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In order to change Israel activists must disrupt Zionist space

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Rights activists in Israel often get this question from outside visitors: “What kind of support would be the most useful?” We on the ground ourselves don’t know how to be useful. We have no idea what usefulness is. We breed a culture of disorganization. It is the outside groups, and their organizational power, that fill us with awe.

The non-Zionist class or entity within the “48 areas” is uncombined into a civil body.  We are working without a unifying consciousness: Palestinian citizens and non-citizens, Jewish non-Zionist citizens, and those who are mixed, through relationships and intermarriage.

Last week I reconsidered the question of outside support in a café while waiting to meet an activist from one of these awe-inspiring organizations abroad. I don’t know why this particular café, in the very heart of Zionist Space, was chosen. Because it was “close by” (to what?). Because of its clean and quiet space (a relaxed scene!)? In the café there was a golden green awning and just past it you could almost think you saw a rolling green lawn. There were marigolds and lace curtains. Those gazing up from a dish could see a line of trees. It is Ramadan and beyond those three trees, in the haze, were the workers from the slums and ghettoes of displacement, clearing out space for the Zionist invention of new forms to contain its own vulnerability.

In fact, Zionist Space is absolutely uncompromising. It’s everything. It’s something much more than just Zionist-only areas by mandate (e.g., kibbutzim, moshavim shitufim, gated communities, building projects protected by Zionist-only admissions committees, JNF-owned nature spots, military zones and settlements), and de-facto Zionist-owned suburbs and commercial centers. Zionist Space is also comprised of (so-called) “Villages,” i.e., Palestinian zones that are produced, segregated and confined by the Zionist class for its own interests by brutal force. These, too, are, correctly speaking, Zionist Spaces, because their “natural development” is dictated by the Zionist class through its permanent, exclusive ownership of all of public institutions. Zionist Space, then, is territorial space as well as public social space (e.g., the military, the justice system, the financial sector, the health institutions, the intelligence agencies, the propaganda institutions or the educational institutions, and every repressive and ideological state apparatus.) Zionist Space is self-fortifying, so that whenever there are blatant cries of ‘petty’ apartheid or police brutality, citizens are asked to petition for “in-depth investigations” by a network of institutions run exclusively by the Zionist class. Yet some people try to support the rights of the Palestinian people, without at the same time weakening the Zionist class and wrestling its monopoly of all institutions or its space. That’s like saying you want to cut off the trunk without weakening the branches.

The relationship of the Zionist State to Zionist Space is one of utmost dependency. The massive state apparatus is hanging on the strength of a segregation which is always narrowing, always swinging in the breeze. Hence the fortification. Ultimately, it can only be shielded through the occupation, and increased ruthless violence at home and abroad. The collapse of segregated space as a stable independent variable, an unquestioned paradigm, cannot but usher the collapse of the Zionist class system. Zionist Space–which includes a seemingly effortless tedium undulating its way to and from Zionist-only residences, via  Zionist streets with Zionist planted trees, to Zionist jobs in Zionist-only institutions, across Zionist cities (we’re not talking predominantly ‘Jewish’ sections of cities, but even separate cities)–conceals an anxiety that persists and grows because it is as inherently unstable as it is oppositional to civil rights.

There’s a widespread belief here and abroad the Zionist state will only change, or retreat from its occupation “precipice” when compelled to do so by outside pressure. Outside and inside are not separate realms of action in Zionist Space–whose only purpose is to be exclusive, and yet whose problem is that it’s inherently permeable and vulnerable. On what hand, what you are (ontologically) and where you are (by Zionist placement and displacement) are fixed poles, between which Zionist-only institutions are reproduced. On the other hand, Zionist Space, aiming to be pure, has permanently loose “borders”. Space itself is the organizational challenge–and the boon. Expulsions of Palestinians have not yet managed to eliminate the right of return, but have blurred internal-external categories. All Jews external to Israel are internal to it by the exclusive rights vested in them, while Palestinian half-citizens are external to institutions of the Zionist state, that are permanently Zionist. In addition to this, there’s a basic inability to relate to the U.S. and Israel as separate matrices or entities (see here and here), especially with dual exertions of power in the depths of state. Outside pressure is, properly, outside and inside.

