Book Review: “An Israeli In Palestine Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel”

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King wrote that he had “almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the … Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice …”

Jeff Halper’s new book is, in part, the story of the evolution of a “white moderate” peace campaigner from Hibbing, Minnesota, to a radical Israeli campaigner for justice for the Palestinians. En route, he maps his development from “ethnic Jew to Jewish national to Israeli,” disregarding his grandmother’s warning that “Israel is no place for a Jewish boy!”

If to an ingenuous Gentile this might seem like a meagre itinerary, a quick look at the Kahanists’ indispensable “S.H.I.T. List” reveals, on the contrary, that Halper is seen by red-blooded ultra-Zionists as a “sick self-hating Kike” whose primary concern, and that of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) which he helped found, “is the demolition of Israel.”

Halper also has his less vehement detractors within the disparate community of pro-Palestinian activists, some of whom deem him flawed by excessive ego. In truth I have yet to meet an efficient activist who didn’t to some degree share this trait. Given the odds stacked against the defenders of Palestinian rights and the degree of defamation to which they are routinely exposed, a fragile ego would constitute a dangerous Achilles’ heel.

Admittedly Halper, who defines himself alarmingly as “a full-time peace-maker,” has an occasional weakness for near-rhodomontade such as “the task I have set before me is to hasten a just peace,” or “Israel’s aggressive marketing of military systems … has forced me to join up with forces outside Israel in this decisive struggle.” Indeed the subtitle of this book, with its reference to “Redeeming Israel,” might seem to confirm the prejudices of those who believe that the majority of Israeli activists are more interested in their own beautiful souls than in the devastation wreaked by Zionism upon Palestinian society.

However, for Halper the “redemption” of Israel consists neither in its sublimation nor its demolition, but quite simply in its democratization. For him, Israel is an ethnocracy moulded by an unholy alliance of Old Testament atavism with nineteenth-century central European tribal nationalism. While no discerning reader could finish this book without realizing that Halper deeply loves his adopted country, here is throughout a sense of sheer disbelief — alongside grief and indignation — that his compatriots could perpetrate the kind of cruelty against their helpless neighbors that he itemizes in such tireless detail. Nonetheless, he believes that a “redeemed” Israel might yet have room for “a New Cultural Zionism” (the capitalization is his own). For Halper the pivotal experience that first made him “aware of being an ‘Israeli in Palestine’ ” took place on 9 July 1998, when the bulldozers of Israel’s so-called Civil Administration (which is run by the Ministry of Defense, a typically Orwellian detail) demolished for the first time the home of his friend Salim Shawamreh. Just as it was repeated on three subsequent occasions after Halper and his associates had helped rebuild the house, this totally gratuitous act recurs like a refrain throughout the book. “As the bulldozer pushed through the walls of Salim’s home, it pushed me through all the ideological rationalizations, the pretexts, the lies and the bullshit that my country had erected to prevent us from seeing the truth: that oppression must accompany an attempt to deny the existence and claims of another people in order to establish an ethnically pure state for yourself.” This experience made him a post-Zionist, which he neatly defines as “a Zionist who has witnessed a house demolition.” “Every demolition,” he opines in another eloquent phrase, “is a microcosm of the Occupation.”

As Halper tells it, there was nothing strategic about the decision to found ICAHD. “We backed into it without fully appreciating how powerful a vehicle of resistance the issue of house demolition would turn out to be. Only gradually did we discover that … house demolitions constituted the very essence of the conflict: Zionism’s program of dispossessing the Palestinians altogether.” If the book starts in autobiographical mode, it soon changes gear as Halper recounts the history of Palestinian nishul (Hebrew for dispossession) and parses the oppressive system devised to bring it about. At this point in so many books on “the conflict” I grit my teeth and prepare to fast-read for the umpteenth time the litany of atrocities that is the history of Israel; with Halper’s exposition, this is inadvisable and indeed impossible, so closely interwoven is his narration of the facts with his own perceptive comments and sagacious digressions. By the time I had read the chapters “The Sources of Oppression” (sub-headings: “The Impossible Dream: Constructing a Jewish Ethnocracy in Palestine,” “Dispossession: Ethnocracy’s Handmaiden,” “The Narrative of ‘Exodus’ ”), and “The Structure of Oppression” (sub-headings: “Expanding Dispossession: The Occupation and the Matrix of Control,” “Concluding Dispossession: Oslo and Unilateral Separation”), I truly felt that I had acquired a new level of insight thanks to the clarity of Halper’s “framing” and “re-framing” (key Halperian concepts) of the issues.

Much of the latter part of the book is taken up with a detailed exposition of Halper’s pet project both for liberating Palestinians and redeeming Israelis: a Middle-East Confederation, or indeed “a full-blown Middle-East Union” modeled in many respects on the EU. This, Halper believes, would constitute a “win-win” solution transcending the one-state or two-state paradigms and guaranteeing self-determination for both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. “The key element of this approach is the ability of all members of the confederation to live and work anywhere within (its) boundaries … It also addresses the core of the refugee issue, which is individual choice. Palestinians … could choose to return ‘home’ to what is today Israel, but they would do so as Palestinian citizens or citizens of another member state … just as Israelis living in Palestine (… former ‘settlers’) would retain Israeli citizenship.”

For all its neat and attractive logicality, there are huge problems with this vision. Is it possible for two peoples to have equal self-determination within one territory? Is “the core of the refugee issue” truly reducible to “individual choice?” Don’t the quotation marks around “home” not indicate that in fact no genuine right of return is here being affirmed? And what about Palestinians who are not “citizens of another member state” but of a non-member state? While the “former settlers” in Palestine would retain their Israeli citizenship, whose laws would they obey?

In a sense, Halper is in a no-win situation here. Two-staters will condemn him because he doesn’t advocate two states, and one-staters will excoriate him for not advocating a single state. He himself admits that his proposal is “a pipe dream,” to be considered at some future date when the “one-state/two-state paradigm … recedes.” Meanwhile, however, it is at least “in the pot” and deserves to be widely discussed.

And meanwhile, Halper and the ICAHD continue to rebuild demolished Palestinian houses, take legal actions on behalf of Palestinians whose houses have been demolished or are threatened with demolition, and engage in “an international strategy of advocacy.” “If we lose,” he writes, and the pronoun includes all of us — Palestinian and otherwise — who struggle for the Palestinian cause, “the progressive forces of the world … will be set back to square one … If the Occupation prevails … not only will the Palestinians have lost but every person throughout the world aspiring to a better future will lose as well.” Congratulations to Pluto Press for adding yet another excellent book to their indispensable Israel/Palestine list.

Raymond Deane is a composer, and a founding-member of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

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