Israel’s Stalemate
Seyla Benhabib 26 June 2010

Seyla Benhabib is philosopher and professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University

On a balmy and humid Saturday night, June 5th, we left our apartment on Kikar Masarik Square in Tel-Aviv and walked down to Yitzhak Rabin Square, only 5 minutes away. Recalling our youthful days at similar anti-war and peace marches, we eyed the crowd anxiously.

We soon realized that we were joining the crowd, whose size would eventually grow to 6,000 and sponsored by the Israeli Peace Movement (Shalom Ahshav), at the gathering spot of the Israeli Communist Party (Hadash): I noticed many young Arabs carrying the hammer and sickle, along with girls, Israeli or Palestinian, with their khaffiyas, chanting in Hebrew and Arabic as a distinguished looking elderly Arab gentleman addressed that part of the crowd.

As the sea of red flags surges around us, I suppressed a tear: Such a sight is hardly visible in any European capital. I recalled all those Jewish communist militants of Europe who gave their lives for an ideal that was hollowed out by history. “Wie eine Trane im Ozean,” I mused –like a tear in the Ocean– recalling that beautiful novel of Mannes Sperber, documenting the decimation of a generation of militants by Stalin and party purges even before the gas chambers reached them. But here now before me were their children and grandchildren, not in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest and Moscow, but in Tel-Aviv.

At that point, we noticed another group, again with many youthful members that has entered the square. It is the Latin American Socialist Youth Alliance, chanting into their megaphones in Hebrew – “El Pueblo unido, no maz sera venciro.” We joined them, and started marching as the sounds of English, Hebrew, and Spanish wafted over heads like so many delicious smells of an eclectic cuisine.


That night of the peace march in Israel was the sole moment of emotional rejuvenation in an otherwise extremely tense two weeks which began with the Flotilla departing from Turkey for Gaza. I was in Israel as a visiting professor at the Meitar Center of Advanced Legal Studies and I watched in disbelief and pain as Turkey, the country of my birth threatened at one point to go to war against Israel – a country I feel deep affection for, whose politics I have followed since the 1968 War, where many members of my family, including one sister, lives and where my Father is buried. I am not an Israeli but an American citizen and I still have my old Turkish passport in the drawer which has long since lapsed.

That Israel has violated international law by boarding a ship on international waters and without sufficient proof that it posed a threat to its security, that it has killed civilians who may have had every right to put up resistance to commandos being lowered by ropes in the dark of the night unto the dock of their ship; that some Turkish militants, although not carrying fire arms, wished to provoke the Israelis into some sort of confrontation is clear, but it does not help us understand the larger picture at stake in these actions. (cf. Israeli social and political forces are at a stalemate: whether one advocates a one-state or a two-state solution certainly matters but there are deeper cultural, economic, and theological forces at work which make it highly unlikely that a viable solution can be found soon to the quagmire in Israel-Palestine.


For some time now, Israel has replaced its “rubber bullets” with real ones and its politics with a disproportionate use of military force. The Lebanon War against the Hizbollah in 2006 took hundreds of lives, nearly destroyed half of Beirut, caused deep ecological damage to the beautiful coast uniting Israel and Lebanon. In the brutal Gaza War, Israel surely committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity. Repeatedly, Israel conveys the same message: we possess the overwhelming force of arms and we can crush you. But this is a message of vulnerability, not of strength to ensure a just and proportionate use of force. The current Israeli government is dominated by military elites trained in commando units such as Barak and Natanyahu. Arms govern events and political discourse, even if cacophonous, sounds increasingly like a hollow din.

Israel’s existential problems are intractable. Increasingly, zealous and dogmatic religious settlers and the close to 1 million Jews and non-Jews of Russian origin who have immigrated to Israel in the last decade and a half are dominating Israeli politics and defining its strategic alternatives. Together they are transforming the dream of a social-democratic Jewish state into a nightmare of theological certitudes and deep anti-liberalism. The anti-communism of Israel’s population of Russian origin is also deeply anti-liberal and even anti-democratic. Avigdor Lieberman and his cohorts do not speak the language of contemporary liberal-democratic politics; their diction and imagination are trapped by the vocabulary of Europe of the 1930’s – “one nation, one land, one state.” Where have we heard that before?

The religious settlers are complicated: those who come from the United States, for example, carry their hatred of American consumer society and the racial tensions they experienced in Brooklyn and other American cities, into a dream of rejuvenation through the reconquest of sacred land. The occupied territories also become for them a new American frontier. But as in the case of Baruch Goldstein, who gunned down 29 Palestinians in a mosque in Hebron in 1994, they are often deranged by their fervor. Some religious groups that previously refused to serve in the Israeli army have now reversed their decision; in part because they want to have enough soldiers sympathetic to their cause who will refuse to obey orders to destroy settlements if, and when, the day comes for the return of occupied territories to the Palestinians.

Yet there is a contradiction between the dreams of the settlers and the illusions of the Lieberman group that they can create an Israel ‘cleansed ‘of Palestinians. If the dream of Eretz Israel means continuing Jewish domination over Judea and Samaria, then Israel is no longer really a Jewish state but an occupation force controlling close to 3 million people. This is an unstable solution, not only from the standpoint of its international legality, but from the standpoint of Israel’s laws as well. The number of marriages between Palestinians from the occupied territories and Israeli Palestinians is growing. But in order to prevent Palestinians from the occupied territories from settling in Israel, the Israeli High Court has had to restrict family unification rights (considered also an international human right) and has denied such couples the right to live together in Israel on purported security grounds.

