Ben-Gurion, Zionism, and democracy

During the acrimonious debate over the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, opponents claimed it was defective because it didn’t mention “democracy” or “equality,” concepts that are found implicitly or explicitly in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, proclaimed by David Ben-Gurion on May 14, 1948. Here is the relevant passage from that Declaration:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

“What the hell,” stormed Tzipi Livni, “has Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got against the Declaration of Independence?” Members of what was then her party waved copies of the Declaration for emphasis.

Supporters of the law argued that it was not necessary to add such a reference to the new Basic Law, because the concepts were enshrined in other Basic Laws, and this law was intended to explicate the idea of a Jewish state – something that also appears explicitly in the Declaration.

The tension between the Jewishness of the state and the commitment to democratic governance and equal rights for all its citizens, some 21% of whom today are not Jewish, is a tightrope that Israel has been walking since 1948. It isn’t made easier by those who oppose the very idea of a Jewish state, like the Arab intellectuals who want to convert it into a binational state, the secular Left that would like it to become a democratic “state of all its citizens” like the US, or former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, who thinks that the meaning of “Jewish state” is just “democratic state.” The Nation-State Law can be seen as an attempt to maintain the balance that these forces would destroy.

In my opinion, there has to be a priority assigned to the concept of “Jewish state” to prevent it from disappearing under the waves of equality and democracy. And to my surprise, apparently the man who proclaimed the independence of the State of Israel in 1948 agreed with me (h/t: Lise Rosenthal).

In 1929, David Ben-Gurion made an agreement between his Zionist and socialist Histadrut Hatzionit (Zionist Union) and various non-Zionist and non-socialist Jewish organizations, particularly in the US, to form the Sochnut Hayehudit, the Jewish Agency that would represent the Jewish people of the world in the creation of the Jewish state. He was not at all happy about the compromises that were required, but he needed the money, particularly from the American capitalists – his bitter ideological enemies. Left-leaning but careful historian Tom Segev, in his book David Ben-Gurion: A State At All Costs (Keter, 2018 – Hebrew, pp. 219-220), wrote:

Ben-Gurion declared: “My heart isn’t at peace with the [Jewish] Agency […] but regardless, we accept the Agency because we believe that Eretz Yisrael will be built by a partnership of all the Jewish forces. Democracy for us isn’t an empty phrase, but we have a principle more holy than democracy, and that is the building of Eretz Yisrael by Jews.” Thus, democracy joined socialism and peace: in the ideological world of Ben-Gurion, like them it was graded below the objectives of Zionism [my translation and emphasis. The quotation is from Ben-Gurion’s diary, 26 December 1930].

Some people might find this surprising, just like they find Rabin’s real opinion about a sovereign Palestinian state surprising (he was opposed to it). But that’s the way political winners write history: they put their words in the mouths of a people’s heroes.

There is only one Jewish state. There are numerous versions of the democratic “state of all its citizens” in the world, but as time goes by and it becomes harder and harder for Jews to live in them, we are finding that Herzl, Ben-Gurion, and other Zionists were correct: a Jewish state is essential for the survival of the Jewish people. It was essential to create it then, and it is essential to preserve it now.

Ben-Gurion was single-minded and ruthless toward all of his opponents. I’ve criticized him harshly for his actions toward his right-wing rivals before and after the founding of the state; it was unfortunate that dedicated Jewish patriots like Begin were cut out of political life in this country for so long. I would have preferred that the state had been built according to the principles of Jabotinsky, rather than Marx.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t agree with Ben-Gurion more about the importance of “the principle more holy than democracy.” Today that’s the preservation of the state – as a Jewish state.

Posted in Israeli or Jewish History, Israeli Politics, Zionism | 1 Comment

Silent Ben and Pragmatic Bibi

Benny Gantz wants to negotiate a two-state solution with the PLO and divide Jerusalem. No, wait, he wants to annex Area C and offer the Palestinians autonomy in less-than-a-state enclaves. Who knows? Nobody, because Gantz won’t say. But more important, nobody seems to care what Silent Ben’s actual positions on anything are. A recent poll shows that in a contest between Gantz and PM Netanyahu, Gantz came in a close second with 38% of respondents favoring him to Netanyahu’s 41%. Apparently, Gantz’s experience as a former IDF Chief of Staff plus his prime ministerial appearance is enough to make him a viable alternative to Netanyahu, who is certainly one of the most successful Israeli prime ministers in history.

But maybe that’s because Netanyahu’s legal problems are deterring voters? Nope, polls show that, like Gantz’s extreme reticence, Bibi’s possible indictment on several counts of corruption simply doesn’t matter. Those who like him believe that the accusations are either stupid – I mean, after all, so what if someone gave him expensive cigars and champagne? – or criminalization of politics as usual, such as the government’s granting benefits to the Bezek communications conglomerate and its owner, Shaul Elovitch, in return for favorable coverage of the Prime Minister on its Walla website. Supposedly, the personal benefit for Elovitch was in the millions of shekels. The cases against Bibi are based on evidence provided by state’s witnesses, or, if you prefer, rats who will say anything to save their own skins.

There seem to be two kinds of people that dislike him. There are those who hate him for being instrumental in keeping the Left from realizing what it believes is its natural right to rule the country, all the more so insofar as he has been far more successful than they were in avoiding war and guiding the economy to its best condition ever. And there are those who simply dislike his personality, seeing him as shady and manipulative. One day I was waiting to cross the street when several people crossed against the traffic light. A man was standing next to me with a small boy:

Man: “We don’t cross on red. We are not Bibi.”
Boy: “Who is Bibi, grandpa?”
Man: “Bibi is one who always crosses on red. Don’t be like him.”

Monday night Bibi  made what he had said was going to be a dramatic announcement. Speculation ranged from “he is going to resign” to “he is going to invade Syria,” but it turned out that he wanted to demand the right to confront his accusers publicly. The speech was treated very negatively in most of the media, and I don’t think it especially helped (or hurt) him, but he has a point. For – literally – years, there have been almost continuous leaks to the media about how any minute now there will be stunning revelations of corruption that will bring down the Prime Minister; but in fact, until recently none of it amounted to a hill of beans. For example, who remembers the “deposit bottle scandal” in which Sara Netanyahu was accused of – can you imagine? – returning empty bottles that had been bought for official functions and keeping the money!

Every time – and there were dozens of times – that Netanyahu or his wife were questioned by the police, illegally leaked stories about what had transpired appeared on the evening news. Nobody in the police seems to have been punished, or as far as I know, even investigated about the leaks.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a general feeling that Bibi “has been Prime Minister long enough.” At age 69, he is possibly a little tired. If he isn’t ready to retire today, he certainly will be in a few years. One of his foibles is that he has never been able to abide anyone in his party that he suspects could challenge him, which means that there are few natural successors. The danger is that when he does step down, the majority of Israelis who have supported a right-wing coalition in recent years will fragment and the result will be that the Left will return to power. This could be facilitated by so-called “centrist” parties who lean to the right during the campaign, but when elected implement left-wing principles. This is the approach taken by Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, who promised during his campaign that there would be no direct talks with the PLO, no return to the pre-1967 lines, and no additional state between Israel and Jordan. As everyone knows, a year later he was shaking hands with Arafat on the White House lawn. So when Bibi says of Gantz – another former soldier like Rabin – that someone who won’t say whether he is left or right is probably left, right-wing Israelis are understandably worried.

Bibi himself has sometimes taken actions that can’t be understood from a right-wing perspective. For example, the illegal Bedouin settlement of Khan al-Ahmar, which can fairly be described as a joint provocation by the European Union and the Palestinian authority, and which the Supreme Court has (surprisingly) agreed ought to be demolished, still stands. Why? Perhaps Bibi has been threatened by the UK or other European countries, but it seems to me that a strong stand on this issue would be both good policy and good politics. Bibi doesn’t see it that way.

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who have recently separated from Beit Yehudi to form a new party called Hayamin Hehadash (The New Right) have sharply attacked him over his extended delay in removing the settlement. They have contrasted it to the recent violent removal of right-wing squatters from the wreckage of the community of Amona that was dismantled in 2017 by order of the Supreme Court over controversial Palestinian claims of ownership of part of the land.

In addition to the security concern posed by the location of Khan al-Ahmar, next to the strategic Route 1, there is the aspect of honor/humiliation/deterrence that I’ve written about so many times. From Israel’s point of view, it has a perfect right and a legitimate reason to enforce its building regulations in Area C. By allowing the Arabs and their European backers to thumb their noses at our sovereignty, we yield it to them, sending a message that we are too weak to defend our land, and therefore don’t have the right to keep it. Or perhaps Bibi doesn’t think that Judea and Samaria, even Area C with its Jewish majority, should be part of Israel. It’s hard to know what he thinks, which is one of the reasons many Israelis have a problem with him. If you hide your principles under a rock, people think that you are ashamed of them.

This is why I am disappointed with him. He is a pragmatist who tends to ignore the psychological and spiritual dimensions of power, which, especially in the Middle East, can be as important as the power of your air force or the number of tanks you can deploy. I see Bibi accepting too much humiliation, losing too much status, and not fighting the information war at all. He would say that our military and economic power has never been greater, and he would be right. But the degree of respect that we can command, both from our friends and our enemies, has declined in recent years.

I’ve always supported Bibi and Likud. But this April, I might vote for a party with more clearly articulated principles – and one that is likely to stand up for them.

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The first Palestinian-American in Congress

Rashida Tlaib is being called the first Palestinian-American woman elected to Congress. There have also been several congressmen claiming Palestinian descent: Justin Amash who represents Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, and John E. Sununu, who served in the House from 1997-2003.

But did you know that there was a Palestinian-American in the House long before any of them, who was in fact the only one who was actually a citizen of “Palestine,” and who had a Palestinian passport? And that he was Jewish?

A word about what “Palestinian” means. There have been between three political entities that could be called “Palestine:” the first was a Roman province created when the Romans joined what was formerly called Judea to Roman Syria and called it “Syria Palaestina,” in order to irritate the Jews left alive after they sacked Jerusalem. That didn’t stick, and Judea went back to being called Judea. Then there was the British Mandate for Palestine, which existed from 1923 to 1948, and encompassed several provinces of the former Ottoman Empire. It was replaced by the State of Israel. Finally there is today’s Palestinian Authority, which was created by the Oslo Accords, and governs some 95% of the Arabs in Judea and Samaria, and theoretically all of Gaza. It is not a state and cannot issue legal passports.

John Krebs’ photo from his Palestinian passport (courtesy of Hanna Krebs).

John Hans Krebs z”l (born Hans Joachim Krebs in Berlin, Germany, in 1927) moved to Mandate Palestine with his parents in 1933. As a young man he served in the pre-state Hagana, and then came to the US to study law at the University of California at Berkeley in 1946, when he was almost 20. He got his law degree in 1950, served in the US Army from 1952-54, and received US citizenship in 1954. He also married his wife, Hanna in that year.

John’s Palestinian passport. Note stamp near the bottom indicating that he was a Palestinian citizen (courtesy of Hanna Krebs).

John held several political jobs in Fresno, California in 1965-74. He was elected to Congress from California’s 17th district as a Democrat in 1974, and served until 1979.

John was simply the nicest guy you could ever meet, soft-spoken, but very intelligent and knowledgeable; not at all a typical politician. I can’t imagine what he would have thought about Rashida Tlaib’s vulgar remark about the president. Although I suspect John thought I was a bit extreme politically, he always had a big smile for me.

And he was the first Palestinian-American member of Congress.

Thanks to Yisrael Medad and of course Hanna Krebs.

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To our Arab citizens

Dear Arab citizens of Israel (or “Israeli Arabs” or “Palestinian citizens of Israel,” if you must):

Zionism is a problem for you.

I understand that. Zionism implies that all or part (I admit to being one of those who believe that “all” is correct) of the land between the river and the sea belongs to the Jewish people, while you believe that it is yours. We believe that we are the aboriginal tribes of the land of Israel; you say that you are.

This isn’t about that question. This isn’t about archaeology or history. I’ve written about those things countless times. I don’t think I could convince you that my point of view is correct, even though I’m certain that all the evidence shows that it is.

Rather, this is about today’s reality and how to live in it.

The reality is that Israel is a nation-state, the nation-state of the Jewish people. This is the most important statement made by our Declaration of Independence. Israel also does its best to be democratic (given the fact that half the world wants it destroyed), granting civil, political, and religious rights to all of its citizens. But there are other rights, which are called “national rights,” which include both symbolic and practical matters. There are symbols like the flag, the national anthem and the holidays, and there are practical principles like the Law of Return for Jews, not Arabs, the ingathering of the exiles, and the commitment to maintaining a Jewish majority.