On its face, the “change-can-only-come-from-outside-pressure” mantra seems to be based on sensible, rather progressive principles. A class whose privilege–and whose account of selfhood–is predicated upon segregation, can have no will to end it without “outside pressure,” the theory goes. A regime not having to “pay a price for its occupation” has no interest in ending it. As a mode of operation, however, the theory discounts both the essential weaknesses of Zionist Space, and the tremendous power of “internal” pressure. It detracts from the pro-civil rights logic of counter-Zionism. It channels support away from organizing within. It reproduces orientalist fictions of a responsible, and all-powerful, “international community”. And it overlooks that activism is a transformative force.

All this gears towards an understanding of “belly-of-the beast” types of pressure points that are uniquely capable of disrupting Zionist Space. The territories occupied in 1967 have become the focus of international activism because every aspect of life is controlled by the occupier, there are walls and checkpoints, shootings and tear gassing of civilians, detentions without charge, child arrests, bulldozed houses and fields, military raids, unfit drinking water, humanitarian crises–“etc.” The strategic focus on West Bank colonial “settlements” is something that few question. Meanwhile, the placebos of power within the state are serving to inhibit significant internal/external pressures for historical redress. In the scheme of things, importance has to go to Zionist Space as an arena of change. Any civil rights activism without the conscious disruption of Zionist Space is only make-belief.

The Israeli expansion outwards (“separate and fully unequal”) is just a facet of the racist-spacist complex whose nucleus is in the banal streets and the quiet places “close by” in which you are now sitting, waiting for the activist “from outside”, as if you are suddenly unsure how to relate to the cream colored menus and the clean display, and the sign hanging right in your eye attributing the café’s success to hard work, and scrupulous care. Here is a perfect shot of Zionist Space: interior/exterior view. And you don’t know what you can make of it. Perhaps you can’t quite see yourself in it, you and “the folk to whom you belong.”

It is often pointed out that the expansionist project generates the military-security industry, and guinea pig populations on which control systems can be tested and marketed globally. But far more fundamentally to ordinary members of the Zionist class, the expansionist project functions as an elastic defense apparatus delaying assault on their internal space–their status quo–their purity. For Zionists, it’s “a space we can call our own.” Organizing against this organization of space has nothing to do with whether or not individuals happen to like living in their own traditional communities. Establishing presence and visibility in exclusive spaces removes the optics of irreversibility which surround them. This has been very compellingly put forward by the movements that are now building the way for radical economic transformation in South Africa. Andile Mngxitama, for example, “call[s] very openly” for “spatial invasion” as a needful process towards historical redress in South Africa: “Black people must actually go into the white spaces… to invade the suburbs, the beaches, the places which remain [exclusive].”  The argument is considered radical, because it calls for exclusive space in South Africa to be dismantled as a means to the realization of basic rights, and for civil disobedience to be deployed to that end. The urgent push for radical economic transformation–a redistribution of space as a necessary first part of historical redress–has layers of relevance when transferred and applied to the logic of Zionist Space, and the possibilities of organization around it. As long as space is organized according to the aspirations of the Zionist class, power equality is never a possibility. As long as Zionist Space is countenanced, any unwanted population concentrated in enclaves on desired land can be weakened, injured, expelled and politically and physically decimated. There is therefore no leisure to not organize against Zionist Space.

