Uri Avnery: The Bed of Sodom

Published: Wed 25 Apr 2007 12:37 AM
The Bed of Sodom
By Uri Avnery - Gush Shalom
[See also... A comment to 'The Bed of Sodom' by Beate Zilversmidt]
IN HEBREW legend, the bed of Sodom is a symbol of evil.
The Bible tells how God decided to obliterate Sodom because of the wickedness of its people (Genesis, 18). The legend gives us an example of this wickedness: the special bed for visitors. When a stranger came to Sodom, he was put in this bed. If he was too tall, his legs were shortened. If he was too short, his limbs were stretched to fit.
In political life, there is more than one bed like this. On the Right and on the Left, there are people who put every problem in such a bed, cut off limbs and stretch limbs, until reality matches theory.
From the sixties on, doctrinaire leftists tended to put every situation into the bed of Vietnam. Everything - be it the murderous tyranny in Chile or the American threats against Cuba - had to fit the Vietnam example. Applying this model, it was easy to decide who were the good guys and who the bad, what to do and how to solve the problem.
That was convenient. It is much easier to draw conclusions when there is no need to consider the complexities of a particular conflict, its historical background and its local circumstances.
LATELY, A NEW bed of Sodom has gained currency: South Africa. In some circles of the radical Left there is a tendency to force every conflict into this bed. Every new case of evil and oppression in the world is seen as a new version of the apartheid regime, and it is decided accordingly how to solve the problem and what to do to achieve the desired end.
True, the South African situation arose in particular historical circumstances that took centuries to mature. It was not identical with the problem of the aborigines in Australia or the settlement of the Whites in North America, nor to Northern Ireland or the situation in Iraq. But it is certainly convenient to give one and the same answer to all problems.
Of course, there is always a superficial similarity between different regimes of oppression. But if one is not ready to see the differences between the diseases, one is liable to prescribe false medicines - and risk killing the patient in the process.
NOW THIS is happening here.
It is easy to put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the South African bed, since the similarities between the symptoms are obvious. The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories has been going on for 40 years now, and almost 60 years have passed since the Naqba - the armed conflict of 1948 in which the State of Israel came into being and in which more than half the Palestinians lost their homes and land. Relations between the settlers and the Palestinians are in many ways reminiscent of apartheid; and even in Israel proper, the Arab citizens are far from real equality.
What to do? One has to learn from South Africa that there is nothing to be gained from appealing to the conscience of the ruling people. Among the white minority in South Africa, there was no real difference between Left and Right, between open racists and liberals, who were but better disguised racists, with the exception of a few white heroes who joined the fight for freedom.
Therefore, redemption could only come from the outside. And indeed, world public opinion saw the injustice of apartheid and imposed a world-wide boycott on South Africa, till in the end the white minority capitulated. Power in the united South African state passed into the hands of the black majority, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and became president, and all this took place - wonder of wonders - without bloodshed.
If this happened in South Africa, the proponents of this view say, it must happen here, too. The idea of establishing a Palestinian state next to the State of Israel (the "Two-State Solution") must be discarded, and the single state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River (the "One-State Solution") must become the aim. This must be achieved by the ultimate weapon which proved itself in South Africa: boycott.
This is how it is going to happen: justice-lovers throughout the world will convince world public opinion to impose a general boycott on the State of Israel. The state will collapse and disintegrate. Between the sea and the river there will come into being one single state, in which Israelis and Palestinians will live peacefully together, as equal citizens. The settlers can stay where they are, there will be no problem of borders, and all that remains is to decide who will be the Palestinian Mandela.
THIS WEEK I listened to a lecture by Professor Ilan Pappe of Haifa University, one of the leading spokesmen for this idea. The audience consisted of Palestinian, Israeli and international activists in Bil'in, the village that has become a symbol of resistance to the occupation. He presented a well-structured set of ideas, expressed with eloquence and enthusiasm. These were the principles:
There is no sense in opposing just the occupation, nor any other particular policy of the Israeli government. The problem is the very essence of Israel as a Zionist state. This essence is unchangeable as long as the state exists. No change from the inside is possible, because in Israel there is no essential difference between Right and Left. Both are accomplices in a policy whose real aim is ethnic cleansing, the expulsion of the Palestinians not only from the occupied territories, but also from Israel proper.
