Philip Weiss on March 13, 2014 148
Shira Robinson has an important new book out called Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State that lays out the foundations of second-class status for Palestinians inside Israel. (A few weeks back we posted the introduction.) An associate professor of history at the George Washington University, Robinson demonstrates how a series of events– Israel’s Law of Return, in 1950; its citizenship law, passed in 1952; and its military campaign against Palestinian refugees who were trying to return to their homes– enshrined a weak definition of citizenship for Palestinians that was lesser to Jewish citizenship, because of Jewish “nationality.” This double standard continues to this day, Robinson explains. Lately Phil Weiss interviewed Robinson about her book by phone. She then revised the transcript by email.
Q. You use the words ethnic cleansing about 1948. What’s the status of that view among historians?
The short answer is during the first three months of the fighting, which began in December 1947, more Palestinians fled from the areas conquered by the Haganah than were expelled, and that from March, and especially April 1948, on, expulsions became more and more systematic. To this you have to add that the majority of Palestinians who did flee, particularly starting in the Spring of 1948, did so at the encouragement of Jewish forces—whether direct encouragement, in the form of whispering campaigns, leaflets being dropped, rumors being spread, or indirect encouragement, such as fear that things that Jewish forces had done in other places might happen in their own communities.
Historians no longer disagree on this point. The question that remains for a small group of scholars was whether what happened was the result of a master plan—something mapped out in detail months in advance—or whether it was the result of decades of thinking on the part of the Zionist leadership and realizing that there was no way to square the circle and have a large Arab population within a Jewish state, as well as military preparations for a confrontation with that population. Just a few weeks before the UN Partition Resolution was announced in late November 1947, Jewish Agency Chair David Ben Gurion told a small group of colleagues that it would be better to expel the Arab population that lived in the area predicted to be slated for independence rather than imprison them, since the government would eventually have to let them out and grant them citizenship. So it’s a debate over whether to look for a smoking gun, which – proclamations aside – I still don’t think we have, or to accept that virtually all political, military, social, and ideological roads converged to produce this outcome.
Q. Where do you come down?
I try to come down on it in a very careful way. I had a lot of people read those two or three pages of the book who have thought and read a lot about the war, including scholars and graduate students who care very deeply about getting this story right. The language that I use in my book is that Plan D, which was finalized in April 1948, amounted to an expulsion blueprint. But I also don’t think it’s necessary to talk about a master plan, given what we know happened afterward. So I sort of am trying to say, I don’t think the debate over the master plan is particularly interesting, because as a historian there’s a whole lot of reasons why this happened and why the opposite or a different result did not happen, and that’s enough for me.
Robinson jacketQ. You quote a line about Dayr Yasin from Ben Gurion– If we didn’t have Dayr Yasin, we would be a minority in this country. For me that’s a smoking gun.
To be fair, in the next line of that passage from the Knesset transcript — which I don’t quote — he says of course the Haganah didn’t carry out Dayr Yasin, that was the Irgun and the Stern Gang [two more radical militias that split from the Haganah in the years prior to the war], not us. I don’t quote it for two reasons. One, Ben Gurion’s attempt to distance himself from the massacre is undermined by evidence that the Haganah approved of the attack on the village in advance. Two, which is more important, he is still acknowledging the way in which the Jewish public profited profoundly from the massacre. And in that sense you can say he’s directly or indirectly endorsing the results of it.
Q. To me, in the end, the discussion is not that interesting.
Well, it’s very important to Palestinians whose actual lived experiences have been denied, and it’s important to get the story right to the best of our ability. But looking back, structurally and historically, there’s a lot more to say about what happens afterwards. So it shouldn’t be and really no longer is the main point. I will tell you this, though: I have a friend from graduate school who teaches in a university in Brazil. Just two days ago she was asked to translate for Benny Morris during a lecture he gave at her university, and he was apparently going on about how Ilan Pappe and Tom Segev are political activists, not historians, that “the Arabs” have no documentation on the 1948 war, and that their oral accounts have no value. So for a very small number of scholars, this debate does still matter, but in the scheme of things I would argue that it’s no longer the primary question. There are plenty of decisions that Israel made after the war where we can see its intentions quite clearly.
Q. Right. If they all fled, and you didn’t let them come back, what’s the difference?
The point is there was some of this and some of that. Some of them fled, and many more were kicked out.
Q. You say that Israel said, “We’re going to let 100,000 back in order to satisfy the UN.” What’s that about?
That was about Israel trying to seal the deal on the bilateral armistice agreements with its neighbors and get Israel’s application to be admitted to the United Nations. The vote was coming up in May of 1949, the promise was made a few months before. And it was made explicitly to placate the international community, including the Americans, who were actually pressing somewhat seriously for the return of a significant number of refugees. The Israelis had already had their first application for membership denied in part because of Israel’s refusal to allow the refugees to come home, and also for other reasons, like the state’s refusal to define its borders.
So Moshe Shertok, the foreign minister, who later Hebraicized his name to Sharett, was basically trying to do anything that he could, make as many promises as he could, to get Israel admitted to the UN, to annex from Jordan the narrow sliver of land known as the Little Triangle, and to seal the deal of territorial advances that Israel had made during the war beyond the land it was allocated by the UN in 1947, including the Galilee and the Negev. There’s evidence that he knew that that was a disingenuous promise from the start, because it was going to have to be approved by the Knesset. He knew the Knesset would not approve it, but he said it knowing that he would never have to really be held accountable for it.
Q. It never happened.
It never happened, of course.
Q. “We begged them to stay.” Who said that?
Various government officials and agencies made this claim. The person most often quoted as saying this is Golda Meir. If I remember correctly, she claimed in her autobiography that she begged the Arabs of Haifa to stay. But that’s got to be the most disingenuous thing I’ve ever heard, because there was a clear and targeted Haganah artillery campaign from the top of the Carmel Mountain to get the people in the lower part of the city, which was where most Palestinians lived at the time, to get them to flee toward the sea. That has been well documented, so her claim that we begged them to stay was just insulting.
Q. You say that had the Palestinian refugees returned, all but 1/400th of the land reserved for Jewish immigrants would have been lost.
Remember that before 1948 Zionist land agencies and private Jewish landholders owned less than 6 percent of the territory in Palestine. In the early years of statehood, the Knesset passed two critical laws that made permanent the military and the state’s seizure of Palestinian lands since the start of the war—the first targeted the land of Palestinian refugees outside the country, the second targeted the land of Palestinian citizens still in the country. I rely on the work of other scholars who have documented this process and revealed some stark findings. To take just two, 350 out of 370 new settlements created between 1948 and 1953 were established on Palestinian-owned land, and by 1954, one third of Israel’s Jewish population, including veteran settlers present before the war, lived or worked on Arab “absentee” property.
Q. What is the War on Return?
The War on Return is my appellation for Ben-Gurion’s officially named War on Infiltration, which was both a military and bureaucratic campaign to prevent the return of Palestinian refugees. And the reason that it came about is that, starting in the summer of 1948, thousands of refugees each month were crossing back into the new state to return to their homes, and Israel had no legal infrastructure for determining who was legally resident in the state and who was not. And it needed one. Because in fact the vast majority of Palestinians had attained Palestinian citizenship thanks to a British Mandatory order issued in 1925. The Israeli government, which was headed by Ben-Gurion, who was both prime minister and defense minister, decided to work on two fronts: the borders, physically trying to seal them, which was successful in the sense that thousands of Palestinians were killed and otherwise prevented from coming in, but which also failed in that thousands of Palestinians managed to get in and would later obtain retroactive status. So he tried to seal the borders and did so in the absence of a citizenship law, whose passage he delayed in order to limit the number of Palestinians who got permanent residency and political status in Israel. This is how the War on Return also became a bureaucratic campaign to freeze the status of all Palestinians in Israel after the war—both those who managed to remain, and those who managed to return.
