Chapter 4 The ‘Critical Sociological’ Indictment
Compared to the much publicized debate of the New Historians, let alone the spectacular exposure of Sand’s book, the changes in Israeli sociology were low key and initially not well understood. Yet the diffusion of the neo-Marxist, critical paradigm did not fail to affect this discipline. Not only did truth and knowledge come to be seen as relative but, more importantly, they were viewed as a creation of the ‘hegemonic classes’. Hence the efforts to change Israeli society had to go hand in hand with destroying the ‘hegemony’ of the discipline’s founding generation.
Launching the Challenge: The Haifa University Marxist Group
In the first two decades after independence, Israeli sociology followed closely the positivist paradigm. Shmuel Eisenstadt, ‘father’ of Israeli sociology, a professor at the Hebrew University and a leading adviser to the government, was inspired by Weber and Parsons. He embraced the developmental model to guide Israel’s nation-building effort, a decision prominently reflected in his magnum opus, Israeli Society, where he asserted that Jews had transited from Gemenischaft to a Gesellschaft, albeit with a detour in the Diaspora.
Still, according to Eisenstadt and his students, some of whom doubled as government consultants, the arrival of a large number of Jews from Arabic-speaking countries, known as Mizrahim, had created unique challenges to nation-building. In their view, the Mizrahim were a ‘traditional’ group lacking education and skills to compete in a modern society. To deal with the potential tensions stemming from unequal development Eisenstadt suggested a speedy process of education and modernization, something that was part of the developmental playbook, only to realize the inadequacy of this theory.
Starting with the Wadi Salib riots in 1959, dubbed by the press as a ‘Moroccan rebellion’, the Mizrahim showed increasing frustration with the lack of economic progress and absence of political clout in a system dominated by veteran Ashkenazim entrenched in the Labour party. In 1971, a group of Moroccan-born activists in Jerusalem created the Israeli Black Panthers movement modelled on its American prototype. For a nation-building model that prided itself on national solidarity the symbolic alienation of the Panthers was disconcerting.
Despite the cracks in the absorption process, there was virtually no challenge to Eisenstadt’s sociology. As noted in Chapter 2, Mazpen harnessed ethnic discontent to bolster its portrayal of Zionism as a colonialist ideology that dispossessed the Palestinians and exploited the Mizrahim, known at the time as ‘Second Israel’ or ‘the other Israel’. Arie Bober, one of Mazpen’s leaders, made the case in his edited volume The Other Israel: The Radical Case Against Zionism that accused the ‘colonial Ashkenazi settlers’ of exploiting the Mizrahim in ways that left them in a peripheral, depended position.
Without academic credentials, Matzpen intellectuals could do little to undermine the sociological orthodoxy and, equally important, the group, dogged by accusation of treason following the Adiv spy-trial, operated on the margins of the public discourse. It took almost a decade for their ideas to be picked up by sociologists, notably a group of self-described Marxists from Haifa University - Henry Rosenfeld, Shlomit Carmi, Shlomo Swirski and Deborah Bernstein, among others. In 1978 they founded a mimeographed journal Mahbarot Lemehkar Uvikoret (Notes on Research and Criticism) under the leadership of Swirski who excoriated positivist sociology for its ‘fetishization of quantitative methods’ at the expense of normatively-driven analysis. Swirski billed the journal as offering a ‘new trend which opposes the positivist method and neutral attitudes which prevail in the social science’ adding that the ‘view from below’ will expose ‘institutions of oppression, discrimination, alienation and backwardness’. Well acquainted with Gramsci’s writings, he hoped to turn this academic vanguard into an agent of societal change, a theme he discussed at length in his book, Campus, Society and State.
Freed from constrains of rigorous methodology, Swirski and his collaborator Deborah Bernstein proceeded to demolish the two pillars of traditional sociology that accepted Jewish legitimately in Palestine and the Zionist mission of ingathering of the exiles. The Haifa University scholars embraced the Matzpen argument that Jews were not a national community returning to their ancestral homeland but European colonial settlers. Worse, in this view, the much-lauded ‘gathering of exiles’ was nothing more than an exercise in class exploitation. Swirski mentioned Bober’s book but also borrowed from dependency theory, claiming that the Ashkenazi capitalist class in the Yishuv exploited the Mizrahim so as to keep them in a dependent and marginalized position.
The Haifa group reserved its harshest criticism for the Eisenstadt’s positivist sociology. In a scathing article titled ‘Sociology is Absorbing Immigration’, Bernstein took issue with the developmental trajectory according to which the Mizrahim were expected to move from a traditional to a modern stage, suggesting that instead of dividing Israel to immigrants and regular society, sociologists needed to place the issue within the framework of class relations in a capitalist system. Only by addressing class and political inequalities could the Mizrahim assume their proper place in society. Swirski added that the government could play a role in levelling the playing field by promoting corporate ventures. 
For the Haifa University Marxists, interest in the Mizrahim went well beyond scholarship. As Matzpen before them, they expected to recruit the Arabic-speaking immigrants to a broader movement for peace. To their dismay, the Mizrahim preferred to rally en masse behind the Likud, playing a major role in its historic 1977 electoral victory that ended Labour’s decades-long domination of the Yishuv’s and Israel’s political scene. Faced with a discrepancy between reality and theory, Swirski resorted to a variant of ‘false consciousness’ claiming that supporting Likud was an ‘overnight shelter’, a ‘temporary refugee’ that the allegedly misguided Mizrahim had used. Once they formed their own channels for political expression they were expected to realize that they were victims of a class division and vote accordingly.
Though the Haifa group hoped to call the foundation of traditional sociology into question, their academic impact was actually limited. Most were junior faculty in a new university that could hardly compete with the prestigious sociology department at the Hebrew University. In fact, Swirski was denied tenure and left the university soon after the journal folded. It took another decade to advance the neo-Marxist, critical ideas that privileged Matzpen.
From Marxist to Critical, Neo-Marxist Scholarship
The 1982 invasion of Lebanon was Israel’s first ‘war of choice’ and public support began to decline as casualties mounted. As noted earlier, the disenchantment helped Matzpen to move out of the margins, and as some of its members joined the faculty ranks they found like-minded scholars to undermine Eisenstadt’s sociology.
Uri Ram, a student of Swirski who did his graduate work at NYC’s New School of Social Research, the ‘intellectual Mecca’ of the new paradigm, explained the process. Arguably the most articulate among the new breed of critical sociologists, Ram posited that positivist sociological tradition reached a Kuhnian-like crisis and needed to be replaced. Invoking Parsons critics Alvin Gouldner and Louis Coser he faulted Eisenstadt and his students of overemphasizing the property-maintenance features of func'tionalism-structuralism while downplaying the role of conflict. He was optimistic that the ‘post-Kunhnian trajectory’ in Israeli sociology would be chartered by ‘a generation of critical intellectuals’ already ‘established in the corridors of academe’ as well as in the media. This new cohort was, in his opinion, behind the process that ‘Israeli sociology is beginning to awaken from its own Parsonian slumber’ and implementing a radical political agenda in the spirit of ‘post’ that is post-Zionism. 
Ram considered the ontology and epistemology of the new paradigm to be paramount in challenging positivist sociology in general and its reading of history in particular. As he saw it, the difference between objectivist history and the relativist-critical version was key; the former was ‘ostensibly analytical’ in the sense that a ‘historical text is either true of false’, but for ‘relativists a historical text must be understood in its context’. Moreover, ‘history should be understood in its broadest sense as collective memory rather than in its strict academic sense’. As a result, ‘historical narrative is not an inventory of data or a timetable but rather the rending of the past in a manner meaningful to the present’. In other words, history is not ‘what it is about but what it is for’, which means ‘what it signifies in the present’. With this mandate in mind, Ram proceeded to stake a bold position on the meaning of history: ‘History is not merely the provenance of academe, it is a dimension of… national culture… when nationhood changes so must history’. He hoped that, liberated from the ‘hegemonic narrative truth’, different groups would join the discourse and bring their own ‘truth’ to the narrative.
To accomplish a radical transformation, Ram spurned positivist methodology decrying the ‘tendency of academic sociology to descend into arid scientism, ornamented with fig leaves of technique and professional decorum’. The methodologically ‘soft tools’ discussed in Chapter 1 were, in this view, much more suitable to affect societal change. Among them was critical ethnography - used to broaden the field of inquiry beyond the ‘hegemonic-sanctioned’ topics to include accounts of minorities, women and working classes. While positivist ethnography stressed objectivity and counsels scientific detachment on the part of the interviewer-observer, critical ethnography took the opposite stand; researchers were urged to become intrinsically involved with the subjects of their studies, as well as articulate their own ideological position.
Critical ethnography became popular with politically active academics during the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s. According to a leader in the field, ‘critical ethnography begins with an ethical responsibility to address processes of unfairness or injustice… the researcher feels a moral obligation to make a contribution toward changing those conditions toward greater freedom and equality… disrupts the status quo…the critical ethnographer resists domestication and moves on from 'what is' to 'what could be’. In critical parlance, ‘what could be’ was a society where dominance and inequalities would no longer exist. 
To recall, in his crusade to change the ‘oriental narrative’ Edward Said often lamented the ‘crisis of representation’ - his name for the alleged persistence of ‘colonial forms of knowledge’. He suggested that critical ethnography should be used as an antidote to the ‘official narrative’ and, in an effort to spread the message, even pleaded the case to a meeting of the American Anthropological Association in 1987. But his real goal was to rewrite the Palestinian narrative using the tool of ‘memory’ to which historians, sociologists and anthropologists were invited to tap.
Said’s call struck a responsive chord among Israeli critical sociologists and anthropologists, among them Dan Rabinowitz, a Tel Aviv University academic who was inspired by Foucault’s ‘critique of modern reason’ to resurrect and legitimize Palestinian historical narrative while demystifying and delegitimizing the narrative of the ‘hegemonic Israeli group’. By opening a ‘new discursive space for the Palestinians’, Rabinowitz and his colleagues could call attention to the concept of Palestinian ‘sumud’ whereby ‘attachment to place is paramount in the articulation of right, is self-evident’.
To gain a broader audience for the post-colonialist paradigm, critical scholars launched a project to translate Said’s writings to Hebrew in the early 1990s. After some setbacks, Gabriel Piterberg, then at Ben-Gurion University, with assistance from the university’s Chaim Herzog Centre for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy, facilitated the publication of Orientalism through the leading publisher Am Oved. Said had an opportunity to advocate in person for critical methodology as a keynote speaker at the Israeli Anthropological Association meeting in 1998 that Rabinowitz helped to organize. Even when Said’s biographical fabrications came to light, Rabinowitz and his peers defended him on the grounds that critical ethnography allowed a certain biographical license.
Translating Said to Hebrew represented the first phase of a broader project to build a publishing infrastructure for the new paradigm. Ram, whose stay in the New School taught him the value of networking through critical journals and presses, acknowledged as much in a book discussing the politics of knowledge in challenging Israeli nationalism. He listed the Hebrew language journal Teoria Uvikoret (Theory and Criticism), a critical journal underwritten by the Van Leer Institute and the Hakibutz Hameuhad Press, as well as a number of Hebrew language presses or critical projects within mainstream presses. Among them was Resling, the ‘Dark Red’ series of Hakibutz Hameuhad (e.g., translations of Jurgen Habermas) and the ‘French Series’ of Sifriat Hapolaim (guided by Ariella Azoulay, the press translated Michele Foucault and other critical French philosophers). In due course, the cadre of activist-scholars expanded their domain. Oren Yiftachel, a critical political geographer from Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba took over as editor of the quarterly Israeli Social Science Review, renaming it Hagar: International Social Science Review and opening it to critical scholarship. Of course, Ram and other Israeli critical scholars could always rely on the New School’s critical journals Constellation, International Journal of Politics, and Culture and Society among many other publication outlets.
Laying the foundation for the new paradigm was a crucial step in rewriting the narrative of the Zionist project in ways that would undermine Israel’s legitimacy. With Said’s post-colonialist perspective translated to Hebrew it was only a matter of time before Israeli university students would be acquainted with his devastating criticism of their country’s legitimacy, presented by their teachers as a fresh, rigorous, corrective narrative.
Colonial Settlers and Invented Nationalism
Beginning in the late 1980s, three Israeli scholars have advanced the notion that Zionism was a colonialist venture on a par with the British one. Avishai Ehrlich, a Maztpen activist and former editor of Khamsin who obtained a doctorate at the London School of Economics and returned to teach at the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Academic College, criticized mainstream sociology for separating the Jewish and the Arab realms thus ignoring the impact of the Arab-Israeli conflict on Israeli society. His own preference was for integrating Israeli-Jewish society and Israel’s Arab citizens into ‘one analytical framework, namely: the settler colonial model’.
Gershon Shafir, a Tel Aviv University sociology professor (who would later move to University of California San Diego), used Marxist perspectives to claim that Jewish immigrants to Palestine were colonialist settlers who in many respects behaved like their counterparts in the United States or South Africa. To prove his point, Shafir presented Arab-Jewish relations in mandatory Palestine as a class struggle in which non-capitalist settlers (Jewish workers) sought to dissuade capitalist settlers (Jewish landowners) from employing cheap non-settler workers (indigenous Arabs) by camouflaging their competition with nationalist phraseology and slogans. He conceded that this contrived explanation violated the classic colonialist rationale of exploiting cheap native labour but explained that ‘during most of its history, Israeli society is best understood… in terms of the broader context of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Nor was Israel completely different from some of the other European overseas societies that were also shaped in the process of settlement and conflict with already existing societies… and of various European models of colonization’.
Clearly aware of the difficulties of ‘knowledge formation’ (that is creating a new narrative), Ram predicted a long struggle between mainstream sociology and the colonialist perspectives as the latter’s potential to delegitimize Zionism was already manifest in the writings of Said and his followers. He noted that colonialism was still an ‘outcast in mainstream academia’ because it threatened to bestow an academic credibility on arguments used by Arabs and Palestinians to dispute Israel’s legitimacy: ‘the colonial perspective entails a drastic shift in the conceptual and comparative analytical framework… Instead of being compared to the western democracies as is usually preferred by mainstream, especially func'tional sociology, it is now compared to South Africa’. Aware that such a shift may be too much to require, Ram took care to assure that ‘recognition of colonial origin of Israel does not entail a wholesale delegitimation of the State of Israel’.
It was at this juncture that the still little-known critical sociology school received a boost from unexpected quarters. On its face, Baruch Kimmerling, a Hebrew University sociologist was a surprise convert to the new paradigm. Ram described him as a ‘Weberian’ (a reference to a positivist sociologist) and his initial treatment of Zionism deviated only modestly from the traditional version of Eisenstadt. At the same time Kimmerling took a more comparative perspective by using the work of Ferdinand Tonnies that had influenced Weber’s work on the Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft membership. He constructed a taxonomy of validity claims that ranged from the very instrumental - an approach found in colonial settler societies - to the highly symbolic-religious, where land was viewed as the centre of the religious-moral universe. While Kimmerling conceded that the latter category could fit the concept of the Holy Land in Jewish religion he chose to follow Frederick Turner, another disciple of Tonnies, who classified the United States as an immigrant settler society. The decision to describe Israel as an immigrant settler society was significant.
For those familiar with Tonnies’s highly nuanced study, Kimmerling’s taxonomic choice signalled a rejection of the Gemeinschaft-derived Jewish connection to the Holy Land. At the same time he was not ready to embrace the post-colonial approach, which would have delegitimized Israel’s foundational claim. Significantly, Kimmerling did not use the term ‘colonial’ when discussing the same issue a few years later but acknowledged that since 1967 Israel created a ‘control system’ in the ‘occupied territories’.
By 1992 Kimmerling seemed to have progressed towards the neo-Marxist, critical view that equated Zionist immigration with colonialism. After citing Gouldner and Gramsci, he admitted that sociologists make ‘framework decisions’ - his term for paradigms - that affect topics that each society has to study and, ultimately, society’s identity. He credited the Marxist scholars at Haifa University with offering an alternative to the dominant Zionist political-intellectual worldview and mentioned the Matzpen intellectuals, whom he defined as ‘radical non-Zionist left’. Though Kimmerling was still reluctant to link Israel’s origin to the colonial machinations of European powers he conceded that under certain circumstances ‘the dominance of a paradigm can be contested by other approaches’.
But it took the failure of the Oslo peace process to fully push Kimmerling into the critical, neo-Marxist camp. In a revealing article, he linked his ‘conversion’ to the political needs of the hour, explaining that in order to produce political change an ‘alternative ideational’ framework was needed. For Kimmerling, the colonialist label was important since the ‘Zionist movement has tried to shake all the dust of colonialism because it did not want to lose legitimacy’. Indeed, in his new version of the 1882-1948 period he claimed that Zionist displayed ‘some colonizing features’ and that the ‘era of colonization ended with ethnic cleansing’ of Palestinians.
Kimmerling’s intellectual metamorphosis was a huge boost for the fraternity of critical scholars still struggling to make the ‘Zionism-as-colonialism’ a household theme in the Israeli academic milieu. That a Hebrew University sociologist would lend a hand to claims that Zionist intellectuals invented the Jewish nation was especially significant. Indeed, Kimmerling, well-versed in the importance of the sociology of knowledge, embraced Hobsbawm’s claim that ‘nationalist’ historians could not be trusted with writing their country’s history, repeating his assertion that scholars needed to check in their ideology before entering their office. To him, the wrongdoers who created the ‘Zionist historical narrative’ were to be found among unnamed Hebrew University historians who understood that the ‘Jewish past and history were perceived as a major source of legitimacy for the Zionists’ claim for title over the land in opposition to the local Arab population's counterclaim to be the exclusive legitimate owner of the land’. This national mission was overriding to the point of allegedly undermining their objectivity: ‘when ideological commitments collide with standards of objectivity and impartiality, usually the “Zionist orientations” receive primacy’.
Kimmerling further claimed that this past narrative had contributed to ‘a common perception of Jewish history as an internally coherent unit extending beyond the particularities of place and time’. He explained that these historians generated the myth that the Jewish ‘national organism’ survived for so long because of its focus on the Land of Israel, its vitality and the ‘acute historical consciousness’. Worse, in his opinion, the historians created a view that Jewish history was sui generis, that it was unique to the point of being mythical. Aggravating as this was from a comparative perspective, Kimmerling hinted that there was a darker motive to the sui generis thesis: a comparative perspective would have forced Israel to face its colonialist legacy, something that was ‘taboo in both Israeli society and Israeli historiography’.
If Kimmerling was still somewhat ambivalent about calling the Zionist narrative an outright fabrication, Ram had few such reservations. He put his New School training to good use, accusing Zionist historians, notably Dinur, of inventing the Jewish nation. Armed with a long list of references to Hobsbawm, Anderson, Gellner and other enthusiasts of ‘imagined communities’, Ram charged that Dinur and his colleagues invented ‘the modern Jewish nationhood in the service of the Zionist movement and, later, the state of Israel’. Chastising Dinur for being a Weberian-type ‘organicist’ (a reference to the Gemenischaft-Gesellschaft transition), he took particular exception to the notion that Jewish identity was linked to the Land of Israel: ‘Even though the assumed nation has lived outside of Eretz Israel for almost two millennia, this land has continued to form the axis of its national identity’. Ram evoked Ruth Firer, another critic of traditional sociology, to charge that Zionist historians invented the Law of Zionist Redemption: ‘the teleological depiction of Jewish history, i.e., its rendition as leading toward a specific goal - the return of the people to its motherland’.
For Ram the Zionist historiography was a source of intense irritation. He lamented the fact that it created ‘a nation in the modern state’ and dismissed the notion that ‘Jews were in essence a political nation, i.e. a consolidated spatio-temporal collective subject’ said to be ‘inherently connected to Zion, and in temporal terms to be a perennially continuous entity’. Ram was adamant that this type of nationalism did not comport with the neo-Marxist ‘post-conventional identity’ - a reference to Habermas’s theory that in the age of post-nationalism identity would be derived from universal rather than particularistic values. Indeed, he complained that the ‘conventional identity’ of Zionist historiography created a ‘Procrustean bed’ that prevented the expression of a ‘pluralistic conception of Israeli identity’.
If Ram was irritated by ‘Zionist historians’, he seemed to be greatly encouraged by the New Historians, whose work he considered to be a model for future historiography. He must have also been gratified when, in a little noticed 2002 essay, ‘The Post Zionist as an Agent of Unauthorized Memory: On the Structure of the Production of the Past in Israel’, Sand admitted being inspired by Ram’s critical sociology, which provided a ‘universal legitimacy’ to the negation of the ‘uniqueness tradition’ used by Israeli historiography to justify Zionist claims to Palestine. To recall, Sand devoted an entire chapter to the literature on the ‘invented communities’, an idea borrowed from Ram’s article.
Upending traditional understanding of Jewish history was only one of the items on Ram’s agenda. Another task involved ‘updating’ Weber’s categories for the age of globalization. Like his neo-Marxist teachers in the New School, Ram followed the process of globalization with great interest. By the early years of the twenty-first century it was quite evident that a one-world community was taking shape, albeit not in the socialist form predicted by Wallerstein or Habermas.
Though clearly frustrated by the fact that globalization was spreading the American ‘McDonald ethos’ of capitalism, consumerism and liberal individualism, Ram saw a silver lining in the capitalist cloud proving his own theory of Israel. Repeating Tom Friedman’s observation in The Lexus and the Olive Tree that globalization created a class of global citizens (Lexus people) alongside entrenched traditionalists (olive tree people), he suggested that Israeli society was divided into two sharply contrasting groups. The former was said to embrace post-Gesellschaft globalist identity whereas the latter allegedly followed neo-nationalism described by Ram as ‘an old or invented Gemeinschaft’. By redefining post-Gesellschaft as secularism and the neo-Gemeinschaft as religious tribalism, Ram could claim that both posed a challenge to traditional Zionism, the nemesis of critical sociology. Much as he disliked the latter, there was more than a hint of satisfaction in pronouncing the Zionist-Israeli identity crumbling. Kimmerling went even further, proclaiming the ‘invention and decline of Israeliness’.
In fact, Ram had much to be satisfied with since his plea for an equal playing field with the positivists. A study published in the early 2000s found that critical sociology, measured by the number of advanced degrees and topics, became ‘hegemonic’ in Israeli universities, effectively ending ‘genuine pluralism in Israeli sociology’. Apparently in recognition of this fact the New School of Social Research honoured Ram in 2011 as an outstanding alumnus.
When rewriting the ‘Zionist narrative’ critical sociologists had major advantages over their positivist counterparts. As Karl Popper determined, Marxist and neo-Marxist theories were formulated in a way that made empirical falsification impossible. The paradigmatic term ‘post’ essentially gave its practitioners a license to offer an alternative narrative, no matter how different from reality. Positivist scholars trying to dispute critical narratives were accused of being agents of the national status quo or worse, the same charge that was levelled against Karsh and other critics of the New Historians. Alternatively, positivists were dismissed as lacking in intellectual sophistication since they did not catch up with what Ram called ‘the time of the post’. In an exchange with traditional sociologists who blamed him and his colleagues for the ‘lost years of Israeli sociology’ Ram listed five ‘posts’ that allegedly made for a more sophisticated reading of reality. Indeed, on one occasion he suggested that, after some years of ‘infiltration’, critical sociology ‘became a bon-ton at least in some circles in the social sciences’. He was even more encouraged by the broader context in which Israeli critical scholars operated, writing that ‘the last vestiges of positivistic philosophy of science are disappearing from the philosophical landscape’.
Judging from the response of leading positivists such as Moshe Lissak, Ram had a point. Lissak, the reigning heir to Eisenstadt, stated that the ‘engaged scholars’ made a mockery of the scientific research protocol to support an ideological position. Worse, critical, neo-Marxist scholars were said to totally ‘invalidate the paradigm of the established sociology’. Eliezer Ben-Rafeal, a fellow positivist, complained about the aggressive methods that critical sociologists used to delegitimize their opponents; the latter were said to create ‘holy history of sociology’ in which ‘the villains’ (non-critical sociologists) ‘are “unveiled” as accomplices of the “ruling Ashkenazim”’. But it was the increasing imbalance between the older and even retired positivists and the growing ranks of critical scholars - augmented by the assiduous effort to co-opt likeminded colleagues - that worked in favour of the latter. As Hazony put it bluntly, the former were ‘heavily outgunned’.
With the post-colonialist perspective firmly attached to the Zionist project, critical academics were eager to take on the ‘ingathering-of-exiles’ phase of nation-building. As noted earlier, the Zionists had argued that without a homeland of their own Jews were likely to fall victim to anti-Semitism or even face considerable physical danger, a prediction that was most horrifically vindicated during the Holocaust. Critical sociologists had to reverse the equation and prove that it was Zionism that actually victimized Jews, or, at the very least, some categories of Jews; the Mizrahim became exhibit one for this theory.
Israel as a Post-Colonialist Society: Mizrahim as Victims of Zionism
As noted above, the Haifa University group was the first to place the alleged mistreatment of the Mizrahim in an academic context. Critical sociologists accepted Bernstein’s diagnosis that Ashkenazi capitalists used the Mizrahim as a steady supply of cheap labour, but the issue received a post-colonialist makeover by Ella Shohat whose ‘Mizrahim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims’ was a replay of Said’s ‘Zionism from the Perspective of its Victims’. According to Shohat, the Mizrahim, like the Palestinians, were victims of white Ashkenazi colonialists. To make the parallel stick she placed the Mizrahim within the cultural sphere of the region and in opposition to European Jews, charging the Ashkenazi Zionist ideology with alienating the immigrants from their cultural kin, the Arab, and with ‘de-Orientalizing’ them to fit the Western image of the State of Israel.
Shohat’s ideas found a fertile ground in the identity movement of Mizrahi intellectuals who subsequently created the Hakeshet Hademocratit Hamizrahit (The Democratic Mizrahi Rainbow). Yehouda Shenahv, a sociology professor from Tel Aviv University and a leading activist in this circle, was an unlikely candidate to take up Shohat’s ideas. Born to a middle class family of Iraqi immigrants as Yehouda Shahrabani, he worked for the Israeli Military Industry that sponsored his PhD studies in the United States. Upon his return in 1986 he secured a position teaching and researching the sociology of management, but his research interests shifted to the Mizrahim. In a testimony to the Gramscian-like mixing of critical scholarship and political activism, Shenhav described the impact of Hakeshet on his research as ‘remarkable’.
Borrowing another Saidian phrase, Shenhav proclaimed the func'tional-structural representation of the Mizrahim in traditional sociology to be part of the ‘fertile imagination of the West’. But he had more than theory on his mind when accusing the sociological establishment of turning the Mizrahim into political hardliners. Stating that the Mizrahim were no more ‘naturally’ hawkish than other Israeli groups, he explained their voting behaviour as ‘compensatory’: since they were forced to deny their Arab background they compensated by adopting a hard line attitude towards the Arab-Israeli conflict. As Shenhav saw it, Ashkenazi Zionists had a manifest political interest in alienating the Mizrahim from their cultural roots, thus thwarting their natural bonds to the Palestinians and creating a pool of voters for Likud.
Moving on to consider the Mizrahim from a post-colonialist perspective, Shenhav drew on his own family background - as well as a study of Zionist emissaries in Iraq in the 1940s - to suggest that as early as 1941 Ben-Gurion considered the Mizrahim a ‘demographic replacement’ for those who would perish in the Holocaust. To persuade Iraqi Jews to immigrate the emissaries, who operated as colonial British agents, spoke the ‘colonial language’, commenting on the ‘Arabness of the locals’ (including the Jews) while simultaneously insisting that the Jews were different. When this colonial ‘marker’ did not generate enough immigrants in the early 1950s, Shenhav argued, the Mossad resorted to bombing attacks on Jewish targets in Baghdad. In Shenhav’s view, Israeli efforts to encourage immigration went so far as to collude with the Iraqi authorities in confiscating the property of the Jews. In March 1951 the Iraqi parliament passed a bill to expropriate Jewish property; soon after Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett declared that the property forfeited by the Palestinians would be considered a compensation for the ones confiscated from Iraqi Jews.
To attract attention to his provocative ideas Shenhav published a number of articles in the 1990s, but it was his 2003 book, The Arab Jews: A Postcolonial Reading of Nationalism, Religion and Ethnicity (an English version was published three years later), that created a stir, not least because of the label ‘Arab Jews’. Shenhav explained that renaming the Mizrahim was part of a new sociological theory that, unlike Said’s dichotomy between East and West, questioned the traditional view of nations. Authored by Roger Brubaker, the theory used critical concepts to advance the neo-Gramscian view of international relations. Echoing Brubaker Shenahv proclaimed that ‘the understanding of nations as real groups contradicts recent developments in sociological theory such as network theory, ethnomethodology, postmodernism, and feminism’. Indeed, there was ‘a growing interest in network forms rather than in fixed entities’. Following Brubaker’s suggestion to study ‘nations as events that emerge through situated networks’ he decided to embrace the ‘fluctuating rather than fixed entities in fragmentary, ephemeral, and elusive boundaries rather than in static categories’. In other words, the label Arab Jews was logical because of the ‘ephemeral and elusive boundaries’ pioneered by Brubaker, even if it negated customary use (and for that matter reality).
Turning the Mizrahim to Arab Jews was essential to Shenhav’s political activism. He was fully aware that the foreign ministry supported advocacy groups like Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) that demanded compensation for the property of the 850,000 Mizrahim forced to flee following the 1948 war. A sharp critic of the JJAC, Shenhav admitted that his book aimed at denying the Israeli government the use of the ‘Mizrahi asset’. But he also hoped that the post-colonialist narrative would convince the Mizrahim that their true identity required a political alliance with the Palestinians, a project that the Keshet group worked very hard to accomplish. The book was received with great enthusiasm by critical scholars, applauded by one critic as a ‘brave, fascinating, excellent book that will mark an important turning point in the study of Jews from Arab and Islamic countries and their relationship to the Jewish state’.
Positivist sociologists were highly critical of Shenhav’s work. In a 1991/92 exchange with Shenhav, Shlomo Fischer argued that there was plenty of empirical evidence to suggest that the Ashkenazim and Mizrahim were actually in the process of developing a new identity that transcended the old categories, making Shenhav’s argument obsolete. Accusing Shenhav and other critical intellectuals of ignoring such findings to protect their agenda, he argued that ‘it gives them the political and moral capital by connecting them to the discourse of the Third World and making them spokesman for the oppressed’. Other analysts focused specifically on The Arab Jews where, they pointed out, three of the emissaries to Baghdad were mistakenly classified as Ashkenazim. They concluded that Shenhav’s attempt to analyse the situation ‘via the prism of colonial theory’s tortured conceptualizations’ might have led to the error.
Shenhav’s fidelity to facts was taken to task in the case of the alleged Mossad’s bombings in Baghdad. Critics insisted that the three sources on which Shenhav relied for the Mossad story were either unreliable or hostile; one of them, a self-proclaimed anti-Zionist Iraqi-Jew who lived in the United States, mentioned it in a self-published book. The Israeli authorities vehemently denied the charges and a number of independent studies could not find any corroborating evidence either. But, in the manner of the neo-Marxist, critical paradigm, Shenhav claimed that his narrative was valid and that those who criticized him represented the ‘Zionist narrative’.
Shenhav was likewise unperturbed by empirical data that led sociologist Ephraim Yuchtman-Yaar, a renowned expert on ethnic relations, to question critical sociologists who, in his opinion, prematurely declared the death of the melting pot idea. Yuchtman-Yaar, who designed and directed some of the most important empirical research projects in Israel, noted that the idea that the melting-pot ‘deserves a ‘failing’ grade was apparently too hastily reached and that the degree of its success - and some would say ‘too much success’ - was most impressive by any standard. Shenhav’s refusal to be bothered with facts was vividly illustrated when a critic of The Arab Jews pointed out that, contrary to the book’s assertions, a study found that some 88 per cent of Mizrahim reported no experience of ethnic discrimination. Invoking a variant of Marx’s ‘false consciousness’, Shenhav declared the results a form of ‘self-denial’.
Ignoring criticism from other academics was one thing; overlooking the phenomenal rise of the Shas Party was quite another. Founded in 1984 by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas combined a return to traditional Mizrahi culture with the most stringent dictates of the Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox world where Yosef had studied. Upset by the small representation of the Mizrahim in the ultra-orthodox Agudat Israel Party, Yosef conceived of a separate political movement that would combine two func'tions: ‘restoration of the crown to its old glory’, his name for reuniting the Mizrhaim with their alleged ultra-orthodox roots and improving their economic situation, mostly through a communal social network. Shas initially took a moderate position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but turned hawkish, partnering with Likud in a number of right wing coalitions.
It is more than a passing irony that Shenhav, whose outspoken positions on ethnicity made news, had little to say about the Shas phenomenon. Indirectly though, his complex views on the issue offer an interesting clue. Like his Keshet colleagues Shenhav initially complained about the forced ‘westernization’ of the Mizrahim that had deprived them of their ‘authentic’ Arab cultural identity, but was reluctant to discuss the well-known religious-folkloristic elements in their cultural fabric. The category of masorti (traditional religiosity) to describe the Mizrahim was indeed recognition of this non-halachic but deeply felt religious beliefs. Much in the spirit of critiquing the positivists he asserted that the masorti label was a social construct from the Eisenstadt’s school of sociology, claiming that the Mizrahim were essentially secular. In his view the Zionist emissaries to Iraq (and other Middle East Jewish communities) found them not religious enough to sustain the Zionist project and consequently attempted to stir up their religious feelings: ‘In order to return the Arab-Jews to history, the emissaries of the secular movement needed to find in them - perhaps even forge in them - religious fervour’.
