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Searching for the other Israel

A recent article by Israeli journalist Gideon Levy has become somewhat of an internet phenomenon. Since its publication, there are those who believe Levy's works to be a conspiracy or a hoax and others who consider it to be as dangerous as placing poison in honey because it seeks to whitewash Israeli journalism. There are also those who have gone so far as to make comparisons between Israel and the Syrian regime, as they consider the latter to be "our" kin or a member of "our" tribe.

Levy is among Israel's best known writers, especially for his criticism of the government and his advocacy of Palestinian rights; he is not alone among Israeli writers and intellectuals. In a recent article he expressed his sympathy for the Palestinians living inside the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus who are under siege and dying through starvation and bombs.

"Israel," wrote Levy, "bears responsibility for what is happening inside the refugee camp, though not directly, as these Palestinians are the children of Palestine and Palestinians who were forced to flee their homes due to Israel's establishment."

The images of Yarmouk do not leave us, continued Levy. "We see images of the Palestinian boy who was chewing paper because there is no food and another, who was screaming in front of television cameras, begging the world to save him after his father passed away. There are also pictures of skeletons emerging from the bodies of the dead and the living not to mention the images of elderly women and sheikhs who are swarming the premises for hours at the time with the slim chance that they will be able to find something to eat or gain access to medicine. We have seen the images of thousands of people who are trapped inside their ruined world and destroyed homes."

Levy believes that Israel should have shown some human empathy in the face of Yarmouk's horror. "It should have implemented some type of procedure in order to save the 20,000 individuals trapped in the camp as they are the sons of this country and we should have opened the doors for them to be reunited with their families." (Haaretz, 26 January 2014)

This cri de coeur by Levy raises some important issues. For a start it demonstrates the superficial knowledge that we have of prevailing ideas in Israel and among Israelis, and the political and intellectual currents that operate in their society.

The article also created a sense of shock in that it challenged the conviction that Israel is simply "the enemy". Instead, it showed that we are generally oblivious of Israelis and that there is a false image of Israeli society as homogeneous and without internal dissenting voices, problems or differences.

Levy's writing showed us that there are Israeli Jews who have the courage to speak out, something that seems to have been lost among the Arabs, particularly those who support the Assad regime, which is built upon tyranny and corruption. Such Arabs are the individuals who continue to deny the suffering of the Syrian people, who have lived under the regime for close on half a century.

Indeed, articles of this nature expose the reality and untold story of the Arab world, which is that authoritarian regimes are what facilitated Israel's continued dominance over the region and its steadfastness as a country. This characteristic is precisely what has prevented Arab countries from developing politically, economically, socially and culturally.

For the sake of comparison, it is fair to say that Israel acts as a nurturing mother in the eyes of every Jew and a country that cares genuinely about the safety of its citizens; the Syrian regime, on the other hand, is bombarding its own people with tanks, artillery, explosives and airstrikes. The regime attacks its own people but has not fired a shot in anger at Israel in over 40 years. Even so, this does not remove the fact that Israel is a colonial and racially- and religiously-exclusive state, with criminal, illegal and aggressive characteristics.

Thus, Gideon Levy's article highlighted perfectly the Arab reality and exposed the positions of "secular, left-wing, resistance-fighters, and nationalists"; they have not necessarily kept silent on the events of the past three years but have definitely denied the suffering of the large number of people affected by the conflict.

It is a well-known fact that this group of intellectuals and writers live their lives according to the belief that maintaining a system of resistance and opposition or a secular modernity is necessary to confront Zionist imperialism. They maintain this view even if it means that the Syrian people are sacrificed because Syria for them is merely a geographically-strategic site that will remain "Assad's Syria forever"; they deny completely the will of the people who seek the right to freedom and dignity.

I know that Levy does not represent Israel, but he is an example of the alternative opinions that exist within the Israeli state and he is able to express them. His critique of the state includes his condemnation of the racism and colonialism fuelled by settlers and religious Jews who have committed serious injustices against the Palestinian people.

While Levy is willing to proclaim his sympathy for the Palestinian and Syrian people to the point where he criticises his own state, many Arabs and Palestinians have not been doing the minimum moral requirement, which is to emphasise with the Syrian revolution. In fact, many Arabs have not only neglected to empathise with the victims of the Syrian regime but have also been defending the regime itself.

"We must admit that this is a society that takes advantage of religious obscurantism," said Levy. "Any foreigner who finds himself in Israel these days may begin to question where he is. He will ask himself, 'Am I in Iran or Afghanistan?' A country that controls 3.5 million people and deprives them of their most basic civil liberties cannot consider itself the only democratic country in the Middle East."

