What Threatens Israel Most? Democracy

By David LloydMarch 16, 2014

What Threatens Israel Most? Democracy

This is one of eight essays we published today on "Academic Activism: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Ethics of Boycott." Click here to read the others. 


SCARLETT JOHANSSON recently made news in an unexpected way: not because of some new role in a blockbuster movie, but because she had chosen to be the public face of SodaStream, an Israeli corporation that profits from the factory it runs in an illegal settlement on the West Bank. In that there is nothing surprising: there are many celebrities, from Madonna to Chuck Norris, who are still willing to lend their images to normalizing Israel’s occupation and giving credence to its claim to be an unexceptional member of the Western democratic sphere. What made Johansson’s role more controversial was that in order to play SodaStream’s advocate she had to resign her more worthy role as Global Ambassador for the internationally respected charity Oxfam. Oxfam has determined that Israel’s settlements on Palestinian land “are illegal under international law” and that any goods produced in them “further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support.” For Johansson to represent both Oxfam and SodaStream would have been in profound contradiction with Oxfam’s humanitarian principles. 

One may speculate on the reasons why Johansson chose SodaStream’s lucrative deal over Oxfam. But the episode highlights the increasingly evident incompatibility of supporting Zionism with maintaining consistently liberal, let alone progressive, principles. As columnist Peter Beinart recently put it in a conversation in The Atlantic with fellow blogger Jeffrey Goldberg, “I’m actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel’s security and for its status as a Jewish state.” This is a succinct and telling formulation of the dilemma that haunts liberal Zionists, coming as it does from a journalist who has worked harder than almost anyone to try to save Israel for liberal and progressive opinion and often earned the opprobrium of more right-wing Zionists for doing so.

Beinart has advocated steadily for a two-state solution, for ending the occupation and withdrawing to the “Green Line” that demarcated Israel’s borders prior to 1967, and even for a boycott and divestment campaign that would be limited to settlement products or corporations that profit from the occupation. He joins a growing number of liberal Zionists for whom Israel proper remains an admirable project despite being — in the latest face-saving concession fashionable among Israel’s apologists — “a flawed democracy.” For them, Israel’s problems are contingent on an ill-advised occupation and the increasing militarization of the society it requires. It is, as Israeli author David Grossman rightly says, “impossible for a state to maintain true democracy while simultaneously upholding a regime of occupation and oppression.”[i] To save Israel, liberal Zionists are willing to sacrifice the occupation while disavowing what the settlements really signify: the stealthy realization of the old Zionist dream of occupying all of “Eretz Israel,” from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean.

Indeed, the confession of the sins of occupation and settlement has seemingly become a necessary shibboleth whose politically correct utterance allows entrance to the circles of Israel’s politically correct advocates. Thus Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, proclaimed that “As a Jew, I have argued against the policies of the current Israeli government, many of which I find abhorrent” as preface to a peremptory condemnation of the American Studies Association’s endorsement of the Palestinian call for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Similarly, Cary Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors, announced his qualified support for “a campaign to boycott Israeli goods produced in the occupied territories” while considering that “the record of the Holocaust justifies the creation of the state of Israel, but not the unending extension of Israeli settlements into new territory.” These liberal pronouncements have not prevented Nelson from launching a campaign against the academic boycott, and even against quite moderate proposals like the Modern Language Association’s recent resolution proposing to pressure Israel to honor the right of scholars to freedom of movement. 

Increasingly, and in large part because of the public debate the boycott and divestment movement has stirred up, anyone at all interested is likely to be aware of the evils of Israel’s regime of occupation and settlement. After decades of virtual silence in the mainstream press, the daily offenses against international law and human rights that Israel’s maintenance of occupation and settlement requires are at last receiving coverage.

Few would now deny that the ever-expanding settlements have instituted separate — and very unequal — systems of transportation and infrastructure that privilege Jewish settlers and exclude Palestinians. Few would deny that the “separation wall,” a concrete barrier 30 or more feet high for much of its length, cuts Palestinian farmers from their land and crops, children from their schools, and villages from the springs where they have traditionally drawn water. It can hardly be pretended that the sole function of that wall is security, so evidently does it annex Palestinian land and guarantee Israel access to essential West Bank aquifers. Who could justify in the name of mere security the several hundred checkpoints and gates that restrict Palestinian movement and arbitrarily deny them access to the most ordinary things, from schooling and medical care to ancestral olive groves or family gatherings? Nor is it possible to conceal the fact that Palestinians under occupation are governed by a military law utterly different from the civil law enjoyed by settlers whose colonies have expropriated their land and resources. 

These facts of Palestinian daily life under occupation begin to embarrass Israel’s supporters, unaccustomed as they are to having to defend Israel’s actual practices rather than its carefully managed public image. Accepting the facts of this systematic regime of segregation and inequality, they try to deny the quite reasonable charge that it is tantamount to apartheid. They plead that Israel’s regime is not identical to that of South Africa under apartheid, as if the charge depended on the exactness of an analogy, rather than on a very clear legal definition. According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (2002), the crime of apartheid “means inhumane acts [...] committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” Israel’s well documented regime of occupation and settlement conforms precisely to the “crime of apartheid” as defined in international law, whatever euphemisms some may wish to veil it with.

The occupation and the settlements thus represent an awkward albatross around the necks of liberal Zionists. Gradually, liberal Zionists, from Peter Beinart to Thomas Friedman find themselves compelled, in the name of consistency and in hopes of protecting “Israel's security and [...] its status as a Jewish state,” to condemn the occupation and even support a limited boycott movement.

But this focus on the occupation and the settlements as if they were an aberration enables an effective yet disingenuous shell game that distracts attention from Israel itself. For settlement and occupation are no anomalies. On the contrary, they are entirely in keeping with the Zionist program since its inception and with Israel’s “Basic Laws,” which function as a kind of constitution. And those Basic Laws are fundamentally discriminatory. Not one of them upholds or guarantees the equality of Israel’s citizens. Indeed, more than 20 Israeli laws explicitly discriminate against non-Jewish citizens.[ii] Though it is often proclaimed that Israel’s Jewish and non-Jewish citizens enjoy legal and political equality, that claim is based not on actual laws, but on its Declaration of Establishment of the State of Israel, a document that has no legal force. Rather, a proliferating network of laws discriminates against non-Jewish Palestinians within Israel as well as in the Occupied Territories, establishing a system of separate and unequal access to rights that privileges not only Jewish citizens of Israel, but Jews the world over.

At the heart of this system of exclusion and racial subordination is Israel’s peculiar distinction between citizenship and nationality. In every other democratic state, to be a national is pretty much synonymous with being a citizen, regardless of one’s ethnicity, national origin, or religion. In Israel, the distinction between citizenship (ezrahut) and nationality (le’om) is fundamental and consequential: from this distinction stems a whole series of differential and discriminatory laws and practices that privilege Jewish “nationals” at the expense of Palestinians. The distinction, which the Israeli Supreme Court upheld as recently as 2013, is justified as a means to preserve “the country’s Jewish character” and is the very core of Israel’s polity. But it means that not only is Israel not a “state of all its people,” it is also a state that explicitly and deliberately excludes the significant minority of its citizens who are also its indigenous people.

Discrimination takes many forms. Perhaps the most telling is the denial to Palestinians of the right to live on most of Israel’s land, even in places that originally belonged to their families for generations prior to 1948. The Basic Land Law of 1960 codified their exclusion, declaring more than 90 percent of Israel’s land to be held in perpetuity for the Jewish people (not, that is, for the citizens of Israel).[iii] In 2011, the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, passed a bill, the Admissions Committee Law, permitting communities to discriminate against Palestinian Israelis and refuse them residency, effectively declaring themselves “Jewish only.” Indeed, the state seeks to “Judaize” — to use the ugly official term — large areas of the country, including the Negev or Al-Naqab, where the Prawer Plan has scheduled the destruction of more than 35 “unrecognized” villages and the forced expulsion of 70,000 Palestinian Bedouins, all to make way for Jewish settlements.

Discrimination between Jews and non-Jews extends beyond the right to live where one wishes into the most intimate realms of personal and family life. As recently as 2013 the Knesset renewed Israel’s Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, which prohibits Palestinians outside Israel from gaining citizenship, or even permanent or temporary residence, if they marry an Israeli citizen. This law, which denies the basic right to family unification to thousands of Palestinian families, was upheld by Israel’s Supreme Court in 2006. Even at the height of apartheid, the South African Supreme Court balked at accepting a similarly framed law on the grounds that it would have adversely affected African social life.

It would be all too easy to proliferate examples of Israeli laws that directly or indirectly establish a system of discrimination whose rationale is always to guarantee “the Jewish character of the state.” Since the very beginnings of Zionism, its leaders knew what the formation of a Jewish State in Palestine would require. They were far from believing the convenient mantra that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without land.” On the contrary, the early advocates of Zionism knew well that, in the words of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Zionist colonization could only be imposed by force on the native Arab population, a “living people” who would “[like] every indigenous people [...] resist alien settlers.”[iv] It became obvious to them that the establishment of a Jewish majority in Palestine would require the expulsion or, as the preferred euphemism has it, the “transfer” of the Palestinian population.

That goal, which in any other context would be immediately condemned as ethnic cleansing, was substantially realized in the 1948 war, during which around 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes. Massacres in villages like Deir Yassin, Tantura, or Ein al-Zeitun were followed by the destruction of over 400 Palestinian villages. This put into effect “Plan Dalet,” a scheme for the expulsion of the Palestinian population that Israeli historians across the political spectrum widely recognize was drawn up well before the war commenced. Zionists saw the presence of the Arab majority population as “a demographic problem”: as Ben-Gurion noted in 1947, “there can be no stable and strong Jewish state so long as it has a Jewish majority of only 60%.”[v] The creation of a Jewish state thus required the catastrophic expulsion of over 80 percent of the Palestinian population from the portion of Palestine that became Israel. And to those who became refugees, Israel has consistently denied the fundamental and inalienable right of return to their homes.

War may have furnished the opportunity for this massive act of ethnic cleansing, but it did not offer to Zionism its final solution. In the dehumanizing and racist rhetoric that every ethnically exclusive ideology generates, the Palestinian citizens of Israel remain an existential threat, a demographic “time bomb.” This idea that the indigenous people of Israel, the Palestinians, represent a demographic threat to the state’s existence explains the complex web of legalized discrimination that turns them into second-class citizens within an apartheid regime. It also means that it is not the armed resistance of Palestinians that poses the greatest danger to Israel, but the nonviolent claim to legal and political equality. The greatest challenge to the state that often preposterously claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East turns out to be the demand for democracy.

The historical course that Zionism has taken, for all Israel’s claims to be exceptional, follows the familiar logic of every settler colony that fails to eliminate the native population. The brilliant analyst of colonialism Albert Memmi presciently described the process that ensued in The Colonizer and the Colonized. Inevitably, the colonizer who wishes away the native population remains a “usurper”:

In other words, to possess victory completely he needs to absolve himself of it and the conditions under which it was obtained. [...] He endeavors to falsify history, he rewrites laws, he would extinguish memories — anything to succeed in transforming his usurpation into legitimacy.[vi]

But, as Israel has discovered, the process is self-defeating, generating only the wish for “the disappearance of the usurped, whose very existence causes him to take the role of usurper, and whose heavier and heavier oppression makes him more and more an oppressor himself.”[vii]

The history of racial violence required to found and to maintain the state as “a state for the Jewish people” now causes real difficulties to anyone who seeks to present Israel as a normal democracy. Liberal Zionists usually dodge their dilemma, claiming as Nelson does that “Israel is [...] a country whose soul is being destroyed by the realities of the occupied territories” and therefore “needs to divest itself of the bulk of the occupied territories for its own sake.” They cannot acknowledge that the conduct of the occupation and the brutal siege on Gaza are symptoms of what Memmi called “the systematic devaluation of the colonized” that has always been intrinsic to Zionism. Their dismay at the occupation covertly justifies the intrinsically discriminatory nature of the actually existing state of Israel.

Evasion and duplicity are the inevitable consequences of seeking to defend the indefensible; there can be no liberal defense of Israel. And those who do seek to defend injustice will not hesitate to resort to injustice and coercion in order to censor and silence opposition. This has become all too clear in the wake of several academic associations’ decision to endorse the boycott. Pro-Israel lobby groups have turned from public debate to threatening legal action against those who advocate for boycott or to drafting manifestly illiberal bills to limit and sanction their freedom of speech. Such measures sadly reveal how corrupting of American progressive and liberal traditions the unquestioning support of Israel has proven to be. Recent efforts to pass bills to outlaw the boycott of Israel in several state assemblies and even in Congress would not only violate a constitutionally protected form of political expression by making a special case of Israel. If passed, there is no doubt that they would be invoked in the future to limit the use of one of the few means for redress available to the disempowered, in this country as in Palestine and Israel.

The increasingly coercive and authoritarian response to the boycott movement is a measure of the violence that underlies any fundamentally discriminatory and exclusionary system. That system is not just the occupation or even the settlements in themselves; it is the inevitable condition of a polity obliged to expel or discriminate against its Palestinian citizens for the sake of “the Jewish character of the state.” Ending the occupation alone will not significantly change that brute and fundamental fact of Israel’s present regime.