The State of Israel is also committed to ensuring the rights of minorities. But those rights must not compromise the national rights of the Jewish people. This is why the Knesset saw fit to pass the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People. There is sometimes a tension between these different kinds of rights, and the state must walk a fine line to ensure a balance. It may not be easy, but keeping it is precisely the vision of Zionism.

Not every country is a nation-state of a particular people. The USA belongs to all American citizens. No single ethnic group can claim national rights in it. Unlike dozens of Muslim nations, no religion is privileged in it either. Although a majority of Americans are Christian, there are no special rights for Christians. There is no Christian cross in the American flag.

Today, ethnic nation-states are somewhat out of favor, especially in Western Europe and North America. Many people living in those places have a hard time understanding or accepting the idea that a people’s self-determination can include choosing to establish an ethnic nation-state – particularly if that people happens to be the Jewish people. Perhaps this is because the Jewish people, for thousands of years, were not allowed self-determination. They were required to live in somebody else’s nation-state, and these states generally did not even try to provide human, civil, political, or religious rights to all of their citizens (if indeed Jews were even counted as citizens).

There is one and only one Jewish state in the world, compared to 22 Arab states. Even if you accept the contention that there is a historic Palestinian people – and not just a group of Arabs of various origins that recently coalesced in opposition to the establishment of Israel – there is a state that was created from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and the partition of the Palestine Mandate that arguably is rightfully theirs, and that is Jordan.

Israel was established in a costly and terrible war. The war never truly ended, with outbursts of great violence interspersed with periods of “peace” characterized by small wars and terrorism against us. The stated goals of our various enemies have varied, from Nasser to Arafat to the Iranian mullahs and even including our self-designated moral superiors in the EU, but the intent has always been the same: to end Jewish self-determination. And our reaction, because Zionism tells us that self-determination is worth fighting for, has been and will continue to be to fight for it.

So here is what I want to tell you, Arab citizens of Israel:

For many of you, living in a Jewish state is uncomfortable. I understand. We Jews lived in other people’s nation-states for 2000 years, and it was often far more uncomfortable for us than it is for you in today’s Israel.

You have at least these alternatives:

  1. You can continue to live in the Jewish state with full political and civil rights – and if you feel that you don’t have those rights to the degree that you ought to, you can demand them. But don’t ask for national rights, because you won’t get them.
  2. You can move to a country like the USA or Canada, which are states of all their citizens, and become citizens yourselves.
  3. You can try to establish a Palestinian nation-state in Jordan, in which a majority of the population identifies as Palestinian, and which currently has a non-representative government.

I would prefer to cooperate than to fight. But our self-determination in the nation-state of the Jewish people is not negotiable.


Abu Yehuda

Posted in Israeli Arabs, Zionism | 2 Comments

It’s my party…

As everyone knows, Israel has way too many political parties. In the last election, ten parties made it past the 3.25% cutoff into the Knesset. In all, twenty-five parties contended for the 120 seats in our parliament, and some of those were alliances of multiple parties pooling their votes to keep from falling below the cutoff (the Joint List, for example, is composed of four primarily Arab parties).

There is a party called Ale Yarok (Green Leaf) which calls for legalization of marijuana and managed to get more than 47,000 votes from members who were not too stoned to find the polls. There is a party called Hapiratim (The Pirates), which belongs to an international movement favoring extremely democratic and open government, and which garnered 895 votes, or 0.02% of the electorate. Arghh! The party with the least amount of votes was the Manhigut Hevratit (Social Leadership) party, which consists of a convicted felon named Yosef Ba-Gad. Apparently he has enough friends and relatives to obtain 223 votes.

In fact, Israel does not need anywhere near this number of parties. I would like to propose a simpler arrangement of only six parties. Here they are, with their platforms:

  1. The Really Religious Party: God is on our side, so give us money, don’t draft us, and keep your immodest women away from us and their pictures off our bus shelters.
  2. The Very Right-Wing Party: Send the Arabs to Jordan and annex the historic homeland of the Jewish people.
  3. The Bibi Party: He knows best. Just be quiet and do what he tells you.
  4. The Cheap Apartments Party: Apartments are too expensive. In fact, everything is too expensive. Make everything cheaper. We are not interested in security and stuff.
  5. The Very Left-Wing Party: End The Occupation. This will bring Peace. The state will use the money it saves on the IDF and Shabak to provide cheap apartments and a free subscription to Ha’aretz for one and all.
  6. The Arab Party: End Zionism. Put us in charge, admit that everything is your fault and apologize for the Nakba and maybe we’ll let you live, which you actually don’t deserve, you dogs.

