An impassioned book explains why western support for the Jewish state is waning as US-backed Zionist nationalism further subjugates Palestinians
Book review: Ben White's Cracks in the Wall looks at Israel in isolation
Zionism used to be a cause of the left in the West. As George Orwell wrote in 1945, Britain’s “Labour Party, and the left generally, is very strongly committed to support the Jews against the Arabs”. The political mobilisation for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine predated the Holocaust by decades – Einstein was applauding, in 1929, the immigrant Jewish “men and women of magnificent intellectual and moral calibre” who were “breaking stones and building roads under the blazing rays of the Palestinian sun” – but in the immediate aftermath of Nazi Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, the case for Israel made itself. No one with a conscience could object, as the full extent of Hitler’s crimes against Jews became apparent, to the establishment of a state for them.
But as Jawaharlal Nehru informed Einstein, who had been pressed by Zionist luminaries to lobby the Indian leader’s support for the Jewish state in the run-up to the UN vote to partition Palestine in 1947, a “not unimportant fact seems to have been overlooked” in the moral argument for Israel: “Palestine was not a wilderness, or an empty, uninhabited place. It was already somebody else’s home.”
Einstein sought to reassure Nehru – and, by extension, the non-Arab, non-western world – that Zionism was an inclusive nationalist ideology: “Can Jewish need, no matter how acute, be met without the infringement of the vital rights of others?” he asked. “My answer is in the affirmative.” Seven decades on, Einstein’s faith seems almost naive.
To critics of Israel, the reactionary right that today governs that nation is the logical culmination of – rather than being an aberration from – a statehood premised on ethno-religious nationalism. Originating in a Zionist prescription for the protection of Jews, Israel has mutated into an instrument of persecution of the Palestinians. Today, Benjamin Netanyahu invokes Israel’s foundational logic to expand its borders and extend Palestinian dispossession.
Israel today, Ben White reminds readers in Cracks in the Wall: Beyond Apartheid in Palestine/Israel, is a cause of the right. A senior Israeli diplomat cited by White admitted as much when he wrote in an American magazine that, in the US, especially since the election of Donald Trump, his country “is increasingly becoming an exclusive cause of the political right”.
White, a long-time observer of the Israel-Palestine conflict, advances two important arguments. The first is that Israel is an “apartheid” state in practice because it denies Palestinians in the occupied territories under its de facto rule rudimentary civil rights; they live under Israeli authority but are treated in law as a people apart. White’s other argument is that serious cracks are appearing in the cast-iron bipartisan support Israel has long enjoyed in the West. “Israel’s deteriorating image amongst the liberal left”, he writes, “is a phenomenon that looks impossible to reverse”.
White does a meticulous job of cataloguing the growing irritation with Israel, even among those who consider themselves supporters of the nationalism that underpins it. The book starts with a description of the Senate hearing of Trump’s nominee for US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a reactionary with financial links to Israeli settlements. As the day began, activist after activist stood up to oppose the nominee. “Israeli occupation is an injustice against Palestinians, and a moral crisis for American Jews”, one shouted.
Such a spectacle would have been unthinkable a decade ago – as would the idea of sending as America’s emissary to Israel a man who once likened liberal American Jews to “kapos” (Nazi prisoners who supervised others). White sees the candidacy of Bernie Sanders – a Jewish socialist who, in a debate for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency, questioned America’s blind support for Israel and was wildly applauded for it by the audience – as yet another sign that a “significant” transformation in US attitudes is taking place.
The fact that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has succeeded in persuading numerous businesses and consumers offers yet more evidence, says White – a “proud supporter” of BDS – that the underdog, despite appearances to the contrary, is making serious gains. The intensifying solidarity with Palestinians abroad is matched by activism at home: White itemises the ways in which ordinary people have sought to preserve their dignity against assaults by Israel.
Cracks in the Wall closes with an impassioned case for the abandonment of the “two-state” solution in favour of a single state, a land where Jews and Arabs might live “as equal citizens of a shared home”.
It is impossible to fault White’s call for equality which is not far removed from what Theodr Herzl, the author of Zionism’s foundational text, wanted. At the same time, it is difficult to overlook the fact that White knows Palestinian society better than he understands contemporary Israel. If Israelis oppose a unitary state, it is not just because they fear losing their “privileges” – many of them abhor those privileges and regard their existence as a stain on their nation.
The principal reason that most Israelis will object to a single state is the same reason that Einstein, no votary of nationalism, offered himself up as a petitioner for Zionism: the memory of the tragic history of the Jewish people. This does not confer upon Israel the right to inflict tragedy on Palestinians – but by doing just that, Israel is marching towards its own undoing.