One of the most intriguing questions after a year of the intifada is the paucity of Israeli opposition to the government’s “iron fist” policy. True, dozens of small groups demonstrate against the occupation, the atrocities, the deportations, the mass arrests. There have been many calls for “better Israeli-Palestinian relations,” for “two states for two peoples.” But the cumulative impact of this activity has not been a major force in Israeli society and politics — nothing like the opposition that developed against the war in Lebanon.

Lack of information or knowledge about the extreme measures of the Israeli army against the Palestinian civilian population is not the reason. The best element of the Israeli reaction has in fact been the level of vigorous and honest reporting in the Israeli print media. (Radio and TV, controlled and heavily censored by the government, are a completely different story.) The longest drive from a Tel Aviv editorial office to a Palestinian refugee camp is two hours, and a number of reporters have displayed an admirably critical attitude that is itself a part of the political and cultural polarization characterizing Israel today.

During the first year of the intifada Israelis could often read newspaper articles describing beatings, wanton shootings, and destruction of homes, cars and other property by troops. Accounts of prison torture from doctors and soldiers as well as Palestinian victims have prompted reflection on the chauvinism that prevails in important sectors of Israeli society. Consider these headlines picked at random from the Hebrew press:

  • “The soldier said good night and shot a grenade into the bathroom” (September 4, 1988).
  • “A detainee, paralyzed from torture, has been kept in prison for half a year” (September 24, 1988).
  • “You will get used to being a Mengele” (September 19,1988).

This wealth of daily information about the terrible situation, in light of the response of some Israelis during the war in Lebanon and especially after the massacre of Sabra and Shatila, makes the weak political response of the liberal opposition even more puzzling.

“Internal Emigration”

Actually, the peace camp has reacted strongly, but not with its feet. No strikes, no moratoriums, no mass demonstrations, peace marches or other traditional activity. The liberal public reacted, as the phrase goes, “conceptually”: they removed themselves psychologically from any responsibility for the conduct of the Israeli state. This created an atmosphere of depression and alienation, known here as “small-head syndrome” and “internal emigration.”

This reaction had a powerful and spectacular public facet: Nearly every day artists, intellectuals, journalists and politicians came out in no uncertain terms against what they now openly call the “Nazification” of Israeli society. This phrase was coined during the war in Lebanon by Professor Yehoshua Leibowitz and others, who termed Israeli policy “Judeo-Nazism.” For obvious reasons this phrase has great resonance in Jewish society. So it is most revealing that it caught on, despite its doubtful precision, in a desperate attempt to shake the liberal public out of its paralysis.

This is part of a phenomenon: Many public figures have used their connections with the print media, their public status, their Zionist and nationalist credentials to blast forcefully the denial of basic human and political rights to the Palestinians and the brutal repression of the intifada. “We’d better begin to prepare for ourselves the transparent cages in which we shall sit when they try us for what we have done to the Palestinian people,” said poet Dan Almagor at a demonstration in Tel Aviv on December 10, referring to the cage in Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem.

“I support the return of all the territories because the occupation has a destructive influence on the economy,” asserted Aharon Dovrat, the director of Kial, the biggest private conglomeration in Israel. “There is no occupation without repression and we cannot have a deluxe repression. One does not have to be a great economist in order to understand that we will not be able to continue without peace in exchange for return of all territories.” [1]

Danny Rubinstein, the well-known journalist, wrote in Davar about the condition of employment of thousands of young Palestinian children aged 10 to 14. “They sleep on pieces of cardboard in the Tel Aviv market. They get up at 3 am and work until 4 pm for $15 a day. [We know] that there are millions like them all over the Third World. But these thousands of children who work for us in every corner are sufficient testimony to break the ideology that once guided the elite in this country.” [2] Mr. Rubinstein’s anger is apparent throughout the piece; this is not objective reporting but an expression of internal rage.

But internal withdrawal and public dissociation, even by leading politicians from the Citizen’s Rights Movement and MAPAM, has not yet put sufficient pressure on the high political echelons. There is a huge gap between the apparent normality of life, the lack of revolt inside the Labor Party and the general passivity of the left on the one hand, and this very powerful sense of outrage and dissociation on the other. How should we come to terms with this gap?