When criticized for negating the reality of Mizrahi religiosity, Shenhav drew on the theory of modernization of the controversial French philosopher Bruno Latour, explaining that the concept of ‘modern’ contained two contradictory principles within it: ‘hybridization’ that mixed ‘non-homological’ and distinct elements and ‘purification’ that created separate ontological zones with no continuation between them. Applying the process to Israel, Shenhav argued that Zionism ‘hybridized the secular with the religious, while at the same time it obscured these hybridization practices, thus purifying nationalism (the very product of hybridization) and treating nationalism and religion as two separate spheres of action’. Thus Zionism ‘religionized’ the Mizrahi Jews in order to mobilize them to the modern secular national project.
More forthcoming than Shenhav, Yaacov Yadgar, another critical sociologist, was ready to admit that the Shas phenomenon ‘left students of Israeli politics perplexed, seeking suitable theoretical and discursive frameworks’. He blamed mono-casual theories for this failure of understanding and suggested that Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory could shed more light on the ‘enigmatic’ Shas movement. This enormously complex and somewhat contradictory theory asserted that ‘a field is an arena of relationships that is both structured and at the same time a dynamic competitive sphere. This arena is the locus of production, circulation, and appropriation of goods, knowledge, or status and the competitive positions held by actors in their struggle to accumulate and monopolize these different kinds of capital’. At the heart of the field is human agency, meaning the behaviour of individuals as they strive to accommodate themselves to the special rules of the game of each field, its capital and other positions. Yadgar identified several hieratically-stacked fields topped by the economic and political fields where, in his view, the Mizrahi Shas players have been engaged. In other words, Shas was a product of competition for symbolic (religious) capital between the Ashkenazi and Mizrahi religious leaders as well as competition in other fields over economic goods and cultural goods. Out of this complex network of competitions, a new Mizrahi orthodox field had apparently emerged.
Yadgar’s plea for multiple-cause explanations notwithstanding, other critical scholars chose to deal with the Shas ‘enigma’ in a more conventional way, fuelling a large debate on ‘what sends the Mizrahim stampeding to Shas’. To recall, Ram blamed globalization for increasing the gap between the poor and the rich, making it clear that the Shas voters should be counted among the non-globalized ‘olive people’. Eva Illouz, a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University and an occasional contributor to the debate, asserted that the absorption patterns marginalized the Mizrahim in bad schools, letting Shas fill the void.
All these commentaries must be understood as an effort of critical scholars to shore up their reputation. That the ‘Arab Jews’ conjured up by Shenhav could support the policies of Shas provided critics with an opportunity to make a broader point about critical, neo-Marxist scholarship. They lambasted Shenhav and his peers for engaging in ‘libellous rhetoric’ against the ‘old sociologists’ as well as ‘vacuous activity of inflated rhetoric’ and ‘constant repetition of the Said mantra, all waged from the comfort of their offices’. They suggested that by replacing field research with ‘abstract style for titles, library research and esoteric linguistic manipulations’, their critical colleagues lost touch with reality.
Ironically, Shenhav’s effort to remake the Mizrahim into Arab Jews received a serious rebuke from among his own ranks. The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, a German-based Marxist think tank with an office in Jerusalem, asked a colleague of Shenhav at Tel Aviv University, Nissim Mizrahi, to conduct an empirical study of ‘the obvious yet un-scrutinized gap between leftist ideology and the people it aspires to represent - a gap that has hindered attempts to initiate fundamental change in Israel's political culture and has impeded the creation of an effective movement for peace’. This phrasing left little doubt that Shenhav was part of the gap ‘between leftist ideology and the people it aspired to represent’. The project planned ‘to outline an intervention model that will provide grounded theoretical foundation for a new Palestinian-Mizrahi dialogue’.
A study by Momi Dahan, an economics professor at the Hebrew University who headed the inequality project at The Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem, offered a harsher rebuke of Shenhav’s theory. Dahan found a dramatic improvement in the socioeconomic status of the Mizrahim due to ‘a nearly continuous narrowing of income gaps between Israeli households of two groups of origin (Europe/America versus Asia/Africa) since the 1990s’. In 2011 the disparity in net income between these two groups stood at 27 per cent, as compared to about 40 per cent in the mid-1990s. He concluded that, paradoxically, ‘the increase in earnings inequality (between people with higher education and people without higher education) is responsible for the economic upsurge of Israelis of Asian/African origin. This increase in the rate of return for higher education generated greater incentive among those with lower education (from Asia/Africa) to increase their investment in education. This suggestion is consistent with the increase of the education level of Israelis originating from Asia/Africa, which was more rapid than that of native Israelis whose families came from Europe/America’. By emphasizing the rapid educational achievements of the Mizrahim the study vindicated traditional sociology advocating education as a vehicle for social integration. In other words, the melting pot that Eisenstadt’s nation-building model predicted took about half a decade to achieve.
Dahan, himself a Mizrahi, took a rather dim view of his academic colleagues who, in his view, peddled the old ethnic grievances. This much was clear in his commentary on the very public firing of an economist who, in a lecture at Sapir College in 2012, described Bank Leumi as the ‘bank of white people’ along with reference to the ‘ruling white society’ and the ‘robber kibbutzim’, long considered a ‘white’ bastion. Dahan noted that the speech was motivated more by personal distress than ‘by dispassionate observations’.
Much as the Mizrahim created problems for critical sociologists who wanted to portray them as victims of Zionism, turning women into alleged targets of the Zionist enterprise proved to be even more complicated.
Zionism as a Patriarchal-Militaristic Project: The Victimization of Israeli Women
By standards of positivist sociology the position of women in Israel should have been considered advanced, even by western standards. The gender equality of the Zionist movement, the relatively important role of women in the nation-building process, not to mention their integration in the Israel Defence Forces, propelled Israel into the higher rung of the global developmental chart.
Yet despite the fact that women’s socioeconomic and political conditions improved during Israel’s first three decades, the Haifa group was not impressed with gender equality with Swirski claiming that women were discriminated against and most likely to be found in lower-class precincts in society. This claim was a reflection of the Marxist thesis that, in search for profits, Israeli capitalism was likely to exploit women and other vulnerable sectors including Arabs and Palestinians. His solution to overcoming this and other forms of inequality was to launch a ‘second socialist revolution’.
Barbara Swirski, who worked in battered women shelters in Haifa, offered a somewhat more complex reading of Marx and women. She linked violence against women both to their inferior economic position and to the militarism of Israeli society. By injecting a new element to the equation, she seemed to suggest that a social revolution - ‘the one size fits all solution’ was not enough. This was not incidental, since complaints of Marx’s alleged gender blindness became part of the feminist critique in neo-Marxist circles. But Swirski’s suggestion that violence towards women could not be eradicated without eliminating Israeli militarism was a novel demand and not likely to acquire a wide following. A handful of American feminist academics visiting Haifa University in the late 1970s paid lip service to the slogan of fighting economic inequality and militarism but were more interested in issues of self-realization. One of their leaders, Marcia Freedman, a professor of philosophy, became a lesbian and switched her efforts to promoting the rights of gays and lesbians. Academic research on feminism picked up in the 1990s, but assessments on how women fared in the Zionist project varied. Dafna Izraeli took the liberal position that women had done quite well but that more economic opportunities were needed to level the playing field. In 1987 Deborah Bernstein concluded that women remained ‘marginal in the struggle for social change’ in the Yishuv but attributed this marginalization to opposition from the conservative elements in the women’s movement. Her 1991 edited volume promised to take aim at the ‘official Zionist narrative’ of women’s role in the Yishuv but the chapters implied a consensus that women made important political and economic strides during that period. Hanna Herzog, a sociologist from Tel Aviv University, agreed with this premise, going so far as to praise the pioneer women; her complaint was that not enough credit was given to women pioneers in the official historiography of the period. The book editor promised to launch a vigorous effort to remedy this oversight.
However, as already noted, by the end of the 1990s the neo-Marxist, critical paradigm had taken root, reconfiguring the field of women studies. Ram noted that critical feminism was very different from traditional women studies and Herzog, who had become a leading voice in the new field, provided a preview of the changes to come. She explained that critical feminism was ‘an umbrella for diverse and adversarial approaches all claiming to be authentically critical... Marxist, socialist, radical, psychoanalytical, existential, postmodern’. Deriving from Foucault and Gramsci, ‘all these approaches share the refusal to accept the existing cultural and social order as self-evident’. Herzog emphasized that critical feminism sought not only ‘the root of the gendered social order’ but wished ‘to engender social change’. To affect the public discourse, critical feminism needed to adopt a new approach, ‘the method is the perpetual subversion of prevailing concepts, the adoption of an “oppositional imagination” in order to expose mechanisms of cultural domination and to question the underpinnings of hegemonic thought’.
Herzog made clear that adopting this method meant much more than complaining about paucity of research on Yishuv women. The new goal of feminist critique was to fight the militarization of Israeli society stemming from the Israeli-Arab conflict, something that Swirski has suggested in the past. The mission of the feminist movement was said to ‘civilize’ Israeli society by subverting its ‘masculine, nationalist, militaristic and exclusionary traits’. To this end Herzog urged to put an end to the ‘grand narrative’ and introduce the ‘subversive logic’ that ‘opened the space to various critical voices’. Calling her own voice a ‘post-Zionist narrative’, she promised to apply the spirit of Foucauldian critique to ‘Zionist historiography’. Indeed, Herzog’s new writings indicated a dramatic shift from her 1992 position. She found that ‘Zionism has created a regime of knowledge operating through the pastoral power of identification with the collective... including women as mothers of the nation’. At the same time, she accused the Zionist system of ‘shunting them off to the sidelines and denying them access to various positions of power’.
Changing the view of history, as already noted, was common among critical scholars who needed to adapt to altered political circumstances or fashionable paradigmatic developments. But critical feminism faced a particular conundrum; if the Zionist movement was a colonialist project, the pioneer women were every inch as guilty as their colonialist husbands and colleagues. The only way to absolve them of the colonial guilt was to turn them into victims of the Zionist enterprise, as Herzog had done.
While revising the past posed difficulties, dealing with the contemporary task of undermining the ‘patriarchal-militaristic’ structure proved to be far more daunting. Solving the conflict was a necessary step in doing away with Israeli militarism and, according to the paradigm, women and other minorities expected to join the peace movement since minorities were said to suffer from military conflicts. However, creating a ‘feminist sisterhood for peace’ was much more difficult in reality than in theory. Cracks within the feminist movement surfaced as early as the 1980s when one Mizrahi feminist voiced her alienation by stating: ‘no sisterhood’. Things deteriorated further in the 1990s over accusation that Ashkenazi feminists ignored concerns of Mizrahi women - low pay, lack of social infrastructure and skimpy welfare services – in order to pursue self-realization, a reference to feminist-lesbian forums that Freedman and others had launched. Mizrahi critics also denounced the waste of resources on what they considered symbolic issues like having women pilots in the Air Force, an issue that was deemed of marginal interest to lower-class Mizrahi women. Things came to a head during one of the annual feminist conferences where lesbian feminists demanded a separates slot. Since most of the lesbians were Ashkenazi, Mizrahi activists wanted to adjust the quota-based system of representation. The fight led to a lot of hard-feelings with the Ashkenazi feminist calling their comrades ‘whiners’, a reference to their alleged countless complains.
Mizrahi academic-activists dealt with another blow against the common peace front by taking Ashkenazi feminists to task for championing Palestinian rights. They accused them of hypocrisy for picking ‘politically correct topics’ like demonstrating for peace or advancing the cause of Palestinian lesbians but relinquishing the struggle for low-class Mizrahi women. They alleged that the Ashkenazi women preferred to work on peaceful coexistence to deflect from their failure to acknowledge their discomfort with their own ‘other’, Jews from Arab countries. Coming from privileged backgrounds, Ashkenazi feminists were said to exhibit the same racist attitudes towards low-class Mizrahim as other ‘whites’. Worse, the elitism of the Ashkenazi feminists was assumed to be closely related to their class interests as employers of Mizrahi baby-sitters and cleaning women. For their part, the Mizrahi women were said to refer to their Ashkenazi employers as ‘ladies’, a class moniker that originated in the Yishuv period.
Efforts at creating a unified front were further marred by allegations of power-grabbing, hegemony and domination. Mizrahi academics blamed their Ashkenazi counterparts for creating a ‘very powerful hegemonic discourse’ and, indeed, ‘epistemic violence’ defined as ‘conspicuous aggression of those who define their systematic knowledge as the only “true” and “objective” knowledge - against any other claims to knowledge’. As one Mizrahi activist put it, Israeli women organizations ‘are managed by an exclusive forum of women who believe that their academic and professional degrees grant them [privileged] insights’. Their own initial subversive act was to ‘define ourselves as feminists and Mizrahi’. In a follow up, they deconstructed the skewed power relations between the two groups going so far as to claim that Ashkenazi feminists rode the coattails of their influential fathers or husbands to positions of prominence in society.
One Mizrahi critic accused her Ashkenazi peers of preferring Palestinian women of similar educational background over lower class Mizrahi women. The international foundations that supported these professional coexistence seekers - known as dukers (a short form of the word du-kium, coexistence) - made matters worse, in this view. The elegant venues in which middle-class Israeli and Palestinian feminists met to discuss conflict resolution had no place for the non-English speaking Mizrahim.
With issues of class and ethnicity crisscrossing the critical feminist discourse, the unified narrative of Israeli women as victims of Zionism was thrown into disarray. Clearly, critical Mizrahi feminists felt victimized by their Ashkenazi counterparts, raising the question whether the latter should be considered authentic victims of Zionism or just elitists posing as do-gooders in their spare time. With identity politics built into the critical paradigm, competitions over victimhood and oppression could become fierce, as already demonstrated in Chapter 1. Mizrahi feminists resented the fact that the ‘trifecta of oppression’ was bestowed on feminists, Palestinians, and lesbians. They also complained that they were underrepresented in universities, the implication being that more academic slots for female Mizrahi scholars would go some way towards assuaging the sense of Mizrahi victimhood.
In many respects, the failure to mobilize feminists for the mission of ‘civilizing’ Israel and ending the conflict should have been expected. As noted, the critical paradigm is engineered to ‘subvert’ any broader narrative, a factor that has contributed to the splintering of the movement into narrow, identity-based groups. Certainly, ethnic and class grievances have never been far from the surface in the critical discourse in Israel, often articulated by Keshet members. In 1996 Shenhav created quite a stir by accusing his colleagues on the Left with privileging the Palestinian case at the expense of the Mizrahim.
More surprising was that some Mizrahi critical scholars concluded that without first healing the domestic schism and ethnic divisions it was impossible to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a most radical version of this idea, as advocated by Shenhav and Smadar Lavie, the only real solution was to create a bi-national state where the Palestinians and the Mizrahi Jews would form a majority relegating the Ashkenazim to a permanent minority. The logic of this position put radical Mizrahim at odds with those in the critical community who preferred a two-state outcome, a topic of yet another heated debate.
As will be shown in the next chapter, the various visions of a post-conflict Israel were deeply related with a critical assessment of the country’s political system.
Chapter 5 Israel’s Political System in Critical Political Science
The sociologists who pioneered the neo-Marxist, critical paradigm, were eager to extend their critique to the political system in Israel. As shown earlier, the positivist and critical paradigms offered radically different perspectives on what constituted a democracy. None of the categories that factored into a positivist-based grading of democracy - elections, civil society, political freedoms - played a role in the contending paradigm that pegged the legitimacy of the authority system on the country’s distributive justice system. The dependencistas in particular were adamant that ‘true’ democracy could not coexist with a capitalist economy that did not distribute wealth in an equitable way. Bolstered by Wallerstein’s world system theory, critical political geography shifted even more attention to egalitarian distribution of resources, along with attention to marginalized (proletarian) groups. As one of the advocates of the critical approach put it, a ‘“true” democracy is sensitive to social justice’.
Israel as a Colonial-Heritage Democracy
When Eisenstadt published The Israeli Society in 1967 - compiled from his Hebrew language writings in the 1950s - few would have disagreed with his approach to nation-building. As indicated in the previous chapter, func'tionalism-structuralism was a quintessential positivist tool for modelling the complex ways in which disparate societal groups come together to create and sustain a political system. Two of its leaders - Talcott Parsons and David Easton - wrote the ‘bible’ on the subject, providing the formula for homeostatic harmony: as long as the inputs and outputs into the system were in equilibrium the political system could sustain a status quo through consensus, social order, integration and solidarity.
This in turn inspired the consociational democracy theory developed by Arno Lijphart. Looking at his native Netherlands, which had overcome centuries of social, ethnic and religious strife, he suggested that ethnic and religious groups had to compromise with each other to create what he called consociational democracy. Well received among scholars of democracy, the model was touted as an answer to doubts about democratic viability in deeply divided societies; indeed, Lijphart included Israel among the twenty-one consociational democracies identified in his survey.
It was Sammy Smooha, a Haifa University sociology professor, who would depart from Lijphart to introduce the concept of ethnic democracy to the Israeli discourse. A graduate of the Department of Sociology at Berkeley, Smooha followed the work of Pierre van den Berghe who utilized the case of South Africa’s apartheid to develop the concept of Herrenvolk democracy - a system that reserved full democratic privileges to the dominant group only. Herrenvolk, a variant of the ethnocratic paradigm, asserted that minority groups (defined by race, ethnicity or religion) suffered systemic discrimination in addition to human rights violations. While van den Berghe considered Israel an ethnocracy, Smooha maintained that ethnic democracy was a much better fit as the Jewish state, despite a dominant core ethnic group, extended political rights to the non-core group along with incomplete individual rights. He felt strongly that Israel should be regarded as an archetype of an ethnic democracy, a good enough facsimile of a liberal democracy in a deeply fragmented society. Yet it was before long that critical sociologists and political scientists were to take this paradigm a step further by presenting Israel as a non-democracy.
Gershon Shafir and his Tel Aviv University colleague Yoav Peled, a political science professor, were the first offer a systematic treatment of the supposed Israeli non-democracy. Identifying themselves as members of a ‘new generation of critical social scientists’ determined to set the record straight, Shafir recalled that his conversion to critical scholarship occurred during a 1973 lecture by Eisenstadt where the eminent professor apparently failed to mention the Israeli Black Panthers, a group of protest Mizrahi activists. Peled, who came from a prominent leftwing family and joined the Communist Party himself, was eager to follow the Gramscian imperative as a scholar-activist.
Peled and Shafir’s early work on the split Jewish labour-market in the Pale of Settlement in Russia provided a clue to their subsequent view of the colonial origin of Israeli democracy. Two observations were especially pertinent, namely that the straightforward model of capital chasing the cheapest labour did not tend to work in an ethnically stratified society because of the role of the state in the economy, which they conceptualized in three different ways: the pluralist view that conceived the state as neutral arena for groups’ struggle; the func'tionalist view where the state was said to mediate the group struggle to assure social stability; and the conflict approach where the state acted to promote the interests of the dominant ethnic group.
While the Jews of the Pale did not succeed in leveraging their influence, the Jewish workers in Palestine, according to Shafir and Peled, did much better due to their position as a dominant group. In the colonialist setting of the Yishuv they commanded higher wages while the marginal Arabs suffered from exclusionary labour practices and low wages. To extrapolate the colonialist condition onto the independent State of Israel the authors borrowed from a theory of republican citizenship that became popular in the late 1980s. According to a group of political philosophers and legal scholars, there was a significant difference between the notions of citizenship in liberal versus republican democracy. The former implied a passive sense of citizenship whereby individuals were recipients of a certain participatory rights regardless of their civic proclivities. The latter postulated that democracy required a certain type of virtue and identity to create the common good. While the original interest in republican citizenship was not ideological, Cass Sunstein, John Friedmann and other leftist scholars were quick to point out that the republican democracy privileged were bearers of certain virtues deemed to benefit the collective. Conversely, those who were remote from the communitarian virtue - ethnic or racial minorities and immigrants - were considered second or third class citizens in the United States and Britain, countries viewed as liberal democracies.
Peled, who rejected both Eisenstadt’s consociational democracy and Smooha’s ethnic democracy, found the republican citizenship model more commensurate with Israel’s colonial-heritage democracy, alleging this pattern to be deeply rooted in the Yishuv’s political culture. Pioneering (halutziut) served as the civic virtue of the community, ‘the criterion by which civic recognition was awarded to individuals and groups’. Defining virtue through the Zionist-pioneering endeavour created a dual distinction system that differentiated between Jews and Arabs and between the pioneering Ashkenazi elite and other Jews who were considered mere immigrants. The ‘ethno-republican community’ served also a ‘democratic republican community’ where individual rights and procedural rules of democracy were observed - but first class citizenship was reserved for those identified with the civic virtue of pioneering. Consequently, ‘like those who cannot acquire full republican citizenship,’ Israeli Arabs have a ‘truncated political status: they do not share in attending to the common good but are secure in their possession of what we consider essential human and civil rights’.
Transiting into statehood in 1948 allowed Ben-Gurion, in Peled’s opinion, to engage in some clever juggling of republican and liberal forms of citizenship. By promulgating the Law of Return - a basis for immediate citizenship - the new state privileged the commitment to the communitarian good of the Zionist project. Interestingly, Ben-Gurion argued that the right of Jews to return was not granted by the state but predated the state in the sense ‘that the state itself came into being through the right that Jews had always had to the Land of Israel and in order to enable them to fulfil that right’. Recognizing the primordial rights of Jews was not entirely unique, as other immigrant societies enjoyed the principle of ‘communal self-determination’ that is the right to ‘to shape its own cultural character to provide refuge to its ethnic kith and kin’. Peled conceded that such an arrangement made sense from a strong republican standpoint but was ‘an anathema to liberal political theory’. At the same time, Ben-Gurion started granting Arabs equal rights thus satisfied the requirements of liberal citizenship, making Israel an ethno-republican democracy. Peled emphasized that ethno-republicanism was different from the South African Herrenvolk democracy or some other blatantly discriminatory system, giving Israeli Arabs a strong incentive to operate within the system of law. While the system was not ideal because the Arabs - and to a lesser degree the Mizrahi Jews - could not partake in the ‘common good’, the arrangement was quite tolerable: ‘The overt use of ethnicity (as of other particularistic markers, e.g. gender, class, or religion) to categories of citizenship is offensive to anyone committed to liberal values… It may serve us well, however, to remember that discrimination based on the basis of ethnicity, race, religion, gender, and sexual preferences has not been unknown in liberal democracies’. This two-tiered republican democracy gave the Israeli Arabs a set of liberal rights and a political space to ‘consolidate those rights’. Indeed, in a choice between perfect civic equality and blatant discrimination, the ethnorepublican arrangement ‘may not be the worst possible choice’.
Published shortly before the start of the Oslo peace process, the article did not discuss the status of the Palestinians in the territories, nor did it address a possible settlement of the conflict. After all, as conceptualized by Peled, a colonialist democracy was not expected to voluntary decolonize by giving up its conquest. To account for decolonization, aka the peace process, Peled, joined by Shafir introduced some Marxist insights. Claiming that the third generation Ashkenazi elite - heirs to the founding fathers ‘virtuous pioneers’ - became entrepreneurs in the newly emergent market economy, Shafir and Peled posited a clash of interests between those whose personal fortunes were tied to a liberal market economy and global competition and the occupation: ‘For these reasons, settling the conflict - decolonization portions of the occupied territories through accommodation with the PLO - became an economic necessity for the Israeli business community’. Along with economic liberalization there was a shift towards liberal values that underpin liberal democracy. The two predicted that with the end of decolonization, there would be a move to ‘universalization of the citizenship structure as well to reduce ethnic discontinuities which interfere with the smooth operation of the market’.
Expanding on the economic dynamics underpinning the decolonization process, Shafir and Peled also added the Intifada to the factors reconfiguring the citizenship discourse. Virtually invisible at the bottom of the discursive pyramid, the Palestinians upped the ante posing economic (and moral) challenges to the neo-liberal elite. Persuaded that the occupation was a detriment, the business community took the lead in pushing the peace process. Dov Lautman, president of the Israeli manufactures’ association was quoted in the article as complaining about the slow progress of negotiations and urging the government to expedite the process so as to allow Israel to partake in the ‘unprecedented prosperity’. The authors conceded that the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin forced yet another change in the republican versus liberal discourse, describing the opposition to decolonization as ‘the hard core composed mostly of settlers and their religious Zionist backers’ driven by ideology rather than economic calculus. Still, reflecting their belief in the primacy of economics, they expressed confidence that the decolonization would proceed apace, bypassing the purely ideological forces of opposition to colonialism.
Inspired by the same economic determinism, Shafir subsequently proclaimed that process of decolonization was irreversible. In this scenario, for the new elites whose economic self-interest clashed with the traditional values of colonialist Zionist society - settlement and long-term military service were seen as having the upper hand in the democratic discourse. By organizing around business as the new civic virtue, they were actually pushing for a liberal citizenship. Still, Shafir invoked Gramsci who warned about destructive dynamics capable of undermining long-term processes. As he saw it, ‘the noxious intentions and destructive actions of religious zealots - Palestinian and Jewish’ would try to scuttle the process of decolonization.
Shafir and Peled found the prospect of Israel’s ‘socioeconomic liberalization’ and its impact on decolonization highly compelling, spurring them to bring out an edited book on the subject. Published before the collapse of the peace process in September 2000, the tome described the DOP as an act that ‘stunned the world’ and a ‘decisive step’ towards peaceful resolution of one of the world’s ‘most intransigent international feuds’. The thesis they ‘wished to advance’ was simple: ‘peacemaking and economic growth - are closely related’. Though clearly aware of the peace spoiling ‘zealots’, the selected articles focused on the economic peace dividend. So much so that Uri Ram, hardly a fan of capitalist globalization, contributed an essay on the ‘promised land of business opportunities’ as a driver of the peace process.
With so much attention on the alleged economic dynamics of the Oslo process, Shafir and Peled felt the need to update their original notion of republican democracy in a work described as the ‘culmination of many years of intellectual cooperation’ and one that has been ‘many years in the making’. Reference to the continuity of the project notwithstanding, the new book shifted to a more radical form of critical theory of citizenship. Rogers Smith, a self-described critical political scientist provided much of the inspiration. Smith decried Western civic ideology for harbouring inequalities and exclusionary principals and was equally dissatisfied with the republican citizenship discourse. In his opinion, both the liberal and republican principles were part of a myth forged by elites to create an imagined popular identity and provide the legitimacy of the ruling class. Instead of analytically privileging the two discourses, Smith urged the adoption of what he called ‘a multiple traditions’ view of American citizenship. In other words, he wanted to include the disfranchised - illegal immigrants, asylum seekers and other marginal groups - in the citizenship discourse, rejecting as ‘hegemonic’ and ‘nationalistic’ the notion that citizenship and the consequent democratic rights should be limited to the established groups.
Shafir and Peled’s version of ‘multiple traditions’ featured three distinctive citizenship discourses: the liberal, the republican and the ethno-nationalistic. The latter was said to originate in German Romanticism and focused on the community ‘conceived as a nation, or ethnic group’. Even more exclusive than republican citizenship, the ethno-national ideal of citizenship was delineated by the ethno-national identity of its members, denying to non-members the chance to assimilate. Using the three-tiered citizenship concept as a base, the authors reached out for other theoretical insights, among them Yasemin Soysal’s ‘incorporation regimes’. They noted that such regimes dictated the allocation of resources to the different social groups by state and para-state institutions while legitimizing such differential allocation through a ‘citizenship discourse’. Indeed, ‘to understand a particular incorporation regime…we must be familiar with its main allocative institutions and with the citizenship discourse, or discourses, that prevail in its political culture’.
Surveying Israel’s history from the perspective of the three-tiered citizenship construct, Shafir and Peled arrived at some new conclusions. They insisted that, spurred by economic interest, liberal democracy had grown considerably at the expense of the republican democratic discourse. But it was the new ethno-national citizenship discourse - as embodied by the National Zionist settlers and the right wing parties - that worried them, not least because of its alleged racially-tinged hatred towards the Palestinians. In this new version the ethno-national discourse was surmised to be a formidable opponent of de-colonization and indeed, a chief architect of ‘contemporary colonization’. Though Nazi Germany was not mentioned, there were hints that, behind a liberal façade, Israel nurtured a complex discursive regime with dangerous racist and nationalist overtones. Still, written before the outbreak of the ‘al-Aqsa Intifada’, the book expressed confidence in the irreversibility of the process of decolonization as a step to creating a real liberal democracy.
Reaction to the book followed predictable lines. Hailed by neo-Marxist, critical scholars as a path breaking work, it was questioned by positivists. As argued in the preceding chapter, Lissak led the charge against critical social scientists in general and Shafir and Peled in particular, accusing them of misrepresenting and distorting the practices of the Yishuv and ignoring facts that did not fit their deterministic Marxist theory. He asserted that, far from being rapacious colonizers, the Zionists desired an anti-colonialist solution of creating a Jewish and a Palestinian state in the region. Other disciples of Eisenstadt denounced what they described as ‘the simple Marxist assertion that conditions of life exclusive and directly undermine the conscience of individuals’. They noted that many of the decisions made by the pioneers, including the revival of the Hebrew language, could not be explained in materialistic terms.
Lost in the exchange about particulars of the Yishuv era and the motivation of the pioneers was the far more important issue of methodology. Only one reviewer pointed out that though a ‘central axis of Western political philosophy’, the ‘citizenship discourse’ was too vague a construct to measure the level of democracy. More significantly, she found the construct to be a ‘proscriptive rather than descriptive convection’ signalling the authors’ ideological preference – ‘one that ultimately promotes “a democratic multiculturalism” with “multiple public spheres” based on both universal individual rights’. Differently put, the reviewer suggested that the negative evaluation of Israeli democracy was guided by the authors’ ideological goals. Since Shafir collaborated on a number of projects aimed at expanding liberal citizenship based on international criteria (that would have given immigrants and undocumented workers in the West full citizenship rights), this charge was not entirely unfounded.
Whatever the criticism, Shafir and Peled’s hopes for ending the conflict and creating a ‘real’ liberal democracy vanished in the wake of the al-Aqsa Intifada, along with their complex and nuanced description of Israel’s authority system. Radicalized by the collapse of the Oslo process, Peled adopted a new position claiming that Israel’s authority system could not be compatible with a democracy unless it was ready to follow the path of the new South Africa: ‘The obvious model for the transformation of the Israeli control system into a secular, democratic state is the transition experienced by South Africa’. Though having previously rejected the apartheid model, Peled quoted Mona Younis, who used a class-based analysis comparing the South African and Palestinian national liberation movements, hailing her argument that ‘it was the involvement of this African working class in the struggle for national liberation that ensured its democratic character and, ultimately, its political success’. Conversely, the working class in Israel was not involved, dooming the goal of the PLO and its supporters to create a ‘democratic, non-sectarian states in all of the territories of their respective homelands’. Without such a transformation, he argued, Israel would not resemble a democratic, non-sectarian state.
The post-9/11 reality led Peled to update yet again his three-tiered citizenship construct. In a 2007 Tel Aviv University workshop on ‘Democratic Citizenships and War’ Peled acknowledged for the first time that Israel had experienced war and Low Intensity Conflict (LIC) virtually since its inception, yet claimed that his three-tiered concepts of citizenship - republican, liberal and ethno-national - were still valid, albeit in a security rather than colonial setting. In this interpretation, the first tier of the citizenship discourse was reserved to those in the forefront of the security struggles, with the third tier reserved for those who endangered the security project, notably the Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians. Positioned in-between was the liberal citizenship discourse that tried to guard civil rights from antiterrorist legislation and practices.
This seeming recognition of the importance of terrorism on the citizenship discourse did not last for long. In a 2013 edited book on ethnic democracies Peled returned to his original three-tier discourse but reassessed the location of the Israeli Arabs in line with a Marxist interpretation of political developments. He explained that after the collapse of the Oslo peace process in 2000, the Arab citizens suffered a serious regression of their rights because of the liberal concept of citizenship - an outcome of the privatization and liberalization of the economy - malfunc'tioned. In this version, ‘the ideological shift from corporatism to neoliberalism as the guiding principle of economic organization… moving away from the principle of pioneering Jewish solidarity as a limitation on the profit motive… left the republican principle of incorporation devoid of a material basis and weakened it vis-à-vis the other two principles, or discourses of citizenship’. With the republican principle diminished, a ‘head-on collision’ between liberal democracy and ethno-naturalism occurred, allowing the latter to push back the rights of Israeli Arabs. 
By reverting to the Marxist-based interpretation of the three-tiered citizenship, Peled erased any mention of the impact of the anti-terror campaign on the discourse, thus restoring the consistency of his research. But the work raised considerable methodological problems, not least because some of the examples were clearly indicative of the state’s desire to prevent Israeli Arab MKs from embracing the cause of terrorist organization. By trying to explain the alleged diminution of liberal citizenship by changes in the ‘material base’ of republican discourse, Peled avoided a much needed discussion of how a democracy should deal with an ethnic minority with conflicting national loyalties.
Much as the Shafir-Peled work gained special status among detractors of Israeli democracy, the construct of a multiple citizenship discourse was too complex to be readily related to the apartheid label that Matzpen activist scholars such as Uri Davis, working with a revived Council for American Judaism, affixed to Israel in the early 1980s.
In the peculiar hierarchy of perceived academic legitimacy, such works stayed on the margins of the scholarly discourse. Kimmerling recalled his hesitation to use Matzpen ideas, explaining that its intellectuals were not professional social scientists and tended to mix politics with writing. As the preceding chapter showed, it took Kimmerling more than a decade of a tortuous intellectual journey to join the critical sociology camp. It was only fitting thus that this former student of Eisenstadt turned the apartheid model into legitimate social science, making a strong impact not only in sociology but also in political science.
Israel as an Apartheid Democracy
There was nothing in Kimmerling’s early work to indicate that, in his view, Israel’s democracy was marred by a colonialist design. To the contrary, writing in the early 1980s, Kimmerling described the 1967 war as ‘an accident’ claiming that there was no design to seize territories in order to expand the colonialist empire and the control of the territories was ‘accidental’. As a matter of fact, in a coauthored book, he used a theoretical framework derived from disaster theory to argue that the Israelis developed an effective coping mechanism with the conflict-driven interruptions of civilian routine. By treating emergency situations as temporary aberrations, the state and the citizens invested all their resources to get back to the ‘normal’ state of existence. As a result, the economy and the social system were able to func'tion, avoiding the type of convulsions that ruined democracies elsewhere.
Kimmerling’s observation of the Israeli peace process with Egypt - requiring the evacuation of the Sinai Peninsula and the city of Yamit - indicated optimism about the democratic process. He suggested that, in responding to the Egyptian overture, Israeli society was forced to engage in a series of trade-offs between territory and security, territory and peace, and territory and democracy. The societal discourse on the trade-off, he asserted, indicated that most Israelis were ready to give up territory not only to secure peace but to assure the continuation of democratic practices and international recognition. In other words, in the case of Sinai the question ‘how much territory for democracy’ was answered resoundingly in favour of democracy. He left open the possibility that Palestinian land could be given up in a similar trade -off.
By the end of the decade, however, Kimmerling, as shown earlier, had begun his transformation. In a 1988 preface to an edited volume on territory and democracy he reproached the contributors - mostly his Hebrew University colleagues - for leaving out the occupied territories when discussing Israel’s democracy. For his part, he was ready to side with those who accepted the long-standing Matzpen view that the Israeli political system could not be judged in separation from the occupied territories. Kimmerling credited American scholars in the Association for Israel Studies (AIS) for ‘making it possible’, noting that they were less encumbered by ‘the ideological load than [their Israeli] predecessors’. This coded reference to the AIS was highly significant; he subsequently affirmed that the AIS played a ‘vital role’ in legitimizing the Matzpen approach and helped his evolving view on the nature of Israeli political system.
Stanley Greenberg, then associate director of the Southern African Research Program at Yale University working on ways to undermine the apartheid system in South Africa, was also instrumental in Kimmerling’s change of mind. While Greenberg’s first book, Race and State in Capitalist Development offered a standard Marxist examination of the anti-apartheid struggle, the second, Legitimating the Illegitimate: State, Markets and Resistance in South Africa adopted the legitimacy discourse approach of Gramsci. Scrutinizing the discursive practices of the Afrikaners, Greenberg found their hegemonic discourse - with claims of ‘God-given vocation’ - to be ‘like the Hebrews of the Old Testament’. Pursuant of this perceived mandate, white South Africans created a society ‘where illegitimacy is a defining characteristic of the social order’. Furthermore, the ‘entrenched illegitimacy’ of apartheid ‘embodies three central ideas: primacy of racial-national rights, centrality of the state and the subordination of the civil society, and fashioning of the homeland as an entity fully separated from the civic realm’. Greenberg suggested that, drawing on a divine mandate, Israel created a similar structure of illegitimacy with regard to the Palestinians.
On a visit to Israel, Greenberg penned a paper ‘The Indifferent Hegemony: Israel and the Palestinians’ calling attention to the delegitimizing aspects of control over the Palestinian population. Soon after, Kimmerling quoted the paper in a chapter ‘Boundaries and Frontiers of the Israeli Control System’. He declared that after 1967 the ruling elites in Israel showed ‘virtually total lack of interest and ability in creating a common identity or basic value system to legitimize its use of violence to maintain the system, or in developing other kinds of loyalties toward force and power’, warning that by holding on to the territories ‘we might see the institutionalization of the process of transforming the Israeli control system into a Herrenvolk democracy, without its racist dimension’.
By the early 1990s, Kimmerling’s resolve to join the critical camp had become all but evident. He excoriated Eisenstadt for refusing to include the treatment of Palestinians in the ‘framework decision’ of Israeli sociology, allegedly to avoid the ‘embarrassment of characterizing Israeli society - before and after sovereignty - as an immigrant-settler (if not colonial) society’. In an article published the following year, Kimmerling described Israel as a militaristic society rooted in the violence of its colonialist past and the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. Contradicting his early work, he now claimed that the militaristic ethos was shared by civilians, a phenomenon he described as cultural militarism. Wars were a central part of the collective identity of Israelis and turned into an integral, routine part of Jewish society. Invoking Gramsci’s concept of hegemonic discourse Kimmerling argued that ‘civilian militarism in Israel ministered the approach most acceptable to the majority in the Jewish collectivity’. More to the point, given this integral militarism, Israel could not be described as a democracy but rather as a democracy of the ‘ruling nation’, an allusion to the South African Herrenvolk system.
Kimmerling’s reinvention as critical sociologist did not go unnoticed. Yoram Peri, a Tel Aviv University political scientist and a leading expert on the Israeli military, described Kimmerling as a scholar with a ‘developing line in his perception: ‘If, in his early works in the 1970s he was close to his teachers Lissak and Horowitz, he later developed the most critical approach in his attitude to the underlying ethos of the Israeli society’. Peri produced extensive survey data to show that the concept of ‘militaristic hegemony had no empirical basis’ but was not hopeful that Kimmerling and his new ideological peers would be persuaded. To his mind, the vast majority of critical scholars ‘identifies with the criticism of the Zionist movement and questions the Zionist meta-narrative. They accept the Palestinian criticism of the nature of the State of Israel, support the post-Zionist ideology, and seek to establish in Israel a civil society of all its citizens, Jews and Arabs, through the negation of the Jewish identity of the State and its ties to Diaspora Jewry’.
In a book published just before the al-Aqsa Intifada Kimmerling elaborated on the concept of the ‘military-cultural complex’. Arguing that ‘settler culture’ in the territories was just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of Judaism’s ‘mixture of religious and secular chauvinism’, claiming that the 1967 war ‘reawakened the dormant codes of the immigrant settler political culture’. In his opinion, this cultural militarism trumped all other considerations, so much so that the ‘Palestinian territories’ were chosen for expansion because of national Zionist ideology rather than economic benefits, as Shafir and Peled surmised.
As shown in the preceding chapter, the collapse of the peace process greatly embittered Kimmerling, spurring him into Gramscian-like prodding of scholars to use their academic position to change society. He blamed Israel alone for the failure of the July 2000 Camp David summit, deriding Barak’s concessions as designed ‘to give up enough of the territory but to keep the advantage of the colonization project flowing. No Palestinian will agree to that’. His readiness to change opinions to suit the circumstances has also evolved, creating serious inconsistencies. For instance, ignoring his militarization thesis his newest version stated that ‘we made profit from the territories and Israel’s reluctance to give them up is an egregious manifestation of the colonialist instinct... it is amazing to think that at the beginning of the third millennium a country is actively colonizing by marginalizing its citizens and acting against international law’.
For Kimmerling, like virtually all critical scholars, Ariel Sharon, the military hero-turned-politician represented all that was wrong with Israel’s cultural militarism. In a book titled Politicide, he stressed that under Sharon - and even well before him - Israel had engaged in politicide, defined as a process that aimed, as its ultimate goal, at ‘the dissolution of the Palestinian people’s existence as a legitimate social, political, and economic entity’. The national existence of the Palestinian people, he argued, was being destroyed through ‘murders, localized massacres, the elimination of leadership and elite groups, the physical destruction of public institutions and infrastructure, land colonization, starvation, social and political isolation, re-education and partial ethnic cleansing’.
While Kimmerling conceded that in the past Israel had been an ‘imperfect democracy’, politicide, in his opinion, turned the Jewish state into a ‘Thacherist and semi-fascist regime’. Some three dozen pages later, his definition of the authority system changed:
Israel [has] ceased being a true democratic state and became a Herrenvolk democracy. This term, coined to describe South Africa under Apartheid described a regime in which one group of subjects (the citizens) enjoys full rights and another group (the non-citizens) enjoys none. The laws of Israel became the laws of a master people and the morality that of the lords of the land.
There was more confusion pertaining to the time framework. At times Kimmerling seemed to suggest that the transformation occurred when Israel decided to make the occupation permanent, on other occasions he hinted that apartheid was actually built into the very fabric of the ‘colonialist’ Zionist enterprise.
It would be easy to suggest that such contradictions were very much in line with neo-Marxist, critical standard of mixing politics with academics. As noted, Kimmerling proved quite adept at changing his ‘narratives’ to fit the shifting political circumstances. Yet there was something more personal, indeed emotional, about Politicide. The visceral hatred of Sharon compounded by the disjointed and self-contradictory definitions of the ‘Israeli regime’ was out of character for what was billed as a serious scholarly study. The preface provided a clue to Kimmerling's state of mind. Strongly rejecting the label of a ‘self-hating Jew’ he described his book as a warning against the alleged plans to ethnically cleanse all the Palestinians. As he put it, ‘the apartheid policy was not just a catastrophe for the Palestinians people but for the Israelis as well’.
That Kimmerling came to see his work as a clarion call to a society allegedly morally corrupted by apartheid was quite evident from his subsequent attack on Benny Morris. As noted in Chapter 3, in a 2004 interview in Haaretz, Morris created a stir by denouncing the Palestinians as perennial losers. Kimmerling’s assessment of Morris’s character was scathing: ‘Then he turns to his own prejudices and stereotypes of the Islamic and Arabic culture that happen to be fashionable… since the September 11 calamity. But the historian is not just a part of the collective mood and expresses it, he also provide historical and intellectual legitimacy to the most primitive and self-destructive impulse of a very troubled society’. Having voiced his indictment of his former fellow traveller, Kimmerling claimed that Israel was more than a ‘troubled society’:
It should be treated the way we treat individuals who are serial killers. After thirty five years of oppression, colonization of their land, expropriation of their water, ignoring almost all of their freedoms, administrative detention of tens of thousands of Palestinians, systematic destruction of their social and material infrastructure, it is more than ironic to talk about the Palestinians as barbarians and a sick society. If the Palestinian society is sick, who is responsible for this sickness and which society is sicker and an institutionalized serial killer?
Not incidentally, by excoriating Morris Kimmerling hoped to establish himself as a pioneer of the New Historiography/New Sociology movement. Claiming that during research on a doctoral dissertation in the 1970s he proved that Plan D referred to ethnic cleansing, he recalled departmental colleagues warning him that the thesis was too explosive to be published for ‘many years’: ‘It was probably hard to find major commercial and even university press publishers (especially in the United States) who were willing to publish a book or monograph that was perceived as undermining the official Zionist version in the fields, not to say presented as an alternative Palestinian “narrative”. These narratives were published in the past decades mainly by little “fringe” publishers and by some “brave” university presses’.
Addressing the strong emotions surrounding the nature of Israel’s authority system, he acknowledged the sharp divisions on the issue:
Israel perceives itself as a ‘Jewish and (liberal) democratic’ state, but it is hard even domestically to define the meaning of those two contradictory terms, when most of Jews give priority to the state’s ‘Jewishness’, accepting that Arab citizens enjoy ‘reduced citizen’s rights’, or that the Jews have to protect their demographic majority and political and cultural hegemony by formal discrimination... To this must be added the gradually converged direct ‘control system’ over the territories and population occupation in 1967. Naturally, Israel was characterized by Palestinians and their supporters as an ‘apartheid state’... In an inter-communal war perceived as a zero sum game, each side is using indiscriminate violence to get rid of the other side.
Some critics denounced Kimmerling’s inappropriate use of the apartheid
label to demonize Israel. Others accused him of academic opportunism and rewriting his history for political gain by alleging that his anti-positivist position somehow hurt his career.
Yet as the foremost post-Zionist scholar and a professor at the Hebrew University, Israel’s top university, Kimmerling gave the apartheid label considerable legitimacy. His premature death in 2007 left others to claim his mantle in developing variations on the apartheid theme. Two scholars at Ben-Gurion University - Oren Yiftachel and Neve Gordon - took a leading role in this effort.
Israel as an Ethnocracy
Yiftachel, a political geographer with a degree in urban planning, joined the Geography Department at Ben-Gurion University in 1993. According to his homepage, he ‘has tried to combine teaching and activism for social and political justice. Co-founded and was an active member in a range of organizations working to assist Arab-Jewish peace, anti-colonialism and social equality in Israel/Palestine’. Yiftachel was keen to show his own commitment to Gramsci noting that his ‘own approach draws from neo-Gramscian perspective’.
Unlike Kimmerling whose transformation from a positivist to critical sociologist was long and anguished, Yiftachel was proud of his credentials as a critical political geographer having been influenced by John Friedmann, a Wallerstein disciple involved in the International Foundation for Development Alternatives (IFDA), a group of scholars and activists constructing the Third System Project. Inspired by the South American dependencistas, the IFDA planned to harness the power of people by raising their conciseness to challenge the dominance of markets and the state. Using the Gramscian formula, Friedmann described the Third System as ‘a movement of those free associations, citizens and militants, who perceive that the essence of history is the endless struggle by which people try to master their own destiny’. Among the groupings mentioned were those ‘actively serving people’s aim and interests, as well as political and cultural militants who, while not belonging directly to the grassroots, endeavour to express people’s views and to join their struggle’.
Clearly eager to be among those ‘actively serving people’s aim and interests’, Yiftachel set out to implement this mandate. Writing on an Internet Forum for Critical Geography, he stated that though ‘Our jobs here [in Israel] are more secure with the tenure system (still?) in place... this has not nurtured any tendency for critical geography’. He blamed low faculty salaries and the ‘most acute need’ to supplement income with government consulting fees for the reticence of his colleagues to adopt a critical perspective. Still, Yiftachel seemed optimistic: ‘your list, as well as the Vancouver conference and several recent journals are helping us in “diffusing” critical material which may have some long-term effect on students and faculty’.
Co-edited by Yiftachel, the Ben-Gurion University-based journal Hagar: Studies in Culture, Politics and Space became a premier outlet for critical writings. His homepage boasts his considerable contribution to the field: ‘in urban and planning studies he was among the first to focus on the “dark side” of urban planning and has contributed much to opening up planning theory to critical theory in general, and to issues of identity, power and space in particular’. More importantly, ‘in political geography his groundbreaking work formulated the concept of “ethnocratic” regimes, which has opened up several important debates in ethnic and racial studies, regime theories and research in Israel/Palestine and the Middle East’.
Yiftachel wasted little time in popularizing the concept of ‘ethnocratic regimes’. With support from Ben-Gurion University’s Centre for Regional Development in December 1993 he co-organized a conference on ‘Urban Development, a Challenge for Frontier Regions’. In the preface to the volume of proceedings, Yiftachel claimed to have ‘invited contributions from various other Israeli experts on these issues: geographers, sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists, which have now become the main body of chapters in this book’. In fact, virtually all participants were neo-Marxist, critical scholars such as Dan Rabinowitz, Yoav Peled, Hanna Herzog and Lev Grinberg.
Setting the tone of the debate, Yiftachel rejected the positivist model of nation-building invoking the Wallerstein-Taylor class-based theory. He argued that ‘spatial changes in settlement in general and frontier settlement in particular, are often part of a transformation aimed at deepening social control and inequalities over peripheral groups’. In a subsequent chapter, Yiftachel applied the theme to the Galilee Arabs, who due to possessing a homogenous territory became an ‘internal frontier’ where land had to be conquered, that is Judaized, creating a ‘pattern of class oppression’. Taking a rather dim view of democratic processes, he dismissed them as a ‘procedural measures’ - a quintessential notion of the neo-Marxist, critical paradigm. Equally important, Yiftachel claimed that Israel could not claim to be a real democracy because it failed to deliver social justice: ‘While the present paper deals mainly with territorial control of minorities against the background of an ethnic struggle over land control, it must be remembered that such territorial struggle is embedded within the operation of a certain (capitalist) economic system and its supporting political institutions’.
To provide a more trenchant critique Yiftachel joined forces with two political scientists to argue that equal and inclusive citizenship, popular sovereignty and civil rights, protection of minorities and regular, universal and free elections were not enough to qualify Israel as a ‘real democracy’. In their view, without fixed borders that would restrain the considerable statuary privileges of the Jews, the Israeli political system amounted to ethnocracy. In Yiftachel’s words: ‘Israel is a state and a polity without clear boundaries; and the country’s organization of social space is based on pervasive and uneven ethnic segregation’. As a result, ‘the Israeli polity is governed not by a democratic regime, but rather by an “ethnocracy”, which denotes a non-democratic rule for and by a dominant ethnic group, within the state and beyond its borders’.
As in the case of other post-Zionists, the collapse of the Oslo accords darkened Yiftachel’s views. In an edited volume published shortly after the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada, he described the peace process as ‘peace pretence’ and a cover up for the continuation of the occupation, blaming the alleged Israeli appetite for land for its failure and warning the ‘Israeli leadership and people’ of the looming spectre of apartheid. The same message was underpinned in a number of articles written in the early 2000s. In one, ‘From Fragile Peace to Creeping Apartheid: Political Trajectories in Israel/Palestine’, Yiftachel attributed the failure of peace to ‘the ethnocratic culture developed in Israel, which saw the Judaisation - and de-Arabisation - of Palestine/Israel as a moral historical process, with scant attention to its impact on the Palestinian-Arabs’. In the summer of 2002 he repeated the apartheid charge when describing an alleged Israeli plan to offer ‘a mixture of measures ranging from firm ethnic control to apartheid and future transfer, but couching them in terms more acceptable to the Jewish Israeli ear’.
Yiftachel’s growing use of the terms ‘creeping apartheid’ or ‘apartheid’ instead of his customary ‘ethnocracy’ was apparently related to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement formally launched after the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban. To make the BDS advocacy palatable to the general public, there was an urgent need to present Israel as an apartheid state, a charge considered more legitimate when made by ostensibly bone fide Israeli academics.
Also noted was Yiftachel’s experience with the journal Political Geography, which Taylor and his disciples turned into a premier outlet for critical studies. In early 2002 Yiftachel submitted a co-authored article describing Israel as ‘a state dedicated to the expansion and control of one ethnic group’ and suggesting that ‘such societies cannot be classified as democracies in a substantive sense’. Yet David Slater, one of the journal’s editors and a prominent supporter of the Palestinians who signed the 2002 British petition to boycott Israeli universities, felt that the journal should not accept works by Israeli academics. After an acrimonious exchange Slater backed down but Yiftachel was asked to make substantial revisions, including an explicit comparison between Israel and South Africa. He complied, raising the salience of the apartheid analogy.
In a revised form of the Political Geography article, Yiftachel and his co-author explained the reasons for making comparisons with South Africa. Yet seemingly dissatisfied with his limited impact, he decided to devote an entire book to the subject. Crediting Gramsci and other critical theorists for their inspiration, Yiftachel stated that his work was aimed at developing a ‘critical ethnocratic theory’ by integrating geography into political science. Specifically, he contended that the process of Judaizing Israel/Palestine with its ‘associated dislocations, struggles and contradictions’ should be front-page in evaluating Israeli democracy. More to the point, Yiftachel hoped that his work would undermine the scholarly and popular perception of Israel as a democracy in good standing.
Without naming Eisenstadt or his students, Yiftachel asserted that ‘the classification of Israel as a democracy may appear to func'tion more as a tool for legitimizing the political and legal status quo than as a scholarly exploration guided by empirical accuracy or conceptual coherence’. Somewhat surprisingly, Peled and Shafir, whose work Yiftachel described ‘as groundbreaking on many counts’ did not entirely escape criticism. Particularly upsetting to Yiftachel was the notion that three tiers of the citizenship discourse implied discursive equality, thus masking the profound power disparities among the citizenship groups. He further charged the two authors with using misleading categories and falling to the trap of ‘conceptual stretching’. Using Habermas’s distinction between ‘constitutional patriotism’, a mechanism associated with universal democracy, and ‘false’ forms of democratic participation, Yiftachel claimed that ‘the questionable use of these terms confuses more than assists in the understanding of the Israeli political system and erroneously enables its classification as democratic’.
Much as Yiftachel deplored others’ incoherence, his own theory of ethnocracy was seriously flawed. In the preface, he thanked his editorial staff for ‘chastising me ceaselessly, regularly and rightfully for inconstancies, duplications or general sloppiness’. Yet for all the editorial team’s efforts, the work - assembled from previously published articles and drawing upon an empirical base generated by four somewhat disparate projects - was vague, at times, inconsistent and contradictory. Emblematic of these problems was the book’s very subject matter - the construct of ethnocracy. Yiftachel first argued that with ‘blurred borders and boundaries and the partial inclusion of peripheral groups, Israel has neither managed to create a firm sense of “Israeliness” nor a genuine Israeli (as distinct from Jewish) polity. This presents severe obstacles for the development of civil society and hence democracy’. Yet, though he promised to define civil society in the next chapter, there was instead a long discussion of Israel’s politics and political economy replete with references to the core project of Judaization of Israel/Palestine. In one of the many contradictions, Yiftachel acknowledged that the Judaization project was challenged by new dynamics like globalization, liberalization, mass immigration from the Soviet Union (that included some 300,000 non-Jews) and the growing consciousness of Palestinians. Yet he did not incorporate these civil society dynamics in the way that Shafir and Peled did so as not to detract from the ethnocracy thesis.
Yiftachel’s struggle to reconcile ethnocracy as an all-encompassing ethnic ethos on the one hand, and the ambiguous demarcation between Judaism as ethnicity and religion on the other, generated additional contradictions. In his original formulation, ethnocracy was anchored in ethnos, the ethnic Jewish population. The chapter on the ‘making of ethnocracy’ was clear that the secular pioneers - the original builders of the ethnocracy - and their Israeli offspring were the closest to the Judaization project and accrued most of its benefits, turning them into a privileged elite: As the religious component of Judaism became more dominant, along with a dramatic increase in the ultra-Orthodox community, questions about the ethnocracy construct surfaced.
By way of pre-empting criticism, Yiftachel discussed the problem under the heading ‘ethnocracy or theocracy’. On the one hand he reassured readers that, contrary to ‘rhetoric’ very few religious laws were passed to qualify Israel as a theocracy. On the other, he argued that it was the religious population (ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionists) that was most hostile to Palestinians and most keen to continue the Judaization project. Both statements could be questioned on empirical grounds, but Yiftachel’s sleight of hand actually undermined the entire theory. For if Israeli ethnocracy privileged those closest to the Judaization project, then how was it that so many of the new ‘Judaizers’, notably Shas supporters, belonged to the lower classes?
By lumping together the religious-Zionist settlers and the ultra-Orthodox in one category Yiftachel weakened the argument of forced segregation - another key factor in the ethnocracy construct. According to his scenario, Israel’s dominant Ashkenazi elites were allowed to separate themselves from the lower classes and the indigenous population - the Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians. In reality though, only the settlers were segregated from the Palestinians; the ultra-Orthodox within the Green Line were voluntary segregationist anxious to protect their religious lifestyle. Yiftachel’s effort to demonstrate that the Mizrahim were another victimized group segregated from the dominant Ashkenazi population by the ethnocratic regime made even less sense. As the preceding chapter indicated, high levels of intermarriage shrank the ‘pure’ Mizrahim group, undermining key arguments in critical sociology. The same statistics suggested that Shas members were the largest segment among the non-intermarried Mizrahim; like their Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox counterparts they were self-segregators.
Perhaps more significantly, for all the book’s academic veneer, Yiftachel never meant it to be an objective study but a proscriptive-normative document aimed at furthering his goal of creating a bi-national state. As he put it, ‘the normative ending of this book requires further comment on the Israeli demos’. To make Israel a ‘legitimate democracy’ he urged changing the status of its Arab citizens, providing an equitable distribution of resources, and creating a multicultural polity. Put differently, in his opinion, Israel had to adopt a bi-national framework and a socialist distributive justice system to qualify as a democracy. Before this scenario could materialize, Yiftachel urged a long-term project of creating a new framework and consciousness of coexistence, premised on the legitimacy of both Jewish and Palestinian bonds to their common land. Echoing the Third System Project guidelines, he counselled dealing with the denied root cause of conflict, such as the ‘return of Palestinian refugees and the Jewish right of self-determination’.
Yiftachel acknowledged that the bi-national scenario ‘was put forward by Jewish thinkers of the 1920s’ - a reference to Brit Shalom - but felt that his generation could do better than Magnes and his professors because bi-nationalism ‘has received renewed attention among Palestinians, mainly in Israel and the diaspora’. Conversely, Jews showed strong resistance to the bi-national project, which he attributed to a desire to hold on to power: ‘Because a democratic bi-national state can only be established by mutual agreement, the sweeping Jewish opposition renders this option, at this point in time, highly unlikely’.
Still, as a dedicated Gramscian, Yiftachel was resolved to push for the changes needed to create a true democracy in a bi-national state. With little prospect to persuade the Israeli Jewish public he planned to use the ‘contradictions and tensions embedded in the coterminous existence of limited democratic institutions and procedures and entrenched patterns of ethnic dominance’ to mobilize the international community. The prospects there, in his view, were good since there was a ‘growing importance of human and minority rights in the international political discourse and on the growing institutionalization of democratic norms among the international community’. In other words, to attract attention of the international community, warnings about ‘creeping apartheid’ were required.
Yet Yiftachel, who failed to develop measurable indices for ‘creeping apartheid’, was also stumped by Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. To account for a development that was antithetical to his ethnocratic theory, a change of narrative was called for; he now argued that the ‘Israeli regime system has long been ethnocratic, but more recently, the ultimate logic of Judaization led Israel to adopt unilateral separation’. Those wondering how occupying Palestinian territory and withdrawing from it are parts of the same ‘logic of Judaization’, were not enlightened by his comments on the 2009 elections, which spoke on ‘democratic distortion’, ‘colonialist’ agenda and ‘creeping apartheid taking place’ in the entire territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
Mainstream scholars found the ‘ethnocracy-creeping apartheid’ construct highly questionable. Alan Dowty went so far as to accuse Yiftachel of failing to comport to academic standards, noting that virtually all indices of ethnocracy existed in countries considered democratic, which in turn meant that Yiftachel compared Israel to an ideal democracy rather than a real one. Indeed, Dowty touched upon a larger issue common in critical scholarship - a lack of a comparative perspective that would have placed Israel among the so-called ‘imperfect democracies’, that is, countries that tried to balance democratic rules of the game with daunting challenges. For instance, Yiftachel’s case for apartheid featured the nomadic Negev Bedouins. While their nomadic lifestyle has been undermined by their growing residence in established settlements, nomadic populations in Europe and elsewhere had their traditional ways similarly challenged by the increasingly urban environment taking over the expanses needed for free roaming.
Whatever the methodological pitfalls of the apartheid model, it served well Yiftachel who, as the chairman of the board of B’Tselem NGO was calling at the time for ‘effective sanctions’ against Israel. It was not hard to imagine, as one observer put it, that ‘the word apartheid is useful for mobilizing people because it is an emotional word’.
Amplifying the Apartheid Charge
Neve Gordon, a political scientist from Ben-Gurion University, was likewise a long-time activist keenly aware of the value of presenting Israel as an ethnocracy engaged in ‘creeping apartheid’. A professional pro-Palestinian activist, he headed Physicians for Human Rights-Israel during the first intifada, charging the Israeli authorities with torture of Palestinian prisoners and other crimes against humanity.
As a graduate student at Notre Dame University, Gordon worked with Fred Dallmayer, a political scientist who introduced him to Foucault. Gordon’s doctoral thesis, ‘Social Control in Democracies: A Theoretical Analysis’, was based on Foucault’s interpretation of power as a hidden and subtle underlying mechanism of manipulation. For Foucault ‘power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization’. Furthermore, power ‘is produced from one moment to the next, at every point, or rather in every relation from one point to another’. By conceptualizing power as omniscient but imperceptible and fluid, Foucault could then argue that political institutions and processes, including democracy, were just illusions, hiding the real controls exerted by authorities. One of them was bio-power, a term that Foucault coined to describe practices of public health and risk regulations, and other regulatory mechanisms linked to physical health. Foucault strongly suggested that bio-power was an efficient way to supplement two traditional tools of control - disciplinary power and sovereign power. The former was said to be based on coercive tactics, notably involving military or police forces; the latter was managed through legal and juridical intervention.
After Foucault’s premature death, Giorgio Agamben, a fast-rising critical philosopher, expanded on the issue. In what amounted to an antithesis to Foucault’s sovereign power, Agamben declared that it should be defined through exception, the power to withdraw and suspend law. By suspending the legal system, the authorities could turn groups or entire populations within the zone of exception into homo sacer, individuals whose lives could be taken with impunity:
The entire Third Reich can be considered a state of exception that lasted twelve years. In this sense, modern totalitarianism can be defined as the establishment, by means of the state of exception, of a legal civil war that allows for the physical elimination not only of political adversaries but of entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system’.
On a more contemporary note Agamben criticized the Italian government for detaining illegal immigrants and the Bush administration for keeping Taliban and other enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay.
In Gordon's ontological analysis of Foucault’s concept of power there was a clear focus on the complex interaction of power dynamics that shape identity and guide the behaviour of subjects. He made a particular point of noting Foucault’s concept of control based on the Benthamian panopticon: an observer such as a prison guard in tower generates the ‘the perpetual gaze:’ ‘It is as if the “gaze” penetrates the individual, helping to shape the “soul” so that it conform to the existing rules, codes, and mores’. Revisiting the concept of the panopticon, Gordon, echoing the criticism of another critical philosopher, found it too centralized to fit Foucault’s ubiquitous and pervasive presence of power. His solution was to suggest a cubicle - such as an office cubicle - where ‘the mere possibility’ of someone watching was enough to enforce authority.
Armed with the Foucault-Agamben theory, Gordon proceeded to analyse the Israeli rule in the territories. The work, billed as the first analysis of the ‘infrastructure of occupation’, was not a direct evaluation of the Israeli non-democracy; yet it cast an extremely harsh light on what he called the Israeli ‘regime’. In his words, ‘I do not only mean the forces or mechanism that use coercive measures used to prohibit, exclude and repress people, but rather the array of institutions, legal devises, bureaucratic apparatuses, and physical edifices… to produce new modes of behaviour’. By uncovering these subterranean dynamics, Gordon expressed hope that his ‘interrogation’ would help to ‘see beyond the smoke screen of political proclamations, and thus improves our understanding of why the acrimonious Israeli-Palestinian conflict has developed in the way it has’.
As Gordon saw it, Israel had used a sophisticated blend of controls - disciplinary, sovereign and bio-power to subjugate and control the Palestinians. With its ill-defined contours and subversive logic, Foucault’s bio-power made it possible to present virtually every seemingly positive act of the authorities as a negative one. For instance, Gordon listed the initial efforts to improve the standard of living of the Palestinians: ‘In the health field practices were introduced to encourage women to give birth at hospitals (a means of decreasing infant mortality rates and monitoring population growth) and to promote vaccinations (in order to decrease the incidence of contagious and noncontagious diseases)’. While many would applaud these progressive and beneficial measures, to Gordon they were instances of a bio-power control mechanism. To make sure that Foucault's metaphor of controlling the collective body was not lost on the reader, Gordon related the alleged extensive Israeli Big Brother effort to ‘monitor every aspect of Palestinian life’: ‘Televisions, refrigerators, and gas stoves were counted, as were the livestock, orchards, and tractors... There were detailed inventories of Palestinian workshops for furniture, soap, textiles, olive products, and sweets. Even eating habits were scrutinized, as was the nutritional value of the Palestinian food basket’.
Disciplinary powers, and a large dose of sovereign controls, in Gordon’s judgment, were extensively employed during the first two decades of Israel’s control. But, following the first intifada Israeli authorities realized that a new way to keep the territories quiescence was needed. As a result, they decided to outsource the control in the territories, via the Oslo Accords, to the newly-created PLO-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA). Gordon strongly suggested that the Israeli leaders had no intention to achieve peace but rather to use it as a means for allowing the IDF to ‘outsource the responsibility for the population’. He pointed out that, in 1996, less than a year after the Rabin assassination, virtually all ruling func'tions were passed to the PA that assumed ‘responsibility for the occupied inhabitants’. To some this would have meant the end of Israeli occupation. To Gordon it was the intensification of occupation by other means.
