Israel’s Struggle Within

ATC interviews Uri Davis

This interview with Uri Davis, the author of Apartheid Israel: Possibilities for the Struggle Within (see the review following on p. 21 of this issue), was conducted for Against the Current by David Finkel in Detroit on September 16, 2004. Uri Davis spoke in Dearborn, Ann Arbor and suburban Detroit at the beginning of a speaking tour, mostly in Ontario, where he plans a legal challenge against the tax-exempt status of fundraising by the Jewish National Fund of Canada.

Against the Current: Since you live in Sakhnin (a mostly Arab municipality within Israel), I must ask you first about your town’s soccer team—what you call football—which won the Israeli national championship. This qualified them to play in the European team tournament (UEFA), where they are playing today in Britain at Newcastle. I understand you’re not a soccer fan, but can you tell us about the impact of this victory on your community, on the Arab sector within Israel and on Israeli society in general?

Uri Davis: When Sakhnin won the Israeli championship, the whole town was out celebrating the entire night. The victory was an occasion of great pride and satisfaction for everybody, including myself, because it was not regarded only in professional football terms but gave expression to broader sentiments.

First of these was the satisfaction of making it to the top despite many decades of being victimized by the calculated government policies of underdevelopment, imposed on the community by what is, in law and in practice, an apartheid state.

Apartheid is discrimination in law on a racialist basis. Racism and racial discrimination is defined in Article One of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, adopted in December 1965 and entered into force in January 1969, as follows:

In this Convention, the term “racial discrimination” shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.

Like apartheid South Africa, discriminating in law on the racialist basis as defined above between “Whites” and “non-Whites,” the state of Israel discriminates in law on a racialist basis as defined above between “Jews” and “non-Jews,” and secures privileges to its Jewish citizens that are systematically denied to its Arab citizens. [For conditions of life in Sakhnin and the confiscation of the town’s lands, see Apartheid Israel, 174–175.]

These barriers are also reflected in the poorly equipped football pitch, and in the team being consistently underfunded. To have achieved this victory under these conditions was a cause of great satisfaction and celebration—quite justly so.

Even so, as far as I’m concerned as a member of the community, I wasn’t able to partake wholeheartedly in the celebration. For me there was an element of sadness, because Sakhnin won the national championship but this hardly compensated for the crippling losses inflicted on the community through land confiscation and “Judaization” policies [e.g. reserving around three acres per person in surrounding Jewish localities, with about one-eighth acre per person for Sakhnin]. These have resulted in Sakhnin becoming progressively more of a ghettoized slum rather than the thriving city it deserves to be.

ATC: Is the struggle for an independent Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories—the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem—compatible in principle with the struggle for a democratic, non-apartheid Israel?

U.D.: Yes, it is in principle compatible, if you underline two or three times “in principle.” You must do this because the de facto formation of what is being labelled as the “two-state solution,” such as is being outlined beginning with the Oslo “peace process,” if it materializes at all will lead towards the consolidation of an apartheid State of Israel and a bantustan Palestine.

This would then be projected locally and internationally as the political expression of the right of the Palestinian Arab people to self-determination, and the bantustan state would be admitted as a member state of the United Nations. I also want to point out that the tendency I see in the international community to endorse this eventuality, and to endow it with UN legitimacy, stands in marked contrast to the world’s consistent refusal to confer such legitimacy on the bantustans created by South Africa.

All attempts by the apartheid governments of South Africa to project the bantustans as political expressions of the right of the indigenous peoples of South Africa to “self-determination” were rejected emphatically by the international community.

That doesn’t seem to be the case today with respect to the question of Palestine, unfortunately. I believe, however, that the emergence of a strong anti-apartheid movement worldwide in support of the rights of the Palestinian Arab people could alter this and move the international community to embrace, with reference to Palestine, positions closer to those it had embraced regarding apartheid South Africa.

ATC: How do you think it is possible to stimulate such a development?

U.D.: Elements of principled non-government organizations committed to anti-apartheid and democratic values have been present in Palestine, primarily in the Palestinian Arab constituency and secondarily among the Jewish constituency inside Israel since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. They are benefitting from the growing and developing network of international solidarity since the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964/65. My tour in North America is just one expression of this.

There is an obstacle which stands in the way of a breakthrough for Palestine solidarity, an obstacle the equivalent of which was not present to such a degree with respect to the anti-apartheid movement committed to supporting the democratic struggle in South Africa.

That difficulty is the success of the pro-Zionist lobby in dismissing legitimate and necessary critical exposure of Israeli war criminal practices as “anti-Jewish” or “anti-Semitic,” and in this way to stifle critical discussion of Israel and Palestine in the West.

