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What is left of the Zionist Left

If the Zionist Left still exists, it finds itself today in a quandary which may yet define the future of the State of Israel. It must ask itself several questions: what role can it play in solving the existential problems facing the country? How can it help extricate the state from the 43-year-old occupation? And, given this situation, how can it help fight back the growing tide of people across the world who think that Israel should not exist in its current form? Finally, what should be done about the nuclear threat?…

Alex Stein (Alex Stein lives in Tel Aviv and is an activist in Combatants for Peace)

TEL AVIV – Relative consensus exists in Israeli society that Israel should do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb; on the first two issues, however, the country is still divided.

The story of the Left’s decline-although well known-is worth retelling: In the optimism of the Oslo years, many Israelis believed that the conflict was almost at an end. Then came the collapse of Camp David and the start of the second intifada. In recent months, however, the Left has been resuming its traditional struggles. In the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, for example, hundreds of Israeli Jews gather every week to protest a government policy which allows Jews to „return“ to homes that were under Jewish ownership before 1948, but where Arab families have resided since.

Every Israeli should understand that we cannot pursue this policy of allowing Jews to „return“ to properties owned prior to the war of 1948, while continuing to deny this very right to Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes in the war. Thus, Sheikh Jarrah should be seen as the „ground zero“ for those who want Israel to continue to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.

But here is the Zionist Left’s problem: while the issues that Sheikh Jarrah raises are those that should be on the agenda of the Zionist Left, those at the forefront of the Sheikh Jarrah protests are not particularly Zionist (i.e. they are not primarily concerned with maintaining the Jewish character of the State of Israel, within the ’67 borders) nor are they even part of the mainstream Left. Indeed, occasionally the protests have taken on a distinctively anti-Zionist tinge, as the ongoing debate about the place of the Israeli flag at Sheikh Jarrah demonstrates.

This fact, however, should not absolve the Zionist Left from having to deal with the main issues involved in these legitimate protests. The citizens of Israel have to decide which side they are on. Do we want a Jewish democracy (imperfect though it may be), or do we want to rule over millions of Palestinians who do not want to be ruled by us?

The day after the 1967 War, some of Israel’s greatest figures (for example David Ben Gurion and Yeshayahu Leibowitz) stated clearly that withdrawing from the territories was a strategic imperative. It remains a strategic imperative. In this sense, what the Palestinians think doesn’t matter; our need for them to have a state is as urgent as theirs.

Another symbolic front-line for this battle is the West Bank village of Bi’lin, where weekly protests against the separation barrier have now been taking place for more than five years. In September 2007 the Supreme Court ruled that the barrier in the Bi’lin area must be re-routed. According to this ruling, Bi’lin should recover 50 percent of the lands that were confiscated in late 2004, which many claim were taken in order to facilitate settlement expansion under the guise of security needs. To this day, the barrier has not been moved.

This is a situation whereby the army, supposedly the guardian of Israeli democracy, refuses to implement a Supreme Court ruling. In short, this is also a fight for the integrity of the country’s institutions-for Israeli democracy. Here again, though, many of the Jewish protesters at Bi’lin every week belong to anti-Zionist groups, such as Anarchists Against the Wall, who speak of „Israeli apartheid“.

So where is the Zionist Left? Perhaps its members are too busy arguing with those whom they perceive to be delegitimizing Israel. But the strategic imperative to withdraw from the territories is more pressing than the imperative to confront those who delegitimize Israel.

There will always be those who are opposed to the very existence of the State and they will take advantage of events such as these. We should not dignify their opposition by engaging with their arguments. There are different kinds of critics of Israel. Some of them will mute their criticism once we put an end to the occupation. The Left has so far failed to contribute to the process of shaping what kind of state Israel will be. If the Zionist Left has any relevance, it will renew the struggle to recapture the soul of Israel as soon as possible: Starting in Bi’lin and Sheikh Jarrah.

Alex Stein can be contacted at alex.stein@talk21.com. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 22 April 2010.