“I am not talking with you, anti-Zionists, terror-sympathizers, enemies. You’re here by mistake, because [Israel’s first Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and didn’t throw you out in 1948. That’s the truth, that’s the truth. I have no dialogue with you at all”
– Bezalel Smotrich, Member of the Knesset and Chairman of the Religious Zionist Party.
When taking the moral temperature of a society, it’s generally apropos to consider the posture of politicians. One may acquire an even more accurate reading by gauging the public’s reaction to them. Smotrich is in luck, as he exists in an age where to be a politician is to be evasive. And, to be fair to the lugubrious villain, the one thing we can not condemn him for is reticence or occlusion.
Ironically, there are a few things we can learn about the religious Zionist narrative, about truth and morality, and about Israeli society from his rather unlettered rant. First, and most obvious, we learn, or are rather shown quite coarsely by Mr. Smotrich, that the concept of ‘transfer’ is an essential constituent of Zionist thought and function. (For those uninitiated, I suggest Nur Masalha’s magisterial 1992 study of the subject, titled Expulsion of the Palestinians).
It is said of Herzl that, after having sent a delegation to Palestine following the First Zionist congress of 1897, his emissaries returned with the despairing news that, though “The bride [the land of Palestine] is beautiful, […] she is married to another man”. Apocryphal though this story may be, it betrays a certain truth: it is simply not possible that the early Zionists were unaware of an indigenous presence in the land of Palestine.
I am not the first to slay the obvious canard that is the Zionist maxim of “a land without people for a people without land”. Zionist colonists could not have believed the land was literally empty, though they did view it as void of humanity. As is the case of every colonial, and particularly settler-colonial group, the indigenous population are viewed as scarcely human, and are therefore not afforded the same rights or dignity they would confer unto themselves. Zionist leaders, as Masalha’s study shows, were outspoken in their belief that transfer of the indigenous was needful for the creation of a Jewish state. Deliberations about transfer, when they took place, were concerned with the feasibility of the endeavor, and the reputational costs to the nascent Jewish state that it might incur. In other words, the benighted Palestinians were left out of the equation entirely.
Not by coincidence, Smotrich has confected a plan of ‘voluntary transfer’ of his own. (He ominously dubbed this the “Subjugation Plan”). The voluntary transfer is, of course, a contradiction in terms. The mathematics of this equation must be evident even to the meanest intelligence. In order for transfer to be ‘voluntary’, it must be carried out, in the least, in the absence of incentives. This is not what Smotrich proposes. And though his scrofulous plan anticipates antagonism on the part of the indigenous, this is hardly prescient. Those unwilling to receive ‘incentives’ may stay, at the price of relinquishing their national aspirations and their right to vote. “According to Jewish law”, says the medieval figure, “there must always be some inferiority.” And those who chose to fight, well, I will spare you the grim details.
Now to the religious Zionist narrative on 1948: well, it seems to have shifted awkwardly to converge with the Palestinian. That is apart from one crucial difference: the Palestinians were expelled, both now seem to agree, but where a Palestinian sees a Nakba, a disaster, the Zionist sees a missed opportunity. This is a significant shift.
Confronted with the charge of ethnic cleansing, Israeli propaganda has traditionally resorted to the claim that Palestinians did indeed run away, but were induced to do so by their own leadership. (This sinister piffle, by the way, has been repeated by countless Israeli diplomats before the United Nations, and by Zionist organizations, and by partisans of the Israeli cause who may sincerely believe it). I have always thought that this was a rather trivial concern. Considered from any level of moral elevation, the question of whether the Palestinians were expelled or did so ‘under orders’ is irrelevant. Whatever may have prompted their flight, which we now know to have been either violence or the threat of it, they had every right to expect to be able to return home after the end of hostilities. Very few Zionists have denied this, which is why an awful lot of moral capital has been sunk into this argument.
