Sam Fleischacker’s Followup

Sam Fleischacker, whose guest post last week in response to the Israeli election garnered so much attention and reaction, has a followup piece. Sam has asked me to post that followup here. I disagree with a fair amount of it, but because I posted his original statement here, I feel some obligation to post this clarification and elaboration now. I trust that readers of this blog know my views, and that my posting this statement will not be construed as an endorsement of what it says. 

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Here is a follow-up to my post last week after the Israeli election. I’ve been a bit taken aback by the extent of the reaction to it, and uncomfortable about the degree to which I have been taken to move from one political box to another (unqualified Zionist to unqualified non- or anti-Zionist: I never was the first and haven’t become the second). I prefer not to be in boxes, and should probably therefore not use Facebook for political purposes: its format makes it a difficult place to discuss political issues in a nuanced way. This is a longer and less fiery piece but it represents my views more clearly. I was also helped in figuring out those views by things I heard at the J Street conference this past week — a wonderful event, that included a wide variety of voices, including non-Zionist ones (JStreet is a very open organization, which deliberately brings people to its conferences who do not share all its political views). I hope people who read the earlier post will read this piece as well.

The piece is in three sections: one on the significance of the elections, one on the evolution of my view of Zionism, and one on what I think we, here in America, should do now.

On the message of the elections

Many have pointed out that the overall tally of right- and left-wing mandates in the Knesset has not changed much; many have also stressed that the voters for parties like Shas and Kulanu had religious or socio-economic issues primarily in mind, rather than Bibi’s views on peace and Palestinian rights; and some have excused Bibi’s last-minute rhetoric as mere political posturing.

The first two points are perfectly true and the third may have some truth in it; none changes my point about what the elections portend. Let’s start by thinking through what it meant for someone to vote for Shas or Kulanu, let alone Likud, after Bibi’s “No Palestinian state” remark. I set aside the racist tweet on election day. That was the very worst thing he said, but given its timing, it’s hard to estimate what effect it had. The “No Palestinian state” remark is different. It had been leaked by the end of the prior week, came out fully the day before the elections, and fit perfectly with what many people had taken to be Bibi’s implicit view in any case. Its prominence in the news cycle also meant that Bibi was practically calling for a referendum on the end of a two-state solution.

So a person going to the polls on Tuesday would have had to be aware that a vote for any party likely to join the Bibi bloc was a vote against continuing with the peace process, a rejection of two states, and (given Bibi’s other views) a vote for continuing the status quo ad infinitum, even if that meant de facto apartheid — life under military rule, with no political rights and few civil rights — for Arabs in the West Bank.

In these circumstances, one would expect a good number of voters, if they cared about democracy and rights at all, to say to themselves, “Whatever other concerns I have, I must vote against Bibi.” To say instead, “My religious and socio-economic concerns are more important to me than protecting democracy” is to show that, when it really counts, one doesn’t care about democracy. And that’s the best case scenario: many voters clearly and enthusiastically endorsed Bibi’s last-minute declaration, clearly chose Likud over Bennett and Yishai because they thought it was now identical with them.

So the Likud that now sits in government is essentially a Bennett Likud. And the rest of the right bloc are enablers of that sort of view: an exclusivist, undemocratic, illiberal vision of Israel as belonging to Jews alone, who have a right to subjugate 2.5 million Palestinians.

The significance of this point is not that the Israeli public consists of bad or racist people. Jonathan Marks, in responding to me, has urged us not to read the motivations of Israelis in this harsh way, calling for empathy in understanding both sides of the conflict. I think he is absolutely right about that, but my understanding of the elections depends just on the results of voters’ deliberations, not on the motives that went into those deliberations. I don’t pretend to know exactly why so many Israelis wound up expressing an indifference to democracy, and explanations that draw on fear, local concerns, and personal affiliations with and loyalties to certain political units make good sense to me.

