Blog 27: The 1936-1939 Arab Uprising in Palestine

The Wikipedia entrée on the revolt in its opening paragraph offers a very succinct and accurate portrayal of the revolt. “The 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine, later known as The Great Revolt (al-Thawra al- Kubra) or The Great Palestinian Revolt (Thawrat Filastin al-Kubra), was a popular nationalist uprising by Palestinian Arabs in Mandatory Palestine against the British administration of the Palestine Mandate, demanding Arab independence and the end of the policy of open-ended Jewish immigration and land purchases with the stated goal of establishing a ‘Jewish National Home’. The uprising coincided with a peak in the influx of immigrant Jews, some 60,000 that year – the Jewish population having grown under British auspices from 57,000 to 320,000 in 1935 [almost one-third of the total population] – and with the growing plight of the rural fellahin rendered landless, who as they moved to metropolitan centers to escape their violence and abject poverty found themselves socially marginalized.”

Though the revolt was against British rule, it ostensibly began with Arab-Jewish inter-ethnic violence that had evolved into tit-for-tat exchanges. Two Jews were murdered by a Qassimite band[i]; Jews killed two Arab labourers in reprisal. In fact, it began earlier when the Qassemites killed a British police officer and the British hunted down al-Qassam and killed him.

While 15 May 1948 is now commemorated as Nakba Day in remembrance of the 720,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced to flee Palestine in 1948, a day later was the initial commemoration day when Amin al-Husseini, the rabidly anti-Zionist Mufti of Jerusalem, declared that date, Palestine Day, to honour those killed by the British and Zionists during the previous month and back to the riots of 1929. After an initial strike in Nablus, Husseini, on behalf of the Arab High Committee (AHC) called for a general strike that lasted six months. It was called off on 11 October 1936.

Unlike 1933, this time the Palestinian leadership seized control and direction to channel the rage of the bottom-up extreme discontent. Though ended by a combination of repressive tactics and international diplomacy by Britain (enlisting the Saudis and others to pressure the Palestinians to end the strike), the General Strike was simply succeeded by the 1937 rural spontaneous uprising that was also repressed. Between 1936 and 1939, the British hung 108 “revolutionaries” and killed at least 2,000 in direct combat, though Rashid Khalidi estimated more than twice that number were killed and another 1200 died in intercommunal violence which resulted in over 200 Jewish dead. Khalidi also claimed there were 20,000 Arab casualties.[ii] Many of them were killed by Arabs in response to waverers, dissenters and collaborators, usually under orders of the euphemistically labelled “Boycott Committee,” more appropriately titled the Assassination Committee.

The dead and wounded were not the only casualties suffered by Arab Palestinians. They lost much of their leadership through death or exile. Their store of arms was largely confiscated, used or destroyed. The economic cost to the Arab community was enormous, especially in the agricultural sector. Since the Arab community became split between the peace committees and the rebels, the cost to social cohesion in the Arab sector also suffered. However, what ultimately emerged was a more cohesive and consolidated Palestinian national identity with a determination to acquire self-rule.[iii]

The revolt was a very violent one with attacks both on infrastructure (oil pipelines and railway lines) and British police and armed forces. By September, the number of British troops deployed to support the police numbered 20,000. It would eventually grow to 50,000 and include both the Air Force and Navy. Jews were killed in the 1936 strike in attacks on Jewish neighbourhoods in mixed cities (Jews fled Acre and Beisan) as well as Jewish settlements, destroying orchards and farms in adumbration of what Jewish settlers do in the West Bank to Arab farmers over the last three decades.

Brutality was not the exclusive prerogative of Arab Palestinians. The British used extrajudicial killings, collective punishment and blew houses up of the families of militants. Civilians were used as shields by the army. Whole villages, like al-Bassa near Haifa-Acre with almost 600 inhabitants, had their populations forcefully expelled and the villages were burned to the ground. Al-Bassa was rebuilt afterwards, but once again, in 1948, the inhabitants were forcefully expelled, this time by the Hagana, and the village again was almost entirely destroyed.

