In recent years, Israel’s reputation as “the only democracy in the Middle East” has become more difficult to sell. The whole world watched in horror as Israel Defense Forces (IDF) forces pummeled Gaza in “Operation Cast Lead” of 2008-9, murdered human rights activists aboard the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in 2010, and required a heroic and massive struggle by Palestinian political prisoners on hunger strike before conceding even minor reforms.
As a result, Israeli “hasbara” (the government’s propaganda campaigns, literally translated as “explaining”) has kicked into overdrive through “pinkwashing” (i.e., advertising Israel as “LGBT-friendly”) and other media campaigns, organized volunteers to flood websites with pro-Israel messages, and provided resources to Zionist students to counter the growing movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) at their campuses.
Opportunities for activists organizing against Israel’s apartheid policies have grown tremendously. At the same time, political questions about the conflict’s roots and solutions continue to dog progressives around the world. Why did the “peace plan” fail? Was its intention ever peace? And who’s to blame for its collapse? In large part, these confusions stem from the fact that many progressives follow the lead of the Israeli left, and take at face value its claim that it wants peace with Palestinians. Peace initiatives fail, they argue, because “extremists on both sides” won’t let them succeed.
A clear analysis, therefore, of the Israeli Left—its goals and its politics—is long overdue. Tikva Honig-Parnass’s False Prophets of Peace: Liberal Zionism and the Struggle for Palestine, recently published by Haymarket Books, couldn’t come too soon. In it, Honig-Parnass, a long-time insider within the Israeli Left establishment before she broke definitively with Zionism in 1960, charts out a political landscape of the country’s left.
The extent to which Zionism has maintained legitimacy, despite decades of atrocities and occupation, stems from the myth of its so-called liberal (even socialist) democracy. This image was constructed by the liberal wing of Zionism—from politicians of the liberal parties, Labor and Meretz; to the academics which provide the ideological base for their policies; to the Histadrut national trade union; to peace groups Gush Shalom and Peace Now.
“This underscores the important task of this book,” explains Honig-Parnass in the book’s introduction,“... Both Zionist Left and post-Zionist intellectuals speak of and within a liberal, humanist, conceptual and ideological framework. This has enhanced their credibility among genuine progressives both in Israel and abroad. The Zionist Left role in granting legitimacy to Israel’s version of Apartheid and ‘close to Fascist’ political culture could not have been played by right-wing intellectuals and politicians.”
Labor and Liberal Zionism
At the root of the Zionist left’s political perspective is a rejection of the notion that Israel is a colonial-settler state. For Honig-Parnass, and for the millions of displaced Palestinians, the Zionist movement was reactionary from the start. Indeed it required the colonization of a land and the dispossession of its inhabitants. But the Zionist left sees Zionism as a sound and democratic political project—even if at times it has gone too far.
Therefore the “peace camp” in Israel denies the atrocities that accompanied Israel’s “War of Independence” of 1947-48— known to Palestinians as the Nakba (or “disaster”)—and instead focuses on the 1967 war as the root of the conflict. The founding of the state of Israel is accepted—even celebrated. The 1967 occupation, in their eyes, jeopardize the legitimacy of Zionism to the rest of the world.
As Honig-Parnass explains, “The focus on the 1967 occupation as the sole cause of the Israel-Palestine ‘conflict’ denies the structural discrimination against Palestinian citizens [of Israel—ed.], and their history and current oppression are excluded from the political discourse and activity of all wings of the Israeli ‘peace camp.’”
Indeed, it was the labor movement and left-wing Zionist parties that led the Jewish settlement of Palestine in the pre-state days. As Honig-Parnass explains: “The Zionist Labor movement justified these policies by using slogans that camouflaged their imperatives for dispossession of Palestinians: ‘Kibush H’kara’ (conquering soil), ‘Kibush H’avoda’ (conquering labor), and ‘tozeret haaretz’ (the produce of the land—implying ‘Jewish’ produce).”
It was also the left-wing parties that organized armed forces to ethnically cleanse Palestinians in the 1947-8 war. After the establishment of the state, it was again the leftwing politicians and ideologues that immediately set about re-writing history in order to create a collective memory and coherent national consensus of the new “Jewish Democratic” state.
Honig-Parnass explains how this took place:
There is ample evidence, from Zionist sources during the period of the 1948 war and immediately afterward, that indicates ‘members of the military and political elite, secondary leaders and intellectuals close to them knew very well what happened to the Palestinian Arabs in 1948, to say nothing of rank-and-file soldiers and kibbutz members, who actually expelled Palestinians, expropriated their lands and destroyed their homes.’ But soon after the war ended, state officials, with the help of Zionist Left intellectuals, began to consolidate an official discourse that enabled most Israeli Jews to ‘forget’ what they once knew about the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
The extent to which liberals in Israel were willing to delude themselves and others about what happened in the war is stunning. Uri Avnery, founder of Gush Shalom, writes:
When I think of our youth, yours and mine, one scene is never far from my mind: the 1947 Dalia folk dances festival. Tens of thousands of young men and women were sitting on the slope of a hill in the natural amphitheater near Kibbutz Dalia on Mount Carmel. Ostensibly it was a festival of folk dancing, but in reality it was much more—a great celebration of the New Hebrew culture which we were then creating in the country, in which folk dancing played an important role. The dancing groups came mainly from the kibbutzim and the [Zionist Left] youth movements, and the dances were original Hebrew creations, interwoven with Russian, Polish, Yemenite, and Hassidic ones. A group of Arabs danced the Debka in ecstasy, dancing and dancing and dancing on.
