How New is the New Israeli Government?

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Our Zoom call this Friday will be about the controversy at the University of California at Berkeley Law School, where nine student groups last year declared that they would not host Zionist speakers. In part because of that decision, the federal Department of Education is now investigating whether Berkeley is a hostile environment for Jewish students.

I’ll be talking to two guests intimately familiar with the Berkeley controversy, who hold very different views. The first is Dylan Saba, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal, which does legal defense for advocates of Palestinian rights. Dylan is also a graduate of Berkeley Law School who has advised the student groups that won’t host Zionist speakers. He’s also a contributing editor at Jewish Currents.

The second is Ethan Katz, Associate Professor of History and Jewish Studies at Berkeley and co-founder and co-director of Berkeley’s Antisemitism Education Initiative. I couldn’t have found two more thoughtful or knowledgeable advocates for their point of view and I’m very grateful that they’re going to spend the hour with us.

The call will be at our usual time, Friday at Noon EST. This one will be co-sponsored with Jewish Currents.

As usual, paid subscribers will get the link this Wednesday and the video the following week.

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Sources Cited in this Video

In The Washington Post, an Associated Press article claims that the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government “risk imperiling Israel’s democratic institutions.”

Tom Segev’s book, One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate.

Things to Read

Speaking of Jewish Currents, The New York Times last week profiled our extremely talented editor, Arielle Angel. To learn what the Times is so excited about, consider subscribing to Jewish Currents yourself. 

In late December, I hosted two episodes of the Foundation for Middle East Peace’s “Occupied Thoughts” podcast. The first was with Jehad Abusalim, an FMEP Fellow and PhD candidate in the History and Hebrew and Judaic Studies joint program at New York University. He talked about “Palestinian Views on Antisemitism from the 19th Century to the Present Day.”

The second was with Ziv Stahl, Executive Director of the Israeli NGO Yesh Din, about what Israel’s new government means for its policies in the West Bank.

On one of our Friday calls in November, we talked to former Knesset speaker Avrum Burg and the Palestinian political philosopher Raef Zreik. (Recordings of all our previous calls are available for subscribers.) Since then, Avrum has co-founded a new political party, All its Citizens, dedicated to equality between Palestinians and Israeli Jews.

I also wanted to recommend this conversation between Briahna Joy Gray and Marc Lamont Hill about Kanye West, Kyrie Irving, antisemitism and anti-Black racism. I talked to Marc on one of our recent Friday calls about these subjects. But with Briahna he covered some additional ground. In particular, his comments about the Black Hebrew Israelites, who seem to have influenced Irving, and the different ways that different groups of Black Americans have identified themselves with the Jewish story, are fascinating. They start around 32 minutes 45 seconds in.

Just before New Year’s, I was awarded the prestigious Schmegegge of the Year Award by the Jewish Studies Zionist network. I tried to remain modest in my acceptance remarks. 

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See you Friday at Noon,

Peter


VIDEO TRANSCRIPT:

Hi. This Friday, our Zoom call will be about the controversy at Berkeley Law School that I’m sure many of you have heard about where a number of groups at Berkeley Law School made a public statement that they would not host Zionist speakers. We’re gonna have two guests. We’re gonna have a conversation from different perspectives about that. Our first guest is Dylan Saba, who’s a staff attorney at Palestine Legal, which is an organization that promotes Palestinian legal defense and has been involved in supporting the work of those students at Berkeley. The other guest is going to be Professor Ethan Katz, who’s an Associate Professor of Jewish History at Berkeley, and is also the co-founder and co-director of the Antisemitism Education Initiative at Berkeley. Two very thoughtful and smart people who have very different perspectives on this and I think it’ll be a good conversation. It’s being cosponsored with Jewish Currents, so it’ll be available to their list as well.

There’s been a lot of talk in the last few days about Benjamin Netanyahu finally being able to create the new government that is the result of Israel’s elections in November. And reading a lot of the stories about this new government in the US, you notice certain kind of tropes, familiar linguistic kind of formulations that come up a lot. And one of them is that this represents a real rupture with Israeli democracy and a threat to Israeli democracy. It kind of reminds me a little bit about some of the kind of discourse that you heard in the United States after Donald Trump’s election in 2016: that this represents a kind of a rupture and that democracy is imperiled. 

And I found that in both the US case and in the case of Israel-Palestine, that that discourse is often not the best way to think about these things because the notion that there was some kind of radical change that a Donald Trump or a Benjamin Netanyahu or an Itamar Ben-Gvir has produced something radically new, I think tends to often sanitize what things were in the past and prevents us from seeing the kind of long patterns of continuity, patterns of return, that make us realize that the things that we see now, even if they may be shocking are actually not necessarily nearly as new. That the best writers, in my opinion, about the Trump phenomenon, were people like Adam Serwer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who tended to see Trump, the return of Trump, not as a shift away from some kind of stable American democratic project that was always uncontested but as the kind of a re-emergence of a white supremacist politics that had always been there, and that had always meant that American democracy had never been a stable or uncontested thing when it came to Black Americans, for instance. And so that it made more sense to think of an America as always having been a country in which multiracial democracy was very, very much in question, rather than a stable liberal democracy that all of a sudden Donald Trump came like an alien from outer space.

