TEL AVIV – If the Zionist Left still exists, it finds
itself today in a quandary which may yet define the future of the State of
Israel. It must ask itself several questions: what role can it play in solving
the existential problems facing the country? How can it help extricate the state
from the 43-year-old occupation? And, given this situation, how can it help
fight back the growing tide of people across the world who think that Israel
should not exist in its current form? Finally, what should be done about the
Relative consensus exists in Israeli society that Israel
should do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb; on
the first two issues, however, the country is still divided.
The story of
the Left’s decline-although well known-is worth retelling: In the optimism of
the Oslo years, many Israelis believed that the conflict was almost at an end.
Then came the collapse of Camp David and the start of the second intifada. In
recent months, however, the Left has been resuming its traditional struggles. In
the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, for example, hundreds of
Israeli Jews gather every week to protest a government policy which allows Jews
to “return” to homes that were under Jewish ownership before 1948, but where
Arab families have resided since.
Every Israeli should understand that
we cannot pursue this policy of allowing Jews to “return” to properties owned
prior to the war of 1948, while continuing to deny this very right to
Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes in the war. Thus, Sheikh
Jarrah should be seen as the “ground zero” for those who want Israel to continue
to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.
But here is the Zionist Left’s
problem: while the issues that Sheikh Jarrah raises are those that should be on
the agenda of the Zionist Left, those at the forefront of the Sheikh Jarrah
protests are not particularly Zionist (i.e. they are not primarily concerned
with maintaining the Jewish character of the State of Israel, within the ’67
borders) nor are they even part of the mainstream Left. Indeed, occasionally the
protests have taken on a distinctively anti-Zionist tinge, as the ongoing debate
about the place of the Israeli flag at Sheikh Jarrah demonstrates.
fact, however, should not absolve the Zionist Left from having to deal with the
main issues involved in these legitimate protests. The citizens of Israel have
to decide which side they are on. Do we want a Jewish democracy (imperfect
though it may be), or do we want to rule over millions of Palestinians who do
not want to be ruled by us?
The day after the 1967 War, some of Israel’s
greatest figures (for example David Ben Gurion and Yeshayahu Leibowitz) stated
clearly that withdrawing from the territories was a strategic imperative. It
remains a strategic imperative. In this sense, what the Palestinians think
doesn’t matter; our need for them to have a state is as urgent as theirs.
Another symbolic front-line for this battle is the West Bank village of
Bi’lin, where weekly protests against the separation barrier have now been
taking place for more than five years. In September 2007 the Supreme Court ruled
that the barrier in the Bi’lin area must be re-routed. According to this ruling,
Bi’lin should recover 50 percent of the lands that were confiscated in late
2004, which many claim were taken in order to facilitate settlement expansion
under the guise of security needs. To this day, the barrier has not been
This is a situation whereby the army, supposedly the guardian of
Israeli democracy, refuses to implement a Supreme Court ruling. In short, this
is also a fight for the integrity of the country’s institutions-for Israeli
democracy. Here again, though, many of the Jewish protesters at Bi’lin every
week belong to anti-Zionist groups, such as Anarchists Against the Wall, who
speak of “Israeli apartheid”.
So where is the Zionist Left? Perhaps its
members are too busy arguing with those whom they perceive to be delegitimizing
Israel. But the strategic imperative to withdraw from the territories is more
pressing than the imperative to confront those who delegitimize Israel.
There will always be those who are opposed to the very existence of the
State and they will take advantage of events such as these. We should not
dignify their opposition by engaging with their arguments. There are different
kinds of critics of Israel. Some of them will mute their criticism once we put
an end to the occupation. The Left has so far failed to contribute to the
process of shaping what kind of state Israel will be. If the Zionist Left has
any relevance, it will renew the struggle to recapture the soul of Israel as
soon as possible: Starting in Bi’lin and Sheikh Jarrah.
First published on the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).