Is Zionism dead?

On 13 September, shortly after Israel announced that it would act to "remove" Arafat, a delegation from the Israeli peace organisation Gush Shalom called on the beleaguered Palestinian leader at his largely destroyed Ramallah compound. Led by veteran peace activist Uri Avneri, they pledged to form a human shield to protect him against any assassination attempt by the Israeli authorities. According to Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, killing Arafat "is definitely one of the options" under consideration by the Israeli government. Although the outrageous threat to assassinate the democratically elected Palestinian leader did not elicit a similar response from Arab activists, it did provoke a storm of international protest. The UN General Assembly adopted a near unanimous resolution demanding that Israel desist from deporting Arafat or threatening his safety, with only Israel, the United States. Micronesia and the Marshal Islands in the Pacific voting against!

The sense of moral outrage that has been building up in international public opinion at the increasingly savage war Sharon is waging against the Palestinian people is now echoed inside Israel itself, with many prominent Israeli personalities within the ruling elite now openly condemning what they see as the degradation of Israel’s Zionist ideals.

The mass-circulation Israeli daily Yaodot Aharanot recently carried an article by Labour MP Avraham Burg, former president of the Jewish Agency and president of the Knesset from 1999 to 2001, in which he pronounced the death of Zionism at the hands of those now occupying the seat of power in Jerusalem. According to Burg, "the Zionist Revolution was built on two pillars: a thirst for justice and a leading team which respected civic morality. Now both pillars have crumbled, and the Israeli nation is today nothing more than a shapeless heap of corruption, oppression and injustice." Continuing in the same pessimistic vein, he says the end of the Zionist adventure is "already at our door…our generation might be the last generation of Zionists…what will remain is a Jewish state that is unrecognisable and hateful…who among us would want to be part of it?"

Even if the questionable premise behind Burg’s disillusionment is a fervent belief in the moral superiority of Zionism, this in no way detracts from the significance of his searing critique of current Israeli policies. He accuses the political opposition of complicity by default, of shirking its historical responsibility to end the madness and stop Israel’s downward spiral. "The opposition remains silent…it is only our failures which resound," he says. "Yes, we have revived Hebrew, our theatre is excellent, our currency is strong and Jewish minds continue to astonish the world. But are these the reasons for which we created a state? No, it is not to create sophisticated weapons, drip-irrigation systems, information security programmes of anti-ballistic missiles that the Jewish people have survived. Our vocation is to become a model, the ‘light of nations’, and in this we have failed."

Burg warns that the policies of the present government, especially its brutal repression of Palestinian rights, are driving "the forces of good" out of Israel, "leaving us with a Zionism personified in a harsh, chauvinistic state in which racial discrimination is prevalent". For many young Israelis, the future is uncertain: "Ask our children who among them is sure of still living here after 25 years and the answer might shock you, because the countdown of Israeli society has already begun." The trend can only be reversed, he believes, if some form of accommodation can be reached with the Palestinians. Indeed, he argues that a formula of peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians is necessary for Israel’s survival. As matters now stand, "there is a road for the occupier, another for the occupied. For the Israeli, time is rapid, effective, modern. For the ‘primitive’, unskilled, Arab labourer without a permit in Israel, time is interminably slow and dreadfully demoralising. This cannot continue. Even if the Arabs bend their heads and swallow their humiliation, a time will come when nothing will work. Because an edifice built on an insensitivity to the suffering of others is bound eventually to collapse."

Israel’s security will remain vulnerable as long as the suffering of the Palestinians is not alleviated, as long as they continue to endure hardship and deprivation. "Even if we kill a thousand terrorists every day, this will not change anything. Their leaders are forged by hatred and anger, and all the crazy measures created by our morally distorted infrastructure."

The only way out of the quandary, Burg argues, is to push ahead with the two-state solution without delay. The Israelis must be made to realise that the time of illusions is over. "Yes, we love the land of our ancestors in its totality. Yes, we would love to live in it alone, without sharing it with anybody else. But that is not possible, because the Arabs too have their dreams and needs. And between the Jordan river and the sea there can no longer be a majority of Jews. To keep everything for ourselves without offering any counterpart is impossible. We can no longer pretend that we are the only democracy in the Middle East. This statement is not true. Without complete equality for the Arabs, there is no democracy. We cannot have our cake and eat it: we cannot, at one and the same time, on the one hand retain the land and maintain a Jewish majority in the Jewish state, and, on the other, pretend to uphold human values and our Jewish moral code."

In short, he believes the Jews of Israel are facing an equation without solution. Holding on to all the territory of Eretz Israel entails giving up democracy and establishing a system of racial discrimination, of concentration camps, of cities comparable to prisons. Maintaining a majority of Jews entails "gathering the Arabs in trains and lorries and putting them on camels and donkeys and kicking them out en masse".

To avoid these scenarios, he proposes that all settlements must be dismantled, clear-cut international borders established between the Jewish national home and the Palestinian national home, and the right of return exercised by the Jews only in their national home, and by the Palestinians only in their national home as well.

Burg is just one of the many prominent Israeli personalities who are dismayed at the ugly image their country has acquired in recent years, and who are going public with their condemnation of the rabid right-wing policies of the Sharon government. There is a great deal of soul-searching among Israeli intellectuals, which, even if motivated more about concern for the future of Zionism than for the well-being of the Palestinians, is a positive development. Burg’s article, entitled "Zionism is Dead" is a wake up call from a man steeped in the Zionist tradition and concerned at what he sees as its dangerous decline. He writes not in the aim of excluding Zionism as a frame of reference but of correcting its negative aspects so as to create more favourable conditions for its survival.

Arab intellectuals would do well to engage in some soul-searching of their own. Clearly, traditional approaches are no longer adequate to meet the new challenges facing our part of the world, and the time has come to search for innovative formulas that can help stop us sinking further into the quagmire