Compassion for Israelis in 2013?

Powerful piece by seminal Israeli historian Ilan Pappe in Electronic Intifada:

I have just spent the last few days of 2012 in the city of… Haifa. Accidentally, I met a few of my acquaintances who in the past deemed me at best as deluded and at worst as a traitor. They seemed more embarrassed today — almost confessing that mine and my friends’ worst predictions about Israel’s future seemed to be materializing painfully in front of their very eyes.

In fact, our predictions came very late in the day. Already in 1950, with unsettling accuracy, Sir Thomas Rapp, the head of the British Middle East Office in… Cairo, foresaw the future. He was the last person sent by London to decide whether or not Britain should establish diplomatic relations with Israel. He approved but warned his superiors in London:

“The younger generation is being brought up in an environment of militarism and thus a permanent threat to the Middle East tranquillity is thereby being created and Israel would thus tend to move away from the democratic way of life towards totalitarianisms of the right or the left” (Public Record Office, Foreign Office Files 371/82179, E1015/119, a letter to Ernest Bevin the Foreign Secretary, 15 December 1950).

It is the totalitarianism of the right which is going to be the hallmark of the Jewish state in 2013. And some of the liberal Zionists who were once willing to devour me and like-minded Jews in Israel now realize we, like Sir Thomas before us, may have been right. And maybe because of their more benign attitude I would like to reciprocate by attempting, for a very short while, a different approach in 2013.

Those of us who write frequently for the Electronic Intifada have shown in the past — and will undoubtedly continue to do so in the future — our utmost solidarity with the Palestinian victims of Israel’s existence and policies. But can we, and should we, show compassion to the Israelis themselves? Obviously, one cannot ask the Palestinians to do this while the dispossession continues in full force. But maybe we who belong, ethnically at least, to the victimizers can ponder for a moment in the beginning of the New Year about our compatriots.

Let me begin with a more personal touch. During this visit I had the opportunity to watch my former colleague, the historian… Benny Morris… on television and to read some of his interviews. His anti-Arab and anti-Islamic racism is now of the rawest kind possible: a naked and rude discourse of hate, venomously spat out in the most disgusting way possible. So why show any empathy? Because his first book on the refugees was an eye-opener for me and others. It was not a great history book, but it was an eloquent survey of the truth to be found in the state archives about the 1948 Israeli crimes.

Yet his transmutation into an arch-racist is not surprising — it follows the same trajectory of many of the so-called… liberal Zionists… in Israel. He and his friends had an epiphany in the 1990s: discovering the immoral foundations of the state. This could have opened the way to a genuine reconciliation but it was also a frightening moment that demanded brave personal decisions. Most of them opted instead to deny the truth and the guilt, covering it up with a born-again Zionism of a far more extreme and obnoxious kind. This particular group of Zionists are not likely to go through another epiphany, but maybe their children will. One can only hope.

Compassion of a kind can be shown also toward the… Arab Jews… of Israel. I noticed during this visit how many of them are wearing — almost crouching under the yoke of — huge Star of David medallions of a size I have never seen before. They are frightened that the police or members of the public might mistake them for “Arabs,” hence these huge pendants that cry out: I am a Jew, not an Arab, even if I look like one! (As if any of us living between the River Jordan and the sea look that different from one another.)

This is sad and pathetic but maybe the academic Ella Habiba Shohat was right when she asked us to recognize Arab Jews as victims of Zionism as much as the Palestinians were. It is hard however, with the risk of generalization of course, to buy into their victimization for too long as they have by now endorsed wholeheartedly the formula that the more racist their anti-Arabism would be, the more Israeli they would become.

My final sense of empathy is directed to the Jewish students in the West who still insist on acting as Israel’s ambassadors on university campuses. Here too, the pathetic human condition triggers the compassion. They could have played a vanguard and leading role — as their predecessors did when they spearheaded the struggles for equality in the United States and the movements against apartheid in South Africa and imperialism in Vietnam — in one of humanity’s greatest campaigns for peace and justice: the solidarity movement with the Palestinians. But they find themselves confused and disoriented, representing the oppressor, the colonizer and the occupier. The end result is parroting slogans prepared by the Israeli diplomacy that make little sense I suspect even to those who chant it unconvincingly along with hysterical allegations of anti-Semitism and terrorism.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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