One Space for Two Peoples

In his new book, Prof. Yehouda Shenhav attacks Ashkenazi leftists who aspire to separate from the territories and the Palestinians at once. Jewish Israelis of Middle Eastern descent, he believes, would find it easier to live alongside Palestinians in a single binational entity.

Yotam Feldman
Yotam Feldman
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Yotam Feldman
Yotam Feldman

Eliyahu Shaharabani, the late father of Prof. Yehouda Shenhav, was a persistent and eloquent critic of Israeli rule in the territories, and enjoyed a thriving career in the intelligence community and the military administration. Shenhav remembers accompanying his father, an Arabic-speaking immigrant from Iraq, on missions to confiscate notebooks in the West Bank after 1967, and hiding pencils and pens taken from Palestinians in his book bag. A cousin of Shenhav's who lives in Ma'aleh Adumim earns a living doing remodeling jobs in the area, and other relatives also live beyond the Green Line and enjoy the benefits of what Shenhav (like Danny Gottwein of Haifa University) calls "the Israeli welfare state in the territories": full employment, discounts on municipal tax, cheaper housing.

In Shenhav's view, the vast majority of the Zionist left is estranged not only from the political demands and the needs of the Palestinians, but also from those he calls the "Third Israel": ultra-Orthodox settlers, Mizrahi Shas supporters and immigrants from the former Soviet Union who support Avigdor Lieberman. This month, his book "Bemalkodet Hakav Hayarok" ("In the Trap of the Green Line") is being published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad. In it, Shenhav jettisons the standard distinctions between left and right in Israel in favor of a dichotomy between those who see the foundation for the conflict in the 1967 conquest of the territories east of the Green Line, and those who trace it back to the 1948 conquest of the territories west of the line.

The first camp includes most of the Zionist left, the political center and many members of the radical Jewish left. The second camp, says Shenhav, is a coalition comprised of Palestinians who live inside Israel, Palestinian refugees, rightists who believe a compromise based on the Green Line borders is not possible, leftists who support a binational state, and settlers who wish to remain in their homes even after an agreement with the Palestinians.

"As a Jew who enjoys the privileges of a Jew, as a Mizrahi [a Jew with family origins in the Middle East] who possesses a Mizrahi consciousness, and as someone who was raised and largely educated in Israel," he writes in the book's preface, "for many years I have felt alienation toward [the left's] positions regarding the conflict and regarding questions of class, ethnicity and identity. In the past two decades, I have found myself criticizing the leftist bloc just as harshly as the rightist bloc."

Interviewed at his home in Tel Aviv, Shenhav presents a historical viewpoint that sees the 1948 war as the formative event, the ground zero from which subsequent historical developments directly stemmed. Thus, he depicts the Qibya (1953) and Samu'a (1966) raids as a continuation of the "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinians in the area, which began in 1948. He sees the Six-Day War as a well-planned extension of the achievements of '48 and settlement in the territories as a direct continuation of Jewish settlement inside the Green Line.

The Green Line, drawn up at the armistice conference in Rhodes in 1949, is nothing more than an arbitrary administrative boundary, says Shenhav. As he sees it, the true foundations of the conflict - the 1948 war and the expulsion of Palestinians who lived west of the Green Line - are also the most heavily denied.

"Many otherwise intelligent people living here who are quite knowledgeable about Western civilization, have no idea what happened here in 1948. They talk like creatures who never lived here. This is the result of immediately shutting up the myth of 1948 in the closet. We refuse to take it out of there."

Why single out 1948 as the starting point of the conflict? That's rather arbitrary, too. One could cite other significant junctures, like the Balfour Declaration in 1917, or the Arab Revolt in 1936.

"This is a question that bothers me: Why not 1917, for instance? The process of the writing of the Balfour Declaration isn't interesting either. But there is something about this point [1948], and I deliberately chose it because I don't think that the State of Israel should be obliterated. I chose 1948 precisely because I want any historical analysis to include the achievements of the State of Israel."

Why pin every historical development on one event?

"I chose a starting point out of a recognition of the possibility of presenting a counter-factual history, a history that didn't happen - what would have happened if another development had occurred from the point you define as a crossroads. At the point I chose as a starting point, I stop all the ramifications and accept everything that happened up to then as natural. From this standpoint, the place you choose is the place upon which you form your political position. I posit Israel's existence and its characteristics as a necessary part of the analysis, because I don't want to destroy it."

Option for integration

The analysis may appear incomplete and one-dimensional at times, but it also poses a challenging alternative to the conventional thinking of the "moderate" left and right in Israel.

"Let's imagine that we're sitting here 150 years from now," says Shenhav, "and we're reading a history book. It will say that the Jewish forces managed to conquer parts of Eretz Israel, or Mandatory Palestine, and to carry out ethnic cleansing - a standard term used in regard to Israel in the international scholarly literature - and that the process occurred in two stages: in '48 and '67. All the mechanisms along the way - such as wars, demographic monitoring, voluntary transfer, repression of political desires, education - are consequences of that two-stage process."