What is important is that there is no reason to think that the kind of choice they made, whatever its precise cause, will change much in the foreseeable future. If two thirds of Israel’s voters are willing to vote now for right wing parties that reject negotiations, and reject democracy for Palestinians, what on earth would lead anyone to think that they will vote differently in 4 years, or 8 years, or any time after that? Things are likely to get a lot worse, not better. We may well see efforts to curtail the independence of the Supreme Court, to overturn the Kaadan decision by way of a Basic Law declaring Israel to be a Jewish state. to impose loyalty oaths on Arabs, and to strip Arabs deemed “treacherous” of citizenship. We will certainly see a growth in settlements, an abandonment of the peace process, an increase in fear-mongering and racism and rhetoric that paints all Palestinians as terrorists with maximalist designs, and an increase in the number of leading figures in Israel, and in groups that support Israel, who openly support these moves and modes of rhetoric.

All of these things will help the right grow, not decline — inculcate far-right views in the next group of young Israelis to vote, and push people on the left out of politics or out of the country — and demographic growth, as is well known, also enormously favors the right. So forget all questions about the morality of this past election, and just ask yourself pragmatically: is there really any reasonable hope that future elections will favor left-wing parties? We may not have Netanyahu forever, but what reason is there to think we will get someone better? Moreover, even if a left-wing coalition by some fluke does win election in the next round or two, will it really be robust enough that it can energetically pursue negotiations toward a two-state solution — let alone, if it succeeds, have the strength to remove settlers in the implementation of that solution?

These are the questions that led me to my despairing conclusion about the future of Zionism. For we do not have endless time to reach a two-state solution. A few more years, and the settlements will be so entrenched, the Palestinian leadership so radicalized, and the Israeli and diasporic pro-Israel leadership so firmly right-wing, that there will be no turning back.

Nor can, or should, the Palestinians in the West Bank be expected to live without rights while they wait for a state that may never come. Without realistic hope for a change in Israeli’s part, we need therefore to start thinking about whether talk about two states is a distraction from the real issues and possibilities that lie before us.

There’s been a lot of talk about Bibi “walking back” his no Palestinian state remark, and he has indeed already made efforts to do that. But he can’t walk it back, not in earnest. He won because of it, and he knows that. Everyone around him knows it too: the people who turned out because of the remark put the Likud Bloc in power and will be furious if betrayed. They are also the victors’ ticket to future power. Recall George HW Bush’s campaign pledge, “No new taxes.” Breaking that pledge is widely thought to have cost him the 1992 election, and over the 23 years since that time, practically no Republican in America has been willing to come out for a tax hike. Similarly, no right-wing candidate for office in Israel is likely to commit to a two-state solution, let alone to the uprooting of settlements, for years to come.

There’s also been a fair bit of talk about how we ought all to respect the results of the Israeli elections, whatever they were, because they were an exercise of democracy. This is confused. If the majority of Americans were to vote to disenfranchise Latino or Jewish or Arab Americans, that would be a procedurally democratic vote that would result in an undemocratic country. An example of this sort of thing historically is of course Jim Crow, which was not rendered democratic by the fact that most Americans supported it. The principle of democracy is that everyone subject to a country’s laws should be able to vote on those laws. If the latest Bibi election was a vote for Israel to rule permanently over Palestinians without giving them the vote, then it was a vote to turn Israel into an ethnocracy. That the vote itself was free and fair, among Israeli citizens, makes no difference. The procedure was democratic; the result was an abandonment of democracy.

The one thing that may change the electoral map in Israel is serious external pressure (more on that below, in the section on “On what I think we, here in America, should do now”). Possibly that will come in time to save the two-state solution. If so, I will again support that solution: it is, pragmatically, the most straightforward path to a just peace. It would not solve all the problems with Israeli democracy: much would still need to be done to secure the rights of Israeli Palestinians (and other non-Jews, as well as non-Orthodox Jews). But with a two state solution in hand, that work seems doable. Even a great deal of external pressure on Israel may well not change the policies of the Israeli right, however, or not change them in time. So the goal of that pressure should be democracy in Israel/Palestine — whether or not that comes in a two state form.