Q. Tell me about the Law of Return in 1950.
The story is that on the one hand, Ben-Gurion’s War on Infiltration–which I call the War on Return to shift our perspective from the state to the Palestinians—the War on Return was basically failing to address certain major legal and bureaucratic inconsistencies and loopholes in Israeli policy. Without a citizenship law, for example, Israelis going on personal or business trips around the world were getting turned away from visa offices and at foreign airports, because they didn’t have bona fide passports, which the government could not issue without a citizenship law. The government also couldn’t sign certain commercial treaties. But more importantly, more and more Palestinians were coming back and saying, “I have a right to stay, here’s my British Palestinian passport, thank you very much. You have no legal basis on which to exclude me, and if you deport me, I’ll risk my life to return again.” The legal question had been brewing for some time already. Soon after the UN Partition Resolution was announced in November 1947, the Yishuv began preparing for Britain’s withdrawal, and began to think, OK, in order to comply with the demands of the resolution, we need to set up a democratic constituent assembly that will enact a constitution that guarantees, among other things, equal citizenship for all residents, the protection of private property, etc. They started to think about what a citizenship law would look like. And from then until late 1949 Ben-Gurion rejected 18 drafts of the citizenship bill, because none of them could reconcile the contradiction between Jewish privilege and universal democracy, or a system of one person, one vote. At one point he had three different parliamentary committees working on the bill, and none could give him a version he liked.
It wasn’t until late 1949, when one Knesset member said, “I have a new idea, we’ll resolve the status of Jews in the country before we resolve the status of Arabs.” In other words, we’ll create a law that establishes a legal status that is outside and above that of citizenship. We’ll call it–the Law of Return to Zion, the Charter of Rights Guaranteed to Every Jew in Israel. It had different names at first. The idea was, Jews in the country now and anywhere in the world would forever have rights of preference to the state.
And then we can have a more neutral sounding, seemingly universal citizenship law, which makes no explicit reference to Arabs or Jews, and whose contents would be legally superseded by the contents of the Law of Return.
And Ben-Gurion said, “We got it, that’s it.”
The government mistranslated the English name of the Citizenship Law as the Nationality Law, but I would argue that Israel’s actual nationality law is the Law of Return.
Q. You say the truce lines were killing fields? 1000 people died.
Actually between 2700 and 5000 people eventually died up through 1956. That’s what Benny Morris says, so that’s an easy quote to cite. He also says that 1000 or more were killed in 1949 alone. What happened is, as part of Ben Gurion’s War on Infiltration, which was launched in early January 1949, just in advance of the first parliamentary election, Ben-Gurion was in a position where Israel had already been denied its first bid for membership in the UN. It had been denied in December. He said, I’ve got to look like I’m giving rights to Palestinians. But there are too many of them here, and I don’t want them all to be able to vote, so I’m going to give people the right to vote, but I’m also going to work to reduce the size of the population at the same time. And this was the War on Infiltration. As part of that campaign, he authorized the army to establish what were called free-fire zones along the border. And that just meant that you could shoot to kill anyone you saw moving across the border, that you suspected was moving in the area without permission. So within the first year of the policy, at least 1000 Palestinians were killed, the majority of whom were civilians.
Q. Here’s the crux of your book. You say that over the seven decades of Israeli existence, its definition of citizenship has been very weak. And that all comes out of these two laws, the Law of Return and the Citizenship Law. It’s intentional, they had this UN constraint, so they had to give these people some rights, citizenship, but they didn’t want to give them full rights. Am I reading you right?
They didn’t want to share political power with them; they didn’t want to share political power with the Arab population because that population might then use the power of their political vote to undo Jewish privilege, like end military rule, which prevented Palestinians from accessing their lands, finding work, changing their residence, or leaving their villages for any reason without a permit—all to facilitate Jewish settlement on Arab land with as little resistance as possible. The government’s thinking on this point was pretty straightforward, but implementing this policy wasn’t as seamless as it hoped. One reason for this was the racial geography of the map after 1948,which left the majority of Palestinians living in areas that had been very sparsely populated by Jews before the war. For example, over 60 percent of the Palestinian population after 1948 lived in the Galilee; and the Galilee had been designated by the UN to be part of the independent Palestinian state. Ben-Gurion and Israeli officials close to him were genuinely concerned that there was a conflict between the ongoing aspirations of Palestinians in the Galilee for self-determination, and the fact that there were almost no Jews in the Galilee to quickly change the facts on the ground and trump that demand. In other words, the overwhelming majority in the Galilee was Arab. So why shouldn’t they have a majority rule? That was the UN’s determination in 1947, and that seemed to be the way the world was going. So Israel was increasingly desperate, especially as it saw the return of even more Palestinians after the war. It was very concerned to put a stop to the further resettlement and repatriation of Palestinians who would only bolster the claim that their right to self-determination was legitimate.
