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Greenstein and Fine: debate on BDS and Zionism
By: Ran Greenstein and Robert Fine
29 October 2010

(This exchange of letters is a continuation of the discussion over an article
of Ran Greenstein`s here:

Robert Fine, 28 October 2010

Dear Ran

Thanks for your latest response in our discussion and apologies for
being far slower to reply than yourself!

Let me return to the question of Israel’s ‘uniqueness’. There is, of
course, a sense in which every state is unique. Every state has a
unique history, a unique set of circumstances that led to its
emergence and development, a unique population, a unique place on the
globe. But this is trivial. What you are talking about is exclusion.
You write:

“Israel is indeed unique as an exclusionary state. No other state is
founded – historically and at present – on the physical and political
exclusion of the majority of its indigenous population. No other state
regards its ethnic identity as the sine qua non of its existence with
such intensity. No other state is an ethnic ‘demographic state’ in the
same way. No other state combines the inclusion of all members of one
group (Jews), regardless of their specific origins and concrete links
to the territory, with the exclusion of most members of another group
(Palestinians), regardless of their specific origins and concrete
links to the territory.”

We know at least some of the exclusionary elements that went into
Israel’s composition. One element was a political and largely secular
Zionism that arose in Europe in the late 19th century and attracted a
minority of European Jews in the first half of the 20th century. The
point to remember here, I think, is that Zionism was one nationalism
amongst many in Europe, itself a product of the exclusion of Jews from
the nations of Europe. Nationalism was not exceptional; it was the
norm. Nationalism for Jews co-existed with nationalisms for
Hungarians, Serbs, Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, French, etc. All such
nationalisms, not only Zionism, contain strong exclusionary forces.

A second exclusionary element has to do with the experience of the
Holocaust. Many of the ‘unmurdered Jews’ of Europe, as Philip Roth
called them, went to Palestine-Israel because there was often no other
place to go, because they were understandably keen to get out of
Europe, or because they were committed to establishing some kind of
safe haven for Jews that seemed lacking elsewhere. The experience of
exclusion, oppression and murder by Europeans was not unique to Jews,
though Jews suffered especially badly, and in most cases it led those
who suffered at European hands to seek to establish their own
independent states. The newly independent states that arose at
different times out of this experience often combined a vibrant sense
of national freedom with exclusion of those deemed not to belong to
the nation in question. Israel is not in this regard unique.

A third – and perhaps crucial exclusionary element – has to do with
Israel being a ‘Jewish state’. As far as I know, many states in the
Middle East and North Africa describe themselves as ‘Arab states’ and
in some cases as ‘Muslim Arab states’. Yesterday morning I was reading
an article in the Independent by Robert Fisk (no great admirer of
Israel) who quotes President Sadat of Egypt referring to himself as
‘the Muslim president of a Muslim country’. Fisk focuses on the
exclusion of Christians in ‘Muslim’ countries. The problem, he writes,
doesn’t only come from fundamentalists but from constitutions: in all
the countries of the region, except Lebanon, Christians are second
class citizens. Both you and I are opposed to any exclusion that
derives from the national character afforded to the state, but to
think such exclusions are in any sense unique to Israel cannot be

The labeling of a state ‘Jewish’ or ‘Arab’ or ‘Muslim’ or indeed
‘British’ or ‘French’ is in all cases problematic. But it may be more
or less problematic depending on whether the national epithet attached
to the state refers merely, say, to the cultural motifs of a nation
(e.g. whether Christmas or Pesach or Ramadan is a public holiday); or
entails the subordination of those deemed not to fit the ‘national’
definition of the state as second class citizens or ‘minorities’; or
worse still entails the expulsion of those deemed not to fit as
‘stateless persons’. The history of Israel seems to me equivocal. As
far as I know, mainstream Zionists originally supported two states:
one for Jews and one for Palestinians with rights of minorities built
into both. In the aftermath of existential wars between Israel and
neighboring states, Palestinians in Israel were considered co-citizens
but were also discriminated against; Palestinians who left Israel
(often in the heat of battle) were not allowed back; Palestinians on
the West Bank and in different ways in Gaza have been subjected to
occupation and to the denial of civil and political rights that flows
from occupation.

