The NYTimes has it wrong: Israel’s roots are not liberal

Perhaps the greatest myth about Israel is the one the New York Times subscribes to: that it started out as a ‘liberal’ country committed to ‘human rights.’ An examination of the early days demonstrates that the country led by Ben-Gurion and Mapai was no progressive picnic.

Recently, the New York Times was bemoaning the declining state of democracy in Israel. My colleague Dahlia Scheindlin noted several errors in the facts cited by the paper. I was more struck by the concluding passage: “One of Israel’s greatest strengths is its origins as a democratic state committed to liberal values and human rights.”

This to me shows the basic misunderstanding of even a liberal-leaning newspaper regarding Israel’s foundations. The idea that Israel has “liberal roots” and institutions is perhaps the greatest success of the hasbara (state PR) campaign.

Let’s view the basic facts. Israel does not have a constitution. It was supposed to have one: what we now call the First Knesset was supposed to be a constitutional assembly, but after several debates and the pressure of Israel’s strongman, David Ben Gurion, the assembly performed what one of its members – the American Hillel Kook (“Peter Bergson”) – called a putsch, and abandoned the constitution, declaring itself the First Knesset. Cook resigned in protest; barely anyone noticed.

Ben Gurion opposed a constitution because he knew any such would greatly limit his own power, and would also require Israel to treat all its citizens equally. Ben Gurion, who later on would refuse to carry an ID card containing text in Arabic (and would be issued a special, Hebrew-only card), had no such intentions.

Ben Gurion spearheaded the ethnic cleansing campaign of 1947-1948, and was instrumental in the decision following the War of Independence to open fire on refugees trying to return to their villages. While paying lip service to the claim that all Israelis were full citizens, he kept the  Palestinian population of Israel under military rule (which was abolished only in late 1966); he had puppet Arab MKs and parties – but his internal security service (ShinBet) persecuted real Palestinian activists, and his police terrorized the Palestinian population. In at least one case – the Qafr Kassem massacre – Israeli border policemen massacred dozens of so-called Israeli citizens because they did not comply with a curfew order – of which they were unaware.

Ben Gurion also oversaw the massive land theft, which transferred most of the land in Israel from its Palestinian owners to the Zionist state or its affiliated organizations, such as the Jewish National Fund. The usual ploy went like this: the army – over which Ben Gurion kept control, combining the office of Prime Minister and Defense Minister – would inform a Palestinian village it had to be evacuated for military reasons for a year, and after a year the land would be declared abandoned and confiscated.

Ben Gurion’s security services routinely spied on his political opponents, and the chief of the Shin Bet – the fearsome Issar Harel, of Eichmann’s kidnapping fame – was a regular participant at high-level party Mapai party meeting, giving explicitly partisan advice. The service was caught, twice, when eavesdropping on opposition parties (Mapam and Herut, which later metamorphosed into the Likud).

Surveillance was, however, the least of Ben Gurion’s opponents’ problems. He, and other Mapai leaders, believed that the government and the party were one and the same. Correspondingly, political opponents found it difficult to work – and not just at government positions (the High Court of Justice had to prohibit the government from denying work for its political opponents, so the practice went underground), but also at the private sector. A quiet word that such and such person is “not one of us” was enough to deny a person a job. Speak to old right-wingers or communists, and they remember it full well. My father used to speak often of the period where you couldn’t get a job, or a government contract, unless you held Mapai’s infamous red membership card. This extended to the army, as well: for a very long time – practically, until the fall of the Labor Party in 1977 – you couldn’t be promoted to general rank without being a party member. Ariel Sharon once snidely commented that “I remember well the day I was promoted a major general; it was the day my Mapai membership card came in the mail.”

As for human rights – well. I dealt shortly with what the Palestinian citizens of Israel had to live through. As of today, Israeli law explicitly refuses to recognize the right to equality. This would force the regime to actually share Israel’s resources with all its citizens. State and religion were never separated – the humorist Efraim Kishon jested that “Israel is the only state where state and religion were separated, and from that day since religion rules unchallenged” – as this would allow miscegenation, the mixing of Jewish blood with non-Jewish blood. This is not news: it was sardonically noted by Hannah Arendt in her report on the Eichmann trial, more than 50 years ago. Israelis are ruled by religious courts in almost all personal spheres of life. Israel persecutes non-Orthodox Jewish sects.

Much is said about the famed freedom of the press in Israel. Yet it is not recognized in law, only in two High Court decisions – which the Knesset can easily overcome. This freedom, naturally, extends only to Jewish newspapers; Palestinian ones were often under heavy censorship and until the late 1960s were routinely suppressed. And when you were writing things the Mapai regime did not like, especially in the 1950s, you could be literally silenced: the government controlled the selling of printing paper, and as Uri Avneri once found, its officials simply told him there wasn’t enough paper for his book to be published.

I note Avneri because he was the only opposition in the press to the regime in the dark ages of Mapai – there were opposition papers, of course, but they rarely contradicted Mapai’s basic Zionist assumptions. Avneri did so regularly – and, after a particularly vicious column about some Ben Gurion scandal, Arik Sharon sent some paratroopers on vacation, on condition they find Avneri and rough him up. They did.

The era of Mapai was no golden era of liberalism and human rights. It was the face of Israel’s founders, people who grew up in eastern European dictatorships. Israel was a copy of late 1930s Poland or Lithuania. It was anything but liberal. Ironically, it was the fall of Mapai/Labor in 1977 which brought a truly liberal party to power; it was only then that Israel enjoyed a brief spring of liberalism and commitment to human rights – with the silent elephant in the middle of the room, the occupation.

So why is the Times so enamored of early Israeli history? I think they draw their information mainly from liberal and leftist Zionists. This group was so shocked by the rise of the right, particularly the religious right, and by the occupation, they began idolizing the era of “small Israel.” They began doing so as early as the 1970s. But there was nothing liberal or admirable in the old Israel; it is safe to say that for the vast majority of Israelis, Palestinian citizens included, the situation today is still vastly preferable to the dark days of the regime under the poisonous Ben Gurion.

We are sliding fast, yes, and it will soon be much, much worse; Israeli Jews are abandoning their identity as Israelis and retreating to a tribal and religious Jewish identity, incapable of tolerance, and drawing from proto-Nazi sources within Judaism, which speak of the destruction or enslavement of the other nations; but that is not reason enough to fabricate a mythical, liberal Israel that never was.