Neve Gordon: Explains his commitment to Israel

Historians in the News

[Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel. Read about his new book and more at www.israelsoccupation.info]

The Jewish celebration of Passover and Israel’s 60th anniversary coincide this year, and seem to be a good time to reflect upon, and perhaps explain, my passionate commitment to Israel. No doubt having been born and raised in Israel makes me feel most at home there. My family and friends live in Israel. I like the smells and the tastes, and I am not surprised or taken aback by the forthrightness, the occasional arrogance or the cynical humor, which characterizes many Israelis. My familiarity with the culture helps me identify and understand the nuances of social interactions. Yet this particular intimacy, which comes from recognizing and grasping the “rules of the game,” is in no way unique to me or to Israel, and I imagine many people feel the same way about their country of origin.

Israel is, however, special for and to me in several other ways that I do believe are unique. My concern for it does not originate from the materiality of the place, if one means by this the country’s landscape and architectural edifices. The Wailing Wall simply does not do it for me. Indeed, I have often criticized the tendency to idolize the land, showing how such reverence has contributed to the cycle of violence in the region. Rather, my feelings derive from what one might call the country’s soul, by which I mean its history, people and cultural idiosyncrasies.

I have a friend, a French woman, who as a teenager visited Israel with her father. It was the 1950s, and they toured the country for several days with a group of French diplomats. Towards the end of the visit the diplomats were taken to meet Israel’s president. My friend recounts how the group was shown into the small auditorium where the president receives guests, and how the bus driver, who had driven them across the country, followed suit as if it were only natural that he too should join the meeting. This moment, which may seem inconsequential, had a great impact on my friend. She was astounded by the lack of rigid social boundaries and at that very moment decided she would one day immigrate to Israel.

Israel has, to be sure, changed a great deal since the 1950s and today it is unlikely that a bus driver would follow foreign diplomats to meet the President. Nonetheless, in Israel social space continues to be divided very differently than in other countries, and ordinary citizens have greater access to the public arena.

A few years ago, I directed a high school program that attempted to teach teenagers how to struggle for social change. Within less than a year, fifteen and sixteen year-olds were talking regularly to Knesset members, high ranking civil servants and well-known journalists about such topics as the trafficking of women and the violation of environmental regulations. How many teenagers in the US can pick up the phone and speak directly to a senator (and not an aide)? This kind of access does not mean that the Israeli teenagers managed to bring about social change; indeed, mostly they failed to do so. But it does mean that their voice was heard in the public sphere.

The relative ease with which citizens can access sites of power has to do with Israel’s particular cultural norms and the country’s small size. In contrast to the standard six degrees of separation, in Israel people claim that the degree of separation is, on average, a person and a half. This in itself facilitates access to power, which produces, in turn, a sense that one can make a difference. While this sense is often misleading, it is nonetheless very important. It helps ensure that ordinary citizens, people like you and me, are not reduced to mere spectators who merely observe the political processes that affect our lives (a feeling one often has in countries like the US). Rather, this sense helps Israelis conceive of themselves as active participants who have an opportunity to influence local political processes.

Intricately tied to the citizens’ ability to participate in politics is the range of public debate in Israel, which is much broader than in most countries. This is most apparent with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. People like Israel Harel on the right and Amira Hass on the left regularly contribute editorials to Ha’aretz. Their views are beyond the pale of what respectable papers like The New York Times routinely print, and yet they are acceptable in Israel.

It is ironic but not surprising that my views are considered extreme only outside Israel. Over the years, for example, my university has received several complaints about my criticism of the Israeli government, and, without exception, these complaints have come from overseas. My students at Ben-Gurion University have never questioned my commitment to social justice in Israel, even though many strongly disagree with my views; my students are familiar with and have been exposed to views like mine and consider them part of the legitimate discourse. By contrast, American students have on occasion reported what I have said in class to different monitoring groups; apparently, in their minds I say the unsayable.

The relative openness of Israeli social space and the broad spectrum of public discourse as well as the country’s small size are all conducive to the formation of grassroots political communities. Over the years, I have had the good fortune to be a member of a number of groups that have tried to make a small dent in Israel’s history -- groups like Ta’ayush (Arab-Jewish partnership) and, more recently, Hagar Association, the bi-lingual Jewish Arab kindergarten and school in Beer-Sheva. I have found that in Israel it is often much easier than in other places to organize resistance to social oppression. Moreover, anyone even slightly acquainted with the history of struggle in Israel is aware that while many of the grassroots political movements have failed to achieve the objectives they have set out to accomplish, they have nonetheless created thousands of stories of resistance. On their own, the individual stories may not be significant, but their sheer number reveals something precious and beautiful about Israel: Israel is a site of ongoing struggle for social justice.

