A Left-Zionist’s Very Bad Day (Haaretz)

On Saturday, July 27th, my lifelong Zionist convictions were emotionally whipsawed in opposite ways.  First, a lengthy article in the Haaretz weekend magazine (“When Arabs Were Invited to Live the Zionist Dream“)  opened a hole in my heart by illuminating Israel’s historic failure to integrate its pre-1967 Arab minority as equal citizens.  Later that day, I was shaken from the other direction by the overt anti-Israel conspiracy mongering of a participant in a discussion I attended examining the current escalation of tensions with Iran.  This post is about the first of these shocks; for the second post, click here.

The Haaretz article was about an idealistic experiment instituted in Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim in the 1950s and ’60s to recruit Israeli-Arab youth (members of a youth movement allied with the left-Zionist Mapam party) to live and work on kibbutzim, while studying Hebrew and learning about Jewish history.  This had a profound effect on the Arab teenagers, instilling skills and knowledge they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, and intimately exposing them to the lives of Israeli Jews.  

Youth movement members were made to feel a sense of belonging.  In at least one instance during those years of military rule over Arab communities (from 1948 until 1966), participating Arab youngsters were safeguarded by kibbutzniks from police arrest; it was a violation of law for Arab citizens to leave their towns without official authorization.  

The article focuses upon a number of individuals involved in the program — one of whom became a Mapam Member of Knesset in the 1980s and ’90s (actually, two participants went on to serve as Mapam MKs).  Another fell in love with an Israeli-Jewish girl whom he married (as typical for intermarriages, abroad in Cyprus), but the couple’s application for membership in her kibbutz was voted down.   

Ultimately, most of the expectations raised for a genuinely open and accepting society for both Jews and Arabs in Israel were dashed — partly by kibbutzniks who did not quite measure up to their movement’s slogan, “For Zionism, socialism and the brotherhood of all peoples.”  The aspiration of some participants to establish an Arab kibbutz didn’t work out either, as the State of Israel reserves state lands exclusively for the use of Jewish communities.  

I have been active in the Zionist left since 1982, when I was a guest of this very movement on a youth tour during the summer of the first Lebanon war; as it happened, this was the only Zionist political movement to oppose the Lebanon war from its inception.  Over the next 30 years, I remained active with a succession of American affiliates of this movement, and even attended the World Zionist Congress under its banner, three or four times.   

Our home base during that tour was the Givat Haviva Institute, which was the seminar/educational center of the Kibbutz Artzi (national kibbutz) Federation aligned with the Hashomer Hatzair movement and closely associated with the Mapam party (now Meretz).  According to its website, Givat Haviva still “aims to build an inclusive, socially cohesive society in Israel by engaging divided communities in collective action towards the advancement of a sustainable, thriving Israeli democracy based on mutual responsibility, civic equality and a shared vision of the future.”  

On tour in 1982, my first effort at casually speaking Hebrew with an Israeli was at Givat Haviva’s kibbutz-style dining hall, when two of us chatted with a young woman.  To our surprise, she indicated amiably in perfect Hebrew that she was an Israeli Arab — as entirely usual then, and now, for program attendees and staff at Givat Haviva.  One wonders how she would feel today, but at that time, she saw relations between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel as good, or at least not bad.  

Many Israeli Arabs felt a certain pride in being part of the most advanced economic and technological country in the Middle East.  In the 1990s, they were beginning to have an important impact politically, with the votes of MKs from predominantly Arab parties maintaining Yitzhak Rabin’s minority government of Labor and Meretz in power to pursue the Oslo peace process.  Following Rabin’s murder in 1995 and Bibi Netanyahu’s first election as prime minister in 1996, Arabs voted decisively to deliver the 1999 election to Labor’s Ehud Barak.  

But Barak as prime minister proceeded to undermine relations with Israel’s Arabs, because he did not reciprocate by inviting an Arab party into his governing coalition; instead, he invited the pro-settler National Religious Party.  Rabin hadn’t included an Arab party either, but he explicitly rewarded Arab support by providing their towns and villages with a more equitable share of the national budget and making inclusive changes in the educational curriculum reflecting Palestinian history.  Arab disappointment with Barak grew into a grievous breach when 12 Israeli-Arab protesters were killed by police snipers within Green-Line Israel, in October 2000, during the early days of the Second Intifada.  

Sadly, Barak did not apologize for the shootings until a few weeks ago.  It will be interesting to see how the new alliance he’s fostered with Meretz and the former Labor MK Stav Shaffir fares in next month’s election, but his efforts to include at least two of the Arab parties were rebuffed.  Still, in the most recent electoral contest in April, Arabs are understood to have cast nearly a quarter of the vote total for Meretz, allowing this left-Zionist party to make it past the threshold for sitting in the Knesset.  Esawi Freige, an Arab MK for Meretz, played a major role in forging this new “Democratic Union” with Barak. 

Click here for the second installment of this two-part essay.

lwbearson@gmail.com Bearson Lee