It’s not about cultural merit

In yesterday’s Ha’aretz, Gideon Levy argues for the abandonment/removal of Israel’s illegal settlements from an uncommon standpoint: He lambasts the settlements, as civic/economic/aesthetic entities, for their lack of contribution to the betterment of Israeli society, and says that this ‘uselessness’ is why we need to stop the settlement project.

They haven’t managed to produce anything of their own. No theater, no museum, no music and no dance, very little literature and no meaningful creative work. … These are comatose cities in which no advanced or meaningful industry has ever grown except one bagel factory and a few workshops, most of them imported from central Israel, despite all the benefits and discounts lavished on the settlements. … Crowded but empty, this should have been the ultimate proof of their uselessness.

While I agree with much of what it says, I really don’t like this Gideon Levy piece—even though I get that he could just be trying to persuade Israeli society to oppose settlements using a new rationale. But to argue merit through cultural achievement is a rotten game. As a Palestinian, this makes me easily recall how Israelis often use the supposed cultural/industrial inferiority of “the Arabs”—How many Arab Nobel laureates are there compared to Jewish, they propose—to soothe their guilt for what Israel has done to Palestinians. (By the way I sense, through his writings, that even the leftist Israeli Uri Avnery is guilty of this.)

Anyhow Levy’s point is easy to debunk: Let’s say the settlements produced great artists and advanced industry that greatly enriched Israeli lives; would this grant them immunity from condemnation? They’d still be the same racist colonial projects.

Posted in Israel/Palestine

{ 16 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. His basic argument is that they are artificial, imposed.

    I’m not sure how you missed that.

    • Mooser says:

      Gosh, Richard, it’s a point you seem to have missed, too. In fact, you think the settlers are entitled to keep them. And have argued for that “self-determination” in many posts.
      Or as “artificial” and “imposed” more pleasant to you as euphemisms for “illegal”?

  2. clenchner says:

    There’s something else. The settler movement’s core made a number of arguments directed at the broader Israeli society. Some of them have been discarded over the years, like the one that settlements helped Israel’s security situation. (No one says that anymore….)
    Another is that the settlers are like the early Zionist pioneers, redeeming the land as part of the flourishing of the Jewish people’s presence in their homeland. The knitted kippa orthodox are echoes of the secular socialist founders of the state (the argument goes) and worthy of the same kind of respect.
    This is the pillar that Levy is attacking. Because the previous generation of pioneers was accompanied by men and women of letters – poets, authors, playwrights, artists, musicians – whose contributions helped define the newly established Israeli society. But the settler movement has not only failed to impact the larger society in the same way (an impossible task) they haven’t even made baby steps to interact with the Israeli national culture at all.
    In this way, they are less like the early pioneers, and more like the ultra-orthodox of the early state years, focused entirely on sectoral concerns and connected to the larger society only politically, though client/patron relationships with other parties and government branches.
    The accusation that the settler movement has, over the course of decades, failed to culturally influence Israeli society in ways that cut across the secular/religious divide is accurate, and it turns the entire burden of occupation into a matter of sectoral patronage as opposed to national effort with a mix of costs and benefits.
    The occupation would not be any less wrong if Ariel and Gush Etzion produced pop stars, talk show hosts, celebrity professors and song writers of note. But it would be a stronger occupation, better able to market itself to certain Israeli and diaspora internal audiences.
    Levy does well to make this argument. Unfortunately, no one reads him in Israel proper. The right sees red and skips over, the left thinks ‘oy, how terrible everything is’ and skips over. He chronicles what few in Israel want to deal with.
    I used to skip his articles myself, thinking ‘it’s great that we have him, but I’ve earned the right to not read this awful stuff as I travel to my next peace demonstration.’

    • Mooser says:

      Now, don’t be too hard on the settlements! Don’t they provide any number of IDF soldiers, and some of its officers?
      While the artistic merits of the settlers may be in doubt, no one can attack their patriotism!

      • clenchner says:

        An increasing number of officers are settlers, though the problem is more serious if we look at the numbers of nationalist orthodox, whether they live in the settlements are not. (I’m fairly certain that most do not.)
        The thing is, and this will sound crazy, the military as an institution is on the decline in Israeli society. Yes, it has lots of power, etc., etc., and commits all kinds of nefarious acts. But – the percentage of men conscripted and serving a full term is down, and in some quarters, the numbers willing to volunteer to serve as officers is down.
        It makes a difference which quarter. Specifically among the elite of Israeli society, the largely ashkenazi urban, educated and professional classes, the military is no longer a desirable career option as it once was for the cream of the crop. Instead, those folks are quite reasonably looking at the hi-tech sector and other economic activities as the best place to spend their productive years.
        Smaller and smaller percentages are sharing the burden of reserve duty – but especially, again, among those who in the past could be counted on. The military itself was recently caught in a scandal involved an alleged scheme to help someone become chief of staff over a competitor. And remember the former chief of staff, who right after a decision to launch Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon, hurried to his bank to sell from his investment portfolio?
        These are signs of a decline in the moral fiber of the army. You can add all the reports of looting during the re-occupation of West Bank cities in the 2nd Intifada, the photos of soldiers posing with bodies, and so on.
        Pointing out the cultural problem inherent in the settler project puts Levy on the other side of a debate. While the small tenters point to the West Bank settlement project as the logical epitome of Zionism, Levy argues that its more like taking the logic to a reductionist absurdity – killing Zionism to save it, or something like that.
        He proposes to kill the settler project, the occupation project, to ensure the survival of Israel and the original Zionist project. And so, he has earned the mockery of folks who earnestly hope to pair Israel and her settlements forever, as the best way to see Israel drown, like a bag of cats tied to a rock.
        It’s the recurring alliance between settlers-sympathizers and small tent supporters of Palestine vs. humanists who support granting national rights to both peoples, as they seem to desire.