To any thinking person, this Zionist narrative of old was intellectually defeated long ago. The so-called New Historians, with their access to hitherto inaccessible primary source material, convincingly wrote finis to the sordid debate. Nonetheless, the likes of Ilan Pappé would not prove to be the puncturer of illusions in Israel as he was abroad. Many Israelis, when faced with the unpleasant facts about how their country came to be, resorted, and still resort, to doublethink. ‘The Palestinians were not expelled’, so the contradiction goes, ‘despite the facts that prove otherwise’, or, ‘they were expelled, but their forced expulsion somehow does not qualify as an ethnic cleansing’. Yet, believing their cause to be endorsed by God and the canonical texts, Zionists often let themselves off the task of explanation.
Smotrich attempts to transcend these contradictions by claiming that expulsion did happen, and a damn good thing too. He regrets the apparent impotence of the Ben-Gurionist militias of pre-state Israel, and hopes to be able to finish the job. And as an Israeli of Jewish extraction, I have acquired enough grounding in the tones of the Zionist right to know that these are not idle threats. Smotrich has a Menachem Begin-like obsession with the idea of the ‘Fighting Jew’, who can put an end to his people’s stereotype as passive and fatalistic victims. And though he is unlikely to carry out the unpleasant business of ethnic cleansing himself, as his ideological predecessor Begin did before him, he knows the State of Israel has a brutal and capable army to do so. (Smotrich, incidentally, was not a combat soldier during his military service in the IDF. So, not quite the Zionist Galahad of legend and song that his posture would suggest).
What of Israeli society then? Well, very few demurred. This means that, even in the most charitable interpretation, they are actively complicit. It also suggests that Smotrich’s noxious brand of Tzionut Datit (religious Zionism) is becoming more culturally relevant and acceptable, despite its relatively modest electoral popularity. The religious Zionist bloc, is, in other words, the ideological formation in pole position to fill the vacuum left by secular right-wing Zionism and establish cultural and political hegemony over Jewish Israeli society. If you are looking for proof, look no further than the highest office. Naftali Bennet is a religious Zionist, and, despite his specious moderate turn since assuming office, is no different from Smotrich. Bennett has, for example, boasted about killing Palestinians in the past, and, in competition with Smotrich for murderous anti-Arab rhetoric, it’s not immediately clear who would emerge the winner.
And finally, to the future: what can be expected of this cultural shift? Within Israel and Palestine, I would expect more of the same. Bennett has already expressed his desire to ‘shrink’ the conflict. It might be right to say – as Israel’s premier does very clearly – that this stratagem may prove useful in removing Israel as a cynosure. No formal annexation, although much of the occupied territories are already functionally annexed, natural growth for the settlements, continued Palestinian occupation, dispossession, and humiliation, and certainly no Palestinian state. But what of Israel’s relationship with America?
Well, I humbly prophesize an even more festeringly intimate relationship between Israel’s burgeoning religious Zionist cultural hegemons and America’s Evangelical right. These are the queerest of bedfellows, but they share a kindred messianic struggle and a common goal. The timing of this shift is particularly opportune, as it seems Israel is beginning to lose its support amongst American Jewry. But, and I say this as a particularly heretical member of ‘the tribe’, any Jew who aligns himself with the Christian fundamentalist right in the hope of abolishing Antisemitism is both asking to be considered a fool and also treated as one.
Having proposed Zionism as both a panacea to anti-Jewish bigotry and as a means of declaring proud independence from the fluctuations in Gentile goodwill, Israel has become predictably and utterly reliant on American subsidies and foreign aid, and has recruited the support of Antisemitic evangelical crackpots like Mike Evans, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. The irony of this, I sincerely hope, does not escape Smotrich, as it has not escaped me.
– Yuval Joyce Shalev is an Irish/Israeli Palestinian rights activist who works as an analyst at the London-based International Centre of Justice for Palestinians. Yuval holds a master’s degree in Conflict Studies, and hopes to pursue a Ph.D. exploring potential power-sharing arrangements for Israel/Palestine. He contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle