This time of the year we commemorate sixty-seven years to the 1948 war and Nakba, and forty-eight years to the 1967 war and occupation. As always, the question of why particular attention must be paid to these events comes up. Is there anything special about them, and about Israel as a state?
Israeli hasbara officials and their supporters overseas frequently invoke the notion of “singling out” as a problem in analyses and campaigns aimed to address Israeli state practices. They do not necessarily deny that there are problems with government policies, formal and informal discrimination within the Green Line, and denial of rights beyond it. But they usually explain these away as the unfortunate results of ever-present difficult security situation which calls for undemocratic measures, albeit of a limited and temporary nature. These measures, the argument goes, are not unique to Israel. In a similar form they can be found in many places throughout the world, today or historically. Why regard Israel, then, as a unique state deserving of unique treatment?
In what follows I suggest possible answers to this question, seeking to identify the particular features of the case of Israel and explore their implications both for analysis and political activism.
Let us start with 1948. On its face, it was a war between two national communities, each trying to grab as much land and power as possible from the departing colonial forces. The Jewish side managed to acquire a larger territory and to evict many of the Palestinians who resided there, sending them to territories under the control of Arab forces. It was a messy outcome but essentially no different from that of other conflicts unfolding under similar circumstances: Turkey and Greece in the aftermath of the First World War, Czechoslovakia and Germany in the aftermath of the Second World War, India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the 1947 partition that ended colonial rule in the sub-continent.
The similarities between these situations are real enough, but with three crucial differences:
- The Nakba involved the displacement of indigenous people by settler immigrants. In the other cases above all those involved were equally indigenous to the scene in the sense they had co-existed in the same territory for centuries.
- The Nakba affected almost exclusively one side: for every Jew in Palestine displaced in the war there were hundreds of Palestinians. In other cases, displacement of populations was more mutual. Jews were indeed displaced from other Arab countries, but not by Palestinians, at their behest or on their behalf.
- The Nakba saw the displacement of eighty percent of the Arab population residing in what became Israel (sixty percent of the overall Palestinian population), and their replacement within a short period of time by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In other cases only a small segment on either side of the divide was involved, perhaps two to three percent of the population. The bulk of the population was not affected directly.
Putting all this together, it is clear that the partition of Palestine and subsequent war resulted in the destruction of indigenous society and the creation of a settler-dominated society in its place. This was not a coincidence, a series of unfortunate events, or the result of chaotic war conditions. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the Zionist movement embarked on a project of building an ever-expanding zone of exclusion from which Arabs were barred. Tenants were not allowed to stay on land bought by official settlement agencies, nor were Palestinians accepted as residents in new rural or urban Jewish settlements. The campaigns for Conquest of Land and of Labor were not always successful, but they set in motion exclusionary dynamics that aimed to remove Arab workers from Jewish-owned enterprises and to eliminate (or at least reduce) dependence on Palestinian agricultural produce. The British imperial authorities created a legal framework that made such policies possible.
This had nothing to do with “security,” but rather with the goal of building one place in the world where Jews would be in complete control of their own affairs, with no danger of becoming a minority. Nor was it an inevitable outcome of Jewish settlement as such: the early stage of settlement, from 1882 to 1904, known as the First Aliyah, made extensive use of local labor, in the fields and at homes, in a pattern familiar from colonial settlement elsewhere (though its small scale meant it had minimal impact on indigenous society). That pattern had a basic flaw though: it limited employment opportunities for potential Jewish immigrants.
Under the impact of its labor movement and officials such as Arthur Ruppin, and against continual resistance from private farming interests, a new pattern began to displace the older pattern and came to dominate Zionist settlement. It was based on reserving jobs for immigrant workers (even if this meant evicting existing Arab workers) and encouraging collective forms of economic production, especially in agriculture, to allow more efficient use of resources in order to compete with local Arab producers. Strong political commitment and subsidies were required to sustain this effort, made possible by mobilizing financial resources from numerous overseas-based individual Jewish supporters. Diplomatic and military back-up by global powers, first the British and then the United States, ensured the survival and eventual success of the project against substantial odds. These factors allowed the project to overcome constraints imposed by the need to maintain economic profitability. Thus it could override local class imperatives by relying on external resources made available due to ideological and strategic reasons.
