I am about to wade into what is unarguably one of the most controversial topics of our time. And I dont do so lightly as I am keenly aware of the minefield that lay ahead. Yet I feel compelled to address a situation that has become both unjust and untenable, in my opinion. And I wish to do so through the eyes of a man I both admire and respect. A man who was unmistakably prescient.
I was first exposed to the writings of Yeshayahu Leibowitz as a philosophy major at university. He was a prolific writer who was quite active in the political arena as well as the philosophy of science. Designated “the conscience of Israel” by his childhood contemporary, Sir Isaiah Berlin, Leibowitz was a candid and controversial thinker that remained a respected intellectual until his death in 1994.
He migrated to what was then Palestine in 1935, fleeing the rise of Nazi Germany. At that time, he took a position at the University teaching biochemistry and lecturing on the history and philosophy of science. At the same time he became well known for his public discourse on Jewish thought, appearing frequently on television broadcasts and in public forums.
Although he was a staunch Orthodox Jew, he found the marriage of Judaism with democracy to be an extremely problematic ideal for the state of Israel and lectured on this topic quite frequently. While discussing the occupation he writes, “As for the religious arguments for the annexation of the territories—these are only an expression, subconsciously or perhaps even overtly hypocritical of the transformation of the Jewish religion into a camouflage for Israeli nationalism. Counterfeit religion identifies national interests with the service of God and imputes to the state—which is only an instrument serving human needs—supreme value from a religious standpoint.” (Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State, pg. 226) So, from his point of view, the service of human needs should not be linked with the service of God as the state serves a completely venerable political purpose- that of serving human needs. Moreover, he believed that holding any state as a value in and of itself would be inherently fascist since any conflation of religion with the state would eventually corrupt both. Continuing,
“Rule over the occupied territories would have social repercussions. After a few years there would be no Jewish workers or Jewish farmers. The Arabs would be the working people and the Jews the administrators, inspectors, officials, and police—mainly secret police. A state ruling a hostile population of 1.5 million to 2 million foreigners would necessarily become a secret-police state, with all that implies for education, free speech and democratic institutions. The corruption characteristic of every colonial regime would also prevail in the State of Israel. The administration would have to suppress the Arab insurgency on the one hand and acquire Arab quislings on the other. There is also good reason to fear that the Israel Defense Force, which has been until now a people’s army, would, as a result of being transformed into an army of occupation, degenerate, and its commanders, who will have become military governors, resemble their colleagues in other nations.” (Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State, Pg. 226)
Leibowitz made clear that the issue of the territories had little to do with the land itself- but rather with the population that lives on the land. And in 1967, while Israeli leaders on both the right and left upheld their new territorial gains, Leibowitz warned that the ruinous nature of occupation would in due course bring about the ruin of the state by spawning a generation of hard right nationalists no different than those they had fled Germany. He predicted the collapse of the Jewish labor force, the dangerous disenchantment of the Arab Israeli sector, and a pervasive culture of corruption and apartheid. He believed in the very least that the path they were on would lead to an escalation in war and increasing intifada. In other words, the wages of this tyranny in the eyes of the Palestinians would be terrorism- and there would be no resolution. Subsequently, following the Six Day war, Leibowitz began making poignant comparisons between the Nazi Germans and the Israeli hardliners- coining the term “Judeo-Nazi”.
Although his words stirred up controversy and anger, they were not without reason or merit. For in the aftermath of the war, a new Israeli phenomenon reared its ugly head: the settler enterprise in the newly occupied Palestinian territories. The founders of this movement were a group that had been previously marginalized- the religious nationalists. Religious Zionists that had previously been a loathed – if not ignored- minority. Why? On one side, the most religious orthodox Jews were not Zionists and thought that the creation of the state of Israel was a sin against G-D since G-d had condemned the Jews to live in exile. On the other side, the secular Kibbutzim dominated the discourse. It was the rise of religious nationalism that most concerned Leibowitz. If Israel was to flourish, he warned, it would have to “liberate itself from this curse of dominating another people.” The prolonged Israeli rule over the Palestinians would sooner or later “bring about a catastrophe for the Jewish people as a whole” while undermining the viability of a viable democracy. He strongly argued that the continued occupation and settlement endeavor would ultimately lead to a deeply rooted racism grounded in this religious-nationalist worldview.
