Category Archives: Autobiographical

To be Jewish and in support of Palestine

This blog is an extract from a draft of my autobiographical book about my life and Israel-Palestine. From 1995 – 2006 I lived in Nottingham, UK, where I taught at the University of Nottingham. I was active in the Nottingham Jewish Peace Campaign, from which developed a Muslim-Jewish dialogue group. Occasionally we were asked to provide speakers for events. A panel on ‘In Support of Palestine’ was organised in March 2005 by Sherwood for Global Justice and Peace. The other panel members were Caroline Lucas, then a member of the European Parliament for the Green Party, before becoming leader of that party and now its only MP. The other speaker was Hasan Patel from Friends of al-Aqsa, an organisation I knew little about, but neither I nor others in our group felt a need to check their credentials.

The text of my speech, which shows my adherence to a two-state solution at the time, included the following:

“What does it mean for a Jewish group, and in my case also an Israeli citizen, to be speaking in support of Palestine? It means above all that in spite of the conflict between two peoples over the same land, it is possible to support the best interests of the people of Israel while supporting the Palestinian people. It means that it is possible for the two peoples to make a historic compromise and share this small stretch of land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. It means that it is possible for the two peoples to live in peace. But it does not mean that compromise and getting to peace is easy.

To be Jewish and in support of Palestine means to be against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It means to believe in the self-determination of the Israeli people, and at the same time of the Palestinian people. It means that that the pull-out from Gaza and a few settlements in the northern West Bank can be only the first step, not a measure that can excuse the building of more new Jewish neighbourhoods to secure a ‘greater Jerusalem’. It means denying that the ideological Israeli settlers are today’s Zionist pioneers, denying that the removal of settlements is like the expulsion of Jews from Spain, and instead believing that the settlers are being returned home.

To be Jewish and in support of Palestine means recognising the enormous costs that the conflict has on both peoples. There is no need for altruism in acknowledging the costs born by the Palestinians, because there are so many costs for Israelis too. The huge military budget drains resources from social budgets, and compulsory military service weighs heavily on citizens, especially reserve duty, which has prompted hundreds of thousand of Israelis to leave the country. The conflict has also overshadowed ethnic relations within Israel. The children of Jewish immigrants to Israel from Arab countries grew up ashamed that their parents spoke the language of the enemy, losing the connection with the cultural heritage of their diaspora. Arab or Palestinian citizens of Israel feel they are treated as a fifth column, as second class citizens. The hatred that conflict brings has bred an endemic racism in Israel that shames the memory of the racism in Europe of which Jews were so recently victims. To be Jewish and in support of Palestine means not giving on the demand for security for Israel, but insisting that the only security that is meaningful is the security that comes with a just and lasting peace agreement.

To be Jewish and in support of Palestine means accepting that there are difficult choices ahead if peace is to be achieved. It means accepting that Israel does have responsibility for the flight of Palestinian refugees in 1948 and 1967, that the myths we were told about Israelis begging them to stay are precisely that, myths; that our great national leader Ben Gurion did order the expulsion of Palestinians from Lydda and Ramle during the 1948 war with a wave of his hand. It means acknowledging that the famous Zionist slogan from the early 20th century, ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’ did a great injustice to the Palestinians in order to find a solution for Jewish homelessness. But it also means that homes for Palestinian refugees cannot be made in Israel at the cost of a new wave of homelessness for those who live now where there were once Palestinian villages and neighbourhoods. To be Jewish and in support of Palestine means accepting that Jerusalem, the city that is holy to Judaism, Islam and Christianity does not belong to one people, that its sites and ruins, its alleys and highways must be shared.

To be Jewish and in support of Palestine means to resolve the conflict while acting according to teachings of the great Jewish Rabbi Hillel, who lived and taught in Jerusalem in the years before the temple was destroyed by the Romans. He said:

‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

               But if I am only for myself, who am I?

               And if not know, then when?’

He also summarised the whole Jewish teaching, the Torah, as: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour’. The Palestinians are our neighbours, so why do we do them what is hateful to us? It also means to understand the line from the Israeli national anthem, ‘To be a free people in our land’, means that we cannot be a free people in our land until the Palestinians are free in their land too. That’s what it means to be Jewish and in support of Palestine.”

‘The co-operative aristocracy of labour’: my break with Labour Zionist ideology

In my final undergraduate year (1981-82) I underwent another political shift in my thinking about Israel that was driven to some extent considerable by academic inquiry. But it was also a way of processing the deep connection I felt to my temporary family in Ashkelon the previous summer as a youth leader of the Habonim Israel camp. Included on the bibliography for the Middle East course I took that year was a section about Israeli society and politics which served me well as a basis for the undergraduate dissertation I wrote about ‘The Israeli General Election of 1981’. Next to the title of a book on the course bibliography, Sammy Smooha’s Israel: Pluralism and Conflict, I wrote ‘go all way thru’.[1] Only one page of notes survives in my archive, but in my dissertation I remarked that he gave ‘an excellent account’ of the inequality in Israel between Ashkenazi Jews (of European descent) and Mizrahi Jews (of North African and Asian descent).[2] The first chapter of my dissertation was a six page overview of Israel’s political sociology, as I understood it at the time.