The core elements of the emerging society had been put in place by 1948, and the war served to consolidate them further. Land transfers and the eviction of Arab tenants and workers were limited to some extent by British regulations before 1948. But political independence and access to superior military force allowed the new state freedom to pursue such policies on a much larger scale with fewer restrictions. The war also took place only three years after the end of the World War and the Holocaust. That gave Israelis a sense of moral justification, bordering on immunity, to do whatever they had to in order to ensure survival.
It is important to realize that 1948 and the Nakba shaped Israeli society in several ways, all the way to the present:
- By removing the bulk of the indigenous population it ensured that Jews occupied a dominant position in society as the undisputed majority. From that point on, the new demographic status quo became a shared platform for all mainstream political forces, from the hard right and religious orthodox parties to liberal and left-wing Zionists. It mandates unwavering support for the Law of Return for Jews, and resolute opposition to the right of return of Palestinian refugees. The notion of Israel as a “Jewish democratic state” rests on this foundation, which has become part of the global diplomatic consensus on the issue.
- By restricting the numbers of internal Palestinians (fifteen to twenty percent of all Israeli citizens and a similar proportion of all Palestinians), it made them a marginalized minority, but also facilitated their incorporation as citizens. This would not have been possible had they formed a larger part of the population. From a truncated community, left defeated without leadership, they managed to consolidate themselves into a self-conscious and unified minority, powerfully asserting their rights.
- By creating a large population of refugees across the borders (and even within them—the “present absentees”), it ensured a state of permanent tension, necessitating constant vigilance, militarization, and enhanced security consciousness, all of which became essential features of public life in Israel. On the Palestinian side it created a political adversary located primarily outside the territory it sought to liberate, an unprecedented situation in the history of anti-colonial movements.
- Finally, by emptying large parts of the country of its Arab population, it created both the space needed to settle new immigrants and the necessity for large numbers of people to fill in the resulting gaps, both geographical and social. Mizrahim (“oriental” Jews from the Middle East and North Africa), were the one group the state could access and manipulate with relative ease to play the roles of demographic barrier, cheap labor force, and cannon fodder. Growing xenophobic sentiments among Arab nationalist movements and states contributed to pushing Jewish communities into Israel. A new ethnic hierarchy thus emerged, affecting internal relations and the broader conflict.
In all these respects the legacy of the 1948 war is still with us. Of most importance is the excluded presence of the refugees, a specter that is haunting Israeli society, not by directly shaping people’s consciousness—many are not aware of its existence—but by nurturing an ever-present siege mentality, expectations of doom and imminent destruction. Not only must all precedents for the return of refugees be avoided (even when they are Israeli citizens, as those from Bir’im and Iqrit), but the same impulse that led to the Nakba in the first place is still at work. House demolitions, land confiscations, forced relocation of Bedouins, denial of recognition to unofficial communities, planning restrictions in official communities, refusal of residence to Palestinian spouses of Israeli citizens—none of these is as dramatic as the ethnic cleansing of 1948 but all share the same imperative: restrict and reduce the Palestinian population as much as possible.
Bearing the brunt of such policies on a daily basis, however, are neither Palestinian citizens of Israel nor refugees living outside its boundaries. Rather it is another population segment that was added to the picture in 1967: residents of the territories occupied in that year, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
In a sense, 1967 reaffirmed but also reversed some of the trends set in motion by 1948. The overall thrust was kept in place: incorporation of land, separation of people. But this time with a difference: people beyond the Green Line were excluded from rights and freedoms of movement, expression and political organization while, for the most part, staying put in their homes, villages and towns. The majority were spared the ethnic cleansing experienced by the 1948 refugees but without gaining the privileges of citizenship granted to internal Palestinians. This mode of exclusionary inclusion brought about changes in the nature of the Israeli regime, with implications for democracy, demography, diplomacy, and social divisions.