It was for this reason that Leibowitz additionally rejected the “land for peace” approach, referring to it as a “slogan that means holding on to the territories indefinitely.” He understood that an “evacuation of the territories necessarily precedes any serious effort toward peace” since any “dialogue with the Palestinians is not likely to take place on the sole basis of the explicit intention to return the territories after reaching an agreement. Honest dialogue is not possible between rulers and ruled: it is possible only between equals.” (Ibid Pg.240)
It is my opinion that the turning point may well have been in 1988 when The Israeli high court upheld a ban on Rabbi Meir Kahane’s anti-Arab political party, Kach. At that time, Justice Menachem Elon denied Kahane’s appeal of the Central Elections Committee ruling on the grounds that his party was racist and, more importantly, undemocratic. The ruling posited that, “the aims of Kach and its actions are racist and . . . it seeks to violently deny the rights of segments of the population.”
For those who have no knowledge of who Kahane is, allow me to digress for a moment. Kahane is most known in the United States as the Rabbi who founded the Jewish Defense League. His beliefs, however, are clearly extreme if not untenable. He became well known in Israel for espousing the idea that Jewish law authorizes the expulsion of Arabs from both the Palestinian occupied territories and Israel proper. He attempted to pass laws in the Knesset that would forbid sexual relations between non-Jews and Jews and to disallow cultural meetings between Jewish and Arab students. And ultimately for inciting racism and hate. Kahane, and his followers, were responsible for the murders and beatings of hundreds of innocent Palestinians. More recently, in August of 2015, his grandson Meir Ettinger, was detained for an arson attack in the West Bank that lead to the death of an 18 year old Palestinian toddler. The Shin Bet, at the time, recommended that Ettinger be placed under administrative detention, but Israeli state attorneys rejected the suggestion. Instead he was simply banned from entering the West Bank
One of Kahane’s prodigies, ex foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, has not only adeptly slipped into his racist shoes, but shockingly, his rhetoric has now become widely accepted. Lieberman, a former member of the Kach Party, was found guilty by an Israeli court in 2001 for the beating a 12-year-old boy. Additionally, in 2006, he was the subject of an investigation for racketeering charges associated with his alleged Russian mafia involvement. For years he resided in the Jewish settlement of Nokdim in the occupied Palestinian territory.
So, here we are in 2016 and it would seem that almost all of Leibowitz’s worries have come to fruition. We have witnessed the wholesale destruction of Gaza and the start of the Third Intifada. We have witnessed hard right Israelis openly calling for the genocide of the Palestinians in the press. The Jewish Settlers in the occupied West Bank regularly deface Arab property and physically harm Palestinians without interference from the IDF. They chant “Death to Arabs” while parading through Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Many factories and businesses have left Israel proper after receiving large government subsidies for moving to the occupied West Bank where they take advantage of the desperate Palestinian workers from the settlement-adjacent villages in an environment that is completely free from minimum wage and labor laws.
All of this has come to pass since the religious nationalists- those that Leibowitz had warned us about- grew into the fascist Home party taking up residence in several government positions. For example, the police chief- Home party darling Naftali Bennett- is a former settler, as is the head of the secret service. The settlers have additionally engrained themselves in the Likud party of which Prime Minister Netanyahu is a member.
It now seems that the will to end the brutal occupation- and its embedded apartheid legal system- simply no longer exists. Leibowitz has been proven correct. Yet, where does that leave us? With increasing levels of hatred and terrorism? With increasing levels of racism? It is hardly shocking that we are now witnessing an escalated Palestinian blowback. A repressed and demoralized population will fight for their freedom. Leibowitz tacitly understood this.