Just as there are Palestinians from the occupied territories wishing to live in Israel, there are Israelis who will not quit the occupied territories because they consider them ancestral land. In response, proposals have been put forth by members of the Israeli Knesset who belong to various religious parties to accept a one-state solution, so that the settlers would not have to leave the occupied territories. The idea is that to Israelis living on the occupied territories Jewish personal law would apply. The last time personal law applied to different ethno-religious groups living on the same territory was in the Ottoman Empire and Austro-Hungarian empires! Present-day Israel with its system of religiously-based family law and religious courts already practices a version of this. While one can debate the legitimacy or desirability of legal pluralism within liberal democracies, it is clear that the model of a united state of Israel in the minds of these law-makers is more like South Africa and its townships than like Canada, with its “asymmetrical federalism” granted to the province of Quebec and the First Nations.

There is another dream of Eretz Israel, one that is not religiously but economically motivated. The statistics about Israel’s economy are stunning: the country enjoys one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world; its per capita income is over $30,000, and, traveling the highway between Tel-Aviv and Haifa, one sees that Israel has become a principal hub of global high tech industry. The very high level of education of its population and the knowledge of languages and diasporic connections of the Jewish people make Israel the new Singapore of the Middle East. Some Israelis we met told us proudly about a large delegation of Chinese agricultural engineers coming to Israel to learn about its computer-based irrigation system which has turned arid land into one of the agricultural bread baskets of the world.

For the new global leaders of neo-liberal capitalism, who are represented both in Netanyahu’s Likud and Tzipi Lvini’s Kadima party, the occupied territories constitute Israel’s economic and military elbow-room. They do not care particularly about Eretz Israel as a sacred place, but feeling Israel’s economic power in their guts, they see the occupied territories as their legitimate “Grossraum,” – region of expansion. They also do not have an interest in returning the territories, although the Kadima party officially claims to accept a two-state solution.

This then are the cause of Israel’s political stalemate: New and growing forces in the country are for different reasons set against a two-state solution: the settlers and their representatives are dedicated to the ideal of Eretz Israel over the Medinat Israel — the land of Israel over the state of Israel; the global capitalists see the territories both as a buffer zone and as an opportunity for expansion; and the Lieberman group would like to create a Bantustan for Palestinians (or at least a majority of them) which they would like to dominate with overwhelming force for the foreseeable future.


Against these overwhelming odds are poised the Zionists of the center and the left. They plead for a two-state solution in order to preserve the Jewish and democratic character of Israel and in order to do justice to the self-determination claims of the Palestinian people. But many are unwilling to face the paradoxes confronting a liberal-democratic state in the 21st century that is both singularly Jewish and democratic. Granted, all liberal democracies are housed in varieties of nation-states, where different ethnic groups mix and match to create more-or-less pluralist polities: Canada, the USA and Australia on the one hand, are multicultural nations formed through waves of migration. French, Spanish, Italian, German nations are much more homogeneous and not built on migration, although increasingly facing its challenges.

Israel is a nation of immigrants that aspires to be an ethnically based democracy. But its laws of citizenship and naturalization, and family laws are deeply discriminatory and are based on ethno-religious belonging. If you are a Jew according to the Halacha, that is, if you are born of a Jewish mother, then you are automatically a citizen of the state of Israel (this principle is now being bent to accommodate the large number of Russian Jews who have only one, and may be not even one, Jewish ancestor out of 4); naturalization for non-Jews is extremely hard and almost impossible without conversion. As the number of guest-workers from countries of Central America, Thailand, the Philippines etc increases (currently numbering around 700, 000 it seems) and as they have offspring in Israel, the citizenship and rights of these children becomes a burning issue.

Israel is also not a liberal democracy because it is based on a political-theological compromise between the Orthodox Rabbinate and the secular state. The Rabbinate has control over the private law of all Jewish citizens affecting marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Its monopoly has not been broken since the founding of the state of Israel, and not even rabbis from the conservative and reform movements can perform these functions. It is humiliating to many Israelis to be married or divorced according to these ancient, and often patriarchal, rules of the Torah. Those who can afford it, go to Cyprus to get married and then have their marriages recognized in Israel.

This is why the demand that “Israel be a state for all its citizens,” advocated by Israeli Palestinians and some Jewish groups, is so threatening to many. While all democracies are housed in some form of nation, with its own language, history and laws, for Israel to become a true liberal-democracy it must forfeit the political-theological construction at the heart of the present state and embrace a democratic constitution with modern citizenship and naturalization rights compatible with international human rights standards. It must also acknowledge the right of non-religious citizens and residents – whether Jewish or Palestinian – to civil rights in matters of marriage, divorce, child care, alimony and inheritance, administered by secular courts in compliance with international human-rights standards.

Unfortunately, too few Israeli constituencies are willing and strong enough to confront these hard questions. That is why the noise of weapons is silencing the sound of political debate.


Let me end, though, on a note of hope: As the Flotilla was approaching Israeli waters, a post-doctoral student at the Yale Law School filed together with his colleagues a “habeas corpus” requesting that activists on the Flotilla have immediate access to counsel upon arriving on Israeli territory and that they not be held without counsel. Their writ was rejected and the Israeli army did hold many Turkish activists, in particular, without counsel for several days. Activists from the Mavi Marmara were transported to a prison in Ashkelon in violation of their international human rights. The Israeli High Court eventually stepped in to limit the army’s actions.

And there are now more and more activists, both Israeli and Palestinian, whose ideals are formed by a new understanding of the balance between human rights and democratic sovereignty. The large numbers of Israeli-Arab girls attending the University of Tel-Aviv, with their multi-colored scarves and coats, perfectly fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, chattering away into their cell phones, and flirting with boys under the shade, caught me by surprise. It will be up to them as well as their Israeli counterparts to devise a political vision for the new Israel that can rid itself of the nightmares and stalemates of the past.



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