For this reason, Shenhav is averse to the popular notion among the left that Israel was "corrupted" in 1967, and that the occupation east of the Green Line defiled Israelis' moral values. It was not just that Israel had already forfeited its moral values in the massacres and expulsions that took place in 1948, argues Shenhav; the occupation of the territories and the creation of a contiguous entity between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River were a happy development for many who had been adversely affected by the arbitrary separation imposed by the Green Line.

"The 1967 war granted independence, standing and the possibility of advancement to an entire generation of Jews from Arab countries who celebrated the opening of the space," writes Shenhav. "It made possible a new definition of Mizrahi identity in Israel, not as an antithesis to Ashkenazi identity, but as an option for integration within the space, even if in this case the circumstances were of oppressive integration."

Shenhav demonstrates the differences in regard to 1967 by analyzing the works of three writers: David Grossman (Ashkenazi), Shimon Blass (Mizrahi) and Ghassan Kanafani (Palestinian): "David Grossman doesn't understand how this happened to us. How we suddenly became nationalist, how we suddenly became the Palestinians' stormtroopers. This is what he writes in 'The Yellow Wind,' and creates a new dogma - that within the '67 borders Israel is just, because only after 1967 did we start to be 'yellow' to the Palestinians. But did Israeli rule over the Palestinians only begin then? Until December 1966, Israel instituted a military administration of the Palestinians inside the Green Line.

"Shimon Blass writes a month after the war that this is our opportunity to get out of the ghetto state, in other words, what Grossman depicts as the terrible defining moment, Shimon Blass, as a Mizrahi author, celebrates as the moment of opening. Not just because of the ideological vision of coexistence, but also because of economic and political matters: He can publish in Arabic, he has someone to talk to in Arabic, someone to argue with in Arabic.

"The third writer is Ghassan Kanafani. In 'Returning to Haifa,' he describes the exciting moment in which the Green Line border collapses and he can travel to see his house and his son who stayed behind. In other words, there are three different approaches, and we adopted Grossman's approach. And this is a stance that denies the fact that Israel exists within an Arab world."

Shenhav's analysis, which sees an undivided territory on either side of the Green Line, disregards the vast difference between the status of Palestinian residents of Israel and Palestinian residents of the territories; the privileges afforded the former and the nature of the military rule imposed on the latter. The irregularity of this rule justifies the criticism of the occupation that he denounces. In his view, the difference between the attitude toward the Palestinians of '67 and those of '48 is not necessarily significant.

"Citizenship does not guarantee equality, and there are partial citizenships," he maintains. "When you send teachers to an Arab school west of the Green Line only after they've been investigated by the Shin Bet, you're creating a distorted education system. A Palestinian woman I know bought a house with her husband in Carmiel and she asked me to sign in her stead or together with her on the land registry. When I asked her why, she told me she wasn't sure it would remain in her hands, that it was possible that one day there would be a population transfer. This threat of violence is an inseparable part of the conception of citizenship. Most of the Palestinians inside the Green Line are afraid of such a possibility. From this standpoint, Lieberman and the idea of 'No loyalty, no citizenship' is not dissonant. It's the authentic representation of an idea of the Jewish and democratic state, of the way in which it is possible to define citizenship by new means."

Coming out of the closet

Shenhav was born in Be'er Sheva in 1952 as Yehouda Shaharabani, to parents who had come from Baghdad. His father, who came from a family of merchants, had a very successful career in the intelligence community thanks to his command of Arabic. The neighborhood where he grew up was designated for people in the security establishment, and two families of Iraqi immigrants lived there and served as Arabic teachers.

Shenhav's family later moved to the Neve Mishkan neighborhood, near Tzahala in Tel Aviv, and then to Petah Tikva, where he attended school until he was expelled in 10th grade for setting fire to a hostel.

"I was quite the delinquent," he says now. "I remember that we put mattresses inside the hostel and burned it." Afterward he went to work in construction, and didn't complete high school until just before he enlisted. In the army, he served as an NCO in the intelligence corps and then as an intelligence officer in the Northern Command. At 22, he married a woman from an Ashkenazi background. Before the wedding, her mother began pressing him to change his surname, and he subsequently persuaded his parents and brother and sister to do the same.

For years, very few people knew Shenhav's original name. In 1995, when he was interviewed on Kobi Meidan's program on Channel 2, he was asked for his original surname and felt he had no choice but to respond.

"Do you have any idea how hard it was to come out of the closet?" he asks now. "I told him 'Shaharabani' and I started to perspire as if I'd just been forced to say a dirty word on television. It was really like coming out of the closet. It gave me new energy and a feeling of liberation and relief. The ability to transform your name from something limiting to something expansive."