Q. These were concerns with respect to the 1949 armistice lines? Concerns with respect to the Galilee, that, hey, the UN said this was Arab, it’s almost all Arab, so why should that fall within the Green Line?
The Green Line is a term that emerged after 1967. But to answer the question, you had Palestinians outside of Israel and also activists inside Israel, saying, hey, this is part of the Palestinian state to be, you can’t stay here. And Nasser, of all people, endorsed partition in 1955 at the Bandung conference [of Asian and African states] in Indonesia. Nasser was seen as Israel’s number one enemy in the Arab world. But actually he took a fairly moderate position at Bandung, or he ended up having to accept a moderate position, that said, “Alright, I’m not going to demand the dismantlement of the Jewish state but I do reject Israel’s annexation of the Galilee, which was promised to the Arab state under the UN Partition Plan.” So the issue of the ‘49 armistice borders for Palestinians and their supporters outside never went away.
Q. But now we say the issue of the ‘67 borders never went away!
In those early years after the ’48 war, everything was still uncertain. And the decisions that were made would have a big impact. [Robinson mentions Israeli Communist Party conferences at which Palestinians pushed back on these borders.] That issue would come up again and again at Communist Party conferences, whose debates and resolutions the Shin Bet [internal security service] was very attuned to. Every few years the Palestinian leadership of the party pushed back, saying, “We have the right to self determination. The armistice lines are not legitimate borders. Israel hasn’t declared its actual borders. So the annexation of the Galilee, especially, is still up for grabs.” This scared Israeli officials, especially as you had the movement for decolonization getting under way in the mid-to-late 1950s.
Q. You say that Israel severed the state-nation link. What does that mean?
So you have a passport, and I have a passport. Your American passport reads nationality, United States of America. If you were French, it would read Nationality: France. If you have an Israeli passport, like I do because I was born in Israel, your passport reads, Citizenship: Israel. The word “nationality” doesn’t appear, and that’s because there is no universal nationality in Israel. Instead, nationality is divided between Jews, Arabs, Druze, and some 130 more obscure options, like Romanians. There have been sporadic demands since the late 1950s to create a singular nationality, but the High Court has always nixed them because this would undermine the power of the Law of Return, which effectively created Jews as the only nationals of the country. Jews who live here or may want to come here–they have the right to the state. Those rights have precedence over any other status that they might attain later, i.e., citizenship. That last line is my riff on the law, it’s not something that it said explicitly. But the 1952 Citizenship Law says, the very first part of it says, This law applies to those who are not already tied to the state by means of the Law of Return. i.e., it applies only to non-Jews.
Just last week, the Israeli government stated that Christians would have separate representation from Muslims on the national employment commission. This announcement is actually part of a broader effort, first reported last fall, to try to establish a “Christian nationality” within the state. The only reason that makes sense is that there is no such thing as an Israeli nationality. Israelis have passports for outside and identity cards that they are required to carry inside. On your ID, it’s not your citizenship but your nationality that appears. A few years ago, the government replaced your designated nationality (Jewish, Arab, Druze) with a line of asterisks—not as a move toward civil equality but because of a fight with the rabbinate over who was a Jew. Those non-Jewish nationalities were created precisely to divide the indigenous Palestinian population, to prevent them from organizing a unified political front to demand an end to Jewish privilege.
Q. When I read your book, I was very moved by the depth of the scholarship, the horror of it, the precision of it, the moral impulse under it. These are great things in your book. My memory in reading your book, is that this is the DNA of Israel, these two laws. My feeling was, this is when the die was cast. It could have been cast in a different direction?