Gordon ran into a theoretical wrinkle when, following the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada, Israel did not dismantle the PA to regain back its ‘outsourced’ sovereign power. On the contrary, IDF’s military operations refrained from permanent reoccupation of the symbols of PA authority. Again invoking Agamben, Gordon suggested that ‘Israel now operates primarily by destroying the most vital social securities and by reducing members of Palestinian society to what Giorgio Agamben has called homo sacer, people whose lives can be taken with impunity’. True to neo-Marxist critical scholarship practises, Gordon felt little compulsion to support his ‘narrative’ with sound data: evoking Agamben, in his view, sufficed to charge Israel with such misconducts as ‘widespread extrajudicial executions’. At the same time, Agamben gave him yet another opportunity to portray Israel in the darkest possible light by enabling an implied comparison between Nazi Germany and the disputed territories. To push for the Holocaust-Palestinian analogy, Gordon listed the ‘two impulses’ that guided Israel as ‘militaristic and messianic’, a term that Agamben and others often associated with the Nazi regime.
Using a far-fetched interpretation of Israeli reality to fit the Foucault-Agamben model was one thing; trying to incorporate Islamist fundamentalists into the critical framework was another. For all his allusions to spiritual power, Foucault failed to incorporate religion into his theories. By default, his followers reverted to the neo-Marxist view of religion as false consciousness manufactured by the hegemonic class. Alternatively, religious impulses were perceived as a reaction to material deprivation, class subjugation and marginalization. The resulting confusion was very much in evidence in Gordon’s efforts to explain the emergence of Hamas as the preeminent Palestinian power. After describing the group’s views as ‘a kind of postmodern fundamentalism’, he went on to claim that much of its appeal stemmed from a critique of postcolonial Western domination and cultural imperialism and globalization. Gordon actually found that ‘the deconstruction of the universal pretensions of European civilization... has led to a growing recognition that the West too is a provincial culture with its own hegemonic project’.
Gordon’s theoretical straightjacket created additional difficulties, notably in explaining the bloody struggle between Hamas and the Fatah movement in the Gaza Strip. Since critical orthodoxy made no room for internecine fights among victims of ‘hegemonic oppression’, Gordon was reduced to blaming Israeli and American policies for the turmoil. He assailed Israel for boycotting Hamas and excoriated the United States for imposing a scheme on Gaza ‘that, for clarity’s sake, one could call the Somalia Plan’, namely ‘inadequate resources, economic sanctions, thousands of armed men in distress, and foreign support of certain factions are, after all, the ingredients from which warlordism , a la Somalia, is made’.
By asserting that the Palestinians were powerless victims of an Israeli-American power play Gordon managed to keep the narrative within the boundaries of critical theory. At the same time, he constructed a radical contradiction when, in another part of the book, he described Hamas as hegemonic power intent on subjugating secular Palestinian society: ‘Hamas aspires to establish a theocratic regime, one that is extremely oppressive toward women and several other segments of society. The successful consolidation of its control will be extremely tragic for all those who have fought the establishment of a secular democracy in Palestine’.
Prescient as the above statement was, Gordon did not follow up on the human rights violations of Hamas’s increasingly theocratic rule in the Gaza Strip. Instead he chose to dwell on the apartheid analogy writing a number of articles on the subject in popular venues. As a political activist, Gordon’s appreciation of what he described as ‘transitional normative regime’, that is ‘dense networks’ of human rights groups was well known. In a co-authored article, he observed that such ‘normative regimes’ successfully ‘socialized’ states into granting democratic rights, protecting the welfare of migrant workers and eliminating certain practices such as torture, disappearance, and extrajudicial killings. To ‘socialize Israel’ the international ‘normative regime’ had to be persuaded that it was an apartheid state. Indeed, in what was a clear coupling of academic research and advocacy in 2009 Gordon wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times urging to impose BDS on Israel - described as a right-wing apartheid-like state.
Making the case for ‘socializing Israel’ through international sanctions was not without cost. Even before the BDS op-ed exposed Gordon to withering criticism, he felt the need to defend his patriotic credentials, writing about his love for Israel, emphasizing its uniquely democratic system where ordinary citizens had relatively free access to political authorities, and where activists could create a grassroots movement and effect political change. Gordon used his own experience to point out that, in spite of his radical ideas, he suffered few impediments both inside and outside the classroom. More surprisingly for a neo-Marxist, there was a first hint of an admission that some of the distributive justice disparities were related to the unique problem of the ultra-Orthodox demographics and, to a lesser extent, the Israeli Arab sector. That Gordon was capable of this rather gushing portrayal of a country that he repeatedly excoriated as a right-wing apartheid regime indicated his extraordinary flexibility in deploying facts to fit the narrative of the moment.
Like virtually all his peers, Gordon enthusiastically welcomed the ‘Arab Spring’. The wave of optimistic outpouring, especially by left-wing and liberal observers was subsequently attributed to ‘optimism bias’ theory, especially among those keen to remove the stain of ‘Arab exceptionalism’ - the idea that Arabs could not sustain a democracy. But Gordon seemed to emulate Foucault who had heralded Islamist Iran as a ‘true participatory democracy’ and an example of egalitarian justice, proclaiming that Ayatollah Khomeini could teach the West a lesson or two in democratic governance. Mimicking Foucault, Gordon declared that Israelis should take lessons in democracy from the Tahrir Square protestors. He blamed the media and Israeli politicians for fomenting fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, a tactic he described as ‘colonialist and Orientalist’: ‘Political Islam is constantly presented and conceived as an ominous force that is antithetical to democracy’. Gordon chastised an Israeli official for warning that Egypt might end up like Iran and Gaza under Hamas, describing it as self-serving and hypocritical. He assailed Defence Minister Ehud Barak for describing Israel as ‘a villa in the jungle’, namely ‘a civilized Western island surrounded by semi-barbaric Arabs and Muslims’. In Gordon’s opinion, ‘this approach has helped bolster an already existing fear of political Islam among the Jewish citizenry, which is constantly being presented as an ominous force that is both antithetical to democracy and an existential threat to Israel. Indeed, it has helped to reinforce the Zionist trope that Israel is an island of civilization in the Middle East, and serves as a wall against barbarism’.
As the ‘Arab Spring’ deteriorated into wholesale violence in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, as well as a power struggle between the Egyptian secularists and the Muslim Brotherhood - bolstered by the extremist Salafis - Gordon’s enthusiasm for Arab democracy has diminished.
Israel as a Military-Democratic Regime
Like Yiftachel and Gordon, Lev Grinberg, a professor of sociology at Ben-Gurion University, found a way to combine a highly active political life with an academic career. By his own account, having arrived from Argentina as an ardent socialist Zionist in 1971 he turned against the ‘hypocrisy’ of the Labour Party - ‘the phony socialism of a party that essentially represents the ruling group in the society’ - and later on joined the Black Panthers, among other protest groups. In search for an alternative, Grinberg turned further left creating Campus, an Arab-Jewish student group; its Mizrahi member were subsequently inspired to join the Mizrahi Rainbow Coalition. In between studies, Grinberg worked as a labour organizer and an anti-Histadrut activist.
Grinberg’s choice of research topics reflected a highly critical view of Israel’s distributive justice systems. His first work, Split Corporatism borrowed Shlomo Swirski’s themes of workers’ exploitation and other alleged social injustices. His subsequent book, Histadrut Above All repeated many of the same charges and noted the corruption and lack of equality in the labour movement.
Grinberg’s early work was only tangentially related to authority system; this changed when he joined Yesh Gvul, a watchdog monitoring the IDF to prevent ‘war crimes’. In a review of the Peled-Shafir book, Grinberg offered a preview of his own theory of Israeli democracy. While praising the work as ‘highly ambitious’, he found it conceptually and factually wanting, accusing the authors of ignoring ‘new practices of settlement, colonialism and republicanism’ and producing ‘a questionable general theory of Israeli dynamics and historical processes, suggesting uncritical assumptions about liberalism, decolonization and democracy’.
In Grinberg’s opinion, the civilian political system has not been func'tioning since the Rabin assassination in November 1995 as consecutive governments failed to muster support to deal with the challenge of Israel’s peaceful incorporation into the Middle East. ‘This paralysis creates a vacuum into which the generals are drawn’, he argued.
Because when the politicians don’t seem to know what to do, the generals think they do... They are supremely self-confident individuals. But that does not mean there is a danger of a military putsch. On the contrary… the army feels more comfortable with the present system - it sets policy, while responsibility remains with the politicians. In the current intifada… the political echelon lost control of the army, which used disproportionate force, which led to escalation. But when the politics of force failed, what did the army say? ‘Our hands are tied, the politicians are to blame’.
Reflecting Grinberg’s radicalization during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, which drove him to charge the IDF with war crimes, these comments signalled his full embrace of critical scholarship with which he had toyed for a number of years. In his first venture into critical theory in 1999 he echoed Benedict Anderson, arguing that every democracy was imagined twice, ‘once because it imagines the national community and then because it elected officials to represent “people”’. In a real democracy, disillusioned citizens could mobilize and vote out the government. However, in Israel where some groups are prevented either formally or otherwise from accessing state power, democracy is imagined’. Appropriating the discourse on symbolic politics, Grinberg went one step further, accusing Israel of symbolic genocide against the Palestinians: ‘Because the world will not permit total annihilation, a symbolic annihilation is taking place instead’. Critical theory considers exclusion and misrecognition to be tantamount to symbolic violence, but Grinberg actually claimed that only international pressure prevented Israel from physically annihilating the Palestinians. Critics pointed out that at the level of intent, Grinberg found no difference between Israel and the genocidal Third Reich, a comparison that many called appalling.
By 2006 Grinberg had managed to put his scattered writings into a book-length work. Unlike other critical scholars, however, he dispensed with academic pretences, describing the book as ranging ‘between theory, research and the personal politics of the researcher’. He went on to state that ‘I do this consciously and am aware that my interpretation of political dynamics is influenced by my moral preferences... intentionally designed to facilitate a political critique of politics’. ‘I have no pretence... of having an objective or scientific position’, he explained, ‘my interest in the past is also motivated by my aspiration to build a better future’. Though Grinberg was frank about using research for polemical ends he was somewhat confusing when discussing the book’s real goal: ‘The political part at the end of the [last] chapter is not at all a detailed discussion about how to resolve the conflict, which would contradict my entire theoretical approach’.
The absence of a clear link between the theoretically-inspired discussion and the proposed solution was only one of the work’s shortcomings. Another stemmed from the inconsistencies in defining democracies. After reviewing the constructs proffered by Smooha, Kimmerling, Peled-Shafir and Yiftachel, Grinberg rejected all of them because they did not include the crucial issue of borders: ‘In the absence of recognized borders, it is very difficult to contain conflict by political dialogue: hence, conflict usually deteriorates into violence’. Invoking Arendt’s philosophical postulation that ‘violence is the negation of politics’ he argued that politics was all about ‘recognition, representation, dialogue, mediation, bridging coalitions, and agreements’. Creating a radical distinction between politics and violence was crucial to Grinberg’s effort to separate himself from mainstream political science that perceived politics and violence as two poles of the same continuum: ‘The moment that politics and violence are interpreted as continuum of two mutually supportive forms of power relations, our theory becomes a non-critique of violence, and unintentionally legitimizes it by presenting it as a ‘normal’ and expected form of power relations’.
Though Grinberg made much of Arendt’s theory, he was forced to admit that ‘this theoretical argument does not mean that, in concrete cases, politics and violence cannot take place at the same time and even sometimes by the same actors’. Obfuscating the argument, he argued that ‘violence is always used by the dominant elite to prevent or bypass negotiations by unilateral action... In reaction to their non-recognition, oppressed groups also exert violence and sometimes succeed in imposing political negations on the rulers’. Grinberg’s additional caveat muddied the waters further, as he asserted that ‘violence can lead to politics only when both sides conclude that they cannot achieve their goals by force’.
Trying to fit the assessment of Israel’s authority system into Arendt’s theory complicated virtually every aspect of his analysis. Having declared Israel to be a non-democracy - as opposed to Yiftachel and Gordon’s apartheid state - Grinberg was hard pressed to provide some content to his construct. He settled on a military-democracy since ‘in the absence of borders, politics is displaced by violence. Military discourse, organization and actors become dominant because the citizens they claim to protect feel fear and anger’. He further explained that the military features prominently in the context of the ‘security myth’.
To demonstrate how the military-democratic regime really worked, Grinberg used a modified form of political field theory of Paul Bourdieu who conceived of politics as a set of intersecting but autonomous symbolic spaces where political actors exercised coercive power through physical and symbolic violence. The former was applied by traditional tools of control such as military, the latter imposed through assimilation or, alternatively, non-recognition or silent exclusion. Grinberg was also inspired by Michael Mann, a neo-Marxist theoretician who furnished a class-based theory of ‘genocidal ethnic cleansing’ committed by democracies suggesting that ‘upper class societies’ in Europe were likely to denigrate lower class, proletarian groups, making ethnic cleansing easy. In this version, the conflict between Israel (an upper ethnic group) and the proletarian Palestinians resulted in more than half a century of ethnic cleansing, ‘most murderously in the 1940s, supported by the “imperialist” United States’. Israel, Mann contended, was a prime example of a ‘settler-conqueror’ democracy devising the typical settler state, democracy for the settlers, lesser rights for the natives. Approvingly quoting Mann, Grinberg claimed that the latter’s research proved that ‘democratic regimes might be even more aggressive and brutal toward excluded social groups than non-democratic regimes, whether colonial, dictatorship, or communist. In case of symbolic exclusion, democracy becomes a problem’.
Grinberg deemed the Israeli military an agent of physical violence since it was ‘ready to use it against the other, especially when the “they” are considered not part of the “us”’. Lacking defined borders, Israel gave the military a key role in the political space, turning the IDF into a de facto arbiter of the democratic process. By bestowing on the military such a prominent position - a notion at odds with the customary view of IDF-civilian relations - Grinberg could claim that the Israeli democracy was unduly violent, making it an ‘imagined democracy’.
Under any circumstances, a theory based on Arendt, Bourdieu and Mann would be hard to apply to evaluating democracy, which as noted, was defined by positivist criteria such as the existence of appropriate institutions and processes. Grinberg’s haphazard use of open and closed spaces and the mingling of physical and symbolic violence made his description of the military-democratic regime confusing and inconsistent. Failure to provide rigor evidently did not faze him; he mocked positivist efforts to develop formal democratic rules as a ‘huge industry of typologies’. He went on to proclaim that ‘my interest is not in classification but in providing a tool for the analytical critique of political practices that prevent representation of social conflict, the opening on new agendas, and the entry of new political actors’.
That Grinberg had little use for rigorous classification was quite evident from his changing definition of the military-democratic regime. At one point he claimed that the Israeli civil society and the political parties were weak and likely to be overwhelmed by the military. On another occasion he seemed to imply that despite the ‘ambiguity between democratization and colonization’ in the regime there was dynamism in the civil society. Grinberg justified these contradictions by yet another explanation: ‘this is the double meaning of imagined democracy: while it facilitates the dynamic opening by means of imagination, it might be an illusion or fake, which closes political space, preventing the realization of democracy’.
Grinberg’s hardest task was to explain how the military, whose very existence was contingent on the Arab-Israeli conflict, could embrace the Oslo process. His ingenious solution was to claim that it was Rabin’s personal charisma that made the opening of the political space possible. Rabin was said to create the ‘demobilization of the parties and organizations of the left, concealing their leaders under the skirt of his security platform and “Mr. Security” image, and making himself the embodiment of the political process that would move the nation from war to peace’. Without Rabin and his charisma the political space closed; worse, his successor Shimon Peres - ‘the figure who symbolized the “left-wing tribe”, who turned inward, and was unable to recruit widespread support’.
If Rabin’s alleged charisma helped Grinberg to explain the initial impetus for the Oslo process, it made it harder for him clarify how the military - the guardian of the perpetual conflict - prevented the Likud government of Benjamin Netanyahu from antagonizing the Palestinians. Even more puzzling, Grinberg subsequently suggested that during the al-Aqsa Intifada the military was intent on closing the space for the Palestinians by brutally persecuting them. To explain the reversal of the military he claimed that public opinion - the locus of civic society - was so outraged by suicide bombings that it legitimized the use of force. Differently put, it was the civic society space that pressured the military to close the conflict resolution space, a development that was at odds with the theory of the military impetus of the military-democracy.
But it was the Palestinian side that proved most challenging to Grinberg. In order to blame Israel for its alleged failure to resolve the conflict he required a ‘narrative’ that absolved the Palestinians of any a culpability. For instance, Grinberg failed to mention that Peres’s electoral loss had little to do with the ‘left-wing tribe’ but rather with a series of Hamas brutal suicide bombings and a barrage of rocket attacks by Hezbollah to undermine Labour’s chances at the poll. Grinberg was also eager to portray Arafat and the Palestinian Authority fully compliant with the Oslo accords, a questionable proposition given Arafat’s underhand tactics. Indeed, Grinberg suggested that ‘Arafat managed to negotiate with Hamas moderates who accepted the Oslo II accord’. The truth was very different: Arafat consistently turned a blind eye to Hamas’s murderous attacks and only took action under irresistible Israeli and/or American pressure.
In yet another ploy to shift blame on Israel Grinberg consistently described the settlers as ‘Yesha zealots’ responsible for sabotaging the peace process, an adjective missing from his references to Hamas that were defined on a number of instances as ‘moderate’ and ‘pragmatic’ – though the Islamist group was responsible for the murder of hundreds of Israelis in planned terror attacks while the settlers confined their opposition to political protest (with the odd exception of a violent act, notably Baruch Goldstein 1994 ‘Hebron massacre’).
Grinberg’s determination to ignore the strong showing of the Islamists was notable in his discussion of possible solutions to the conflict. Stating that ‘security is the most important problem in the discourse of Israel’ he attributed its threat perception to the ‘traumatic past of the Jews in Europe and the Holocaust’ and to a defensiveness ‘rooted in ancient religious texts’. Without mentioning Hamas or Islamic Jihad (and Fatah’s Tanzim militia, which claimed its share of terror attacks), Grinberg went on to argue that ‘the myth of eternal and a-historical insecurity has been the national myth since 2000’. In other words, it was this ‘imaginary threat’ elevated to a myth that prevented the opening of the Palestinian space thus condemning Israel to the eternal status of a violent military-oriented ‘imaginary democracy’.
According to Grinberg, the only viable way to democracy was through an Israel-Palestine Union (IPU), a federative structure with two separate governments that ‘must administer everything that can be separated’ and a federal government that ‘must administer everything that is indivisible’. The IPU would require a ‘major international peacekeeping force designed to protect the Palestinians from Israeli military forces and the total disarmament of all civilians, Jews and Palestinians’. By disarming the IDF, the military would have been removed from the democratic-military regime; Israel could be on its way to a true democracy. Improving slightly on his original designation of military-democracy, he adopted the name ‘occupying democracy’ explaining that, unlike Europe, Israel did not have fixed borders and the two groups - Jews and Palestinians - suffered from a severe imbalance of power that made democracy impossible. Interestingly enough, Grinberg changed the explanation for the failure to settle the conflict, attributing the fiasco to negative synergy - the effort to democratize the PA and the refusal of the Israeli government to dismantle all the settlements. Still, he predicted that the ‘occupying democracy’ will sustain itself unless the international community would force Israel to resolve the conflict, preferably by creating the IPU.
For Grinberg and other critical scholars, the democratic character of a bi-national construct was self-evident and obvious freeing them to focus on the alleged ills of the non-democracy, be it ethnocracy or military-democracy. By using this ‘methodology’ these scholars could present bi-nationalism as an act of redemption from the sins of Zionism. This in turn meant that, consciously or unwittingly, those who were most eager to see a Jewish-Palestinian state were most likely to give the Israeli democracy a failing grade. That the bi-national entity was expected to have a progressive distributive justice system is another boon for those considering egalitarianism an essential feature of democracy. Conversely, those who were pushing for a two-state solution were less likely to describe the political system in terms reserved for South African style apartheid.
Whatever the visions for a post-peace state, the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has engendered a large literature which, as already noted, tended to blame Israel. This was hardly surprising given the paradigmatic approach; more unexpected was the intense use of the Holocaust to account for the alleged Israeli intransigence.
Chapter 6 The Holocaust in Post-Zionist Thinking
For pre-WWII anti-Zionists the intellectual path to a bi-national state was clear and straightforward. According to Martin Buber, Yehuda Magnes and their disciples, universal humanistic values would easily trump ethnic or religious tensions. The communists had little use for humanism but postulated that differences between Jews and Arabs could be easily overcome by a common class struggle against Jewish and Arab capitalists. United in their abhorrence of nationalism, bi-national advocates dismissed Zionist warnings of growing anti-Semitism in Europe as ‘propaganda’ intended to scare Jews into immigrating to Palestine.
Even before the full scope of the Jewish genocide transpired, the anti-Zionist movement crumbled politically and philosophically. Brit Shalom and its Ihud successor virtually evaporated, Magnes died lobbying the State Department against Israel’s creation, while Buber and his academic acolytes had little to say about the Holocaust and still saw no justification for a Jewish homeland. To the contrary, writing in the early 1950s Buber advocated a ‘Near East confederation that would encompass Palestine and bordering countries’.
In any event, with Buber returning to his original interests in spirituality and metaphysics, it was Arendt, who arrived in New York in 1941 after fleeing Germany via France, who filled the intellectual anti-Zionist void. For Arendt, who studied under Martin Heidegger and Carl Jasper in the 1930s, this was a surprising turn-about since she initially described Zionism as a ‘national liberation movement of the Jewish people’ and praised the Socialist Zionist parties for creating a legitimate Jewish existence in Palestine through labour.
This appreciation, however, was replaced before long with anxiety over the possible excesses of Jewish nationalism, epitomized in her eyes by the Revisionist movement of Jabotinsky whom she considered a ‘fascist’. Arendt, who fell under the spell of the Jewish Soviet writer Ilyah Ehrenburg, a spokesman for Stalin, became convinced that Jews would be better off as a protected national minority. Lauding the Soviet Union as an ideal model, she declared that the Jews there were fully protected from anti-Semitism by its progressive constitution. Behind this enthusiasm for the soviet model were twin concerns: the ‘excessive’ manifestation of Jewish power and the future of the Palestinian Arabs. The first was addressed in a Commentary article where she bemoaned the ‘fanaticism and hysteria of Zionism’. The second was revealed in her call to the United Nations to work with Ihud and other non-Zionist Jews to create a bi-national state. Undeterred by Magnes’s lack of success in finding Palestinian Arab partners, she blamed Ben-Gurion for failing to make the bi-national vision work, giving virtually no accounting of the political attitudes of Palestinian Arabs.
It was Arendt’s subsequent reflection on the Holocaust, however, that made her the intellectual leader of the anti-Zionists and their academic successors, the post-Zionists. Realizing early on the importance of the nascent research on the extermination of the Jews, she tried to shape the public debate as a reviewer for respectable American presses. Raul Hilberg, author of the seminal three-volume study The Destruction of European Jews recalled that, on Arendt’s recommendation, a number of prestigious publishers, including Princeton University Press, rejected his manuscript. In a subsequent note, Arendt called that scholar ‘quite stupid and mad’ but this did not stop her from extensively borrowing from Hilberg’s book when covering the Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1961. This glaring breach of ethics was virtually overlooked in the huge controversy created by her own book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt accused the State of Israel and Prime Minister Ben-Gurion of manipulating the Holocaust for political gain and blamed the Jewish leadership in Europe for complicity in the Holocaust.
But it was Arendt’s methodology that proved most attractive to post-Zionists seeking to alter the view of the Holocaust from a unique evil perpetrated against the Jews to one denoting a universal phenomenon of evil. Arendt laid the groundwork for a universalistic reading of the Holocaust by attributing the Nazi movement to the crisis of modernity that had befallen Germany. Using an essentialist historiographical approach, Arendt was able to ‘dehistorize’ the Nazi brand of totalitarianism in a way that the industrial massacre of the Jews looked as a peripheral issue, hardly deserving special attention.
Still, Arendt could not avail herself of the fledgling tools of critical philosophy that would make the universalized Holocaust an effective tool for a harsh criticism of Zionism and Israel. As Elhanan Yakira, author of a study on the subject put it, the anti-Zionist movement was ‘strengthened by very powerful academic and intellectual trends… including theories, modes of thoughts, methodologies, meta-historical prepositions’.
Unlike the better-known Holocaust deniers, this group of intellectuals and scholars has used critical theory to propagate the idea that the catastrophe of the Holocaust devolved into the Palestinian catastrophe. Permeated by the sense of perpetual victimhood combined with a sense of moral entitlement, the Jews were said to become not only desensitized to the suffering of the ‘other’ but actually inflicted the ontologically-defined universal evil of the Holocaust on the Palestinians. Israeli critical scholarship on the Holocaust produced three versions of the ‘catastrophe of the catastrophe’ theme.
Israel as Nazi Germany
A leading role in this trend has been played by Adi Ophir, a philosophy professor at Tel Aviv University. Beginning his academic career at the philosophy department of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Ophir has been a veteran political activist with roots in the Peace Now movement. In 1987 he co-founded The Twenty First Year, a circle of academics and intellectuals with links to Matzpen who wanted to fight the ‘occupation’ which they believed ‘defined the State and structured its society, economy, and culture’. The group pioneered the idea of boycotting products and services made in the territories and urged conscripts and reservists alike to refuse military service there.
Throughout the years Ophir has led high-profile campaigns, including appeals to the international community to stop Israel from an alleged plan to expel all Palestinians from the territories. His view of Israel was unequivocally dark: ‘a garbage hip of Europe… a site of experiment… in ethnic cleansing… a regime that produces and distributes evil systematically’. Ophir, who described himself as a ‘moral entrepreneur’, felt personally compelled to bring ‘a new concept of sovereignty and a new model of relations between politics, law, and morality in the Western states’.
But it was in his effort to apply critical philosophy to deconstruct the Holocaust that Ophir made his mark. Ontologically a nominalist, he was at ease with the notion that the world external to individuals was made of concepts, names and labels that structured reality. But even a dedicated critical philosopher like him could not dismiss the Holocaust as yet another label. Unwilling to follow Holocaust deniers who claimed that the mass murder of Jews either did not occur or was vastly exaggerated, Ophir borrowed from the more sophisticated approach of the French radical left which one observer described as ‘stylishly nihilistic view of the world, which insists that all meaning is relative, that all truth is elusive and therefore futile… assail those two pillars of human civilization, memory and truth’.
Launched by Paul Rassinier, a French socialist pacifist who survived a number of concentration camps, this tradition viewed Auschwitz and other camps not as the epitome of evil but as an extreme manifestation of a universal logic of exploitation and oppression. In his widely read Holocaust Story and the Lies of Ulysses Rassinier argued that Nazi camps did not differ that much from other camps, be they French penal intuitions or the Soviet gulag. In the words of one critic, Rassinier’s theory that a ‘camp is a camp is a camp’ resonated with the anarcho-pacifist fringe of the French left, for whom the essence of the state was translated into the logic of war and enslavement. Not incidentally, Rassinier made scant mention of the extermination of the Jews - as victims they were interchangeable with the inmates of any penal institution.
Rassinier’s colleagues in the ultra-left Socialisme ou Barbarie circle and its splinter Pouvior Ouvrier group elaborated on these themes. Pierre Guillaume, an activist with roots in Socialisme ou Barbarie, an offshoot of the Trotskyite movement, was the founder of the La Vieille Taupe (the Old Mole), a bookstore and a publishing press and a follower of Amadeo Bordiga, the Italian communist and leader of International Communist Party. In 1960 Bordiga penned an essay ‘Auschwitz or the Great Alibi’ that appeared anonymously in the French Bordigist publication Programme Communiste. Applying a Marxist analysis to the Holocaust, Bordiga concluded that anti-Semitism had nothing to do with the extermination of the Jews. Rather, the killings represented a radical form of action against a capitalist class that was easy to identify and concentrate. They were not killed ‘because they were Jews but because they were ejected from the production process’. To add consistency to his class analysis, Bordiga claimed that ‘German capitalism resigned itself with difficulty to murder pure and simple’. In a somewhat muddled addition, he found that Western ‘imperialists’ used the killing of the Jews to ‘justify... the despicable treatment inflicted on the German people’.
By reprinting the essay in Vieille Taupe in 1970, Guillaume signalled a synthesis of a number of themes. He emphasized the fragility of historical accounts: ‘With the destruction of history, contemporary events themselves retreat into a remote and fabulous realm of unverifiable stories, uncheckable statistics, unlikely explanations and untenable reasoning’. Embellishing Bordiga's portrayal of Jews as capitalists he claimed that their ‘mono-ethnic organizations’ were nothing more than a convenient facade of capitalism: ‘By words referring to the ideology and the mono-ethnic organisational structures that pretend to be representatives of the Jewish “community”, but who seem to have tied their fate to the development of capitalism, and are nowadays widely involved in its moral rearmament, thanks to a victim ideology of their own’. Finally, he acknowledged that Auschwitz did exist and that ‘Some Jews have been the victims of persecution’ and even that they were entitled to compassion and compensation. At the same time, Guillaume deplored the ‘“victim ideology” the one-sided representation system, apologetic and mythological, through which organizations that pretend to represent the Jewish victims, use, for their own profit and to the benefit of their political plans, the real victims, who become twice victimized’.
Though Guillaume crossed the threshold of respectability by reviving The Vielle Taupe as a Holocaust denial press in the 1980s, his early position nourished a new generation of radical leftists who added it to their high-profile anti-colonialist message. By universalizing the Jewish catastrophe and insisting that this was just one instance of the oppressive power of the state acting against the true victims of exploitation - the workers, the minorities and the Third World peoples - they could claim that the Palestinians were the ‘true victims’ of the Holocaust. In an ontological sleight-of-hand the victimhood of the Jews was transferred onto the Palestinians; more to the point, Auschwitz was said to have blinded Israelis to the suffering of all other victims, especially the Palestinians.
The Rassinier-Bogarti synthesis popularized by Guillaume and The Vieille Taupe circles acquired academic legitimacy through the work of Jean-Francois Lyotard, a political-activist-turned philosopher. Lyotard, who first introduced Guillaume to the Socialisme ou Barbariene group, achieved fame by articulating the meaning of postmodernism. He rejected the ‘grand-narrative’ or meta-narrative that is based on positivist science and a universally accepted hermeneutics of meaning. In his view, rather than bound by one common belief, postmodern discourse reflects a variety of beliefs, a multiplicity of aspirations and heterogeneity of desires. To decode this postmodern multiple discursive convention, Lyotard turned to the concept of ‘language-games’ invented by Ludwig Wittgenstein to denote the existence of a multiplicity of communities, each with its distinctive system for generating and circulating meaning.
The micro-narratives produced by language games with their fractured and splintered knowledge, however, presented a moral problem for the postmodern condition because it could not produce a universal code of ethics. To deflect possible criticisms, Lyotard published The Differend, arguably his most important work, to prove that ethical behaviour was possible by revamping traditional ways of thinking about justice and injustice. He contended that injustice occurred when language rules from one language regimen were applied to another. In essence, in his view, ethical behaviour amounted to being vigilant to the threat of particularities being encased in abstract conceptuality, silencing the voice of the aggrieved individuals or groups. To be ethical, one had to bear witness to the ‘differend’, a situation where the ‘plaintiff is divested of the means to argue and becomes for that reason a victim’. At the same time, he argued that in the absence of a universal rule of judgment between two heterogonous genres, ‘a case of conflict, between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgment applicable to both arguments’.
Applying this logic to the Holocaust Lyotard suggested that the Jews were differends, victims denied the ‘means to argue’ by their Nazi tormentors. But the Holocaust was also a central metaphor for his treatment of names, catastrophe and the problem of memory and forgetting in the postmodern sensibility. In one ontological sense, Auschwitz was a concrete name place and Jews were a concrete people who were exterminated and their memory virtually erased. At another, Auschwitz stood as a name for lower case Jews, an idea of a catastrophe that has befallen countless other differends of the twentieth century. By universalizing the meaning of Auschwitz, Lyotard sought to remind the world of the need to remember these victims ranging from political prisoners in Stalin’s labour camps to causalities of Western neo-colonial push under the guise of development and, indeed, the Palestinians.
Ophir’s acquaintance with the radical French take on the Holocaust dated to the 1980s, when Matzpen intellectuals began publicizing it in Israel. In 1980, Boaz Evron, by then the driving force behind the neo-Canaanite ideology, wrote an essay ‘A Danger to the People’ that highlighted the major Rassinier-Guillaume themes. Put succinctly, Evron claimed that two misfortunes had befallen the Jews, the Holocaust and their interpretation of the Holocaust. In what could be termed as the catastrophe of the catastrophe the Israeli Jews were said to develop a habit of identifying the ‘Nazis with the Arabs in general the Palestinians in particular’. He further noted that these parallels created a national zero-sum-game perception whereby the conflict could lead to either victory or a Holocaust-like destruction. As a result, ‘the Israelis became free of moral restrictions since one who is in danger of annihilation seems himself exempt from any moral considerations which may restrict his effort to save himself’.
Yehuda Elkana, a Hebrew University professor who founded the Cohn Institute of Humanities at Tel Aviv University, furthered Ophir’s growing appreciation for the French radical circles. Ophir, an Elkana protégé and one of the first hires at the institute, was familiar with his mentor’s affinity for the Rassinier’s ‘camp is a camp is a camp’ approach. In 1988 Elkana, an Auschwitz survivor, wrote an article titled ‘In Favour of Forgetting’ in which he recalled spending a number of months in a Russian ‘liberation camp’ with former prisoners from many nationalities. Observing their behaviour Elkana concluded that ‘what has happened in Germany can happen everywhere, and to every people, mine included’. Elkana urged the Israelis to forget the past as represented by the Holocaust in order to move forward and settle the conflict with the Palestinians. Ophir followed with an article titled ‘Two Tier Thinking: A Moral Point of View’, subtitled a homage to Yehuda Elkana.
But Ophir’s own self-proclaimed effort to change attitudes to the Holocaust was much more ambitious. As early as 1986 he published an essay ‘On Sanctifying the Holocaust: An Anti-Theological Treatise’ that echoed the Evron-Elkana theme. He urged to stop what was described as a pathological drive to memorialize the Holocaust to the point where it became a civil religion and denounced the Zionist ‘agents of identity’ who exploited the Holocaust for political gains. Alluding to the Ten Commandments, Ophir suggested that the ‘Holocaust religion’ or ‘upside down Sinai’ came with its own key commandments such as ‘remember the day of the Holocaust to keep it holy, in memory of the destruction of the Jews of Europe’ and that shirking from the task of remembering was the ‘archetype of sin’. Another commandment - ‘thou shall have no other holocausts’ - extolled the uniqueness of the Jewish catastrophe. As a result, no other man-made disaster such as the slaughter in Biafra or the Soviet Gulag was allowed to be compared to the killing of Jews. Extending the comparison Ophir wrote: ‘Like God’s altar in Canaan one generation after the settlement… a central altar has arisen which will gradually turn into our Temple, forms of pilgrimage are taking hold, and already a thin layer of Holocaust-priests, keepers of the flame, is growing and institutionalizing’.
Over time, Ophir found more flaws with the way the Holocaust had influenced Israeli society. Published in a 2000 volume Order of Evils, he included a long list of the alleged misuse of the Holocaust. One, already touched upon in ‘Sanctifying the Holocaust’, involved the March of the Living, an annual trip organized by the Ministry of Education to expose high school Israeli students to the concentration camps in Poland. Using a sarcastic tone he described the trips as ‘Hajj’, a reference to the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Another misuse, derived from Rassinier-Guillaume, noted that ‘Holocaust worship’ removed the murder of the Jews from the realm of rationality and hence rational discourse. The belief in the uniqueness of the Holocaust was, in Ophir’s view, the source of moral blindness that enabled Zionism to dispossess the Palestinians. In other words, Israel was able to get away with an act of colonial aggression by simply invoking the memory of the ‘six millions’.
Ophir’s principled opposition to Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel - the catastrophe that the Holocaust allegedly inflicted on the Palestinians - did not soften during the Oslo years. An ardent supporter of a bi-national state, he had little use for the negotiations and was not dismayed, as some of his colleague, by their collapse, referring to the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada as zman emet (real time) and describing it as a ‘time when people say what they really mean’. He admitted to suffering no intellectual confusion as ‘there was no undermining of the paradigm that dictates the understanding of reality’. This reality was centred on the ‘occupation… on the scenes of evil, on the suffering there on the humiliation’.
In the circumstances, Ophir decided to turn the violence of the al-Aqsa Intifada into a ‘teachable moment’ on the alleged connection between the Holocaust and the mistreatment of the Palestinians. In an introduction to the volume named after one of his articles, ‘Avodat Hahove’ (Worshipping of the Present), he emphasized the didactic goal of the book. The collected essays solicited enough attention to prompt Ophir to expand on the subject by publishing the The Order of Evil: toward an Ontology of Morals in 2000. In many respects, the c. 600-page book - a compilation of his prior writings on the Holocaust - is a difficult and confusing work. The chapters are made up of numbered paragraphs with abrupt endings - on occasion arranged in a fragmentary and non-sequential manner. The difficulty created by this highly unorthodox style is compounded by the esoteric language and impenetrable prose not uncommon in critical literature.
Pioneered by Theodore Adorno, who famously disdained the positivist regimen of facts and precise explanations, it was more recently associated with the critical scholar Judith Butler - recipient of the Bad Writing Award by the editors of Philosophy and Literature. Certainly, Ophir fits the mould as attested by this rather typical sentence: ‘Inclusion through exceptional exclusion is no longer an exceptional relation to exceptional subject; it has become a daily relation to exceptional moments in the life or body of any individual, and an ongoing task of dealing with the life of entire population existing under exceptional circumstances’.
In the preface to The Order of Evil Ophir acknowledged his affinity to the postmodern French philosophers and expressed his desire to follow in their footsteps and ‘try explicitly to restore to this world a moral point of view and give a critical account of it’. In line with this ambitious goal he asserted that the Israeli condition was ‘constantly on the horizon’ even when ‘there is a conscious and explicit attempt to be liberated from the limitations of the dejecting prism that the Israeli context forces on the systematic effort to think the moral matter and to interpret moral categories’. Ophir described the limitations as ‘first and foremost relevant to the meaning of the Holocaust in Israeli culture’. While it is beyond the scope of the present study to analyse his lengthy theoretical discussion of evil, a number of points bear clarification.
Having defined evil as ‘superfluous suffering’, something that has no value to the evil doer, Ophir offered a road map for rectifying Israel’s ‘moral blindness’ based on a three-step strategy for redefining the meaning of the Holocaust beginning with de-sacralising this genocide by universalizing its meaning. Ophir chose two ontological tools to achieve this goal: demystifying the magic name of Auschwitz and putting the genocide of the Jews on an ontological continuum of evil that essentially meant to ‘liberate Auschwitz from the dogma of uniqueness… to restore several conceptual continua to position it within the geography and history of contemporary evil’.
Citing Lyotrad’s language games Ophir declared that in the ‘conventional truth’ Auschwitz played a ‘metonymic role’ - ‘a catastrophe name-place that has magic power’. Indeed, ‘the catastrophe name-place is always shrouded in a kind of aura that is signalled in a tone of voice… in the fragmentation of speech’. The aura signifies the inability to express the event in accordance to the rules of ‘conventional truth game’. Stemming from the unique horror of the place conveyed by the testimony of the survivors, this particular aura ‘partitioned those who seek to understand the catastrophe of the place from the place and event that the catastrophe was’. Since, in Ophir’s view, the ‘name must not be allowed to exert its magic power’, the aura should be broken. Echoing Rassinier, he raised doubt whether survivors could be counted on to provide a picture of the horror that Auschwitz was.
Though careful not to blame the former inmates themselves, Ophir nevertheless implied that they were ‘bewitched’ by their memories. In his opinion, this ‘bewitchment’ contributed to the separation between them ‘and all the others who were not’. Ensnared by the magic name, they made it hard for others, presumable Ophir, and even some survivors - an apparent reference to his mentor Elkana - to make a more general sense of the catastrophe. The testimony of the survivors who became the guardians of the separation had to be given a different meaning, if the magic name of Auschwitz was to be erased. ‘It must begin at precisely the point that the autobiography, the literature, and the history cease to represent and begin discussing the very problem representing the catastrophe… it must situate itself between the reader and the represented world… without assuming any act of identification or sympathy’. Given that Ophir considered the Holocaust to be a new civil religion, he felt justified in describing his work as being akin to ‘desecrating the name of Auschwitz’.
‘Desecrating the name of Auschwitz’ and placing the Holocaust on the same ontological continuum of evil proved a complex task forcing Ophir to wrestle with squaring Rassiner’s dictum that a ‘camp is a camp is a camp’ with his own definition of evil as a superfluous suffering serving no other goal. Quite clearly, since few camps could pass the restrictive muster of being a place where only superfluous evil was committed he proceeded to explain ‘a catastrophe place as a place where an exceptional concentration and intensification of evil-producing mechanisms occurred’. Ophir conceded that Auschwitz was one such place but insisted that according to ‘phenomenological logic’ guiding his work, the Holocaust did not pass the threshold of a vital test: of the appearance of something new out of something else. In other words, the evil of Auschwitz was not a unique case, a singularity, and should be placed on a continuum that included a long list of catastrophe places like Kolima, Kampuchea, Biafra, among others.
To justify placing other catastrophe places on the continuum of evil, Ophir explained that the ‘suffering and loss is common to the ghetto and concentration camps, to the Gulag, and to refugee camps and prison camps in wartime’. But, as he realized, the concept of ‘suffering and loss’ was too vague to serve the comparative required by the ontological logic of his continuum of evil. As a result, he suggested that it ‘was possible to objectify loss and suffering’ by developing systematic knowledge ‘about the creation of loss and suffering, their mechanics and dynamics, and their enmeshing with various exchange systems in social space’. While admitting that such quantification was the subject of ‘future science,’ he felt confident that ‘what I said about them so far is enough to signal the direction of this study’, namely that ‘the inferno of Nazi camps where Jews were imprisoned could be found in the Gulag and in war prisoner camps run by Japan and China’. He even went so far as to claim that Western ‘capitalist economy and the nation-state’ were ‘by far the most powerful of the systems producing and distributing superfluous evil’. ‘The United States and the industrialized countries of Europe’, he claimed, ‘methodically subjugated, exploited, plundered and destroyed’.
Much as Ophir tried to convince his readers that from a phenomenological standpoint there were more similarities than unique cases on the catastrophe list, he felt the need to confront the industrial scale killings in Auschwitz, something that Holocaust deniers minimized or denied. Since Ophir could do neither, he was forced to come up with a rather peculiar explanation of the largest mass killing in modern history. In his version, if Auschwitz were a model of killing, ‘perhaps this was not an epitome of human distortion and perversion but rather of human excellence, a model in which killing was brought to a perfection of efficiency and precision’. Ophir gave the Germans - as opposed to perpetrators of messier and less organized evils - high marks for solving the problem of industrialized murder: ‘The industrial process included living raw material slated for extermination, and waste material created in the course of the production process that in turn needed to be eliminated. The incoming raw material took up almost the same volume as the waste material left after the production of death’. The Nazis’ ingenious solution was to invent the crematorium - an efficient way to reduce ‘waste’ from the death industry thus ‘creating a product that took up no space or volume’.
To Ophir this efficiency did not indicate a singularity but rather an extreme case of the superfluity that made up the continuum of evil: ‘Auschwitz turns from a private name into the family name of the victims of the West-Native Americans, the Africans, the Japanese of Hiroshima and all the rest’. Echoing Lyotard he concluded that ‘Auschwitz becomes a metonym for the real; the differend of the memory of the extermination becomes a metonym for the differend; the problem of representing Auschwitz becomes a metonym for the representation of reality in general’. While conceding that the Jews were an ideal victim, an extreme differend, Ophir resisted the label of uniqueness. On the contrary, in his view, had the Germans won the war against the Soviet Union ‘it is likely that an annihilation of the Slavic people would have commenced’. He further speculated that a stable Europe under Hitler would have entailed the extermination of other categories of differends, including ‘the disabled and the mentally ill’. Quite clearly, the hypothesized annihilation of Slavs helped Ophir make the case against singularity: ‘Anti-Semitism cannot explain the Nazi myth; it explains only the fact that the Jews were its first and principal victims’.
That Ophir had to revert to such patently false, indeed absurd argument offered yet another indicator of the weakness of his continuum of evil construct. It was true that the Nazis considered the hundreds of millions of Slavs inferior, as Ophir noted, but they never planned to exterminate them - a task that would have exponentially dwarfed the extermination of Jews. On the contrary, Hitler planned to use the Slavs as labourers to serve the master race, a fact well publicized by the Nazis. Ophir’s other examples were even more outlandish, including the following: ‘People kill in a systematic, industrialized way as a matter of routine every day - killing animals for food’. Odious as the comparison between Jews and animals is, it contradicts his own definition of evil as superfluous suffering since animals are slaughtered for food. Ophir’s parenthetic addition to the sentence - ‘one should take into consideration the possibility, at the moment seemingly absurd, cynical, horrifying or insane that the three-and-a-half years in Auschwitz will pale in the face of centuries of industrialized slaughter, the endless and superfluous taking of life by human beings’ - muddied the water further, since it could refer to either animals or human beings.
Amassing technical examples in favour of a continuum of evil, however, left Ophir ill-prepared for the moral argument that historians Yehuda Bauer and Steven Katz mustered in describing Auschwitz as a unique Jewish tragedy. They and many other observers noted that it was the intent of the Nazis to exterminate the entire Jewish people that made the Holocaust a singular moral offense. To pre-empt the Bauer-Katz thesis Ophir postulated that intent should not matter in evaluating the morality of Auschwitz. He argued that
The intention to exterminate an entire group or other destructive or wicked intentions is important to the historical explanation… only when considering the structural conditions calling for and making possible the realization of this intention. Regarding the moral meaning, the importance of intent is doubtful. The same superfluous evil… could in principle have followed from a realized intention of total extermination… but it could also have followed from an abstinence from action capable of preventing an inadvertent extermination.
The latter part of the argument was particularly significant as it created a construct broad and ambiguous enough for Ophir to fit all his favourite examples of evil.
Muddled as Ophir’s arguments in favour of a continuum of evil were, the objective behind the campaign against the Holocaust’s singularity was clear enough. Turning Auschwitz to a universal catastrophe would save the Israelis from themselves since ‘the effort to singularize often serves to justify state crimes or to represent them in a way that fends off criticism’, thus driving them to reach a ‘dangerous point where the victims’ heirs express positions and implement practices that are alarmingly reminiscent of the slippery slope that led “there”’. In plain English, by putting the Holocaust on a continuum of evil, Ophir was trying to restrain the Israeli Jews from engaging in Nazi-type behaviour towards Palestinians.
Ophir listed a number of alleged Israeli offences stemming from control of the territories: ‘The regime methodically deployed mechanisms of control and domination, reverted to violence, and employed ideological and technological means of “governance” that combined rule over the population with surveillance of each individual in it’. These and other methods were said to be part of a ‘broad spectrum of possibilities for harming Palestinian subjects… through different forms of state violence’.
Bearing in mind the ontological continuum of evil Ophir construed the charges in a way that maximized the Israel-Nazi Germany equation. Choosing terms to carefully convey that the Palestinians suffered their own Holocaust at the hands of the Jews he wrote about the ‘gaping bottom of the slope’ where the Palestinians, a ‘superfluous group’, were allegedly subject to ‘methodical removal’ and ‘destruction’. Without using the name Auschwitz, Ophir claimed that Israel turned the territories into a ‘chronic catastrophe place’. That only tens of thousands of Palestinians still lived under direct Israeli control at the time when the book was published made little difference for Ophir. As we saw it, ‘evil rolls on three slopes’, one being ‘governance and domination, or the possibilities available to the powers that be for harming their subjects in intentional and organized way; this is the methodized, controlled annihilation of a defined that is part of the population, of a size as large as the regime may wish’. By charging Israel with the ‘possibilities’ available through ‘governance and domination’, Ophir did not have to prove that it actually murdered masses of Palestinians in extermination camps, only that the Zionist ideology turned the Palestinians into superfluous ‘others’ in the same way as the Nazi ideology transformed the Jews into ‘others’ prior to their extermination.
Critics like Yakira deplored Ophir’s habit of ignoring the empirical reality, pointing out that ‘there is certainly room to question’ whether ‘presenting Israel as a machine of evil, complete blind to the suffering of its victims, is true to the fact’. Yakira was especially annoyed by Ophir and other radical scholars who compared Israel’s control of the territories to the Final Solution, describing them sarcastically as self-appointed ‘bearers of special truth’ and members in a ‘kind of secret order of initiation’. Though Yakira presented a lengthy rebuttal of Ophir, positivist arguments could hardly win a debate with critical scholars who adamantly rejected the very notion of an objective reality.
Indeed, as noted above, Ophir prided himself on being a moral entrepreneur engaged in inquiry that stood outside the ‘academic consensus’ - a reference to the mainstream community of positivist researches. Well aware that his scholarship needed alternative academic outlets, he founded the critical journal Theory and Criticism (Teoria Uvikoret) based at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. As head of the Political Lexicon project at the Minerva Centre for Humanities at Tel Aviv University, he created another journal, Mafte’ah (Key). Both publications served as a forum for Ophir’s research that supported his ontological linkage between the Holocaust and the alleged Nazi-like treatment of the Palestinians. By one count there were some 52 items related to the Holocaust in Teoria Uvikoret and eleven in Mafte'akh. Outside the academic discourse, Ophir expanded his ontological continuum of evil to political commentary as epitomized by a series of articles during Israel’s 2008-09 operation against Hamas in Gaza. Using terms like ‘zone of emergency’ and ‘zone of catastrophe’ he claimed that ‘Israel governs Gaza by an ongoing measured and calculated catastrophization that becomes more brutal, deadly and shameless with each wave of violence. More is yet to come’.
Ophir’s students furthered the Israel-Nazi imagery. In an article published in Mafte’ah, Michal Givoni argued that testimony ‘is more than just a piece of evidence, testimony marks the inscription of the political into an array of truth games, in which the truth is considered not an end itself but a medium for ethical and political transformation’. Crediting Lyotard and Ophir with abolishing the ‘temporal and ontological gap that is usually presumed to separate testimony from the event’, she derided the ‘evil’ manifested in the IDF’s Gaza operation and argued that exposing the ‘murderous plans’ against the Palestinians was part of the testimony as ‘moral witnessing’. Ariella Azoulay, Ophir’s colleague at the Minerva Humanities Centre - where she was listed as a photo-lexicographer - specialized in producing visual depictions of the Nakba-Holocaust equivalency. Her favourite visuals featured Palestinians dressed as prisoners behind the separation fence to conjure up the fence surrounding Auschwitz. Occasionally, a caption would make the point that ‘in this act, too, Palestinians are the ones who will be arrested. This time, however, they force the Israeli soldiers to chase them as if they were chasing (Jewish) prisoners under the Nazi regime’.
The Holocaust as a Psychological Deformity of the Jews
While Ophir could take credit for applying the most radical form of French critical theory to demonstrate the Holocaust’s destructive impact on Israel, other activist scholars relied on a mixture of less defined analytical approaches to reach the same conclusion.
Moshe Zuckerman, a professor of German history at Tel Aviv University and a veteran Marxist activist, did much to spread the Israel-Nazi equation in the Marxist, pro-Palestinian circles in Germany, a frequent venue for his visits. In what was arguably a highly unorthodox theoretical choice, Zuckermann combined the Frankfurt School and neo-Marxist quest to uncover the ‘false consciousness’ behind societal ideology with psychoanalytical themes. He seemed particularly excited about the latter writing that ‘psychoanalysis has revolutionized academic and cultural thinking in the twentieth century’. Though admitting that Freudian psychoanalysis was controversial as a tool of social analysis, Zuckermann noted that the Frankfurt School made a successful attempt to connect ‘macro-sociological analysis of society with central categories of psychoanalysis’. One of his essays begins with ‘Moshe Zuckermann approaches his subject matter, the major ideological themes in Israeli political culture, inspired and informed by the Frankfurt School. His goal is to analyse the production of a common identity, which is by necessity 'a false consciousness’. To uncover the process responsible for the creation of this consciousness, ‘what is habitually hidden must be uncovered’. Using these combined tools, Zuckermann claimed that the ‘psychological deformation’ of Israeli society stemmed from the ‘ideologized Holocaust discourse’.
Zuckermann put the psychoanalytical approach to use in an article that echoed Elkana’s plea to forget the Holocaust, which he lauded as an ‘unprecedented act of bravery’ that chastised Israeli society for its national neurosis. While not opposed to private acts of remembrance, Zuckermann took a very dim view of the ‘pathologically compulsive’ public commemorations that enhanced the ‘psychological deformation’ of Israeli citizens. In his opinion, the deformation stemmed from the ‘Holocaust credit’ given to the Jews by a world feeling guilty for the genocide and willing to overlook the dispossession of the Palestinians that enabled Israel’s creation. It was, in his opinion, the same ‘Holocaust credit’ that compelled the international community to overlook the many transgressions of the ‘occupation’. Internally, the ‘credit’ bolstered nationalism and militarism in Israeli society to the point where, in his view, the question of whether ‘it was possible for the victims to become murderers’ could be legitimately raised. Indeed, Zuckermann found an ‘associative link’ between the alleged repression in the territories and Jewish suffering during the Holocaust. In his words, ‘every dead of an action in Gaza, every victim of a volley fired in the air in the West Bank, every act of brutal suppression’ is rooted in Auschwitz. The Jewish collective has to behave in ways that could never be associated with Auschwitz.
The Iraqi missile attacks on Israel during the 1991 Gulf War gave Zuckermann an opportunity to expand on these themes. In a book titled Holocaust in the Sealed Room (Shoah Baheder Haatum) he used press coverage to prove that the memory of the Holocaust, reduced to a ‘cultural code’, created a society that suffered from a deep neurosis interspersed with hysterical reactions. In his view, this neurotic mental state was reflected in the numerous references to Germany and the gas chambers and the inappropriate comparison between Saddam Hussein and Hitler underpinned by ‘anxiety and baseless comparisons to the Holocaust’. Worse, the subtext of press articles indicated to him that Jews learned a highly particularistic lesson from the Holocaust: they alone were the victims of a unique catastrophe creating ‘the whole-world-is-against us mentality’ and a steely resolve of ‘never again’.
Needless to say, Zuckerman, like Ophir, was passionately opposed to Jewish particularism, advocating the perception of the Holocaust as ‘the objectification of the most radical example of a relationship between murderers and murdered’. For him the Holocaust required individual survivors and the State of Israel to adopt a universalistic code of sanctifying all human life. Through this highly generalized ethos Zuckermann conveyed his very specific concern for alleged acts of oppression in the territories: ‘The Zionist collective cannot escape the truth that every “deviation” in Gaza, every victim of a “warning shot in the air” in the West Bank, that every act of brutal suppression is distancing it from its ethical and humane conduct befitting victims of the Holocaust and moving it the realm of ‘mentality represented by the identity of the murderers’. Echoing Ophir, he blamed the use of the Holocaust memory for the creation of a xenophobic and militaristic society, accusing Israel of ‘fetishization of the extermination sites’.
Zuckermann reserved special rebuke for actual survivors who engaged in ‘ideological reification’, namely turning the memory of the Holocaust into a commodity, describing them as ‘a noisy bearer of a well-marketed misery cliché’. Indeed, in his view, the memories of these individuals should be denied credibility as well as compassion. He displayed a particular contempt towards ‘Holocaustologists’ - his name for those who allegedly used the memories for material and ideological gains; Holocaust activist and Noble Peace Prize Laureate Eli Wiesel figured prominently on this list. This scorn was more than matched by his derision of the State of Israel that turned the memory of the victims into the ‘Holocaust credit’, a sort of unlimited credit card used to establish the state in the first place and to oppress the indigenous Palestinians.
With his theory of a Holocaust-related ‘psychological deformation’ seemingly confirmed by the Gulf War, Zuckermann had a hard time coming to terms with the Oslo peace process. In particular, he needed to explain how Israeli Jews could reach out to the Palestinian ‘Nazi-like’ enemies, or talk to Yasser Arafat who was ‘tabooed in the past as a Nazi’. Grappling with the discrepancy between his theory and political reality drove Zuckermann to some interesting intellectual zigzagging. He initially considered Oslo a devious ploy to perpetuate the status quo but the assassination of Rabin in November 1995 prompted a new interpretation whereby the Jewish ‘tribe’ had apparently split into two: the ‘action-inclined fanatics’, namely the settlers and their supporters, and the peace advocates inhabiting the Rabin camp. Zuckermann claimed that the ‘alleged Jewish unity, nourished by Jewish history of real persecution, culminating in the Holocaust of the twentieth century, which provided Zionist ideology, over decades, with a seemingly everlasting impetus’ created an ‘Angst ideology’. With the Arabs feeding into the national angst, Zionism was able to maintain a consensus ‘in the face of the fetishized security problem’ until Rabin, a national security hero, managed to persuade the peace tribe to let go of the Holocaust memory curse.
Zuckerman’s tentative willingness to give the ‘peace tribe’ the benefit of the doubt all but disappeared after the Camp David fiasco and the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada. His November 2000 essay ‘The Yearning of Anxiety and Ideology of Peace’ attested to considerable radicalization laced with bitterness and sarcasm. Zuckermann chose to blame Israel for the failure of Camp David while ignoring Barak’s offers and the US-Israeli position known as the Clinton Parameters - a blueprint for resolving the conflict that proposed an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital - and claiming that the Palestinians could not accept a deal without East Jerusalem. Equally important, in his view, was the fact that no peace settlement was possible without acknowledging the historical calamity that Israel inflicted on the Palestinians and a discussion of their ‘right of return’ – the Arab euphemism for Israel’s demographic subversion.
More broadly, Zuckermann linked the Camp David failure to the underlying dynamics of the Holocaust-deformed Israeli psyche that included a half-suppressed collective feeling of guilt towards the Palestinians that found its release in ‘catastrophic violence toward the subject of the guilt feelings’. Attributing such dynamics to paranoid ideology of ‘perpetual victimhood’ Zuckermann explained that it blinded Israelis to the ‘cry of suffering, the humiliation and injustice of their [Palestinian] victims’. And by way of reinforcing the Nazi-Israeli symmetry he asserted that those who ‘benefited from the suffering of Jewish babies during the Holocaust were totally inured to fate of Palestinian babies who stayed anonymous’. As if this lengthy catalogue of alleged psychological deformations was not enough, Zuckermann felt compelled to end on a metaphysical note writing that it was the ‘yearning of anxiety’ - the siren call of Jewish existential victimhood - that defeated the ‘ideology of peace’.
Zuckerman’s radicalization permeated the pages of his 2001 book, On the Fabrication of Israelism: Myths and Ideology in a Society in Conflict. Evoking the essay ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ by Adorno and Horkheimer, he argued that the Israeli ‘culture industry’ was heavily influenced by manipulating the memory of the Holocaust. In this view, the state subverted the meaning of suffering by the victims by drawing a ‘Zionist-appropriate conclusions’ from the memory’. Worse, because of such subversion, Palestinians were killed without the need to properly designate it an act of murder:
A Jewish-Israeli kalgas killed a Palestinian child. In other words, not murdered, simply ‘killed’. One must be careful with words: In a society where the shock of the horrific in itself is less powerful than the overgrown narcissistic humiliation, because of the chosen words to describe the horrific, a shock that demands the right to protest, easily becomes a reason for libel-suit. But until the case is clarified in court one must not say that kalgas is kalgas and that the murdered was murdered.
Zuckerman’s use of the Hebrew term kalgas - loosely translated as a military thug, or mercenary, but used almost exclusively for Nazi soldiers - was highly indicative of his goal of deepening the Nazi-Israeli equivalency.
Zuckerman’s subsequent work, a compilation of letters and essays published under the title Reification of Man: Aphorisms on Social, Political and Cultural Topics hewed even closer to the Frankfurt School. As noted, the neo-Marxists added a discursive-psychological dimension to the ‘false consciousness’ theory claiming that modern culture turned human relations into a commodity with fixed market values. Zuckermann used this theory to argue that German and Israeli societies formed a symbiotic relationship based on the monetization of the Holocaust: ‘Israel and Germany are Siamese twins’ in which the former’s quest for financial assistance was exchanged for latter’s need for redemption for its sins. This profitable relationship, in Zuckerman’s view, led to a wholesale fetishist attitude towards the ‘Holocaust production’. Most interesting, Zuckermann adopted the classic Marxist accusation that Jews were responsible for anti-Semitism, this time around towards their collective entity, the State of Israel. He blamed the ‘Zionist dialectics’ for the new wave of anti-Semitism writing that ‘after Israel was created, Jews honestly earned every gram of hatred that they attract’ - as if six millions of them had not perished in the decade preceding the establishment of the Jewish state.
The al-Aqsa Intifada and the subsequent standstill inspired Zuckermann to elaborate on the ‘poisonous fruits’ of the Holocaust. In an essay titled ‘The Shoah [Holocaust] on Trial’ Zuckermann revised his original theory, now claiming that the instrumentalization of the genocide’s memory created the ‘hatred of the Other’. He based the update on Walter Benjamin, an early member of the Frankfurt School, whose psychoanalytical insights influenced both Adorno and Horkheimer. In Zuckerman’s rendition, ‘hatred (like the will to see oneself as victim) feeds on the “image of the subjugated ancestor” as well as on one’s own subjugation; at the same time, however, it makes one blind to the combated opponent and enemy, leads to blind demonization and an unrealistic Manichaeization of a just struggle for emancipation’.
Applied to the Arab-Israeli conflict, these profound hidden dynamics took root after Israel normalized its relations with Germany leading to the diversion of the natural hatred Jews had allegedly harboured towards Germany to a different ‘Other’. Zuckermann quoted a participant in the March of the Living to prove his point: ‘Somebody has to be blamed for the Holocaust; we have to hate somebody, but we have already made our reconciliation with the Germans’. To illustrate how casual such a transformation could be he added that ‘the easily performed transformation of the Nazi into a Pole, a Palestinian, or anybody else - indeed reveals the essentially vengeful and thus oppressive nature of the politically structured Israeli collective memory’.
Zuckermann explained that ‘the pupil expresses the need to hate because the Israeli collective memory never went through a real process of grieving; the collective recoils from remembering the Holocaust in terms of its having been the catastrophe of the victims’. Since the collective memory has not taught him to ‘work through a true process of mourning… hatred is a necessity for him’. Collectively, ‘this “hatred” turns out to be instrumental for the achievement and satisfaction of heterogonous goals and purposes, at time even the rhetorical legitimization of policies and ideologies that are clearly bound to produce an ever growing oppression and to result in more and more victims’. This oppression was said to have transformed the land of Israel/Palestine into ‘a landscape praised by its occupiers for the sanctity of its lands - and saturated by its occupiers with the pollution of oppression, with endless human suffering as well as with the death of hopes of a home and of homeliness, safety, tranquillity and peace’.
With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict increasingly overshadowed by radical Islam and a new virulent form of anti-Semitism in Europe, Zuckermann was forced to change his approach again. Abandoning all academic pretences he took up the two subjects in a highly polemical German-language book Antisemit!. He strongly denied that Islam’s hostility to Israel had mutated into anti-Semitism noting that ‘anti-Semitic agitation in Arab media corresponds to anti-Arab racism in Israel’. Not satisfied with a simple equivalency, he suggested that the ‘inhumane popular voice’ of Israelis speaks larger than any anti-Arab propaganda. As for neo-anti-Semitism, in Zuckerman’s opinion this was a consequence of Israel’s ‘inhumane policy’ in the occupied territories and the attack on Gaza where the IDF committed ‘war crimes’. All in all, he felt confident that the new anti-Semitism was engineered by Israeli Zionists: ‘the claim of Zionism to overcome anti-Semitism (as an answer to it) made it necessary to preserve anti-Semitism in the world, as long as the project of Zionism does not come to a historical arrangement - according to central postulates of Zionism, has to continue until the majority of the Jews in the world, whether because of life-historical pressures or as a result of free choice, do not live in the Zionist state of Israel, which was established for them’.
In yet another effort to defend Islamism, Zuckermann invoked classic Marxist materialism. He declared that Western tendency to criticize Islam, including the use of the terms Islamofascism, has complex psychological roots: ‘Islamophobia ideologizes those who are phobic about Islam… or if the already matured ideology requires phobia to ground its psychosocial anchoring in the public realm’. At the same time, ‘the role attributed to both Islamist and non-Islamist protagonists in the Arab world is oriented solely towards their func'tion in the pursuit of the geopolitical interests of American (or Western) capitalism. Islam and its Islamist representatives then become a problem when finding themselves in an economic-political contradiction to the interests and demands of the US that have very little to do with religion per se or with its specific shapes’.
When discussing Germany, Zuckermann swapped quite inexplicably the Marxist generalization for a cultural explanation writing that Islamophobia was a mutated form of anti-Semitism. There the Islamophobic ‘ideologeme is concocted - from the solidarity with Jews based on German historical responsibility, from the latent anti-Semitic projection of what is historically unresolved onto Islam, or from the rationalization of an already influential Islamophobia by means of a ‘solidarity with the Jews’ that can find an ideological consensus. Indeed, Zuckermann went so far as to accuse Israel of ‘instrumentalizing’ Islamophobia in Germany and beyond. The Jewish state was also blamed for generating Islamist anti-Semitism in yet another way. Zuckermann suggested that if Palestinians ‘view settlers in the occupied territories as the embodiment of everything Jewish and see the manifested repression as the essence of Jewishness, then their completely understandable anti-Zionism turns into anti-Semitism, thereby driving… hatred into excessive, ideologically solidified fantasies of annihilation’.
