Recently the chief of the Shin Bet declared that the “Israeli Arabs”, a fifth of Israel’s population, constitute a danger to the state.
He requested permission for the General Security Service to act against anyone who aims at changing the official designation of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” – even if they use nothing but completely legal means.
It follows that In the view of the chief of the Security Service, a central figure in the Israeli leadership, the task of the Shin Bet (now commonly known in Israel as Shabak) is not only to protect the state from spies and terrorists, but also from any challenge to its ideological designation, like the KGB in the former Soviet Union and the Stasi in communist East Germany. (The excellent Oscar-winning movie “The Life of the Others”, now screening in Israel, shows how this worked in practice.)
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ALL THIS is reminiscent of things past. Rather naively, I had thought that they belonged to bygone days which could never return.
Two weeks ago, the Israeli tabloid Yedioth Aharonoth published an interview with the lawyer Arieh Hadar, nicknamed Pashosh, a former chief of the interrogation department of the Shin Bet.
Pashosh disclosed that “In the 50s, the great enemies of the Labor Party – and therefore of Issar Harel, the chief of the security services, the Shin Bet and the Mossad – were URI AVNERY and his weekly magazine, Haolam Hazeh. Avnery called the Shin Bet “the Apparatus of Darkness”, and Issar was convinced that URI AVNERY would destroy the state. Avnery and his magazine were under constant surveillance. A colleague of mine earned himself quick promotion by recruiting an employee of Haolam Hazeh’s printing press. Every week, this employee gave him a smuggled copy of the magazine a day before its official publication date. My colleague gave it to Issar, who brought it every week personally to Ben-Gurion.”
Pashosh added: “Issar had the Shin Bet publish a competing magazine, disguised as privately owned. The aim was to destroy Avnery.”
These revelations were not news to me. Years ago, Issar Harel himself disclosed that he regarded me as “Enemy No. 1 of the regime”. It may be remembered that in those days, three bombs were laid in our editorial offices and printing plant and two employees were injured. The fingers of both my hands were broken in an (unsuccessful) attempt to kidnap me. None of these crimes was ever solved.
In 1977, after coming to power, Menachem Begin revealed in an interview that at the end of the 50s Issar Harel approached him and told him that he had proposed to the Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, to put me in “administrative detention” – arrest without trial and without time limit. Ben-Gurion agreed, but posed a condition: that Begin, then the leader of the opposition, agree to it too, so that it could be done quietly. Begin demanded that Issar show him the evidence that I was a traitor, otherwise, he said, not only would he not agree, but he would raise hell. Issar never mentioned the matter again.
Begin did not leave it at that. He sent me his trusted lieutenant, Yaakov Meridor, to warn me. In spite of the extreme difference of opinion between us, which found its expression many times in Knesset debates, Begin accepted me, it seems, as an Israeli patriot.
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THE QUESTION is, of course, why Ben-Gurion and the security service chief considered me “Enemy No. 1 of the regime”.
That brings us to the subject now raised again by the Shin Bet chief.
I attacked Ben-Gurion on many subjects: the total domination of all affairs in the country by the Labor Party (then called Mapai), the corruption that was then starting to infect the ruling class, the discrimination suffered by Jewish immigrants from Oriental countries, the religious coercion, etc.
But the pivot of this struggle was the definition of Israel as a “Jewish state”.
What is a “Jewish state”? That was never made clear. A state whose citizens are all Jewish? A state that belongs to Jews only? The “state of the Jewish people”, which also belongs to millions of Jews who do not live here and are citizens of the US, Argentina and France? A state ruled by the Jewish religion? A state that expresses Jewish values (and if so, which ones?)
Furthermore – who is a Jew, in this context? After many hesitations, the Knesset adopted the religious definition: a Jew is a person born to a Jewish mother or who has converted to the Jewish faith, and who has not adopted another religion. The contradiction between the definition of Judaism as a religion and the assertion that the Jews are a nation was solved by adopting the fiction that with us, unlike other nations, religion and nation are one and the same.
The term “Jewish state” is nebulous. It can be interpreted in several ways. When one adds the word “democratic”, it becomes an oxymoron – if a state belongs only to a part of its population it is not democratic, and if it is democratic then it cannot belong to a part of its population, even if they compose the majority.
