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Occupation, Occupation, Occupation: Religion Isn't Israel's Big ProblemOren Yiftachel Ha'aretz
Rather, it is the Jewish takeover of the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. A response to Eva Illouz.
(TEL AVIV) - What is the cause of the segregation between groups in Israeli society? How should we cope with this and with the polarization and racism it engenders? In her soul-searching, riveting article, Prof. Eva Illouz argues that this ostensible regime of separation stems primarily from the distorted importation here of ethno-religious principles that dictated the isolationist, self-defensive Jewish existence in the Diaspora.
According to Illouz, the institutionalization of such principles under the state’s auspices, led by religious institutions and rabbis such as the late Ovadia Yosef, is the principal obstacle to the possibility of establishing a sustainable, liberal and tolerant society in Israel. This separation regime received salient expression recently when the Supreme Court rejected a petition filed by 38 Israeli citizens from different religions and groups to register their national identity as “Israeli.”
As one of the petitioners, I was disappointed at the ruling, like Illouz. That said, I take issue with the religious explanation she adduces, which in my view focuses on the symptoms and not the roots of the disease. Illouz, like most Jews, ignores the question of Palestine, without which it is impossible to understand many of the traits of Israeli society. Her analysis also ignores a comparative perspective that illuminates the character of Zionism as compared with other national movements. She appears to have fallen into what I have termed the classic “ethnogratic" trap: attributing inordinate importance to what is occurring within the Jewish “bubble.”
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If we lift our eyes a little above the roofs of the synagogues, yeshivas and rabbis’ hats, and examine the formation of society in Israel from a comparative perspective, we will understand that the religious explanation, despite its importance, blinds us from seeing the primary cause of the separation regime: the process of the country’s takeover − namely, its ongoing “Judaization.” This process, which is imposing a Jewish identity on a land that was largely Palestinian-Arab in its recent past, “necessitates” Jewish expansion accompanied by coerced religious, ethnic, cultural, political and, most crucial, geographic separation. Clearly, if the populations were to intermingle, the edge would be taken off the Judaizing process and a different − mixed − identity would be created. In other words, it is the ongoing Judiazation, and not Judaism per se, which underlies the formation of the separation regime.
Judaization has constituted the principal project of the ethnocratic state from the day of its creation, and it is transforming Israel not only into a Jewish state, which is the conventional argument, but into a Judaizing state. This is a key distinction, as it adds a dynamic dimension to the ceaseless takeover project and does not allow the consolidation of egalitarian relations between the different ethnic communities, particularly Arabs and Jews.
The “Judaization factor” ceaselessly generates new legislation and policy initiatives which produce new types of polarization and conflict, such as the annexation of the Little Triangle of Arab communities – the Arab towns of Baka al-Garbiyeh, Taibeh and Tira – to a Palestinian state (whose establishment Israel is preventing); the Nakba and the Boycott Laws; the proposed Prawer Law, the idea of conditioning citizenship on loyalty vows; the adoption of discriminatory family unification laws and the existence of selection committees in hundreds of suburban communities.
The Judaization factor also has intra-Jewish implications, in that it shunts to the margins weak ened groups, primarily Mizrahim (Eastern Jews), Ethiopians and all those seen as “Russians,” though the intensity and violence of their exclusion are significantly less than in the case of the Palestinians.
Many studies show that a pattern of segregation characterizes almost all the settler societies in the world that engineered colonization processes in territories that were dominated by others, irrespective of their religion. Thus, we can find sharply etched separation regimes possessing deep ethnic or racial boundaries in the history of the settlement and takeover of British Protestants in Northern Ireland; French Catholics in Quebec and Algeria; Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka; Calvinist Dutch communities in South Africa; and even Russian atheists in Estonia.
It is true that the Jewish colonization of Palestine/Israel stems in part from motives different from those of the other settler states mentioned. The Jews are not British, French or Russian imperialists who settle in distant lands, backed by vast military and economic might. They are, rather, a group of persecuted, expelled communities, first from Europe and subsequently from Islamic countries, who sought shelter in the land that was the cradle of their historic and mythical identity.
The Jews can be said, in effect, to have been “expelled to their homeland.” That is why part of the colonization process was unavoidable and also rightly received the moral backing of the international community in the wake of the Holocaust. Like the Armenians after the expulsion from Turkey, perhaps, or the Boers in South Africa, who were driven out of the Cape region and took over other regions, the Jews in Palestine/Israel spawned a process which can be defined as “colonization of refugees.”
However, for the native inhabitants of this country − the Palestinians − the process of the Jewish takeover looked quite similar to other ethnic takeovers, which almost always assume the form of appropriation, settlement, expulsion and political subordination of the local population to settlers who come from afar. This being so, the Palestinians, too – like most of the colonized peoples – oppose the process with all their might, sometimes violently, and generate a constant threat to it. This dialectic intensifies the Jewish use of tactics of territorial expansion, amid an almost total separation from the retreating local residents.
The process reached a violent peak in the Israeli War of Independence (the Nakba), when two-thirds of the Palestinians were forced out and hundreds of their villages destroyed, and have remained refugees to this day. However, contrary to democratic reasoning – which would have tried to stabilize ethnic relations after the crisis of 1948 – Israel did not stop but went on with the ethnic colonization, initially within the Green Line and afterward in the territories conquered in 1967. At the same time, Israel has so far prevented forcibly the establishment of a Palestinian state, which could provide an answer, partial but significant, to the question of the refugees and Palestinian sovereignty.
The Judaization process assumes concrete forms, such as the establishment of more than 1,000 exclusively Jewish communities, mostly in former Arab areas, on both sides of the Green Line. A striking example is playing out now in the Negev, where the state is attempting, through the Prawer plan, to dispossess Bedouin of their ancestors’ land and, at the same time, establish a series of new Jewish communities there. As part of another move, these areas were subordinated to the control of Jewish regional councils, here too on both sides of the Green Line. The municipal control ensured that the fruits of the impressive economic growth entered Jewish pockets almost exclusively.
In addition, over the years, Jewish migrants were almost the only ones allowed into the country, and a tremendous effort was made to erase the Palestinians’ history and culture. There were occasional policy changes and even compromises, such as during the period of the Oslo Accords and the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip, but those were exceptions that have not changed the general trend.
Here is the place to return to the role of religion and ask: Who was responsible for the Judaization process? Was it not precisely the secular founders of Zionism? It’s true that their secularism never completely broke with the ethno-religious vision of redemption, and also true that it used the religious establishment as the gatekeeper of Israeli citizenship, sometimes cynically. It is also apparent that the antiliberal religious forces are intensifying their messianic and racist rhetoric of late, in a move that recalls a Golem that has turned on its creator. But even here, it is not the Jewish religion but the colonial project of religious and secular groups that is the driving force of the exacerbation of the discourse and the policy of separation. This process is creating an apartheid regime in the territories, which is increasingly creeping gradually into Israel and threatening the character of the entire regime.
Historically, secular and religious groups and individuals can be considered allies in the Judaization project, in which most of them are taking part. This makes it possible for a national liberal like Yair Lapid to hook up with an ethnocrat and colonialist like Naftali Bennett in a political alliance of “brothers” which can be termed “liberal colonialism.” Significant liberal pockets of resistance exist, of course, as do deep disagreements between the religious and secular vision for Israel/Palestine. Those disagreements may even threaten Israel’s political stability. Yet, from a historical and geographical perspective, the disagreements fade in the face of the Judaization of the conflicted land.
What next? As I’ve shown, the greatest obstacle to the emergence of a sustainable democratic society in Israel is the momentum of ethno-colonialist takeover and the forced separation it necessarily entails. It is important to point out that the termination of the Judaization process does not mean the dissolution of the Jewish-Israeli national project, but quite the contrary: ending Judaization will place it on legitimate, sustainable foundations − without appropriation, suppression and expansion at the expense of others.
The true challenge lies in ending the era of takeover, with all its implications. A transition of that kind occurred in almost every other settler society everywhere, and led to recognition of the native groups and their rights, but also the rights of settlers and migrants. The change was also accompanied by a fair distribution of resources, including land and political and economic power. Only thus can the walls of separation start to dissolve, and this conflicted place can generate a common Israeli identity, which will include religious and secular, Jews and Arabs, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim − and one day might even gain the endorsement of the Supreme Court.
Prof. Oren Yiftachel teaches political geography and urban planning at Ben-Gurion University of the Desert, Be’er Sheva. The opinions in the article represent his views alone.
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