Reviewed by Kabir Altaf
ANYONE who follows the Israeli-Palestinian conflict soon becomes familiar with the basic issues that are impediments in the way of a political settlement: the status of Jerusalem, the Jewish-only settlements that cut through the occupied West Bank, the separation barrier dividing Palestinian villagers from their agricultural land.
Pakistanis are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and most of our discussion focuses on how Palestinians experience daily life under occupation. While these issues are obviously important, there has been much less focus on the effects of conducting the military occupation on Israelis themselves. Brutalising another people obviously imposes great psychic costs on the society that is carrying it out, requiring the dehumanisation of the “Other”.
One source that addresses the price that Israelis must pay in order to sustain the occupation is Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel by American journalist Max Blumenthal. A first-person account based on five years that Blumenthal spent travelling through what he refers to as “Israel-Palestine” (acknowledging that there is de-facto one state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River), the book provides a unique perspective on the darker undercurrents of Israeli society. The author’s privileged status as a Jewish-American allowed him to travel to areas that would have been inaccessible to a reporter of another background, particularly one of Arab or Muslim origin.
Israelis often refer to their country as the “only democracy in the Middle East,” defending this claim by pointing out that the Knesset (parliament) contains elected representatives of Palestinian Citizens of Israel — referred to within the country as “Israeli Arabs” in order to deny them their identity as Palestinians. However, these representatives from “Arab parties” are often viewed as fifth-columnists. Blumenthal describes an incident that took place in the summer of 2010 when Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian Israeli parliamentarian from the Balad Party, addressed her colleagues after the Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship that had attempted to break Israel’s blockade on Gaza.
Though she had been promised five minutes to speak, the parliament’s speaker ordered Zoabi to leave the podium after a minute and a half, most of which was consumed by heckling and interruptions. Blumenthal writes: “As she passed through the Knesset gallery, legislators lunged at her again, one by one, shouting, ‘Where is your knife?’ and calling her a ‘terrorist’. Finally, a female security guard lifted Zoabi off her feet and attempted to carry her out of the main hall. But when she reached the door, Zoabi broke free from the guard, stomped back into the hall, took a seat in her chair, and crossed her arms in a defiant pose while the red-faced screamers surrounded her, their violent fury restrained only by a wall of security guards and a few of Zoabi’s colleagues from Balad. Many Israeli liberals were shocked by the spectacle, but the scenes were nothing new in Israel’s Knesset.”
Not only was there no condemnation of the treatment of an elected representative of the minority population, Zoabi was actually punished for her remarks. She was stripped of her diplomatic passport and barred from addressing the assembly or participating in committee votes for a full parliamentary season. The fact that a parliamentarian representing a constituency that forms 20 per cent of Israel’s population is treated as a traitor for resisting the official narrative reveals a society in which dissent is too great a threat to tolerate.
In addition to parliamentary “debates,” Blumenthal describes street-level politics. He recounts a summer 2010 party held in a swanky bar in suburban Tel Aviv. Organised by Im Tirtzu, a government-linked ultra-Zionist student movement, the purpose of the occasion was to “fire up the troops” for a boycott against the political science department of a university which the group had identified as a bastion of “anti-Zionism”. Blumenthal describes his reaction to the occasion as follows: “The movement was not only a street-level proxy for rightist forces in the government. It also served as a social sanctuary for aimless young men unable to locate productive outlets for their pent-up post-army aggressions.”
Groups like Im Tirtzu represent the rise of what Israeli historian Ilan Pappe refers to as “neo-Zionism” in contrast with the “post-Zionism” or “anti-Zionism” of the 1990s, the period when the Oslo Accords provided hope of the dawning of peace in the foreseeable future. This temporary openness to an alternative “idea of Israel” faded with the Second Intifada in 2000, which led to a pronounced rightward swing in Israeli society. Over time, this shift has only become more evident as can be seen by the overwhelming support that Israeli society gave to this summer’s “war” with Gaza.
Of course, not all Israeli Jews support the occupation. Many young activists protest alongside the Palestinians in the villages of the occupied West Bank. Blumenthal interviews an 18-year-old named Yuval, who is part of a group called Anarchists Against the Wall. After being exposed to videos of Palestinians directly challenging the occupation in villages such as Ni’lin and Nabi Saleh, Yuval contacted the uploader of the videos and asked to be taken to a demonstration. He has been regularly attending protests ever since.
Another example of a young Israeli working against the occupation is Yonatan Shapira. A former member of the Israeli Air Force, Shapira organised a 2003 campaign in which 27 active-duty and veteran Air Force pilots signed a letter declaring their refusal to fly any mission that endangered civilians in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. He believed that this act of protest would shock the Israeli Army into complying with normal rules of war. However, the official reaction destroyed his career and he was forced to leave Israel to find employment.
Shapira’s story is too often typical of young activists, who are compelled to immigrate abroad. According to Gal Harmat, a peace education professor at Kibbutzim Teachers College: “almost everyone I’ve worked with is gone now. They are all living in Berlin or other European capitols [sic]. Those of my friends who stayed, they are getting strange phone calls warning them not to go to protests in the West Bank, or they are having their computers seized.’”
In conclusion, Goliath brilliantly shows that the Palestinians are not the only victims of Israel’s occupation. Rather, Israeli Jews have become citizens of an increasingly authoritarian and right-wing state. Ending the occupation is thus not only in the interests of the Palestinians, but also of those Israelis who want their country to be an open society among the others in the world.
Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel
By Max Blumenthal
Nation Books, US