On the evolution in my views

As the comments above indicate, my feeling that I can no longer support (political) Zionism is an empirical and pragmatic one, not a conversion to the idea that it is an intrinsically unjust movement. I am a political philosopher, but do not think political commitments should be based primarily on abstract ideals — indeed, much of my work has criticized hat view. Politics is “the art of the possible” and one’s commitments need accordingly to shift when the facts change; the point is try to approximate one’s ideals in practice, in accordance with the historical realities around one. To support the French revolution in 1789 may have been admirable; to support it in 1794 was appalling. To support the full-bore socialism of Britain’s Attlee government in the late 1940s, complete with large-scale nationalization, may have been admirable; it was a nostalgic way of avoiding real political choices by the 1970s. (I confess I retain quite social democratic ideals in theory – but that doesn’t guide most of my “on the ground” political views.)

Which is to say that while I think Israel may no longer be capable of holding democracy and Jewish nationalism together, I don’t think that was historically inevitable or built into the project of Zionism. In principle a state that is both democratic and Jewish seem to me no more impossible than a state that is both democratic and Turkish or Greek or Swedish, or democratic and Muslim or Greek Orthodox or Lutheran. There are many ethno-cultural and/or ethno-religious democracies all over the world; in many cases, the cultural and the religious features are also linked, as in the three I have mentioned.

This is indeed the norm: we live — have lived, for almost two centuries — in a nationalist world. There is tension in practically all nationalist states between their democratic features and their favoritism for one group of their citizens over others, but generally this tension is manageable, without serious detriment to any citizen’s civic or political rights. The tension is greatest where the favored group constitutes but a slim majority of the population, however, and Israel’s constant efforts to maintain a demographic advantage for Jews has long malformed its treatment of non-Jews. But some Israelis have also worked to undo these discriminatory aspects of the state, their efforts were bearing fruit in recent years (in the above-mentioned Kaadan decision, for instance), and I don’t see any structural reasons why Israel couldn’t have reached at least the equilibrium of a Greece or Turkey if it had managed to end its Occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.

None of this is to say, on the other hand, that I have ever regarded nationalist democracies as ideal. In principle, I would prefer to see all states wholly stripped of cultural and religious identity (I argued for that position in a scholarly article a couple of years ago), and cultural and religious peoplehood expressed instead in voluntary communities, or small, sub-state political units: villages or small towns. I think cultural and religious identity is very important — the universalism of liberals and Marxists seems to me misguided. But putting state power behind such identities is dangerous.

I’ve argued for these views throughout my professional career, starting with my dissertation and first book. Accordingly, I have long been more a cultural than a political Zionist (Ahad Ha’am over Ben Gurion): a believer in the importance of a collective home for Jews, which would foster Jewish culture and religion, and take in persecuted Jews from all over the world.  But I also thought that in our nationalist world, where practically every state favors a particular cultural or religious group, small cultural or religious minorities consequently flounder, Jews probably need a state to protect their collective home; certainly, the history of anti-Semitism suggests that.

So political or statist Zionism has long been a compromise position for me, a means to cultural Zionism rather than an end in itself. My guiding thought has been that it would be better if Zionism could be realized on a sub-state level, that there is a particularly difficult balance between democracy and cultural/religious identity in the state of Israel, but that that state was entitled to retain its Jewish identity as long as it remained committed to democracy. That this balance was sustainable has seemed to me gravely in doubt ever since the collapse of the Oslo Accords; I called myself a “tepid Zionist” in 2008, in a series of blog posts on the Israel/Palestine conflict. And now I have come, sadly, to the conclusion that it is not sustainable. This is however not a sharp switch from one view to another, just an evolution that was brought to a sharp crisis by the elections of last week.

At the same time, I think it would be foolish to deny that much opposition to Israel is motivated, not by a desire for a secular democratic state but by the desire to replace the nationalist Jewish state with a nationalist Arab and Muslim state. Hamas openly proclaims this motivation — openly proclaims, as well, its hostility to all Jews, and aspiration to kill them. As for the PA, the 2003 Palestinian Basic Law it passed as a constitutional framework proclaims that Palestine is Islamic and that shari’a is the basis of its law (Article 4). The framework also says that all the laws of Palestine, and the interpretation and execution of its laws, must represent the will of the “Palestinian Arab people” (Articles 1, 97, 107, 116). The PLO charter was laced with similar Arab nationalist language, as have been many of the writings and speeches of Palestinian leaders throughout the past century. Anti-nationalist opponents of Zionism need to recognize, openly and honestly, that the Palestinian nationalist movement is and has always been exactly that: a nationalist movement, every bit as particularist and in every bit as much tension with liberal democracy as Zionism.

A solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict, whether it take the form of two states or of one, must therefore be sensitive to the collective aspirations of both peoples, not pretend that the participants on either side are secular, universalist liberals or Marxists, or turn the Jews into a despised and subjugated minority in a Palestinian national state. There will not be, any time in the near future, a pure liberal democracy in Israel/Palestine; there may be a binational state, but not a non-national one. This means that “one person, one vote” across the land, even if we should pursue that, is an idea vexed with difficulties — working out exactly how to implement it is something that needs careful thought. It may be the only solution we have left, but it is not an easy one.

On what I think we, here in America, should do now

One important task is working out how a one-state solution might be possible. If half the energy that has gone into defining and promoting the two-state solution could now be directed to the problems that will accompany any just and peaceful one-state solution, we might be able to see our way around those problems. Marcia Freedman, in the middle of a stunningly powerful discussion at the J Street conference this past week — a former member of the Israeli Knesset, with a lifetime’s commitment to Israel, who yet is not and has never been a Zionist — suggested that what Israel most needs is strong constitutional protection for all minorities; that would mean, she said, that Israel could remain a homeland for Jews even if they became a minority in the land.

This is a wonderful vision, but arriving at it would require large-scale institutional and attitudinal changes, not just a formal provision in a constitution. These are things that political scientists could fruitfully work on, together with former and present political leaders and activists, from both communities.

On the activist side, it seems clear to me, as it does to many people who continue to consider themselves liberal Zionists — I was very heartened by the anger, the passion and the honesty on display at the J Street conference — that the only chance for change in Israel now comes from outside: that it will take strong, effective sanctions from the US and other countries to move the Israeli public in the direction either of giving up the Occupation or of replacing a Jewish state with a binational democracy.

What “end of conflict” view we uphold is therefore not all that important: two-state supporters, including liberal Zionists, can join together with non- and anti-Zionists in calling for the withdrawal of the US automatic veto, on Israel’s behalf, in the UN Security Council; UN recognition of Palestine as a state; the inclusion of Palestine in UN bodies, including the ICC; and economic sanctions and divestment by the US government as well as private entities.

Other ideas: Peter Beinart has called for a “freedom summer” in the territories, in which Jews join Palestinians in protests and civil disobedience; this strikes me (as it struck many at the J Street conference) as an excellent idea. There are also many ways of supporting the growing, impressive efforts of Palestinian civil society organizations, and of Israeli rights organizations like B’Tselem and Rabbis for Human Rights. Ameinu, a leftwing Zionist organization in the US, helped fund a “get out the vote” effort among Israeli Arabs in this past election; that’s a wonderful model of constructive engagement.

Finally, we can and should all promote the wider exposure of Americans, and especially American Jews, to the conditions under which Palestinians live: Beinart, again, suggested that it should become unthinkable for American Jews to go to Israel without visiting Palestinian communities on the West Bank. This again strikes me as an excellent idea.

