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Tel Aviv University
[TAU, Sociology] In Israel, a bitter battle is being waged between two camps on the left. On Dr. Yehuda (Yehouda) Shenhav's book 'The Time of the Green Line'

Yehouda Shenhav, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv 69978, Israel. E-mail: shenhav@post.tau.ac.il



April 28, 2010

Kulturkampf on the Left

By Aryeh Tepper

Political struggles are usually waged between the left and the right. In contemporary Israel, a bitter battle is being waged between two camps on the left.

The issue that divides the two camps is Zionism.  The Zionist left wants to consolidate a Jewish-democratic state within the "green line"—that is, the borders that existed from 1949, fixed by the armistice that ended Israel's war of independence, until the June 1967 Six-Day war—and to help engineer a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The post-Zionist or "radical" left is in favor of a one-state solution, i.e., doing away with Israel as a Jewish state and creating a "state of all its citizens" in its stead.

To the Zionist left, the post-Zionist left isn't so much post- as anti-Zionist. But to the post-Zionist left, the Zionist left isn't liberal—or leftist—at all. The latter position is argued vehemently in The Time of the Green Line, a recently published Hebrew book that offers a deep critique of the liberal Zionist left from a radical perspective. Its author is Yehuda Shenhav, an established public intellectual with academic credentials.

Shenhav puts forward two large claims about the Zionist left, the first being that it lives in a state of complete denial regarding the fundamentals of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. According to Shenhav, the Zionist left has persuaded itself that the basic point of contention in the conflict lies in the results of the Six-Day war, which ended with Israel having seized the Sinai peninsula (long since returned to Egypt), Gaza (now under Hamas), the Golan Heights (claimed by Syria), and, especially, the West Bank with its large Palestinian population. Therefore, reasons the Zionist left, once Israel hands back the West Bank, "1967" will have been reversed and peace will become possible.

To Shenhav, this is a delusion. Zero hour for the Palestinians, he contends, was and remains not 1967 but 1948: i.e., the founding of Israel itself. Averting its eyes from this fact, the Zionist left has fabricated an artificial starting point in time (1967) and space (the green line) in order to preserve to its own satisfaction the basic legitimacy of Israel's establishment in 1948. The trouble is that the Palestinians will never agree to this construction of history, because it fails to take into account their most fundamental grievances. 

Shenhav's second claim is that the Zionist left's stubborn fidelity to the notion of a specifically Jewish state is inherently anti-democratic. How so? Democracy, writes Shenhav, is more than a matter of individual rights; it is also a matter of collective rights. So long as the collective rights of native Palestinians living within the state of Israel go unrecognized—and, in a state that calls itself Jewish, they are by definition unrecognized—that state, no matter how much it pretends otherwise, cannot be regarded as democratic in any meaningful sense.

Predictably, the heated contentions of The Time of the Green Line have ignited reciprocal heat from the Zionist left. Thus, Gadi Taub, a prominent intellectual and one of Shenhav's favorite targets, has attacked the book as meretricious and utterly irresponsible. An example: in his final chapter, Shenhav offers a number of one-state schemes for sharing the land, including something called "consociational democracy"; in doing so, he silently passes over the inconvenient fact that this fanciful arrangement has already been tried and found wanting in such distinguished islands of tranquility as Cyprus and Lebanon.  "Any reasonable person," Taub sums up, "realizes that the one-state solution would constitute a chronic civil war," a war from which posturing professors like Shenhav will be able to escape while those "with nowhere to go—both Jews and Arabs—will end up . . . drowning in rivers of blood."

Taub's assault on the fantasy of a one-state solution—the demand, as he puts it, that of all the parties to the conflict, the Jews alone must surrender their right to self-determination—is cogent enough. Unfortunately, it is not matched by a sustained engagement with Shenhav's point about the arbitrary character of 1967 and the green line. But that is also understandable. The dimming hopes of Zionist leftists are now pinned to the latest in a very long string of efforts to "solve" the Israel-Palestinian conflict on the basis of the 1967 paradigm. Today's version is associated with the proposal of the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and east Jerusalem within two years.

Fayyad is backed by the Obama administration, the international community, the Zionist left, and liberals everywhere. If he succeeds, alternative ways of thinking about the conflict will have been rendered ipso facto irrelevant. But what if Fayyad's plan fails, like so many others before it? Will Zionist leftists (like Taub) urge Western peacemakers to go back to the drawing board yet again?

An Israeli rightist might charge that the clash over Shenhav's book reflects the incoherence of both sectors of the Israeli left, an incoherence born of the refusal to face the hard reality of Arab obduracy and determination. Be that as it may, one can easily imagine the counter-charge: namely, that the Israeli right, in declining to count the diplomatic price the country is paying for clinging to the status quo, is at least as blind as the Israeli left. What, then, is one to conclude? Perhaps only that the harsh light of the Mediterranean sun remains too intense for anyone to gaze into it without the aid of colored glasses.  



Aryeh Tepper recently completed his Doctorate at Hebrew University in the Department of Jewish Thought. He writes for Jewish Ideas Daily.




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