The Lack of a Vision: Utopia and Peace in Israeli Discourse
Friday, July 10 2009 @ 02:39 PM
By Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin
Following the signing of the Oslo Accords, many Israeli writers, politicians, and supporters of the peace process described their conceptions of a future peace, depicting different aspects of an imagined Middle East that they believed would be realized in the immediate future. The media was full of such descriptions, which contained visions of prosperity, open markets, high-tech industries, large roads and economic development, restaurants in Ramallah and Damascus, and Israeli projects in Jordan. No more violence, no more anxieties, no more responsibilities: a peaceful land in which Israel will finally be ready for a process of cultural regeneration and for the completion of the so-called political revival of the Jewish people. "Peace" was perceived as a revival of the allegedly original values of Israeli society. Proponents of Oslo produced an image of a just and progressive Jewish-Israeli society that would emerge at the end of occupation and the "end of conflict."
However, none of these utopian visions were concerned with the fate and the future of even a single child in a Palestinian refugee camp. Of course, many speakers mentioned the advantages of peace for the Palestinians, but it was not the realization of Palestinian self-determination that was celebrated by Israelis, but the return to a homogeneous Jewish society. The idea of peace was to get rid of the Occupation in order to get rid of the Palestinians, in order to recover the Israeli self-image as innocent and progressive, an image that had been seriously damaged by thirty years of occupation, particularly after the first intifada. The "peace process" was not associated with a desire for reconciliation, a vision of equality and partnership between Jews and Arabs, nor a desire for a common future.
On the contrary, the leading concept of the peace process was not the co-existence of two states, but separation. In other words, the idea of a Palestinian state in Israeli discourse was not perceived as a means of fulfilling Palestinian rights, not a vision of co-existence based on the recognition of the responsibility for Palestinian suffering and hope for a peaceful common future for both people. Thus the Israeli vision of peace did not include the intention to undermine the division between Jews and Arabs, but rather to emphasize it. The rationale for the agreements, as the initiator (Yitzhak Rabin) of the Oslo Accords presented it, was to prevent the creation of a binational state, and in fact, to deny any vision and any perspective that includes both Israeli-Jews and Palestinians living together in peaceful coexistence.
It is striking to note the similarities between these images of peace and those of early Zionism. Since the late nineteenth century, Zionist writers and artists have produced various utopian visions. In spite of important differences between them that reflect the versatility of Zionist social and cultural values, they also shared major components: the idea of an Alteneuland, a New Old Land (the title of Herzl's most famous and influential utopian novel), which would include the revival of the Biblical past within a framework of a modern, western-oriented Jewish secular community, established in opposition to the "Orient," thus bringing the gospel of progress and modernity to the primitive "East." The return was not towards the concrete land, Palestine/Eretz-Yisrael, but to the image of the land associated with European images of the ideal society and state.
The location of this vision was perceived as an "empty land," a land without history since the destruction of the Temple, uncivilized, indeed--a utopia, a no-land. In Herzl's novel, the Arabs were described as grateful to the Jews who improved their lives and saved them from their primitive conditions. Other writers described the Arabs as representing the ancient Hebrew culture, the one Zionism should imitate. But none of these images considered the desires, hopes, or dreams of the Arabs. These utopian images manifested themselves in the most obvious way--the link between the theological and the colonialist dimensions embodied in the core of the secular Zionist myth. The "return" was formulated in obvious European terms and was considered as a process of Westernization of the Jews and of the land, in clearly Orientalist terms.
The concept of "peace" did not produce an alternative vision, but was rather perceived as the fulfillment of original Zionist desires, an image referring to a vision of Jewish identity associated with a secular western civil identity, directed against religion and particularly against Shas, the Orthodox Sephardi movement, the political position of which at the time was not far from the principles of the "peace process." Not only were the Israeli Arabs not included, but the idea was to ignore them, as exemplified by Barak's slogan "we are here--they are there," identical to the slogan of the Moledet party's ideology of transfer. The vision of peace and the vision of transfer were not so different--and in spite of the essential moral difference, they shared a common vision of a homogeneous Jewish society. The difference was in the positioning of the border, not the vision. Both expressed the desire for a Jewish state without Arabs.
Of course, during the process of Zionist settlement, as well as after the establishment of the state of Israel, many different attitudes with respect to "the Arab question" have been developed. However, most of them explicitly excluded the Arabs from the Zionist vision of redemption, and later from their rights, leaving them as refugees, or as non-citizens under occupation, or--at best--second class citizens of the State of Israel, the state of "the Jewish People," leaving them as victims of a continuous dispossession and policy of discrimination. Palestinian citizens of Israel, allegedly possessing equal rights, remain equal only in their right to vote or to be elected to office. Subject to continuous land confiscations and unable to purchase property from the Jewish Agency, whatever equal rights accorded to Israeli Arabs by the Jewish state remain severely limited, if not negated, by their permanent marginalization within Israeli society.