Violence in general is counter-productive, and violence against civilians is immoral. For that reason, I am relieved by the turn of so many Palestinians to BDS. It is, as its supporters stress, a non-violent strategy, with a deep history in other non-violent strategies. It has also now begun to move away from academic and cultural boycotts, which I think are a mistake in any context (I’ve attended a conference in Iran — making clear that I was an observant Jew to the organizers — and built a friendship I still treasure with a Muslim professor there as a result), toward economic measures instead.

At the same time, three features of the BDS movement as it currently stands disturb me.

First, it places the right of return among its central and non-negotiable commitments. In some form, a right of return is surely part of any just and peaceful resolution to the conflict (all the Palestinians I heard at J Street this week supported it in principle, although they also all said that it could take a variety of forms in practice), but in its maximalist form, which several organizations that issued the 2005 call for BDS uphold, it is a tool for replacing a Jewish nationalist with a Palestinian nationalist state. That is incompatible with a one-state solution that respects Jewish as well as Palestinian collective rights. In addition, the right of return is irrelevant to the pursuit of democratic rights for Palestinians currently under Israeli rule. I would like to see it set aside, as a goal of BDS, such that joining the BDS movement doesn’t necessarily commit one to it. That would also enlarge the scope of the movement.

Second, the BDS movement, despite its formal opposition to anti-Semitism, has had a less than stellar record in putting that opposition into practice. I do not think there is any justification for pro-Palestinian activity to be mingled with, or to excuse, anti-Semitism. That means calling out and firmly condemning calls like “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas,” chanted repeatedly this past summer in Europe, calls for a new, Muslim Hitler to arise and kill the Jews, TV specials based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and claims that Jews drink non-Jewish blood, which have appeared over and over in Muslim countries for several decades – as well, of course, as beatings and murders of Jews, like the shootings in France and Copenhagen a couple of months ago. It also means condemning things like the attempt to keep a Jew off the UCLA student government just because she was Jewish, or to de-register all Jews from a South African university.

Behavior of this kind should never be excused, any more than attacks on Arabs and Muslims should be excused. Pro-Palestinian activists need clearly to recognize that there is a deep and long-standing strain of anti-Semitism in their midst, clearly to reject it, and clearly to work against it. Unfortunately, that has largely not been the case. Students for Justice in Palestine has never, as far as I know, condemned any of the incidents I listed above, let alone rejected Hamas’s ferocious anti-Semitism. The Jewish Voice for Peace issued a perfunctory statement regretting the killings in Paris, not even mentioning the fact that Jews were targeted as Jews in them and devoted mostly to an attack on Islamophobia; the ineptness and insensitivity of this statement was appalling to me.

Non- and anti-Zionists should be more concerned, not less, than other people about anti-Semitism: they after all have to answer the question, “If Israel is not the answer to the problem of anti-Jewish hatred, what is?” It is time for a purge of anti-Semitism from the pro-Palestinian movement. Moral decency demands that, and in addition, only that will allow Jews who care about their people to join Palestinians in calling for sanctions on Israel.

Third, it is time for the demonizing attitudes, and rejection of dialogue, that go under the name of “anti-normalization” to be purged from the pro-Palestinian movement. The issues in this conflict are complicated, and the political movements on both sides are driven by many factors; few Zionists hold their commitments out of racism. Demonizing Zionism just means failing to understand it properly, and dialogue between Palestinians and a wide range of Jews, including full-blown Zionists, is essential if there is ever going to be a coalition that could work out, and work for, a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Of course we should not “normalize” the Occupation — it is and should appear to all of us terribly abnormal, a violation of basic democratic and liberal principles. With that in mind, it is reasonable to refuse to work together with the Israeli government, or Jewish organizations that act as propaganda agents for that government (many Jewish Federations; Hillel International, under the blind and partisan leadership of Eric Fingerhut). But it is wholly unreasonable to refuse to talk to Zionist Jews, to hear their narratives, and to try to understand and empathize with them. Anything else is arrogant and an obstacle to a just peace. “Co-resistance rather than co-existence” is an ugly slogan, with dangerous overtones; it should be replaced by “co-resistance as a means to co-existence.”

