Let Them Rage: Why Anti-Zionists Should Be Allowed to Run

Haim Watzman If it weren’t the fact that the fracas at yesterday’s meeting of Israel’s Central Election Committee was theater rather than serious deliberation, I might be more upset about the decision to bar from contesting the coming election two of the three Arab slates represented in the current Knesset. Everyone there, both the right-wingers … Read more

An Arab Prime Minister for Israel?

Haim Watzman

In the wake of Barack Obama’s victory in the U.S., there have been a spate of op-eds and blog posts on whether an Arab could ever become prime minister of Israel. Some present it as a challenge to Zionism, at least as conventionally conceived, while others try to explain why such a thing could not, should not ever be. The latest installment is Daniel Gordis’s piece in The Jerusalem Post.

Gordis is correct in saying that an Arab majority in Israel would be the end of Israel as a Jewish state, and that an Arab majority in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, would reflect that loss of majority status. Zionism requires a Jewish majority–and not just a bare majority but a large one–for the state to be Jewish. This is the reasoning that means the two-state solution is the only way of preserving Israel as a Jewish state.

But while the election of an Arab to head Israel’s government, while improbable, is certainly not impossible,

Read more

Zionists of the World Unite! (Around Me)

Haim Watzman

Beware of Israelis who call for unity. More often than not, what they really mean is “everyone should unite around my political program.”

In yesterday’s Ha’aretz, Moshe Arens calls for unity with an invocation of American revolutionary rhetoric (”Divided We Fall”). Yet his bottom line is that unity means acceding to the agenda of Israel’s right-wing religious extremists.

Arens is a right-winger I like to disagree with. He writes well, argues cogently and logically, and sincerely believes both in Zionism and democracy. Like me, he grew up in the United States and absorbed the principles of liberal democracy. While he’s a territorial maximalist and a hawk to end all hawks, not to mention a talented political maneuverer in his Byzantine Likud party, he has devoted much effort to promoting minority rights in Israel, in particular serving an advocate for the Bedouin.

Read more

Those Filthy, Lying Minorities

Haim Watzman

    They evinced no concern for the cleanliness of the area they lived in.… [T]he streets [were] filthy and stank to the skies.…They were considered to be swindlers, prone to lying. “An Arab never speaks the truth, except by mistake,” said policemen who served in the area.

That’s a description of London’s Jewish neighborhood, the East End, in 1904. I’ve quoted from Anita Shapira’s Brenner: A Life, her fascinating new biography (in Hebrew) of Zionist literary lion Yosef Haim Brenner—except that I’ve replaced the word “Jew” with “Arab.”

Lack of concern for the cleanliness and esthetics of public spaces and untruthfulness are the most common negative traits attributed by Jews to Arabs in Israel. These stereotypes cross all social and political boundaries—I’ve heard them from working-class Israelis in impoverished neighborhoods and from professors at universities, from religious champions of Greater Israel and from peace activists. When I’ve dared to suggest that these characteristics might not be inherent in the Arab character, I am generally silenced with what they see as the irrefutable argument: “You don’t know the Arabs the way I know the Arabs.”

Read more

Arabs at the Counter

Go into a trendy clothing store, sports outlet, or home improvement warehouse emporium in Israel these days and, as often as not, it’ll be an Arab who helps you find just the right jeans, running shorts, or the doohickey you need to fix your leaky faucet. In today’s Ha’aretz, Ruth Sinai documents this social phenomenon and asks whether service jobs like this represent progress for Israel’s Arab citizens, or just another way to get exploited.

I won’t weigh in on the economic benefits or lack thereof, but this trend is certainly a step forward for ethnic integration in Israel. Historically, Israel’s Palestinian citizens have worked in agriculture, construction, and behind-the-scenes service jobs like washing dishes in restaurants. In such jobs they were largely invisible, and where visible their jobs marked them as unskilled, alien, and quite often physically dirty.

Compare that to the fashionably-dressed, tastefully made-up, and high-spirited young woman who has become my favorite sales clerk at my local Golf clothing store. I’m not exactly a walking display of the latest fashions-I don’t have a native instinct for choosing the threads that look best on me. Not to mention, I quite detest going to clothing stores by myself. There is something about a store, especially if they are blaring loud music, that makes me want to just turn around and leave. Why can’t they just buy quality sound systems from Cloud Cover Music or similar companies and keep the experience enjoyable? The music playing in a store can have a major impact on how long the customers spend inside. Loud and aggressive music can drive people out at an alarming rate, while ambient and soothing music can have the opposite effect. Also, most stores have dismal customer service and for someone who cannot pick their clothes on their own, I need the advice and encouragement of a patient and sympathetic attendant. The process involves conversation and interaction with a very visible member of my country’s minority.

Read more

Purely Wrong: Judah Leib Magnes and the Jewish State

According to a legend, the sage Rabbi Shimon bar-Yohai and his son spent twelve years hiding in a cave and delving into the esoteric truths of the Torah. When they emerged, Rabbi Shimon was so immersed in divine truth that he raged when he saw Jews plowing their fields. His anger was so fierce that his mere glance burned up every working man he saw. God ordered him back to the cave.

The publication of the diary of Judah Leib Magnes, the leading Jewish pacifist and peace activist in Palestine in the years leading up to Israel’s War of Independence, offers an opportunity to consider another man whose attempt to adhere to absolute truth and purity led him to misunderstand entirely the world around him.

Read more

Good Arabs, Bad Arabs

It’s such a pain when reality proves to be too complex to fit our favorite theories. A new book, Hillel Cohen’s Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948 (University of California Press 2008), shows how varied the Palestinian Arab response to Zionism was, by investigating those Arabs who chose to collaborate with the Jews. As he demonstrates, the negative connotations we attach to the label “collaborator” can be misleading.

(I translated this book into English. I have not discussed these issues with Cohen and the view I offer here is mine alone.)

Read more