In another article Levy wrote: "No one knows exactly how Israel will look in ten years and there are many who doubt whether or not Israel will even exist at that time. This is not a concern for any other country in the world. Does anyone know whether or not Israel will be a democracy in ten years? Can anyone guarantee this? Will it be a secular state or a Jewish state? Will it be a welfare state or a capitalist country? Will it be a civil or military society? Will people even live here in ten years and if so, what will its borders look like?" (Haaretz, 15 April 2012)

As noted above, such ideas are not limited to Gideon Levy; there is a new wave of historians, intellectuals, writers and politicians who view Israel as a neo-colonial and oppressive state, such as Amira Hass, Illan Pappé, Shlomo Sand, Norman Finkelstein, Uri Avnery, Ella Shohat, Uri Davis, Illan Halevi, Avraham Burg, Israel Shamir, Amos Oz, Amnon Raz, Judith Butler, Henry Siegman and Yossi Sarid.

These are high calibre individuals; Avraham Burg, for example, was one of the leaders of the Labour Party in Israel and the former leader of the Knesset and chairman of the Jewish Agency. He is the son of Yosef Burg, the former leader of the National Religious Party and one of the founders of Israel. Burg said in an interview that, "Israel is far less independent now than it was at its founding and it is a state that speaks on the behalf of the dead more than it speaks on the behalf of those who are currently living." He added, "Any state that lives on the edge of a guillotine and bows down to the dead is doomed to live in a permanent state of emergency."

On Israel's self-imposed definition as a Jewish state, Burg said that it is impossible for Israel's Jewish identity to co-exist with democracy. "The only alternative is for Israel to be converted into a state for all Jews and all its residents." He notes that, "The Jewish people, who have long been displaced themselves, use this very reason to justify the displacement of the Palestinian people."

For Burg, the two-state solution is long dead. "The only other alternative is to suggest a new approach that does not seek to solve national issues but rather focuses on societal issues, placing Jews and Palestinians on equal footing." Israel, he believes, should not be a democratic Jewish state: "[It should be] a democratic state with a Jewish minority and follows Jewish traditions as a form of cultural autonomy. In regard to the country's non-Jewish minorities, all traditions are respected within their contexts and are equal before democracy." Every individual living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, he insists, should have the same rights under equality, regardless of whether they are Jewish or Arab, man or a woman, religious or secular. "Every human being has the right to elect and be elected. In short, every human being has the right to life."

The ex-Labour leader prefers to see a "merger" of the two communities. "I want to live in a single state with equal rights for every individual living between the river and the sea. I want the government in this country to include everyone, much like the system present in Scandinavian countries. I want to live in a country that takes more interest in today's issues, one with different allocations of resources. I want a sustainable system for allocating resources." (Israeli Issues magazine, Madar Centre, Winter 2012).

Writing in Haaretz newspaper in 2011, Israel Shamir went even further in his criticism. "Our crimes have exceeded Russian crimes in Chechnya and Afghanistan, America's crimes in Vietnam and Serbia's crimes in Bosnia," he said. "Our racism towards the Palestinians is not any less than the racism that the Germans had towards us." (Haaretz, 14 July 2011)

Shlomo Sand is professor of history at Tel Aviv University, and is among the most prominent Israeli academics working to undermine and refute Zionist claims. He has authored several books including, The Invention of the Jewish People, The Invention of Israel, and, published last year, How am I no longer a Jew?

Within this context, our main problem is that we are not dealing with Israel's contradictions and differences seriously because we are quick to approach everything with a mentality that regards everything as a conspiracy; we cannot see the dissent that is emerging from within Israeli society itself. As a result, we have been working unconsciously towards unifying Israel society and resolving its contradictions by directing them outside, all the while trying to defend our own existence.

In fact, Israeli dissent is rarely taken into account when considering the Arab-Israeli conflict, by either Arab national movements or Arab countries. We should avoid such neglect in the future.

Finally, there are many individuals who have been avoiding making a comparison between the atrocities of the Assad regime and those of Israel because they think that it suggests some reconciliation between the two countries. This is not true. However, it remains essential to have such a comparison so that we will be able to expose the reality of the situation and confront this matter. The Assad regime is willing to attack its own people when it was not willing to confront Israel despite the latter's many aggressive acts towards Syria and its ongoing occupation of Syrian land.

We should refrain from acting with a tribal mentality, for what country can be respected if it chooses to humiliate and criminalise its own citizens? What wisdom is there in a government that identifies with tyranny? In short, a country of oppressed people cannot be superior to Israel, neither in peace nor in war.

The author is a Palestinian writer. This is a translation of the Arabic text published by Al Jazeera net on 17 February, 2014

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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