But the capacity of the Israeli Embassy to do this is progressively reduced over time, and I believe will be further weakened as the continuing criminal occupation policies of the governments of Israel unfold, and Palestine solidarity perseveres.

When, for instance, the Israeli occupation army recently dropped a bomb carrying a ton of explosives over a civilian area of Gaza, it isn’t likely that the Israeli Embassy could suppress condemnation of this atrocity by claiming that people who condemn it are anti-Semitic.

Also, the political structures of the Israeli state, notably parliamentary party structures, are becoming progressively less stable. In the past ten years no Israeli government completed its term of office, and there have been new elections on average every two years. This situation is regarded as extremely damaging to the security and economic interests of the state as viewed by the ruling elites; for example, it makes any consistent or viable economic policy impossible.

My working assumption is that in the next three to five years, such limited democratic procedures as have been in place since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948—limited in the sense that there are no guaranteed constitutional rights, since there is no constitution—will be suspended, and either an emergency government or military council will step in to govern the country.

If and when this happens, it will not be easy to project the State of Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

ATC: In your book, where you discuss Jewish identity and Israel you use the term “Jewish tribes.” Perhaps you could explain the meaning of this terminology, which I haven’t seen used by any other writers. I understand it to mean something like “extended families” rather than a literal Biblical meaning ...

U.D.: The term may sound esoteric to an English-speaking audience,but is less so in an Israeli Hebrew context. The political Zionist reference to the “ingathering of the Jewish diaspora in their ancestral homeland” includes references to the ingathering of the Jewish tribes. The country is officially divided into regional councils. All or most of these regional councils are named after the particular Jewish tribe which allegedly lived there in Biblical times.

So for example we have regional councils designated Zebulun, Asher, Mateh Benjamin, etc. The conceptualization of the Jewish society in Palestine in terms of Biblical tribes is not esoteric in the Hebrew Israeli and political Zionist context.

The other consideration is an attempt by myself to deal with the question of Jewish identity in politically acceptable terms, which for me means taking as the point of departure the separation of religion from the state. [See Apartheid Israel, 178ff.]

I also am indebted to a colleague and teacher of mine, Akiva Orr, who extends this principle to include the separation of national identity from the state. [Editor’s note: Akiva Orr is an Israeli mathematician, dissident and libertarian socialist. His collection of essays Israel: Politics, Myths and Identity Crises (Pluto Press, 1994) contains some of his work on problems of identity and nation.]

There is a large constituency of people who identify themselves as Jewish, but do not subscribe to the theology of Judaism, and would claim they partake in a community referred to as “the Jewish people.”

The Zionist Federation, or political Zionism, claim to represent “the movement of national liberation” of a “Jewish people.” In the name of this movement, they have committed massive war crimes and crimes against humanity, ethnically cleansing the indigenous people of Palestine, the Palestinian Arab people, razing their localities to the ground, some 400 rural as well as urban localities in the process.

But there is a constituency of people who identify themselves as Jews who do so in other than theological terms, and who are not happy with the political Zionist definition of “the Jewish people.” As I am personally a member of that latter constituency, I asked myself, and discussed with friends, the question of in what sense I identify myself as Jewish.

I do not observe the codex of 613 Orthodox precepts, nor do I subscribe myself to the “Jewish people” in the political Zionist sense of that term. What then is my national identity and in what sense can I communicate my Jewish affiliation?

The solution I propose is to adopt the word “Hebrew” for the national identity of the people who have their origins in the Zionist colonial project in Palestine: the term Hebrew designating the national language of this people. This language, rather than anything else, sets this people as a distinctive national entity rather than other national entities.

The term “Jewish” then can be reserved for what I believe is the substance of my sentimental affiliation, i.e. to the Jewish tribal tradition, history and legacy. It is quite possible to be an atheist and yet a member of a tribe, not only a Jewish tribe but a Bantu tribe or any other.

There is a specific affiliation which can be recognized in the celebration of certain parts of the tribal tradition, which doesn’t entail any theological commitments but reflects a bond which I feel is there.

Also, my professional intellectual discipline of anthropology affects my thinking. But I have no problem with my tribal affiliation, because I separate this affiliation entirely from my politics and from the state. I fully endorse the principle of separation of religion, national identity and tribal affiliation from the state, whether this be pagan, Jewish, Christian or Muslim or whatever other tribal affiliation.

The worst thing that can happen to a tribal affiliation, or to a democratic state, is to link these together. In just the same way, the linkage of church, synagogue or mosque religious institutions with the state results in the prostitution of the religious institutions as well as the state.

ATC 113, November–December 2004