Instructing the Security Service – our name for the secret police – to act against those who strive by legal means to change the “Jewish state” definition – simply means to cripple Israeli democracy. It is one of the basic principles of democracy that everyone has the right to propagate his views and convince people to change the laws and the constitution, as long as only legal means are used. If he or she succeeds in convincing the majority of the citizens, the desired change comes about.
Activating the secret police to abort this process would mean turning Israel into a police state. Not a “democracy protecting itself”, but, rather, a state protecting itself from democracy.
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I HOPE that the State of Israel remains a state with a Hebrew majority, that the Hebrew language will remain its main language, that it will express the modern Hebrew society and its culture and also keep alive the Jewish tradition of generations past. (About the Arab side of the matter – see below.)
But it must not do so by force, by way of oppression, by using the secret police and other means of compulsion. Natural processes must be allowed to work freely, whatever the results. We are not the only nation in the world in this situation.
If Israel is an attractive country, natural increase will rise and many will knock on its doors, people who desire to join our nation. The Israeli nation – unlike the Jewish religion – can in principle absorb everyone who wants to belong to it.
The relationship between a modern state and its citizens must be based on one consideration only: citizenship. The state belongs to all its citizens, and all of them must be equal before the law. That is what the 1948 Declaration of Independence promised: “The State of Israel will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
Some Israelis use the term “nation-state” as a pretext to oppress the Arab minority. They think about a nation-state in the spirit of the late 19th and early 20th century. In Poland, for example, where many of Israel’s founders were born, the state fought against large communities of its own citizens – Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Jews and others.
The most extreme example was the Nazi state, which was based on the idea that the individual exists only as a part of his nation, as a mere cell in the national organism. This model drowned in blood and has been besmirched for all eternity by the horrors of the Holocaust.
Today the model that appeals to many is the American one. The American nation includes everybody who holds a US passport. A person who receives American citizenship – whether Mexican, Korean, Indian or Nigerian – at that moment joins the American nation and becomes an heir to George Washington, Abe Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
All modern nations are moving towards this model, each according to its own rhythm. Poland, too, now belongs to the EU, where millions of people are moving from country to country without restrictions. In most countries there now live millions of foreigners who are gradually being absorbed into the national population. Their children grow up with the local culture and the local language and study in the local schools. Without this massive reinforcement, many Western societies could not exist any more, as far as the economy and demography are concerned.
Will Israel, which misses no opportunity to describe itself as a Western country, turn its back on this reality and adopt the model of Pakistan, a state that was founded – at the same time as Israel – on an ethnic-religious basis?
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MY IDENTITY consists of many different layers.
I am a human being, and as a human being I am a citizen of the world, bearing responsibility for the entire planet. I am committed to humanist values, to the ecology of the globe, to freedom, peace and justice for all. I hope that in the not too distant future, these values will be guaranteed by an effective world order.
I am a member of the Israeli nation, together with all the other people who hold an Israeli passport. Israel is my state. I want it living in peace, secure, flourishing and respected throughout the world. I want a state in which it is good to live, and of which I can be proud.
I am a son of the Jewish people. I am an heir to Jewish tradition, much as Australians and Canadians are heirs to the Anglo-Saxon tradition. There are Jewish values in which I believe, values of justice, peace and non-violence, which are very different from the values of the settlers in Yitzhar and Tapuah. I am close to the Jews around the world, and I am very glad that Jews around the world feel close to Israel. That is an emotional matter, which should not concern the state.
When the State of Israel really belongs, practically and officially, to all its citizens, it will be much easier for the Arabs here to decide on their status. If they choose to belong to the Israeli nation, much as Hispanics in the US belong to the American nation, that will be fine. If they prefer the status of a national minority, they should enjoy the rights of such a minority in a modern state. Either way, the Arabic language and Arab culture must be fully recognized by the state. The affinity of the Arab citizens with the Palestinian people and the Arab world must be considered just as legitimate as the affinity of the Hebrew citizens with the Jewish people throughout the world.
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THAT IS my view. I intend to advocate it by all the legal means at my disposal in the democratic state that I helped to establish.
And if the Shin Bet does not like it, well, that is a pity. I just hope that they will not put me under administrative detention because of it.
URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is one of the writers featured in The Other Israel: Voices of Dissent and Refusal. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s hot new book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.