On Rabin’s Memorial Day: let’s be unashamedly Liberal Zionists

Yitzhak Rabin died the fourth of November twenty-one years ago. He was a remarkable figure. Somebody who knew what was in the best interests of Israel and who dared negotiating with the PLO as well as recognising its role as representative of a Palestinian people. As Hebrew University Historian Ze’ev Sternhell wrote in his “The Founding Myths of Israel” (1995), that was a turning point in the history of the Jewish National Movement, since it made Zionism compatible with Palestinian rights.

Let us not kid ourselves: Rabin probably did not envisage a two-state solution when he signed Oslo I and II. He was neither a perfect human being. As a minister of defence in 1987, when the First Intifada erupted, he launched a policy of “breaking bones and legs” of any male of an age that could allow involvement in those events. However, its willingness to recognise there is another nation in Israel/Palestine sanctions the change of discourse in Zionism, making it compatible with the self-determination of the Palestinians. One might retort Hannah Arendt and Ahad Ha’am, the Cultural Zionists, realised the presence of another national movement and its equal entitlement to land well before Rabin, but they never called the Palestinians as such, nor could they foresee the political circumstances that made the existence of a Jewish state necessary after the interwar period and World War II.

So here is the point. Rabin probably did not envisage a two-state solution, but he set up the foundations for a new vision that allowed Israeli progressives to be unashamedly Zionist and pro-two states. While the incitement of the right-wing killed him, the ideas remain, they blossom, they change. Every leader that followed suit in the Peace camp negotiated, or supported, two states for two people. An Israeli Prime Minister even made that offer to Arafat, who did not accept it, back in 2000. But unfortunately, since the events of the second intifada, we never reached a lower point in Israeli-Palestinian relations: a right-wing government unwilling to change the Status quo in Israel, an unaccountable Palestinian Authority in Area A, and the implementation of Oslo, which so far, has only served the interests of the right-wing Israeli government to make the occupation sustainable by outsourcing control to Palestinian Police forces.

In my recent two trips to Israel with the New Israel Fund and Yachad, seeing the horror of Hebron in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, visiting East Jerusalem’s neighbourhood of Silwan twice and, most shockingly, the Ofer Military Court in the West Bank, I came to question my sympathy for what many Diaspora Jews call Liberal Zionism. My thinking was “how can I be Zionist if Zionism means such injustice for the Palestinians?”

But there is no strong ideology or will that does not undergo a period of tough questions. Zionism is complicated. It cannot be cast as simply pure evil, but at the same time one must acknowledge it is responsible for displacing another people. Moreover, these questions loom large mainly because anytime there has been talk of peace, right-wing elements in Israel and abroad tried to recapture Zionism from the Liberal ground. Today, Zionism is largely seen as the Status Quo, which is immoral and costly. Certainly, even if peace came tomorrow, Zionism will still need to answer some hard questions, for instance about the Palestinian refugees’ right of return and if Arabs inside Israel could ever hope for equal citizenship.

Our generation, made of Israelis, Palestinians, Diaspora Jews and non Jewish pro-Israel and pro-peace people  like myself have to realise this and be ready to question and be questioned, but never to forget why we argue against the occupation and for a better Israel. Gideon Levy’s editorial in Haaretz, where he invites readers to boycott Rabin Square’s annual rally, is therefore wrong. People should always go and pay tribute to courage. In particular, if that courage had a lasting impact in changing the debate and paid the price with the life. It is not about the Labour Party, but about the figure. Levy concludes by saying “Israel never wanted peace because it means the end of the occupation”. I respect the journalist and his moral integrity as well as his life-long struggle against injustice and the occupation. However, we all have the task of prove him wrong on this. We have to implement rights for both people, and to realise no right should override someone else’s. For long Zionism has never included discussions about Palestinian self-determination, Rabin changed this. Further changes are needed to realize the Zionist dream. But looking at what’s past won’t suffice. New thinking is needed. Now more than ever, let’s be unashamedly Liberal Zionists

About the Author
Giacomo Paolini was born in Rome, Italy and has been living in the UK since 2012, first in Durham, then in London. He is increasingly involved in Israel-related activities over the past three years. Besides that, he is a student and a political activist.
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