The Israeli parliament’s passing of a quasi-constitutional ‘basic-law’ titled the ‘Nation-State of the Jewish People’ last week, signalled the passage into a more overt phase of Israeli Apartheid, but I am here in the Nation State of the Jewish People, and a day after the law’s passage, I couldn’t even hear commentary about it on the 4 PM news. Oh, the public did rush to the streets by the thousands, but it was because of the Surrogacy law which passed just before that, which excluded gay men. Gideon Levy asked: “Israel, where is your outrage at the legalization of apartheid?”, and concluded bitterly:
“The real oppressed can wait. Israel is marching in the pride parade.”
The law seems to be leaving ‘liberal-Zionists’ very little wiggle-room to still present themselves as liberals if they identify with such a state. Thus, the legendary conductor and pianist Daniel Barienboim declared dryly, “This racist new law makes me ashamed to be Israeli”. In his piece, which appeared first in Haaretz and then in The Guardian, he characterized the law as “a very clear form of apartheid”.
Let’s pause and focus on Daniel Barenboim, because he’s a very prominent artist, and despite being a persona non-grata in Israel, his view is actually representative of a rather moderate form of critique to Israel, in the vein of what we generally consider ‘liberal-Zionist’. If he is turning around and saying “I am ashamed”, it might be an indicator of things to come.
Barenboim is an artistic giant. He has a life achievement of being a virtuoso pianist, having performed internationally since he was 10, and an additional conducting career of the most prestigious institutions such as La Scala in Milano and several others. He has, together with the late Edward Said, formed the West-Eastern Divan orchestra (WEDO), based in Spain, consisting of young musicians generally from the Middle-East, including Egyptian, Iranian, Israeli, Jordanian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian and Spanish background. This is a very high-level orchestra, performing in the best of concert halls around the world.
The WEDO project was regarded by Said himself as “the most important thing I did in my life”, and that’s no small thing to say, coming from such a great Palestinian intellectual. The orchestra itself was a supposedly non-political experiment, one which represents “an alternative model based on equality, cooperation and justice for all.”
Nonetheless, the orchestra’s activity and message had eventually put it at odds with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement which was founded in 2005. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) wrote in 2010:
“By promoting this false symmetry or balance between the ‘two sides,’ WEDO is indeed promoting normalization.”
“The Divan refuses to even recognize, let alone oppose, Israel’s ethnic cleansing, occupation and system of racial discrimination as the root causes of the Arab-Israeli colonial conflict, sanitizing the very real oppressive reality on the ground with benign terms that are intended to project symmetry between oppressor and oppressed and moral parity between colonizer and colonized.”
Now, all this can seem somewhat upsetting for the liberals who seek “dialogue”. “Dialogue” is precisely what the orchestra is about, and even if it officially purports to be a non-political venture, it is clear that by its national framing, it is indeed giving out a political message.
PACBI claims that WEDO is dismissive of root causes of the ‘colonial conflict’. It is here that we should return to Daniel Barenboim himself, and his recent piece. Barenboim presents a very ideal picture of Israel at its founding:
The founding fathers of the state of Israel who signed the declaration in 1948 considered the principle of equality to be the bedrock of the society they were building. They also committed themselves “to pursue peace and good relations with all neighbouring states and people”.
This is beyond sanitizing. Zionists were ethnic-cleansers in the midst of ethnic-cleansing, who wrote a document that was itself supposed to whitewash their colonialist endeavor. “Equality” was anathema to their project, and it still is. That’s why they had to ethnically cleanse the vast majority of the Palestinians, because then the small minority left could give an alibi to a “Jewish and democratic” state. That’s why Zionists won’t let the refugees return. (Let it also be noted that these minority ‘equal citizens’ were first under military rule from 1949 to 1966).
Barenboim quotes the Israeli Declaration of Independence:
“The state of Israel will devote itself to the development of this country for the benefit of all its people; it will be founded on the principles of freedom, justice and peace, guided by the visions of the prophets of Israel; it will grant full equal, social and political rights to all its citizens regardless of differences of religious faith, race or sex; it will ensure freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”
But has it not been clear that Israel has violated this from day one? Has it only changed today?
Indeed, Barenboim concludes:
Seventy years on, the Israeli government has just passed a law that replaces the principle of equality and universal values with nationalism and racism. This law states that only the Jewish people have a right to national self-determination in Israel.
Yes, it has passed a law, but there have been many other racist and discriminatory laws. True, the law is of a higher status than other laws, in that it is a ‘basic law’, but there have been other basic laws which have been a clear violation of international law and a cementing of war-crimes, such as the Jerusalem law (1980), which de-jure annexed east-Jerusalem – this law is cited and repeated in the recent law as well.
Barenboim bemoans the “intolerable gap between what the declaration of independence promised and the realities of Israel”. But could this gap not be noticed from the start?
Barenboim is essentially trying to persuade us that Israel’s founding Declaration, which is a non-binding statement, should mean more than Israel’s subsequent formative constitution. Israel does not have a constitution, but it has been forming up a set of ‘basic-laws’ (the recent one is number 16), which are meant to incrementally form a constitution. In lieu of an actual constitution, these ‘basic-laws’ are the closest thing to an Israeli constitution. Hence, this recent ‘nation-state’ law is very much declaring, in open, “this is what we are”.
In response to the law, outgoing left (and opposition) leader Isaac Herzog offered a tepid response: “The question is whether the law will hurt or strengthen Israel,” he said. “History will be the judge. I very much hope the delicate balance between [Israel’s] Jewish and democratic aspects will not be upset.”
It’s not exactly a revolution that is going on in Zionist Israel about this law. In the end, it is mostly a cementing of what has been Israeli policy all along, and it is very Zionist. The problem with it for ‘liberal-Zionists’ is that it is so overt.
The law is making it hard to be associated with Israel, without being openly associated with an Apartheid regime.
Barenboim has made his claim, that Israel has passed a central, quasi-constitutional law which is “racist”, which is a “very clear form of apartheid”.
Now the question to be asked is, whether he still suggests “dialogue” with such an entity in any way or form, or whether he will eventually turn around, and say that this entity needs to be boycotted.
Because it’s one thing what people say. It’s one thing what Israel’s founders wrote on their Declaration. It’s another thing, what they do. And thus, the question is not just what Barenboim says, and that he says that he is “ashamed to be Israeli”. The question is, what he will do about it. Clearly, “dialogue” is not enough.