Righteous Jews
Can we find compassion for Israelis in 2013?

By Ilan Pappe

04 January 2013

The Electronic Intifada

I have just spent the last few days of 2012 in the city of Haifa. Accidentally, I met a few of my acquaintances who in the past deemed me at best as deluded and at worst as a traitor. They seemed more embarrassed today — almost confessing that mine and my friends' worst predictions about Israel's future seemed to be materializing painfully in front of their very eyes.

In fact, our predictions came very late in the day. Already in 1950, with unsettling accuracy, Sir Thomas Rapp, the head of the British Middle East Office in Cairo, foresaw the future. He was the last person sent by London to decide whether or not Britain should establish diplomatic relations with Israel. He approved but warned his superiors in London:

"The younger generation is being brought up in an environment of militarism and thus a permanent threat to the Middle East tranquillity is thereby being created and Israel would thus tend to move away from the democratic way of life towards totalitarianisms of the right or the left" (Public Record Office, Foreign Office Files 371/82179, E1015/119, a letter to Ernest Bevin the Foreign Secretary, 15 December 1950).

It is the totalitarianism of the right which is going to be the hallmark of the Jewish state in 2013. And some of the liberal Zionists who were once willing to devour me and like-minded Jews in Israel now realize we, like Sir Thomas before us, may have been right. And maybe because of their more benign attitude I would like to reciprocate by attempting, for a very short while, a different approach in 2013.

Compassion towards Israelis?

Those of us who write frequently for the Electronic Intifada have shown in the past — and will undoubtedly continue to do so in the future — our utmost solidarity with the Palestinian victims of Israel's existence and policies. But can we, and should we, show compassion to the Israelis themselves? Obviously, one cannot ask the Palestinians to do this while the dispossession continues in full force. But maybe we who belong, ethnically at least, to the victimizers can ponder for a moment in the beginning of the New Year about our compatriots.

Let me begin with a more personal touch. During this visit I had the opportunity to watch my former colleague, the historian Benny Morris on television and to read some of his interviews. His anti-Arab and anti-Islamic racism is now of the rawest kind possible: a naked and rude discourse of hate, venomously spat out in the most disgusting way possible. So why show any empathy? Because his first book on the refugees was an eye-opener for me and others. It was not a great history book, but it was an eloquent survey of the truth to be found in the state archives about the 1948 Israeli crimes.

Yet his transmutation into an arch-racist is not surprising — it follows the same trajectory of many of the so-called liberal Zionists in Israel. He and his friends had an epiphany in the 1990s: discovering the immoral foundations of the state. This could have opened the way to a genuine reconciliation but it was also a frightening moment that demanded brave personal decisions. Most of them opted instead to deny the truth and the guilt, covering it up with a born-again Zionism of a far more extreme and obnoxious kind. This particular group of Zionists are not likely to go through another epiphany, but maybe their children will. One can only hope.

Israel's Arab Jews

Compassion of a kind can be shown also toward the Arab Jews of Israel. I noticed during this visit how many of them are wearing — almost crouching under the yoke of — huge Star of David medallions of a size I have never seen before. They are frightened that the police or members of the public might mistake them for "Arabs," hence these huge pendants that cry out: I am a Jew, not an Arab, even if I look like one! (As if any of us living between the River Jordan and the sea look that different from one another.)

This is sad and pathetic but maybe the academic Ella Habiba Shohat was right when she asked us to recognize Arab Jews as victims of Zionism as much as the Palestinians were. It is hard however, with the risk of generalization of course, to buy into their victimization for too long as they have by now endorsed wholeheartedly the formula that the more racist their anti-Arabism would be, the more Israeli they would become.

Back in the 1970s, Arab Jews rebelled against their discrimination. The right-wing parties in Israel capitalized on this frustration to build an electoral base that brought the Likud party to power and associated Arab Jewish politics of identity with anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian positions. But if there is any future for the Jews in Palestine, it will have to go through the organic and intrinsic connection of these Jews to the region, its past, its civilization and future. There are still enough among them who may show the way for the European settlers to learn to reconcile with whatever season the Arab world would happen to be in.

My third message of compassion is for the ultra-Orthodox Jews. The idea of a state in Judaism is a travesty — they know it best. There is no foundation in Judaism for a state based on the religion. So they opted either for clear anti-Zionism, for which they are persecuted, or embarrassingly spearheading Zionism by colonizing the West Bank and leading the racist choirs in the state. For a moment one should empathize with their predicament — they are a sizable part of the Jewish population and could be part of a new and better Palestine and the Middle East.

Cultural ghettoes

My fourth flickering moment of compassion is directed towards the Russian Jews (many of whom I see praying piously in the Orthodox churches all over Haifa and the north). They are a first generation of settlers in a colonialist project that still goes on. They are aliens in this country — as were the early Zionists — and they are lost. So they either create cultural ghettoes, or like the Arab Jews they try to integrate by offering to be the signifiers of the most fascist and racist pole of the Israeli political scene. Either way, this must be very unpleasant and unfulfilling.

My final sense of empathy is directed to the Jewish students in the West who still insist on acting as Israel's ambassadors on university campuses. Here too, the pathetic human condition triggers the compassion. They could have played a vanguard and leading role — as their predecessors did when they spearheaded the struggles for equality in the United States and the movements against apartheid in South Africa and imperialism in Vietnam — in one of humanity's greatest campaigns for peace and justice: the solidarity movement with the Palestinians. But they find themselves confused and disoriented, representing the oppressor, the colonizer and the occupier. The end result is parroting slogans prepared by the Israeli diplomacy that make little sense I suspect even to those who chant it unconvincingly along with hysterical allegations of anti-Semitism and terrorism.

I thought of adding the aging Zionist veterans of 1948 who opened their secrets to filmmaker Eyal Sivan and myself (their testimonies were exhibited on a special display we put on in the heart of Tel Aviv at the end of 2012) and told us bravely about the crimes they committed against the Palestinians during the Nakba. But that would have been too much.

Maybe when peace is nearer I could follow the in the footsteps of Desmond Tutu and show compassion of the kind displayed in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee. But until this time comes I will try to keep an open door for the others in the settler colonialist society I belong to and with which the Palestinians hopefully will one day build a democratic and free Palestine.

The author of numerous books, Ilan Pappe is professor of history and director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.