The Zionist left’s move to erase, or occasionally celebrate, the disaster of 1947-48 certainly add heaps of insult to heaps of injury. But as Noam Chomsky argues, “historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon, not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity, but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that still lie ahead.”
Rewriting 1948 as the founding of a “Jewish Democratic” state, rather than a colonial state, leads to several conclusions. First, if Israel is not a settler-colonial state then the most we could demand is for some of its most egregious crimes to be rectified—perhaps to return some land or free political prisoners. But solutions that address fundamental demands of Palestinians—the right of return for refugees of the 1948 and 1967 wars, the granting of national minority rights within Israeli borders—are off the table.
Second, if one is to engage in major theoretical acrobatics in order to square “Jewish” and “democratic” as the planks of the state, then this requires a commitment to maintaining a demographic Jewish majority within Israel. In this way, “democracy,” in the most technical sense of the term, can remain the will of the majority.
Indeed, liberal sociologist Sammy Smooha, who coined the term “ethnic democracy” in analyzing the Zionist state, argues that this cannot be a “coincidental majority,” but a planned one. “A majority,” he explains, “which was planned throughout history, [as] a part of the [Zionist] national aspirations, part of an intentional policy which entailed the expulsion of Arabs in 1948 and many other additional decisions.”
The Zionist Left’s obsession with maintaining a Jewish majority requires suppressing the rights of Palestinians within Israeli borders in order to curb their ability to thrive and grow. Thus, the Zionist Left has always supported the Law of Return, which allows Jews from anywhere in the world to immigrate to Israel, while denying the same right to Palestinian refugees. It has also continually backed right wing, “close to fascist” land laws that allow the Jewish citizens of Israel to expand on to new land, while Palestinians are squeezed into smaller and smaller enclaves. Today 1.3 million Palestinians live on 3 percent of the land in Israel.
“Israel, according to its self-identification and vision,” explains Honig-Parnass, “is not a state for all its citizens. Rather, it is a state for the Jewish people throughout the world.”
A Viable Alternative?
While liberal Zionism has legitimized Israel’s apartheid treatment of Palestinians, Honig-Parnass argues that the main critiques of its policies from within Israel—under the umbrella of post-Zionism—have failed to provide an effective alternative. Post-Zionism encompasses both the New Historians and the critical sociologists who emerged at the end of the 1980s to challenge the prevailing historiography and social analysis in Israeli academia.
“They primarily concentrated,” explains Honig-Parnass, “on debunking the established Zionist narratives regarding the pre-state colonization period, the 1948 war, and the expulsion of Palestinians. Until the rise of the New Historians, the pro-Zionist interpretation of each of these historical narratives had uncritically enjoyed the ‘scientific’ authority of the historical and sociological professions.”
The works of the New Historians unmasked the mythology of the creation of the state of Israel: That Zionist leaders had accepted the United Nation’s partition plan, but found themselves suddenly under attack; that Israel was the underdog in a “David and Goliath” war of 1948, in danger of annihilation by the surrounding states; that Palestinians “abandoned” their land willingly or were encouraged by Arab leaders to do so. The critical sociologists, meanwhile, challenged the idea that Zionism was a national movement inspired by Jews’ aspirations to return to their homeland. “The appearance of the critical sociologists marked the first time in Israeli history that Zionist colonialism became a topic of Israeli academic research and examination,” Honig-Parnass writes.
Despite the critical breakthroughs made by many post-Zionists, mainstream Zionism has been unwilling to allow any critical thought that breaks through the dominant narrative. But, as Honig-Parnass argues, the theoretical foundations of post-Zionist thought have also hampered its ability to provide a clear vision for those looking to break with Zionism.
“Even the first genuine attempts of post-national scholars to criticize Zionism,” explains Honig-Parnass, “developed rapidly into versions of identity politics based on the discourse of ‘difference’ and ‘otherness,’ which also characterized a large part of postmodernist thought.”
Post-Zionists, in rejecting the so-called “grand narrative” of colonialism, and adopting instead a framework of “otherness,” have tended to equate the national oppression of Palestinian with any group of the “other,” most notably Mizrahi Jews (i.e., Jewish immigrants to Israel, originating predominantly from the Middle East). Rather than this leading to a “unification of all progressive social forces—both Jewish and Palestinian—in a struggle for the democratization and de-Zionization of the state... [post-Zionists] fall into identity politics, which diverts the potential for radicalism among the Mizrahim into ethnic interest groups.”
Instances of principled resistance to Zionism from within the Israeli left have been few, but notable. Honig-Parnass spends some time chronicling these inspiring examples.
Matzpen, a socialist organization founded in 1962 by a group of Israelis and Palestinians, has consistently identified Zionism as a settler-colonial project, playing the role of regional enforcer of imperialist interests. In contrast to the dispersion into “interest groups,” that post-Zionism has facilitated, Matzpen also helped to ideologically and logistically support the rise of the Israeli Black Panther Party in the early 1970s, made up of Mizrahi Jews from Arab countries.
The two organizations built genuine solidarity between Mizrahi Jews and Palestinians. And though both organizations were harassed, repressed, and vilified as traitors; roundly ignored by the Left; and dismissed by Israeli masses, their principled stances and theoretical clarity provide an inspiring vision of what genuine left politics in Israel/Palestine could look like.