Why are Israelis so indignant at the international outrage that has greeted their country’s lethal attack last week on a flotilla of civilian ships taking aid to Gaza? Israelis have not responded in any of the ways we might have expected. Instead, they are engaged in a Kafkaesque conversation in which the military attack on the civilian ships is characterised as a legitimate “act of self-defence”, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it, and the killing of nine aid activists is transformed into an attempted “lynching of our soldiers” by terrorists.
A group of Jews and Arabs are fighting in the Israeli courts to be recognised as “Israelis”, a nationality currently denied them, in a case that officials fear may threaten the country’s self-declared status as a Jewish state. Israel refused to recognise an Israeli nationality at the country’s establishment in 1948, making an unusual distinction between “citizenship” and “nationality”. Although all Israelis qualify as “citizens of Israel”, the state is defined as belonging to the “Jewish nation”, meaning not only the 5.6 million Israeli Jews but also more than seven million Jews in the diaspora.
If a single person deserves the title of serial thorn in the side of the Israeli state, Uri Davis, a professor of critical Israel studies at al Quds University on the outskirts of East Jerusalem, might be the one to claim it. The crowning moment for Dr Davis arrived last weekend when he became the first Israeli Jew to be elected to one of Fatah’s governing bodies, the Revolutionary Council. It is a public relations breakthrough for Fatah.
No one is more surprised than Shlomo Sand that his latest academic work has spent 19 weeks on Israel’s bestseller list – and that success has come to the history professor despite his book challenging Israel’s biggest taboo. Dr Sand argues that the idea of a Jewish nation – whose need for a safe haven was originally used to justify the founding of the state of Israel – is a myth invented little more than a century ago. An expert on European history at Tel Aviv University, Dr Sand drew on extensive historical and archaeological research to support not only this claim but several more – all equally controversial.
In 1895, Theodor Herzl, Zionism’s chief prophet, confided in his diary that he did not favour sharing Palestine with the natives. Better, he wrote, to “try to spirit the penniless [Palestinian] population across the border by denying it any employment in our own country… Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.” He was proposing a programme of Palestinian emigration enforced through a policy of strict separation between Jewish immigrants and the indigenous population.
If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the world’s most intractable, much the same can be said of the parallel debate about whether it s resolution can best be achieved by a single state embracing the two peoples living there or by a division of the land into two separate states, one for Jews and the other for Palestinans. The philosopher Michael Neumann has dedicated two articles, in 2007 and earlier this week, for CounterPunch discrediting the one-state idea as impractical and therefore as worthless of consideration.
For the past year, members of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee have been meeting on Sundays to draft a constitution that would, once and for all, define the nature of the state and the rights and obligations of citizenship. The task of hammering out a written constitution has confounded Israeli governments and legislators for more than five decades. Strangely, given its historic nature, the committee’s work has attracted almost no media coverage, even though—or, maybe, precisely because—it threatens to reopen wounds that have not fully healed since the Jewish state’s blood-stained birth in 1948.
Likud leader Ariel Sharon’s victory in the election for prime minister has provoked much gnashing of teeth among Israel’s left-wing peace campaigners. As their standard-bearer, Ehud Barak, slipped ever further in the polls, his reputation sullied by months of fruitless negotiations with Yasser Arafat, the future they painted was doom-laden. If anyone is certain to sink the peace process, they wail, it is the right-wing general. And yet if Sharon succeeds in chasing the peace movement off to the margins of Israeli politics, it will be no bad thing.