If we criticise exaggerated characterisation of these abuses as
‘ethnic cleansing’ or ‘genocide’, this does not deny the need to put
an end to discrimination against Palestinians in Israel, to the
occupation of the West Bank, and to the human rights violations that
result from the occupation. The present-day problem is that disrespect
for Palestinians is getting worse in Israel as a right wing
government, religious fundamentalist movements and needy immigrant
populations combine to give license to anti-Arab racism. The situation
seems to be aggravated by the decline of antiracist currents within
Israel and the difficulties ordinary Israelis and Palestinians have in
meeting and conversing with one another.

But the drift to the right in Israel is not unique. In a number of
European countries, including some within the EU, there is a
disturbing drift to an increasingly ultra-nationalist right wing. In
some cases not only is the party of government extreme right but also
the main opposition party is even further to the right. In the Middle
East, Jews have long since been encouraged to leave or actively
expelled from most ‘Arab’ countries and many of them ceased to be
considered refugees when they became beneficiaries of Israel’s open
door policy to Jews worldwide (beneficiaries, in Zionist parlance, of
a right of ‘return’). I am no expert on the Middle East but if Fisk is
right there is an increasing problem for other minorities living
within Arab states. I should like to know more about how Palestinians
are being treated in those Arab countries which refuse to integrate
them as full nationals. Certainly Israel is not their only problem.
One would have to be willfully blind not to be aware of the growing
dangers of religious fundamentalism on one side and authoritarianism
among secular elites on the other in a number of Arab countries. Such
anti-democratic forces pose dangers not only to Israel but more
immediately to a culture of tolerance and mutual respect among Arab
people themselves. In short, the drift to what we might call the
‘ultra-nationalist right’ is a threat that is not unique to Israel and
indeed seems not to be isolatable in any one country.

From where then does the singling out of Israel derive? One source is
perhaps displacement. Instead of the difficult task of addressing
problems within ourselves and our own world, we can focus on
denouncing Israel as if it were uniquely violent, uniquely
exclusionary and uniquely powerful. Israel isn’t in my opinion any of
these things but the accusation can open a can of worms. What is
really unique about Israel is the Jewishness of the Jewish state as
opposed to the Arabness of an Arab state or indeed the Britishness of
the British state. It seems to me that the whole argument about
uniqueness pushes us where none of us wants to go: not to political
criticism but to an attack on Jews. You point your finger at Israel in
the name of ‘an inclusive non-ethnic democracy’, but you do not ask
why of all states it is Israel that is selected out for not meeting
this ideal.

For various reasons, some biographical, I share your particular
concern with Israel. There is part of me too that wants to be proud of
Israel, though I do not share the conviction of some that there is
nothing already to be proud of. We do not want Israel to be corrupted
from within or threatened from without. We want it to succeed as an
open society as well as to resist those who think Jews have no place
in the Middle East. We are worried about what we hear and see of
current developments in Israel, but it would be parochial of us to
translate our particular concern, as it were, into the mother of all
concerns. Democrats from Burma, Hungary, Tibet, Zimbabwe, Syria, Iran,
Denmark, the UK, etc. all have their particular battles to fight with
their own political elites. The point is not Zionism or antizionism
but the need to defend and build democracy with the materials at hand.

You put forward the idea of an inclusive non-ethnic democracy for Jews
and Palestinians together. Excellent! I am all for supporting those
who try to build a sense of conviviality between Jews and non-Jews,
those who oppose hatred and racism on both sides, and I don’t think we
should make a fetish of the ‘Jewish state’. In this sense we are not
‘Zionists’. We agree we need to start from the existing situation and
move forward, but I cannot accept the way you pose the issue. The idea
of transformation from an ‘exclusionary ethnic state’ to ‘an inclusive
democratic state’ does justice neither to the past nor the future. In
this scenario the darkness of the past goes along with unlimited trust
in the future. But those who see only darkness and light never learn
to make distinctions between shades of grey.

