessary for a well-functioning democracy, including trade unions, political parties, education and health systems, a judiciary, a parliament, a free press, and an army. Indeed, some members of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah have openly said that they are trying to replicate the early Zionist model. But in Diaspora Jewry, Chowers argues, there was no public sphere, no ability to build political—much less, democratic—institutions. Though Jews were prominent in Europe’s 19th- and 20th-century liberal and revolutionary movements—especially socialism and communism—Jews came relatively late, qua Jews, to the project of autonomous government. Like Sternhell, Chowers locates the current crisis in the primacy of the physical over the democratic. “For 1,500 years our political tradition was so weak,” Chowers says. “The connection to the land,” a key value of the early Zionists, has proved “much more powerful than the shared political vision. It’s the combination of the weak political sphere with the problem of the occupation that has proved so ruinous.”
Weak political formation, if it exists, is something Israelis and Palestinians might unfortunately share: “The tragedy here,” Chowers says, “is that you have two national movements overwhelmed by attachment to the land. They don’t see the state as central. And among the Palestinians, it’s even worse [than with Israelis].” Several of the people I spoke with expressed some doubt as to whether most Palestinians—many of whom still live in clan-based societies—want to build an independent, modern state of their own rather than reclaim ancestral lands in Israel.
A sense of victimization—justified by history, certainly, yet tenderly cultivated—is also, alas, shared by the two peoples. Shulman observes, “If there were no anti-Semites left in the world, the Israelis would reinvent them simply to feel they were victims—which is the undercurrent of all modern nationalism, actually. It’s also, by the way, true of Palestinians: that they’re mirroring this tremendous delight in their victimization. I regard it as a kind of choice—maybe not a fully conscious choice, but a choice regardless.” The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in its ugly fierceness and wearying tenacity, is freighted with all sorts of psychic meanings, all sorts of choices. “Everybody here, we’re all post-traumatic,” Shulman says.
Not surprisingly, Israelis are far more attuned to these subterranean, even irrational, aspects of the conflict than are outside observers, who sometimes suggest that the crux of the conflict involves nothing more than land swaps. Calderon explains that the Israel-Palestine conflict cultivates “fanatics on both sides. It is unthinkable for most Arabs that this tiny Israel can continue forever to win war after war, and the huge Arab world will continue forever to be weak. Therefore the Arab countries do not let the Palestinians accept the reality of their weak military power. On the Israeli side, [former] Prime Minister Levi Eshkol used to speak about Israel as ‘the miserable Samson.’ Israelis simply look at the map and they are scared. And a scared people does not tend to listen to the voice of reason.” It is precisely these extra-political forces—humiliation and fear—that must be addressed if any longstanding resolution to the conflict is ever to be found.
• • •
Though the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign gets a lot of attention in New York and London, it does not seem to weigh on the minds of those who live in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Some people I spoke with were irritated by it (“The British are lecturing us about colonialism?”). But others argued that, more important, the boycott, and its support for the Palestinian refugees’ “right of return,” are based on a profound misunderstanding of internal Israeli politics: on the unproved, ahistoric premise that an increasingly scorned or frightened Israel will somehow move to the left. On the contrary: “The Israeli right needed something like BDS in order to divert attention from right-wing arguments [in defense of the settlements] that are obsolete,” Burston argues. “There is no better gift to Israeli rightists than charging that Israel is an illegitimate racist dictatorship with no right to exist. If you say the ‘original sin’ was 1948, you are doing the work of the Israeli right. Settlements become irrelevant because in that view, Tel Aviv is a settlement.”
Perhaps because it is such an accepted fact of Israeli life, none of my interviewees pointed out that Israel is already boycotted by almost all of the Arab League nations, which have officially shunned Israel in the economic, political, and cultural realms for more than six decades. (During a visit I made to Ramallah in the fall of 2012, a senior official in the Palestinian Authority said he opposed BDS in part because of the history of anti-Jewish boycotts, i.e., Germany in the 1930s, the Arab world since 1948.) BDS is nothing new; it has simply followed the lead of such progressive icons as Libya, Syria, and Iraq in an attempt to turn Israel into what Hannah Arendt called a “pariah” nation.
The belief that both liberals and leftists in the West fail, or don’t care, to understand the political and cultural particularities of Israel was voiced by many of my interviewees. Israel is a place, not a symbol or a metaphor; it isn’t Algeria, or South Africa, or, for that matter, a Jewish suburb of America. These are not normative observations, but factual ones. Sheizaf charges, “American Jews have a distorted view of the settlers, of the Haredim, even of the Sephardim—bordering on racism. And a view of the Israeli elite—liberal, democratic—which is really their self-perception. They attach to a certain segment of Israel, and they demonize the rest.” He adds, “Both among the Jewish crowd, and on the left, there is a failure to recognize a distinct Israeli identity, which is very different from American Jews. They think that Israelis are Jews [who happen to be] living in Israel, which is wrong. I’m a Jew by culture, by history, but my identity is Israeli.” The distinction Sheizaf draws is not a recent one; in fact, it had been observed even in the pre-state days. In Arthur Koestler’s 1946 novel Thieves in the Night, an American journalist notes—approvingly!—that while most Jews “stink of [the] ghetto,” the kibbutzniks are a new breed: “They’ve quit being Jews and become Hebrews.”
A state that does not mature out of its revolutionary condition risks self-destruction.
