I keep reading the public reactions to the new nation-state law and feeling like I’m missing something. I’m trying to understand, but having trouble doing so. The outcry from journalists, essayists, jurists and literary figures about how this is a racist law that violates the spirit of traditional Zionism seems sincere and genuine. But it seems to me that once the provision meant to give explicit constitutional legitimacy to the establishment of separate communities for Jews was removed, none of the law’s other elements, including the whiff of arrogance emanating from its wording, deviates significantly from the legacy of mainstream Zionism.
Did any of the people protesting against the law ask himself whether the Zionist enterprise could have come into being without ethnocentric politics, which are journalistically and popularly known as racism? In other words, had Zionist leaders from the early 20th century onwards not made sure their settlements would be purist and not tried to ensure that the Arab natives wouldn’t be included in plans to “make the desert bloom,” would the infrastructure for constructing an exclusive Jewish society ever have arisen?
In 1917, when Lord Balfour sent Lord Rothschild his famous letter, there were 700,000 Arabs and fewer than 70,000 Jews in Palestine, and about half the Jews were ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists. An open-minded national politics that sought to integrate the natives into the project of “redeeming the land” would have killed the Zionist project in its infancy. Therefore, and perhaps not by chance, Arthur Ruppin, that talented father of Jewish settlement, that refined intellectual who at one time belonged to the Brit Shalom movement, was an openly racist thinker.
Even the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement, which clung to the slogan “the brotherhood of nations” and advocated the idea of a binational state for quite some time (on condition that it be majority Jewish, of course), wouldn’t agree to let the natives join its kibbutzim. Its members, like the rest of the Zionist left, understood how they were supposed to behave, and we must admit that they were right: To realize the national vision, they not only had to encourage exclusively Jewish settlement, but also to transfer ever more land from the locals to the newcomers.
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“Another dunam, another goat” was the supreme commandment of the new society in the making, and most of those cultivated dunams weren’t created by draining the swamps. The principle of “Hebrew labor,” which was meant to remove as many Arab workers as possible from the Jewish labor market, complemented the land enterprise.
Nevertheless, until the War of Independence in 1948, redeeming the land was not a success story; only slightly more than 10 percent of the land ended up being transferred to Jewish hands. But then the war came along and saved the situation.
The expulsion or flight of 750,000 natives led to a much more significant redemption of land. The fields and orchards that had previously been cultivated by local farmers, which were later dubbed “absentee property,” weren’t restored to those who fled the battles, who were neither allowed to return nor compensated.
These lands were immediately transferred to the new state of Israel. The new democratic sovereign power saw fit to transfer most of them to the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, whose real estate even today doesn’t belong to all Israeli citizens, but to the Jewish people wherever it is.
On the eve of the war, KKL-JNF had about 900,000 dunams (225,000 acres). By 1950, it already controlled almost 3.5 million dunams. And from that day to this, it has been forbidden to sell this national asset; it can only lease it – and only to Jews.
Since then, more and more land has been expropriated from the farmers who used to work it, and about 700 new Jewish communities were established on this land. True, a few towns for Bedouin were also established, so that they wouldn’t roam unsupervised through the territory of the homeland. But not one single community was established for Israel’s Palestinian citizens. Slogans like “Judaizing the Galilee” and “Judaizing the Negev” were so accepted by both the left and the right that no one ever thought they might have racist connotations.
Still, high-minded liberals will retort, and rightly, you can’t compare 1948 or even 1958 to 2018. The territorial contiguity achieved back then enabled the establishment of a sovereign state for distressed Jews after the Nazi genocide, and therefore Zionism had to be racist. (This view even led the atheist David Ben-Gurion to give religious Jews a monopoly over marriage and divorce, so as to prevent, heaven forbid, assimilation with non-Jews.) Now that this sovereignty has been consolidated, they’ll say, there’s no justification for continuing this policy.
Thus, to strengthen the country we must strive to tilt it in the direction of a secular, egalitarian democracy that will promote the welfare of all its citizens, not just the Jews. The current nation-state law, which is the legitimate offspring of the Zionist tradition, is preventing this process of Israelization.
This logical liberal argument might have been meaningful had Israel not occupied the territories it conquered in 1967. The occupation imposed Jewish sovereignty not just on the Old City of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and Hebron, the city of our forefathers, but also on additional masses of natives, who today number around five million. Given this demographic mass, Jewish-Zionist identity once again felt a need to protect and separate itself – not just through concrete walls and barbed-wire fences, but also by entrenching the state’s national character.
Here, however, a question arises: If Israel wants to maintain itself as a Jewish state, why doesn’t it try to liberate itself from “Judea and Samaria”?
Israel can’t abandon the territories for reasons too numerous to list here, so I’ll mention only two. First, the Palestinians won’t concede sovereignty over Al-Aqsa, but I can’t imagine any Israeli leader who would dare concede the Temple Mount, or even one who would be capable of uprooting the Jewish settlement in Hebron. The settlement drive has pushed the Zionist left’s dream of two states, Israeli and Palestinian – or even a state and a half – off the agenda.
Second, the truth must be told: Establishing a Palestinian state in the 1967 lines wouldn’t solve the cardinal problem that the Zionist left has been trying to ignore for years. Establishing a Palestinian nation-state alongside Israel, which insists on seeing itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people, would be a guaranteed spur to irredentism (a political ideology that seeks to make political borders identical to national ones) among Palestinian Israelis.
Palestinian Israelis constitute 21 percent of Israel’s population, and despite the intensive Judaization of the Galilee, they’re still a majority there. If Israel continues to claim it’s the state of a people scattered throughout the world, rather than just a state of its citizens, why shouldn’t the Galilee’s natives decide, at some point or another, to break away from Israel and link their communities and what’s left of their lands to their own nation-state? Will the crumbs of material benefits that are thrown to them satisfy them over the long run?
The solution that’s now visible on the horizon involves expanding the apartheid regime that has been in place in the territories for 50 years already and applying it, should the conflict intensify, to the entire state of Israel. Obviously, this will also include cultivating Bantustans of collaborators and maintaining the existence of the last reservation for the hostile natives down south.
And if this doesn’t happen, there’s always the alternative of transfer; it was tried in the past and proved very successful. But for that, a major war would be needed, and my imagination isn’t fertile enough even to guess how one might start, much less how it will end.
Shlomo Sand is a historian and professor emeritus of Tel Aviv University.