Let us start with Democracy. Even if we ignore the refugees who obviously had no say in the way Israel was governed, pre-1967 Israeli democracy was seriously deficient. The majority of Palestinian citizens were subjected to military rule, which placed restrictions on their ability to organize freely. Arab nationalist associations were banned, teachers had to be vetted by the security forces, a network of informers kept watch on subversive activists (anyone engaged in protest), and political deviations were punished.
With all these limitations, some avenues of oppositional political expression were open, above all the Communist Party, which grew to become a dominant force among Palestinian citizens in the decade following 1967 (while remaining marginalized on the broader political scene).
In comparison, residents of the occupied territories were treated harshly: many thousands of activists who engaged in resistance were arrested or deported, political publications and associations were banned and, above all, no prospect of being granted citizenship ever existed. A million people (initially), twenty-five to thirty percent of the total population, were left without access to basic human, civil and political rights. Their numbers grew over the years to reach 4 million people, but their prospects of freedom from Israel or freedom within Israel (indeed any rights within the system of Israeli control) remain as remote as ever.
Since 1967, then, the Israeli regime has combined formal democracy within part of its territory, and repressive rule backed up by military force—which denies any participation by the local population—in another part. Under these conditions, its democratic pretensions cannot be taken seriously. The only claim to international legitimacy made by this regime is its temporary nature, but at forty-eight years of age (more than seventy percent of the entire duration of its existence, with no change in sight) it is not tenable any longer, if it ever was. Willing neither to terminate its control by withdrawing from the territories, nor to grant their residents equal rights, Israel has entrenched a system of domination with no parallel elsewhere in the world today.
Changing Demography is both a cause and effect of this regime. The number of Palestinians under Israeli control tripled with the 1967 occupation. There was no way to incorporate all of them as equals without undermining the Jewish nature of the state, a problem that became known as the demographic threat. The attempted solution combined three elements: denying citizenship rights to residents of the occupied territories; taking steps to reduce their numbers; increasing Jewish immigration. But, the latter two steps were not sufficiently successful. A repeat of the ethnic cleansing of 1948 was not possible: the 1967 war was much shorter and more visible to the media, preventing such an occurrence. Furthermore, people stayed put, having learnt the lesson of the Nakba.
Most of those who fled or were expelled to Jordan had been second-time refugees from 1948. Bureaucratic harassment made it difficult for many to retain residence if they left the country at any point but the bulk of them remained in place. Large-scale Jewish immigration has taken place, especially from the Soviet Union, but it could only alleviate the demographic problem, not solve it.
The remaining option was to intensify the exclusion of Palestinians in the occupied territories in ways that would attract the least criticism and, at the same time, intensify the Jewish nature of the state internally. Over the last two decades, particularly with the second Intifada and rise of Hamas, both processes have unfolded apace, facilitated by the changing global environment: the rise of ethno-nationalism in Europe, the attacks of 11 September 2001 and growing anti-Islamic sentiments in the West, and the collapse of the traditional state order in the Middle East due to external interventions and internal revolts.
The main demographic project of the state thus involves accelerated inclusion of land coupled with growing exclusion of (non-Jewish) people. While Palestinians cannot be removed from the country physically, their position can be diminished conceptually and legally through administrative means. The ongoing settlement project, land confiscation and fragmentation of the West Bank are well known, but these efforts go beyond that: admission committees in new settlements within the Green Line, ensuring they remain open in practice to Jews only, the Nation State bill, aimed to entrench exclusive Jewish claim to the country, its symbols and public spaces, forced resettlement of Bedouins in Israel and the West Bank, growing budgets for enhancing Jewish identity at schools and forging links with the Jewish Diaspora (sending young Israeli Jews to Holocaust-related sites in Europe, bringing young Western Jews on trips of “discovery” of their “Birthright” in Israel)—the list goes on.
