Uri Avnery: Sorry, Wrong Continent

By Uri Avnery

A few weeks ago, the 15th Asian games, the "Asiad", was held in Qatar.

The Israeli media treated the event with a mixture of derision and pity. Some kind of picturesque Asian circus. Our television showed an exotic horseman with a keffiyeh at the opening ceremony, riding his noble Arab steed up a steep staircase to light the Olympic flame. And that was that.

One question was not asked at all in any of the media: why are we not there?  Does Israel not lie in Asia?

That was not even considered. We? In Asia? How come?

When I followed the event on Aljazeera television, I suddenly remembered a private anniversary that had slipped my memory.

Exactly 60 years ago a small number of young people founded a group that called itself in Hebrew "Young Eretz-Israel" and in Arabic "Young Palestine". With money out of our own pockets (at the time we were all quite poor) we published occasional issues of a periodical we called Bamaavak ("In the struggle").

Bamaavak stirred up a lot of stormy waves, because it voiced infuriatingly heretical opinions. Contrary to the dominant Zionist narrative, it asserted that we, the young generation growing up in the country, constituted a new nation, the Hebrew nation. Unlike the somewhat similar group of "Canaanites", that preceded us, we proclaimed that (a) the new nation is a part of the Jewish people, much as Australia is a part of the Anglo-Saxon people, and (b) that we are a sister-nation to the resurgent Arab nation in the country and throughout the region.

And, no less important: that since the new Hebrew nation was born in the country, and the country belongs to Asia, we are an Asian nation, a natural ally to all the Asian and African nations that strive for liberation from colonialism.

On Wednesday, March 19, 1947, a few months after the first edition of Bamaavak had appeared, the Hebrew daily Haboker reported: "On the occasion of the opening of the Pan-Asian Conference (in New Delhi), the group Young Eretz Israel has sent a cable to Jawaharlal Nehru reading: ‘Please receive the congratulations of the Eretz-Israeli youth for your historic initiative. May the aspirations for freedom of the peoples of New Asia, inspired by your heroic example, become united. Long live the united and arising Young Asia, the vanguard of fraternity and progress’."  

A similar news story appeared on the same day on the front page of the Palestine Post (the predecessor of the Jerusalem Post), with the names of the signatories: Uri Avnery, Amos Elon and Ben-Ami Gur.

Bamaavak appeared from time to time, whenever we had enough money, up to the outbreak of the 1948 war. In the Hebrew press, more than a hundred reactions were published, almost all of them negative, many of them vituperative. The famous writer Moshe Shamir, then a left-winger, made a neat play on words, calling us Bamat-Avak ("stage of dust").

When the war broke out, this whole chapter was overshadowed and forgotten. But almost all we said 60 years ago remains relevant today. And the most relevant question is: To what continent does the State of Israel actually belong?

I believe that one of the most profound causes for the historic conflict between us and the Arab world in general, and the Palestinian people in particular, is the fact that the Zionist movement declared, from its very first day, that it did not belong to the region in which we live. Perhaps that is one of the reasons for the fact that even after four generations, this wound has not healed.

In his book "The Jewish State", the founding document of the Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl famously wrote: "For Europe we shall be (in Palestine) a part of the wall against Asia…the vanguard of culture against barbarism…" This attitude is typical for the whole history of Zionism and the State of Israel up to the present day. Indeed, a few weeks ago the Israeli ambassador to Australia declared that "Asia belongs to the yellow race, while we are Whites and have no slit eyes. "

One can perhaps forgive Herzl, a quintessential European, who lived in an era when imperialism dominated European thought. But today, four generations later, those forming public opinion in Israel, people born in the country, continue along the same path. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak declared that Israel is "a villa in the middle of the jungle" (the Arab jungle, of course), and this attitude is shared by practically all our politicians. Tsipi Livni likes to talk about the "dangerous neighborhood" in which we are living, and the chief advisor of Ariel Sharon once said that there will be no peace until "the Palestinians turn into Finns."

Our soccer and basketball teams play in the European leagues, the Eurovision song contest is a national event in Israel, 95% of our political activity is focused on Europe and North America. But the phenomenon extends far beyond the political arena – this is a "world view" in the literal sense. In our world, Israel is a part of Europe.

