Ofer Cassif, A Very Important Person

Gideon Levy
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An Israeli policeman scuffles with Israeli MP Ofer Cassif (C), a Jewish member of the predominantly Arab Joint List electoral alliance, during a demonstration against Israeli occupation and settlement activity in the Palestinian Territories and east Jerusalem, April 9, 2021
Gideon Levy

It’s doubtful whether the policeman who beat up lawmaker Ofer Cassif knew who he was hitting. Maybe he knew he was striking a Knesset member, maybe he didn’t – that wasn’t the point. It was enough that he was beating up a leftist demonstrator who deserved it. But what the policeman didn’t know was that he was beating a Knesset leftist of a new stripe, one who doesn’t mince words or apologize, one who doesn’t evade the truth or cover it up. He isn’t just a non-Zionist, he’s patently anti-Zionist, without any attempt at concealing this. In reply to an incidental question posed by Haaretz journalist Nir Guntaz, appearing in the paper’s weekend Hebrew edition, Cassif said so explicitly: “I object to the ideology and practice of Zionism…it’s a racist ideology and practice which espouses Jewish supremacy.”

It’s doubtful that such words have ever been uttered in Israel’s legislature, certainly not by a Jewish lawmaker. Seventy three years of statehood have not given rise to a significant Jewish movement (aside from Matzpen in the 1960s and 70s) rebelling against Zionism or at least casting doubt on the justness of its cause. Several important Jewish figures were anti-Zionist, but not in our parts. That is forbidden here. Cassif made a small crack in this consensus, but his fate is sealed. He’ll become an esoteric item, an oddity, a clown – the fate of any opponent when the regime, aided by the media, is done with him. If he’s lucky, he’ll become an enemy, a loathed traitor. His predecessors, such as Prof. Israel Shahak or attorney Felicia Langer, met a similar fate.

I still remember how the Israeli media treated Shahak as an eccentric. He was renowned around the world, but here his mental stability was questioned. Israel is unwilling to tolerate regime opponents, and the media is totally and submissively at the regime’s service.

Israel is open to criticism, but not when it comes to the foundations on which it was built. Its confidence in the justice of its path, horrifyingly shaky, does not allow it to open up to elementary questions regarding the circumstances of its establishment and the regime prevailing here since then. The remains of hundreds of Palestinian villages destroyed by Israel were covered by Jewish National Fund forests, with core questions treated with scorn and the demonization of those daring to raise them.

In Israel one is allowed to be a hilltop thug, a member of a neo-Nazi party or even a Jewish terrorist, just not an anti-Zionist. That’s beyond the pale. There hasn’t been such a domineering ideology since the death of communism. Nevertheless, the self-definition of MK Cassif should reverberate: He’s an anti-Zionist member of Knesset, one who sees Zionism as a racist movement. He doesn’t want Jewish supremacy. He doesn’t want Arab supremacy either. He’s not some crazed ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist Jew or a treasonous Arab from the al-Ard Israeli Arab political movement, he’s a Jewish-Israeli lawmaker. Just before they label him as “nuts” or a traitor, one may stop and ask: Are we all in agreement that some questions may never be raised? That only Zionism is permitted here? Are we so certain that it’s not a racist movement? Based on what, actually?

The right wing has no problem. It admits to the existence of Jewish supremacy in the Land of Israel and believes there is nothing more just. The left wing has a harder time – it wants to have it both ways. That’s why it squirms, denies and represses, based on its more alert conscience and stronger feelings of guilt. In its heart of hearts, the left knows that the basis of Zionism includes support for Jewish supremacy, which makes it racist by definition, but if prefers to deny, repress and live with a lie. It doesn’t have the courage and the insolence of the right to admit that this is so, but that we deserve it. It also doesn’t have Cassif’s courage and integrity, which should lead it to declare: If that’s the case, we’re against it, as every true democrat must say.

In his torn shirt and broken glasses, Cassif, beaten by a policeman and the regime, has posed a complicated challenge. That’s why he’s an important person. Israel will treat him the way it knows how. People will say: Go live in Gaza, why do you live here anyway? To the Israel that poses that question, one must reply: It’s permitted to live here and question whether we’re living under a just regime, instead of just obsessively dealing with Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s time we listened to Cassif and a handful of others like him, and contend with their arguments. Is it really possible to reconcile between Jewish and democratic, between Zionism and equality and between Israel and justice? How, exactly?

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