Ofer Cassif was elected last week as the new Jewish representative of leftist Arab-Jewish party Hadash, part of the Joint List slate that currently holds 13 seats in the Knesset. He is expected to replace outgoing Knesset member Dov Khenin after the April 9 election. In an interview with Haaretz’s Ravit Hecht (which will appear in this Friday’s Haaretz English edition) he spoke about controversial statements he had made in the past, the occupation and his thoughts about Israeli politics.
The outspoken style embraced by Cassif will not prevent me from voting again for the Joint List, just as it did not affect our friendly chats in the past. However, there is one thing I cannot dismiss as just another angry Facebook outburst: His flippant statement that genocide, or a creeping genocide, is taking place here, followed by a glib reversal of that statement, when he told Hecht: “You know what, leave out the genocide – call it ethnic cleansing.” If there is a genocide taking place – creeping or not – it’s not something you dismiss, not in an interview and not in private or public life. It’s not something you say is happening, and then, due to a change in your personal circumstances - being voted in as a political representative - you drop. This cheapens radicalism.
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I find it easy to identify with the blunt and provocative statements Cassif has made in the past. They show that he is tired of trying to persuade Jews in Israel to oppose our domination of the Palestinians, an attempt that was one of Hadash’s goals since its founding. Those attempts failed. However, the burden of proof rests not on Hadash or Cassif, but on Jewish society. The Palestinians in their enclaves (including the suffocating Palestinian villages within Israel, whose lands we’ve expropriated) are of no interest to Jews in Israel.
If Cassif had lost any hope of working within Israeli society, he would not have run as a candidate for the Knesset and perhaps would not have continued teaching political science at the Hebrew University in Israel. Many of us on the left live this contradiction between the painful recognition that the Israeli public is galloping to the extreme right - since it pays off for them, materially and emotionally - and our attempt to continue offering information and insights that could perhaps lead to some cracks in the ultra-nationalist wall. People on the right can spew catchy slogans that are instantly understood by listeners since they blend in with the prevailing mixture of lies and stereotypes with which we are bombarded from every direction. In contrast, we on the left require many more words in order to dismantle a fake picture, in order to counter the lies and the methods information is concealed. This is true for the journalists among us, as it is for politicians on the left.
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“Genocide” is a deliberate annihilation, or a drastic reduction of the numbers of an entire ethnic group. Genocide is not just the one that was perpetrated against Jews. Genocide was in the DNA of every colonialist-settler regime. It happens when a native population stands totally helpless against an invader’s plans to expand and take over resources and territory, defenseless in the face of the invader’s military superiority, racism and cruelty. Israel proves, on a daily basis, that those who said from the beginning of the twentieth century that the Zionist project was colonialist and expansionist were correct. The explanation that Nazism and its corollaries pushed a critical mass of Jews who were not previously Zionists to emigrate to Palestine has lost its relevance over the years. Israel rejected with both hands the opportunity the Palestinians offered it in the Oslo accords – to stop its expansionist settlement enterprise and check the entrenchment of a supremacist mentality.
The DNA of Jewish colonialism has not included genocide, but the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland and homes (I avoid the trendy term ethnic cleansing since it relies on the invader’s aggressive term – cleansing – which manipulates the positive connotations of this term). The forgotten Palestinian enclaves Israel has created on both sides of the Green Line (the 1967 border) are a compromise between the half-concealed yearning to empty the land of its Palestinian inhabitants and the recognition that this is impossible for geopolitical reasons. The rightist, messianic and expansionist camp is growing in Israel. It believes that this yearning to empty the land of Palestinians is achievable, or can be made achievable. Our role on the left is not to compete in verbal radicalism or to argue about the future, over whether there will be another mass expulsion and whether it will devolve into mass murder. Our role is to thwart such a horrific scenario.
Israel has fragmented Palestinian society on both sides of the Green Line into several units and groups, and it employs a different policy of oppression and grinding down, materially and spiritually, against each one of them. All this is part of its plan to abolish the Palestinian existence as a collective. Despite their failing leaderships, Palestinians continue to be a collective and are looking for new ways of expressing this. We don’t have to go as far as using the term genocide in order to state that the high rates of poverty among Palestinian citizens of Israel are a result of policies, and that in the Gaza Strip Israel has created, with cruel calculation, intolerable living conditions, potentially hazardous to the environment and the physical and mental health of two million people. But the Palestinians are not disappearing, and their population continues to grow even under Israel’s grinding policies. Hazardous health conditions are the lot of millions of people – farmers and laborers among native populations – in many other countries around the world. It behooves us, on the left, to analyze and expose the political goals and the profit-seeking considerations that underlie these systematic crimes. Such analysis would be valid before and after joining the Knesset.