The NY Times has published a powerful broadside by Avrum Burg on behalf of Israeli democracy. Burg, a former member of what might be called the country’s ruling élite, has turned into an advocate for a nation that separates religion and state, and in which democracy is the prevailing norm and value. In other words, not today’s Israel which, he says, is well on its way to becoming a theocracy little different from others in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc.):
…All vestiges of democracy will one day disappear, and Israel will become just another Middle Eastern theocracy.
One of the great values in Burg’s op-ed is that he nicely summarizes the Jewish and democratic ideals on which the state was founded. Just as he sharply etches the ways in which that original vision has become warped by a competing vision of the triumphalist Jewish state:
Israel arose as a secular, social democratic country inspired by Western European democracies. With time, however, its core values have become entirely different. Israel today is a religious, capitalist state. Its religiosity is defined by the most extreme Orthodox interpretations. Its capitalism has erased much of the social solidarity of the past, with the exception of a few remaining vestiges of a welfare state. Israel defines itself as a “Jewish and democratic state.” However, because Israel has never created a system of checks and balances between these two sources of authority, they are closer than ever to a terrible clash.
…With the elevation of religious solidarity over and above democratic authority, Israel has become more fundamentalist and less modern, more separatist and less open to the outside world.
…The modern combination between democracy and Judaism was supposed to give birth to a spectacular, pluralistic kaleidoscope. The state would be a great, robust democracy that would protect Jews against persecution and victimhood. Jewish culture, on the other hand, with its uncompromising moral standards, would guard against our becoming persecutors and victimizers of others.
There were two especially interesting statements Burg made here which should be highlighted. In the first, Burg averred that the struggle for Israeli democracy may demand bloodshed (he appears to be talking about domestic strife among Israeli citizens) and even boycotts:
…It will eventually become clear that many Israelis are not willing to…give up on the chance to live in peace, not willing to be passive patriots of a country that expels or purifies itself of its minorities, who are the original inhabitants of the land.
Only on that day, after much anguish, boycotts and perhaps even bloodshed, will we understand that the only way for us to agree when we disagree is a true, vigorous democracy. A democracy based on a progressive, civil constitution; a democracy that enforces the distinction between ethnicity and citizenship, between synagogue and state; a democracy that upholds the values of freedom and equality, on the basis of which every single person living under Israel’s legitimate and internationally recognized sovereignty will receive the same rights and protections.
Until now, no one of Burg’s stature has gotten this close to endorsing BDS. It’s thrilling to see him even allude to it as a legitimate form of protest. Keep in mind, that the Knesset has proposed a bill that would levy heavy fines on anyone doing what Burg has done.
Burg’s other important point was to make crystal clear that for Israel to refuse the two state solution as it has done until now guarantees a one state solution will be the ultimate result:
I believe that creating two neighboring states for two peoples that respect one another would be the best solution. However, if our shortsighted leaders miss this opportunity, the same fair and equal principles should be applied to one state for both peoples.
The advance represented by Burg’s thinking in this passage is that he doesn’t look upon the one-state solution as the horror that all pro-Israel advocates do. It’s not the guarantor of the elimination of Israel. It doesn’t represent a Jewish catastrophe. It represents the logical outcome of an Israeli refusal to pave the way for two states. It, in effect is Plan B. He makes clear that Israel has the opportunity to implement Plan A if it chooses. Plan B will be the logical result of Israel’s rejection of two-states.
I wanted to contrast the clear, courageous thinking of Burg with the opposite: some of the most callow, ideologically-rigid thinking characteristic of liberal Zionism as represented by the new president of the New Israel Fund, Brian Lurie. In a Haaretz interview with former Yisrael HaYom reporter Chemi Shalev Lurie implicitly concedes that there is now an ideological litmus in place for NIF grantees. In order to receive funding, you must, if you are a Jewish organization be Zionist.
Lurie is an amazing ventriloquist who actually speaks on behalf of B’Tselem calling it “Zionist,” though to my knowledge it’s never even come close to making such a claim:
…If you sat down with the leadership – take B’Tselem, for example. They are Zionist. They won’t say so out loud, perhaps, but they are committed to Israel, totally.
