Violence and Discourse: A Response to Yousef Munayer

Published on The Daily Beast

The recent violent attacks by Jewish citizens on Palestinian citizens of Israel and on Palestinian residents of the West Bank are horrific, and deserving not only of condemnation, but of thoughtful analysis.

Last week, Youssef Munayyer described a horrific attack by a mob of Jewish youths on a Palestinian youth in Jerusalem as “…nothing more than the inevitable trajectory of a colonialist ideology, like Zionism, imposing itself on a non-Zionist native population.” In opening his critique by trotting out this tired and mistaken paradigm, Munayyer is resorting to an intellectual tic which feeds rejectionists, Palestinian and international Israel-bashers and Jewish right wing extremists alike.

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The term colonialist is deployed in discussions of Israel and Zionism not because it is an accurate description of either one, but because like other terms of denigration—imperialist, apartheid (which Munayer does not use) and racist (which he does)—they are the accepted jargon to describe illegitimate regimes which most progressives agree should be eliminated from our world. Zionism is not colonialist— It is a colony of what? Jewland?—nor imperialist—it is an outpost of what empire?—nor is it apartheid or racist. There is plenty of racism in Israel, but there is plenty of racism everywhere. (Capitalist was once part of this list, but communism and its sponsors have been discredited and the Palestinians are struggling to build a capitalist society.)

The propagandistic use of language such as this prevents us from examining the uniqueness of the ugly and tragic turf war we call the Israel-Palestinian conflict and of Zionism. It is instead an invitation to the kind of competitive denigration—which society tolerates or encourages the most discrimination and violence against its minorities – Arab countries? Palestine? Israel?—which lead us nowhere.

A gang of youths mercilessly beating a young man almost to death is unforgivable, and my pointing out that similar incidents take place in many other societies that suffer from severe ethnic conflict, is meant to put it in a more useful context, not to excuse it. It is not the “inevitable trajectory” of an ideology, but rather a predictable outcome of ethnic hatred and suspicion, with plenty of fear-mongering on both sides.

The fact that Jewish youths behaved like this should scare even our breast-beating nationalist leaders into some soul searching. Jews are in power in Israel and bear responsibility. The decency of the Likud’s Ruby Rivlin, speaker of the Knesset, in visiting the victim and his correct characterization of the attack as a “…national problem that could endanger Israeli democracy,” is the minimum we should expect of a political leader, and rather than boasting of Rivlin’s gesture, we should be ashamed of our Prime Minister who would not risk his right wing extremist support to visit the youth himself. Equally horrific is the fact that a large crowd watched without interfering, evoking the murder of Kitty Genovese, and the indifference captured in Phil Ochs’ A Small Circle of Friends. Any Jew who tries to justify this attack or the apathy expressed by the bystanders is suffering from pathological defensiveness.

This attack should be a wake-up call for those of us who remember the more hopeful, if also frightening days of the mid-nineties. Jewish Israeli teens who grew up during the Second Intifada, the war in Lebanon, the war in Gaza, who hear right wing leaders fan anti-Palestinian sentiment to advance their own agendas and don’t hear these messages refuted from the top, who don’t remember Rabin, and whose interactions with Palestinians are limited or unfriendly, these young people won’t imbibe empathy for the situation of Palestinians or belief in the possibility of peace without major educational outreach and a changed political discourse.

The recent attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank belong to a different category from the assault in Jerusalem. Some are part of an organized “price tag” campaign by settler extremists to discourage Israeli government moves against settler outposts by threatening the Occupation’s order and control, through terrorizing Palestinians since they are the most vulnerable target. This ugly campaign—which runs counter to both Jewish ethics and the experience of Jewish history— may now be morphing into random violence and Israeli authorities seem to have woken up late to the threat both to the Palestinians and to their own security systems.

Both the attacks and Israel’s systematic failure to prosecute Palestinian complaints against settler abuse have been well documented by Israeli human rights watchdog organizations such as Yesh Din, B’tselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. The corruption is built-in to a system of policing and security designed to protect settlers rather than to guarantee justice or equality under the law. We know there no such thing as a benign Occupation.

But this is an inversion of Zionism, not its natural outgrowth.

At the same time it is worth noting that, the harsh methods of the Occupation did not develop in a vacuum; they were a response to Palestinian terrorism, and the trauma of that terrorism fuels the tolerance for much of the abuse and excesses of Israeli security and settlement policy in the West Bank. While there are outcries against the kind of settler violence that Munayyer and any reasonable person decries, there is not the political will or the public demand to put an end to the systematic inequality in the Occupation or of the Occupation itself, in part of because of the history of terrorist attacks. Against this background, the mantra of “security needs” is sufficient to silence critics and encourage Jews to distance themselves from the debate. Those of us on the left who ignore this dimension of the problem in the mainstream Jewish Israeli discourse contribute to our own marginalization.

The Zionist movement did not set out to establish America or a multi-cultural secular European state, but rather a national home for the Jewish People, in a society that was supposed to be both Jewish and democratic, and would grant its non-Jewish minorities full rights and respect. With one vote for every citizen, demographics were an issue from Day One. And on Day One, there was a very small Jewish population in Israel and its future much in doubt. Today, while the numbers are different, Jewish anxieties and the overall conflict are not yet behind us. The demographic argument is used instrumentally by leftists and rightists—usually to raise the fear of losing Jewish control of the country and its character through democratic means—to promote support both for a two-state solution and a one-state solution.

This discourse won’t make our Palestinian citizens feel welcome or desired, but most Israeli leaders have not yet evolved to the point where they take the sensitivities of Palestinian citizens into account when they speak publicly. But the underlying issue is not about race as Munayyer contends, but about control. I don’t accept Munayyer’s contention that you can draw a straight line from the Jewish desires for hegemony underlying the use of the demographic argument to a violent assault by a crowd of Jewish teens on a Palestinian youth, but language does matter.  When our Foreign Minister disrespects the Palestinian President, or rabbis rail against living near Arabs, or right wing Knesset members relate to Palestinian citizens and politicians as a fifth column, it supports the atmosphere of suspicion and hostility which give rise to such crimes.

There’s no place for that in Israel, but this discourse and public behavior is only going to move forward if the language changes on both sides.

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