Underlying my understanding was the thesis of Dan Horowitz and Moshe Lissak, whom I was to meet in later life, that early Israeli politics and institutions were, essentially, a continuation of the autonomous pre-state Yishuv (the Zionist community under British imperial rule until 1948).[3] I wrote: ‘Basically, there was a continuation of pre-state politics after 1948, in which nearly all the functions of the state had been performed by the Labour Zionists … At the top of the heap were the ‘collective aristocracy of the land’ and the ‘Co-operative aristocracy of labour’, that is, the kibbutzim, the Histadrut [trade union federation] and labour party functionaries’. The main victims in this society were the Oriental immigrants, who arrived after 1948, and the Arabs’.[4] For a while, the Mizrahim were clients of the patronage of Labour Zionist institutions, but that relationship was eroded among other things by David Ben Gurion’s strategy of ‘statism,’ the building up of state institutions independently of the political parties.

For a variety of reasons, including the failure to anticipate the October 1973 war, Labour Zionist dominance had ended in the elections of 1977, as Mizrahi political consciousness developed. Although I did not call it racism in my dissertation, I had learned enough to argue that inequality was experienced primarily along ethnic rather than class lines. The Ashkenazi establishment had appealed for Western immigrants, regarding the Mizrahim as ‘uniformly backward, though some were well educated and quite Westernized’. I noted Mizrahi ‘resentment of their previous treatment by Ashkenazim. They developed a dislike for former employers who claimed to be socialist but were scarcely distinguishable from the state or private employers. The murmuring began against the kibbutzim’. As a result, the Labour Party was stigmatized as an ‘Ashkenazic supremacist’ party, burdened with ‘the image of the haughty officials who deloused the Afro-Asian immigrants’.

The bitter and divisive 1981 election campaign was peppered with derogatory ethnic slurs, the most notorious insult coming from the entertainer Dudu Topaz at the final Labour rally in Tel Aviv, when he referred to the absent Likud hecklers as ‘chach-chachim’, to which Menachem Begin, leader of the right-wing Likud party which won the elections, responded with a call for Jewish brotherhood.


Quite why I was so taken with the injustice of the ethnic inequality between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim in Israel is unclear to me now. I was motivated enough to attend a day seminar of the Academic Study Group on Israel and the Middle East in London on December 6th 1981 about ‘The Ethnic Gap in Israel: Discrimination of Integration’. The presentations contributed to my impression that Mizrahim were motivated to vote against the Labour establishment and for Likud as the leading opposition to it. I learned that while some Mizrahim were doing quite well economically in small businesses, the progress of this new middle class (a social class I was familiar with from comparative study of the Middle East) was impeded by the better educated, more professionally oriented established middle class. The data about intermarriage between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim was not entirely clear but did not indicate that the ethnic cleavage would resolve itself in a generation or two. I also learned to distinguish between Mizrahim, noting that North Africans were doing less well than the Baghdadis and Persians, though that level of detail did not find its way into my dissertation.

Whatever my motivation, my new political understanding impacted my views on Habonim’s Labour Zionist ideology and prompted a little political storm. Our annual conference came just weeks after the academic seminar about Mizrahim, giving me the opportunity to speak out to everyone. I followed up with a two-page article in the December 1981 issue of Koleinu, the Habonim newsletter, following the conference. I complained that our movement lacked a workable ideology and ‘all we were treated to … over the last year … was the wheeling out of a sterile notion called Chalutziut [pioneering] on Kibbutz.’ I argues that aliyah [literally ‘ascension’, the Zionist term for emigration of Jews to Israel] could have moral value only if it was undertaken with moral purpose, both in opposition to the growing right-wing tendency in Israeli politics and in support of positive social action in broader Israeli society, such as narrowing the ‘social gap’. On the basis of my week’s experience in Ashqelon, I advocated going to live there and preparing ourselves for the reality of life there by spending part of our shnat hachsharah in the town.  The argument played out in the newsletter for a few more months, but I was unable to persuade my peers to switch course, as this cartoon in the newsletter shows.

[1] Sammy Smooha, Israel: Pluralism and Conflict (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978).

[2] In my dissertation I did not use the term Mizrahi, instead switching between Sefardi (Jews of Iberian descent), Orientals and Afro-Asians, even though I was aware of the different meanings of the terms.

[3] Dan Horowitz and Moshe Lissak, Origins of the Israeli. Polity: Palestine Under the Mandate (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. I did not cite this book in my dissertation but it appears on another bibliography I used and the thesis seems to have been absorbed by other sources I do cite.

[4] The quotations came from Dan Segre, ‘Israel, A Society in Transition’, World Politics, 21 (1968-69).