The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent

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Israel's left has rarely been as active as today, with many new anti-occupation and social opposition groups forming, and yet simultaneously so completely marginalized.

Roane Carey and Jonathan Shainin, eds.

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Tuesday, December 3 2002, 04:23 PM


As new elections approach, the Israeli left has little realistic expectation of improving its position. Rather, their best political wish has become that a pre-election Palestinian suicide bombing campaign does not drive the Jewish electorate irredeemably rightwards. Even Amram Mitzna's centrist position at the head of Labor's ticket, calling for an unconditional return to peace negotiations and evacuation of the Gaza settlements, holds very poor promise of success. In the unlikely event that a center-left government could assemble sufficient mandates to form a narrow coalition government, any government action to evacuate and disband settlements would lead to a new Jewish civil war. For Israel's theo-fascist elements, Rabin's assassination represents a continuing naked threat towards any future government that operates against Gush Emunim's understanding of God's will.

Israel's left has rarely been as active as today, with many new anti-occupation and social opposition groups forming, and yet simultaneously so completely marginalized. There is a paradox wherein the left is intellectually more alive and possessed of vastly greater analytic talents than mainstream politics, but has pitifully miniscule ability to translate those ideas into political power. The angrily acute reportage of Amira Hass from the occupied territories has become legend, but the immediacy of witness that she and other good reporters provide means little if anything in creating an Israeli public visualization of the suffering of Palestinians. Literature of contemporary social testimony, in the Middle East as elsewhere, too often reads like a report to future historians of catastrophe more than as part of the immediate formations of political power.

This volume of collected recent essays covers a substantial swath of left-wing political diversity, although few of its genuinely newer voices. Most authors in the volume could have been named as opposition intellectuals twenty years ago, and about half the essays come from middle-class academics accustomed to foreign audiences. The span of the contributors includes such quasi-establishment writers as former attorney-general Michael Ben-Yair to Arafat syncophants like Uri Avnery (in self-aggrandizing opposition for fifty years, since founding the weekly Ha'Olam Ha'ze) and Neta Golan. There is a near-complete absence of either Mizrachi or Arab voices in this collection, as if they did not constitute either "the other Israel" or "voices of refusal and dissent. Also among the missing are working-class and religious perspectives -- excepting one thoughtful and moving essay by Shamai Leibowitz, an attorney and graduate of Yeshivat Har Etzion, known as the intellectual bastion of Gush Emunim.

What these lacunae suggest is the deficiency inherent in a conceptualization of the Israeli left that begins and ends with Ha'aretz op-ed columns, where a number of these essayists appear regularly. Fourteen of these essays originally appeared in the Ha'aretz English edition, although the co-editors do not identify original publication venues, and a medley of others in the Guardian, the London Review of Books, and other overseas venues. Two were published in Kol Ha'ir, a Jerusalem weekly. There is a rich life of oppositional thought and culture in Israeli small journals and venues that the present book, edited and published from New York City, never approaches. While it is useful to have a coherent selection of essays from the Israeli left, there remain inevitable representational deficiencies created by co-editors who apparently cannot translate from Hebrew. It is difficult to imagine non-Arabic speakers presuming to assemble an anthology of contemporary Arab political thought; there is no reason to provide indulgence to a similar neo-colonial exercise in another Middle Eastern language.

Representativeness takes a strange turn with the inclusion of a reprinted Le Monde interview with an ultimate insider in Israeli society, Ami Ayalon, former chief of the Shin Bet security services. The interview reveals that Ayalon's views on the injustice and untenability of the occupation parallel those of many Israeli leftists. Ayalon's post-retirement opinions are well-known in Israel, if less so outside the country. Yet this only raises the question of why, having the common sense to see the creation of "bottomless despair" among Palestinians as a driving force towards bi-national nihilism, Ayalon agreed to participate in its manufacture in Shin Bet offices? While Ayalon may now express his dissent from a privileged position as an international business executive, he never manifested his opposition by refusing to participate in the occupation. For a response to such putative liberalism, read Gideon Levy's passionate essay letter to Shimon Peres, "Tell the Truth, Shimon," an excellent example of naming political hypocrisies.

It is a measure of despair among Israeli leftists that some slide unthinkingly into the false and self-delegitimating comparison of the present situation to apartheid, a comparison that anthology co-editor Roane Carey promoted in The New Intifada. It is an unsupportable analogy that seeks to demonize Jewish national existence more than confront the locked-down terms of daily life for Palestinians confronting the security forces of an occupation that ideologically can never accept armed resistance as legitimate. So for Israeli military planners, surround-and-separate checkpoints and road blockades are a tactical response: this is colonial occupation, not apartheid. In civil society, the comparative demographics are too vastly different to support such an analogy. Language of anathematization does not constitute analysis of Palestinian oppression. Nonetheless, Adi Ophir's essay on political philosophy flirts with this analogy, as does Jeff Halper's otherwise clear-eyed analysis of settlement and control methods in the occupied territories. Ilan Pappe's predictable one-note hyperbole, which cannot distinguish between Barak's settlement proposals and Sharon's territorial hallucinations, indulges in this nonsense. However, both Pappe and Avnery represent old-school table-thumping leftism that screams for attention, receives none, and has no future prospects beyond proclaiming its righteousness.

Far more interesting are the essays by David Grossman and Zeev Sternhell, both of whom write with a fine slicing edge to their anti-colonial prose. Grossman's bitterly brilliant "Hail, Caesar!" captures the position of a citizenry exhorted into purposeless war, trying to understand a Sharon government whose plans are "so clever and sophisticated that it even has answers for the apocalypse that will take place if these ideas are implemented." Sternhell, with the eyes of a political historian, contributes two well-grounded essays on the execution and implications of Sharon's ground assault against Palestine.

The practical political heart of this collection lies in a section entitled 'Refusal', consisting of an essay by Yishai Menuchin, a major in the army reserves and a leader of the Yesh Gvul refusal movement; Yigal Shohat's speech at Tel Aviv's Tzavta club; and personal-voice articles by Neve Gordon and others. Most of the 'electable left' repudiates the refusal of soldiers to follow orders or report for reserve duty, often on the specious argument that it wishes to preserve an ultimate capacity to order right-wing soldiers out of the territories. Notwithstanding the delusion necessary to sustain a belief that Kiryat Arba settlers and their kin will peacefully evacuate once given legal vacate orders by some possible government interested in peacemaking, this argument essentially holds that a future well-ordered state is to be constructed on enforcement of acknowledged present-day injustice. However, the IDF refuseniks actualize an ethics of personal opposition that must ultimately prevail if Sharonism and its theo-fascist allies are to be defeated. Although the IDF has been reluctant to be drawn into handing down heavy prison sentences against its 'politicals,' that attitude of institutional avoidance is coming near its end. Menuchin argues that participation in civil protest against the occupation is insufficient, for "Being a citizen in a democracy carries with it a commitment to democratic values and a responsibility for your actions. It is morally impossible to be both a devoted democratic citizen and a regular offender against democratic values. Depriving people of the right of equality and freedom, and keeping them under occupation, is by definition an undemocratic act."

Such a simple and powerful proposition leads inevitably towards a refusal to engage in occupation, towards turning dissenting words into positive acts of disobedience to the state, towards respecting the lives and rights of the Palestinian people.

The Other Israel is available from The New Press 

Joe Lockard refused to serve in the occupied territories as an Israel Defense Forces reservist. He is currently assistant professor of early American literature at Arizona State University and a Bad Subjects editor. In April 2001, the State of Israel declared him a heretic and apostate. 

Copyright © 2002 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.
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