Hannah Mermelstein: “The End Of Israel?”


Richard Moore

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The End Of Israel?
By Hannah Mermelstein
22 December, 2007
The Electronic Intifada

I am feeling optimistic about Palestine.

I know it sounds crazy. How can I use "optimistic" and "Palestine" in the same 
sentence when conditions on the ground only seem to get worse? Israeli 
settlements continue to expand on a daily basis, the checkpoints and segregated 
road system are becoming more and more institutionalized, more than 10,000 
Palestinian political prisoners are being held in Israeli jails, Gaza is under 
heavy attack and the borders are entirely controlled by Israel, preventing 
people from getting their most basic human needs met.

We can never forget these things and the daily suffering of the people, and yet 
I dare to say that I am optimistic. Why? Ehud Olmert. Let me clarify. Better 
yet, let's let him clarify:

"The day will come when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South 
African-style struggle for equal voting rights. As soon as that happens, the 
state of Israel is finished."

That's right, the Prime Minister of Israel is currently trying to negotiate a 
"two-state solution" specifically because he realizes that if he doesn't, 
Palestinians might begin to demand, en masse, equal rights to Israelis. 
Furthermore, he worries, the world might begin to see Israel as an apartheid 
state. In actuality, most of the world already sees Israel this way, but Olmert 
is worried that even Israel's most ardent supporters will begin to catch up with
the rest of the world.

"The Jewish organizations, which were our power base in America, will be the 
first to come out against us," he told Haaretz, "because they will say they 
cannot support a state that does not support democracy and equal voting rights 
for all its residents."

Perhaps Olmert is giving American Jews too much credit here, but he does expose 
a basic contradiction in the minds of most American people, Jewish and not: most
of us -- at least in theory -- support equal rights for all residents of a 
country. Most of us do not support rights given on the basis of ethnicity and 
religion, especially when the ethnicity/religion being prioritized is one that 
excludes the vast majority of the country's indigenous population. We cannot, of
course, forget the history of ethnic cleansing of indigenous people on the 
American continent. But we must not use the existence of past atrocities to 
justify present ones.

I am optimistic not because I think the process of ethnic cleansing and 
apartheid in Israel/Palestine is going to end tomorrow, but because I can feel 
the ideology behind these policies beginning to collapse. For years the true 
meaning of political Zionism has been as ignored as its effects on Palestinian 
daily life. And suddenly it is beginning to break open. Olmert's comments last 
week are reminiscent of those of early Zionist leaders who talked openly of 
transfer and ethnic cleansing in order to create an artificial Jewish majority 
in historic Palestine.

We must expel the Arabs and take their places and if we have to use force to 
guarantee our own right to settle in those places -- then we have force at our 
disposal. - David Ben-Gurion, Israel's "founding father" and first prime 
minister, 1937

So this idea of a "two-state solution" a la Olmert -- which I would argue 
provides neither a "state" nor a "solution" for the Palestinian people -- is the
new transfer. It is no longer popular in the world to openly discuss expulsion 
(though there are political parties in Israel that advocate this), but Olmert 
hopes that by creating a Palestinian "state" on a tiny portion of historic 
Palestine, he can accomplish the same goal: maintaining an ethno-religious state
exclusively for the Jewish people in most of historic Palestine. His plan, as 
all other plans Israeli leaders have tried to "negotiate," ignores the basic 
rights of the two-thirds of the Palestinian population who are refugees. They, 
like all other refugees in the world, have the internationally recognized right 
to return to their lands and receive compensation for loss and damages. This 
should not be up for negotiation.

So why am I optimistic? Why do I think Olmert will fail, if not in the short 
term, at least in the long term? There are many signs.

The first and most important is that Palestinian people are holding on. 
Sometimes by a thread, but holding on nonetheless. Despite the hope of many in 
Israel, Palestinians will not disappear. They engage in daily acts of nonviolent
resistance, from demonstrations against the wall and land confiscation, to 
simply remaining in their homes against all odds. Young people are joining 
organizations designed to preserve their culture and identity. Older 
Palestinians have said to me, "We lived through the Ottoman Empire, we lived 
through the British Mandate, we lived through Jordanian rule, and we will live 
through Israeli occupation." This too shall pass.

In Israel, it seems that within the traditional "Zionist left," Jewish Israelis 
are beginning to have open conversations about the exclusivity of Zionism as a 
political ideology, and are questioning it more and more.

In the US, I have been traveling around speaking to groups about Palestine, and 
they get it. Even those whose prior information has come only from US mainstream
media, when they hear what is actually happening, they get it. When we explain 
the difference between being Jewish (a religion or ethnicity), Israeli (a 
citizenship), and Zionist (an ideology), people understand.

"Does Israel have a right to exist?" people ask. What does that mean? Do 
countries really have rights, or do people have rights? The Jewish people have a
right to exist, the Israeli people have a right to exist, but what does "Israel"
mean? Israel defines itself as the state of the Jewish people. It is not a state
of its citizens. It is a state of many people who are not its citizens, like 
myself, and is not the state of many people who are its citizens, like the 20 
percent of its population that is Palestinian. So if we ask a Palestinian 
person, "Do you recognize the right for there to be a country on your historic 
homeland that explicitly excludes you?" what kind of response should we expect?

So when Olmert warns that we will "face a South African-style struggle for equal
voting rights" and that "the state of Israel [will be] finished," I get a little
flutter of excitement. I think of the 171 Palestinian organizations who have 
called on the international community to begin campaigns of boycott, divestment,
and sanctions against Israel until Israel complies with international law. This 
is already a South African-style struggle, and we outside of Palestine need to 
do our part. Especially those of us who live in the US, the country that gives 
Israel more than $10 million every single day, must take responsibility for the 
atrocities committed in our name and with our money.

Ultimately, this is our role as Americans. It is to begin campaigns in our 
churches, synagogues, mosques, universities, cities, unions, etc. It is not to 
broker false negotiations between occupier and occupied, and it is not to muse 
over solutions the way I have above. But one can dream. And as a 
Jewish-American, I know that while it might be scary to some, while it will 
require a lot of imagination, the end of Israel as a Jewish state could mean the
beginning of democracy, human rights, and some semblance of justice in a land 
that has almost forgotten what that means.

Hannah Mermelstein is co-founder and co-director of Birthright Unplugged, which 
takes mostly Jewish North American people into the West Bank to meet with 
Palestinian people and to equip them to return to their own communities and work
for justice; and takes Palestinian children from refugee camps to Jerusalem, the
sea, and the villages their grandparents fled in 1948, and supports them to 
document their experiences and create photography exhibits to share with their 
communities and with the world. Anna Baltzer helped contribute to this article.

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