No progressive or liberal person can with any consistency support the current state of Israel or its policies. Liberal Zionists are thus left in the unenviable position of Memmi’s “benevolent colonizer,” who “can never attain the good, for his only choice is not between good and evil, but between evil and uneasiness.”[viii] The “apartheid state” they fear that occupation will create already exists, while Israel has steadily destroyed the two-state solution they pretend will save it, as Beinart well knows. 

The most effective means to end the dilemmas that colonialism produces is to end the system of colonialism, not to seek to preserve it in a limited fashion. This is what the movement for boycott and divestment from Israel aims to achieve. Politically, colonization and apartheid consist above all in the denial of equal rights to all, creating a system of discrimination and exclusion. The call for BDS, issued by the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society movements in 2005, takes seriously the fundamental moral and political principle that rights cannot be doled out in full to some and only partially to others on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or other ascriptions of identity. Accordingly, it seeks the full recognition of the human and civil rights of all Palestinians — those in the occupied and blockaded West Bank and Gaza, those within Israel, and those in exile in the diaspora. On account of this simple and surely unexceptional demand for fundamental democratic rights and freedoms, BDS has been accused of intending the “destruction of the state of Israel,” with all the connotations of genocide or expulsion that that phrase more or less openly invokes. But the notion that a demand for democracy should be seen as calling for the destruction of Israel is derived from the exclusionary nature of Zionism rather than from any covert agenda of BDS, whose goals are both clear and simple.

BDS seeks no more — and no less — than Israel’s transformation. It asks Israel actually to be what it pretends to be: a normal democracy, a state of all its people, and a state that respects its obligations under international law. It does not ask that anyone be expelled or be obliged to accept less than equal rights. It asks only that Jewish citizens of Israel be willing to live on equal terms with non-Jewish citizens, with the Palestinian citizens of the state, whether Muslim, Christian, or secular, and to live in a land that belongs to all its citizens, free of legalized racial discrimination. That end would be real belonging in a land that historically has accommodated many peoples, and no longer colonial settlement by one people at the expense of another. 

In the mid-1980s, the divestment movement against South African apartheid that had for many years been dismissed as an extremist political cause suddenly reached a tipping point. It became a movement that was understood as asking no more than moral consistency in demanding the extension of fundamental principles of human rights to any state that claimed to be a Western democracy. Thirty years on, institutions like the University of California, which then opposed divestment as it now opposes the academic boycott, have come to celebrate their students’ participation in the movement. We have reached a similar moment in relation to Israel: what has been depicted as an extremist and outrageous call for boycott and divestment in order to achieve justice for Palestinians is finally beginning to be recognized as the consistent demand that the United States’s closest ally should be held accountable to those standards of human rights and justice that are applied to any state that claims to be a democracy. 

The divestment movement targeted apartheid in South Africa, but it had the unanticipated effect of reinvigorating the antiracist movement at home, awakening calls for affirmative action and multiculturalism on campuses and in other institutions, and energizing a new and radical student movement. In calling for a consistent application of democratic values and refusing the double standard of preferential treatment for one nation above others, the global BDS movement carries the same potential to bring the struggle home. While the defense of injustice abroad inevitably leads to the coercive curtailment of justice and freedom at home, so the global struggle for democracy and justice entails the extension of democratic practices and movements here. That for us now is the promise and the gift of solidarity with Palestine and the ultimate lesson of BDS: the perennial lesson that justice is indivisible and that the struggle for democracy for others is the struggle for democracy for ourselves.

[i] David Grossman, “Contemplations on Peace,” in Writing on the Dark: Essays on Literature and Politics (New York, Picador, 2008), p. 115.

[ii] See Saree Makdisi, Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation (New York: Norton, 2008), p. 148.

[iii] Ibid., p. 257 and Ilan Pappe, A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples (Second edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 159-60.

[iv] Cited in Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (New York: Norton, 2000), pp. 13-15.

[v] See Ilan Pappé, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2006), p. 250. Pappé’s book gives a detailed history of the planning and execution of Plan Dalet, of the expulsion of the Palestinians and its aftermath.

[vi] Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre, trans. Howard Greenfield (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 52.

[vii] Ibid., p. 53.

[viii] Ibid., p. 43.

LARB Contributor

David Lloyd is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, and a founding member of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. He has published numerous articles on Palestine and Israel, including “Settler Colonialism and the State of Exception: The Example of Israel/Palestine” in The Journal of Settler Colonial Studies and, with Malini Johar Schueller, an essay on the rationale for the academic boycott of Israel in the AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom. Lloyd works primarily on Irish culture and on postcolonial and cultural theory. His most recent book is Irish Culture and Colonial Modernity: The Transformation of Oral Space (Cambridge University Press, 2011). 


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!