It could have been, but it’s not surprising that it wasn’t. First of all: this is the DNA of Israel. And there’s a quote in my book from Moshe Sharett, who rejoices over what he calls the “wholesale evacuation” of the majority of Palestinians from Israeli territory as an event “more spectacular than the establishment of the Jewish state.” Of course he absolves himself of any responsibility for their departure, but the important point here is the possibilities it created. And to understand what’s going on in Israel today, we have to return to the DNA of the state, which rests on the decision to bar the repatriation of Palestinians. Whether more fled or were expelled ultimately matters less than the government’s decision not to allow them to return.
Because that made possible the absorption of new immigrants, the ability to claim land owned by Palestinians and refugees alike, for public use, for Jewish national development, industrialization, etc. All of that is very critical. The reason it matters is not because I want to get on my moral high horse, or to try to get you to buy my book. It matters because when someone like Peter Beinart gets up and urges that liberal Zionists need to boycott products made in the West Bank (but not pre-1967 Israel), and Yossi Sarid warns that a boycott of settlement products is the only thing that will “remove the gangrene and save Israel’s healthy tissue,” it is misleading. There’s this fantasy that Israel before ‘67 was a kinder, gentler state, that the period before ‘67 was the golden age of the state’s democracy. And if we could only go back to that era, Jews in Israel would enjoy a normal existence and live in peace with their neighbors.
My book is full of evidence of ethical injustices that were committed against Palestinians during these years, but the key analytical point is that the structural contradictions that are at the foundation of the state will continue to haunt the state and all of its citizens until they’re resolved.
Peter Beinart’s most recent piece in Haaretz defended himself and other liberal Zionist supporters of a West Bank boycott against charges of naiveté by saying that most Palestinians are pragmatic (meaning, they will accept the two-state solution), and that failing to prop up the pragmatists will only encourage Palestinian maximalism. He goes on to say that even though all Palestinians see political Zionism as a moral evil giving Jews special privileges in the state, they will get over it once they have a state of their own. Who is he to say that they’ll get over it? They’re not getting over it now! Palestinian citizens are demanding their rights more and more assertively and militantly. They’re getting more and more organized, they’re getting more and more vocal, making more and more of a difference, and they’re connecting their own struggle to the [broader] struggle of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and the diaspora.
That problem won’t go away because labor Zionists or liberal Zionists hope it will.
Q. If we’re on this pragmatic political ground, the issue arises, is it possible that you could get the Palestinians of the West Bank to accept a 2 state solution, selling out the refugees in order to get some kind of sovereignty. Isn’t that what the two state solution is about?
It is what the two-state solution is about, though Gaza has to be included. I don’t follow political trends in the West Bank and Gaza as carefully as others, but I will say that even though a majority of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories accept the basic premise of a two-state solution, and even if Israel were to suddenly agree to remove every last settlement and give up its control of the water, electric grid, and borders with Jordan and Egypt, that would not undo or resolve or make go away the contradictions of Israel within its ‘49 borders or address the demand of Palestinian refugees to return. Those contradictions would remain. The demographic realities of the country and the trends, the forecasts, remain.
Through much of the 1950s Israel was able to get away with creating what I call a liberal settler state, because of the specific time period where it was born, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and when most countries in Asia and Africa were still under foreign rule. That gig started to unravel, that comfort zone started to unravel within years of Israel’s creation, particularly in the late ‘50s, after the Algerian revolution started, Tunisia and Morocco gained independence, and the US civil rights movement and the struggle against Apartheid gained strength. There were also revolutions over the border to get rid of some of the Arab world’s western-allied autocrats. So there were a lot of factors that challenged the system that had been relatively easy for Israel to set up in the beginning.
And it wasn’t only external factors. As Palestinians became more acclimated to Hebrew, more of them pushed their way into the university system, more of them were educated abroad, there were more lawyers, they got savvier about working within the system. Now the movement for equality inside Israel is more powerful than ever.
