A sad commentary on the state of liberal Zionist discourse

Recent work by authors Bernard Avishai and Gershom Gorenberg reflect the inability of liberal Zionist champions to engage in an honest debate about the core issues of contention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The noted liberal Zionist writer, Bernard Avishai, has a longish piece on the Palestinian Right of Return (RoR) in this month’s edition of Harper’s Magazine (no online version yet). Before I discuss its content, I believe it crucial to note one general aspect of this piece. We must ask ourselves why an openly Zionist thinker who happens to be a Canadian immigrant is writing about Palestinian right of return without a Palestinian counter article. His penmanship of the article speaks volumes about the ability of the press in the United States on the ability to allow Palestinians to speak for themselves. His voice might be an important one, but the absence of a Palestinian view on an issue of such weight such as the Right of Return should be taken as a sign of how far the American press must go in changing the way it covers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Avishai’s article is exhaustive and draws upon a variety of interviews, both from high level officials and intellectuals. While his recollection of history tends to be grounded, it is in the current debate where he gets into hot water. Curiously absent, however, from Avishai’s piece is any discussion of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, one of the primary Palestinian civil society vehicles in fighting for the RoR as specified in UN Resolution 194. Also absent is any discussion with rank and file Palestinians living in the West Bank, a mere twenty minutes’ drive from Avishai’s residence in the formerly Arab Baka neighborhood of West Jerusalem. Although to his credit, Avishai does cite anonymous “friends in Ramallah” at points in the piece in order to bring in necessary but vague Palestinian voice in the West Bank.

While narrowly exhaustive, Avishai’s article is potholed with images of Israeli-Palestinian symmetry that do not exist. His choice of imagery carefully conforms to the accepted Western narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which effectively adopts the Israeli understanding of events on the ground. Namely, that the conflict, thought to be fought between two relative equals, is about peace and security. Take this sentence, which comes three paragraphs from the end of the piece, as an example:

The populated areas of Israel and Palestine together are about the size of greater Los Angeles. The peoples share not only a business ecosystem but everything from water sources to the telecommunications systems. Neither side can set up a 4G network, neither side can manage even wastewater, without the permanent cooperation of the other.

You see, it is all so simple. Everyone is sharing and cooperation is crucial to lasting peace. Wait, what about the occupation, you ask? Could it be that Palestinians share a business ecosystem with Israel because Israel is occupying their land and using them as a captive market? The power of the Israeli narrative lays in its ability to ignore these factual components of reality.  Given Avishai’s inability or unwillingness to interview Palestinians living in refugee camps in Lebanon or Jordan or even in the Qalandia refugee camp seven miles from Jerusalem, his reliance on the Israeli narrative is not surprising.

The piece offers an upbeat and almost pleasant outlook. Perhaps, this is only made possible by ignoring the viewpoints of representative Palestinians. Recently, Gershom Gorenberg, one of Avishai’s ideological peers and a fellow North American living in the same formerly Palestinian Baka neighborhood of West Jerusalem, recently noted the following about diaspora Palestinians in the United States, in a piece in the American Prospect:

Diaspora Palestinians with their own overdone nationalism and a small coterie of Jews whose express their disappointment with Zionism through mirror-image anti-Zionism—as if denying Jewish rights to national self-determination were somehow more progressive than denying Palestinian rights. But realistic, moderate progressives always face the challenge of portraying a more complex reality than extremists recognize.

Clearly, Gorenberg does not share the unbridled optimism of Avishai, but the sentiments he expressesd above can certainly be found lurking in between the lines of Avishai’s text. This is especially clear in their shared authoritarian understanding that as Western liberal Zionists living in Israel they are the true “realistic, moderate progressives” who will solve the region’s problems. Avishai’s hopeful look to the future, however, is welcome, due to the cynicism prevalent in Israeli and Palestinian society, but it also precariously borders on the naïve. In the piece, the major sources of Avishai’s hope are the Israeli tent protesters. Those brave revolutionaries provide Avishai with confirmation that Israelis are ready and able to think outside the box and approach the systemic problems of Israeli society with new vigor. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Had Avishai broached the idea of the Palestinian RoR to any of the tent protesters at the peak of their social justice movement back in July, the issue would have likely been labelled “political” and thus dismissed. In fact, other than the handful of protests which took place in mixed cities like Haifa, attended by both between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Israeli Jews, as well as one “1948″ tent in Tel Aviv, the tent protests was a movement not interested in Israeli-Palestinian political issues, let alone the Palestinian RoR. On the surface, the reason given for this was the horrible polarization which exists in Israeli society over these issues. But something else was at play.