Right now many of you are saying that it’s impossible to live without Ashkenazic and Sephardic Haredi parties, and indeed without Hassidic and Mitnagdic Ashkenazi Haredi parties. And others are saying that there is a big difference between religious and secular right-wing Zionism, or that we can’t forget the historic difference between Etzel and Lechi, or Mapai and Mapam, Ichud and Meuchad, Betar and B’nai Akiva.

Get a grip.

I am still angry about the Altalena, but I’m willing to be in the same party as anyone who understands the importance of a Jewish state for the Jewish people, who is capable of understanding that the Arabs are not just Jews that go to shul on Fridays, and that someone who wants to kill you or your people is an enemy. My heroes are Jabotinsky and Begin, but I could work with Rabin, despite his big mistake (I’m sure if he were here today, he’d admit that he shouldn’t have allowed himself to be pushed into Oslo).

Right now, in the run-up to the election to be held on April 9, we are watching a depressing spectacle of various public personalities maneuvering here and there in the political spectrum, making and breaking alliances, and positioning themselves to feast on what they think will soon be the political corpse of Binyamin Netanyahu. We have the unpopular Avi Gabbai publically kicking the equally unpopular Tzipi Livni out of his “Zionist Union” movement, which went from 24 Knesset seats in the 2015 election, to 8 or 9 projected seats if the election were today. We have Benny Gantz, whose qualifications are that he was IDF Chief of Staff and is very tall, and who refuses to say anything about his position on any important issue, with 14 projected seats (Netanyahu said, and I agree, that “anyone who won’t say whether he is Left or Right is Left”).

One interesting development is the defection of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked from the religious Zionist Beit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party to create a right-wing party that would truly be a home for both religious and secular people, called Haymin Hehadash (The New Right). I think the name is a little cheesy, but ideologically it’s a good fit for me and many others who found the Zionism of Jewish Home appealing, but were uncomfortable with the degree of social conservatism of some of its members. I’m sure also that Bennett and Shaked understand that an explicitly religious party would never have a chance to lead the government.

Today there is already a party that purports to be right-wing and welcoming to both secular and religious Jews, and that is Netanyahu’s Likud. So probably The New Right will draw its votes from the old Jewish Home and from the Likud, and will cooperate in a coalition with them as well. As long as Netanyahu is more popular than Bennett/Shaked, and the Right maintains its present edge over the Center plus the Left, the governing coalition after the next election will end up looking more or less as it does today.

However, if Netanyahu steps down for any reason, the Likud is likely to lose much of its appeal to security-minded voters (and most Israelis fall into this category). The balance of power on the right might then move to the New Right, and one could imagine a government led by Bennett or Shaked. Bibi certainly doesn’t intend to quit now, but we’ll see what impact the possible criminal indictments (which, in my opinion, are simply political warfare by legal means) will have. And Bennett and Shaked are young, 46 and 42 respectively, while Netanyahu is 69. Their day will come no matter what.

The as-yet undefined party of Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, and other centrists will try to present themselves as hawkish on security to prevent this. The danger is that they might succeed, and we could end up with a Center-Left coalition. Naturally, Bibi is making sure to remind us of this at every opportunity. And I agree with him that letting the Left within 100 km of power would be a disaster. Look what the two Ehuds, Barak and Olmert, almost did when each was Prime Minister.

It’s not possible to reduce the number of parties to six today. Founding political parties seems to be a national pastime here, and the inflated egos of politicians, each one of whom believes that only he or  she is qualified to lead a party or the nation, prevents the system from becoming more rational.

Today I am leaning toward voting for The New Right, despite the silly name – unless Bibi convinces me that this will empower the Left. So far, I don’t see it.

Or unless my brother-in-law starts his own party. Then I’d have to vote for him.

Posted in Israeli Politics | 3 Comments