Review: “Israel Without Zionists” by Uri Avnery

Uri Avnery’s book Israel Without Zionists, written in the early aftermath of the ’67 war, tells the story of Israel’s formation and first period of existence. It comprises personal histories and character profiles of major figures such as Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, along with accounts of how Israel and its neighbors stumbled into war in ’56 and ’67. It also provides a frank account of the Nakba, and proposes a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which still feels relevant today.

Avnery’s book excels as a history by using facts and narratives to distill themes and cycles in Israeli-Arab relations. In part one of the book, entitled “The Vicious Circle”, he in various ways advances the case that the history of zionism in Palestine is caught in a viscous circle of violence and mutual non-recognition with the Arab nationalist movement. The palestinian nationalist movement, according to Avnery, has never recognized that Zionism was not simply a puppet of western imperialism but rather a legitimately self-motivated movement which used western imperialist forces for their own gain. And on the other hand, zionists refuse to recognize arab nationalists in palestine as genuinely palestinian, or as anything other than an inconvenience – fundamentally zionism believes Palestine to be an empty country, and any rootedness Arabs feel in the land can therefore not be seen by zionist politiciens. This disjunct repeats itself in an Israeli leadership unwilling and uninterested in making peace with its Arab neighbors, and Arab neighbors unwilling to recognize Israel’s existence on borders which Israel found acceptable.

In the book’s second half, entitled “breaking out”, Avnery finds a contradiction in contemporary (well, contemporary in the 1960s) Israeli society, and finds in its possible resolution a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The idea, roughly, is that Zionism is a failed idea because as it turns out there is no “Jewish Nation” in the way Zionism traditionally held. However, Zionism has, through the creation of the state of Israel, created a nation – the Hebrew nation. The solution to the conflict, therefore, is to erode the centrality of Jewishness to the state of Israel, and instead emphasize Israelis common Semitic identity as speakers of a Semitic language – something they share with the rest of the Arab world. The problem of the refugees, he believes, can be solved by offering Palestinians the free choice between compensation and repatriation, and a Palestinian Republic should be set up on the territory occupied in 1967, eventually to be united with the State of Israel in a federation, perhaps named “The Federation of Palestine”.

It’s quite amazing to read this proposal from a book written in 1968, just moments after the land now know as the Palestinian territories were occupied. I wonder how feasible this proposal is today – I certainly haven’t heard of this kind of thing advocated by any strong political movements within Israel. The idea of a two-state settlement has largely been co-opted by zionists who want to use it to preserve the Jewish (i.e. not Hebrew) character of the state of Israel, and has been bought into by Palestinian politiciens willing to sell out the refugees. According to his wikipedia page, apparently Avnery has written plenty more since 1968, and I look forward to reading some of his more contemporary work.

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