Israel’s Multiple Personality Disorder: Can Zionists promote Palestinian Rights?

In Israel, many Jews that identify with the center-left camp are often those that support or even champion the promotion of Palestinian rights inside the green line and in the West Bank. Organizations such as ‘Standing Together’, ‘Peace Now’ and the ‘New Israel Fund’ are among several that are full of Jewish Israeli activists—many of which identify as Zionists— that both organize and participate in protests and other forms of civil disobedience in order to confront abuses of Palestinian rights. Likewise, ordinary Jewish Israelis often can be seen participating in dialogue initiatives with Palestinians, protesting against the evacuation of Palestinian villages such as Khan al-Akhmar, and expressing open support for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

However, at the same time, these individuals are Israel’s former and current combat soldiers, intelligence officers and civil administration soldiers. Some of them are the same people manning the checkpoints and implementing late night hours-long house searches in Palestinian villages. These are folks that identify as Zionists and seek the preservation of Israel’s Jewish character, while insisting that Israel’s democracy is vital to its future and that one does not come at the expense of the other. For example, Avi Buskila, former CEO of Peace Now, was an active combat officer in the Nahal Brigade while organizing large protests to end the occupation of which he most likely took an active part.

Some, such as Haaretz columnist, Gideon Levy, and anti-Zionist Jewish groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), contend that this is the contradiction of the Zionist left; that this fusion of nationalism with the pursuit of human rights travel opposing wavelengths that cannot be merged. Perhaps, the ever increasing strength of the Israeli right and the far-right expression of Zionism becoming ever prevalent, the deterioration of Israel’s political left and the increasing amount of Jews and Jewish organizations distancing themselves from Zionism, show that this is the inevitable result of Jewish nationalism as is any other such manifestation: a chauvinistic, illiberal and racist ideology.

However, zooming in on the dual reality that exists in Israel can unearth this seeming contradiction. Perhaps, these two values can also indeed be merged. If you want to be an honest Zionist today do you have to forfeit the pursuit of human rights for Palestinians? Does your self-identification as pro-Palestinian contradict your continued promotion of Jewish national consciousness and collective identity, as well as support for the Jewish character of Israel? I firmly believe that a strong affinity for Zionism and the active pursuit of Palestinian human rights can and should be bridged.

It can be quite confusing when you hear and read about Israel as both “the only democracy in the Middle East,” providing all of its citizens with “equal, social and political rights irrespective of religion, race or sex,” holding large pride parades and seeing Jews and Arabs working and socializing together throughout the country, while at the same time being exposed to an alternative story. This narrative describes Israel as an occupier of the Palestinian people and land, enforcing military rule bearing apartheid-like symptoms in which they have no say regarding the representatives and laws of the sovereign power that controls their movement within the West Bank as well as in and out of the country.

Is one side lying? While neither narrative is entirely true, they are also not completely false. To an Israeli living inside the green line (1967 borders where Israel has complete sovereignty) it will sound absurd that Israel is an apartheid state. The Palestinian Arab and Jewish populations vote, use public transportation, study in universities, go to the same supermarkets, and work together. Whether Arab, Jewish, Druze, Muslim or Christian, all citizens of Israel possess the same legal rights. However, to the Palestinian living in the West Bank (not recognized by Israel as sovereign territory) the words ‘Israel’ and ‘democracy’ will sound like an oxymoron that has no basis in actual reality.

This is because Israel has a multiple personality disorder which many are not willing or able to see.

These personalities are the two realties that exist in Israel: one is the vibrant democracy that is often projected outwardly to the world that protects civil and legal rights for all of its citizens which exists inside the green line. The second consists of military governance in the West Bank limiting Palestinian civil rights—whom are neither citizens nor residents of the State of Israel.

One of the grave consequences of this multi-personality disorder is that I and many others are apathetic or even unaware of the second reality because we only live in the first. That reality is all the vast majority of Israelis see, touch, hear and smell. Our greatest memories and feelings are produced out of our senses. Many Israelis’ senses are not exposed to life in the West Bank and thus are not moved by the hardships faced there. Many are blinded by the light of the first reality and are unable to see that there is a parallel one as well. The privileged conditions of living inside Israel are conducive to apathy towards the lives of those living outside of Israeli sovereignty but still under its military rule.

The bottom line is that both of these realities are Israel in which very little of the population residing between the Jordan and the Sea live and experience simultaneously. The majority experiences just one of them and sees Israel as just that—either the liberal, more inclusive democracy or as the occupier. Thus, Israel is simultaneously both a beacon of freedom and a source of occupation.

Similarly, that’s how many view the army: apathetic and compromising regarding the West Bank while placing focus on the threats that have a near consensus regarding their status—those that Israel faces at the northern border with Syria and Lebanon, as well as Iran. In other words, almost any threat that isn’t Palestinian. Therefore, while many recognize the immoral and unjust nature of the military rule of Palestinians, it is much easier and convenient to emphasize the issues of consensus. The IDF isn’t viewed on the left as the “Israeli Occupation Force” but as a protector and respected national institution in which its activity in the West Bank is viewed merely as one area of its operation.

Understanding Israel’s dualistic reality provides access to some of the country’s most misunderstood complexities. And despite these complexities, many Zionist Jews in Israel will continue to strive for justice for the Palestinians while still advocating for the preservation of Israel’s Jewish character. This is because Zionism, with all of its flaws, embodies more positive than negative values as a national project that was established to correct an injustice for a people not at the expense of another. If a liberal Zionism does not trump the illiberal and intolerant expression, the Israel that is both Jewish and just will eventually cease to exist.

About the Author
Jason Silverman holds a BA in Middle East Studies and Hebrew from the Ohio State University. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Jason decided to make Aliyah in August, 2014 and served in the IDF as a tank commander. He currently resides in Jerusalem and is a graduate student in International Relations at Hebrew University.
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