Like Ophir, Zuckermann was criticized or echoing the work of Guillaume and the La Vieille Taupe circle, with some accusing him of gross misrepresentation of Israeli political culture and flirting with Islamism. But there was virtually no effort to systematically scrutinize the methodology that underpinned his texts. Though Zuckermann claimed to follow the Frankfurt School, a closer analysis of The Holocaust in the Sealed Room and other writings reveals a version of classic reductionist tradition pioneered by the psychological anthropologist Geza Roheim. Akin to the psychoanalytical tradition in political science, the theory postulated that all mass phenomena could be conceptualized in terms of individual psychological processes. Rigorously applied, reductionism was expected to reveal the conscious and subconscious feelings of the collective. Yet critics such as Ernest Nagel and Michael Billing asserted that reductionist methodology - where the group and the individual were treated as isomorphic constructs – could lead to misinterpretation and abuse. Nagel, a leading philosopher of science, noted that such ‘hypostatic interpretations of what is denoted by collective terms have frequently been exercised in irresponsible intellectual construction’. Furthermore, ‘it is virtually impossible to assess their validity since they are formulated far too unclearly to permit an unambiguous determination of what follows from them’.
Insomuch as Zuckermann borrowed from classic reductionism, his threshold for scientific rigor was even lower than the lenient standards of the discipline. For instance, Nagel warned about the difficulties of creating a causal model out of hypostatical relations since individual conditions such as ‘guilt’ ‘paranoia’ or ‘neurosis’ could not be assumed to create a collective behaviour of ‘submission’ or ‘aggression’. Ironically, Zuckermann admitted as much. Praising the Frankfurt School’s ability to demonstrate great affinity between ‘character formation’ and ‘political formation’ he cautioned that ‘such an approach is less concerned with a linear casual connection between depth-psychological [sic] influence on politics, which are often difficult to recognize, and their sedimentation in the realm of ideology’.
Absolved from the need to prove causation between the ‘Holocaust-deformed’ Israeli character and perceived collective behaviour, Zuckermann was at liberty to relate the alleged Nazi-like treatment of the Palestinians to the historical trauma. The lack of a sound research protocol associated with reductionism made his other findings suspect as well. To recall, he claimed that Israelis displaced their hatred of Germans onto the Palestinians, but his evidence was limited to quoting two minor literary figures and an unverified teenage participant in the March of the Living. A similar lack of research standards marred Holocaust in the Sealed Room, which was based on quotes from editorials, articles and letters to the editor. As a rule, content analysis requires a representative sample of a larger universe of relevant cases; Zuckermann did not bother to explain the criteria underlying his choices thus raising the possibility of tendentious selection.
Zuckerman’s vague, imprecise language and polemical style detracted further from the credibility of his work. Nagel was particularly concerned that ‘irresponsible intellectual use’ of reductionist theories would result in a polemical style and inflamed slogans masquerading as academic research. Zuckerman’s determination that ‘Islamofascism’ was a tool in the campaign to defame Islam - and one that Israel played a key role in producing - fits closely Nagel’s warning. Even a perfunc'tory bibliographical search would have shown that the 1979 revolution in Iran triggered a serious academic debate on the nature of the Islamist regime. The prestigious journal World Politics, for instance, published an article that found the Islamic revolution to share some core characteristics with ‘regressive’ fascist movements. Subsequent research linked Islamism with the phenomenon of generic fascism.
Zuckerman’s decision to forgo any comparative perspective undermined his work in other ways as well. As we have seen, Holocaust in the Sealed Room made much of the fact that, traumatized by the Holocaust, Israeli Jews took to comparing Saddam Hussein (who resorted to massive use of chemical weapons during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, including many attacks on civilians) to Hitler’s gassing of the Jews. In fact, similar comparisons were made by non-Jews and, on at least one occasion, by an American president.
Zuckerman’s treatment of work on Saddam’s psychology was arguably ‘intellectually irresponsible’ in the way defined by Nagel. In order to demonstrate that the brutal Iraqi dictator was a figment of the Holocaust-scarred Israeli imagination, Zuckermann mocked the psychological studies of Saddam, calling them ‘pop-psychology’ and ‘pseudo-psychology’. He found it especially amusing that some scholars pointed to the resemblance between Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Saddam’s Our Struggle, a programmatic book that was a required reading in Iraq. In reality, the noted psychiatrist Jerrold Post, founder of the CIA’s Psychological Profiling division and a leading expert on political leaders, who testified before Congress in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War, took a very different position. He and other experts painted Saddam as a ruthless tyrant who emulated Hitler and Stalin and was given to high risk taking and miscalculations. In Post’s view, Saddam was not a ‘madman’ but a highly dangerous leader because of a mixture of ‘messianic ambitions, absence of consciousness, unrestrained aggression and a paranoid outlook’. Closer to home, Zuckermann should have been aware of similar psychological assessments by two respected Israeli experts on Iraq - Amatzia Baram of the University of Haifa and Ofra Bengio of Tel Aviv University, Zuckerman’s home institution. But whatever their empirical findings, positivist scholars were unlikely to persuade Zuckerman.
Nor were the facts ever allowed to stand in the way of Zuckerman’s fellow traveller - Moshe Zimmermann, Professor of German history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who hasn’t shied away from persistent indictment of Israel, including the odious equation between Israelis and Nazis.
Unlike his Tel Aviv colleague, Zimmermann, did not use critical, neo-Marxist methodology to prove that the Holocaust deformed the collective Israeli Jewish mindset. Instead he opted for what could be defined as political polemics with an overlay of popular psychology. Yet even without the methodological pretences, Zimmermann’s work was remarkably similar to that of the critical scholars. His 2002 Germany’s Past, Israel’s Memory showcased all the critical themes, including a chapter that paid the de rigueur homage to Elkana. He related Israel’s aggressive foreign policy to the instrumentalization of the Holocaust memory and the ‘credit’ it received from an international community (supposedly) overcome with guilt and remorse for allowing the catastrophe to occur. In Zimmerman’s words, it ‘was passive during the Holocaust and active in 1948’.
Much in the same popular psychology style Zimmermann castigated the ‘March of the Living’ and visits to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. Strongly implying that such excursions served as an incubator of nationalism, chauvinism and other alleged pathologies he repeated Elkana’s plea for ‘forgetting’. Still, he was less than optimistic since the instrumentalization of the Holocaust depended on a multipronged effort of memorialization. According to Zimmermann, in the early days of the state there was little public commemoration or indeed, a certain neglect bordering on indifference, and it was the Eichmann trial that unleashed the pervasive memory manipulation. Much like Elkana, he considered the Holocaust memory to be a curse that propelled Israel towards an oppressive, fascist state.
Evidently encouraged with the foray into popular psychology, Zimmermann decided to diagnose additional problems of the collective Jewish-Israeli psyche. One of his new topics was a dig at the ‘muscle Jewry’ - creation of the Zionists - as opposed to the ‘nervous Jewry’ of the Diaspora. But it was Zimmermann’s diagnosis of ‘Israel’s prenatal memory’ that took the popular psychology genre to a new frontier. In a take on the ‘original sin’ theory, he postulated that the birth of Israel was affected by the ‘prenatal anxiety’ stemming from the Holocaust.
Popular psychology was only one of the tools Zimmermann applied to analysing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Another was projecting his own beliefs on groups such as the German Jews who arrived - like his parents - in Palestine during the 1930s. Without producing any empirical evidence he claimed that the majority of German Jews were averse to ‘Zionist politics fixed upon the conflict with Arabs’. Since it was impossible to ascertain how many German Jews were Buberites, the tactic served to provide a broader legitimacy to Zimmerman’s own views.
With a growing inventory of alleged psychological abnormalities it was only a matter of time before Zimmermann produced a book-length study on the alleged root-cause of Israel’s supposed reluctance to make peace with the Palestinians. According to his diagnosis, the Israelis harboured a deep fear of peace brought about by the Holocaust experience that, for political reasons, was manipulated by the government, the media and right-wing groups. Zimmermann’s theory was simple: these and other elements spread the fear of another Holocaust because they were either fearful or sought to exploit the potential of fear to induce anxiety and strife. This artificially fomented fear was said to be directed against Arabs and Palestinians, the ultimate ‘other’. Consequently, after decades of manipulation, Israeli Jews have developed a fear of peace.
To support this theory Zimmermann offered the following observations: The fear of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust was turned into the foundation of a system of socialization that turned it into a political guideline and a psychological state permeating the entire society. Seventy five per cent of Jewish voters who cast their votes for the dominant right-wing parties in 2009 were clearly an indication of the success of the socialization system; these parties grew strong because of the perception of a perpetual victim and advocated a pre-emptive war in order to avoid ‘another Holocaust’. These and other elements of the Israeli society made it hard to conduct meaningful peace negotiations because of fear of being perceived as ‘suckers’. Finally, these groups keep Israel’s foreign supporters at bay by spreading fears and insecurity which in turn makes the latter hostage to their alarmist visions and insecurities to prevent movement towards peace.
Zimmermann extended his diagnosis of the alleged Holocaust pathology to what was described as a special kind of Israeli arrogance - as sort of ‘we can do anything’ attitude. The Holocaust ‘dispensation’ affected all facets of Israeli policy but was most pervasive, in his view, in the mistreatment of the Palestinians. This alleged fact led to new wave of anti-Semitism that, ironically, triggered fresh existential fears. All in all, this anxiety was said to create a deep-seated paranoia in the population, keeping the society psychologically isolated and immersed in self-righteousness - an ominous combination made more combustible because of the nuclear arsenal. Zimmermann found it particularly alarming that Israel turned Iran into a ‘surrogate demon and a new evil state’.
After years of writing about the alleged propensity of the Israeli Jews to exaggerate the danger of anti-Semitism, Zimmermann was taken aback by ‘What Must be Said’ - a recent poem by Gunter Grass widely considered to be anti-Semitic. He reiterated that ‘Israel likes to seal itself off, reducing itself to the idea that it is surrounded by enemies. The government’s doctrine is that Israel must defend itself against its enemies. There has to be a “Zionist response’ to the ‘anti-Semites”. This is an Israeli reflex’. But he was forced to acknowledge that Grass’s writings took anti-Semitic overtones since the writer held Israel rather than Iran responsible for a possible nuclear catastrophe. Still, rather than chastising Grass, Zimmermann chose to lament that the writer helped the Israeli right-wing, not least by providing a confirmation that ‘the whole world is against us’. Zimmermann’s own reluctance to help the ‘right-wing’ generated a tortured answer to whether Grass is now an anti-Semite: ‘This is a complex issue that requires even more complex answers. Of course, Grass is not a rabid anti-Semite who wants to expel or murder Jews. But anti-Semitism is much more complex than that. And Grass uses images and myths that are tinged with anti-Semitism’.
Zimmerman’s work was enthusiastically reviewed by German analysts from the radical left and pro-Palestinian circles. The German-language Fear of Peace, in particular, was celebrated by those who, in the words of one commentator, uncovered the pathology of Israel’s political culture that ‘if you believe in the statements of many of its politicians and intellectuals - even willing to use these terrible of all weapons [nuclear weapons] without hesitation – one dare not imagine what this would mean for the Middle East’.
Some Israeli analysts, however, criticized Zimmermann’s methodology, finding it hand-tailored to produce polemics expressing a personal point of view. Projecting a post-Zionist view on a historical group - as noted above - was a favourite technique, according to one critic. A much more troubling product of Zimmermann’s and – and to the same extent, Zuckerman’s - methodology was to legitimize the link between the Holocaust and the Nakba. In a strongly worded article, Seth Frantzman argued that German history professors bore special blame because they ‘should have known better’ that the Holocaust was a unique event, in no way comparable to the Nakba. He also charged the German history departments in Israel for ‘mission creep’ - that is allowing their faculty tasked with studying German history - to write about the alleged impact of the Holocaust on the Israeli psyche. His conclusion was that such abuse of academic freedom has greatly contributed to the process of perverting Israeli intellectual thought by comparing of Zionism and Nazi Germany.
The Holocaust as ‘Zionist Capital’
Idith Zertal was a relative newcomer to the ‘opprobrium community’ but, in most respects, she was a perfect fit. A former journalist and cultural essayist, Zertal was the editor of Zmanim, a historical journal she co-founded with Yossi Sarid, one time leader of the left-wing Meretz party where she held a position of influence. A bitter critic of Israeli policies in the territories, she was involved in numerous pro-Palestinian activities.
Zertal made her academic debut in a work on the history of the Mossad Lealiya Bet, an organization founded in 1939 to facilitate ‘illegal’ Jewish immigration to mandatory Palestine, known as haapala. A precursor of the modern-day Mossad, the secret group worked in conjunction with the Jewish Agency and Palyam, the maritime unit of Palmah, the Special Brigades of the Hagana. Between 1945 and 1948 over 100,000 Jews, mostly Holocaust survivors in Displaced Persons (DP) camps in Germany, attempted to enter Palestine. Unwilling to relax its strict immigration quotas for fear of Arab response, Britain intercepted the majority of the ships and sent their passengers to detention camps in Cyprus and as far as Mauritania. In what became one of the most dramatic and symbolic events of the haapala, in 1947 the British boarded the ship Exodus and forcibly removed the passengers who were sent back to Germany. The Exodus affair attracted worldwide attention and embarrassed the British government; the famous American journalist I.F Stone travelling with the refugees helped to publicize their plight in his highly acclaimed book, Underground to Palestine.
In taking up the subject of Holocaust survivors in Israel Zertal was hardly a research pioneer. By the end of the 1980s, a burgeoning literature on the subject included a number of doctoral dissertations, scholarly publications and even popular books. A subset of the field dealing with haapala threw light on the complexities of gathering the DPs and smuggling them on board of ships destined for Palestine. The historian Aviva Halamish, an expert on the period, credited the Yishuv for reasonably good work under the extreme circumstances of post-war Europe; she acknowledged, however, that in the general chaos the old, the very young and pregnant women were allowed to make the hazardous journey.
Tom Segev, the revisionist journalist and New Historian, touched upon the subject in his numerous writings. It was his controversial The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust however, that raised doubts about the benevolence of the Yishuv towards the survivors. In a chapter evocatively titles ‘A Barrier of Blood and Silence’ he suggested that the Jews of mandatory Palestine were ambivalent at best and repulsed at worst by the new arrivals: ‘People sincerely feared meeting the survivors face to face, with their physical and psychological handicaps, their suffering and terror. How we will live with them, they asked themselves over and over again - and their fears were justified’. When describing the children-survivors and their Israeli caregivers, Segev went even further: ‘an all-out battle war between the old and the new, a mythic battle between the sons of light and the sons of darkness’.
Zertal’s initial take on haapala was hardly controversial. In a 1989 article she referred to the survivors as ‘disappeared souls’ and wandered why, despite their importance in the haapala saga, not to mention their demographic mass, they disappeared from the public and political map. Along the way Zertal acknowledged that Ben-Gurion was received with huge enthusiasm during his visit to the DP camps; more to the point, opinion polls carried out by non-Zionist sources indicated that the vast majority of the refugees wanted to immigrate to Israel.
But shortly afterwards, during a 1990 conference organized by Halamish on the subject of the haapala, Zertal changed her stand. Abandoning the question of why the survivors disappeared from public consciousness, she postulated that the Zionists used the Holocaust in general and the survivors in particular for political purposes. That the Holocaust helped to create the Jewish state was, of course, not a new idea; but Zertal upped the ante by accusing Ben-Gurion and his colleagues for turning the survivors into political cannon fodder. As she saw it, there were two basic approaches to dealing with Jewish people: ‘the work of the future’ (avodat haatid) and the work of the present (avodat hahove). The former was defined as a future-oriented Zionist project where individuals were secondary to the ultimate, messianic goal of creating the state and redeeming the Jewish collective. The latter was said to focus on the Jewish people with a view to catering to their needs in the present regardless of how such a focus would affect nation-building. To her mind, by adopting the ‘work of the future’ the Zionists sacrificed the real necessities of the Jews, including the Holocaust refugees brought to Palestine. In the manner of critical scholars, Zertal summed up her research by declaring that there was no ‘one truth’ in narrating history expressing the hope that her narrative would gain wide acceptance.
Indeed, her 1996 book Zehavam shel Hayehudim: Hahagira Hayehudit Hamahtartit Leerets Israel, 1945-1948 (The Gold of the Jews: The Clandestine Jewish Immigration to Palestine, 1945-1948) was a match to Segev’s book. Thanking Moshe Zuckermann for inspiration, she emphasized her commitment to critical scholarship: ‘the new perspective is the result not only of new evidence but also of new historiographical concept and issues central to the historian’s time and place. Such new perspective… may provide a more subtle and sophisticated decoding of those events and offer new insights’. Given Zertal’s intensive political involvement, there was little doubt that the issue central to her concern was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The reference to ‘sophisticated decoding’ was a way of signalling the alleged superiority of critical scholarship over positivist history while allowing a liberal approach to empirical material in the manner of New Historians.
Zertal deconstructed the ‘official Zionist narrative’ of the ‘illegal immigration’ by advancing two interrelated claims. The first posited that Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders cynically unscrupulously used the Holocaust survivors to create a Jewish state. She explained that the ‘Israeli Zionist collective’ benefited from the ‘immense political power precisely from the “collapse of the earth”, from the ultimate Jewish catastrophe’. Noting that Ben-Gurion was particularly cold and calculating, she described him as ‘the theorist and expert practitioner of transforming Jewish agony into Zionist power’ eager to turn Holocaust survivors into ‘the object he needed for the complete realization of his concept of “exploiting the Jewish tragedy”’.
The Mossad officials received equally bad reviews. Yehuda Arazi was described as ‘an adventurer, a lover of life, and a hedonist’ who used illegal arm shipments to smuggle ‘high-quality chocolate, and sausages, and expensive bottles of liquor’. Of Shaul Meirov, Zertal wrote that he ‘lacked uniqueness and charisma’ as well as operational experience but got ahead due to his belonging to ‘every primary sociological grouping in the Palestinian Zionist community’. Hinting that he was an elitist phony with no compassion or interest in the welfare of the survivors, she blamed him for reckless endangerment of refugees going back to the 1940 sinking of the refugee ship Patria where more than 260 perished. All in all, the haapala leaders were said to be driven by a strong desire to pursue ‘consciousness mobilizing’ through spectacular public relations stunts like the Exodus.
In Zertal’s view, both the ideological imperatives and personal psychology combined to create an atmosphere where the wishes of the survivors were routinely ignored. To prove the point, the book detailed the alleged strong-armed tactics used by the organizers to get the refugees onto the boats. Accordingly, in many cases, peer pressure was applied on those reluctant to immigrate to Palestine; on the boats, survivors were allegedly manipulated into acts of resistance and mass hunger strikes that took a toll on a highly vulnerable population. Zertal concluded that there was little sympathy for those who were killed and wounded in the process of defying the British. She described as ‘pompous’ the eulogy offered by Yigal Allon, the Palmah commander: ‘Our pain at their death, and at their absence from our camp, is great, but in the end we are saving ourselves additional sacrifices and directly helping to save many who could expect destruction’. She stated, ‘In fact, the Yishuv suffered no pain at all’ as most of the ‘refugees remained anonymous’.
If anything, Zertal’s second claim was even harsher, painting the Zionist leaders as horrified and repulsed by the Holocaust remnants. To reach this conclusion she borrowed from Sigmund Freud’s article on deep-seated alienation capable of transforming a phenomenon that is heimlich, meaning ‘the intimate, the close, the well and long known’ into unheimliche, denoting ‘the uncanny, the foreign, the threatening, the mysterious’. In her view, though the Zionist discourse on the refugees was ‘suffused with the rhetoric of pity’ it was also patronizing and stigmatizing - ‘the other side of the deep terror aroused in the Zionist subject by this familiar stranger, this close yet distant diasporic arriving in the homeland’. She quoted a number of haapala operatives who complained about the poor ‘human material’ or stating that ‘the refugee element is very bad’.
But the crux of Zertal’s theory rested on what was described as two ‘canonical’ texts, ‘My Sister on the Beach’ authored by Yitzhak Sadeh, the famed Palmah commander, and ‘Michael's Page’ by the leading poet Nathan Alterman. Without explaining why the texts should be considered ‘canonical’ she decided to treat them as ‘historical documents’ - rather than the more customary ‘literary representation of the historical’. To confuse matters further, Zertal declared that ‘my reading of these texts is “suspicious”… assuming that every text contains traces of something that the author is unconscious… traces of what he does not want to be uttered or is not utterable’.
In Sadeh’s poetic exhortation addressed to a refugee ‘sister’ carried to the shore by Palmah members, Zertal found a stark juxtaposition between the ‘beaten, filthy and weeping’ survivor of a concentration camp brothel for Nazi officers and the healthy, strong and courageous native sons. Such contrast, in her view, was a double insult to the girl - an example of the Zionist patronizing of the weak and defenceless Diaspora Jews as well a male-chauvinistic treatment of women. By branding her ‘For Officers Only’ Sadeh violated the girl once again, ‘for all the agonies she has already known. The additional blow is the gaze directed at the girl - interrogative, selective, all-knowingly hegemonic stigmatizing and invasive - a look that marks her and transforms her into an appropriated object whose innermost privacy is desecrated’. Zertal has little doubt that, subconsciously, Sadeh was ‘in line with the popular local parlance… that the girl survived the Holocaust… because she did not defend the integrity and the purity of her body, because her (Jewish) body served (Nazi) officers’. Since her body was ‘defiled’ by serving as her ticket to life, she was a loser twice: ‘She is defeated in every way, damned by the Law of the Land of Israel and tainted by the masculine law of Yitzhak Sadeh, the emblematic creator of the new Israeli manliness’.
Deplorable as Zertal found Sadeh’s treatment of Diaspora representatives, she considered Alterman’s take on the unheimlich positively egregious. Like Sadeh, Alterman conjured up a night time embarkation of refugees on a beach, but in this case Zertal did not detect even the ‘rhetoric of pity’. In Alterman’s words the rescuers sensed the ‘fear in their [survivors] breath, and the moaning of their tortured and outcast bodies: But also their hands closing on our throats’. With the survivors multiplying in the land, they ‘will wander among the masses…in a war of two… unseen and unbridled, will crawl like a thread… to resolve whether its millstone will grind the grain or the grain grind the millstones’.
Zertal, who considered Alterman Ben-Gurion’s poetic alter ego, suggested that the poem reflected an existential anxiety of the Zionists - the bearers of the Diaspora burden - and the ‘ravaged and defeated remnants’. She noted that in the Alterman text there was no body-to-body touch between the two groups on the beach, ‘not an instant of eye contact between the bearer and the burden’. ‘If in Sadeh’s text the gaze is imbued with ideology and culture’, she wrote, ‘here there is no gaze at all, no recognition’. Reading further into the alleged chasm between the two cultures posited by Alterman, Zertal noted the ‘the fatal distance… cannot be bridged unless Zionist hegemony is imposed… only the Diaspora must fundamentally and unilaterally change and cease to be what it is, and in this way fulfil its func'tion in the Zionist scenario’.
At the same time, Zertal found the poem to represent the ‘unexpected, mysterious, ostensibly paradoxical anxiety’ that amounted to the Zionist unconsciousness, ‘a life-and-death war between the bearers and the burden, the grain and the millstone, two mutually exclusive entities that cannot dwell together’. Moreover, while an unexpected public relations bonanza and a ‘vital but terrifying act in the great project of establishing a state out of destruction’ the refugees were met with a strong ambivalence: ‘Yet this is not a welcome of unconditional love, an act of inclusion stemming from real compassion, but rather an “unseen and unbridled” war, an encounter of life charged with potential death’. Reading even deeper into Alterman, Zertal imputed yet another layer of meaning: ‘Another saying is insinuated into the verse, one that undermines the accepted power equation…between the bearers and the burden. The ostensibly omnipotent Israeli might be broken and destroyed by the presence of the previously negated and repressed Diaspora’.
By ending the book with the poetic texts Zertal hoped to strengthen her otherwise historical account of the alleged objectification and exploitation of the Holocaust refugees. Stretching the argument further, she was able to condemn the entire ‘Zionist project’ for its willingness to ‘obliterate that ‘other’ by ignoring it. Worse still, Zertal charged Ben-Gurion and his colleagues of refusing to ‘see’ the Final Solution by not harnessing ‘all its resources for a great, uncalculated, even if largely hopeless rescue campaign’. She explained that the failure to come to the aid of the European Jews stemmed from the overriding Zionist goal to prevent ‘the vision of a Jewish state’ from shattering ‘under the overwhelming weight of horror and mourning’. In this complex Zionist script, Zertal argued, the victims had to be simultaneously sanctified and tarnished ‘in order to realize the ultimate, complete Zionist redemption - the Jewish state’.
Well-written and clearly articulated, Zertal’s work attracted considerable public attention, both positive and negative. While post-Zionist scholars and Arab sources produced rave reviews, critics accused the author of selective use of facts and fabricating a narrative that fitted her political agenda. Uri Goren, a captain on one of the haapala vessels, wrote a letter to Zertal to protest the depiction of the Aliya Bet operatives as cynical manipulators of the Holocaust survivors. The former Palyam member was most emphatic that those boarding the ships, including the Exodus, were highly eager to immigrate to Palestine. In his own book, On Both Sides of the Crypto, Goren related how overwhelmed his colleagues were by the enormous tragedy that had befallen their charges and how hard they tried to help them. Goren urged Zertal to interview the survivors, only to elicit her comment that ‘historical research is not a copy of what people recalled. Decent historical analysis involved critical analysis, sometimes painful analysis of texts and documents of the related period’.
But Zertal’s virtually exclusive reliance on the official documents of the Mossad for Aliya Bet raised a serious methodological question of how she could determine that the survivors were reluctant immigrants at best, and coerced onto the boats, at worst. If Zertal felt that people could not be trusted to recall events from their past - a questionable proposition in social science research - she could have used a large body of contemporaneous evidence such as flyers, bulletins and newspapers published in the camps, articles in the Jewish press and other documents.
Zeev Mankowitz, a doctoral student at the Hebrew University did extensive research on the attitudes of survivors in DP camps in the American sector in Germany. His dissertation ‘The Politic and Ideology of Survivors of the Holocaust in the American Zone of Occupied Germany 1945-1946’ was defended in July 1987, years before Zertal commenced her project. Mankowitz claimed that, as a rule, the DPs were highly motivated to reach Palestine, a fact confirmed in the polls quoted in her own 1989 article ‘The Disappeared Souls’. As Dan Michman, a professor of Holocaust studies at the Bar-Ilan University, noted, Zertal managed to give credibility to her theory by careful cherry-picking of evidence.
Zertal’s methodology behind the ‘canonic texts’ was also questioned. The Holocaust historian Dalia Ofer denounced the use of the poems as historical texts noting that ‘by making a very imprudent literary use, she derived a far-fetched philosophical conceptual point on the relations between the Yishuv and the immigrants’. Ofer suggested that positivist scholarship would not allow for such an overreaching generalization but using the critical approach Zertal disregarded facts and bent research rules to fit her theory of subjection and manipulation.
Such criticism notwithstanding, by the early 2000s Zertal had embraced the more radical brand of critical Holocaust scholarship pioneered by Ophir and Zuckerman. She offered a preview of her new approach in a 2000 article titled ‘From the People’s Hall to the Wailing Wall: A Study in Memory, Fear and War’ was a nod to Ophir’s theory of Holocaust worship. After paying the customary lengthy homage to Elkana, Zertal offered the stock lament that ‘it appears that in this age the affliction with memorization and obsession with rituals of commemoration is actually an immense concerted assault on our very ability just to remember the past’.
Her 2002 book, The Nation and Death, (Hauma Vehamvet), offered a lengthy exposition of this theme starting with the Ophir-like assertion that Auschwitz was used to create a national martyrology of the ‘sanctified and sacrificed’. Before the Holocaust could be made into a focal power of national worship, she argued, it had to be ‘Zionized’, a term describing the alleged highjacking of key Holocaust events to fit the national-Israeli narrative. To prove her point, Zertal contended that the Warsaw ghetto uprising was incorporated ‘into the chain of Israel’s heroic battles for its homeland and the “Zionist” wars’; to this end, the ‘expunging of its incompatible, non-Zionist components’ had to be carried out.
Marek Edelman, the uprising’s deputy commander, was a prime example of the alleged Zionist ‘expunging’ of the national narrative. Describing Edelman’s exclusion as the ‘most striking case of silencing and obscuring’ Zertal noted that the former Bund member and ‘subsequently a Polish socialist’ refused to view ‘the establishment of the State of Israel as the belated “meaning” of the Holocaust’. She added that Edelman was not a Zionist and even after the war viewed Poland as his homeland ‘because it was the place where his friends had died and his people been felled’. In her view, though Edelman conducted himself well in the uprising he protested at the collective suicide of the uprising commander, Mordechai Anielewitcz, and his fellow fighters in the command bunker on Mila 18, making him a persona-non-grata in the Zionist pantheon of heroes - where Anielewitcz occupied pride of a place. Indeed, to Zertal Edelman was the antithesis to the ‘Zionist ‘theory of death’, not least because of his subsequent metamorphosis into ‘a renowned cardiologist, a lifesaving humanist, capable of transforming inevitable death… into a tolerable event’.
In yet another nod to Ophir, Zertal decried the worship of the Holocaust as a ‘memorial without memory’. Quoting Lyotard she emphasized the ontological impossibility of conveying what the victims of a catastrophe went through. At the same time she lambasted Israel for failing to ‘give voice to those who could not speak for themselves’ and, more to the point, for turning their suffering into an ‘ultimate card’ in dealing with the international community. In a version of Zuckerman’s ‘credit card’ theory Zertal declared that, by assuming the mantle of the ‘sanctified’, Israel demanded immunity from criticism of its foreign policy in general and in handling the Palestinians in particular.
In what was perceived to be an even more egregious use of the ‘sanctified and sacrificed’ Israel was said to turn the evil that had befallen the Holocaust victims into a legal formula, Zertal’s depiction of the 1950 Nazis and Nazi collaborators Law. Invoking Arendt, she argued that ‘the verbal translocation of Nazi crimes from their historical setting to a symbolic site (Israel), their very reproduction and duplication in the act of speech, in themselves already depreciated them, even if unintentionally, and marked the start of a long process of banalization’. To prove how banal the process had become, Zertal analysed a number of trials of Jewish capos and orderlies accused of brutalizing their fellow inmates.
But for Zertal, as for Arendt, the Eichmann trial was the real pinnacle of the process of banalization. Having previously accused Ben-Gurion of detachment from and silence about the Holocaust, Zertal claimed that the Israeli leader used Eichmann to engineer ‘grand national pedagogy’. In her words, ‘Ben-Gurion’s nationalism needed now to forge new memories according to its own specific profile and goals’, most notably ‘the Holocaust, along with its victims…was a metaphor, a terrible sublime lesson to Israeli youth and the world that Jewish blood would never be abandoned, or defenceless again’. She went on to explain that Ben-Gurion seized upon the metaphor to equate the Arabs with the Nazis and, moreover, to develop ‘the ultimate weapon - an Israeli nuclear bomb’. Ben-Gurion’s ‘pedagogical moment’ worked through ‘transference of the Holocaust situation on to the Middle East reality’ creating a ‘false sense of the imminent danger... and utterly demonizing the Arabs and their leaders’ on top of distorting the image of the Holocaust and ‘trivializing the unique agony of the victims and the survivors’.
By linking the Holocaust to Israel’s drive to acquire nuclear weapons, Zertal echoed Zuckerman’s theme of existential anxiety in the Holocaust in the Sealed Room. She used the 1967 Six Day War to make the same point, referring to a prominent Israeli journalist whose article ‘From the Rhine to Erez’ found some disturbing parallel between the response of the international community to Hitler and Nasser. Zertal quoted other articles that conveyed the same theme: ‘The West’s stand of non-intervention raised the spectre of Munich and enhanced a sense of another betrayal by the world’. While stating that it was not her ‘intention to propose here a new version of the events which lead to the outbreak of war’ she felt that the ‘totemic’ narrative of the Six Day War needed to be ‘demystified’ through critical scholarship: ‘The narrative of the averted catastrophe or the redemption of the ancient land created by the June 1967 war is now confronted by critical versions of the question of the inevitability of the war’. According to her critical version, the danger of the Arab armies was greatly exaggerated and, more to the point, Israel played ‘the active part’ in most ‘events that preceded the war’. In other words, Israel was the instigator rather than the victim of Arab aggression; still, the Holocaust-driven existential anxiety made the official Zionist narrative easy to propagate.
In her quest for the alleged government’s machinations behind the atmosphere of public foreboding in the weeks preceding the war Zertal spent a few pages discussing the ‘organized authentic anxiety’ - a juxtaposition of antonyms typical of critical scholarships designed to leave the reader confused whether the anxiety was authentic or manufactured. Using juxtaposed antonymous was only one of the many tactics she employed to undermine the ‘Zionist narrative’. Another one was misrepresenting facts as the case of Edelman illustrated.
The value of Edelman as the perfect anti-Zionist hero was well-appreciated by the tight network of pro-Palestinian activists even before the 1982 Lebanon war, which, as noted, jumpstarted political activism among the professoriate. In 1976 the Polish journalist Hanna Krall published a book based on interviews with Edelman titled Zdazyc Przed Panem Bogiem (Getting Ahead before God). In 1980, Daniel Bar-Tal, a lecturer at the School of Education at Tel Aviv University and a pro-Palestinian activist, travelled to Poland to obtain the publishing rights for the book; the Hebrew edition was brought out under the name To Race God (Lehakdim et Elohim) by Muli Melzer, a radical-leftist activist and owner of Adam Press.
