Since expelling 415 Palestinians alleged to have been radical Islamic activists last December, the Israeli government, mass media and much of the Middle East studies establishment have intensified their campaign to demonize all forms of political Islam. On the academic front, Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Middle East Studies convened a mini-conference on “Islamic Fundamentalism: A Challenge to the Stability of the Middle East” where, for the most part, predictable points were rehearsed before an audience, some 20 percent of whom were uniformed soldiers. To offset this campaign, the Institute for Peace Research, a think tank established in 1991, inaugurated its publication program with Islam and Peace: Islamic Approaches to Peace in the Contemporary Arab World (Hamachon Leheker Hashalom, 1992), a collection of essays edited by Ilan Pappe and Sarah Ozacky-Lazar. Pappe’s introduction argues that the historical practice of Islam has been diverse and that the popularity of contemporary radical Islamism is primarily as a vehicle of protest against the West. All but one contributor finds pragmatic and constructive elements in the Islamist movement in Israel and occupied Palestine. Muhammad Rayyan, a leader of the Israeli Islamists, explains that the movement does not now address national political questions, but is engaged in local social and educational activity. This may be disingenuous, but it explains why the movement has won popular support. Islam and Peace does not present Islamic versions of non-violence in the style of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., as its title suggests, but it does provide a badly needed alternative to currently dominant neo-Orientalist hysteria.

Yishayahu Leibowitz, a scholar of prodigious endowments, has also entered the debate over radical Islam in Israel. Professor emeritus of biological chemistry and neurophysiology at the Hebrew University, Leibowitz is better known as a religious thinker, as editor-in-chief of the Hebrew Encyclopedia and, above all, as an uncompromising opponent of Israel’s occupation of Arab territory since 1967. His contribution to the debate over the mass expulsion of Palestinians was to declare that he saw no difference between the armed elements of Hamas and Israel’s undercover squads in the Occupied Territories (mista‘ravim): Both murder unarmed children. This comment received wide circulation when, in January, Leibowitz was nominated for the prestigious Israel Prize for his life’s work.

Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State (Harvard, 1992) offers a sample of Leibowitz’s religious and political thinking to English readers. His distinctive interpretation of Judaism is based on the necessity to obey God’s commandments without question. Asserting that intertwining religion and politics debases religion, a view supported by many Israeli secularists, Leibowitz regards assigning religious significance to the state of Israel as idol worship and warns that belief in the sanctity of the state can lead to justifying heinous acts. Leibowitz has called Israeli practices in the Occupied Territories “Judeo-Nazism.” He supports Yesh Gvul, the organization of reserve soldiers who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories, and advocates mass refusal of service in the territories as a way to end the occupation.

Leibowitz assigns provocative names to Israeli occupation practices, compares them to international historical experience and judges them by the ethical standard of the Biblical prophets. His formulations provoke public outrage and debate, and thereby expand the boundaries of permissible discourse in Israel. His nomination for the Israel Prize aroused a storm of right-wing protest. In response, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sought to veto the nomination. When this proved impossible, Rabin announced that he would absent himself from the award ceremony. Maintaining the moral high ground, Leibowitz declined the prize. “Why should I cause complications for the prime minister?” he asked.

Shulamit Aloni, leader of the dovish Zionist Meretz bloc, took the occasion of Leibowitz’s prize nomination to advocate tolerating a wide range of opinions in public life, affirming the value of his work despite her disagreements with him (she is a militant secularist and does not endorse formulations like “Judeo-Nazism”). By contrast, Yossi Sarid, who became the fourth Meretz minister in the cabinet after loudly approving the Palestinian expulsions, denounced Leibowitz’s prize nomination as a “wretched” decision, calling the nominee “a provocateur bereft of intellectual honesty with an urge to irritate the public.” Sarid termed Leibowitz’s comparison of Hamas and the Israeli undercover units “wicked.” As Sarid’s pronouncements indicate, Meretz and most of the Zionist peace camp accept the terms of the campaign to demonize radical Islamism, choosing not to place themselves outside of the national consensus.

The fifth report of the Peace Now Settlement Watch Committee, The Real Map: A Demographic and Geographic Analysis of the Population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (1992) illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the Zionist peace camp’s orientation. Amiram Goldblum’s careful research and editing demonstrate that over 94 percent of the population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is Arab and that despite a massive investment of resources, the Likud’s campaign to “Judaize Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District” has failed. This contradicts the encouraged assumption that annexation is an accomplished fact. It is, however, based on a critical omission: “The map and the report do not deal with the demography or the geography of East Jerusalem and its Palestinian neighborhoods. We do not view the Jewish residents of Gilo, East Talpiot, Ramat Eshkol and so forth as ‘settlers.’” To score one political point against the Israeli right, Peace Now ignores both Palestinian sentiment and social materiality: Over 50 percent of all Jewish settlers reside in the areas excluded by the report. Peace Now’s latest formulations speak of a “special status” for East Jerusalem during the transition period, but do not address its final status. Confirming that the Occupied Territories remain overwhelmingly Arab should not be done at the expense of appearing to endorse the annexation of East Jerusalem so as to avoid challenging the Zionist consensus.

The confines of the national consensus are freely breached in the arena of popular culture, as evidenced by the hottest Israeli films of 1992. The late Amos Gutman’s Amazing Grace (1992) deals with a gay man returning to Israel from New York to die of AIDS (as did Gutman) and his interaction with Israeli gay subculture, including avoidance of military service. Assi Dayan’s Life According to Agfa (1992) portrays a day in a Tel Aviv bar. The Ashkenazi patrons are benevolently paternalistic toward the Palestinian Arab cooks, racist toward Middle Eastern Jews and generally sexist. Despite Dayan’s indulgent treatment of these attitudes, he is even more sharply critical of the army than Gutman and directly attacks its role in suppressing the intifada. These films can be both critical and popular because they dwell in the realm of personal relations. In political discourse, the official consensus still sets the limits of respectable opinion. Popular art of personal feeling thus provides a platform for articulating thoughts that Peace Now cannot yet entertain.

How to cite this article:

Joel Beinin "Pushing Israel’s Boundaries of Debate," Middle East Report 182 (May/June 1993).

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