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Let's stop talking about a false 'Jewish-Arab partnership'

By creating symmetry between Israelis and Arabs, Jews on the left are not only missing the bigger picture — they are actively taking part in erasing the Palestinian struggle. 

By Rami Younis and Orly Noy

Israeli activists march during a protest in front of the Israeli army headquarter in Tel Aviv city in solidarity with the March of Return of the Gaza Strip and against the Israeli blockade, Israel, March 30, 2019. (Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

Israeli activists march during a protest in front of the Israeli army headquarter in Tel Aviv city in solidarity with the March of Return of the Gaza Strip and against the Israeli blockade, Israel, March 30, 2019. (Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

The sad state of the “left-wing camp” was clear long before the final results of the Israeli elections were published last week. Without skipping a beat, the ritual of declaring what is wrong with the left — and how to fix it — began.

Among the more popular of those suggestions was the cure-all “Jewish-Arab partnership” potion. The prescription sounds so ideologically correct and politically necessary that any criticism of it is often interpreted as jaded pedantry at best. And yet, it’s worth taking a more thorough look at the essence of that partnership.

Invisible Jewish hegemony

More than just expressing an aspiration for equality, the idea of Jewish-Arab partnership assumes symmetry. In that sense, it is a slightly updated version of the concept of “coexistence,” which has turned into somewhat of a curse word in the peace camp in recent years — and for good reason. It’s not that we oppose the idea of coexistence but rather that we have come to understand that coexistence doesn’t reflect distorted power relations between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. It has become too comfortable of an expression to be used by those for whom the only coexistence they know is the kind between a horse and its rider.

It’s safe to assume that those calling for “Jewish-Arab partnership” don’t want that foolish type of coexistence, yet they benefit from the same imagined, dangerous sense of symmetry. It is no coincidence that Jewish-Ashkenazi men are those who typically lead those calls for partnership. Likewise, it is not merely symbolic that talk of Jewish-Arab partnership almost always puts Jewish before Arab, reflecting the invisible Jewish hegemony that forms the bedrock of the very concept.

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The same asymmetry can be found in the unofficial slogan of the people and movements pushing partnership as the answer: “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.” The importance of the oppressed refusing to be the enemy of his or her oppressor should not be diminished. But the oppressor needs to be asked something entirely different: he or she must refuse to lord over the oppressed. That cannot be accomplished in a reality of false symmetry.

That stands true not just for ethical reasons but also because a struggle that is captive to an alternate reality, as worthy as its vision may be, can never be effective. As long as Jewish hegemony remains invisible, the various ways it dictates how that partnership looks will, too, remain invisible by virtue of the same language of symmetry. Take for example the manifest published by Standing Together, the flagship movement of Jewish-Arab partnership, which states that it doesn’t believe in raising any national flags.

In our reality, the Jewish-Israeli flag is an obvious part of the landscape, while the Palestinian flag — and the existence of the Palestinian people, for that matter — are rejected, demeaned, and erased. Removing both flags, therefore, does not advance equality; it deepens inequality. In the real world, the blue-and-white flag does not need legitimization; the Palestinian flag does. Saying that flags can be excluded symmetrically is to deny that one’s fate here is determined by their national affiliation. That isn’t partnership — it is active participation in oppression.

Illustrative photo of left-wing Israelis taking part in an anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Illustrative photo of left-wing Israelis taking part in an anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The same invisible Jewish hegemony is also behind various proposals to merge or unite the Meretz, Labor, and Hadash political parties. Such a merger would once again mean Jews choosing with which “good Arabs” they can build a “partnership.” Doing so also delineates and de-legitimizes the “bad Arabs” who are not worthy of that partnership.

Remember the Nakba?

The false symmetry pushed by those who believe that “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies” is no less than dangerous. An entire establishment based on a racist ideology, Zionism, has worked tirelessly for 71 years to erase both the Palestinian narrative and Palestinian identity. Entire generations of Palestinian citizens of Israel are raised here without knowing they are, in fact, Palestinians — without knowing the injustices perpetrated against their own people. How is it possible that those same people who seek justice and equality only help perpetuate this situation?

And if many Palestinians don’t know from whence they came, how will they know where they are to go?

Doing away with national identity also serves one of the right’s most belabored clichés against the Palestinians. Every Palestinian who dares speak about the Nakba, the greatest injustice perpetrated here — and one which the Zionist establishment refuses to recognize — is immediately told by the token fascist in the room to move on and stop whining. Those same fascists refuse to understand, or perhaps choose to ignore, the bleeding wound of 1948, and the great historical problem of the Palestinian people.

Protesters chant slogans during the demonstration, east of Gaza City, March 30, 2019. (Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills.org)

Protesters chant slogans during the demonstration, east of Gaza City, March 30, 2019. (Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills.org)

Those who push for a Jewish-Arab partnership prefer to focus on 1967 as the year of the great injustice. But it is not. At best, they are blind to the reality, if only due to the fact that most Palestinians (especially in Gaza and the West Bank) focus on 1948. If all your Arab friends talk about ’67, you probably don’t have enough Arab friends.

Flying the Palestinian flag and taking pride in that identity is not a provocation — it is the duty of every politically conscious Palestinian, so that the struggle does not disappear for future generations. Those who support coexistence, who oppose these markers of pride and identity, are not true political allies; they are actively working against the Palestinians whom they patronizingly and arrogantly claim to protect.