Some of the reasons are clear. First, only a handful of Israelis have been killed or seriously injured by Palestinian militants throughout the year of the intifada. Both in 1973 and 1983, when mass opposition developed against the government, it was to a large extent the result of the large-scale loss of Israeli lives: some 3,000 in 1973 and 700 in 1982-85. Second, the Labor Party developed multiple connections with various opposition movements, especially Peace Now, during the war in Lebanon. This time the Labor Party, in the person of Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, is itself responsible for the repressive behavior of the Israeli army. Rabin, a prominent member of Labor’s kibbutz wing, is on record as saying he would not mind using his passport to visit the West Bank; yet this same Rabin is the prime mover behind Israel’s criminal response to the Palestinians. The liberal protest movement has so far been unable to come out clearly against Rabin and Labor.

Third, there is widespread hatred of Arabs at all levels of Israeli society, “left” and “right.” Many people simply do not care when they hear about the lynching of Arabs, mass arrests and concentration camps; some in fact rejoice publicly and privately. Many Israeli Jews agree with the highest Orthodox authorities, who insist that “the Jew has a divine soul, the gentile has none.” [3]

The American Connection

Although these factors are certainly important for understanding the paralysis, there are some deeper reasons why the Labor Party has become the Israeli policeman in the territories and why most Israelis shrug their shoulders in the face of the daily toll of dead and wounded Palestinians. These have to do with the social composition of the left and its place in Israeli society. Both factors mute the reaction of the liberals and constrain their response to the developing political and cultural crisis.

Contemporary Israeli politics and especially public reaction has one undeniable characteristic: extreme polarization of public opinion and political norms between “left” and “right” or, more precisely, between “liberal” Zionism and the movement’s chauvinist/religious wing. There is no such thing as an Israeli consensus. On almost every issue — Palestinian rights, who is a Jew, whether to talk with the PLO, when to open a cinema, what to eat on Passover — there are two roughly equal opposing camps within the Jewish population. This is well known, but the depth of this political and cultural division is rarely appreciated.

The liberal camp in Israel had been thoroughly “Americanized” — politically, culturally and economically. As such, it has left behind the majority of Israeli Jews whose “Westernization” has been superficial.

Alongside the liberals there has developed a “second Israel,” a complex social phenomenon that integrates Hasidic Jews from the least developed parts of Eastern Europe before World War II with Oriental Jews from the Arab world. This combination is mixed with a good dose of fresh and simple European-style fascism, exemplified by Yuval Ne&’eman and the Renaissance (Tehiya) Party. The drift of this public towards Jewish orthodoxy of the most backward sort has been inexorable. Their code is in many ways reminiscent of Muslim and Christian fundamentalists, and they openly strive to impose it on the Jewish population. This is the reason that the success of the Jewish Orthodox parties in the November 1988 election caused such a panic among Israeli Jews, 60 percent of whom hardly ever visit a synagogue, could not care less for keeping the Sabbath and will gladly eat bread on Passover or a cheeseburger on a roll.

This deep gulf in Israeli society bears strong similarities to the political scene in countries like Iran and Egypt, where the body politic is divided between those who believe that there are universal lessons to be learned from the French and American revolutions, lessons applicable everywhere in the world, and those who maintain that only authentic, local traditions — be they Muslim, Farsi, Indian, Jewish or Arab — have all the elements necessary to develop a humane society, and who abhor the secular norms of non-religious life.

In this sense, the Western media perception of the recent Israeli election was correct: religious fundamentalism has accumulated enormous political power and credit. Non-religious Israelis are frightened by the evidence that this side is rapidly becoming the majority within the Jewish Israeli population.

This said, though, it is certainly too simple to identify religious chauvinism with the Likud Party and liberal Zionism with the Labor Party. There is some truth behind this simplification, but both parties, like most Israeli institutions, are deeply split along the fault lines described above. In many ways Moshe Arens, the Likud foreign minister, is more liberal than either Peres or Rabin, the top Labor leaders. The mass of voters and members of these parties are deeply divided. What holds them together is not any important ideological commitment but a combination of old loyalties and vague attitudes towards the occupied territories. By contrast, the religious parties’ voters almost all stand squarely in the religious chauvinist camp. The total electoral failure of Meimad, the liberal religious party, testifies to this.

Although these political fault lines cut across most layers and classes of Israeli society, there are some strong correlations that cannot be ignored. The core of liberal Zionism comprises professional workers of all kinds, from teachers to engineers, from college professors to insurance salespeople, who live by their labor in or near big metropolitan centers and in well-to-do middle class neighborhoods.

