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Tel Aviv University
[TAU Cohn Institute, Minerva Humanities] Adi Ophir's Caravan to Utopia

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Professor Adi Ophir
TAU Cohn Institute, the  
email: adiophir@post.tau.ac.il

Ophir's Caravan to Utopia


Adi Ophir (TAU), the subject of a large number of IAM posting has done it again. Ophir, one of the most radical activists, has been working with Zochrot, an organization dedicated to creating a bi-national state in Israel-Palestine. To Ophir and many of the bi-nationalists among the radical faculty, this is a noble goal, something that would undo what they consider the immoral and illegitimate creation of the State of Israel. There is nothing new in this vision, a vision that Adi Ophir has shared with Matzpen and Brit Shalom.


What is new is Ophir’s total disconnect from reality accompanied by an oddly self-congratulatory tone.  He takes great pride in his role in changing the “consciousness” of the Nakba by “problematizing” it.  To the extent that one can decipher his rather convoluted prose, raising awareness of the Palestinian Catastrophe can serve a number of contemporary goals, including a bi-national state.  At the minimum, it can “pick the wound of the regime” by pointing to the moral stain on its legitimacy.


If Adi Ophir paid more attention to reality, especially international reality, he would have had to admit that the Palestinians and their Arab supporters rejected the 1947 UN Partition Proposal.  Worse, they started a war and lost it and, as a result, suffered the fate of other losing belligerents, including the Germans after WWII.  No doubt, for the Palestinians this was a human and political catastrophe, but one that is dictated by rules of international relations, where losing is never a good thing.  Had Jews lost the war, they would probably fared much worse that the Palestinians.  If Ophir paid more attention to reality, he would have realized that the Palestinians had lost an opportunity to achieve sovereignty in Camp David II because of a failure of leadership and the demand for return of the refugees.  If Ophir paid attention to reality, he would have realized that the Middle East is undergoing a seismic change, making the chances of settling the conflict any time soon very slim.  The dream of creating a bi-national state is what it always was, a dream.


But Ophir is not likely to pay attention to reality as he is a devotee of Michel Foucault, the “founding father” of critical, post-modern linguistic philosophy.   In his world, reality does not exist, truth is not attainable and scholars are called to challenge “hegemonic narratives” of the elites in order to uncover the “narratives” of the victims.  The post-modern discourse is all about language, consciousness, manipulation of guilt and shame.   Critical scholars quote Foucault and each other but have little use for empirical facts.  When reality intrudes, it is brushed away, a practice they have learned from the master himself.   Foucault created a narrative of Ayatollah Khomeini as a progressive, enlightened and humane leader. His fascination with and celebration of the Iranian revolution was so extreme that, though a homosexual himself, he denied that the regime hanged men as a punishment for homosexuality. 


Ophir displays the same type of obtuseness when it comes to reality.  Writing about the commemorating of Nakba, he describes the “pathetical denial and “hysterical reaction” of critics. Adi Ophir would not admit to the possibility that even those on the left got discouraged after the rejection of Oslo, years of Intifada, shelling from the Gaza Strip, not to mention the new worries about an emerging alliance among the Muslim Brotherhood controlled Egypt, Iran and Hamas. At the end of the article, he states with pride that the “dogs who barked on the [Nakba commemoration] caravan belong to the right” but “our caravan went on.” While it is not obvious that all the dogs belonged to the right, but is quite clear that the caravan went on to utopia.

Regime change passes through its zero year: 1948

Adi Ophir responds to Eitan Bronstein on the importance of Zochrot

By Adi Ophir,
The dogs bark and the caravan goes on
The dogs bark and the caravan goes on

You know that when it comes to complex socio-cultural processes such as those we are currently undergoing, nobody has a monopoly over anything, and everything apparently has more causes than we are able to guess. But even taking that into consideration, it is difficult to underestimate the role played by Zochrot in transforming the discourse and awareness of the Nakba. While you did not create the conditions that allowed your voice to become so significant, you were there to provide something that is more than a vocabulary or a narrative. I believe you represent a new subject position of a Jewish left in Israel (I do not know much about your contribution to transforming the consciousness of Israeli Palestinians, but I am certain it, too, is very significant). When I first became a "leftwing" activist", and later an "extreme leftwing" or "post-Zionist" activist, it was possible to maintain such a position without taking 1948 into account. It's not that we ignored 1948, or denied the Nakba, but the Nakba was not a central and necessary axis in our subject position. In late 1980s' Jerusalem, for instance, the radicals were members of End to Occupation or the Alternative Information Center, and were preoccupied with opposing Israeli control of the territories occupied in 1967. Today such a limited approach is almost inconceivable among leftwing activists opposing the occupation,. I assume about 1,000 people participated in the campus event, about 600 of them Jews. I would guess that for each of them, the attitude towards the Nakba has become a kind of threshold or litmus test one has to pass in order to be identified as a member of the "left" – a worldview, a linguistic and narrative space providing a framework for understanding current events. And this has happened thanks to your memory work. If this combination of words – work and memory – has any meaning, you in Zochrot embody it in the most effective and straightforward manner. 