Like Sheizaf, Tel Aviv University historian Shlomo Sand chafes at the foreign left’s refusal to see Israel qua Israel. Sand, 66, angered many Israelis, including leftist Israelis, with his 2009 book The Invention of the Jewish People; his willfully provocative title suggests why. (Nevertheless, the book became a bestseller in Israel.) Sand has become somewhat of a darling of the anti-Zionist left abroad, which makes his irritation at it—and its attempts to shoehorn his country into other people’s histories and remedies—all the more surprising. “The solution to South Africa”—the abolition of apartheid—“did a lot of damage” to the Western left’s capacity to envision realistic solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sand argues. “South Africans finished with one state. But all these past models: they do not work. To repeat a model is always catastrophic.” He adds, “You cannot go back in history: that creates new tragedies. You can correct things. You can educate about what happened. But you cannot go back. This is the reason that I am against the Palestinian right of return.” Though energetically, sometimes venomously, critical of Israel (“the most racist society in the Western world—I don’t exaggerate”) and of Zionist ideology, Sand opposes the creation of one state and decries what he calls “this new anti-Zionism, which cannot distinguish [between] the right of the existence of Israel and the non-right of Israel to occupy the Palestinian people.”
Several of my interviewees were frustrated by the inability of the Western left to accept Zionism as an expression of national self-determination—traditionally a prime value of the left—and by the concurrent insistence that Zionism is inherently illiberal, at best. Says Sternhell, “Zionism was not more reactionary than any other national movement. We have to struggle against those organic, ethnic trends in Zionism, as people do now in Eastern Europe, and as they did in Western Europe before 1945. Zionism is nationalism: not worse and not better.” Nevertheless, he admits, “The fact that we didn’t manage to construct a nation with a notion of [equal] citizenship is not an accident.” This is still the challenge of Israeli democracy. Gorenberg argues that Americans, given the multicultural model of the United States, do not understand “the idea that people of a certain culture and history want self-determination.” Even so, he adds, Zionism is considered different than other nationalisms: “Everyone has the right to self-define [as a people]—except the Jews.” Chowers told me, “I’ve been reading some things my colleagues have shown me that are coming out from America, by people like Judith Butler, and to tell you the truth I’m in a state of shock. The complete delegitimization of the state of the Jews—I’m puzzled by it.”
• • •
“It is natural that there are optimists and pessimists; many of us have the two of them inside,” Calderon observes of his fellow citizens. This bifurcation was especially noticeable in reactions to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that began this July at the urging of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. In follow-up emails, my respondents’ reactions could best be characterized as: (some) optimism of the will, (lots of) pessimism of the intellect. “Perhaps the Israelis might find themselves making an agreement by accident,” one wrote. “In theory, at some point the cost of failure might seem unbearable.”
In general, though, a sense of deep melancholy shadowed many of my interviews—and some casual conversations I had—especially with members of the older generation. These were people born well before the occupation; many fought in the Six-Day War and later conflicts, some in earlier ones. More than one wondered if the Zionism for which they had struggled all their lives is at an end; their voices seemed deepened by sorrow. While listening to them, at times I harked back to the old-guard Bolsheviks in the 1930s: another generation of proud, dedicated, intensely focused people who made a Herculean effort to create a new world—one that, like Israel, was surrounded by enemies—and who watched the destruction, and self-destruction, of the political ideals to which they had devoted their lives. This does not mean that Israel, like the Soviet Union, will crumble. The question is what kind of Israel it will be.
Not one person I interviewed spoke of “peace” in the old sense—the Oslo sense—of the term. All of the possible scenarios were imbued with uncertainty, contingency, and anxiety. Nissim Calderon asks, “How can one think about an absolute end to the conflict when so many players in this game are committed to not ending it: Iran, the settlers, Hezbollah, Hamas, many more? How can one be sure about anything vis-à-vis the Egypt of today, or the Syria of tomorrow, or the possibility, which is discussed, that [ultra-rightist Avigdor] Lieberman will be elected the next prime minister of Israel? But with a border, and with an end to killing and occupying, we will have one big horror less—and other horrors to deal with.” Noam Sheizaf says that Palestinians, Israelis, and their histories are inextricably bound; as illustration, he quotes a well-known line by the Israeli poet-songwriter Meir Ariel: “At the end of every Hebrew sentence, sits an Arab with a hookah.” Sheizaf argues that, due to this fraught interdependence, “the conflict cannot, maybe should not, be ‘solved.’ There will be an ongoing political battle. But I want to replace the control, violence, oppression with a model of cooperation, of compensation. The entire notion of endgames is meant to prevent the Jewish population from giving up anything. Because in real life there are no endgames.” David Shulman says, “Even a non-perfect solution, something that both sides could somehow live with—the beneficial results of that would just be staggering, and transform our whole existential situation.” Unfortunately, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has proved disastrously immune to imperfect solutions: immune, that is, to politics itself.
Those who think leftist Israelis are ready to give up on their country—by leaving it en masse, by giving it to the Palestinians, by surrendering to the right—are wrong. But the sense of crisis within the left cannot be exaggerated. Sternhell, who travels often to Europe, says, “People who have been our allies and our supporters, on the center and the left, simply do not understand what we are doing. Where do we want to go? I don’t have any good argument. I am afraid that I know too well where we are going: we are going into a wall.” For those who believe the Zionist project has always been a racist, colonialist crime—or is irrevocably stained by the occupation—this may be good news. For the rest of us—including, I would argue, the Palestinians—it is not.
“I think about the occupation every day,” Eyal Chowers confessed to me in a sudden rush of emotion at the end of our interview. “There is not a day that I don’t feel shame. And it’s the Palestinians, not I, who are suffering. Forty-six years . . . We have all lived missed lives.”
Photograph: Tali Caspi
While we have you...
...we need your help. While reading Letter from Israel: Leftists on Zionism's Past, Present, and Future by Susie Linfield, you might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. We've also gone one step further and become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your support to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
November 13, 2013
27 Min read time