I would like to think that this characteristic can be traced back to the biblical tradition. After all, the prophets teach us time and again that criticism and social justice are two sides of the same coin and are part and parcel of a healthy society, particularly if the criticism is directed towards those who suppress and exploit the poor and the weak.

All of which brings me back to the exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt, that is, the liberation of an enslaved people from bondage. The message of freedom and liberation continued to be central to the teachings of Jeremiah, Amos, Isaiah, and Micah as well as to all the other prophets. And this message was universal. As Leon Roth, who in 1927 established the philosophy department at Hebrew University, pointed out: “when the prophets wish to lay down our duty in this life, they say: ‘God hath told thee, O man, what is good.’ The prophets do not say: ‘O Englishman, O Frenchman, even O Jew; but O man.’” Even though Israel, as a state, has not followed the words of the prophets, it has, I believe, created a space where these words can potentially be followed and that is no minor feat.

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omar ibrahim baker - 5/19/2008

How silly can one be?

Do you mean that except for the Katyshas ( are they Katyshas ?) the answer would have been Yes?

By the way the question was addressed to Neve Gordon to test the reality and depth of his attachment to the desires of his prophets.

I would not suspect you of harbouring such emotions , even as a pose for a photo.

E. Simon - 5/18/2008

Sure, Omar! I propose that every descendent of every descendent of every descendent of an actual Palestinian refugee be allowed to return - so long as they position themselves within target points in Ashkelon upon which the Katyushas from Gaza are aimed. Sounds like a fair bargain, don't it? Come on, now! Don't miss this opportunity to miss another opportunity!

omar ibrahim baker - 5/17/2008

It takes exceptional courage for some one to assert that:
“Even though Israel, as a state, has not followed the words of the prophets, it has, I believe, created a space where these words can potentially be followed and that is no minor feat."

The truthfulness of the first part of the declaration:” Even though Israel, as a state, has not followed the words of the prophets," in no way justifies the blatant falsehood of the conclusion it paves the way for:
"I believe, created a space where these words can potentially be followed and that is no minor feat."

Prophets or no prophets : How could a racially conceived and criminally executed plan which involved the demolition of a whole society, its dislocation, dispossession and disfranchisement in its own homeland of more than a thousand years of continuous habitation be the prelude to the creation of such a space!

It takes exceptional self imposed blindness
an unlimited amount of deliberate total neglect of the presence and rights of others to claim that..

However; to gauge the sincerity behind this bold assertion there is one simple test:
-Does Professor Gordon support the Right of the Palestinians to Return to their homeland?
-does he NOT?

Therein lies the truth and not in his wishy washy efforts to atone for the crime and alleviate the guilt by highlighting his own superfluous contribution to make Israel what his Prophets allegedly called for by joining Ta'ayush; which is no more effective than trying to cure a cancer with an aspirin??
Would the Professor answer the question:
-Does HE or does he NOT support the Right of the Palestinians to Return to their homeland?
A simple straightforward YES or NO can tell us more than volumes about him and about the effect of his prophets on him!

omar ibrahim baker - 5/17/2008

High minded people , just like Professor Gordon, seem to abound in Israel. Their ability to say what they believe in and criticize what they disfavour is noted in the high diversity of Israeli intellectual life.
They seem to exist in profusion but not in sufficient numbers to make a difference to the overall direction of Israeli life .
-How many of them do question allegations about their divine right to be where they are now?
-How many of them do question the morality of the methods used to get them there?
-How many of them can transcend their fondness of their nation to question its legality?
-How many of them are selfless, and courageous, enough to see Israel for what it really IS?
-How many of them inquire about who really owns the house they live in?
-How many of them inquire who is the owner of the land they till?
-How many of them wonder whatever befell the people they supplanted?
-How many of them would do something about it when they know the truth?

Some do; just as Israel Shahak DID!

But seemingly NOT enough to question the very legality and morality of their existence on a usurped land.
Had Israel been as described by Professor Gordon they would be much more numerous than every day life indicates.
And they would have made a difference!
Is it that professor Gordon is lying or is it that he is only exaggerating or only indulging into self deception and self idealization!
I believe that the truth of the matter lies in that conscious and subconscious penumbra region of mind and soul where self deception reigns supreme!
Had they been in the numbers the Professor implies things would have been drastically different from what they are!
Is Professor Gordon lying?
No I do not believe so; and that is the paradox of high minded people like the professor; projecting his self indulgent vision of the society he lives in as the reality of that society!

Jules R. Benjamin - 5/16/2008

If Neve Godron's views were shared by members of the government in Israel, such a love letter to the land of his birth would be less poignant. If one wishes to admire Israel, his picture of it (especially his nuances) is a necessity. But as he well knows, other pictures could (and have been) painted. Most of those pictures, unlike Godron's, contain the word "Palestine."