Q. You say that Israel has a very unstable definition of citizenship.
It’s very unstable. Just today there was an article in Haaretz about a Palestinian Christian woman who teaches tourism at a Jewish high school. She was with her students in Eilat, and she was humiliated and taken aside and strip-searched at the airport before going back on the plane with her students to the north. The point is that Israel is trying desperately to break Palestinian resistance to Jewish privilege. And the most recent trick up its sleeve is an old one: to try to create a new nationality, to separate Christians from Muslims. But at the end of the day Israel will still treat them as Palestinian, as non-Jews. They will still be considered suspect. And that contradiction will not go away. It will not go away because the state rests on privileging one group at the expense of another. It’s very simple, actually.
Q. Tell me about your mother, the comment in the preface, “she struggled to understand some of my conclusions about the past and future of Israel/Palestine.” Can you elaborate? Or is that private?
It’s not private. I put it in there!
Q. But these issues are very personal.
Very personal! I don’t know if this will be interesting, but I’ll give you a brief synopsis of my background. My parents are both Americans, born and raised in the New York area. My mother’s mother, however, and her whole family, was from Ottoman Palestine. And after World War I, there was a famine, and unemployment and they left. They were members of a longstanding Jewish community in Jerusalem, going back to the early 19th century–Hungarian and Romanian immigrants, they came to live and die in the holy land. They were Ottoman Palestinian Jews. My grandmother came over, along with her brothers and sisters, after the war. She was deemed a rebel in the family, because she became a Zionist before it was fashionable. She married my grandfather, my mother’s father, who was born in Canada and immigrated to America, after they met at a Poalei Zion[Labor Zionist movement] office. My mother grew up in New York City, she actually was born on a Zionist training farm in New Jersey, and she grew up loving the idea of Israel because of her mother. She visited when she was a teenager, and afterward. Long story short–my mother grew up a strong liberal Zionist. My mother met my father on a bus, they were both good Jewish liberals in New York City, and she was a Zionist, whatever that meant at the time to her, and he was a socialist, and they moved to a kibbutz. They eventually hated it, but not before I was born in 1972, and they left just before the war in October 1973. My mother hated the fact that I was confined to the baby house on the kibbutz. My father hated the politics. They were both unstimulated intellectually, and they left. They felt it was a parochial society and they didn’t have any interest in that. This was on Kibbutz Kabri– which I only learned was named after a nearby depopulated Palestinian village when I was in college.
Despite the fact that my parents didn’t want to stay on the kibbutz, and I moved back with them when I was 11 months old, I grew up in a very strong liberal Zionist family. They sent me to a Labor Zionist summer camp. I was very active in the movement. I spent a year between high school and college on a kibbutz in the Negev and witnessed the racism that emerged during the 1991 Gulf War. I was there with my gas mask, and hearing accusations that all the Palestinians wanted all the Jews to die and were dancing on the rooftops. And meanwhile, my mother was sending me clippings from the Washington Jewish Week that Palestinians weren’t getting their gas masks at all, that this was a shande, a scandal. I went to the University of Michigan. I became very politically involved there. In the course of two years I went from being the chair of the Progressive Zionist Caucus to the chair of the Palestine Solidarity Committee. And I had some very explicit and concrete moments of realization that transformed my politics.
Q. What did you major in at U of Michigan?
Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Then I finished college in 1995 and worked for two years at Human Rights Watch, in the Middle East division, in DC. Then I went to Stanford for graduate school.
Q. And studied?
Middle Eastern History. I worked with Joel Beinin, who is a known historian of Israel/Palestine, among other things. He also grew up in a Labor Zionist youth movement, though his was somewhat to the left of mine.
Q. Why did you write this book?
I went to graduate school in the mid to late 1990s, when post-colonial studies were at a peak of sorts. I was in a reading group about the cultures of imperialism. And I knew that Israel had imposed military rule on the Palestinians who remained in the state, and had intentionally absorbed all these British military regulations that had been formulated over the previous decades to fight anti-colonial rebellions throughout the empire. But Israel was completely absent from discussions of empire, especially pre-‘67 Israel. The more reading I did, the more confusing and odd this seemed to me. So, I started to dig deeper.
