Middle East Eye / March 14, 2023
The very rights these protesters fear losing are based on the oppression of Palestinians, exposing this movement as one that seeks to preserve racial privileges.
Liberal Israeli Jews and their international supporters are at it again. They suddenly jumped to attention after the new Benjamin Netanyahu-led government announced its plans for judicial reform – a move that would affect Israeli Jews’ settler-colonial liberties as racially and colonially privileged citizens of the Jewish state.
Marching weekly by the thousands, they are demanding that the government reverse its war on the judiciary. In their ranks, these multitudes include army generals, fighter pilots, and even former prime ministers.
The ongoing massacres and pogroms committed by the government and the settlers against the Palestinian people are not even on their radar screen.
International supporters of the Israeli protests include Jewish politicians and academics in the US and Britain. Former New York City mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, wrote an article for The New York Times warning that the new Israeli government is “courting disaster” and putting in danger “the very democracy upon which the country was built”.
Pro-Israel British Jewish academic Simon Schama warned that Israel was becoming a “nationalist theocracy”, a horrifying fate for a country that he depicts as having been previously committed to “equal civil rights to all religious and ethnic groups”.
Margaret Hodge, Labour MP and parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, also described the actions of the Netanyahu government as an “assault on democracy”.
Not the first time
This is not the first time Israeli Jewish, and especially Ashkenazi, liberals were spurred to action against what they perceived as a dangerous political takeover of Israel that would encroach on their rights.
They had done so before and with equal vigour, namely when the Polish-born Menachem Begin and his Likud Coalition were elected in 1977 and again in 1981, and following Begin’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Upon the election of Begin, Ashkenazi liberal academics went into action, blaming the primitive, Oriental (mostly Arab) Jews for their country’s descent into right-wing populism. Since a majority of Oriental Jews voted for the Ashkenazi-led Likud in a protest vote against the Ashkenazi-led Labor Coalition, which had ruled Israel since 1948 and discriminated racially against Oriental Jews, Ashkenazi liberals could not be contained.
Through the late 1980s, Ashkenazi academics and intellectuals attempted to explain Oriental Jews’ support for Likud. Reasons ranged from their alleged visceral hatred of all things Arab (in contrast with the allegedly enlightened and Arab-loving Ashkenazim) to their lack of socialist consciousness and support for authoritarian structures of rule, principally on account of their Arab background and having grown up in an “autocratic” Arab culture.
Oriental Jews, renamed Mizrahim (meaning Oriental) in the 1980s, gave their own reasons. Mizrahi intellectuals responded that the Arab Jews who grew up in the Arab world and came to Israel between 1948 and 1956 had in fact consistently voted for Labor until 1977 and that it was their children, who were born and raised in Israel, who voted for Likud. Therefore, they learned to support right-wing autocracy in Israel, not in the Arab World.
Ashkenazi liberals would also insist that the Labor governments, which launched the war of 1967, did not seek to colonize the Arab territories they occupied, but instead use them as bargaining chips for “peace”.
They claimed that their intentions differed from the right-wing Likud government, which colonized the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Sinai, and squandered opportunities for “peace”.
The liberals’ claims were, of course, outright lies.
In 1977, 50,000 Jewish settlers had already moved to Jewish colonies established in East Jerusalem.
Ten years after Israel’s territorial conquest, successive Israeli Labor governments had annexed East Jerusalem, de facto, and built 30 Jewish settler colonies in the West Bank alone, and four in the Gaza Strip, with 15 more planned and under construction
This colonization project, known as the Allon Plan, was developed in 1967 by Yigal Allon, who was the head of the Labor government’s Ministerial Committee on Settlements.
Examples of the Labor Party’s “kinder and gentler” colonialism included the destruction of the Magharibah (Moroccan) Quarter in East Jerusalem and the expulsion of its inhabitants as soon as the conquest of the city was completed, to make room for Jewish Israeli colonial mobs descending on the conquered city.
It was also Israeli Laborites who, in 1972, expelled 10,000 Egyptians after confiscating their lands in 1969. They went on to bulldoze and destroy their homes, crops, mosques, and schools, in order to establish six kibbutzim, nine rural Jewish settlements, and the Jewish city-colony of Yamit in Occupied Sinai, which started out with 50, mostly Russian, Jewish colonists.
Plans to develop Yamit, including the construction of a port, were made for an expected population of 200,000 Jewish colonists (a total of 18 Jewish colonies would ultimately be built in the Sinai and had to be dismantled in 1979 after the signing of the Camp David Accords).
In the Golan Heights, the first Jewish colony was established in July 1967 as Kibbutz Golan. While touring the occupied Golan Heights for the first time immediately after the 1967 war, Ukraine-born Israeli Labor Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (né Shkolnik) was overwhelmed with nostalgia for his birthplace: “Just like in the Ukraine!” he exclaimed joyously.
The majority of the ideological colonial-settlers across the Occupied Territories during this period were Ashkenazi Jews, with Oriental Jews moving to the settlements mostly for economic reasons.
When in 1982 Begin’s government invaded Lebanon and murdered some 18,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians and plotted with the fascist Lebanese Phalangists to massacre the Palestinian population of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, Ashkenazi liberals were horrified that Begin and the Likud had “defiled” their erstwhile beautiful Israel.
If this sounds like the familiar ubiquitous refrain of the current liberal and Ashkenazi-led anti-Netanyahu demonstrations in Israel, and amongst the pro-Israel chorus in Britain and the United States, this is because it is the very same formula indeed.
Following the Israeli invasion and massacres in Lebanon, American Jewish academics and apologists for Israel including Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Michael Walzer wrote a letter to The New York Times asserting: “All of us must now say to the Begin-Sharon Government: ‘You are doing grave damage to the name of Israel, long associated with democracy, conciliation and peace’.”
The liberal Zionist editor of The Village Voice (who incidentally later joined in the 2004-2005 right-wing pro-Israel campaign to have Columbia University fire me from my job), Nat Hentoff, lamented that Begin’s Israeli army had become murderous: “From the start of the Jewish State, there has indeed been a tradition, tohar haneshek (“purity of arms” or “morality of arms”), in the Israeli armed forces. Until now Israeli soldiers had to be very, very careful about injuring civilians, let alone killing them.”
The countless massacres committed by the Israeli military since 1948 were clearly evidence of such “morality”.
Indeed, even the architect and founder of Israel’s nuclear weapons program and the future butcher of Qana, Shimon Peres, addressed the Knesset lamenting the loss of David Ben-Gurion’s legacy. He stressed that the fate of Israel “is dependent on its strength and its righteousness. Righteousness, not just strength, has to guide our deeds”.
The hypocrisy of these words in 1982 is in no way more egregious than the current hypocrisy of Israel’s Jewish liberals and their international chorus of supporters.
Both sets of apologists seek to beautify Israel and falsely claim that Israel had been democratic before Netanyahu when, in fact, it has always been nothing more than a predatory settler colony based on laws that grant racial and colonial privileges to Jewish colonists who live in a master-race democracy.
In fact, both sets of protesters continue to be fully committed to the preservation of Israel as a Jewish state, even if the 1982 protesters were embarrassed by Israel’s murderous wars and massacres of the Palestinians.
Of course, Israel’s wars today, which inflict horrific violence on Palestinians, cause no such embarrassment to the current protesters.
The fact that the very rights these protesters enjoy and which they fear losing have always been based on the dispossession and oppression of the Palestinian people, exposes their protest movement as one that decidedly seeks to preserve not democracy, but master-race democracy.
Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York; he is the author of Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism