Right wing crazies — Remnick brings the curtain down on Zionism

Israel/Palestine
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The New Yorker this week carries the piece that I have been waiting for, a thorough report by David Remnick from inside radical-right Israel. It’s a great piece of reporting, marked by scary intimate moments with three crazies, Dani Dayan, Moshe Feiglin and Naftali Bennett, and it’s intellectually bold: Remnick is bringing down the curtain on Zionism. What began as a secular movement to create a democracy has devolved into the Tea Party, a religious ideology about the bible and the land– but a Tea Party with a major role in governing the country. Remnick’s distaste for Zionism’s endpoint floods this account. This judgment is at the core of his piece: 

Their ethnocentrism is full-throated, their suspicion of democratic institutions unabashed. A typical case is Miri Regev, a former I.D.F. spokesman and a Likud candidate: she has called Arab members of the Knesset “traitors” and undocumented African immigrants “a cancer.” Last year, Regev tried, and failed, to pass an annexation bill in the Knesset.

So: Their Zionism is racism. Remnick may not have much imagination but he’s a brilliant journalist, he knows how to find the story and convey it; and he has accepted the challenge of “What is this new Israel?” in a way that Peter Beinart and Jodi Rudoren have not. Remnick obviously holds a flickering candle for the two-state solution, for the re-rise of Labor, but he’s too smart to fool himself. The right has arrived and will only grow stronger. Nine months ago Remnick editorialized about Israel’s existential threat from within, now he is documenting it. His “nut” paragraph: 

More broadly, the story of the election is the implosion of the center-left and the vivid and growing strength of the radical right. What Bennett’s rise, in particular, represents is the attempt of the settlers to cement the occupation and to establish themselves as a vanguard party, the ideological and spiritual core of the entire country. Just as a small coterie of socialist kibbutzniks dominated the ethos and the public institutions of Israel in the first decades of the state’s existence, the religious nationalists, led by the settlers, intend to do so now and in the years ahead.

Remnick doesn’t show his hand here, he’s a reporter. But he obviously despises this crowd. Consider the cynicism of Dayan in this confession:

“…for me, in this rough neighborhood where we live, the Zionist enterprise needs something deeper [as a raison d’etre] that includes [settlements] Shiloh and Beit El. This is why we came here. . . . I’m a completely secular person, even a liberal person, but I sincerely believe that without Hebron, and all it represents from a historical and cultural point of view, we are a shallow people.”

What he represents, he tells his audiences, “is a handover of the baton from security-based Zionism to a Jewish-based Zionism. If we don’t do that, it won’t work. I don’t want to show off, but, among the national-religious leaders, that stuff—corruption, et cetera—doesn’t happen. In the Army, in the settlements, whether you like it or not, there is idealism.”

The slick, rising star Naftali Bennett is the focus of the piece, along with his goal of annexation:

To Bennett, there is nothing complex about the question of occupation. There is no occupation. “The land is ours”: that is pretty much the end of the debate. “I will do everything in my power, forever, to fight against a Palestinian state being founded in the Land of Israel,” he said. “I don’t think there is a clear-cut solution for the Israeli-Arab conflict in this generation.”

Remnick shows us Bennett’s slickness (his secular appeal) and gets past it. Whatever youthful attachment Remnick had to Zionism seems to have vanished in the cold light of the Judean hills. He wants Americans to know that these folks are crazy:

[Bennett supporter Rabbi Avichai] Rontzki has said that soldiers who show their enemies mercy will be “damned,” and, after a prisoner exchange with the Palestinians that he opposed, he said that the I.D.F. should no longer arrest terrorists but, rather, “kill them in their beds.” Dov Lior, the chief rabbi of the settlement of Kiryat Arba and Hebron, once called Baruch Goldstein “holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust”; he endorsed Bennett before moving on to a smaller, more reactionary party.

Both Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, his secular partner, put some distance between themselves and the likes of Rontzki and Lior; they insist that “politicians will make the decisions, not rabbis.” But they will not denounce such voices. The pages of Haaretz routinely report incidents of rabbinical or settler racism, and even many levelheaded conservatives acknowledge that in the past decade a kind of casual anti-Arab rhetoric has infected political life. “There are fewer inhibitions now about expressing hatred for the Arabs,” Yossi Klein Halevi, a scholar at the Shalom Hartman Institute, in Jerusalem, told me.

What is missing in this piece is political imagination– Haneen Zoabi and any idea of what democracy can do to extremists. The only way to marginalize the Tea Party is to let Everyone Vote– look at Scott Brown, who had to appeal to the mainstream. And the only way to marginalize the rightwing crazies is to let Everyone Vote. Desperate Labor says that Israel can be reformed by getting the 20 percent of Israeli society that is Palestinian to vote under the current system. But they don’t want to vote under Jim Crow! So, dammit change the system. 

The piece includes a visit to Assaf Sharon of Molad, an idealist I have tremendous respect for, who guided me to demonstrations, but it is a measure of his toughness of mind that Remnick doesn’t buy Sharon’s belief that the settlement enterprise can be reversed. The piece is bleak in its asides about binationalism and the tough neighborhood, but the more urgent warning is about the failure of democracy, and the violence that is bringing:

“This is all very bad news for the Palestinians,” Ghassan Khatib, the vice-president of Birzeit University, in Palestine, told me. “If Netanyahu and this new crowd come to power, there will be two casualties—the Palestinian Authority and the two-state solution. The simple practical changes on the ground—the settlement projects, the daily incidents of settler violence against our people—just do not allow for a two-state solution. Also, the radicalization of public opinion in Israel and the radicalization of the leadership reinforce each other. And that, of course, has an influence on public opinion in Palestine. The percentage of people here who support armed struggle is going up for the first time after ten years of decline. The Palestinian majority is still in favor of a two-state solution, but hopes are fading all the time.”…

“It seems that the next Israeli government will be much more radical,” Mkhaimar Abusada, a political-science professor at Al Azhar University, in Gaza, told me. “We are going to witness more settlements, a greater encirclement of East Jerusalem, and more frustration and despair. Which means we’ll have one of two scenarios: either meaningless negotiations or, if the stalemate continues, a new round of violence. And, in the end, violence is not a possibility—it’s almost a certainty.”

This is just what I’ve been pressing American journalists to do, bring the real story of Israeli extremism to mainstream readers. Given Remnick’s talents and influence, you can count on this despairing account to become the conventional wisdom.

Courage is discouraged. And so this is the moment of Naftali Bennett.

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