In any event, your opinion and mine count for little. On the one hand,
most people in Israel do not embrace the ‘transformation’ you seek,
perhaps because they believe in the idea of a ‘Jewish state’ or more
simply because for good reason or bad they are fearful of the
consequences. On the other hand, many of the political forces who do
embrace ‘transformation’ do not show much interest in sharing an
inclusive democracy with Jews. We may want to see what exists
dismantled in the name of our idea, but the one thing of which we can
be sure is that what will replace the existing state will be driven by
forces far bigger and more demanding than what is merely in our heads.

Best Wishes,

Robert Fine

*** *** ***

Dear Robert,

Thanks again for your considered and reasonable contribution to the debate.

Here is – in brief – my response, with headings to highlight remaining

1. Zionism as a national movement and a colonial project

You say that Zionism was one among many European nationalist
movements, all of which contained “strong exclusionary forces”. You
add that many new independent states combine “a vibrant sense of
national freedom with exclusion of those deemed not to belong to the
nation in question”. In addition, most countries in the Middle East
are defined in ethnic or religious terms and are exclusionary to
various degrees. You use these points to argue that Israel is not
unique in displaying exclusionary tendencies.

You are right that exclusionary policies are not unique, but you
ignore a crucial aspect of the Israeli state that makes it stand out:
it was born out of a project that saw immigrants – mostly of European
origins – moving into a territory populated by local non-European
people, and displacing them (politically and physically). As a result,
Israel is viewed as part of the colonial enterprise of subordinating
indigenous populations and territories to settler rule. Regardless of
the subjective consciousness of settlers, they are perceived in this
light in much of Asia, Africa and Latin America. That accounts for the
wide sense of solidarity people in these parts of the world feel for
the Palestinian struggle. They see it as similar to their own
struggles against colonial and settler forces: if you want to
understand South African responses to the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, look no further.

2. The Nakba as ethnic cleansing

You acknowledge the exclusionary consequences of Zionist policies
towards Palestinians but regard the notion of “ethnic cleansing” as an
exaggeration. What better term do you propose to refer to the
flight/expulsion of 80% of the indigenous population of what became
the State of Israel in 1948? What better term for their prevention
from returning to their homes, villages and towns (frequently located
a few miles away from their new refugee camps)?

3. Israel’s ‘drift to the right’

You recognize the “drift to the right” in Israel, but claim it is not
unique. In several European countries there is a drift to “an
increasingly ultra-nationalist right wing”. What you fail to consider
is that the nationalist right-wing in Israel argues that it is
resurrecting the original Zionist vision of exclusion. It describes
itself as a guard against any relaxation of segregation and
inequality. Its rallying cry is the need for an undiluted “Jewish
state” in the spirit of Herzl and Ben-Gurion. Of course, they may be
wrong or manipulative. But, ask yourself, what is it in the original
Zionist vision that allows them to claim it today to justify
anti-democratic abuses and exclusions? Why do their claims and
campaigns resonate with a large section of the Israeli-Jewish public,
born and raised on Zionist ideology?

4. `Singling out` Israel

You raise the point that many Jews were ill-treated in Arab and
Islamic countries, that Christian existence increasingly is under
attack, and that democracy is threatened due to the rise of religious
fundamentalism and secular authoritarianism in the Arab world. All
true. You then ask “From where then does the singling out of Israel

The simple answer is that Israel ‘singles out’ itself by its policies:
it is unique in excluding the indigenous majority of its population in
order to clear the way for a group of settlers, who used force to
become a majority. That the settlers did not regard themselves as
foreigners, and in their minds they were returning to the land of
their ancestors, made no difference to the concerns of the locals: can
you think of a different response offered by any indigenous group in
Asia, Africa and the Americas to the prospect of European-originated