It wasn’t until I turned in my dissertation that I encountered substantial–substantial resistance from two of my three committee members at Stanford. They effectively disowned me after I turned in my dissertation. One, who is a specialist of European imperial history, said to me “I don’t know what this quote unquote colonial thing is that you’re talking about.” He couldn’t deal with me. The other person, a Europeanist, said, parts of this dissertation are brilliant—particularly the material you have on citizenship—but I simply can’t deal with it. Unlike Joel, who remains a fierce ally to this day, these two refused to support my work after I graduated. They wanted nothing to do with it. It’s possible that they would feel differently now, I don’t know.
Q. It hurts my heart. It’s horrible. Unless you became a great scholar in the last few years, I assume you were a good student.
I was a fine student. But the dissertation was actually less hard-hitting than the book, and I realized in the course of my discussions with these advisers that I needed to be even more explicit about what I was talking about, both in terms of colonialism and in terms of liberalism. And I needed to situate what I was doing in a broader historiographic, and historical framework, talking about where Israel’s birth and its policies fit into the global moment. So that experience actually propelled me forward. Another confrontation I had that inspired the book took place at one of my first job interviews at a university in the Midwest. The chair of the search committee, who was a historian of European Jewry, sat me down in his office and said, “Can we just get over this a settler colonial thing? When do we get to recognize that Jews are no longer settlers? When do they get to be normal citizens?”
I really took that to heart. I realized that the book needed to show that Israeli Jews are still settlers. So that’s why I am very explicit in the introduction about, very very explicit—that Jews are still positioned structurally in Israel as settlers even though they’ve been born there now for several decades as a majority population. That their status as settlers hasn’t gone away because they are now “native.”
Q. Camus’s family on his mother’s side I think went back four generations in Algeria before they had to leave. Derrida’s family went back too.
What I’m saying is that what matters for settler populations is less how long your family has been there and more the privileges you continue to have in that society. In other words, if the same privileges you enjoy today come from your community’s historical status as a minority settler community, then structurally you’re still positioned as a settler.
Q. This issue arose during that job interview, does it still arise? Or has it gone away?
It has enormous implications. When people hear the term settler colonialism, the first thing they think of is Algeria; the second thing they think of is, if they’re informed and engaged, is South Africa. In the first case the settlers left, and it was violent and traumatic for everyone involved. In the second case, some of the white population left but the legacy of Apartheid is deep. And it came after enormous violence and bloodshed, and a huge movement that emerged from a particular set of circumstances that are not entirely replicated in Israel. Above all, Jews were the majority after 1948, not the minority, as whites were in South Africa.
Once you use the term settler a lot of people freak out, because of the implications: If a., then b.; if the Jews are settlers, where are they supposed to go? So my point, I’m not a political scientist or a politician or a pundit, but my personal position is that it would be a huge step forward if Israel undid the status of Jews as settlers and Palestinians as a disadvantaged indigenous population, if you actually created a one-person, one-vote system, in which there were no privileges accorded to one group over another…
Of course there are still all kinds of questions to address. What do you do with land previously owned by a Palestinian family that’s already been settled? But you could start off by saying the Law of Return is over, let’s write a new Citizenship Law and create a single nationality. Let’s draft a constitution after all these years, a process that was buried in the early 1950s precisely to keep Palestinians from having equal rights to Jews.
Q. So if you left Europe to escape the Holocaust, landed in Palestine, your grandchild could still be a settler.
That’s my point. This is a structural rather than a voluntary deal.
Q. You dedicated this book to your mom, who passed away 10 years ago.
My mom was very proud of me, but she struggled with some of the stuff I brought home to her. When I told her there could be no Jewish and democratic state, that that was an oxymoron, it was like I was insulting her mother. She also genuinely believed in that idea. For her, it was one thing to be a critic of the occupation, that was moral and just and righteous. But it was hard to wrap her head around the fact that there could be no Jewish democracy. That was too painful for her emotionally.
It was precisely the contradiction between the values of justice and fairness that my parents instilled in me, and the reality of the pre-1967 period as I researched it, that led me to write the book that I did. In some ways, I worked even harder in the book than the dissertation to convince people like my mom—honest and well-intentioned liberal Jews—that their assumptions about the possibility of a Jewish democracy have always rested on wishful thinking—thinking that, because of its ideological power, has been devastating to another people.