In the 50s, when I was the editor of the news magazine Haolam Hazeh, I once published a cartoon that I am still proud of: it showed the map of the Eastern Mediterranean, with an arm projecting from Greece and holding scissors that cut Israel off from Asia. It is a pity that I did not add a second drawing, showing Israel being attached to the shore of France or, preferably, Miami.

These days it would be hard to find anybody who would assert that Asia – India, China – is barbarian. But it is easy to find people in Israel, and throughout the West, who believe that the Arab world, and indeed the entire Muslim world, is a "jungle". With such an attitude, one cannot make peace. After all, one does not make peace with poisonous snakes and ravenous leopards.

In the Bamaavak days, we coined the slogan "Integration in the Semitic Region". But how can one integrate oneself in a region that is seen as a jungle?

A world view is not an academic matter. It has a huge impact on actual life. It influences people when it is conscious, and even more so when it is unconscious. It shapes the practical decisions, without the decision-makers being aware of it. Politicians, too, are only human beings (if that), and their actions are directed by their hidden beliefs.

In Israel we are used to consider unquestioned "conceptsias" as the mother of all our mistakes and defeats. But is such an assumption any different from the expression of an unconscious world-view?

The world-view influences many aspects of the state. It is the core of the education system, which forms the mind of the next generation. We have perhaps the only education system in the world that does not teach the history of its homeland. In our schools, very little is taught about the past of the country. Instead, what is taught is the history of "the Jewish people". This starts with the ancient Israelite kingdoms before the sixth century BC ("the First Temple"), then the Jewish community in the country before the beginning of the Christian era and for some years after ("the Second Temple"). Then it leaves the country and dwells on the Jewish Diaspora for some thousands of years, until the beginning of the Zionist settlement. For almost 2000 years, the annals of the country disappear from the school.

I once talked about this in a speech in the Knesset. I said that an Israeli child born in the country, whether Jewish or Arab, should study the history of the country, including all its periods and peoples: Canaanites, Israelites, Hellenists, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Turks, British, Palestinians, Israelis and more. In addition they could be taught the story of the Jews in the diaspora, too. The Minister of Education responded humorously and insisted on calling me, from then on, "the Mameluke".  

Lately it has become fashionable for politicians and commentators in Israel to speak about the danger of annihilation that hovers, or so they claim, over Israel. It is hardly believable: the State of Israel is a regional superpower, its economy is robust and developing, its technological level is one of the most advanced in the world, its army is stronger than all the Arab armies combined, it has a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons. Even if the Iranians were to obtain a bomb of their own, they would be mad to use it, for fear of Israeli retaliation.

So where does this fear of annihilation come from in the 59th year of the state? A part of it surely emanates from the memory of the Holocaust, which is deeply imprinted in the national mentality. But another part comes from the feeling of not belonging, of temporariness, of the lack of roots.

That has, of course, domestic implications, too. Consciousness also affects practical interests. The assertion that we are a European people automatically reinforces the position of our ruling class, which is still overwhelmingly Ashkenazi-European, over and against the majority of the citizens of Israel, who are of Asian-African Jewish and Palestinian-Arab descent. The profound disdain for their culture, which has accompanied the state from its first day, facilitates discrimination against them in many fields.

A change affecting the consciousness of a community is not a short-term proposition. It cannot be achieved by decree. This is a slow and gradual process. But at some stage we shall have to start it, and first of all in the education system.

I started my booklet "War or Peace in the Semitic Region", which was published in October 1947, just a few weeks before the outbreak of the 1948 war, with the words:   

"When our Zionist fathers decided to set up a ‘safe home’ in Eretz Israel, they had the choice between two roads: they could appear in West Asia as a European conqueror, who sees himself as a beachhead of the ‘white’ race and a master of the ‘natives’…(or) see themselves as an Asian nation returning to its homeland."

When I wrote these words, the rise of Asia was still a dream. World War II had ended just two years before, and the United States looked like an omnipotent superpower. But now a quiet revolution of huge proportions is taking place. The nations of Asia, with China and India in the lead, are becoming economic and political powers. Should we not gradually move toward this camp?

That brochure, 60 years ago, ended with the words of a Hebrew song:

"We stand and face the rising sun / To the East our homeward path…"

-An Israeli author and activist. He is the head of the Israeli peace movement, "Gush Shalom".

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