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Tel Aviv University
[Tel Aviv U, Sociology] "The Trap of the Green Line" Prof' Yehuda Shenhav: Israel has to acknowledge the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian territories

03-6859773   shenhav@post.tau.ac.il


by Claudia De Martino
Published in Arabi e Israeliani, English,
on 07/04/2010

INTERVISTA con il Professor Yehouda Shenhav, sociologo all’Università di Tel Aviv, in occasione della pubblicazione del suo ultimo libro “Nella trappola della Linea Verde: un saggio politico ebraico” (Bemalkodet Hakav Hayarok), che tratta la questione della Guerra del 1948 come momento ancora fondante per comprendere il conflitto arabo-israeliano e l’attuale difficoltà a trovare una soluzione equa e sostenibile per entrambe le parti ma vuole anche suggerire una comprensione diversa di  “destra e sinistra” in Israele, evidenziando come entrambi gli schieramenti  non siano spesso sovrapponibili alle ideologie maturate in Europa, data la differenza delle sfide e dei problemi con i quali si confrontano in un contesto molto diverso come quello mediorientale.

Il libro, al momento edito  in ebraico da haKibbutz haMeuchad, sarà a breve disponibile anche in traduzione inglese. Chissà che qualche editore italiano non si interessi ad una prossima traduzione anche nella nostra lingua.


Interview with Professor Yehuda Shenhav, on occasion of the publication of  his last book “in the Trap of the Green Line: A Jewish Political Essay”, (Bemalkodet Hakav Hayarok),which deals with the question of 1948 as the main paradigm through which the Arab-Israeli conflict should still be understood in order to find a just and sustainable solution for both parties of the conflict but also deals with the question whether European-based concepts of “left and right” are still meaningful notions to understand political parties and issues at stake in a very different context as Israel and the Middle East.

The book is currently published by haKibbutz haMeuchad in Hebrew only, forthcoming the English translation. We hope that this interview would urge some Italian editors to engage soon in an Italian translation too.


1. Your new book “The Trap of the Green Line” is surprising, for a radical leftist in Israel, since it opposes the two state solution. You suggest to drop the 1967 paradigm and adopt the 1948 paradigm. What do you mean by that?


For two decades now the international community, and the Israeli left in particular, have pushed for a two-state solution, according to which Israel and Palestine would live next to each other in peaceful coexistence based on the 1967 borders (known also as the green line).  Whereas the idea seems to have captivated the capitals of Europe and North America, on the ground it remains a fruitless and futile hope. Why is this so? Why have the peace initiatives of the last twenty years – Oslo, Camp David, Taba, Annapolis – all failed?  I think that we should look at the obstacles that have thwarted a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These obstacles stem mainly from a paradigm clash by which the two peoples speak in parallel political languages. Whereas the Israeli left envisions a resolution based on Israel’s withdrawal back to the green line, most Palestinians scornfully reject the significance of the green line, viewing the conflict through the lens of the 1948 war. I therefore think that the Israeli left and the international community have to radically alter the two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. For all intents and purposes, the green line is dead and any attempt to revitalize it will only cause additional bloodshed. I oppose the two states solution in the current form because it ultimately gives the Palestinians less than 20 percent of the space between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean. Recall that the partition declaration of the United Nations from 1947 offered them 45 percent of the territory. Add to that the fact that Gaza is separated from the West Bank, the fact that the West Bank is divided into 3-4 Bantustans, the fact that Israel controls most sources of waters and other minerals in the region. In short, I don’t believe that this is a viable solution to the conflict. Instead I put forward alternative solution that transcends traditional political positions and provides hope for both sides.


While serving the particular political and economic interests of Jewish liberal elites in Israel, the green line overlooks and denies the rights of most Palestinians and Jews in the region. For one, it offers no solution to the six million Palestinian refugees, who are denied ‘return’ to their cities and villages from which they fled during the 1948 war. Likewise, the two-state solution offers no hope for the similarly anomalous political status of the 1,200,000 Palestinians who live within the green line and are denied basic political rights as a national community – despite their Israeli citizenship. In the same vein, a withdrawal to the green line offers no solution to the 500,000 or more Jews who have settled in the occupied territories since 1967; among them are to be found many of the poorer Jewish working classes who had lured to the West Bank by financial incentives offered to Jews by the State of Israel.  Add to that the fact that future evacuation of 500,000 settlers from their homes is unrealistic, and I am not completely sure about the morality of such action.