Yet such is the apparent culture of anti-organization here, that there is an argument on the part of some otherwise fine civil society groups on the ground that “we don’t take a unified stance on Zionism or statehood” because “it’s too divisive.” This fear of being minimized by divisions regarding Zionism is bizarre, and even more so when one hears it coming from groups that boast a few homogeneous handfuls of active participants. Then there are some self-styled radical Jewish activist bases that say, “we can’t take a position on Zionism or statehood out of consideration for our own privilege; that is a call that needs to first come clearly from Palestinian civil society.” It’s an organizational crisis, if indeed the reigning interpretation of “civil society” as authority means that segregation, the false two state “solution” and Zionist Space itself can’t be opposed by an explicit counter-Zionist coalition–if ceding the position of privilege means still directing the flow of ideas through abnegation, or solicitude–if no lines of difference can be drawn between different groups–if there’s no place for debating tactics, which depend on place–if language difference becomes the alibi for not rooting out real political difference, so that we actually get duplicate sets of various groups under identical names in Arabic and Hebrew, permanently segregated as if by language alone. This isn’t the place to discuss at length the organizational culture as it exists on the ground. Rather, it’s a call for self-accounting as regards the absence of a broad, “internal-external”, coherent counter-Zionist front.

The lack of such a front clearly invites a range of organizational problems within, and perpetuates the hegemony of Zionist Space. On an individual level it only exacerbates frustration, depression and apathy. The antidote, of course, is creating local counter-Zionist spaces where ideas can flow. And while BDS is indeed a way of exerting spatial pressure, there is a limit as to how many university educated elites on the ground can possibly engage in the cooking of its brew (supportive letters). If Zionist Space is to be returned to its rightful place at the center of the discourse, then Inside/Outside is the position from which to speak of it.

As the theme of this essay is organization and space, I’ll end with Kwame Ture’s series of famous talks on “Mobilization vs. Organization”. There was more than just one speech on this subject and one of the main ones was in New York City Slave Theater in late 1996 or early 1997,  reminding civil society that organization is not a means to a specific end; rather, organization is a belief system, an ideology in itself. Mobilization is temporary and issue-oriented; organization is ongoing and endless. Mobilization is turned against the mobilizer, but real power lies in the organized people. The struggle from within Zionist Space comes with a built-in difficulty to organize. We inside have been trained to think of space in a certain way that adversely affects the mounting of a front against the Zionist class’s monopoly of all public institutions. Activists must understand their position vis-à-vis the real front line–space itself–so that the focus on the 1967 occupation should never deflect away from the very reversible mappings created by the Zionist class for the benefit of itself (to the detriment of Palestinians and the non-Zionist classes.)

This is a shot of Zionist Space, interior/exterior view. It’s a supposedly stable arrangement, where different types of people get up in the morning and sleep at night. It’s a space where some people can marry into their own caste. It’s where one achieves one’s self-validation. Perhaps you can see what we can make of it.

Shimrit Baer

Shimrit Baer is a US-Israeli citizen and writer. She has done comparative research on South African apartheid in relation to Israel and Palestine. She supports the BDS movement.

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7 Responses

  1. JosephA on June 21, 2017, 7:20 pm

    Wow, thank you for the thorough analysis.

  2. eljay on June 22, 2017, 7:45 am

    I’m a pretty average person, so I have a hard time with the torrents of highbrow babble some authors feel convey information better than a few clear and concise paragraphs.

    Is the author saying that the best / most effective way to counter Zionism is not (only) to target the religion-supremacist “Jewish State” construct and its (war) criminal actions but to (also) expose and discredit the injustice and immorality of the ideology and its associated privileges?

  3. Liz on June 22, 2017, 9:27 am

    It’s refreshing to read about the vulnerability of Israelis who know they have been complicit and are questioning it. It’s the first step in making change and might be a wake up call for other Israelis to organize more as they process their own role in the occupation.

  4. echinococcus on June 22, 2017, 3:51 pm

    We on the ground ourselves don’t know how to be useful.

    Good. Forget all the rest of your babble. If you want to be useful, you get the hell out of that “ground”. That will make one invader fewer; every little bit helps. If you’re so inclined, you can be useful –much more!– from abroad.

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