Arguments over this issue were featured on this website. Many of these arguments are a testament to the fact that while Israelis desperately want to have their society to be understood as “normal,” they are simply unable or unwilling to challenge prevailing attitudes concerning Palestinians. These attitudes help maintain a system of occupation and outright institutional discrimination which has lead to an international consensus that Israel is far from a normal country, but rather one engaged in a form of ethnic racism similar to Apartheid or Hafradah.

The widely-held argument that the tent protesters offer a space inside Israel to negotiate issues like the RoR is at best hopeful naiveté and at worst, an effort to portray Israeli society as something it is not. At its peak, the protesters were able to draw 500,000 Israelis (the proportionate equivalent of 17 million Americans) on to the streets to demanding social justice without any mention of the occupation or the rights of all under Israeli rule. It is hard to interpret this as anything other than the fact that Israel is not ready to end its occupation by itself given the overwhelming support for the protests and their continued reticence on Palestinian issues. If the tent protesters were unwilling or unable to talk bout the occupation, why would anyone argue that they are ready to confront the much more difficult issue of the RoR, and or Israel’s culpability in creating the Palestinian refugee problem?

In 1948, Ben Gurion’s nascent army attempted to put the Zionist dream of separation from the natives into practice by forcibly removing as many of Palestine’s native inhabitants as possible and thus creating the Palestinian refugee problem. The 1967 war of conquest continued the trend and the current Kafkaesque occupation of a bureaucratic permit system has made life as hard as possible for West Bank and Gazan Palestinians, driven with by the misplaced hope that they will simply leave.

The 2011 Palestine Papers– secret minutes from the 2008 negotiations process between Israel and the PA released by Al Jazeera– confirm that “transfer” remains a driving component of Israeli policy towards native Palestinians. In the papers, Kadmina MK Tzipi Livini is quoted in meetings with senior PA officials as negotiating the terms of transferring Palestinians citizens of Israel into the West Bank in the case of a final status agreement.

The West Bank Separation Barrier is perhaps the most concrete confirmation of the Zionist separation principle in action. Its effect, both physically and psychologically, has been profound for Israeli society. Ironically exemplified in the Israeli tent protests, young Israelis no longer have connection with Palestinians outside of their army service in which they are thrust into a position of military power over occupied Palestinians. This has resulted in, among other examples, an Israeli public able to demonstrate for social justice while ignoring the rights of all under Israeli rule.

In order for Avishai to avoid these sober developments in Israeli society as it pertains to the settlement of the RoR issue, he must warp the situation on the ground through the creation of basic symmetry between Israelis and Palestinians. His reliance on interviews with Israeli and Palestinian politicians ensures that voices on the ground dealing with the separation principle in action remain invisible. Add ambiguously hopeful language which confirms the Western discussion narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and one is left feeling as though peace and reconciliation is just around the corner. It is not.

Quoting Ramallah- based political thinker Sam Bahour at the end of his piece, Avishai ultimately draws attention to the absence of equality and partnership between Israelis and Palestinians. In my estimation this is the core problem concerning the RoR issue. Avishai hints at the issue of rights by quoting Adam Shatz’s important piece in London Review of Books. While Shatz’s piece was a thoughtful addition to the discourse, I am unsure why Avishai, a resident of Jerusalem, did not go an interview the same or similar people that Shatz did. Why rely on irrational hope when you can go out and interview people on the ground who possess deep insight on this complex issue? Perhaps Avishai’s (and Gorenberg’s) form of Liberal Zionism can no longer function without a heavy dose of hope and clear contempt for overt Palestinian nationalism, grounded in the notion of the right of return as an inalienable right.