The mass of Oriental Jews, by contrast, forms the most underprivileged part of Israeli society — not as Oriental Jews but as people relegated by the state to live as unskilled and semi-skilled workers in relatively small (population under 25,000) and remote development towns such as Dimona, Safad, Sderot, Kiryat Shmona, Beit She'an, Ofakim, Tiberias, and hundreds of small villages, with almost no cultural and economic links to metropolitan Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. This social deprivation translates here, as elsewhere, into political reaction and chauvinism.

The hard core of the religious chauvinist bloc is the mass of independent contractors who are small employers of Arab labor, and semi- and unskilled Jewish workers who see Palestinian workers as a direct threat to their livelihood and honor. To this one must add that about 20 percent of the population live under the direct daily influence of orthodox Jewish authorities. These are people, for example, who go to the rabbi for consultations on questions large and small, to be decided on the basis of halacha (Jewish religious law). Typical of this layer is a professor of electronics in my university who proudly tells everyone that he consulted his rabbi on whether copying computer software is theft or not, and how, the answer being “yes,” he chanced on better software by strictly following the advice of the rabbi.

One clear distinction between these two Israels is the level of direct economic and/or ideological connection and dependence on the outside world, especially the United States but also Europe. Liberal Zionist Jews are conscious of Israel’s utter political and economic dependence on the good will of Washington for the yearly injection of about $4 billion in various forms of aid and credit. Most of them uphold an “American way of life” as the best of all possible worlds and would be happy to import it to Israel, lock, stock and barrel.

This pro-Americanism is universal among liberals, left and right. MAPAM is a good example. It supports US policies with the same vehemence it used to support Soviet policies up to the mid-fifties. The best argument for or against a given policy often is “that’s the way it is done in America.”


The polarization that created these “two Israels” has paradoxically almost completely erased any distinction between the small but active non-Zionist left and mainstream liberal Zionism. Liberal Zionists have accepted many arguments of the non- and anti-Zionists about the deeply undemocratic nature of Israel as it exists today. The idea of a Jewish state, they have come to realize, is not fully compatible with a democratic state and with the accepted modern notion of “citizenship” and “civil society” comprising individuals who are formally equal vis-à-vis the state. A massive critical review of the history of Zionism by some in this camp over the years has butchered one sacred cow after another — mythic images of progressive-peace-loving-settlers-in-an-empty-land. Detailed stories of expulsion and “forced transfers,” before and after the 1948 war, and of wholesale massacres in villages and towns are available today in all their gruesome details in periodicals, academic studies and even occasionally in a restricted form on the government-controlled radio.

Thus, in many ways the non-Zionist left has become little more than the spearhead of liberal Zionism. For the left, working class issues, the struggles for socialism in the whole Middle East, the questions that loomed so large 20 years ago have become irrelevant. In part this is a result of the crisis of these ideas all over the Middle East and beyond, and in part a result of the collapse of the Israeli working class, or at least its most exploited layers, into its Palestinian sector. In contemporary Israeli society the dynamic and mobile part of the working class is the 300,000-odd Palestinian workers and peasants on both sides of the Green Line. They form a majority of the non-service production workers.

The integration of the non-Zionist left into mainstream liberal Zionism has increased both the strength of the left and the depth of the polarization between the two Israels. As in much of the Third World, the liberal public (about 40 percent of the Jewish population) has a heavily vested interest in American involvement; they put all their hopes on American peace initiatives and American solutions. Without an American move, without support from US diplomacy and public opinion, they will not move. They belong to the more well-to-do sectors of the Israeli society and as such they benefit economically from US support of Israel. They discern the connection between their comfort and Washington’s support for Israel’s massive oppression of Palestinians. They are aware that in Israel, as in many places around the world, US foreign policy utterly contradicts American constitutional and democratic norms.

Until very recently they stood helplessly by and watched their American godfather pull the rug from under their feet by supporting Israeli chauvinism and the disintegration of democratic norms in Israel. On the other hand, the American legitimization of the PLO means that the liberal Zionist camp will — as Peace Now, for example, already has — acknowledge it as the authoritative representative of the Palestinian people, though it may not be enough to shake them out of their political paralysis.

Liberals and Palestinians

The Arab citizens of Israel stand squarely on one side of this division. The power of religion and tradition in Palestinian Arab communities in Israel is still very great, but on political issues, from freedom of press to war and peace, there is no doubt where the Arabs stand. This can be easily seen from their votes in election after election.

The main weaknesses of the liberal Israeli peace camp lie in its social composition, in the relative comfort its members enjoy, its national and international connections and the huge gulf that separates it from its most natural ally — the struggling Palestinian population on both sides of the Green Line that marks the 1967 borders of Israel.