For Lurie, it seems OK if you aren’t explicitly Zionist. But you certainly can’t be anti-Zionist. Even non-Zionist might be out. Keep in mind that NIF has always prided itself on being an NGO which partnered with Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Thus the commitment to a Zionism that posits Israel as principally a Jewish state, principles that Lurie has advanced, represents a betrayal of the group’s original non-ideological mission to advance the welfare of both ethnic communities equally.
Further, Lurie espouses a set of ideological conditions for his Palestinian recipients as well. They may not endorse BDS. If they do they are out. Here he discusses the Israeli Palestinian human rights NGO, Adalah:
If you sat down with [Adalah founder and general director] Hassan Jabareen, he would tell you: ‘We do not support BDS. Period’…I have assurances from Jabareen, not only on BDS but even on Israel being ‘a state for all its citizens’ – which is something you do hear from them. Even on that he said: ‘I’m not going to push on it’…I honestly can’t blame any Israeli Arab for endorsing ‘a state for all its citizens.’ I can’t fault them. I would tell them that I believe that Israel has to be a Jewish state, but I respect them…
If Adalah came out tomorrow in favor of BDS, they’d be off our list. We’d stop funding them. No question.
The very tone and tenor of his remarks are condescending, presumptuous and offensive. He presumes to speak on behalf of his grantees and to interpret their mission and ideological principles in a way that makes them more palatable to an increasingly chauvinistic Israeli public.
My deepest question is for the grantees themselves. I understand that funders don’t grow on trees and that NIF is like the goose with the golden eggs. If you don’t take NIF’s money you may not find funding elsewhere. But at what price do you decide that the conditions and ideological hoop-jumping are too much for you?
Though NIF has long ceased being a group that endorsed the sort of Zionist vision in which I believe, I think it too must face some deep contradictions in its mission. Is its mission primarily to do good in Israel and advance the welfare of Jewish and Palestinian communities equally? Or is it a tool for liberal American Jews to use to assuage their guilty consciences? Is it a way for them to say they’ve discharged their duty toward Palestinians by giving money whose use is so hedged by conditions that it can’t be used unless the fundees pass ideological litmus tests.
No matter how much money NIF gives away, I say it is little more than an empty shell. It has betrayed its founding principles. It has lost its sense of mission. It is so shell-shocked by attacks against it mounted by Im Tirzu that it doesn’t know what it believes in. It only knows it must protect itself from the McCarthyism of the ultranationalists. But self-protection is not an organizational mission. Self-preservation is not a vision.
NIF now represents little more than a discharge of obligations by liberal Zionists, rather than a commitment to a truly free, democratic and equal Israel for all its citizens. Imagine a grantmaker like NIF whose mission is to advance the betterment of Israeli Palestinians say that it refuses the vision of Israel being a “state for all its citizens?” What is Israel then? A state for only its Jewish citizens? That, of course, is the unspoken corollary of Lurie’s flippant statement above.
The condescension continues in this passage:
To me, the occupation is like a cancer. It’s eating us. Forget about them [the Palestinians]: It’s about what it’s doing to us.”
This perfectly encapsulates the noblesse oblige of the typical liberal Zionist. Israel is for and about Jews. Palestinians, whether inside or outside Israel, are an after thought or, in Lurie’s memorable terms, forgotten.
This is the language and attitude that must die for Israel ever to become a true democracy. It’s like the generation that wandered through the Sinai desert for 40 years. They all had to die before the Children of Israel could reach the Promised Land. In the same sense, there are hoary old ideas and limited ways of thinking that must give way to more expansive ones that embrace an Israel offering full equality to every citizen regardless of religion or ethnicity. There must be no more litmus tests, no more ideological conditions.
So there you have it: two different visions for Israel. Burg’s vision of a democratic Israel and Lurie’s liberal Zionist vision of a truncated democracy offering full rights to Jews and something separate and not equal to non-Jews.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.