To be precise, what is unique is not the historical context – many
states were born in violence and conflict – but the re-enactment of
the founding act of exclusion of 1948 on a daily basis. Take for
example this week’s Knesset bill, sponsored by members of Kadima
(hailed by some deluded people as a liberal alternative to Likud):
“The Knesset`s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Wednesday
unanimously approved a bill which gives the right to absorption
committees of small communities in Israel to reject candidates if they
do not meet specific criteria. The bill has sparked wide condemnation
and many believe it to be discriminatory and racist, since it allows
communities to reject residents if they do not meet the criteria of
‘suitability to the community`s fundamental outlook’, which in effect
enables them to reject candidates based on sex, religion, and
socioeconomic status.” In the minds of all participants in the debate
there was not the slightest doubt what the target was: preventing
Arabs from joining Jewish settlements that control the bulk of land in
Israel. But let us be fair. The exclusion is not complete: “The
committee`s chairman, David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu), responded to
claims the bill was meant to reject Arabs from joining Israeli towns.
‘In my opinion, every Jewish town needs at least one Arab. What would
happen if my refrigerator stopped working on Shabbat?`

Can you think of another country (Western or otherwise) in which such
parliamentary debate can take place today? My point is not that racism
is extreme in Israel. Rather, it is that current legislation reflects
the uninterrupted practice of Zionist settlement from its inception.
The socialist, egalitarian Kibbutzim and collective Moshavim were/are
just as exclusionary as the unabashed racists under the leadership of
Lieberman and Yishai, who receive the tacit support of Netanyahu,
Livni and Barak. They all follow what Israeli historian and analyst
Meron Benvenisti called “the genetic [historical-cultural] code of a
settler society” (see here the useful discussion by ‘The Magnes
Zionist’ on

5. Does Jewishnsess matter?

You say: “What is really unique about Israel is the Jewishness of the
Jewish state as opposed to the Arabness of an Arab state or indeed the
Britishness of the British state.” No. What is unique is that Israel
alone is based on historical dispossession of the indigenous
population, which continues to this day. Israel is not the only – or
worst – oppressive regime. It is not the only – or worst – state that
practices discrimination and violation of human rights. It is not the
only – or worst – state that emerged out of a violent colonial-type
conflict. It is not the only – or worst – state that dispossessed
indigenous people. But, it is indeed the only state that continues to
re-enact such historical dispossession today, in an ever intensified

You say: “you do not ask why of all states it is Israel that is
selected out for not meeting this ideal” (of non-ethnic inclusive
democracy). But of course you know very well that Israel is not unique
in this respect: I happen to live in a state that experienced
precisely that kind of selection. How can you make an argument about
‘Jewishness’ as a reason for excessive criticism, when you are fully
aware that Afrikaners (or white South Africans generally) were
subjected to similar – and frequently much harsher – treatment?

If the Jewish state of Israel is treated in the same way as the white
Republic of South Africa was treated, it cannot possibly be because of
what they do not share (‘Jewishness’). It can only be because of what
they do share: exclusionary policies towards their indigenous

6. What is to be done and how

Finally, you agree that change is necessary, but say that “the idea of
transformation from an ‘exclusionary ethnic state’ to ‘an inclusive
democratic state’ does justice neither to the past nor the future. In
this scenario the darkness of the past goes along with unlimited trust
in the future.” I am afraid that this has nothing to do with my
understanding of politics. What I call for is a process of political
struggle and change, proceeding through education, growing awareness,
and numerous campaigns, which would culminate – hopefully – in an
overall change of the system. It is likely to be a slow, gradual and
painful process. It is not a messianic transformation from one extreme
to another, and it should build on all the positive – but partial –
achievements of past struggles.

Most Jews in Israel are indeed fearful of this prospect, and most
Palestinians embrace nationalism and religion rather than non-ethnic
inclusive democratic notions. So change is not likely to be immediate,
easy or unproblematic. It may be a journey of a thousand miles, but
even such a journey must begin with one step, as long as we are moving
in the right direction (see today’s useful insights by historian
Dimitri Shumski on the need for an Israeli democratic state in
for now, but surely to be translated).

Where can we go from here despite our disagreements? Towards a common
struggle on what we agree on: the need to fight the occupation, the
need to make Israel a state in which all citizens are equal, the need
to respect international human rights law, the need to redress
historical injustices. Whether the academic boycott is a useful step
to take in this struggle is a minor point. Don’t let it distract us
from the more substantial task of transforming Israel into a democracy
that acts for the benefit of all its residents, past and present.

Best Wishes

Ran Greenstein


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