And I think it makes much more sense to think about this new Israeli government in that pattern as well: not to imagine that there was a kind of stable, uncontested notion of Israeli liberal democracy that Benjamin Netanyahu and Itamar Ben-Gvir have now come and sullied, but to remember that when it came to Palestinians, that Zionism was never a democratic project, never has been a democratic project. It has been a project that has cherished the rights, the rights of liberal democracy for Jews. But that when you see the illiberal anti-democratic elements of this government as it comes to Palestinians, that that is not really a break from the norm. It’s actually really a consolidation, or a new twist on, very, very old patterns.

I was struck by this as I read over the break a book that maybe some of you read. I really can’t recommend it highly enough by the Israeli historian, Tom Segev, called One Palestine, Complete. I love Segev’s work. He’s just a great popular historian. And this is about the British Mandate. It’s about British control over Palestine between 1917 and Israel’s establishment in 1948. And he has a remarkable thing that he found a quotation in this book One Palestine, Complete that I want to quote because I think it really speaks to this continuity that we see even a hundred years ago, and that we see with his new Israeli government today. And Segev is writing about the period after WWI, in which the question of what’s going to happen to Palestine is being discussed, and whether Britain is going to get the mandate to control Palestine, which of course it does. But there was some discussion even that the United States might get this mandate to control Palestine after WWI. And Segev quotes the Zionist organization in London, explaining why they don’t want America to have the mandate to control Palestine. This is in 1919. And this is the quote from the Zionist organization based in London. They write: 

“Democracy in America too commonly means majority rule without regard to diversities of type, or stages of civilization, or differences of quality. Democracy, in that sense, has been called the melting pot in which that quantitatively lesser is assimilated into the quantitatively greater. This doubtless work is natural in America and works on the whole very well, but if the American ideal were applied as an American administration might apply it to Palestine, what would happen? The numerical majority in Palestine today is Arab, not Jewish. Qualitatively, it is a simple fact that the Jews are now predominant in Palestine, and given proper conditions, they will become the predominant quantitatively also in a generation or two. But if the crude arithmetical conception of democracy were to be applied now, or at some early stage in the future to Palestinian conditions, the majority that would rule would be the Arab majority. And the task of establishing and developing a great Jewish Palestine would be infinitely more difficult.” 

After this long quotation, Segev writes: “the problem at the heart of the Zionist claim was rarely articulated so clearly. The Zionist dream ran counter to the principles of democracy.” And that was true in 1919, because if the Americans had come and taken over and said, ‘OK, we want to apply democratic principles. Let’s everyone have a vote here in 1919.’ The large majority of people were Palestinian Arabs and that’s not the case in the establishment of Israel, as we often hear a democratic and Jewish state, was only possible because of an act of mass expulsion of Palestinians between 1947 and 1949. The partition plan left the Jewish state under the UN with a close to 50% Palestinian population. So, it would not have been a Jewish and democratic state if it had been a truly democratic state. It was only able to become a Jewish and democratic state because roughly half the Palestinian population was expelled. And so, you had a very clear Jewish majority, and with a very large Jewish majority you could have democratic elections. Then, when Israel takes over the West Bank in 1967, it again has too many Palestinians to function as a democracy. Because if you let the Palestinians in East Jerusalem and Gaza and the West Bank vote then you have again roughly 50% Palestinians. It can’t be a Jewish and democratic state. So, you have to hold those people if you want to keep the territory—which Israel did—you have to hold those people without the right to vote in order to maintain the pretense that this is a democracy. It’s only a democracy because you’re not allowing all of these Palestinians to vote. It’s only a Jewish and democratic state because you deny all these people the right to vote.

So, when we come into today, in 2023, and we look about this Israeli government, and they say ‘they are eroding Israeli democracy. Israel was this liberal democracy, and this band of kind of right-wing crazy people are coming to challenge and destroy that,’ we need to really understand that it makes more sense to think about what they’re doing as being willing to deny Palestinians democratic rights in order to maintain Israel as a Jewish state, in order to perpetuate the political Zionist project. That’s not new. Their strategies for doing that may be somewhat different than they were under your Lipid, or they were a hundred years ago. But the basic project, which is to maintain Jewish dominance, requires the denial of democracy to Palestinians because today, as in 1919, there are simply too many Palestinians around to be able to extend democratic rights to and also maintain Jewish political dominance, which has always been at the heart of the political Zionist project. And so, I think it makes much more sense to try to understand the moment we’re in as a new phase in how that project to deny Palestinians democracy and to maintain Jewish democratic rights without enough Palestinians to undermine the project, that continues in a slightly different form. But the long-term story seems to me is much more about continuity than it is about fundamental change. I hope to see many of you on Friday for our conversation with Dylan Saba and Ethan Katz and that you have a good week.