The liberal public does not directly benefit from the occupation and the exploitation of Arab land and labor, as does the mass of independent contractors and small employers that constitute the core of the religious-chauvinist public. Still, they do stand to benefit from relatively cheap Palestinian labor. In the year of the intifada the real living standard of this layer rose by about 8 percent. In (falling) dollar terms most salaries rose by more than 20 percent.

It was interesting to watch the liberals during the last election, as they waited to see how the Arabs would vote. Their parliamentary power now depends on the cooperation of roughly 10 “Arab-vote-delegates” out of 120 who form a crucial part of the 55-strong block that supposedly represents the liberal public. This dependence is more than symbolic.

The mass of Palestinians from all walks of life on both sides of the Green Line constitute the most trustworthy ally of the Jewish liberal Zionist public. The two-and-a-half million Palestinians in Israel and the territories stand to lose the most with every slip of Israel down the road to religious chauvinism. Their immediate interest lies in upholding democratic and humane conduct, independent courts and the separation of religion from the state. Unlike the well-to-do and comfortable Israelis, most of them are semi- or unskilled laborers who have much less to lose and who have battled for their rights. These battles, while nationalist in their immediate context, pressure the state to liberalize its ways. Such struggles can place a very high price tag on the implementation of apartheid in Israel.

The shift in liberal Israeli public opinion towards recognition of Palestinian rights is fraught with difficulties that hinder any alliance between the liberal Zionist camp and the Palestinian people. The heart of the problem is that the vast majority of liberal Zionists still cherish the idea of a Jewish state. They are not willing to face squarely the contradiction between their democratic values and the notion of Jewish supremacy within the Green Line.

The concept of the “demographic problem,” a euphemism that refers to the possibility that within a few decades the Arab population in Eretz Israel will be larger than the Jewish one, is the main expression of this dilemma. Already among children under 10 years of age Palestinians outnumber Israeli Jews. The liberals’ terror of the numerical strength of the Palestinian population symbolizes their utter inability to link up in a real and meaningful way with their only strong and reliable ally, the Palestinian Arabs.

But the difficulty goes further. Can the members of the kibbutz movement truly call for equality inside Israeli society between Arabs and Jews while closing their kibbutz gates, as they have always tenaciously done, to Arab members? Can Israeli liberals fight for changes in public housing policy that will allow Arabs to reside everywhere in Israel and work in every factory and institution? Will they agree that relatives of Arab citizens have the same right to immigrate to Israel as relatives of Jewish citizens? The answers are clear: unconditional refusal in the foreseeable future.

This internal ideological contradiction between liberal commitment to the values of the European enlightenment and Zionist commitment to the Jewish state is the most formidable obstacle to a united struggle with the Palestinians and, therefore, to arresting Israel's slide towards an Orthodox Jewish version of Khomeini’s Iran.

For the Palestinians, any cooperation with Israelis is no less difficult. Here the problem is not that of formal recognition of the state of Israel. The problem lies in the Palestinian refusal, or at least difficulty, to accept the Israeli people as a political national entity with legitimate claims to conduct their national affairs. While most Palestinians will grant de facto recognition of the Israeli state, and the Palestinian leadership is now on record as granting such recognition, the political and intellectual leadership still finds it very hard to accept the change in the national landscape of Palestine — the creation of a new national group that wants to conduct its political affairs independently. To the extent that it is not racist and recognizes that all citizens of Israel have precisely equal political rights and formal legal status vis-à-vis the state, it must be considered legitimate and natural in the present day world.

The omission of any reference to the Israeli nation in the Algiers declaration of the Palestine National Congress and the restriction of all comments to the Jewish religion of the residents of Palestine is by no means accidental or irrelevant. It reflects the difficulty Palestinians have in recognizing that a nation built on an enormous injustice and partial destruction of another nation is still a nation with which they must come to terms — not simply a religious community but a national group that has acquired (by force) the right to conduct a normal national life. Although this was somewhat corrected in Arafat’s declaration to the United Nations in Geneva, Palestinian political thinking has still not sufficiently come to terms with this new national reality.



[1] Yedi‘ot Ahronot, December 12,1988.
[2] Davar, December 2,1988.
[3] See, for example, Koteret Rashit, December 7, 1988.

How to cite this article:

Emmanuel Farjoun "The Great Divide," Middle East Report 157 (March/April 1989).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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