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Ofra Yeshua-Lyth and the case for a new Israeli left

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“Fatah’s slogan was we want a secular democratic state,” recalls Ofra Yeshua-Lyth, a former foreign correspondent for the Israeli daily Ma’ariv. I remember myself as a journalist explaining that a secular democratic state is actually a call for the annihilation of Israel.  Today I say the same thing.  It’s true, but now I support it.”

Ofra and I are sitting in a café on a pedestrianized rue in Tel Aviv’s Florentin district.  Scrawls of animal rights graffiti have appeared as fast as new cafés and boutiques since the last time I was here.  It’s a quickly gentrifying stretch of Florentin, Ofra points out.  Dog owners walk their dogs.  Water drips lazily from leaking air conditioner units onto the pavement.  There is no sign of an Israel/Palestine conflict here.  How to explain such a society?  The Case for a Secular New Jerusalem, the new English edition of Ofra’s book, first published in Hebrew in 2004, attempts to explain precisely this. Through the eight chapters of the book, Ofra puts forth the argument that of all the competing visions for a future of Europe’s Jews that circulated in the early Zionist movement, the eventual triumph of a mostly religious/cultural model, now enshrined in the Israeli state, is the most self-destructive.  Religion, she argues, is the cancer of Israeli society. “One of the book experts who read it said that people who can’t stand Zionism wouldn’t like this book because it’s too easy on Israeli society,” Ofra says. “It describes it as a normal place, more or less.  For Israelis and Jews, it’s impossible because they can’t stand the bottom line.”

What is the bottom line?  Part life history, part memoir from a gloomy post-Oslo haze, and part polemic against Israel’s religious-political makeup, the book is many things.  It is a multifaceted portrait of internal issues within Israel, an understanding of which, I believe, should be a prerequisite for a critique of Israel.  It is a society, Ofra tells me, that “inflicts a lot of misery on itself.”  This is not to be confused with the “shoot and cry” discourse, an institutionalized attempt to humanize Israel’s military aggression, so pervasive in Israel’s self-portraits in politics, poetry, literature, and film.  Rather, Ofra’s book is an existential depiction of a society that exists, and shows that this existence is complicated by matters that are often not immediately linked to Palestinians.  But, then again, they are.  Regarding this, Ofra, a key organizer with the anti-Zionist activist group One Democratic State (ODS), makes her political position precise: “It’s to stop the regime.  Today I consider myself first of all an opponent of the regime.”

Chatting with Ofra about her personal evolution from the mainstream Israeli narrative to a supporter of the two-state solution to a continuing political metamorphosis that pushes her increasingly farther into the radical left, it’s apparent that supporting the Palestinian narrative as a Jewish Israeli raises more questions than answers.  She tells me, for instance, about her friends who boycott elections in Israel, a gesture of civil disobedience against the state to which she is ambivalent: “I always refused to boycott the elections and voted for Hadash or Balad [the Arab-Israeli parties] and said that we want these people in,” Ofra tells me. “I’m not sure anymore.  It’s not something I have answers to.”

Ofra left Ma’ariv years ago and these days runs a consulting firm, but her passion is her work with ODS, with which she has been involved for eight years.  Despite her energy for which she is admired in Tel Aviv’s leftist circles, she admits that the group’s success in advocating a one state solution to the Israel/Palestine impasse has thus far been underwhelming in lieu of an Israeli society that is becoming increasingly religious. “ODS doesn’t have grassroots support in the way that religious movements have,” she says. “It doesn’t offer any congregational comfort in the way that religious groups do.  It’s an idea that’s accepted by lots of people, even lots of Israelis deep down.  But we haven’t cracked it.”

To speak of cracking the inner worlds of Israelis is ambitious.  All recent signs point to the opposite occurring.  Leftist Israelis are leaving in hordes, and the emigration of Sayed Kashua, the celebrated Palestinian writer of Hebrew, is one recent and tragic example of Palestinian citizens of Israel in the public sphere doing the same.  Talk of a shared Arab/Jewish future sounds distant and utopic after the Summer’s massacres in Gaza.  Palestinians from the West Bank also constantly talk of leaving.  I’m sometimes asked by Palestinians for help in writing motivation letters for jobs in Europe, or assistance in finding scholarships to American universities.  Who will remain in the saddest strip of the Eastern Mediterranean?

In researching and writing about activism in Israel, as I have been doing for the last few years, the question I keep coming back to is how individuals who totally reject their own society, as Ofra does, can nonetheless continue living in it.  I have as yet been unable to answer this question.  Knowing Ofra and her work with ODS prior to reading her book, I can’t help but relate the autobiographical memories in Ofra’s book to the activist identity that Ofra would later develop.  For an anthropologist like myself, Ofra’s book is as interesting for what she wants to share about her world as it is for being something of an anthropology of all the Ofras of Israel in what the reader can intuit about the being-in-the-world of these most liminal individuals.  In the words of Victor Turner, they are “threshold people” who “elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space.”

The experience of being an anti-Zionist activist in Israel is often critiqued by Palestinians and Palestine solidarity activists.  Most recently, a debate briefly arose, tweedled a bit, and vanished into the crevices of social media chaos during the Gaza massacres, in which the alienation in suffering from a marginal political position in Israel was dismissed in comparison to the obviously much greater suffering of Palestinians both past and present.  This discourse saddens me.  How Israel is able to handle internal dissidence is a so closely related to how Palestinian freedom might be shaped.  It is not at all irrelevant.  In The Case for a New Jerusalem, Ofra views this shaping coming from a departure from the religious component of Israel’s sociopolitical foundation, and not necessarily the more complicated and multivocal ethnic/collective consciousness makeup of Israeli mythistory.  “We sent the book to some experts, and they all said that religion is irrelevant to the Israel/Palestine conflict,” Ofra tells me. “They said it’s an old hat, that it has nothing to do with religion.  This is the Marxist view.  The book was disliked by Zionists, but it was also disliked by the left wing.  The Marxist ideology would say that it’s all about a class/colonial struggle.”

These are deeply serious questions that need to be answered.  This search for answers must come not only from within Israel, but also from Palestinians and the world.  I reiterate here that a critique of Israel, or a rejection, should be preceded by an understanding of it.  This is the value of Ofra’s book.  “We can’t make these discussions in the Israeli public sphere,” Ofra tells me. ”I hope these subjects will become a respectable subject for discussion in Israel or abroad.”

Arpan Roy

Arpan Roy is an anthropologist currently living in Nablus. His research is on activism and dual narratives in Israel/Palestine.

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19 Responses

  1. eljay on October 9, 2014, 10:03 am

    >> “I remember myself as a journalist explaining that a secular democratic state is actually a call for the annihilation of Israel. Today I say the same thing. It’s true, but now I support it.”

    It’s very dramatic-sounding, but it’s not true. A secular democratic state – that is, the end of Jewish supremacism and supremacist “Jewish State” – does not mean or have to mean an end to Israel.

    • bilal a on October 9, 2014, 8:19 pm

      We can still preserve privilege in a secular democratic multicultural state; indeed this is the optimal solution for power with the facade of democracy.

      New York city is the perfect example of a one state solution, indeed one party solution , rule by plutocrats.


      • Stephen Shenfield on October 12, 2014, 7:36 am

        I agree with bilal a. Besides these not so united states, post-apartheid South Africa is a good example. Although a small stratum of nonwhites have profited from the change of regime and some forms of oppression have been abolished (the pass system), wealth remains concentrated in white hands. White landowners continue to mistreat their black laborers, white-owned companies continue to exploit black miners. In the same way, Jewish supremacy could survive the transition to a secular “democratic” state. So why not continue to call it “Israel”?

    • piotr on October 10, 2014, 2:31 pm

      It is definitely a “bomb throwing” way to put it, but it does not make it untrue. Clearly, you can have a different state with the same territory and inhabitants as before. We cover a discussion about those issue on a TV program where an Israeli pretended to be a guest from some entity not known to geographers and travellers, and which could be called TODITME, The Only Democracy In The Middle East. He claimed TODITME not to be Jewish but a secular state that does not pay the official priesthood to determine who can be a citizen a who cannot, who can marry to whom, and issue curses to those who would rent or sell to infidels, and urge a Holy War. Besides being secular, TODITME also exhibited “amazing diversity”. In partial congruity, one could try to create ADITME, “A democracy in the Middle East”. ADITME could support other democracies in the region, while TODITME has to support dictators and hereditary absolute rulers, lest it looses its “The Only” status.

      One can imagine that our imaginary TODITME would recognize that Lebanon is a democratic state and that would be the end of it. Good bye, TODIME, welcome ADITME.

  2. pabelmont on October 9, 2014, 10:36 am

    Sounds good, but won’t go far.

    Anyhow, when people speak of a democratic society, they should always (at least in Israel’s case) pay attention to the tension between “One Enfranchised-Citizen One Vote” and Israel’s decision (1948 and thereafter) about who shall be counted as an Enfranchised-Citizen.

    The exiles of 1948 and thereafter are not merely suffering from human rights abuse; they are also suffering from removal from voting rolls. so are all the Palestinians living in Gaza and West Bank including occupied Jerusalem (East Jerusalem), at least as to citizenship within Israel.

    • wondering jew on October 9, 2014, 11:12 am

      pabelmont- I cannot testify as to the difficulty or ease of attaining Israeli citizenship by East Jerusalem Palestinians, nor to the motivations not to attain such citizenship, but in fact there is a path of citizenship available to East Jerusalem residents.

      • on October 9, 2014, 11:24 am

        That’s just not so as I understand the facts.

        There is no such thing as an Israeli citizen.

        There are, in the Israeli legal system, only Jews and Others.

        A unanimous rejection met the appeal of 21 members of the “Ani-Israeli” (I am Israeli) association headed by the linguist Professor (emeritus) Uzzi Ornan. Their request, as represented by the lawyers Yoella Har-Sheffi and Yosef Ben Moshe, was to be registered as Israeli nationals, instead of the common practice of registering the nationality according to their ethnic origins or the religion of their parents. Petitioners included Jews, Arabs, a Burmese, a Druze and a Russian. The appeal had been shuffled in the courts’ hierarchy for over ten years before it finally and ultimately was rejected by a venerable panel of three Supreme Court Justices headed by no other then the President, the Honorable Asher Grunis. The verdict decried clearly and unambiguously that there is not and cannot be one nationality for all Israeli citizens. [1] This stirred a certain interest in Israel, and was received with some real amazement in overseas circles that follow news from this country, including those who could – at last – receive an official confirmation to their years-long suspicions about the real nature of the Israeli regime.

  3. seafoid on October 9, 2014, 11:20 am

    An earlier Jewish revolutionary in Erez Israel said you have to go to where the money is, and start agitating there. The scribes and the pharisees won’t do anything otherwise.

    • W.Jones on October 9, 2014, 12:14 pm

      He didn’t necessarily say that, although He did agitate among some rich people.

      • Mooser on October 10, 2014, 11:10 am

        Just so it’s clear, are we talking about him or Him? I mean is it a he or a He?

  4. W.Jones on October 9, 2014, 12:13 pm

    “We sent the book to some experts, and they all said that religion is irrelevant to the Israel/Palestine conflict,” Ofra tells me. “They said it’s an old hat, that it has nothing to do with religion. This is the Marxist view. The book was disliked by Zionists, but it was also disliked by the left wing. The Marxist ideology would say that it’s all about a class/colonial struggle.”
    There’s a religious aspect too. Why not make a book on that component? Are those “experts” trying to avoid a full critique and take out the religious dimension because it hits close to home for them?

    Also, there is not really a primarily class component, unless one looks at US involvement.
    The Dynamic of Israeli society is not Israeli capitalists exploiting Palestinian workers like in South Africa, as Chomsky noted. Rather, Israeli society tries to displace Palestinian society as a whole. This is more colonial than classist. Now, if you look at US support, there is a class dimension, because US politics is classist. The voices of, say, working class Arab Americans aren’t being heeded. Rather, the politics of ruling class groups are heeded.

    • Stephen Shenfield on October 12, 2014, 7:48 am

      Leftists have understandable reasons for not wanting to open the can of worms labeled “religion” — especially in the Middle East, where openly opposing religion is still equivalent in many countries to signing one’s own death warrant. Marxism provides a convenient theoretical justification for avoiding the issue. Moreover, criticism of one religion often implies criticism of all religions, especially when the main religions are as closely related as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. For example, when I criticized admiration of the Jewish patriarch for being willing to sacrifice his son I was aiming at Judaism, but Moslem readers of Mondoweiss were among those who took offense — this is a story shared by all the religions of the book. So it is safest not to criticize any of those religions and claim that religion is irrelevant to the conflict, which is at best a half-truth (i.e., a half-lie).

  5. adele on October 9, 2014, 12:48 pm

    Ms. Yeshua-Lyth wears a Handala necklace. #Respect

  6. ivri on October 9, 2014, 4:43 pm

    The interesting thing in here is that matters have become so convoluted that the most basic ideas sells as sensational. For starters: the one state situation is already there. It is common wisdom already that the obstacles to the 2 state solution on behalf of the PA is because they simply don`t want it (and rightly so – creating yet another unviable mini-state in the altogether miniature piece of land that is at stake is a joke, not a plan). What they do want, a one-state, is what we already de-facto have except that the exact political framework for it is not there yet. All the threats, the dramas and the low-intensity violence etc. are merely parts of the bargaining process in regard to how this political framework will come out – after all, this is the land of the Bazaars, where bargaining, long, tiring and often “dramatic”, is the norm.
    We live in a world where market economy reigns and from that angle it is easy to verify that just about in all aspects Israel + the West-Bank is already a one-zone unified market. Also the Palestinian leaders/negotiators are not treated anymore as enemies (except in bargaining intended rhetoric) and whereas in the days of the Intifada they were potential targets of assassination they are now welcomed participants in academic conferences in Israel. Then, the forces there are trained by the US and work hand in hand with Israel to block terror and extremism.
    Now if you add it all up (and the above is just part of the picture) – the conclusion is as clear as the sunshine. Granted, there are all kinds of vested interests for keeping the picture obscure and confusing – but why intelligent people, like the writer, falls for that?

  7. lonely rico on October 10, 2014, 4:25 am


    All the threats, the dramas and the low-intensity violence etc. are merely parts of the bargaining process …

    So that’s what you call the rape of Gaza last summer ?
    Some “drama and low-intensity violence etc.” ?
    As part of the bargaining process !?


    • ivri on October 10, 2014, 7:13 am

      You are right, Gaza is a separate case (in my comment I referred to the West-Bank). It can be interpreted in two different ways. One is that they are just mush harsher bargainers – using real warring (not the “low-intensity” violence in the West-Bank) in order to try to get what they want, which is a lot more than the West-Bank PA realistically aims at. Alternatively, they are the “Refusniks” of the Palestinian camp (or of the Arab world at large) – ready to fight forever so as to achieve the “grand goal” of undoing the creation of Israel.
      The near-term developments will reveal which of the two is gaining the upper hand within the leadership ranks there. Some might conclude that given the meagre outcome of the recent warring episode versus the much preparatory efforts invested in it and the big hopes attached to the tunnels-cum-missiles strategy as a “game changer (as well as the lost support in the Arab world) they should join the West-Bank PA and switch to a strategy that tries to reach some workable settlement, a non-military modus-vivendi, with Israel. Others may want “to fight to the end” whatever the costs. it`s all hanging on the balance now and time will tell which way it will go.

      • Mooser on October 10, 2014, 11:14 am

        Ivri, if I didn’t know any better, I would think Mondoweiss sends you checks. You couldn’t do a better job of making both Zionism, Israel, and Zionists reprehensible if you were paid for it. And that’s three out of two!

  8. seafoid on October 10, 2014, 6:56 am

    Zionism is about to rejoin reality and it’s going to hurt

    The House of Commons is likely to recognise Palestine as a state for the first time on Monday as MPs debate a motion on its right to independence.

    Labour MPs will be whipped to vote in favour of the motion calling on the government to recognise Palestine as a state, while many Liberal Democrats and some Conservatives are also likely to back it. However, the motion is only symbolic and ministers will abstain, since the official position of the government is to support negotiations for a two-state solution.

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