Nothing better clarifies this notion of peace than "the demographic discourse" that is associated with the peace process. When peace is perceived and legitimized only as a means to protect the Jewish majority, it explicitly excludes Israeli Arabs by defining the limits of their citizenship as the only way to protect the Jewish majority in a way that makes the Palestinian citizens an enemy minority whose marginalization is a permanent goal of state policy.
This explains how a partial Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian cities (but not from most of the occupied land) after the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993, was perceived as the end of conflict and the fulfillment of the Zionist vision. The disappearance of the Palestinians from Israeli cities, a process that had started earlier, had already been accomplished. This is why the Israeli public ignored the fact that during the 1990s, the principle of separation was not realized by an establishment of a Palestinian State but instead had been prevented by an ongoing process of growth of the settlements and the gradual creation of a system of apartheid by the construction of bypass roads for Jews; of settlements that divided the Occupied Territories and prevented Palestinians from securing freedom of movement in their own land. That explains why the crowd celebrating the victory of Ehud Barak in 1999 shouted "Just not Shas," rather than calling for the renewal of the peace process. That explains the surprise of the Israeli public when the Palestinians refused to accept Israeli insistence that they give up all of their demands for the establishment of a Palestinian state with limited sovereignty in most of the territories--and without geographical contiguity.
It is this vision, this "utopia," that has brought us to the current situation. Finally, the vision of separation was realized by erecting a separation wall between Israel and Palestine. The wall, and the entire system of apartheid that is gradually being established in the Occupied Territories, and the suffering that it inflicts on the Palestinians, is legitimized in the name of the "war against terror," and as a means of preventing suicide bombers from entering Israel. But we should remember that the wall was there long before its present monstrous realization. What we call the separation wall was actually the Israeli vision of peace.
Against this, a new utopia should be constructed, a Jewish-Arab one. One that takes into consideration both communities, redefining their common right for self-determination under the values of equality, mutual recognition, and historical justice. It is certainly difficult to imagine such a reality from the state of oppression and violence we are currently experiencing. However, knowing these difficulties, this is the only perspective and set of values that may direct both peoples towards a process of reconciliation, of Palestinian liberation associated with the de-colonization of the State of Israel, and Israeli consciousness.
As long as we do not have a vision of partnership and coexistence, any process will fail. As long as we seek "solutions" and "ends," produce virtual "agreements" and documents that try to escape the main issues and avoid responsibility, we will experience a continuous deterioration and barbarism, a move towards a catastrophe. Within the theological colonialist language of "utopia," a radical change of the Jewish consciousness is needed.
In 1931, Gershom Scholem declared:
Zionism took its stand, whether involuntarily or, as was more often
the case, voluntarily, on the side of declining rather than rising
forces. It saw its success in the intrigues of war--Versailles and San
Remo and the signing of the Mandate--as a victory. But this victory
has now become a handicap and a stumbling block for the entire
movement. The force which Zionism joined in those victories was the
revealed force, the aggressor. Zionism forgot to link up with the
hidden force, the oppressed, which would rise and be revealed soon
after. Could a revival movement indeed be on their side, or, more
accurately, take shelter under the wings of the victors of the war?...
Zionism is not in the heavens, and it does not possess the power to
unite fire and water. Either it shall be swept away in the waters of
imperialism, or else it shall be burnt in the revolutionary
conflagration of the wakening East. Mortal dangers beset it on either
side and nevertheless, the Zionist movement cannot avoid a
And if we do not win once again, and the fire of
revolution consume us, at least we will be among those standing on the
right side of the barricades.
Reality has dramatically changed since then. Scholem himself changed his mind in later years, but the sensitivity he and his friends in Brit Shalom expressed is even more relevant today. Today, "the hidden force" is constituted by the victims of Zionism, those who are suppressed even under the utopia of peace. Against the messianic desire of right-wing messianic groups, the alternative is an approach towards the inclusion of both Jews and Palestinians in a common dream. We may not win, once again, but we should stand on the right side of the barricades, against the dominant anti-Arab sentiment.
The vision of Arab and Jewish partnership, the vision of equality and justice, is of course complicated and raises difficult questions. But it does not refer only to Israeli Jews. Its principles deny the distinction between Arab and Jew, as against the total identification of the established world Jewry with the anti-Islamic and anti-Arab attitudes. As Gil Anidjar taught us recently, (The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy, 2002) the division between the Jew and the Arab is the core of Christian political theology: the Jew and the Arab are associated and divided at the same time. Jews can continue leading the radical anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe and the United States. But Jews can and should suggest another way.
Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin is a lecturer in Jewish History at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev. His research concerns Jewish-Christian relations and Israeli historical consciousness.