A BDS movement that aimed at democratizing Israel rather than replacing it with a Palestinian nationalist state, that actively rejected anti-Semitism in its midst, and that fostered dialogue with Zionist Jews, would be one I could join. I think other Jews strongly committed to their people — even many Zionists — could join that too, especially in the current situation. The power of a movement in which large numbers of Jews worked together with Arabs and Muslims against Israeli injustice would be enormous. It would also be a model for the kind of just solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict — one that actively affirms the individual and collective rights of both Jews and Palestinians — that we should all hope to see.


  1. freespeechlover March 28, 2015 at 1:54 pm | #

    Hamas doesn’t have one of the world’s greatest military behind it, regardless of whatever it has said in covenants, documents, etc. The reality is that regardless of political rhetoric, Israel has been negotiating with Hamas. Israel permitted Hamas to operate in the Palestinian Territories as an alternative to the PLO, and at a time in which being a member of the PLO would land you in an Israeli jail. Finally, today, Israel does a better job of negotiating with Hamas than Fatah.

  2. Michael Stein March 29, 2015 at 6:49 pm | #

    I think this analysis is fatally flawed in that it contemplates a large Arab and Muslim minority, even majority, in a one-state solution somehow not deeply influenced, even dominated, by the stunning anti-Semitism and Muslim fundamentalism that pervades most of the Arab world. Sam does indeed call for an end to those attitudes, but that’s like calling for the messiah to come. To be sure, similar attitudes exist in the Jewish circles, but they are materially less virulent, and far less widely held. Does Sam imagine an army that is half Arab and half Jewish? His vision seems detached from reality.

    The status quo may be depressing and anti-democratic, but the reality of what would come of Sam’s nice, idealistic vision, is sadly suicidal for the Jewish population.

    I too regret the loss of an opportunity to create a two state solution, but I put the onus of that failure on the Palestinians, not solely but certainly primarily, having turned down two offers from left leaning Arab governments, and, to kill the dream completely, responding to the Gaza evacuation by turning to Hamas and making Gaza a source of terror, rather than a vision of the co-existence that could occur in the West Bank. Since the two state solution was eviscerated by the Palestinians, I don’t think Jews have the obligation to attempt suicidal or secular messianic visions of coexistence.

    Then, of course, there’s the unviability of the two state solution itself. As if a self-respecting Arab government in the second state would accept the security limitations Israel would have to demand for its basic safety. So, I’m doubtful the one state or the two state solutions are workable in the end.

    Perhaps the status quo can be maintained long enough for Jordan to once again reclaim the West Bank, and make it a demilitarized part of Jordan, with its Arab residents having full citizenship in a real, and viable state. This seems to me the most likely way to meet the demands of liberal democracy and a Jewish state.

    I am aware that Jordan doesn’t want this, and one could accuse me of being every bit as messianic as I said Sam was being. I don’t believe that’s the case. I believe it is far more conceivable that Jordan could be incentivized to work out something along these lines, than it is for a moderate Arab leadership to coexist with Israel in either the one-state or the two-state solution.

    Michael Stein

  3. Michael Stein March 29, 2015 at 6:51 pm | #

    Typo — left leaning Israeli governments, not Arab governments…..

  4. Jonathan Mattanah April 6, 2015 at 9:45 pm | #

    Welcome, Sam, though the right of return of displaced persons is fundamental to a just solution. How Palestinians exercise that right, and what can be done such that a large displacement of Israelis does not now occur, should be discussed. But much of Palestinian villages from 1948 is now parkland in Israel. Surely, houses and villages could rise again for those who want to return. (–A tho J is logged in).

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