This post is drawn from one of my occasional epic email debates with Werner Cohn, a radical leftist in his youth in the early 1940s, who takes what we would call neoconservative views on Israel today. This debate was renewed the other week over the passing of Pete Seeger and references to his conflicted views on Israel: sometimes memorably supportive in his music, but in recent years marked by his financial contributions to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).
From my perspective, ICAHD is far from perfect; I don’t support the anti-Zionist agenda of Jeff Halper, its main leader. Prof. Cohn argues that ICAHD is not really a group that promotes human rights and peace, but is basically just a platform for Halper’s extreme anti-Israel agenda: “Halper characterizes any Arab leader who would sign a peace accord based on the Camp David understandings as a ‘quisling‘.” But the issue of housing demolitions is deeply problematic.
Click here for a list of ICAHD publications. And what follows link to articles and a YouTube video (courtesy of Cohn) which illustrate the depth of Halper’s critique of, and alienation from, Israel:
Left-Zionists like myself fight a two-front battle: one against the political right and anti-peace forces that are Zionist, and the other against far-left forces that are anti-Zionist. While I take a liberal and critical view of Israel, I am also supportive of Israel’s raison d’être as a sovereign Jewish homeland and often criticize pro-Palestinian views and actions.
There’s clear statistical evidence that Arab citizens are better off in Israel than in other places in the Middles East (see Josh Muravchik’s article, “Israel’s Arab citizens,” in the British online journal fathom). It is sad (although not surprising) that the relative material well-being of Israeli Arabs, together with their relative political freedom, have not translated into a greater sense of identification with the State of Israel. Had Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin not been assassinated, the progress he was making toward more equitable access to public funding and to a share in political power for Israel’s Arab citizens would likely have made a huge difference, but Israel has not really progressed toward a fuller measure of equality between Jews and Arabs since.
Even the Israeli-born filmmaker, Hany Abu-Assad, whose latest film, Omar, is now contending for an Oscar, lists his 1961 birthplace as “Nazareth, Palestine” (rather than Israel, as it was then and is now) and refuses to speak Hebrew in public. Palestinian Israeli citizens have reasons for complaint, as I relate below, but since a majority are not eager to have some of their towns and villages transferred to a new Palestinian state, as proposed by Avigdor Lieberman, they also have a sense of what is good about Israel.
There are several different realities regarding Palestinian Arabs:
• Those who are citizens are much better off economically than Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation, but they do suffer from discrimination in housing and in employment — more a social reality than a matter of law, but also a question of how public funds are distributed. Arab towns and villages in Israel receive less in budgeted public expenditures for municipal services (e.g., schools, roads, etc.) than do Jewish areas. There is also a prevalence for housing segregation with no legislation under which Arabs can sue against landlords that discriminate.
• I honestly don’t know how much Arab citizens suffer from demolitions because of a lack of access to building permits (I vaguely recall an Arab Israeli saying that this is a problem). Arabs in East Jerusalem have residency rights within Green Line Israel but are not citizens (partly by their choice). They suffer from widespread housing demolitions and live in neighborhoods that are woefully neglected by the municipality, even in terms of garbage collection; it’s a very segregated reality. Now they also suffer being cut off by the separation barrier from villages and towns next door to them in the West Bank, which are their natural social linkages. Moreover, their legal status is tenuous; when they leave for education or to live elsewhere for another reason for an extended time, they are often not allowed back; and they are being muscled out of a couple of neighborhoods by militant Jewish nationalist groups that claim ownership of their properties from before the 1948 war.
• Then there’s the West Bank. Villages in Area C (geographically most of the West Bank, but not including Arab cities) are completely subject to the whims of the military and to the depredations of thuggish militant settlers. Homes are demolished because of their lack of access to building permits, but also because of the path of the separation barrier — the latter also causing the destruction of olive groves and other agricultural land. There has been a non-violent struggle going on for years with the path of the separation barrier, which occasionally results in small legal victories in Israel’s Supreme Court; this struggle has been showcased in the excellent documentary films, Budrus and Five Broken Cameras. Another outstanding documentary, The Gatekeepers, famously depicts the dead-end of looking at the problem of the conflict only though a security-lens without sincerely seeking a political solution that ends the occupation. Still another, The Law in These Parts, shows how Israel’s legal system has operated in a stop-gap way in the Territories, meant to be temporary, but instead enforcing a semblance of law for nearly five decades that consistently disadvantages Palestinian civilians, even to the point of routinely jailing and traumatizing young children (often under 10 years old).
I’d say that there is a “matrix of control” (a phrase popularized by Halper) but I would not want to endorse Halper’s idea of what that is, which denies the reality that Israel has legitimate security concerns, and that the Jewish people have a historical right to self-determination in their own sovereign state.