Jeffrey Herf
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Defense, offense and settlements

Israel supporters should insist on asking why a Palestinian state be free of Jews and how that isn't racism

Since it was founded, and especially since the famous battles at the United Nations about Zionism and racism in the mid-1970s, the state of Israel has been on the ideological defensive. For decades, its leaders, along with diplomats and supporters around the world, have argued that Zionism was not a form of racism, the wars of 1967, 1973 and 1982 were not acts of aggression, the wars against Hamas in Gaza in 2009 and 2014 did not include the commission of war crimes and that, in general, it is not true that Israel is a racist, fascist, Nazi, colonial, imperialist “occupation regime.”

Instead, it is a free society and a liberal democracy in which Jews and Arabs have equal rights to participate in public life. Indeed, Chaim Herzog, Isaac Herzog’s father, wrote one of the great moments in the history of Israel’s war of ideas when he tore up the UN resolution denouncing Zionism as racism in November 1975.

Yet there are limits to what can be accomplished if one is always confined to playing defense. It has been the great success of the ideological offensives of Arab nationalists of the 1960s and 1970s, the PLO, its Soviet and Western leftist supporters in the last decades of the Cold War, and then of the radical Islamists since 1979 that they kept Israel on the defensive ideologically. For decades, their offensive diminished Western liberal scrutiny of the implicit racism of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s 1968 Charter, a document which, if implemented, would have demanded the expulsion–actually the ethnic cleansing–of Jews who came to Israel after either 1917 or 1947.

Since 1988 the weakness of an Israeli ideological offensive or simply the fact that Israel is a small country facing many adversaries made it easier for too many Western liberals to divert their attention from the blatant Jew-hatred that oozes from the sickening pages of the Hamas Charter of 1988. Since the 1970s, and especially since Netanyahu’s break from Likud visions of expanding Israel into the West Bank in in the Bar-Ilan speech of 2009, “the international community” has continued to insist that Israel’s settlements in the West Bank are an insuperable obstacle to peace. The absence of an effective ideological counter-offensive meant that almost no one asked a simple question: if there were a Palestinian state, what would be wrong with having a Jewish minority living in it, just as there is an Arab minority living in Israel?

Since 2009, when Prime Minister Netanyahu abandoned Likud’s vision of annexing the West Bank, the issue of Jewish settlements on the West Bank has taken on a different meaning. While religious fundamentalists among the settlers certainly thought they were the vanguard of a possible territorial expansion that precluded a Palestinian state after Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan speech that was no longer the case. From then on, West Bank settlements had a different meaning than the one conveyed in the ubiquitous denunciations of the occupation. For many, especially those closest to Jerusalem, they were a matter of convenience and proximity, not religious faith. Most importantly after the Bar Ilan speech, liberals around the world opposed to racial discrimination should have defended the right of Jews to live on the West Bank.

They should have argued that settlements per se did not stand in the way of a Palestinian state and despite its almost universal condemnation, never have. Or rather, the settlements have not stood in the way of a Palestinian state which could be, like Israel, a state for all its citizens, whether they were Arabs or Jews. The settlements have only stood in the way of a final agreement and a Palestinian state if that state were to define itself, to borrow a phrase applied to Israel in the past, as a “racist entity,” that is, one that has no room at all for Jewish citizens.

As the success of the Arab Joint List in last week’s election reminds us yet again, there are Arab citizens in the Jewish state with full political rights. Yet liberals now filled with rage at Netanyahu have not raised the issue of why there cannot be Jewish citizens of an Arab-Palestinian state. Why should a Palestinian state be free of Jews, and why is that demand not an example of a Jew-hatred that would be unacceptable when coming from other sources?

The refusal of the PLO and then the Palestinian Authority to accept Jews as neighbors in the West Bank should have been a theme of liberal criticism all along. In the absence of this “conversation about race,” liberal indignation has for decades been aimed at the easy target of Jewish settlers. It is with bitter irony that one recalls that the PLO Charter of 1968, an extremist document that called for the destruction of Israel by force of arms, stated that Jews—that is, those Jews whom the PLO had not killed or expelled, had it won its terrorist war–could live together with Muslims and Christians in a post-Zionist utopia. Yet when the Palestinian Authority actually gained political power, the vision of Arabs and Jews living together gave way to a focus on the evil of Jews living in West Bank settlements.

Would Jews be allowed to run in elections in a Palestinian state if they chose to remain there? Or would they be forced to flee to save their lives if such a state came into existence? These are questions that Americans who regard themselves as liberals rarely, if ever, ask in public. They are not questions that the Obama White House has posed.

About the Author
Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. He has published extensively on modern German and European history including Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, He is completing a study entitled “At War with Israel: East Germany and the West German Radical Left, 1967-1989" (Cambridge University Press, 2016). His "Israel's Moment: The United States and Europe between the Holocaust and the Cold War" is forthcoming.