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Saturday, 16 February 2013

Who the Unchosen?


 It has become apparent that Ethiopian Jews have been subjected to birth-control injections without their knowledge or consent in Israel. This is yet another revelation in issues and events in Israel that can only be summarised as a race problem. It's a real shock for a lot of people, and for others it's something to be brushed under the carpet. Israel's race problem is a necessary part of its national project, just as it was with the US - another state founded upon a great crime - where racism was a part of the state's order.

 It was just last year that Israel found itself shook by race riots in South Tel Aviv, with several African immigrants left injured. The Likudnik Miri Regev was quick on the scene, can of kerosene in hand, ever eager to put out the flames of racism. In her shrill populism Regev characterised the black refugees fleeing from genocide in Sudan as 'a cancer in our body'. She went on to stand by the comment, only apologising for the offence it may have caused to Jews reminded of the putrid effluvia of National Socialism. It's noteworthy that Regev thought it sufficient to apologise to Jews and, indeed, cancer patients who might be offended, but not to one black person in Israel. Race-baiting is a classic vote winner in times of economic instability. Nationalists are often so degenerate as to believe that as the ground shakes beneath you only flag-wagging will save the day. For nationalist politicians it certainly will save their salaries for many terms to come and this is especially useful in a country prone to coalition government. It's an endless well to tap into in a country where the buzzwords of discourse are 'national security' and 'self-defence'.

 That same year Bibi Netanyahu speculated that illegal immigration from Africa would "threaten our existence as a Jewish and democratic state". The calculating statesman chose his words carefully, it's a question of majoritarian definition that Israel remain Jewish in its demographics. The real trouble is the debate over what constitutes Jewishness and the dangers of racialising the definition can't be overstated. Yet Mr Netanyahu's ilk fear not such dangers, for his lot the Jews are white and Israel is an outpost of the Western world surrounded by dusky barbarians. Then there is the matter of whether Israel ought to be a Jewish state or a state for Jews. A subtle distinction never fully clarified in Zionist circles before 1947. If it's a state for Jews then it doesn't have to be a majority Jewish state, nor does it have to be run in accordance with religious law and the question of what constitutes Jewishness can be left aside. These problems are nothing new, they are fundamental questions of Zionism.

 So we find the race problem is entangled, not by coincidence, with Israel's origins, the need for a young country to define itself in terms of its identity, culture and values. To some this would seem a simple task, merely a matter of what aspects of Judaism to leave on the shelf. Actually it's incredibly complex given the lack of homogeneity in Judaism, the plethora of languages and cultures that Jews have picked up on over the millennia. The way this has been handled inside Israel is particularly important for analysts and commentators. The Ashkenazim enjoyed privileges and rights above those of the Mizrahi for a long time. Even as the Israeli elite are for a peaceful solution, the much more economically deprived and zealous citizens (e.g. the Mizrahi, the refuseniks, the kibbutzniks) are far more hawkish. To add to this mix the ruling-class has been busily eroding the civic institutions and welfare state of Israel in recent decades. The country was founded as a quasi-socialist and almost egalitarian (among Jews) arrangement, since then it has mutated into a country where 18 families control 60% of corporate equity.

 In a country as divided and dysfunctional as Israel there is a serious need for a means of mobilisation at elections. The dual role of racism is firstly the continuation of the occupation and maintain an electoral base for this status quo. It's inseparable from the conflict, and only a peaceful settlement may secure Israel and perhaps cure it of prejudice. That's one view of it. And it's easy to take it, recall the words of Moshe Dayan just after the conquests of 1967 when he said that the Palestinians will "continue to live like dogs, and whoever wishes may leave, and we will see where this process leads". So far that process has been a steady expansionism at the expense of the security of Israelis and the rights of Palestinians. The moments where this state of permanent crisis eventuates in bloodbaths do not rupture peace and harmony. There is no peace, whether Hamas fires rockets or not. The construction of the annexation wall around most arable land in the West Bank is incremental. Yet the demographic question will not be resolved by this expansion, far from it.

 The expansion into the West Bank with the annexation wall, which is longer than the Berlin Wall, is conveniently encircling the major arable land and resources of the area. This irredentism comes straight out of the same spawn-pool as nationalism and racism. The tendency of national discourse towards the völkisch should not be swept under the carpet where it will only fester in its own self-satisfying vulgarity. The prospect of a völk defined by 'chosenness' should not go unchallenged. The brilliant Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt had her reservations about the prospect of a Jewish state carved out of the body of colonial Palestine. The worst of all possible models was the European one, she thought, which rested upon a racial conception of the nation-state. This same model had proven successful in the are of pogroms, not forgetting slavery and other assorted atrocities. The preferable model would guarantee equal rights and recognition as citizens for Palestinians and Jews alike.

 This was a one-state proposal that preceded the coming decades of violence necessary to found a state. Arendt was prescient in her anxieties, she foresaw that the Jewish state would reside in permanent agitation with its Arab neighbours. The Jews would have to live in a precarious position surrounded by a hostile set of states and secluded inside ever-threatened borders. It's what drives Naftali Bennet's shameful calls for an outright annexation of 30% of the West Bank (presumably out of the 60% that Israel already has in settlements illegally). But you don't even need to look to Naftali Bennet for blunt-faced expansionism. It's an effective policy of the sitting Prime Minister and the barely restrained Russian thug at his far-right side. The precise end point of Israel's borders remains somewhat mysterious for those told to affirm the state's right to exist. There are neo-Zionist elements who would like to expand all the way along the river and ultimately absorbing Jordan.

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