Today Shenhav is translating from Arabic the poems of Lebanese writer Michael Naimeh, and when the book is published he will sign for the first time as Yehouda Shaharabani (Shenhav). "When I called my mother and told her I had something to tell her that I thought would make her happy, that I was going back to the name Shaharabani, her response was: 'What for?' I told her I thought the change had been a mistake, but she replied firmly: 'It was no mistake. You wouldn't have achieved the status you have without it,' with an emphasis on the word 'status.'"

After his army service, Shenhav earned a bachelor's degree in sociology at Tel Aviv University and also studied industry and management at the Technion, with the aim of working as a management consultant. He went on to work on a master's degree and then a doctorate at Stanford University. When he returned to Israel he started teaching sociology at Tel Aviv University and headed the department there from 1995-98. In the 1990s, he also headed the group that founded the journal Teoria Ubikoret ("Theory and Criticism"), which he currently edits (the forthcoming issue will be the final one edited by Shenhav).

In 1996, Shenhav published an article in Haaretz magazine (in Hebrew) entitled "Kesher Hashtika" ("Conspiracy of Silence"), in which he accused the "new historians" of ignoring discrimination against Mizrahi Jews. The article caused a big stir and the newspaper printed more than 20 pages of responses. The problem Shenhav sought to define was "a rift between two different arenas: the new historians of '48 and the new historians of the Mizrahim. Whoever deals with the conflict doesn't deal with the Mizrahim and vice versa. There is no intellectual connection between the two."

Why should there be?

"Because of the connection between Palestinians and Mizrahim. You can't understand the conflict without talking about this connection between two types of Arab refugees. How is it possible to talk about questions of refugeehood without talking about the Jewish Arab refugees? The fact that Benny Morris talks about refugees without talking about Mizrahi refugees is an expression of Benny Morris' Ashkenazi-ness, of the structure of the discourse about the conflict. Similarly, the anthropologists and sociologists who've been researching the Mizrahim for 60 years, who talk about immigrant moshavim and about Mizrahi culture, cut the issue of the Palestinians out of their analysis."

The new nostalgia

The position Shenhav criticizes, the position typified by Grossman and many others on the left, most of them Ashkenazi, is characterized by a yearning for the State of Israel as it was before the occupation of the territories in 1967. This longing, or "the new nostalgia," as Shenhav calls it, "is a cultural state of Jewish elites from the liberal middle class and a silent individual majority of professionals."

As he enumerates in his book, the list is composed of "technocrats, civil servants, the State Prosecutor's Office, academics in the social sciences and humanities, Foreign Ministry personnel, retired generals and journalists, a majority of Kadima, Labor and Meretz voters."

Shenhav names numerous representatives of this new nostalgia, including Yossi Beilin, Dan Meridor, Haim Ramon, Tzipi Livni, Talia Sasson, Aharon Barak, Ruth Gavison, Ami Ayalon, Ari Shavit, Amos Schocken, Dan Margalit, Amnon Dankner and many others. He writes that what those gripped by the "new nostalgia" really long for is not just an Israel devoid of the West Bank, but also a more Ashkenazi and less religious Israel. He presents a long list of quotations in which those who miss the pre-'67 period express their aversion to the settlers' irrationality. A great deal of their criticism of the settlements refers to the settlers as an undifferentiated, homogenous bloc and attributes to them irrational behavior that is counter to the values of the state's Ashkenazi founders.

"Hence, the liberal left's 1967 paradigm does not derive from a fear of the Palestinian demographic increase," Shenhav concludes, "but from a fear of Israel becoming a society with a Mizrahi majority ... This is the language of someone who has come to the Middle East for a brief time, not in order to become integrated, but to exist there as a guest. Not only is this position immoral toward the Palestinians, it is also disastrous for the Jews themselves. It imposes upon them life within a ghetto with a conception of democracy that is based on race laws and a constant state of emergency."

This is why Shenhav feels alienated from the most prominent group in Israeli academia and from Tel Aviv intellectual life, and even farther removed from them than he feels from the extreme right and West Bank settlers. This feeling was behind his involvement in the Sephardi Democratic Rainbow, a political coalition he helped found in 1996, which demanded equal rights for Mizrahi Jews. The group fought against the inequality that was the lot of Mizrahim in the Israeli economy and in the distribution of national assets, primarily land.

Shenhav says today that the establishment of the Sephardi Democratic Rainbow was facilitated by the Oslo Accords, which gave rise to the feeling that it was now possible to engage in political struggles that were unrelated to the Palestinians. Some of his partners in the movement were rightists whose views on the conflict with the Palestinians were quite far from his own.

"My recollection of myself is as a banal leftist," says Shenhav. "I had the outlook of an ordinary Ashkenazi leftist, and my experience in the Sephardi Democratic Rainbow gradually taught me where the obstacles for the Asheknazi left were. I remember speaking at a political event in October 2000 in which Shulamit Aloni and Uri Avnery and others took part, and not one of my companions from the Rainbow was there. I went home and couldn't sleep that night. I remember that when I got up in the morning, I thought: 'What am I doing? How can there be such an abyss?' When I was invited to speak at a Yesh Gvul conference, out of 500 conscientious objectors, there were just four Mizrahim there. This is something that cannot be ignored. Who has the privilege of being a conscientious objector?"

Those crazy settlers

The insight Shenhav wishes to convey through his book is that the social left in Israel - represented by Meretz, for example - is also a political right. "When [the playwright] Shmuel Hasfari tells Ari Shavit [in an interview in this magazine], 'Green Line nationalists sounds fine to me. I am not apologetic about my country, about its borders or the Green Line, which has been recognized by the entire world,' he's reflecting the way in which the Zionist left is in many senses more nationalist than other parts of the public, and this nationalism is especially striking in terms of the skeleton it keeps in the closet, the question of '48."

And the right isn't nationalist? Rightists don't want a strong Jewish state?

"Not necessarily like the left. Eliaz Cohen from Kfar Etzion says that if we don't draw the border on the Green Line, then the right of return for the Palestinians and Jews will be reciprocal: 'Just as I have a right of return to Kfar Etzion, he says, 'there's no reason that Palestinians from Nablus shouldn't have a right of return to Jaffa.' It's a utopia, but this is a group that is a lot more leftist than Amnon Rubinstein and Ari Shavit and Yossi Beilin and David Grossman. This is where the categories have to be overturned and recreated in a new way.

"For the Zionist left, all the settlers look alike and think alike. But there are at least 250,000 people in the settlements, which are the lower classes that should have been and could be a central part of the Israeli left. These people who live in the territories, they're the main victims of a Mapai regime and of the neoliberal economy; they were pushed there as a direct result of the structure of inequality within Israel. Making the Green Line permanent and instituting a solution in accordance with that is a threat to them, a threat that evacuation will deprive them of the welfare state they received."

Therefore, asserts Shenhav, a future accord needn't hinge upon the evacuation of all the settlements, an idea that he describes in his book as "a fantasy of the left that denies the political reality." For now, it's hard to envision any Palestinian partner to a solution that does not include an evacuation of the settlements, as the struggle against them currently plays a key part in the Palestinian resistance, but Shenhav is optimistic about this too. Historically speaking, he does not see any difference between settlement on either side of the Green Line; the only difference is that the Palestinians have recognized the settlement to the west of it.

"The left cannot see the injustice that is being done to the settlers," he says. "I'm not certain that it's moral to evacuate generations of people who live there. I don't think one moral injustice has to be remedied with another."

Do you believe there are Palestinian partners for this demand? What Palestinian would agree to an accord that didn't include an evacuation of the settlements? A significant part of the Palestinian resistance has to do with lands stolen by the settlements.

"If there is a mutual demand that will make possible some kind of exchange of territory and lands, I don't see any special reason why the settlements can't be left there. Settlers are having these kinds of discussions all the time. I read in Nekuda and Makor Rishon questions about their presence there; is it moral and what does the future hold in that regard. It's just that the wider public is not aware of it."

At the end of the book, Shenhav proposes three possible solutions to the conflict, based on the premise that it began with the war of 1948 and not 1967. He presents the model of "a state of all its citizens" comprising all of the territory and jointly run by Jews and Arabs. In the same breath, he says that this is the less preferred model, since it does not take into consideration the different interests of the two sides and creates a demographic race between them to achieve a majority.

Shenhav's preferred model is what he calls a demokratiya hesderit: a division of the region into smaller territories in which various religious and civic communities would live, in a loose federation of independent cantons. Even if these solutions seem quite far-fetched today, Shenhav believes that the changes of recent years have made the two-state solution even more unrealistic and argues that future solutions are continually being shaped. "It's not like everything is on hold, still waiting for Ben-Ami to come back from Camp David with an agreement. In the meantime, the occupation and control of the territories has deepened. The control of Gaza from the outside and via humanitarian organizations is the best possible control there could be. These changes fortify the one space. We're not living in a Jewish and democratic state, we're living in a single space in which Israel exerts de facto sovereignty from the sea to the Jordan River, including Areas C, B and A, in Gaza and Ramallah. A situation is being created that cannot be divorced from solutions."

Maybe there won't be a solution? Why shouldn't the present situation just continue?

"People may continue to live for some years in a situation of laissez-faire, laissez-passer from the sea to the Jordan River, perhaps even for 50 more years. But eventually the revolution will come. I have no doubt that the process that is happening today will continue to deepen and will preclude a return to two states."



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