Therefore, everyone who strives for a just solution must aim at the establishment of a single state, to which the refugees of 1948 and 1967 will be invited to return. This will be a joint and egalitarian state, like today's South Africa.
There is no sense in trying to change Israel from the inside. Salvation will come from the outside: a world-wide boycott of Israel, which will cause the state to collapse and convince the Israeli public that there is no escape from the One-State Solution.
It sounded logical and convincing, and the speaker did indeed gain applause.
THIS THEORETICAL structure contains several assumptions with which I have no quarrel. The Zionist Left has indeed collapsed in the last few years, and its absence from the field of struggle is a painful and dangerous fact. In today's Knesset, there is no effective Zionist party that is seriously fighting for real equality for the Arab citizens. Nobody is able today to call out into the street hundreds of thousands, or even tens of thousands, in order to pressure the government to accept the peace proposal of the whole Arab world.
There is no doubt that the real disease is not the 40-year long occupation. The occupation is a symptom of a more profound disease, which is connected with the official ideology of the state. The aim of ethnic cleansing and the establishment of a Jewish State from the sea to the river is dear to the hearts of many Israelis, and perhaps Rabbi Meir Kahane was right when he asserted that this is everybody's unspoken desire.
But unlike professor Pappe, I am convinced that it is possible to change the historical direction of Israel. I am convinced that this is the real battlefield for the Israeli peace forces, and I myself have been engaged in it for decades.
Moreover, I believe that we have already attained impressive achievements: the recognition of the existence of the Palestinian people has become general, and so has the readiness of most Israelis to accept the idea of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as the capital of both states. We have compelled our government to recognize the PLO, and we shall compel them to recognize Hamas. True, all this would not have happened without the steadfastness of the Palestinian people and (sometimes) favorable international circumstances, but the contribution of the Israeli peace forces, which pioneered these ideas, was significant.
Also, the notion has lately gained acceptance in Israel and other countries, that peace will be achieved only if we succeed in overcoming the gap between the Israeli and the Palestinian narratives and in integrating them into one single historical account, which will recognize the injustices which have been committed and which are still going on. Nothing is more important. (Our path-breaking booklet "Truth Against Truth" was the beginning of this process.)
On the surface, it appears that we have failed. We have not succeeded in compelling our government to stop the building of the wall or the enlargement of the settlements, nor to restore to the Palestinians their freedom of movement. In short, we have not succeeded in putting an end to the occupation. The Arab citizens of Israel have not attained real equality. But beneath the surface, in the depths of national consciousness, we are succeeding. The question is how to turn the hidden success into an open political fact. In other words: how to change the policy of the Israeli government.
THE IDEA of the "One-State Solution" will harm this effort very much.
It diverts the effort from a solution that has now, after many years, a broad public basis, in favor of a solution that has no chance at all.
There is no doubt that 99.99% of Jewish Israelis want the State of Israel to exist as a state with a robust Jewish majority, whatever its borders.
The belief that a world-wide boycott could change this is a complete illusion. Immediately after his lecture, my colleague Adam Keller asked the professor a simple question: "The entire world has imposed a blockade on the Palestinian people. But in spite of the terrible misery of the Palestinians, they have not been brought to their knees. Why do you think that a boycott would break the Israeli public, which is far stronger economically, so that they would give up the Jewish character of the state?" (There was no answer.)
In any case, such a boycott is quite impossible. Here and there, an organization can declare a boycott, small circles of justice-lovers can keep it, but there is no chance that in the coming decades a world-wide boycott movement, like the one that broke the racist regime in South Africa, will come about. That regime was headed by declared asmirers of the Nazis. A boycott of the "Jewish State", which is identified with the victims of the Nazis, just will not happen. It will be enough to remind people that the long road to the gas chambers started with the 1933 Nazi slogan "Kauft nicht bei Juden" ("Don't buy from Jews").
(The obnoxious fact that the government of the "State of the Holocaust Survivors" had close relations with the Apartheid State does not change this situation.)
That is the problem with the bed of Sodom: one size does not fit all. When the circumstances are different, the remedies must be different, too.
THE IDEA of the "One-State Solution" can attract people who despair of the struggle for the soul of Israel. I do understand them. But it is a dangerous idea, especially for the Palestinians.
Statistically, the Israeli Jews constitute, as of now, the absolute majority between the sea and the river. To that, one must add an even more important fact: the average annual income of an Arab Palestinian is about 800 dollars, that of a Jewish Israeli is about 20,000 dollars - 25 times (!) higher. The Israeli economy is growing every year. The Palestinians would be "hewers of wood and drawers of water". That means that if the imaginary joint state did indeed come into being, the Jews there would wield in it absolute power. They would, of course, use this power to consolidate their dominance and prevent the return of refugees.
Thus the South African example could come true retroactively: in the Single State, an apartheid-like regime would indeed come into being. Not only would the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not be solved, but on the contrary, it would move into an even more dangerous phase.
Pappe put forward an argument that looked a bit strange to me: that a Single State already exists in practice, since Israel rules from the sea to the river. But that is not so. There is no single state, neither formally nor in practice, but one state occupying another. Such a state, in which a dominant nation controls the others, will eventually disintegrate - as did the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
The One State will not come into being. Not only the Israelis, but most of the Palestinians, too, will not give up their right to a national state of their own. They can applaud an Israeli professor who advocates the dismantling of the State of Israel, but they have no time to wait for utopian solutions that could be realized in a hundred years. They need an end to the occupation and to achieve a solution to the conflict here and now, in the near future.
ALL WHO wholeheartedly want to help the occupied Palestinian people would be well advised to keep well away from the idea of a general boycott of Israel. It would push all Israelis into the arms of the extreme Right, because it would reinforce the right-wing belief that "All the world is against us" - a belief that took root in the years of the Holocaust, when "all the world looked on and kept silent". Every Israeli child learns this in school.
A focused boycott against specific organizations and corporations that actively contribute to the occupation can indeed help in convincing the Israeli public that the occupation is not worthwhile. Such a boycott can achieve a specific aim - if it is not aimed at the collapse of the State of Israel. Gush Shalom, to which I belong, has for 10 years been organizing a boycott of the products of the settlements. The aim is to isolate the settlers and their accomplices. But a general boycott on the State of Israel would achieve the very opposite - to isolate the Israeli peace activists.
THE "TWO-STATE SOLUTION" was and still is the only solution. When we put it forward immediately after the 1948 war, we could be counted on the fingers of two hands not only in Israel but in the entire world. Now there exists a world-wide consensus about it. The path to this solution is not smooth, many dangers lurk on the way, but it is a realistic solution that can be achieved.
One can say: OK, we will accept the Two-State Solution because it is realistic, but after its realization we shall endeavor to abolish the two states and establish one joint state. That is alright with me. As for myself, I hope that in the course of time a federation of the two states will come into being, and relations between the two will become close. I also hope that a regional union, like the EU, will be established, consisting of all the Arab states and Israel, and perhaps also Turkey and Iran.
But first of all we must treat the wound from which we are all suffering: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not by patent medicines, certainly not by a bed of Sodom, but with the medicines that are on the shelf.
THE 18th CHAPTER of Genesis tells of Abraham trying to convince the Almighty not to obliterate Sodom. "Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city; wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein?"
God promised him not to destroy the town if there were 50 righteous in it. Abraham haggled and brought the Almighty down to 45, then 40, 30 and 20, finally settling for 10. But in Sodom there were no 10 righteous to be found, and so its fate was sealed.
I believe that in Israel there are many, many more than ten righteous people. All public opinion polls show that the great majority of Israelis not only want peace, but are ready to pay its price. But they are afraid. They lack trust. They are shackled by the beliefs they acquired in early childhood. They must be freed from them - and I believe that it can be done.
GUSH SHALOM p.o.b. 3322 Tel Aviv 61033
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