While Zertal mentioned Edelman’s membership in the anti-Zionist Bund, she failed to note that after escaping from the ghetto he joined the People’s Army (Armia Ludowa - AL), a small communist underground group created by Moscow as a counter to the Home Army (Armia Krajowa - AK), the military arm of the legitimate Polish government in exile in London. While Edelman might have been a ‘humanitarian’, as Zertal asserted, his rejection of Israel was very much in line with the official position of the Polish Communist Party which, not incidentally, suppressed public commemorations of the Holocaust. In the 1970s Edelman had veered towards the budding Solidarity movement but his views on Israel had not changed. He claimed that the Jewish state was not a viable entity in the Middle East and accused Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir of murdering Arabs. Edelman called Ben-Gurion ‘a little Jew from a poor town unworthy of being considered a statesman’. In 2002 Edelman made news by comparing the plight of the Palestinians to that of the ghetto partisans and entertained a PLO delegation in his home in Lodz. Holocaust scholar Israel Gutman, himself a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the Auschwitz extermination camp, commented that Edelman ‘was filled with hate for Israel for years... [The Bund was] so hostile to Zionism and stood out with their provocations against anything Jewish - opening soup kitchens even on Yom Kippur’.
There is little doubt that Zertal, who worked under Gutman at the Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, knew about Edelman’s real record. But presenting him as a former communist party apparatchik would have tarnished the portrait of the noble hero shut out of the official ‘Zionist narrative’. Zertal’s fidelity to a political cause trumped the positivist requirement to provide a full historical account - a habit she picked up from the post-Zionist pioneers. Like them, she was also adept at changing the narrative to suit a particular ideological point as the ‘Disappeared Souls’ article clearly indicated.
All in all, producing a counter-narrative that promoted a political agenda was an overriding imperative for post-Zionist scholars who defined their mission in Gramscian terms. As the next chapter will illustrate, these narratives served as foundational texts for an array of political efforts that followed closely Matzpen’s handbook of political activism.
Chapter 7 Post-Zionist Scholarship in the Service of Political Activism
As shown by the preceding chapters, the anti-Zionist themes that Matzpen distilled from Brit Shalom, the Canaanites and the Communists in the early 1960s hovered in the margins of the public discourse for more than a quarter of a century. Post-Zionist scholars – whether former Matzpen members or those espousing a similar vision - mainstreamed these ideas by giving them academic legitimacy, a considerable advantage in a culture that held universities in high esteem. In less than a decade this cohesive and determined epistemic community, rebranded as post-Zionists, achieved a remarkable academic and public prominence.
To the Israeli followers of Antonio Gramsci, scholarship and activism were part of a seamless endeavour to change social reality. Yehouda Shenhav addressed this issue in an essay titled ‘Treason of the Intellectuals? Israeli Sociologists and the Colonial Occupation in the Palestinian Territories’. Ostensibly, his point of departure was Julien Benda, who famously accused (in 1927) the intellectuals of betraying their role by fomenting nationalistic hatred during the early decades of the twentieth century, urging them to adopt more objectivity and circumspection in the public discourse. Shenhav, however, argued that, with Palestinian land under occupation, objectivity and silence - as practiced by his fellow intellectuals hiding behind the pale banner of political ‘neutrality’ - was the real act of treasonous behaviour. While making a nod to Weber who urged scholars to ‘protect sociology from the tyranny of politics’ Shenhav wanted ‘to protect politics from neutrality of sociology’. To this end he called upon sociologists to become public intellectuals, namely to embrace ‘intellectualism which suspends the dogma of academic neutrality’.
Ishai Menuhin of the Department of Social Work at Ben-Gurion University spoke of many of his activist colleagues when emphasizing the need for ‘ideological commitment’ of academics. Echoing Gramsci he stressed the synergy of knowledge, academic status and social responsibly in driving social change. With ‘speaking out’ established as the pinnacle of personal and professional morality, ‘silence’ was declared to be an immoral behaviour. For example, Shenhav lamented that only a small percentage of sociologists were involved in research on the ‘occupation’, which had never been adopted as a paradigm in the social sciences. The activist psychologist Dan Bar-On from Ben-Gurion University likewise lambasted his peers for ‘silence’ and lamented the absence of Post-Zionist Israeli Psychology, adding that ‘there were few signs of critical Israeli political or social psychology’.
The call to speak ‘truth to power’ was, of course, not new. As early as 1961, Hebrew University professors organized a petition against Ben-Gurion accusing him of political corruption. A few months after the 1967 war a large group of faculty signed a letter warning the government of the dangers of occupation. Yet for their bitterness, the above exchanges were located within the spectrum of the Zionist discourse. By contrast, the post-Zionist faculty took up the Matzpen mandate of changing the collective belief of the Israeli society. Anat Biletzki, a philosopher at the Tel Aviv University and a lifelong member of the communist party, described this as a two-staged process: first, highly activist academics and progressive intellectuals would create a ‘bubble’ of radical ideas that challenged the national consensus. Second, these radical notions would penetrate the societal discourse and alter long held perceptions.
For the bubble concept to work, however, deeds were as important as words, a ‘winning combination’ that Uri Davis, a veteran Matzpen activist and conscientious objector (later, an honorary research fellow at IMEIS University of Durham and IAIS University of Exeter), was eager to exploit. As a member of the tiny Israeli Association of Conscientious Objectors and subsequently as deputy head of the League for Civil and Human Rights - founded by the Hebrew University professor Israel Shahak - Davis developed a plan to harness draft refusal and other acts of civil resistance against the ‘Zionist project’ in general and the occupation of the territories in particular. Teaming up with Elmer Berger, a leader in the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism who founded the American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism (AJAZ) in 1968, Davis established an outreach in the United States. In 1983 AJAZ, working with the International Organization for the Elimination of All Forms of Racism and Racial Discrimination (EAFAD), hosted a conference on ‘Israel's Zionist Society: Consequences for Internal Opposition and the Necessity for External Intervention’ where Davis, who gave the keynote address, urged participants to broaden draft resistance as a way of delegitimizing the military component of the ‘Zionist project’ and called for foreign intervention to stop the ‘settlement project’. While both Shahak and Davis were marginalized by those who saw them as ‘too radical’, elements of the Matzpen message spread through a network of reserve soldiers, as noted in Chapter 2, who found Peace Now too timid. Yesh Gvul urged selective refusal followed by the smaller groups.
The refusal network - boasting a high percentage of graduates and post-graduate members - picked up steam after a number of academics got involved. One researcher found that among the random sample of 36 objectors in the 1982 Lebanon War, 23 held academic degrees, four were doctoral candidates and four held PhD degree. Some faculty, like Professor Daniel Amit of the Hebrew University, a service resister who famously described the IDF as working for ‘American imperial interests’, added cache to the younger refuseniks. Others, like Menuhin worked virtually full-time writing and distributing material for Yesh Gvul. Leon Sheleff, a professor of law and sociology at Tel Aviv University helped to defend Gadi Algazi, who made national news in 1979 for refusing draft (and later became a history professor at Tel Aviv University).
But it was Ophir who put post-Zionism on the political map of the somewhat unfocused and fragmented peace movement. Drawing on the ideas that would later appear in his Order of Evil, in June 1987 he published a letter to ‘My Brothers and Collaborators’ in the political and literary journal Politika applauding his friends in the movement - ‘collaborators in spite of themselves, teeth clenching collaborators, collaborators with an agonized conscious’. Ophir wrote about his own decision to refuse evil, ‘the evil… that you produce. This oppression you serve, my teeth clenching brothers, as small screws in a large machine, with some leeway for demonstrations, for protests, and for futile attempts at persuasion’. He appealed to all who were ‘sick and tired of the occupation’ to ‘rise and throw their No in the face of the nation’.
The article attracted considerable attention and by October Ophir, together with his then-Hebrew University colleague Hannan Hever, Anat Biletzki and a small number of academics, founded the Twenty First Year organization. The name referred to the twenty one years since the Six Day War and its charter, the ‘Covenant for the Struggle against the Occupation’ attempted to redefine political reality by emphasizing that the occupation was a permanent condition of ‘the political and cognitive mind of the Israeli society’. Indeed, ‘the occupation is here, within us, and its destructive influence is felt in each and every sphere of our life’. Obfuscating the Green Line, the permanent occupation made Israeli ‘parliamentary government… serves as a fig leaf to cover the control relations between the occupying Israelis and the occupied Palestinians’. Ophir and his colleagues equated individual morality with active defiance of the occupation against which they pledged a ‘total struggle’ - waged through a refusal ‘to collaborate with the Occupation and pledge to do either part or all of the following: never enter the occupied territories without an invitation from their Arab inhabitants; not allow their children to be exposed to the racist bias of the school system; boycott institutions and products of companies whose Palestinian employees were denied human dignity and decent working conditions; and boycott goods produced by Israeli settlements in the occupied territories’.
Professor Tamar Hermann of the Open University, a mainstream peace activist, considered the covenant ‘intellectually and morally very impressive’ but felt that few could ‘follow the high language and the complicated argumentation of the core activists’. In her opinion, ‘this highly sophisticated document alienated most audiences’.
Attracting a mass following, however, was never the goal of The Twenty First Year; instead, it relied on a cadre of dedicated followers drawn from the Communist periphery and assorted anti-Zionist groups. Reuven Kaminer, the leader of the ultra-left Siah group, recalled that ‘hundreds of men and women attended house meetings devoted to the discussion of the covenant’ but, in reality, less than five hundred became involved in various projects. In the end, Ophir and his colleagues could count only on activist scholars to translate the abstract language of the ‘total struggle’ into political action.
Resistance from Within, Intervention from Without
When Ophir conceptualized resistance as boycotting all facets of the occupation, the small and loosely knit group of activists was looking for practical ways of implementing the boycott. Working with Matzpen, they distributed a list of target products from the territories, mostly in Jerusalem. Mordechai Bar-On, a retired IDF officer-turned-peace activist who was familiar with the organization, recalled that the internal boycott scheme fizzled out because members considered it ineffective.
Efforts at ‘witness bearing’ did not fare much better. Reviving Shahak’s project of documenting the occupation, The Twenty First Year created a special unit called Witnesses to Occupation (Edei Kibush). Palestinians invited the Witnesses to document incidents of alleged IDF brutality, but Bar-On suggested that the volunteers were not professional enough and sometimes fell into the trap of Palestinian propaganda. Worse still, tensions developed between Witnesses willing to defy the IDF and those who wanted to stay out of trouble. The struggle came to a head in Qalkilia where the military imposed a curfew; told that they could not proceed, twenty-seven protesters led by Ophir circumvented the roadblocks and entered the town and were promptly arrested. While Ophir, Hever and other hard-core members relished the experience and the publicity that the incident generated, others were quite shaken. As Hever put it, ‘during the court proceedings our spirit was high… the prison experience eventually brought some people to the realization that they were not ready to pay the price’. Exacerbated by poor organization and a haphazard decision-making process, the internal divisions contributed to the breakup of the group in 1992.
Some of the planned projects, however, were picked up by a number of individual founders. One project aimed at broadening the base of resistance to military service beyond selective refusal. Anat Matar, a member of the communist party and Biletzki’s colleague at the Philosophy Department at Tel Aviv University, spearheaded the effort to attract recruits and reserve soldiers. Matar, on the board of Yesh Gvul became involved in the Shiministim movement, a group of high school seniors planning to refuse military service. When her own son became a conscientious objector she joined the Conscientious Objectors Parents Forum (COs Parents Forum), declaring that any form of IDF service, not just combat units sent to the territories, were ‘accomplices in the crime’. Matar took pride in the fact that some of her students went on to refuse military service.
The ‘Witnesses to Occupation’ project was taken over by three groups. The most prominent of them was B’Tselem - The Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in Occupied Territories co-founded in February 1998 by Daphna Golan-Agnon, from the Law School at the Hebrew University and Edward (Edy) Kaufman, executive director of the university’s Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace. The organization pledged to force the Israeli authorities to treat the Palestinians according to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and published dozens of reports on issues as varied as home demolitions, land confiscations, treatment of minors during protests and medical conditions under occupation. In 1991 B’Tselem created a public stir after releasing a report on torture ‘The Interrogation of Palestinians During the Intifada: Ill-Treatment, “Moderate Physical Pressure” or Torture?’
Somewhat overlapping B’Tselem, two more specialized groups pledged to keep the authorities accountable for the occupation emerged. In 1991, Menuhin and Avishai Ehrlich, a former Matzpen member who joined the faculty of Tel Aviv-Jaffa Academic College, co-founded the Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI), which became involved in numerous law suits involving alleged mistreatment of Palestinian prisoners. Jeff Halper, a one-time lecturer at Ben-Gurion University who was subsequently appointed an associate professor at the Friends World College - a college run by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) - founded The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). Because of Halper’s association with the AFSC, ICAHD received regular publicity and financial support from the United States.
Headed by Matar, Bilezki and Rachel Giora, Open Doors was active in releasing Palestinian administrative detainees in the 1990s. Among its signature cases was that of Ossama Barham, the longest serving administrative detainee who was released in 1999. The organization was credited with a decline in the number of detainees from several hundreds to some seventy by the end of the 1999s. Renamed the Israeli Association for the Palestinian Prisoners and, under the leadership of Matar, it has fought to change the status of Palestinian security prisoners.
Much as these efforts were designed to create the ‘bubble’ for changing the domestic public opinion, radical academic activists had few illusions that they could be effective without help from the international community. In this sense they followed the model unveiled by Davis in his 1983 talk and a subsequent book comparing Israel to the apartheid regime in South Africa. In essence, the radical scholars wanted to harness the same international dynamics that brought change to South Africa. Research on normative changes in international relations based on South Africa explained the process. When in 1962 activists proposed a boycott in order to undermine the apartheid regime, these so-called ‘norm entrepreneurs’ created a ‘life cycle’ of a normative change. In the first stage of ‘norm emergence’, de-legitimization of apartheid was embraced as a moral goal; in the second stage, known as a ‘norm cascade’, the anti-apartheid norm became widely disseminated throughout the world, followed by the third and final stage called ‘norm internalization’ - when the new norm was accepted by the international system. Transition from the second to the third stage occurred when the norm reached a tipping point, that is, was accepted by a critical mass of states or non-government international agents. Interestingly enough, the early stages of the South African ‘life cycle’ were sustained by a grassroots coalition of academics, cultural figures and human rights activists. As the labelling of apartheid illegitimate became diffused, effective economic sanctions were put in place.
To replicate the South African experience, Palestinians persuaded Giora and some of her colleagues to create a full-fledged Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement working with similar-minded activists abroad. Giora, one of the leaders of Boycott from Within, described the highly important role the group played: ‘The major role of the Israeli BDS movement has been to support international BDS calls against Israel and legitimize them both as clearly not anti-Semitic’. In other words, not only did the Israeli academics serve as ‘moral entrepreneurs’ at home but they helped defend the non-Jews involved in the BDS from charges of anti-Semitism. According to unwritten rules of the academic discourse, Jews, and better still, Israeli Jews, have served as ‘moral shields’ to groups taken radical stands against Israel.
While the Oslo process silenced many would be ‘moral entrepreneurs’, the hard-core post-Zionist community considered the two-state solution yet another form of Israeli domination - as claimed by Zuckermann in the previous chapter. A heated debate about the merits of pursuing the Oslo path versus painting Israel as a racist, apartheid state took place on the pages of the Journal of Palestine Studies. Embracing a Marxist perspective, the author of one article contended that no just solution to the Palestinian problem was possible without undermining the perception of Israel as democratic and benign. The task of academics and activists thus was to ‘rethink the Palestinian question’ and adopt the ‘Israel as an apartheid state paradigm’. The author quoted from the work of Davis and offered suggestions on how to change Israel’s image in the West; he also presented research indicating that painting Israel as an apartheid state would prepare the groundwork for a boycott movement.
In planning an appeal to the international community, post-Zionist activists could rely on a bourgeoning body of humanitarian law to prove the alleged existence of an apartheid regime. As a matter of fact, Palestinians who published the first volume on activism and international law as early as 1984 laid the legal groundwork; they and the Israeli activists receive help from a growing number of lawyers and legal experts who have embraced the apartheid analogy. For instance, Deena Hurwitz, a civil rights Jewish-American activist from the California-based Centre for Nonviolence who spent extensive periods of time in the Middle East, encouraged the apartheid metaphor in a book she edited in 1992. The edited work quoted Israeli academics and activists, including Daphna Golan Agnon, who expressed their dismay about the apartheid-like policies. Arie (Ari) Dayan, a pro-Palestinian activist and journalist, quoted B’Tselem statistics indicating that up to June 1991 the police did not take action against 42 settlers suspected of killing Palestinians. Israeli and foreign lawyers quoted by Dayan stated that this fact illustrated a key feature of apartheid - a dual law system for blacks and whites.
In yet another effort to engage international law, Neve Gordon, an activist-turned-academic became the director of Physicians for Human Rights - Israel (PHR-I) founded by Ruhama Marton in 1988. Gordon, who accused Israel of egregious violations of human rights, published an edited volume on the subject ‘Humanitarian Action in Catastrophe’ based on a work group at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. To recall Chapter 5, he made good use of PHR-I statistics to show alleged bio-power control of the Palestinian population. Gordon was also active in organizing conferences on torture and other alleged abuses of the Palestinians, appearing with Derek Summerfield, head of Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture (UK), who accused Israeli doctors of supporting torture. After years of protest, in 2009 the Israel Medical Association took the unprecedented step of severing its relations with PHR-I because of its use of ‘the international arena to besmirch and sling mud at Israel’s doctors’.
Last but not least, Israeli activists worked with the UNCE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, known as the Aarhus Convention that was signed on 25 June 1998 in Aarhus, Denmark. According to Menuhin, Israeli activists could plug into the Aarhus Convention network to voice grievances about water depravation and environmental degradation in the occupied territories, yet even before Aarhus Israeli academics used the environmental justice movement to scrutinize water allocation in the West Bank and Gaza.
That within a decade scholars-activists translated The Twenty First Year’s call for ‘total struggle’ into a burgeoning political venture was illustrative of the advantages that universities offered. The collapse of the Oslo peace process gave the radical faculty a much larger platform for political activism.
Mobilizing the International Community against Israel
As shown in the preceding chapters, the Oslo failure and the onset of the al-Aqsa Intifada radicalized most post-Zionist scholars. Observing the watershed in the peace camp, Hermann described the deep despair of mainstream peace activists and their feeling that ‘the sky actually fell on the peace movement’. In her view, it was at this juncture that the post-Zionists, ‘with no constituency to lose on one hand, and so highly confident in their framing of the situation on the other’, concluded that the conflict would not be resolved ‘without a radical transformation of the Israeli national ethos’.
To expedite this process the post-Zionists redoubled efforts to mobilize the international community against Israel’s policies, capitalizing on the growing anti-Israel sentiment fuelled by such international initiatives as the 2001 UN-sponsored World Conference against Racism in Durban where hundreds of NGOs pledged to fight what they described as a racist and apartheid Israeli state.
One popular tactic involved appeals to the international community for military intervention on behalf of the Palestinians – allegedly confronted with a real danger of genocide. A 2002 manifesto ‘Break the Conspiracy of Silence: Act Before it is too Late’ was typical of this pattern. Signed by Gordon, Yiftachel, Biletzki and others, it urged international civil society ‘to take immediate direct action’ to stop ‘Israel’s all-out war against the Palestinian people’. Evoking the Nazi equivalence, Neve Gordon wrote: ‘Examining the architectural similarity and differences between the camps Israel has constructed to hold Palestinians and the concentration camps Jews were held in during the Holocaust, urges one to ponder how it is that the reappearance of barbed wire in the Israeli landscape does not engender an outcry among [Holocaust] survivors’. Lev Grinberg amplified this metaphor in an interview with a Belgian newspaper where he claimed that Israel was practising ‘symbolic genocide’, while Ophir went so far as to urge a NATO strike against Israel to get the ‘regime’ to give up the territories.
A new group, The Campus Shall Not Be Silent, with branches at Tel Aviv and the Hebrew universities was set up to draft and circulate scores of petitions to the United Nations, the EU, and a host of international organizations highlighting the plight of the Palestinians and warning of their imminent expulsion. Reaching particular intensity during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in 2003, a petition titled ‘An Urgent Appeal for International Involvement: Save Palestine and Israel’ asserted that, under the cover of the American invasion, Israel was gearing to ethnically cleanse the entire Palestinian population. The text claimed that the Palestinian presence ‘stands in the way of Sharon’s life-long vision of Greater Israel’ and that ‘the elimination of the Palestinian national presence west of the Jordan river is implicit in the long-term aims of the Israeli right wing’. The expulsion rumour was propagated by the Palestinian Authority and uncritically accepted by the academic activists.
Universal jurisdiction, a legal concept that gave states the right to claim criminal jurisdiction over persons whose alleged crimes were committed outside the boundaries of the prosecuting state, even if the crime had no relations to the said state, was another source of inspiration. Shortly before the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada Gordon wrote an article demanding that Yaacov Pery, former head of the Shabak, Israel’s internal security service (equivalent of MI5 and the FBI), be tried under international jurisdiction for his responsibility for the alleged torturing of Palestinian prisoners. Defying IDF regulations, in February 2002 Gordon visited Arafat in his Ramallah compound to publicize Israel’s alleged war crimes. Two months later he published an open-letter labelling Aviv Kochavi, Gaza Brigade commander, a war criminal.
Coordinating with Yesh Gvul, Matar fingered Maj.-Gen. Doron Almog, CO Southern Command, as another war criminal. Daniel Machover, son of Matzpen co-founder Moshe and head of civil litigation in the London office of Hickman & Rose who represented the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), obtained a warrant arrest for Kochavi and Almog. Having flown into London, Almog was tipped off and, without disembarking his plane returned home. Kochavi was advised to cancel a planned stay at Sandhurst Military Academy. Gordon and Matar were among the signatories of a petition to Western governments urging them to prosecute Israeli ‘war criminals’ while cutting off all aid to the Jewish state.
Internationalizing the issue of Palestinian security prisoners was also a popular pursuit. Matar argued that these inmates, serving time after being legally convicted in terrorist/terrorist-related attacks, should be considered civil resisters. In an introduction to a co-edited book she argued that the label ‘security prisoners’ deprived them of their subjectivity, both as individuals deserving personal treatment and ‘rational and essentially free beings who aspire to realize their freedom’. Treating them as a threat ‘erases the fact that they are subjects and turn them into objects: an object - like a collapsing roof… a stone hurled from a slingshot, a knife, even a fingernail - can pose a threat, a security risk, a source of fear from which we must protect our lives’. Matar also repeated her previous claim that Israel de-contextualized terrorism, which, in her view needed to be viewed as a resistance movement against a long term occupation regime: ‘The long years of occupation of the Palestinian Territories, the prevention of livelihood, of freedom of movement, of personal and community development’.
Highlighting alleged torture was yet another popular way to appeal to the international community. Though the Israeli Supreme Court put a stop to the practice of torture in 1999, radical academics used the data provided by the Public Committee against Torture in Israel (PCATI), a small watchdog established by Shahak, to insist that cruel and inhumane treatment of Palestinian prisoners was still the norm.
But it was the boycott initiative on which the radical faculty pinned most of its hopes on. As noted in Chapter 5, Yiftachel’s and Gordon’s writings sought to provide academic legitimacy to the boycott movement. On the applied side, Giora and her Tel Aviv University colleague, linguist professor Tanya Reinhart, a student of Noam Chomsky, organized a boycott appeal in April 2001, writing: ‘We call the world community to organize and boycott Israeli industrial and agricultural exports and goods, as well as leisure tourism, in the hope that it will have the same positive result that the boycott of South Africa had on Apartheid’. After disappointing responses in the US, Giora and her colleagues were forced to settle on the less sweeping and more doable academic and cultural boycott.
Any doubts that universities offered an adequate platform for promoting the boycott idea were dispelled when Pappe appealed to British academics to intervene on his behalf during the 1999 Tantura affair claiming that his backing of Teddy Katz, who admitted to having fabricated a massacre in the Arab village, led to his academic persecution. Writing to Mona Baker, a pro-Palestinian scholar from Manchester University, he asked British academics to boycott the University of Haifa, where he was a tenured senior lecturer at the time, along with Bar-Ilan University for opening an extension college in Ariel, outside the pre-1967 ‘green line’. The request was taken up by a newly organized group of scholars eager to boycott Israeli universities which quickly issued a petition ‘endorsing the decision of European academics to boycott Israeli academic institutes’.
The Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), founded in 2004, provided the post-Zionists with a well-endowed and highly organized platform. Pappe, Giora and Matar were leading supporters of PACBI which, under the skilful leadership of Omar Barghouti, a Qatar-born Palestinian who grew up in Egypt and a one-time doctoral student at Tel Aviv University, quickly seized the opportunity to broaden the boycott message in Britain and beyond. In December 2004 some 270 academics convened for a conference ‘Resisting Israeli Apartheid: Strategies and Principles’ in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London to hear Pappe urging a boycott as a means to apply moral and political pressure on Israel. Other speakers urged participants to draw lessons from the anti-apartheid boycott in South Africa, explaining that scholars and intellectuals acted as a vanguard that put the issue of apartheid on the world stage.
In 2005 the central committee of the British Association of University Teacher (AUT) voted to impose sanctions on Haifa, Bar-Ilan and the Hebrew universities. Addressing the organization on the eve of its resolution Pappe, whose (false) claim of persecution by his university provided the pretext for the boycott, made an impassioned plea for the boycott:
I appeal to you today to be part of a historical movement and moment that may bring an end to more than a century of colonization, occupation, and dispossession of Palestinians.... The message that will be directed specifically against those academic institutes which have been particularly culpable in sustaining the oppression since 1948 and the occupation since 1967 can be a start for a successful campaign for peace (as similar acts at the time had activated the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa).
He repeated this plea shortly afterwards when the AUT leadership, faced with intense internal and external opposition, was about to rescind its decision. ‘I believe I am in a better position than many to judge the tactical and moral dimensions of the academic boycott of Israel’, he wrote in a widely publicized article in the Guardian.
My case was singled out by the AUT as the reason for boycotting my own university, Haifa. I felt honoured by this attention to my predicament and, at the same time, hoped that the general context, the need to end the callous occupation, will not be forgotten. In fact, judging from the reactions in Israel, after an initial confusion between the principled issue and private case, there seems to be a better understanding here of the link between the occupation and the silencing of those who oppose it.
‘The University of Haifa threatens to sue the AUT for libel for false and intentional misrepresentation of action taken against me and the MA student Teddy Katz in and out of the campus’, he added,
should the AUT retract its principled and ethical policy of boycott, it will inadvertently send a message to all Israelis that the occupation is legitimate and immune from any external pressure or condemnation… The AUT can choose to stand by and do nothing, or to be part of a historical movement similar to the anti-apartheid campaign against the white supremacist regime in South Africa… Clearly, someone has to be bold enough to take the lead in pressurising Israel through sanctions and boycott in order to avert another cycle of the bloodshed that is destabilising the Middle East and undermining world security and peace. Who, other than academics and intellectuals, can be expected to provide this much needed leadership?
While the plea came to a naught as the AUT rescinded its decision, the Israeli post-Zionists didn’t desist from their efforts to entice the international community into a boycott. In 2008 Giora, Matar and others organized ‘BOYCOTT! Supporting the Palestinians BDS Call from Within’, with a clear cut mission statement: ‘We Palestinians, Jews, citizens of Israel, join the Palestinian call for a BDS campaign against Israel, inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid... encourage BDS actions as a legitimate political activity and a necessary means of non-violent resistance. We will act inside and outside Israel to promote awareness and support of BDS’. The Boycott! website lists dozen of appeals to academics, intellectuals, artists and corporations to terminate contacts with Israel.
The anti-Hamas Operation Cast Lead in December 2008-January 2009 provided the activists with a perfect opportunity to make their case. Describing Gaza as ‘Israel’s Guernica’ Matar and her colleagues published a letter in the Guardian urging international sanctions against Israel. In May 2009 Giora urged the congress of University and College Union (UCU, that replaced the now-defunc't AUT) to boycott Israeli universities. In a high profile op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in August 2009, Gordon advocated strict sanctions on Israel. Describing his appeal as involving a painful personal decision, he argued that as a member of the peace camp for more than thirty years he was deeply concerned about what he alleged to be Israel’s steady drive towards ‘an apartheid state’. Mindful of the need to show Israel’s economic gains from its continued presence in the territories, these scholars produced a number of reports on the supposed profits of occupation. A spinoff-group, Who Profits from the Occupation, began publicizing the names of corporations that operated beyond the Green Line with a view of boycotting their products abroad.
Utilizing the generous travel allowance in Israeli universities, post-Zionist activists travelled extensively to promote their agenda abroad. It is beyond the scope of this study to analyse the hundreds of conferences, round tables, lectures, seminars and media appearances involved in this campaign. Ophir and Azoulay, for instance, visited a number of European cities to promote photo exhibitions aimed at creating a visual Holocaust-Nakba equivalence. Yiftachel used the substantial network of critical political geographers to promote the apartheid theory. Both Zuckermann and Zimmermann made frequent trips to Germany to address pro-Palestinian forums where their ‘Holocaust deformation’ theory was warmly received. Sand, whose book The Invention of the Jewish People was translated to more languages than any other Israeli history book, became an academic celebrity; in addition to lectures in a large number of universities, he was a frequent guest on numerous media outlets.
Radical Academics and the Universities
A relative newcomer to the academic tradition, Israel has been influenced by the German, British and American concepts of academic freedom that, over centuries, worked out a balance among the needs of faculty, students and - in public universities - the public interest as expressed by its elected officials. As a rule, intramural academic freedom allowed scholars to pursue their research - defined by their field of specialty - free from interference from university authorities and the state. Teaching was expected to follow the same protocol but, as noted in Chapter 1, in the absence of scientific rigor, liberal arts struggled to provide students with ‘truth’. William von Humboldt, arguably the leading pedagogical authority in nineteenth century Germany, argued that vigorous classroom discussion, including diverse points of view, was the most legitimate way of arriving at social truths. The so-called ‘classroom as a marketplace of ideas’ concept had been subsequently adopted by British and American universities.
Despite its large contingent of Jewish immigrants from Germany, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem did not follow the Humboldtian tradition and was even less inclined to balance the interest of the faculty with that of the Yishuv. To the contrary, liberal arts professors embraced the vision of the university’s first president, Judah Magnes, of turning the institution into a cultural and secular-spiritual centre for world Jewry, which for him was largely associated with the Brit Shalom group and its bi-national agenda.
After Magnes’s death it was the Hebrew University professoriate, whose relations with Prime Minister Ben-Gurion were stormy, that led the fight against the proposed Higher Education Act introduced by the government in June 1952. Based on the recommendation of the special committee headed by Yaacov Dori, president of the Technion, the bill envisaged the creation of a Council of Higher Education (CHE) chaired by the minister of education and comprising a majority of government representatives alongside leading scientific figures from Israel and abroad. The Dori proposal had the backing of the two technological universities - the Technion and the Weizmann Institute - but the Hebrew University faculty was hostile to the ‘nationalization’ of their intuition and managed to persuade the opposition General Zionists Party that chaired the Knesset education committee to reject the bill. Despite numerous compromise attempts by the government, it took an unprecedentedly prolonged period to pass the Higher Education Act of 1958.
As noted in the introduction, the law was a triumph for Magnes’s view in that it allowed a most expansive form of academic freedom - the ‘liberty to conduct its academic and administrative affairs, within the framework of its budget, as it may see fit’. As a matter of fact, ‘academic and administrative affairs’ also included ‘determination of programs of research and teaching, the appointment of the authorities of the institution, the appointment and promotion of teachers, the determination of a method of teaching and study, and any other scientific, pedagogic or economic activity’.
Neither the Higher Education Act nor the subsequently-created Planning and Budgeting Committee (PBC) dealt explicitly with academic freedom of faculty in an intramural or extramural setting. But the broad institutional autonomy clearly implied an expansive freedom on the individual level as well, as Haim Gans, a law professor at Tel Aviv University and an expert on academic freedom, advocated. Quoting an American professor who famously but erroneously declared that ‘academic freedom is what faculty thinks it is’ Gans argued that faculty had the right to teach and research topics of their choice without the interference of deans or other academic authorities. In case of a dispute with the university authorities deans should try persuasion as faculty could not be coerced into making changes. Gans vetoed any intervention since he felt confident that academic staff, especially senior faculty, could be trusted with self-control and ethical conduct. His view of extramural speech and action was also equally expansive; echoing Magnes’s conception of academics as ‘philosophers kings’ he argued that scholars played a special role in the public discourse and thus should be given extra protection not only from the state but also from university authorities.
