Jewish-Arab alliances are our best shot against segregation

Israel is already a binational state based on ethnic segregation. The struggle to turn it into an inclusive one must be fought by Jews and Palestinians — together. A response to Rami Younis and Orly Noy.

International activists confront an Israeli skunk canon during a protest in Bil'in, West Bank, 2001. Ahmad al-Bazz /
Activists confront an Israeli skunk canon during a protest in Bil’in, West Bank. (Ahmad al-Bazz/

In their article, “Let’s stop talking about a false ‘Jewish-Arab partnership,’” +972 writers Orly Noy and Rami Younis criticize calls for establishing a Jewish-Arab party on what appears to be the ruins of the Israeli left following last week’s elections. While I identify with some of their arguments, their bottom line is problematic, and their criticism of other Israeli left-wing groups is wrong and often unfair.

Let’s begin by agreeing. It is true that for many Jewish Israelis, including on the left, Jewish-Arab partnership includes a division between “good Arabs” who are worthy of alliance and illegitimate Arabs. This, of course, is not real partnership, but rather an attempt to divide and conquer, and Palestinians have every right to be suspicious of it.

Yet I do not believe this claim applies to the entirety of the Israeli left. Younis and Noy’s article deliberately distorts reality, as if establishing a joint framework with some Palestinians delegitimizes all the other Palestinians. There are cases, of course, in which this is true. But there are many other cases in which it is not. It certainly cannot be used as a reason for invalidating the very idea of partnership.

Secondly, the idea that political partnerships reproduce societal power relations (which tend to favor Ashkenazi Jewish men) is nothing new. Power relations exist almost everywhere; the idea that one can circumvent them is the real fallacy. The solution is developing awareness, while creating mechanisms and a culture of equality within those frameworks.

I would not insist on these points had Younis and Noy posited an alternative. One would be able forgo these joint political frameworks had we a different and effective model for change. We all know the model of separation, and we know where it leads to. Separation is the status quo. Israel is a segregationist, exploitative binational state (within both ’48 and ’67 borders). The question is how to turn it into an inclusive, just state based on equality (within ’48 or ’67 borders). In my eyes, partnership is the radical approach — as long as it is not done artificially, but within the framework of a political movement that seeks real change.

At the end of their article, Younis and Noy suggest an alternative with which I identify: solidarity. They believe, as do I, that the oppressed group must lead the struggle, while Jews must take it upon themselves to stand back and offer their support. There are places in which this idea can work. When I came to protests at the West Bank village of Bil’in, I did so out of solidarity. I did not deign to tell Palestinians how they should lead their struggle — I simply marched alongside them.

But I am not certain that one can base a mass movement, or even a significant parliamentary framework, on this principle. The reason is that Younis and Noy demand that Jews give up their Jewish Israeli identity, since it is a “privileged” identity vis-à-vis Palestinians. There are very few Israelis who will heed this call, and it is no coincidence that those who do so are the most privileged of all. After all, it is usually those who feel complete security in their socio-economic and cultural status who can afford to make these concessions.

Israeli activists march during a protest in front of the Israeli army headquarter in Tel Aviv city in solidarity with the March of Return of the Gaza Strip and against the Israeli blockade, Israel, March 30, 2019. (Keren Manor/
Israeli activists march during a protest in front of the Israeli army headquarter in Tel Aviv city in solidarity with the March of Return of the Gaza Strip and against the Israeli blockade, Israel, March 30, 2019. (Keren Manor/

Jews with fewer privileges, on the other hand, hold on to their Jewish and Israeli identities as a form of social and economic protection. Those who demand they strip themselves of all privileges when facing Palestinians — in exchange for some vague promises of a utopian future — have set the entry bar unfeasibly high.

Finally, one must remember that politics occur between people. I was part of too many left-wing groups in which newcomers were automatically met with accusations of naïveté or were viewed as reactionary for their ideas. That’s a shame, because it is within the framework of these kinds of partnership that real change can occur. Those who start to work with Palestinians on a daily basis learn to understand the meaning of the right of return or the legitimacy of Palestinian political parties in a way that theory in itself cannot possibly explain. However, none of this will happen if we continue with ideological gatekeeping. In a sense, it is strange that the most radical voices insist on rehashing definitions of “Zionist” and “non-Zionist” as if they themselves were members of Likud.

I will be glad to know that these elections could lead to another attempt at creating a Jewish-Arab framework, and I’m not too concerned whether it happens in Hadash, Meretz, etc. In fact, the growing number of Palestinians who vote Meretz (and, ironically, the decreasing number of Israeli Jews) has created a good opportunity for this attempt. Their caricaturization of the Jewish-Arab group Standing Together also does a disservice to the potential the group holds.

Younis and Noy are right about one thing: the ball, as usual, is in the Jews’ court.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.