Rather than a two-state solution, then I suggest to look at the conflict from a different angle which renders the traditional political categories of ‘right’ and ‘left’ irrelevant. First and foremost, the Jewish society in Israel needs to understand that a return to 1948 is an essential condition to resolving the conflict. Israel has to acknowledge the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian territories and to treat this issue as the most salient issue of the conflict. It requires a solution for the Palestinian refugees problem, including their return under conditions which will not endanger the lives of the Jews. I lay out these conditions in the book. I also suggest that we need to think about re-partitioning of the space based on multiple sovereignties and spheres of control, allowing for the return of Palestinian refugees without jeopardizing the achievements of the Jews during the last sixty years. At the same time it also allows for some of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank to remain intact, conditioned on accepting the broader plan and providing compensations. If we accept the 1948 paradigm it can turn Israel’s political map on its head. The liberal Zionists in Israel who support a two states solution do it out of fear of the Palestinans. The idea of a Jewish and democratic state is an oxymoron since Israel is a democracy which is founded on a constant state of exception and emergency measures. The Israeli liberal left is a leading force in denying 1948 and the refugees problem. I suggest to create productive coalitions among Palestinians, the Israeli radical left, and democratic groups among the Jewish settlers who reject the two state solution but express desire for political justice to replace the current apartheid system of rule. 


2. Prof. Shenhav, many in Europe still have no clue about the presence in Israel of more than a tradition and culture among Jewish people. Many tend to associate the State of Israel to the need for providing shelter to European Jews after the Shoa and seem to ignore that half of the current population of Israel is composed of many non-European ethnical groups, such as mizrahim and Ethiopians: why do you think this assumption is still so powerful in European public opinion after 60 years?


This is a correct observation. The European perspective is an orientalist one. It embraces the vision held by most Israelis that Israeli is a branch of Europe. Look for example who are the representatives of the Israeli left in Europe. For example the author Amos Oz. He is known for his reactionary position toward non European Jews, and his support of a regime which is European oriented. This obviously overlooks the location of Israel in the Arab middle east. Needless to say that in Israel itself the European perspective with the Holocaust as its civil religion stratifies Jews according to their relation to Europe, which perpetuates orientalist and racist attitudes toward Palestinians and Arab Jews (Jews from Arab countries).


3. You talked about both an historical problem linked to the foundation of the State (in your book The Arab Jews. A Postcolonial Reading of Nationalism, Religion, and Ethnicity) and about a current unredeemed social problem, the plague of Mizrahim being at the bottom of Israeli society, slightly better than Palestinians, like a new proletariat: could you explain the reason why you judge the same dynamics lingering 60 years ago as still distinguishing Israeli society? Won’t such a perspective be tarnished by too extreme continuity?


Disparities between Ashkenazi Jews and Mizrahim have been increased in the last decades. There is an optical illusion according to which there is change because politics has been changed radically to include Mizrahim in all parties in prominent positions (albeit never as prime ministers). Yet, in other cultural and social arenas situation is grim. Look at academia. Only 9 percent of the tenured professors are Mizrahim. Only 0.5 percent are Mizrahi women. Even less than Palestians who make 1 percent of the professors’ population. Orientalism and racism still exist at all levels, and unfortunately the conflict with the Palestinians exacerbates these processes.


4. If the Mizrahim were indeed the proletariat of the Jewish-Israeli society, why historically they didn’t fill up the ranks of the Leftish parties and are instead accused of the opposite, so to have strengthened the Likud and the settlements movements in the West Bank? Why there’s never been a pure Mizrahi party ( and a secular one) running for the Knesset, besides the Shas?


We find two processes which work simultaneously: class and identity. Class wise, the labor movement generated a socialist discourse (with a huge gap with practice). But they were overly Ashkenazi and held orientalist views of the Mirzahim. The Likud party led a more liberal discourse and practice, but in term of identity it provided more recognition and sensitivity to the Mizrahi identity. We should not get carried away by this argument. After all racism exists among the right block in Israel, but we see Mizrahim more integrated there. There is another reason for that. Mizrahim are more likely to vote for the right. But as I said earlier, if we change our definition of right and left, the Mizrahim is a salient component of a possible new left in Israel.



5. Which is the link between striving for equality of mizrahim inside Israel and fighting for an equal solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Does an activist on an Israeli ethnical issue should automatically feel any kind of solidarity towards the Palestinian quest for a state?


I think that the answer is embedded in the text above


6. What would you suggest to young people in Israel from Mizrahim origins who are no longer targets of discrimination or marginalization in society, but feel somehow to have been deprived of their pride and understanding of history, and feel somehow the intellectual elites still painfully rejecting them?


As I suggested discrimination and racism still exists. There is a common myth about more equal society. This is false. I think that there is a close link between the state of the conflict and the equality equation within the society in Israel. We do need to write history, including the history of the Jews in the middle east. And there is a close link between history and legality. A month ago, the Israeli Knesset legislated a law which define the Arab Jews as refugees. This has nothing to do with benefits for the Arab Jews. Israel is going to use it to counter balance the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. This machinations and manipulations only create further rivalries between Arab Jews and Palestinians.


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