In the first three decades of Israel’s statehood Gans’s doctrine of academic freedom reflected prevailing realities. Unlike Germany, Britain and the United States where a combination of political and market forces limited extramural and intramural faculty rights, there was little to shake the expansive protocols created by the Higher Education Act. On the rare occasion that faculty speech or action attracted a public reaction, both the universities and the state shied away from action. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who pioneered the Nazi-Israeli equivalence in his Judeo-Nazi imagery, was never challenged; his colleague, Israel Shahak, who travelled abroad to lecture on the IDF’s Nazi-like behaviour and engaged in illegal meetings with PLO representatives suffered no repercussions either. Amnon Rubinstein, then Dean of Law at Tel Aviv University and future minister of education, urged the Hebrew University to deal with Shahak adding that ‘only in Israel has this concept [of academic freedom] attained such an extreme meaning as to become a synonym for lawlessness’. He further noted that ‘university tenure’ should not protect a faculty member engaged in a ‘hate campaign’ against his country especially when this hate campaign was financed by one’s university, as was the case with Shahak whose self-abnegating foreign travels were paid by ‘taxpayers’ money that supported his sabbatical and research abroad’.
Hebrew University Rector, Michael Rabin, responded that ‘the disciplinary book of rules for academic employees’ did not involve ‘behaviour of a faculty member in non-university context’. As for the university’s decision to promote Shahak to the rank of associate professor Rabin pointed out that he ‘passed standard university procedures; to deprive him ‘of these procedures is a primitive act’. A subsequent audit found that Shahak used no university funds for travel since 1972. In a slingshot at Rubinstein, Arie Sachs, a professor in the Department of Theatre Studies, described the attack as a ‘witch hunt’. There were outside calls to revoke Shahak’s citizenship but the government decided against it. Alan Dershowitz, the renowned Harvard University law professor, pointed to the irony that Shahak could complain about racism and totalitarianism in Israel precisely because of the freedom of speech he enjoyed.
A later incident involving Moshe Zimmermann demonstrated the continuous reluctance to confront radically outspoken faculty. Having lost a lawsuit against a paper reporting his equation between settlers’ children and the Hitlerjugend and IDF soldiers and the Nazis, Zimmermann not only faced no censure at the university but Rector Haim Rabinowitz demanded an apology from Alexander Brenner, leader of the Jewish community in Berlin, who complained that ‘there are professors at the Hebrew University who compare the behaviour of the IDF soldiers to the behaviour of SS soldiers’.
This historical reluctance was compounded by the influx of critical, neo-Marxist faculty who presented a number of novel challenges due to their neo-Gramscian combination of scholarship and activism. The extensive effort involved in BOYCOTT!, for instance, should have raised questions about permissible political activism within university. A study comparing academic freedom in Israel, Germany, Britain and the United States concluded that combination of case law, ethic codes and contractual obligations made it virtually impossible for faculty in public institutions to advocate boycott. British academic Geoffrey Alderman, a history professor at Buckingham University and patron of the UK Council on Academic Freedom & Academic Standards, added that during times of war, Britain had a considerable amount of restrictions on the freedom of expression. In Israel, where traditional wars have been overtaken in recent decades by Low Intensity Conflict (LIC), national security considerations have never entered the academic freedom debate.
In the absence of similar constrains neither the state nor the universities had a proper protocol to deal with activist professors. In chronicling the history of the boycott movement, Giora boasted of dozens initiatives launched by BOYCOTT! during and after the 2008-09 Gaza incursion. Upping the ante, Gordon’s 2009 op-ed in support of BDS triggered a public firestorm. Despite considerable pressure, Ben-Gurion University President Rivka Carmi resisted calls from donors and members of the public to fire Gordon but the university was forced to adopt an ethics code that banned faculty from advocating boycott of their own university (and for that matter other Israeli institutions), among others. Undaunted, in July 2010 Giora lauded the effects of the BDS on the BOYCOTT! website writing: ‘The BDS movement hit the bull’s eye. It managed to undermine Israel’s international status and tarnish its legitimacy’.
Giora and Matar’s boycott advocacy confronted Tel Aviv University President Joseph Klafter with a similar dilemma. During a May 2010 gathering of the international boards of governors Alan Dershowitz delivered a keynote address denouncing boycott activism as out of bound. In a subsequent, stormy meeting, a prominent American donor argued that, based on the university’s bylaws, the two should be fired for ‘breach of discipline’. In what led to a public scandal Klafter cut off the vote prompting the donor to resign and pledge his support to Bar-Ilan University. Some observers commentated on the financial loss, but Klafter had good reasons to avoid confrontation with the faculty. A hastily written petition organized by activist professors delivered a strong warning that any steps against Giora and Matar would result in a nasty public skirmish.
Amid increasingly loud attacks on the ‘McCarthyism’ of the Likud-led government at the end of 2010, the CHE held a number of meetings to determine whether Article 15 of the Higher Education Act should be revised to combat BDS advocacy. But anticipating political problems a compromise formula was crafted: on 21 December the Council issued a declaration reaffirming academic freedom as a ‘supreme value’ but added that calls for boycott by faculty members were unacceptable because they constituted a threat to the system of higher learning and to society at large. The CHE urged the academic authorities to find ways and means to enforce the resolution.
Still, the stiff opposition from many academics and the voluntary nature of the resolution prompted right-wing lawmakers to propose an anti-boycott legislation. After a stormy public debate about democracy and freedom of speech, the bill - roundly decried by much of the academic community as a glaring example of ‘Israeli McCarthyism’ - was passed on 11 July 11, 2011.
While the legislation dampened the internal pro-boycott drive it did not silence hard-core advocates. For instance, Gordon’s Los Angles Time’s op-ed turned up as a chapter in a 2012 book on the benefits of boycotting Israel. In the acknowledgements, the editor thanked Gordon who helped shape the book in its early stages, but Ben-Gurion University declined to investigate the issue. In the same year Matar took very public credit for dissuading British director Peter Brook from conducting a planned workshop at the Chamber Theatre because its actors performed in the West Bank town of Ariel. Though these cases represented a violation of the law, none of the offenders were disciplined.
If the authorities were reluctant to react to the relatively clear-cut case of boycott advocacy, they were even less eager to take on the more complex problem of choosing research topics to further a political agenda. Embraced by many activists, the practice entailed a post-tenure switch from the field of expertise for which they were hired to researching and writing on the Arab-Israeli conflict, a field where most of them lacked the academic credentials to research. Yehouda Shenhav, for instance, appointed to research and teach sociology of organizations admitted to a switch after joining the Rainbow Coalition as indicated in Chapter 4. His book claiming that the Mizrahim were actually Arab Jews attempted to provide academic legitimacy to the political agenda of creating an anti-Zionist Palestinian-Mizrahi alliance. After signing the 2004 Olga Document, a declaration of support for a bi-national state, Shenahv went on to write a number of monographs on the subject. Likewise, Adi Ophir spent much of his career writing polemics about the conflict or ‘how to do’ books to be used in political action. The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli-Rule in the Occupied Territories, a book he co-edited with Michal Givoni and Sari Hanafi was typical in this respect. Resulting from a series of seminars at the Van Leer Institute the book, according to Hanafi, reflected the belief that ‘Israeli educational institutions are under an obligation to explicitly oppose the normalization of the occupation’. Calling their work ‘subversive’ and focused ‘more on advocacy than academia’ Hanafi and Ophir went on a book tour in Europe to highlight the illegality of ‘the occupation’.
In the same vein, Zimmermann ‘remade’ himself into a Middle East expert so as to publish books highly critical of Israel’s foreign policy, while Zuckermann made a similar switch resulting in an extensive list of publications on the alleged Holocaust-deformed Israeli character. Arguably, Sand’s career move was the most stunning: The Invention of the Jewish People, followed by The Invention of the Land of Israel made this virtually unknown expert on French cinema and culture world famous despite having no qualification, or doing previous research, in the field that bought him this fame. Finally, as noted above, Matar abandoned any pretence of philosophical research to write about Palestinian security prisoners.
University authorities willing to challenge this practice could have used the 1982 case of Ilan Rahoum vs. the Hebrew University, which denied him tenure. The District Court in Jerusalem ruled against the plaintiff holding that the ‘permanent faculty (starting with tenured senior lecturers) give the university its character and its scientific-research status’ as well as ‘contribute to the quality of instruction and supervision of students’. Since tenure was difficult to revoke, the Court justified the extra scrutiny given to the review process to assure that those promoted would perform their contractual obligations of teaching and research within the parameters of their specialization. Though it is difficult to argue that activist professors who switched subjects to fields where they had no professional training or research record either gave ‘the university its character and its scientific-research status’ or contributed to the ‘quality of instruction and supervision of students’, university authorities did not avail themselves of the 1982 ruling. Ziva Shamir, former head of the History School at Tel Aviv University, suggested that fear of adverse publicity prompted academic leaders to ignore these and other breaches of academic freedom. In her view, such hands off policy enabled activists not only to engage in research aimed at fitting a political agenda but to turn their office into a branch of whatever party they belonged to.
The post-Zionist narratives presented the academic authorities with a potentially more difficult quandary. As discussed in Chapter 3, the New Historians produced a variety of accounts of the 1948 war that, to various degrees, reflected their shifting politics. By the early 2000s Pappe, by far the most radicalized of the group, had created the narrative of Israel’s history as an unceasing ethnic cleansing from 1948 to the present; small wonder that he exploited the Katz affair to prod British academics to boycott Israeli universities. In his autobiography, Out of the Frame: The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel - an apparent nod to Edward Said’s Out of Place - Pappe accused the-then head of the History School, Yoav Gelber, and Humanities Dean Yossi Ben Artzi of a ‘witch hunt’, arguing that after becoming ‘even more categorical than Katz about the [alleged massacre] conclusion’ he had to pay the price of speaking truth to power, becoming a ‘pariah in my own university’. He recalled a special disciplinary hearing where ‘I was accused or relentless defamation of the University and its institutions, both in written publication and in public events in Israel and abroad’, adding that the fear of being fired took an emotional toll.
Gelber dismissed the ‘witch hunt’ accusation out of hand. In his account, the university leadership was greatly reluctant to stand up to Pappe and the ‘mobilized academy’ and when the affair exploded ‘did its best to sidestep the issue. It was dragged into the judicial case as if possessed to see it through against its will’. Gelber strongly implied a reluctance to challenge Pappe for fear of the British academics who rushed to condemn the university’s ‘assault on the academic freedom’. Ironically, Gelber and Pappe agreed that the university terminated the disciplinary proceedings because of international pressure. But while the former complained bitterly about the power of the ‘mobilized academy’ the latter took credit for mobilizing it on behalf of Katz and himself. Pappe subsequently attributed the failure to expel him to the ‘vigorous mobilization of the academic community’.
The Katz-Pappe case illustrated yet another facet of the problem that post-Zionists scholarship presented, namely the existence of the critical, neo-Marxist narrative. Gelber, a traditional historian, complained that in the ‘postmodern era little was left of traditional or conventional historiography’. Adding that faculty returning from sabbatical or graduate students arriving from abroad ‘imported these crazes to the Israeli academe’, he urged the restoration of ‘the status of Israeli historiography, it is primarily necessary to determine what historical scholarship is’.
Since neo-Marxist scholars established a dense network of research and publication it was not clear how academic authorities could restore the positivist hegemony as per Gelber’s suggestion. As a matter of fact, by the mid-2000s the new paradigm had not only successfully competed with positivism but was on its way to create its own dominance, according to some traditionalists. Arnon Soffer, a prominent geographer from Haifa University and a leading critic of the post-Zionists, described in his book, In the Trap of Radicalism in the Academy the ‘diligent networking of the group’ that led to its campus prominence. Some faulted the promotion process, which, according to one insider, tolerated cronyism at the expense of academic excellence. Others blamed double standards whereby the stringent requirements for excellence in the natural sciences have never been applied to the social sciences and humanities. According to this view the academic leaders including the Israeli Academy of Science considered the liberal arts to be of negligible value and not worthy of their scrutiny.
Adding to the difficulties, activist scholars tended to impose their paradigm in the classroom in violation of the Humboldian pedagogical tenets. In a rare public debate on the subject, Amnon Rubinstein, by then a law professor at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, urged to embrace a more diverse perspective in the classroom in order to turn it into a ‘marketplace of ideas’. Ephraim Yuchtman-Yaar, a former dean of social sciences at Tel Aviv University, was another harsh critic of radical scholars, accusing them of totally ignoring positivist scholars and noting that not a single work of Eisenstadt was offered in an introductory course in Israeli sociology at Tel Aviv University. By using their academic position to exclude material that did not fit their paradigm, in his view, they conveyed to students a uni-dimensional picture of reality and worse - depriving them of an opportunity to exercise critical thinking in pursuit of truth.
Ziva Shamir was especially scathing. ‘I am aware of the fact that it is difficult to go back to the era of positivism, and that the new trends in critical scholarship give the instructor more political leeway’, she wrote. ‘However, as member of a promotion committee I came across teaching evaluation forms with students’ complaints about their “missionary” professors whose main goal was to convey their political message. The contemporary “missionary” faculty is doing damage to the teaching process… these instructors also contribute to hypocrisy in the classroom; on the one hand they speak about academic freedom but on the other, their teaching does not encourage pluralism and a free exchange of ideas’. Soffer described how, despite numerous complaints about what he considered a breach of academic freedom by radical scholars, the administration of his own university failed to act.
Much as these observations were heartfelt, there was little indication that academic leaders were willing to tackle the complex and potentially explosive topic of evaluating the merits of critical, neo-Marxist scholarship. Tellingly, Shamir admitted to publishing her essay after retiring to avoid the ‘public scolding orchestrated by radical scholars and their allies in the media’ meted out to ‘McCarthy faculty’. Soffer described how, despite numerous complaints about radical scholars at Haifa University, the administration refused to act in order to avoid a public fracas.
Paradoxically, it was a routine evaluation of the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University ordered by the CHE as part of an overall review of political science departments in Israel that proved how costly challenging critical scholars could be. The department - home of many radical activists - had a troubled academic history. In 2001 the CHE appointed a two member committee to evaluate its request to offer a BA program. Professor Zeev Maoz, a leading political scientist and a former head of the Jaffe Centre for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, found that the department did not offer core political science courses and that its faculty, who specialized in topics marginal to the discipline, were ill equipped to fill the void. He recommended closing the department but the second evaluator, Avner de Shalit of the Hebrew University, disagreed and, in November 2003, the CHE appointed a new committee under de Shalit. In March 2004, the new committee decided that the department offered a ‘unique program’ and urged the CHE to strengthen ‘pluralistic approaches’ to political science.
But the International Committee for Evaluation of Political Science and International Relations Programmes, chaired by Professor Thomas Risse of Berlin’s Free University, seemed to side with Maoz. Delivered in September 2011, the ‘Ben-Gurion University Department of Politics and Government Evolution Report’ identified serious problems in the department: weakness of core political science offerings as well as excessive ‘community activism’ and lack of balanced views in the curriculum and the classroom. In the words of the report, ‘political science instructors should see to it that their own opinions are expressed as personal views so that students can take critical perspective and that there is a broad exposure to alternative perspectives in order to widen and deepen their own understanding’. The report urged improving the research and publication record of the faculty, noting that most have not published in mainstream presses and journals. Indeed, it recommended to the university ‘spelling out more clearly individual performance for tenure and promotion criteria, in line with MALAG [CHE] criteria’. The concluding section reiterated that ‘common standards of scholarly achievement and excellence [should be] emphasized in the process of hiring and promotion’. In an unprecedented move, the report stated that ‘if these changes are nevertheless not implemented, the majority of the Committee believes that, as a last resort, Ben-Gurion University should consider closing the Department of Politics and Government’.
The Risse Report was the first official statement about the questionable value of critical, neo-Marxist scholarship. Yaacov Bergman, a leading expert on higher education, explained that, based on the Institute of Scientific Information - Social Science Index (SSCI), international ranking of social science departments favoured mainstream publications. He noted that Israeli social sciences trended 30 per cent below standard in contrast to the precise and life sciences that ranked constantly above average. One possible explanation for such poor performance was the preponderance of critical scholarship. Critical journals and presses such as Pluto, Verso, Zed or Zone - self-proclaimed ‘progressive’ or Marxist publishing houses - favoured by the radical scholars were not included in the SSCI; as the Risse Report stated, such venues were not part of the CHE criteria for hiring and promotion.
But these arguments did little to stop departmental members and their numerous supporters from charging the government with a McCarthy-style witch-hunt. Some accused certain unspecified members of the International Evaluation Committee of harbouring ‘extreme right views’. Others took issue with the ‘misplaced faith’ in the objective criteria used by the SSCI that, in their view, provided only an ‘illusion of objectivity’. To recall Chapter 1, the discourse on the department followed closely the larger debate between the two paradigms.
Without addressing the report’s findings, Ben-Gurion University defended the department while promising to introduce the recommended changes. The administration made available three new slots to strengthen the core discipline but the department hired only one new faculty, an expert in quantitative methods that comported to the CHE specifications. Of the two other hires, Michal Givoni was a student of Ophir specialized in radical humanitarian witnessing and testimony, while Ayelet Harel-Shalev was student of Gad Barzilai, Dean of the Law School at Haifa University appointed to be the ‘the sole external supervisor of the corrections in the department’. According to Bergman, ‘Barzilai was in a serious conflict of interests when he supervised the hiring of his own former student’. Moreover, Harel-Shalev’s research on Israel’s alleged mistreatment of its religious minorities could hardly qualify as core political science. Likewise, the department’s choice of affiliated scholars in 2011-21 replicated past preferences. Hagar Kotef, a graduate student of Ophir took up the study of ‘the checkpoints regime’ in the West Bank while James Ron, a veteran political activist, had a strong history of criticizing Israel.
The changes failed to satisfy the Subcommittee for Quality of the CHE which announced its recommendations on 5 September 2012. These noted that the ‘reservations expressed by members of the International Evaluation Committee with regard to the implementation of recommendations made by the committee regarding the broadening of methodologies and theoretical approaches being taught in the Department of Politics and Government’ were not met. The subcommittee’s recommendations were harsh:
[The] Council expresses its dissatisfaction with the fact that the department of Politics and Government did not exploit this opportunity to recruit new faculty members in order to expand upon the methodological approaches employed by faculty in the department in a way that would reflect the pluralism of the discipline, as recommended by the International Evaluation Committee. Specifically, this relates to the absence of the positivist approach in Political Science among faculty of the department. The recruitment of faculty, the majority of whom represent a sub-field within the Interpretive Approach to political research (critical theory), which is already over-represented in the department, does not follow the recommendations made by the International Evaluation Committee.
A drastic recommendation was made that ‘in the current situation’ the department would not be allowed to enrol students for the 2013-14 academic year.
Leaked to the media, the decision created an academic firestorm. President Carmi and top Ben-Gurion University officials accused the CHE of political bias and urged the international academic community to send letters of protest. In a private email that surfaced in Israel Hayom newspaper, David Newman, Dean of Social Sciences and former founding head of the department, wrote in an internal memo to his colleagues that
I am in favour of applying international pressure - in proper measure - together with a trickle of letters from a number of associations and people with international reputations - some of which will reach the media - in parallel with all the other kinds of pressure that are being applied today to the Council for Higher Education by lawyers and the activity of the president and the rector. It is not a 100-percent match to the policy that we set until now, but it seems to me that they are under pressure now and we need to keep up the pressure and not let up.
In an unprecedented mobilization of international academic circles, dozens of professional associations in political science, sociology and geography in the United States and Britain - as well as international associations representing thousands of scholars worldwide - sent letters of protest to the CHE and the ministry of education. The European Consortium for Political Research, the London School of Economics, and hundreds of individual scholars joined in, ignoring the international committee’s damning findings and repeating the charge that closing the department was a politically motivated move that would damage Israel’s academic standing in the world.
Israeli faculty took a particularly active role in the campaign. Letters condemning the move were dispatched by virtually all relevant professional associations and many individual scholars, including a Noble Prize winner. Maoz was virtually alone in defending the CHE; having publicly disclosed his role in the 2002 evaluation he put much of the blame on the CHE’s decision to accredit the program in the first place. But he also criticized Carmi for tolerating a seriously flawed department and allowing it to hire faculty that represented ‘more of the same’. Convinced that the department could not right itself, Maoz urged the creation of an academic receivership to correct the problems. And by way of fending off charges of political prejudice on his part he felt obliged to describe himself as a leftist in good standing.
But Maoz’s appeal made no impact on the Israeli academic community as it prepared to increase pressure on the CHE ahead of its meeting of 31 October 2012. A week before the meeting the prestigious Israel Democracy Institute organized a roundtable titled ‘The Council of Higher Education: Legitimate Regulations or Infringement on Academic Freedom?’ Predictably, there was a virtual consensus that the evaluation of the department was politically motivated with participants taking turns to condemn the CHE for gravely undermining academic freedom.
Taken aback, the CHE was forced to defend its actions. In a public letter its director, Moshe Vigdor, complained about ‘the unprecedented attack against the CHE’ and accused the critics of actions where ‘red lines were crossed’. He took special umbrage at Carmi and others who appealed to the international community: ‘it is unheard of that a letter by the head of an Israeli academic institution is forwarded to elements abroad, including professors, professional unions and institutions against the CHE and the state - this and more, even before the CHE discussed the issue and before it resolved the issue’. Describing the attack as ‘imported’, he pleaded for the ‘foreign interference’ to stop.
Following the huge build-up, the 31 October meeting was somewhat anticlimactic. Professor Risse, who was at attendance, told the university’s representatives that only one of the three new hires comported with the original recommendation, concluding that the department ‘still lacks the necessary faculty in core topics’ as suggested by the report. The university was given three weeks to furnish a detailed plan for addressing the request but the threat of closure was subsequently removed. As reported in the Israeli press, ‘Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, a PhD candidate at the department, told Ynet: “The decision today uncovered the fact that the attempts to shut down the department were driven by political interests and had nothing to do with academic achievements”’. Moreover, ‘the efforts to close the department backfired at those who vigorously advocated its closing once the academic excellence and professional conduct of the department became clear’.
Coming a decade after the Pappe-Katz incident, the unprecedented intervention of foreign academics in what was a prerogative of a sovereign state to oversee the public higher education system it funded made it clear that imposing common standards on radical academics - the suggestion made by the international Risse Committee - was fraught with considerable perils. Though few in the CHE would have accepted the comment about the ‘excellence of the Department’ they were likely to agree with the ‘backfire’ metaphor. Indeed, the CHE was subsequently much more cautious when dealing with the critical scholars in the Sociology Department at Ben-Gurion University as part of its routine evaluation of sociology departments decided upon in 2009.
In January 2012, the CHE convened a committee of evaluation chaired by Professor Seymour Spilerman of Columbia University. Echoing the Risse committee the report on the Ben-Gurion University sociology department submitted in August offered a scathing critique of the dominance of the critical approach and the paucity of methodically oriented courses: ‘It is the view of the Committee that a sociology department at a major university should not have the majority of its faculty working within conceptual perspective that is not mainstream in the profession’. The report urged to broaden the faculty to ‘include other intellectual approaches as well as in the range of subfields covered by the department’. Referring to the faculty, the committee concluded that ‘it is our majority drew extensively upon critical studies in their own research. Future hiring should therefore to be oriented to brining into the department sociologists who work primarily from a rigorous empirical perspective’.
For reasons not fully explained by the CHE, the Spilerman Committee submitted a second toned-down report in October 2012. Still, the new version took a negative view of the department stating:
The Committee is convinced that critical studies, with its orientation toward critiquing and changing society, has a contribution to make in the discipline and should remain a valued specialty in the Ben-Gurion Department. Moreover, much of what is labeled as critical sociology by the BGU faculty would elsewhere be considered political/historical sociology, which is a well-established subfield of the discipline. However, the faculty should be broadened to increase the representation of other intellectual approaches, as well as in the range of subfields covered by the department.
In other words, the department offered political-historical sociology labelled as sociology. On the same note, the committee found that
in its mission statement the department notes that students are taught to comprehend society and culture from a critical perspective, and not take for granted the conventional assumptions of their society. While this intent is laudable, and helps to distinguish the Ben-Gurion department from other sociology-anthropology departments in Israel, the Committee is of the opinion that the objective of the department’s programs should be, first and foremost, to familiarize students with the variety of theories, conceptual approaches, and methodologies used by sociologists and anthropologists to analyse social structures, cultures, and the func'tioning of social systems.
It recommended that ‘courses should be broadened further to include additional research from quantitatively oriented perspectives’. The Committee expressed concern that ‘not all of the core fields of the two disciplines are covered adequately. For sociology there did not appear to be courses offered in basic topics such as work and occupations, social stratification, or family/life course studies’. Other core courses (e.g. historical sociology, religion) are listed as taught by adjuncts or retired faculty, which is a concern’.
In addition to the paucity of faculty capable of teaching empirically oriented and quantitative core courses, the committee identified other problems created by the imbalance between critical and positivist perspectives. In the MA program, the critical studies track had a very small enrolment as opposed the much more popular organizational sociology. As a result, ‘faculty who work from a critical perspective also teach in the organizational sociology track - which raises issues about the minimal exposure of students in this track to empirical and quantitative materials. In general, we remain concerned about the mal-distribution of the faculty over specialties in light of the student enrolment, among other reasons’.
Finally, while faculty ‘consists of active researchers with strong publication records’ with ‘few exceptions, the sociologists have not published in the most influential journals of the profession, especially the American Sociological Review, the American Journal of Sociology, the British Journal of Sociology, Social Forces, the European Sociological Review and the Annual Review of Sociology’. The orientation of these journals is to publish papers that are rigorously evidenced-based, while critical studies leans more in the theoretical direction and towards a public-oriented sociology. As a result of not publishing in top, general interest journals, the visibility of the department within the profession is lessened’.
Whether the critical orientation of the faculty was related to the department’s difficulty in raising competitive grants was not clearly articulated, but the committee urged the university to provide help in this endeavour. That the committee had little faith in the department to reform itself was also clear in other ways. For instance, in urging the department to hire more quantitatively oriented faculty the committee recommended that an outside scholar be involved in the process.
Even though the October version of the report was modified, it represented a stinging rebuke of Uri Ram, the chair of the department and, as noted earlier, the leading critical sociologist after Kimmerling’s demise. For Ram the difference between positivist sociology - in his words ‘institutional sociology’ - recommended by the committee and his vision was dramatic. He vigorously objected to the notion of sociology that presented ‘itself as a neutral positive science, the role of which is to provide explanations and predictions’. While it stresses objective science it ‘serves the authoritarian and unequal order’. Critical sociology, on the other hand, ‘views sociology as a social activity’ aimed at furthering specific values, ‘the values of freedom and human equality’.
At a minimum, if implemented, the recommendation would undermine Ram’s vision. Whether the CHE will be able to impose the recommendation on the Sociology Department, however, is not entirely clear. While rarely admitted, the Department of Politics and Government’s affair contributed to an intellectual understanding that post-Zionists were protected by a larger international network of scholars. In essence, a symbiotic relationship has developed between the two: the former generated research and activism that the latter could use to justify their anti-Israel actions. In an intellectual climate sensitive to claims of anti-Semitism, Jewish and, especially, Israeli academics were a virtually required presence.
Operating within the critical, neo-Marxist paradigm post-Zionist academics operating within the critical, neo-Marxist paradigm have transformed the marginal anti-Zionist ideology of Matzpen, into a tool of delegitimization. The positivist view of Israel as liberal democracy based on a market economy was replaced by a narrative that offered a ferocious critique of all facets of Israeli history and society, hand-tailored to undermining its legitimacy in a number of ways:
· ‘New historians’ have turned the saga of Israel’s creation upside down so as to cast the Jewish state as ‘born in sin’ - a colonialist outpost of western imperialism established through massive ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population.
· A revisionist historian has cast the Jewish people as a recent Zionist invention aimed at establishing a false historical link between Jews and the Holy Land so as gain international legitimacy for the dispossession of the Palestinians.
· ‘Critical sociologists’ depicted Israel as an apartheid society dominated by an Ashkenazi-capitalist elite that has subjugated minorities, women and the working classes. In a twist of the Zionism-as-colonialism theory, the Mizrahim were reclassified as Arab Jews who - like their ‘Palestinian brethren’ - have allegedly been reduced to third class existence.
· ‘Critical political scientists’ have worked hard to discredit Israel’s democratic credentials, with some of them going so far as to present the Jewish state as a fascist-like, apartheid state.
· ‘Revisionist approaches’ to the Holocaust, the most traumatic event in modern Jewish history, have generated a gamut of delegitimizing conclusions: that Israel has turned Holocaust worship into a civil religion designed to exploit Western guilt feelings in order to dispossess the Palestinians in 1948 and to hold on to the territories conquered in the 1967 war. At the deeper level the Holocaust is said to have perverted Israelis’ perception of reality and morality in a way that entrenched them in a self-righteous victim mentality while committing Nazi-like atrocities against the Palestinians.
Needless to say, this ‘critical’ de-legitimizing endeavour has been marred with serious methodological flaws. These range from the use of unsubstantiated and/or single-source assertions while straining interpretation beyond available evidence, to failure consider contradictory evidence and to spell out important procedural approaches, to selective use of data to prove particular points and the use of data out of chronological or factual context. For their part post-Zionist scholars often dismissed the positivist scientific method as reflecting the ‘dominant narrative’, maligning their critics as agents of right-wing nationalism, colonialism or racism. Some have even presented their work as being, in the words of Ophir, outside the ‘academic consensus’ and thus impervious to criticism.
Last but not least, virtually all post-Zionists analysed in this study have insisted on being duty-bound to do research that is filtered through a contemporaneous political reality. In other words, as political reality changes - or more precisely the scholar’s perception of this reality, so does the respective narrative. As this work indicates, the failure of the Oslo process radicalized the post-Zionists at the personal level leading in many case to the rewriting of their ‘pre-Oslo narrative’. Ilan Pappe, Avi Shlaim and Baruch Kimmerling, to give a few prominent examples, produced new narratives demonstrating a virtual sea-change from their original accounts. Kimmerling, in particular, traversed the research terrain in a dramatic fashion, shifting from a positivist sociologist lauding Israel for holding on to democracy in extremely difficult circumstances to a scathing critic deriding Israel as a militarist, fascist and apartheid state. Benny Morris travelled in the opposite direction. Deeply dismayed by the perceived Palestinians intransigence during the peace negotiations he modified the narrative of the 1948 war with a view to shifting the blame away from the Israelis and onto the Palestinians, again indicating the politicized basis of his work.
Certain features of the Israeli academy account for the rapid dissemination of the post-Zionist themes in the liberal arts in general and social sciences in particular. Compared to tertiary education in the West, Israeli faculty has been granted expansive academic freedom - a tradition created by the Hebrew University determined to carry out the vision of its founder, Judah Magnes. Despite several efforts at reform the state did not manage to limit this broadly conceived right, leaving an operational environment conducive to the flourishing of post-Zionism. Consequently, activist faculty have not only engaged in intense political work, often using campus facilities as a base, but many switched to writing on subjects related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict regardless of their original specialization.
In yet another manifestation of this pattern, the university authorities have accepted such research – often published in the “alternative” critical outlets, as a base of promotion.
The international committee of evaluation of the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University offered a scathing indictment of such practices. The review made clear that “alternative” critical network of publishing venues does not comport to the academic standards of mainstream publications, and urged the department to abide by accepted standards of hiring and promotion. Faced with the prospect of being closed down, the department and its vast network of domestic and international supporters effectively derailed the committee’s recommendation. The uproar had a chilling effect on the Council of Higher Education that had ordered the review. A year later, a different evaluation committee censured the highly politicized Department of Sociology at Ben Gurion University for its heavy reliance on critical scholars and urged to hire more mainstream positivist faculty, the Council sanitized the report, apparently to avoid another international outcry.
Considered in conjunction with the Pappe-Katz-Tantura incident, where the actions of the University of Haifa triggered a call of academic boycott, these developments reveal a broad engagement of the scholarly international community in nourishing and protecting post-Zionist faculty.
Though beyond the scope of the present study, there is considerable evidence to demonstrate that activist academics receive extensive financial support. Some of its direct, in form of grants from foundations and foreign governments. Other is indirect, through visiting positions, often at elite universities, invitations to conferences, workshops and other academic conclaves. Quite possible, the newly invigorated push for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions will further enhance the standing of activist faculty whose writings became part of the canon legitimizing the movement. By the same token, the threat of boycott will probably have a chilling effect on the willingness of the state and/or the university authorities to curb this activism.
Clearly, the thesis has the potential to impact the ongoing discourse on the post- Zionist scholars at three different levels. Most important, the systematic and comprehensive analysis of the key post-Zionist texts illustrates in great details the many methodological shortcomings involved. The blurring of the lines between political polemics and bone fide research is celebrated among the disciples of Antonio Gramsci, but should not be tolerated in research universities. Institutions of higher learning are beholden to standards of objectivity and dispassionate pursuit of knowledge - tenet of positivist philosophy. By violating this principle, post-Zionists have produced ever- changing narratives on a variety of topics, be it the Israeli authority system or the history of the 1948 war, to suit their political cause du jour. As noted, polemics masquerading as scholarship have helped to delegitimize Israel in the international arena. But it also undermined the standing of social sciences as measured by rigorous indices like Social Science Citation Index. Both of the Ben Gurion University evaluation reports touched upon this issue, but the present work can spur a more generalized debate on the limits of academic freedom in Israel.
ENDNOTES & BIBLIOGRAPHY