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‘Jewish democracy’ founded on ugly battles

Israel has a Jewish majority today because of the expulsions and denationalisation of most Palestinians living there.

Among the many good reasons for marking the anniversary of the Nakba are two which speak to the intensifying debate about Israel’s “democratic values”: firstly, the fact that the Nakba is ongoing, in the daily acts of piecemeal ethnic cleansing from the Jordan Valley to the Negev, and secondly, the way in which the historical facts of “transfer” undermine the mythology of Israel as a supposed “Jewish and democratic” state.

Both of these points cause significant problems for liberal Zionists, those self-identifying progressive supporters of Israel whose views have come to the fore in discussions about Israel’s future, as well as in efforts to counter Palestinian solidarity efforts and initiatives such as the BDS campaign.

For a host of critics of Israeli policies in the occupied territories, the problems started with the post-1967 occupation. From the settlements to the daily control of millions of Palestinians without citizenship, liberal Zionists point to the 45-year-old military regime in the West Bank and Gaza and say: “This is where it all went wrong.”

On that basis, they claim that a solution will be found through resolving the issues as they relate to the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, ie: borders, land swaps, sovereignty issues, and so on. In so far as anything relating to 1948 is addressed, the topic is discussed in terms of narrative, memory and a past that is hindering progress.

Thus the ethnic cleansing of Palestine that took place with the establishment of Israel is rendered a fait accompli; something for the two parties to accept and move on from. The Palestinians may, at best, receive sympathy – but certainly no material redress, or God forbid, a return.

This Nakba blind spot crops up time and time again, as demonstrated by a few recent examples. In February, UK-based pro-Israel advocacy group BICOM published a series of essays on “Israel’s democratic futures” – none of which addressed the mass expulsions and land expropriations of the Jewish state’s beginnings. In a recent Huffington Post series on liberal Zionism, the only explicit mention of the Nakba was as instructive as its almost total absence, with the author claiming Zionists’ only obligation was to simply “acknowledge” the Palestinian catastrophe.

Destroying the ‘ideological balloon’

Discussing Israel without mentioning the Nakba is linked to the myth of the Jewish state miraculously emerging from an unpopulated, arid wasteland. Yet in the words of Anton La Guardia, seeing the land as “empty” is not due to ignorance of the indigenous Palestinians. Rather, the “invisibility” of the Arabs was self-serving. Palestine at the time of first Zionist settlement was not empty of people, but of people deemed worthy by Europeans of controlling their own country.

As West Bank-based Jewish settlers sometimes remind the so-called Israeli “left”, their kibbutzim were built on the ruins of destroyed Palestinian villages (by 1950, cooperative settlements held 45 per cent of abandoned or confiscated Palestinian land). Here’s an extract from a diary of a Jewish Israeli and resident of Sasa kibbutz:

Living in an Arab village, in homes of people who had left in an awful hurry, a short time before we arrived… Here we were, American Jewish pioneers, come to help build a new homeland and create a new society… It was bad enough living in the village where you could almost feel their presence, where part of their possessions were left behind, with their store rooms filled with last seasons’ crop… If all this wasn’t enough to destroy our ideological balloon, there was a problem of what to do with the mosque…

This kibbutz, founded by members of Hashomer Hatzair, a “socialist” Zionist movement, was established in the place of Sa’sa’, an ethnically cleansed Palestinian village whose community boasted a market, two schools and cultivated cereals and orchards. The expulsion of the villagers included an attack in February 1948 that killed 60 and demolished 16 houses. These are the foundations of “democratic” Israel, which, according to the liberal Zionist timeline, was only “corrupted” after 1967.

With the Nakba in clear view, current attempts to reconcile both “Jewish and democratic” components of Israel’s identity can be seen for what they are: a grand exercise in missing the point. The only reason why there is a Jewish majority in Israel today is because of the expulsions and denationalisation of most Palestinians who would have become citizens in the new state. What unites liberal and conservative Zionists in rejecting the Palestinians’ right of return is the ugly demographic “battle” that is the foundation of the “Jewish and democratic” state.

First published in Al Jazeera.

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