Diplomacy is essential to sustain the legitimacy of these efforts. It is based on the obsolete notion that there is a meaningful “peace process” aimed to reach agreement on a two-state solution, and no alternative approach must be allowed to disrupt it. That the two powers most insistent on this idea are Israel and the United States, after decades of resolute opposition to the mere mention of Palestinian statehood, is telling. Even the EU, which followed US diplomacy loyally for years, is beginning to explore other diplomatic and legal means to end the occupation. So does, of course, the Palestinian Authority, though in a more hesitant manner due to its financial dependence on the same powers intent on its continued subordination.
Nothing can possibly come out of another round of negotiations. This is plain for all to see—during the recent Israeli election campaign early in 2015 the issue never came up as a topic of discussion, nor will the new government make any effort to revive the process, save perhaps for a few token statements. The sole remaining function of the official two-state discourse is to entrench the status quo and prevent a search for alternatives. Are there any serious forces within Israeli society willing and able to pick up this challenge?
To answer that, we have to look at the socio-political Divisions, with a focus on the two groups that stand at the intersection of the Israeli-Arab divide. The role of one group is obvious. Palestinian citizens compose the only segment of the population of Israel/Palestine that is fully bilingual and familiar with cultural and social realities on all sides of the conflict. They suffer from sufficient disadvantages—relative to other Israelis—to position them against the regime but also enjoy sufficient privileges—relative to other Palestinians—to enable them to organize effectively within the system and on its margins. They can act as powerful catalysts for regime change. The formation of the Joint List, and its move beyond parliamentary politics to engage in mass action and social mobilization, are promising signs of what is yet to come.
The other segment of the population to consider here presents a more complex picture. As discussed earlier, Mizrahim were brought to Israel to fill in the gaps left by the Nakba. To gain admission to Israeli society as legitimate members of the dominant Jewish group, they had to leave their Arab heritage behind them. Politically, with the exception of a few intellectuals in Iraq and Egypt, identification with Arab nationalism and active opposition to Zionism were rare among Middle Eastern Jews, and hardly known among their North African counterparts. The Jewish masses spoke local dialects of Arabic and were culturally similar in their daily practices to other members of their societies, but largely identified in traditional religious terms. It is misleading to refer to them anachronistically as Arab Jews. For the most part they did not join the political revival that formed the foundation for the Arab nationalist movement that began to flourish after the First World War. They largely continued to adhere to the pre-war mode of communal organization prevalent in the Ottoman Empire, which recognized religious differences but tolerated cultural interrelationships, without establishing sharp lines of division between them.
Post-Ottoman realities found Jews increasingly torn between competing modes of nationalist identification—Zionism and Arabism—which did not tolerate ambiguity or dual loyalties. The dilemma was resolved in a manner that saw hundreds of thousands of Jews from the region moving, under duress, to Israel within a decade of its establishment. Frequently they were forced to abandon their property and thus arrived in Israel with limited assets. Cultural disadvantage—they were regarded by Ashkenazi Jews in charge of the state as primitive, lacking culture and education—combined with material deprivation and social discrimination to make them easy to control. They were sent to remote areas along the borders, subject to inferior education and fewer opportunities to find decent employment, and largely restricted to “development towns,” created as new industrial zones relying on cheap labor, and to poor neighborhoods in big cities whose former Arab residents had become refugees.
Although their living conditions placed them next to Palestinian citizens in the bottom rungs of Israeli society, they had one precious asset the others lacked—Jewish identity. Focusing on what they shared with other Jews, and distancing themselves from what set them apart and brought them closer to the enemy—Arab cultural background—made perfect sense. Mizrahi identity thus developed in Israel in the 1950s and 60s as a coping strategy to deal with social marginalization with clear ethnic undertones. The humiliating process of absorption in Israel created deep resentment against the establishment led by the Labor Party. It took a generation for this attitude to consolidate into a full-fledged rejection of Labor and transfer of political allegiance to the right-wing alternative, led by Menachem Begin. Having put greater emphasis on the traditional Jewish component of identity, at the expense of the secular Israeli component associated with Ashkenazi liberal elites, especially after 1967, was an important element allowing the right wing to gain support among Mizrahim. The result was the political upheaval of 1977 that brought Likud to power.
It is important to realize that right-wing views including hostility to Palestinians and other Arabs, based on xenophobia or desire for historical revenge, were not the primary reason for the support the Mizrahim granted Likud. On the contrary, it was the sense that Likud regarded them as equal Jewish citizens, free of the condescending attitudes they experienced from the Labor establishment that moved them to adopt Likud’s right-wing agenda.
Initially, issues of historical redress, ethnic pride and access to social services were at the forefront of the political realignment. But the Likud and its new partners—the post-1967 religious-nationalist settlers—had other priorities. Once Egypt signed a peace agreement with Israel and the regional Steadfastness and Confrontation Front collapsed with the Iraq-Iran war, the road was clear for pursuing their agenda in an accelerated manner: the massive project of Jewish settlement of the West Bank rapidly gained ground, the first Lebanon war erupted and was followed by prolonged resistance, and the first Intifada broke out in the late 1980s. All these contributed to retaining a focus on “security” issues, with the social redress agenda taking a back seat.
But by that time, the Mizrahi support for the right wing had been consolidated. The historical hostility towards the Labor establishment was translated into hostility towards the policies and discourses associated with the liberal Ashkenazi elites, who continued to express arrogant and condescending attitudes towards the Mizrahim. These elites were accused of caring more for outsiders (Palestinians, refugees) than for their “own” people. They lost political power, but were seen to have retained control over media, academia, culture, and the legal system. Transforming these spheres and demoting the old elites became a goal common to many Mizrahi activists, the right wing, and the settler movement, though they all came at the issue from different directions. Reinforcing the Jewish nature of the state, against liberal notions of universal human rights, civil equality and Western-style democracy, which threaten to make Israel into a “normal” state, has become the ideological unifying battle cry in this campaign.
How can we characterize the regime that emerged from these historical processes? It has been referred to as colonial or settler-colonial, but this terminology covers many different situations and is far too vague to be of much use in historically-grounded analysis. What does the Israeli regime, with its prolonged conflict against a large indigenous population within its boundaries and outside of them, really have in common with the United States, Australia, and Canada, which conquered their small and dispersed indigenous peoples centuries ago? Or with Angola and Mozambique, whose Portuguese settlers went back to their homeland or moved to neighboring South Africa? To some extent they all share historical legacies but face very different conditions and challenges today.
Apartheid is a concept of greater relevance, capturing the continued struggle between settlers without a mother country and indigenous people residing within the same state structures. The definition of apartheid in the 2002 Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court—“an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination” of one group over another—applies to Israel. However, Israeli apartheid exhibits two crucial features that set it apart from South African apartheid:
- The Israeli regime has been based on the exclusion of indigenous people as main providers of labor, while apartheid in South Africa was based on their inclusion and exploitation as the mainstay of the white-dominated economy and society. This has implications not only for understanding regime dynamics but for resistance as well. The crucial role in the demise of apartheid, played by the internal mass movement led by black trade unions, cannot be replicated in Israel/Palestine today. An alternative configuration of internal and external forces of resistance would have to be found instead. And,
- The unique position of the Mizrahim—a settler group indigenous to the region, which shares cultural background with Palestinians but no common political consciousness with them—had no equivalent in South Africa. Mizrahim have experienced decades of cultural and political assimilation into Israeli society, and any expectation that they could have retained Arab identity (even if only in a dormant form) is delusional. But, no change is possible without them. How to shatter their alliance with the right wing is the crucial political challenge in Israel today.
In previous work I referred to this regime as “apartheid of a special type,” to capture both the similarities and the differences between it and apartheid in South Africa. Of course, the real challenge is not to find elegant terminology but to fill it with concrete content for purposes of analysis and action. This calls for historically-specific examinations by scholars and activists, both insiders and outsiders to the society, and ongoing debate. The political implications of the analysis are of particular concern, but require a separate discussion.