To put it differently, if one of the key features distinguishing the radical and "moderate" or "Zionist" left in the 1980s and 1990s used to be the former's support of refusal to serve in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), it now lies in one's attitude to the Nakba question. You are largely responsible for this discoursive shift. Its significance goes beyond identifying the present-day radical left: even leftwing activists still clinging to the two-state vision and opposing the return of Palestinian refugees to the 1948 territories now formulate their viewpoint after having  "passed through" the Nakba. Their viewpoint is formulated "despite the Nakba", and under no circumstances by way of ignoring or denying it. To them, accepting the consequences of the Nakba is essential to securing the Israeli regime as "Jewish and democratic". And this means that they link their political preference with the regime question, realizing that their position as leftists requires them to touch the regime question and the open wound of its establishment. The Nakba is not just a chapter in "their" book that it is pointless to delve into, but an issue that requires urgent decision. 

I believe such a transformation was facilitated by the fact that the Israeli regime, including its occupation element, has developed in such a way as to take us back to 1948. The occupation has become a permanent form of control, colonial expansion clearly visible in all its brutality, de-facto Apartheid almost declared and often even formally enshrined, the integration of the Jewish space in the OPT almost complete. The reaction of the left, mainly among the younger activists, goes something like that: If the right wants to completely erase the partition of the land, its wish may be granted, along with acknowledgement of the crime which accompanied and facilitated this partition in the same package. In other words, if the right insists on having the entire country, we insist on putting a huge question mark on the entire book, the entire Zionist history – not only its last, post-1967 chapter. And you, Zochrot, were there to situate 1948 as the axis of that turning point.  

The left was able to forget the Nakba as long as people could tell themselves that the expulsion was an inevitable outcome of war, a necessary price of the partition, which was in turn vital as it secured a Jewish majority in the Jewish portion without which it would have been impossible to establish a Jewish state that was also democratic. According to the left, in order to protect this state as both Jewish and democratic, all that was needed was to re-divide the country and leave the refugees out of the story – out of the "our" story, at least – the refugees themselves, their history, villages and properties. At most, they could be recognized as a problem for the newly constituted Palestinian State. But that story is over. Those who still talk that way now qualify their words with prefaces such as, "I still believe that", to signify that they have not yet given up on their dream but are willing to admit that they are no longer certain it represents a bona fide political program, that there is a real problem to be faced there. 

The deep exploration of a problem, the problematization which has more or less clear outlines, is a guiding axis of a subject position. Problematization is formulated in terms of what may or may not be said, what should be said, what can or cannot be seen, and above all what is no longer self-evident. This is what you have done to the Palestinian Catastrophe of 1948. But problematization is also a strategic arena: within it, according to the decisions regarding what is on stake, power struggles are waged, power relations shaped, alliances made, and negotiations held. 

It is in this context that we should understand the reaction by the right, which has turned the Nakba into a distinguishing feature of its own, identifying the "internal enemy" and serving as a powerful amplifier of everything you have done in Zochrot, above all through the Nakba Law. The right has been quick to realize that the Nakba question is nothing less than the question of the Zionist regime's legitimacy (its intellectuals have known it all along). Since the regime question has been reopened as the Nakba question the right sought to protect the regime by attacking anyone posing it. Here we can identify several tactic moves that are part of a single overarching strategy: denying the story itself; identifying the leftwing and Palestinian narratives, that is, denying the legitimacy of any Jew retelling his private and collective biography while acknowledging the Nakba, since this should be considered uncritical adoption of the Palestinian narrative; and finally, branding anyone insisting on the memory work, and moreover, positing the Nakba as a problem for the present, as a traitor. 

Moreover, the ridiculous, pathetic denial so perfectly expressed by Limor Livnat (in the pieceyou have quoted), the demonstrators' hysterical reactions, and above all, the paradoxical statements claiming simultaneously that no crime has been committed and whoever claims otherwise is a traitor, how we wish that there would be a crime, we would destroy you by repeating the crime ("He'veinu Nakba Aleichem") – all these testify, in my view, to tremendous anxiety. What we see here is a traumatic, psychotic response by people who feel the ground being pulled out from under them and are unable to turn their generalize anxiety into a fear that has a definite object that can be dealt with rationally. This is also why everything is becoming increasingly dangerous. At the demonstration I felt that on one side a deep pit was uncovered that the other side must cover, being unable to acknowledge it, or else it would fall into it eventually and crash. And this reaction by the right only reinforces the Nakba's hold on the leftwing discourse, because for the first time since 1967, the leftwing discourse has real power and the left's opposition to the right is more than an empty moral gesture which in itself reproduces the denial of the constitutive trauma (as in "Hebron no, Shaykh Muwannis yes). The left which begins to talk the Nakba is one that exposes the racist foundation of the Israeli regime and forces people to confront its ground roots. It now appears that bringing the Nakba into the open arouses much more resistance and anxiety on the part of the right than even solidarity demonstrations with Palestinians in the OPT. This is probably because such demonstrations are no more than an extension of the moral ritual in which we have been stuck since 1967, which the right views as little more than dogs barking almost inaudibly as the caravan goes on. The dogs that barked at the Nakba commemoration event at Tel Aviv University, however, belonged to the right and were extremely loud, but our caravan went on nevertheless.

Translation to English: Charles Kamen and Ami Asher

Adi Ophir.



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