One must wonder, then, who are the Arabs who join these “partnerships?” One must remember that the tendency of indigenous groups living under oppression to reach out to their oppressor — if only to stop the latter from destroying the lives of the former — is a natural one. Now think about how natural it is for Palestinians to say “yes” to so-called enlightened and progressive Jews who offer them cooperation. We often hear that many Palestinians choose to censor themselves in the presence of their partners so as to not anger those who tend to have privileges, connections, and very often, funding.

The coexistence crowd also ignores Palestinians living in the occupied territories. It is likely that most Jewish Israelis, including leftists, have never visited the West Bank nor formed ties with local Palestinian residents in a manner that allows them to understand what so many Palestinians are fighting for. Did they know, for example, that most support the right of return? If it were up to Palestinians alone, instead of chanting “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies,” they would prefer to chant “Palestinians and Jews support the right of return.” Why doesn’t this slogan actually exist? Because this “partnership” needs to remain palatable to Jews.

Jewish Israelis protest along the Gaza border in solidarity with the Great Return March, October 5, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Jewish Israelis protest along the Gaza border in solidarity with the Great Return March, October 5, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The dozens of Palestinians chanting the same slogan alongside you at demonstrations do not have a mandate to speak in the name of Palestinians, just as the authors of this article never received the right to speak in the name of refugees in Gaza. Yet that does not mean we must not fight for their rights.

This is a national struggle between an indigenous nation and a violent majority. Those who belong to the majority cannot lead or even pretend to belong to the leadership of the struggle against oppression. The first thing they must do is be conscious of their position as members of the oppressive group, as difficult and unpleasant as it may be. What they can and must do is stand in solidarity with struggles led by the oppressed. This is a revolutionary idea for many Jews with good intentions. It is, of course, a more difficult position to take, as it demands patience and listening to the issues facing the Palestinian public.

Earlier this week, Palestinian prisoners, who for years have been deprived of their rights and endured abuse in Israeli prisons, ended a hunger strike. There is nothing “symmetrical” about their issue. Palestinian prisoners who were part of the national struggle are persecuted and forced to pay a price. This is also difficult for the Jewish public to swallow. What place could the prisoner’s struggle ever have in a so-called partnership with a Jewish hegemony that hopes to win the hearts and minds of as many people as possible?

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Bruce Gould

      “It is likely that most Jewish Israelis, including leftists, have never visited the West Bank nor formed ties with local Palestinian residents in a manner that allows them to understand what so many Palestinians are fighting for.”

      Well, here’s a practical suggestion: let more Israeli Jews go out with Taayush on their weekly outings to prevent the settlers from stealing sheep. You might meet David Shulman and besides, what’s the worst that can happen? You’ll get hit in the head with a tear gas canister?

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      Are all Jewish-Arab partnerships false? Must they be? Isn’t this piece by Younis and Noy an Arab-Jewish partnership? Isn’t +972 Magazine a Jewish-Arab partnership? Was Noy’s second place in the byline critical? “Younis & Noy” is correct but “Noy & Younis” is not? Why didn’t Noy take her own medicine and stand back and say “I can’t partner with you, Rami, because I’m Jewish”? She gets to because she’s non-male and non-Ashkenazi? Younis and Omer-Man should be unable to write a piece like this?
      I take your arguments about power asymmetries seriously and I am not gainsaying everything you write or most of it by any means but I do think that Sheizaf brings you both down to earth, back to earth, to a productive reality a bit:
      https://972mag.com/jewish-arab-alliance-segregation/141081/

      Reply to Comment
    3. Jane Grant

      So once again peace can only come if Israelis accept the Palestinian narrative and nothing if their own. What about your own citizens who lost property in Arab countries?

      Reply to Comment
      • john

        jane, this is classic whataboutism. palestinians aren’t to blame for arab states actions, while zionists are to blame for colonizing palestine.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Of course, Younis and Noy never erected this strawman you erect and knock down, Jane: “Israelis are not allowed their own narrative.”

        Quite the opposite. You’ve dishonestly transmogrified the proposition that Israelis should begin by recognizing that the Palestinians HAVE a narrative of their own that has to be respected and taken seriously, just as Israeli Jews have a narrative that they want taken seriously, into the idea that Israelis simply must “accept the Palestinian narrative and nothing of their own.”

        Moreover, “peace” (you seriously think Netanyahu wants that?—he does not, he wants quiet) will not come by one side or the other accepting the other’s narrative as fundamental truth, which will never happen. It is about practical arrangements on the ground that strike an enduring, workable, enforceable (by both sides) compromise that accepts that an all-satisfying justice this side of heaven is not going to be possible. And that compromise will involve not up front narrative-fixing but physical fixing: Israel loosening its greedy, self-righteous, power-drunk grip on some real estate it has stolen and unendingly continues to steal. Simply put.

        Narratives will be rewritten over time and adjusted, by both sides, and the feelings will change on both sides, in successive generations as they experience themselves in a workable partnership and gradually leave behind their fathers’ and mothers’ hatreds and grievances. Change the behavior and conditions on the ground and the feeling will follow.

        So let’s bring this down to earth. Getting to that practical compromise will involve Israelis, the ones with all the power, to first stop and even deign to listen to the other side and take them seriously, on both sides of the green line something which has never been done.

        All of the above is about your first sentence, Jane. John addressed your second sentence, correctly in my view.

        Reply to Comment