  3. Diane Mason says:

    I care more about making Israel do the the right thing than about making it do the right thing for the right reason. I don’t care what arguments are used to undermine the settlements, so long as they end up gone.

  4. Les says:

    The settlements are appendages to all that is wrong in Israel and with Zionism.

  5. MHughes976 says:

    The Israeli project has come to depend on settlements not as a rational means of ‘security’ but as a symbol, rather an indispensable one I think, of power and supremacy. Symbols can be treacherous: if the Abbasids managed to get an effective settlement freeze, even a freeze not an immediate withdrawal, there would be a sense all around the world that the tide had turned and that Israel was in a retreat that would not necessarily lead to a neat 2-state solution but might turn into an effective ‘anti-apartheid’ type of struggle. Which is probably why it won’t, can’t happen.
    Which means that the ugly, plastic settlers are necessary for the fine, scented flowers of Real Israel to exist in serenity, either not wasting time thinking about the problem – we hear on another thread that they’re tired of the whole business – or telling themselves how high their moral plane, compared with that of the settlers (Torah Hamelech! What rubbish! Ugh!) now is.
    Diane hopes, as I understand her, for Israel to do the right thing and proceed from there. But I’m not sure that Israel has that option, only the options of not proceeding with Zionism at all or of never doing the right thing.

    • Mooser says:

      “But I’m not sure that Israel has that option, only the options of not proceeding with Zionism at all or of never doing the right thing.”

      Bingo and bulls-eye!

    • rmokhtar says:

      If for Israelis, peace with the Palestinians is not seen as a dire issue, then what is the likelihood that they will let go of Zionism?

      link to!

      “During the period of a couple of months this year when there was a great deal of high visibility, back and forth accusations, … when vice president Biden visited Israel…there was a great deal of back and forth:

      Please stop settlements
      Israel: No
      Please stop some settlements
      Israel: No
      Please stop some settlements not including Jerusalem for just a little while
      Israel: Well, maybe….NO

      And then the US stopped asking. So what we got was…a quite artificial claim of a settlement freeze that has not been a real freeze..and we ignoring the fact that Israel has under prior agreements… agreed to a settlement freeze…a series of requests does not constitute pressure if there’s no consequences for saying no”

      US Please stop being so Zioracist
      Israel: No

      There it ends.

      It doesn’t matter, whether it’s a one-state or two-state solution, holding Israel accountable for its actions is the one thing that will make any solution work.

    • Avi says:


      Exactly. That’s essentially the core issue here which Israel and Israeli society continues to avoid and ignore.

  6. The primary argument made by the settlers regarding the safety of the rest of Israel, is that if Israel gives up the West Bank up to the borders of 67, the core of the country will be vulnerable to missile attacks like the city of Sderot and the security of the country will be hanging by a thread. Not that the settlements themselves provide security, but the settlements stop the withdrawal which would hurt the security.

    • Avi says:

      So according to that (long debunked) rationale what’s stopping Palestinians in the West Bank from launching rockets at settlements — I’m not even talking about Israel, forget Israel for a second — is the …..wait for it….the settlements.

      Nevermind the simple fact that in the event Israel withdrew to the 1967 line, Palestinians would have no reason to launch rockets at anyone, unless of course you buy into Israeli hasbara that alleges that Palestinians are committed to “Israel’s destruction” — as if they could, even if they tried, given the power imbalance.

      And that brings up another question, if the existence of a Palestinian state so close to Israel threatens its very existence or threatens Israeli towns, then what’s the point of negotiating for a two state solution? Ergo, what’s the point of claiming that Israel seeks to reach a just peace based on a two state solution?

      These are of course, rhetorical questions, questions for which I have answers. But I ask them because they illustrate well the fraudulent and bad-faith agenda which Israel and its “ambassadors” support.

      • tree says:

        Of course its a brilliant, if totally immoral, justification for never-ending expansion. You have to grab more and more territory and dispossess more and more people just to secure your previously grabbed territory from the wrath of the people that you dispossessed. Rinse repeat ad infinitum, and then in a stunning display of an utter lack of empathic feeling, you too can wonder why so many people dislike you.

    • sherbrsi says:

      The primary argument made by the settlers regarding the safety of the rest of Israel, is that if Israel gives up the West Bank up to the borders of 67, the core of the country will be vulnerable to missile attacks like the city of Sderot and the security of the country will be hanging by a thread.

      Isn’t that what the occupation was supposed to accomplish, if there ever was a rationalization for it? If yes, then adding the settlements to the mix for the same purported goal is redundant, to say the least.

      Not that the settlements themselves provide security, but the settlements stop the withdrawal which would hurt the security.

      So the end purpose of the settlements is to maintain permanent Israeli presence in the OT, thus simultaneously and unavoidably blocking the emergence of an independent Palestinian state.

      Well, then the settlers and anti-settlers are agreed: the peace process is a facade as Israel has no intention of giving up on the OPT, and ergo Israel will keep colonizing while there is no allowance for a Palestinian state.