Whither Israel

Writing in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations newsletter (2 March 2023) Dr Helen McCue addressed the current Israeli settler violence in the context of what Israel’s media and many Israelis were saying about the violence.

Dr McCue previously worked with the United Nations with refugees and the displaced in the Middle East – many of them displaced as a result of US and Australian military interventions.  She has been a strong advocate for Palestinian human rights including the rights of Palestinian refugees for more than 40 years.

Describing the violence she said: “Located near Nablus in the Occupied Palestinian Territory of the West Bank there are reports of 30 homes, 40 cars and other buildings, schools and mosques being torched. The fires were so great that the local fire brigade struggled to contain the flames. Other neighbouring villages were also attacked. Some 400 settlers were reported to take part in the attack. Videos show settlers dancing in the street following these attacks. No one has been arrested.”

“Even Israeli TV has reportedly referred to this attack as a pogrom.”

She quotes a Lieutenant who served in Hebron and is part of the Breaking the Silence (BTS) organisation which comprises veteran soldiers who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the second intifada in September 2000.

“The mission there is not to maintain order; the mission there is to enforce Jewish supremacy in the city of Hebron. It’s not that we soldiers are between a hammer and an anvil, [but rather] we are the hammer being hurled at the Palestinians by the settlers”.

She also cites a 26 February 2023 editorial from Haaretz, a leftish Israeli newspaper which said: “In legal terms, the assignment of governmental powers in the West Bank to its new civilian governor, particularly alongside the plan to expand the dual justice system, so that Israeli law will apply fully and directly to settlers in the West Bank and civilian Israeli authorities will wield direct governmental powers in the settlements – provisions that are also part of the Gallant-Smotrich agreement – constitutes de jure annexation of the West Bank.

“In light of the fact that there is no intention of granting civil rights to the millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank, the result of the agreement is a formal, full-fledged apartheid regime.”

In Australia questions about Israel have been highlighted by the recent Adelaide Writers Week program. Simultaneous with events in Israel one of the Palestinian speakers, who precipitated the withdrawal of sponsors from the Writers’ Week, described Israelis as ‘Nazis’. That is clearly unacceptable, grossly offensive and politically stupid.

However violent and murderous the settlers are they are not Nazis. Their aim is arguably ethnic cleansing, abetted by elements in the current government. It is violent, illegal and cruel – but not genocide.

The settlers’ actions are also in stark contrast to the views of many in Israel and around the world as evidenced by a series of statements by prominent Jewish lawyers, historians and UK Jewish Board of Deputies.

The Observer (5 March) reported that “In a sign of the changing mood, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, considered to be a conservative and staunchly pro-Israel body, issued a rare statement condemning a call by a senior Israeli minister that a Palestinian town in the West Bank should be ‘wiped out’ in response to the murder of two Israelis.

“We utterly condemn Bezalel Smotrich’s comments calling for the Israeli government to ‘erase’ a village which days ago was attacked by Israeli settlers. We hope that this and similar comments will be publicly repudiated by responsible voices in the governing coalition,” the board said.

The historian, Simon Schama, who also spoke to The Observer, said that Israel was at risk of becoming a “nationalist theocracy” with the inclusion of ultra-religious, far-right parties in the coalition government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu.

“This is of concern to Jewry all over the world,” said Schama. “It’s absolutely, utterly horrifying.” Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence – “a noble document, which promised equal civil rights to all religious and ethnic groups” – had disintegrated, he said.

Jews must speak out, he added. To do so was “not a betrayal of Israel, it’s a passionate declaration of support for the enormous number of people [in Israel] who feel as anguished as we do. We should not be lily-livered about it.”

The Observer also reported that Anthony Julius, one of the UK’s most prominent Jewish lawyers, said the Israeli government incorporated “the worst features of the populist, anti-liberal democratic parties that operate in Europe and in America as well, but with a special kind of antinomian Jewish intensity”.

It is, of course, extremely hard for Australians to buy into any of these arguments given our record of dispossession and massacre of Indigenous Australians – however much we are now recognising that reality.

Moreover, Australian media coverage of Israeli politics and Israel is episodic and typical of its growing failure to give international news much attention at all.

There is, however, some balanced and perceptive commentary coming from some Australian academics. For instance, Ran Porat, a researcher at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University wrote in The Conversation (2 March 2023) that: “In the West Bank, increasing lawlessness is causing explosive instability and terror. On the Palestinian side, the weak and corrupt Palestinian Authority is increasingly unable to govern, especially in the northern Shomron area, from Jenin to Nablus. The vacuum is being filled by armed local militant groups (such as the notorious ‘Lion’s den’) backed by the Gaza-based militant organisations Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”

But Porat stresses, it’s not all a Palestinian problem saying “Initially, Netanyahu successfully rebranded himself as the ‘responsible adult’ who would keep the radicals in his government in check. But his government is now exacerbating deep divisions in Israeli society and threatening the very essence of Israel as a liberal democracy”.

The Palestinian Writers’ Week guests should be condemned but they are nevertheless a sidelight to these broader questions. Perhaps Australian media should give these questions as much coverage as the Palestinian writers got.

Meanwhile the problems are back in Israelis’ court. Can all this strengthen the moderates across the board to tip out Bibi (again)? It’s the best hope and most likely outcome.

As a Jewish friend said about that: “We hope and pray”.

Meanwhile two other articles analyse the issues in some detail.