The Peel Commission was launched by Britain between the General strike of 1936 and the wider uprising of 1937. Governance under the Mandate Authority since the 1920s had been divided between the Jewish Agency and the Supreme Muslim Council. The Peel Commission Report of 7 July 1937 recommended that this de facto partition become a political one with a division of the land between the Jews and Arabs, but with significant parts of the land continuing to be controlled by the British thus setting the basis for the tripartite division recommended in the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) Report in 1947, but with the United Nations replacing the British and the Jewish Zionists allocated an even larger area than the larger option in the Peel Commission Report. Peel had offered two options – a very small Jewish Zionist state and a large Arab one linked to Transjordan (Option 1) and a somewhat larger Jewish one, but requiring the transfer or relocation of 275,000 Arab Palestinians (Option2).

The Arabs adamantly rejected partition altogether as did the Revisionist Zionists.[iv] The Labour Zionists led by Ben Gurion revised its initial rejection to accept the larger plan subject to negotiations on the size and the recommendations to restrict immigration.

The revolt resumed in the autumn of 1937 with the assassination by the Qassemites on 26 September of Lewis Andrews, the pro-Zionist Acting District Commissioner of the Galilee. By 1938, the Irgun Revisionist Zionists initiated militant operations against the Arab Palestinians at the same time as the British introduced de facto military control or military rule over the Mandate and systematically set out to repress the revolt. About half the Arabs who were killed had been attacked by Revisionist Zionists beginning in late 1937. But the violence had become much more widespread with abductions, sniping, murders, bombings, armed robberies and destruction of commercial properties as well as infrastructure.

In 1938, the Woodhead Commission was initiated by the British. Initially, the idea of partition had been accepted in principle, but the Woodhead Commission eventually rejected not only partition but the prospect of a Jewish sovereign state in any part of Palestine. Further, anticipating a possible war with Germany with the necessity of eliminating Arab rage against the British, much more severe restrictions on immigration and land sales were proposed.

One result was Irgun guns turning against the British in 1938 using mines or, more accurately, what became known as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), offensive weapons favoured in a guerilla war or insurgency.  The beginnings of the Jewish revolt against the British had started even before WWII. For with the British recruitment of about 20,00 Jewish policemen, the building of a nascent arms industry by the Hagana, the consolidation of the Jewish leadership and its increased experience not only in military and political matters but in intelligence gathering as well, the Jews had been given a head-start in preparation for the Jewish-Arab war less than a decade later.

[i] Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, a Syrian who participated in many revolts across the Arab world and migrated to Palestine after the defeat of the Libyan uprising, became a religious leader and anti-Zionist and anti-British agitator. Tom Segev the Israeli historian dubbed him the Arab Joseph Trumpledor.

[ii] Rashid Khalidi (2007) The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood Beacon Press. For an earlier account, see George Antonius (1938; 1945) The Arab Awakening. The Story of the Arab National Movement.

[iii] Oren Kessler (2023) Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict.

[iv] Eric Kaplan (2005) The Jewish Radical Right: Revisionist Zionism and Its Ideological Legacy. University of Wisconsin Press.


Blog 26 – The Forces Behind the 1936-1939 Uprising:

The Palestinian Great Revolt

Was the uprising a product of antisemitic anti-Zionist leaders who alternatively engaged in quiet “diplomacy” and political pressure while manipulating the Arab population in Palestine to revolt against their British overlords? Or did a generally restive and rebellious population engage in more-or-less mass mobilization from the bottom up to attack both the Zionists and British colonial rule? If the latter, did widespread nationalist emotions combine with horizontal rather than hierarchically organized social forces to radicalize Palestinian politics to a degree unseen heretofore?[i] A positive answer to this query would necessarily bring into pre-eminence the role of students, of landless peasants and of unemployed or underemployed Palestinian Arab urban workers. This is an important question if we are to understand the subsequent development of radical and violent militancy among Palestinians over the next eight decades.

Charles Anderson points in particular to “the proliferation of youth associations in the early 1930s” and “the rise of youth as an assertive, ambitious, and politically frustrated element” that had an inordinate effect on tactics, strategy and the trajectory of the Palestinian national movement built on a base of disaffected dispossessed uprooted and impoverished peasants. (See previous blog.) In the nineteen sixties, we learned definitively how youth leadership could change the temper of the times. In 1933, a previously inchoate Arab Palestinian student movement that had begun with the founding of the Young Men’s Muslim Association in the late twenties propelled by disenchantment with Arab elite leadership metamorphosed into a process of youth self-organization leading to the Youth Congress in 1932 and the creation of the Istiqlal Party.

On 27 October 1933, in Jaffa, the Youth Congress led up to ten thousand young Palestinians, as well as former peasants, urban workers and a smattering of Arab Palestinian politicians and leaders, in a protest against the immigration policies of the British government and the swelling numbers of Jewish settlers who became the singular focus rather than the absentee Arab landlords who had sold their land to the Zionists.[ii] Following past practices in previous riots, many male protesters came armed with wooden and metal clubs and staves.

In contrast, the current judicial Israeli protests against the proposed “reforms” to the judicial system have combined elite participation with one ideology and perspective with bottom-up organizing but without any significant evidence of violent instruments. Even historically in Israel when protests were led by elites, such as the 7 January 1952 protests led by Menachem Begin against Ben Gurion’s plans to accept German reparations for the Holocaust, and when protesters vowed to sacrifice their lives in battle with the government rather than accede to a compromise with the German devil, those protests did not end up in revolt as much as revolt had been threatened.[iii]

One element that would be repeated over the years became integral to both elite-led and popular Palestinian protests – placing blame on others. More particularly, Palestinians blamed Jews and Zionists along with their British satrap for their condition. Placing primary blame on the Jews had become reified in 1933. While Canada, America, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand were closing their gates to Jewish immigration, the ascent of Hitler as Chancellor of Germany led directly to the increased number of arrivals of 37,300 Jews in Palestine in 1933. In 1934 and 1935, the annual intake increased each year.

Arab Palestinian youth leadership not only focused on Jewish immigration and land purchases, but on how these efforts on the ground emboldened and strengthened the Jewish quest for sovereignty that had become more open and perceived as a threat to the prospect of Arab Palestinian sovereignty. Jewish sovereignty was adamantly rejected by the vast majority of Christian and Muslim Arabs. Nor was there any significant movement to share sovereignty. Two movements, both in quest of their own sovereignty and each reinforced by the character of the other movement, were doomed to clash. That realization reinforced the definition of the Other increasingly as an “enemy other.”

However, it was not the Arabs and Jews who clashed this time. It was the Arabs and British police who attempted to stop the “illegal” protest. 19 Arab protesters were killed by police bullets and 70 injured; 1 Arab police officer died and 25 others were injured. The protests spread and so did the toll of dead and injured – 7 more Arab protesters were killed and over 100 were injured.

1933 became an inflection point, not only in Jewish immigration but in the Arab protests. Instead of pogroms against Jews and Jewish property, observers witnessed retargeting against British rule. The precedent for the 1936 revolt had been set. Street protests rather than mob violence, confrontation against the British police (and army) replaced the murder of Jews and destruction of Jewish property, and mass mobilization rather than emotional rhetorical excesses became the modus vivendi. Radicalization and militancy had become per-eminent. Violence and direct-action displaced diplomacy propelled by grass roots rioting.

In the Spring of 1936, a militant six-month general strike broke out that one year later became a widespread armed insurrection and insurgency.[iv] The Arab Higher Committee attempted to reassert control, but the momentum came from the bottom up.

There are at least two lessons from this period that have not been fully recognized. First, efforts at economic improvement intended to pacify and raise the economic standing of the population have unintended negative economic consequences as well as producing a new educated radical student leadership class. In the process, negotiations with the older elite (and often corrupt) leadership[v] turn into an aside as that older leadership disintegrates in the face of another failure and a new form of leadership with a different character takes its place.[vi] The result is a misplaced focus on diplomatic shadow boxing rather than dealing directly with new and emerging social and political forces. Further, the structures, ideologies and situations as they evolve push both oppositions into new caricatures of the “Other” and, more often than not, more extremist positions by both parties to the conflict in spite of the increased accuracy and richer analysis of the Other produced by scholars on both sides.

The actual 1936-1939 precedent making revolt will be portrayed in the next blog.

[i] Cf. the very lengthy thesis of Charles W. Anderson (2013) From Petition to Confrontation: the Palestinian National Movement and the Rise of Mass Politics, 1929-1939.

[ii] Yehoshua Porath (1977) Palestinian Arab National Movement: From Riots to Rebellion: 1929-1939 and Ann Lesch (1979) Arab Politics in Palestine: 1917-1939. Cornell University Press.

[iii] This morning, Daniel Gordis began the first installment of a new series on his blog on a brief history of Israeli protests ( with the protests in Israel against the Germen reparations plan with about the same number of protesters as the Palestinians marshalled about thirty years earlier. Gordis portrayed the protest as a political conflict over policy lead by political elites. “Ben-Gurion understood how contentious taking money for exterminated Jews from the exterminators would be, but argued that international admiration would come with an economically flourishing Jewish state; Menachem Begin, however, insisted that the Jewish state would lose all respect it had painstakingly acquired if Israel—the international face of the Jewish people—now took money from its former oppressors.” Puritanism and principle were at odds with pragmatism.

[iv] Rashid Khalidi (2006) The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood. Beacon Press.

[v] Though not named as such by Haim Gelber, this position expounded by Gelber has been identified as the “effendi” thesis, that is, the belief that Palestinian Arab society is rigidly hierarchical and that agency depends entirely or primarily on an (usually characterized as corrupt) elite class. Cf. Haim Gelber (2003) “Zionism, Orientalism, and the Palestinians,” Journal of Palestine Studies 33:1, Fall 23-41.

[vi] Hillel Cohen (2008) Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism: 1923-1948. University of California Press. There is a parallel projection by Palestinians of elitism onto Jewish and Israeli society, but that is another story for a different time and place.

Israel as a Failing State

Blog 25: Prelude to the 1936 Arab Revolt:

Changes in Land Ownership and Population

The official political name of the British Mandate was not Eretz Israel but the name inherited from the Ottoman Empire – Palestine in English and Philistinia in Arabic – filasţīn (فلسطين) and pālēśtīnā, and, in Hebrew, פּלשׂתינה. When the third official language Hebrew was used, the initials aleph-yod were added to stand for Eretz Israel, using initials not to upset the Arabs.

literacy had played a key role in the competition for power between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine under the British Mandate. Almost all Jews were literate; even though they were a minority in the population, more of them could read and write than the total of Muslims and Christians combined. Several thousand Jews read Arabic; hardly any Arabs, even Christian ones, read Hebrew. This meant that Jewish Palestinians had full access to Arab Palestinian writings unreciprocated by Arabic access to Hebrew tracts, pamphlets and books. Even more importantly, Jews could play a disproportionate role in the drafting of official government documents into the three official languages, including the 1926 Correction of Land Registers Ordinance, legislation to protect cultivators, and the definition of a landless Arab.[i] However, those advantages has been greatly overestimated.

Though important for intellectual development, the impact of literacy was greatest in the economic and political spheres. Hence, it was a Jew, Pinhas Rutenberg, who won the concession for supplying Palestine with electrical power. He founded the Palestine Electric Company in 1923 by receiving from the government concessions, for both the Jordan and Yarkon Rivers. The concessions allowed his company to use the water resources of the two rivers both for irrigation and the production of electricity.

However, the greatest effect in the competition for influence was in the distribution of land ownership. Given the divisions between the landed classes and the fellahin within Arab society, the Jews could use their negotiating skills and knowledge of the law to negotiate land purchases from Arabs who owned large tracts of land.[ii]

In the West, we take for granted the registry system for privately owned land. It allows the ownership history and claims against property to be searched in government system of guarantees of title. Transfers are made by the registration of a deed of title and individuals have an absolute guarantee to that title. Although governments can exercise their rights of exclusive and eminent domain to expropriate land, they have to pay at least market value.

At the time of the 1936 Uprising – and this time it was a revolt against British rule and not just a matter of mob violence targeting Jews – one million of the five million dunams of the privately held lands in Mandatory Palestine were owned by or assigned by long-term leases to Jews. (A dunam is almost 10,000 square feet; an acre consists of 4.047 dunams.) But the vast majority of land at the time was state-owned – an additional 21.4 million dunams. Whichever party controlled the state, or had the greatest influence on the British government through either literacy or, alternatively, the threat of violence, controlled most of the land.

By 1945, the ratios shifted. Instead of Arabs owning or privately controlling land in a 4:1 ratio, they did so in over an 8:1 ratio. By then, over half the state land had been transferred to private legal or de facto ownership. 12.8 million was either owned or held in indefinite lease by Arabs, 75% of it arable. 1.5 million was controlled by Jews, 80% of it arable. Further, of the remaining 12.3 million dunams remaining under state control, 10.6 million were in the Negev desert. Only 1.7 million dunams of arable land remained directly under state ownership, and most of that was of marginal agricultural quality. After the British obtained the mandate, the privatization of land begun by the Ottomans in 1858 became a torrent.

Given the results of the re-distribution, it is very questionable to suggest that the Arabs lost the 1936-39 revolt. Though Jews made up a disproportionate part of the British bureaucracy, in the aftermath of the rebellion, Arabs made the greater gains in land ownership.

What about the population? What about demography? At one time there was a very fiery debate over the ratios of Palestinians to Jews that had migrated to Palestine by 1936. Certainly, Arabs had been immigrating to and emigrating from Palestine over the previous century and longer. As a result of a famine in Egypt at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Egyptians had migrated to Palestine, mainly Gaza. Further, Palestinians inherited a strong distaste for military conscription. Part of that was because they resented enforced military service for the Ottomans. But a good part may also have been because numbers of Palestinians were descendants of Egyptian soldiers who had deserted when Egypt lost the second Egypt-Ottoman War (1839-41) almost a century before the 1936 uprising. The numbers have been estimated as at least 15,000 and, perhaps, up to double that figure; 500 families alone (2,000 Egyptians) settled in Jaffa and many others on the coastal plain.

In the nineteenth century, Algerians migrated to Palestine. So did Kurds and Bosnian Muslims after 1878. Many Palestinian have the surname of Bushnak. The nineteenth century also witnessed an ingathering of Bedouin into Palestine so that at the time of the 1922 census, there were 73,000 Bedouin largely in the Negev, but many in the urban area of Nablus. In 1922, the total population of Palestine consisted of just three-quarters of a million people, almost 600,000 Arabs, about 70,000 Christians and, by then, slightly more Jews than Christians.

Ten years later, the Jewish population had doubled while both the Christian, mostly Eastern Orthodox, and Arab populations had increased by about 20%. More than twice as many Jews (9,000) than Arabs (4,000) had arrived as a result of illegal migration. By then, there were just over a million human souls in Palestine, slightly over the population of the Galilee alone at the time of Jesus. Relatively, Palestine remained a land without people and, for Jews, an opening for them to escape the troubles and pogroms of Europe as well as the rising menace of the Nazis.

As a result of the 1921 and 1929 Arab riots, the British increasingly restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine – so much for the promise of a homeland for the Jewish people.  Quotas were fixed and the number of immigration certificates distributed were increasingly lowered. Jewish organizations competed for the limited number of certificates. Yet Jews continued to arrive – enrolling in the Hebrew University as students – there was no limit on student visas – and arriving through “family reunification” as resident Jewish Palestinians “married” Jewish offshore brides under that loophole in the restrictive immigration regime. Others arrived on tourist visas and never left. In 1934, as the first of many, the ship Vallos was chartered to bring the first cohort of 350 illegal Jewish immigrants to Palestine.

Ten years after the 1922 census, the population of Palestine had significantly increased and by 1947 had almost doubled even though, at the end of the 1936-39 Arab uprising, the British government under Parliamentary Document 6019 limited the Jewish population in Palestine to no more than one third the total.  Jews were on the way to becoming one-third of the population. An absolute total of only 75,000 Jews would be permitted to enter Palestine, and then only if such immigration was “economically viable.” As the document stated, “no further Jewish immigration will be permitted unless the Arabs are prepared to acquiesce to it.” Again, those who claim that violence does not pay have to wrestle with these results. But we are getting too far ahead of our narrative.

While much of the gain in the Jewish population resulted from migration, increases in the Muslim population were largely the result of the decline in infant mortality as changes in delivering health care were introduced. Contrary to the claims of a few early Zionist writers, unlike Jewish immigration to Palestine which was increasingly “illegal,” there was, by comparison, relatively little Arab illegal migration. By 1947, the vast majority of Arab Palestinians were the descendants of Arabs who had arrived in Palestine before modern Jewish migration began in 1880.

Arabs did not arrive in Palestine because they were primarily attracted by economic development with the arrival of the Jews, though many became part of the urban working class, not only as a result of the shifts in land ownership and economic incentives, but because of improved transportation, increased trade, and industrialization. However, the result was an enormous disruption of Arab society. The noble-effendi classes may have gained title to much more land; however, their control enjoyed over many fellaheen over the Palestinian villagers eroded. Social bonds frayed. Traditional norms were replaced by bureaucratic strictures. With the inflow of Jewish capital into Palestine, the erosions increased enormously as the musha’ system of rights and responsibilities disintegrated; land became alienable and transactional.  Property became a disposable commodity. Further, entire Palestinian Arab villages disappeared. Peasants were disoriented in the shift from a barter to a market economy. Lacking the education or skills to manage in the new urban environment, many became impoverished.

Thus, landlessness among Palestinians played a major role in the Arab revolt that began in 1936.[iii] Inflation and unemployment whiplashed the former rural population. Disillusion and frustration contributed to their participation in the so-called “social unrest.”  Immigrant Jews were held responsible. Jewish land purchases were exaggerated for different reasons by both sides. The increasing knowledge that Zionists wanted a state of their own significantly contributed to the antipathy towards both the Jews and the British who were held to be under the thumb of the Jews. Arab attempts to imitate some of the Jewish initiatives failed. The 1931 Arab National Fund and the 1932 organization for the Preservation of Arab Lands both went nowhere.

Arab leaders blamed the Jews as interlopers and disrupters. Issues of land ownership, however unwarranted, as well as immigration became incendiary issues of a different order of magnitude. Guilt over the Arab elite own “quiet” involvement in land sales to Jews was displaced onto the perfidy of those same Jews to whom the land had been sold. It did not help that the Jewish voices and claims about land ownership became more strident and louder as the paternalistic British systematically decreased the opportunities of the displaced peasants through legal measures rather than economic incentives and opportunities.

The effect was alienation of each group from the others – Jews against the British and the Arabs, Arabs against the British and the Jews and the British frustrated at the lack of appreciation for their efforts at being the umpire between the Jews and Arabs. The British recognized the Jewish coastal versus the Arab heartland and reinforced the separation of the two groups to keep the peace by facilitating Arab resettlement in the hill country. The de facto partition of Palestine was underway that would lead to the 1937 Peel Commission recommendation for partition.

But first the revolt and violence had to take place.  

[i] Cf. Kenneth W. Stein (1984) Land Acquisition in Palestine: 1917-1939. University of North Carolina Press.

[ii] Cf. M. Button (1999) Ottoman Land-Law during the Palestine Mandate, 1917-1936.

[iii] Cf. C. Anderson (2018) “The British Mandate and the Crisis of Palestinian Landlessness, 1929–1936′, Middle Eastern Studies 54:2.

Israel as a Failing State

Blog 24: 1929 Palestinian Riots

Were the 1929 Arab riots in Palestine different than its 1921 predecessor? 1921 was a product of false rumour and a defensive reaction. 1929, however much incitement was set off because of fallacious rumours, was rooted in a real religious dispute over access to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. However, even if the scope of the violence and property damage in 1929 was much greater, though the duration of the violence was very similar, the underlying causes were the same: the Arab antipathy to Jewish immigration and the positive aspiration for Palestinian self-determination. The British Shaw Commission located the cause in “the Arab feeling of animosity and hostility towards the Jews consequent upon the disappointment of their political and national aspirations” and in the fear for their economic future since they regarded Jewish immigrants “as a menace to their livelihood,” but also “a possible overlord of the future.”

Between 23 and 29 August, 133 Jews were killed and 339 injured, mostly by Arab rioters. 116 Arabs were killed and 232 injured, mostly by British police.[i] A dispute over Jewish worship at the Western Wall triggered the dispute. Why? Jews had come to the Western Wall to worship for centuries, long before the emergence of modern Zionism. Jewish rhetoric, just as it continues to do now, played a role. The orators were not necessarily extremists.

Menachem Ussishkin was a Zionist leader and was head of the Jewish National Fund from 1923 for almost three decades. In 1925, he gave a speech demanding “a Jewish state without compromises and without concessions, from Dan to Be’er Sheva, from the great sea to the desert, including Transjordan.” (My italics.) He asked Jews to swear before God “that the Jewish people will not rest and will not remain silent until its national home is built on our Mt Moriah.” He had married traditional Jewish religious longing and modern Jewish nationalist aspirations, right wing Revisionist goals with labour Zionism.

Though he had been Secretary of the First Zionist Congress in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland, he was not elected to the Executive of the Zionist Council though he had been a member of Moscow branch of Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), established in 1881-82 to promote agricultural settlement in Eretz Israel, and, perhaps more importantly, a founder of the BILU . The Bilu’im wanted not just to ensure Jewish survival through agricultural settlements but to create the new Jew through physical labour. The Zionist Congress, though it had absorbed Hovevei Zion as an integral part of the Zionist movement, had passed the more moderate Basel program for the Jewish people articulated in Max Nordau’s phrase, “a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine.” (My italics) A Jewish home within Palestine, not a Jewish state from the Mediterranean Sea to what became the borders of Jordan.

That is what the words said. But the sentiment behind it was much different. As Theodor Herzl had said after his triumphant success at Basel, “Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word – which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly – it would be this: at Basel I founded the Jewish State.” Not a Jewish homeland within Palestine but a Jewish state in Palestine. Whether it would include all of or only a part of Palestine was a matter of dispute. But for most Zionists it was clear – the goal was a Jewish state. As Herzl continued, “If I said this out loud today l would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it.” It took the Palestinians only a quarter century to recognize that this was the real underlying goal. Though the Reform movement and religious Jews at the time dissented, (one reason why the first Zionist congress was moved from Germany to Switzerland), the major difference was really not over the goal, only its extent and only over whether to pronounce that goal loudly and clearly or only in whispers.

It took until 1942, following the 1936 Arab uprising in Palestine and the response of the Peel Commission, for the Zionists to explicitly adopt the goal of establishing Palestine “as a Jewish commonwealth.” Ussishkin had always been unequivocal. In his pamphlet, Our Program, he advocated collective settlements based on Jewish labour and a central role for higher education. He was active in creating the Jewish polytechnic which matured into the Technion. As President of the Jewish National Fund after 1923, he became the driving force behind the major land acquisitions: Hefer, the Jezreel Valley and the Beit She’an Valley.

It is in this context that one can understand the impact of Ussishkin’s 1925 speech. After all, it was Ussishkin who had rejected the 1922 proposal of Colonel Ronald Storrs, then British military governor of Jerusalem, to create a “Palestinian university” with both Hebrew and Arab departments. Instead, Zionist leaders, including cultural/political Zionists like Albert Einstein, Chaim Weizmann and Yehudah Magnes, created the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In the dialectic between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, their mutual fears and contending aspirations pushed them into opposing camps.

Higher education in Israel has always been linked to Jewish political aspirations. When Hebrew University was inaugurated on 1 April 1925, the opening was as much a Jewish religious as a secular higher education beginning. A choir sang chapter 19 of the Book of Psalms and a Haydn melody, “The Torah shall go forth from Zion.” Rabbi Kook read a special prayer composed for the occasion. The university was to develop in two directions: as a centre of Jewish tradition and the preservation of its historic language, Hebrew, and a centre of scientific research that became so critical to the extraordinary development of Israeli agriculture. H. N. Bialik, then and since known as the first national poet of Israel, read his poem written for the occasion that promoted both the reconciliation of modern science and the preservation of tradition, mainly the Jewish religion and the Hebrew language. The second part of the poem linked both objectives to the 1917 Balfour Declaration. In the poem, Balfour is portrayed as an Old Testament prophet as described in Ezra and Nehemiah. The return to Zion, שיבת ציון, was a marriage of modern intellectual enterprise and the preservation of traditional moral principles that made serving as a “light unto the nations” a moral and political imperative.  

Intellectual enterprise and religion had been wrapped together by political Zionism. Jews by and large who continued to identify organizationally as Jews would eventually and overwhelmingly adopt that position. And it was recognized by Jewish leaders and Arab leaders at the time. 1925 is the key to understanding 1929.

In 1937, Ussishkin and Weizmann would eventually clash following the 1936 riots (the next blog) over the issue of partition, but in 1925 they were united in their views, even as they differed over what could be articulated. But as Ussishkin declared at the 1937 Zionist Congress, accepting the principle of partition would be disastrous and introduce “great misfortune.” That split, however, belonged to the future.

How do we link 1925 with the events of 1929? Because in 1921, the riots had been spontaneous and based on false rumours. But by 1929, the inevitable clash of Zionist aspirations and the Arab quest for self-determination had become clear. They were set in motion the year before. In September 1928, “The Western or “Wailing Wall” (Buraq for Muslims) controversy, which became a public issue in 1928, triggered the intercommunal violence that in 1929 claimed 800 casualties and marked the shift of the political process into the irreconcilability violent phase which continues today.”[ii]

What was the controversy about? At the time, the Muslim Waqf, a religious trust, claimed ownership and control of not only the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but the Wailing Wall as well.  In 1925, three years earlier, following the Ussishkin speech and the inauguration of Hebrew University, to appease Muslim complaints, the British forbade Jews bringing seats and benches to the Wall even for worshippers who were aged and infirm. In September 1928, Rabbi Aaron Menachem Mendel Guterman (1860-1934), the third rebbe of the Radzymin Hasidic dynasty, while visiting Jerusalem, put up a mechitza, a screen to separate male and female worshippers. Another visitor at the time, governor, Edward Keith Roach, noted the structure and ordered the commissioner to remove it by morning, according to some accounts, ignoring both the traditional tolerance for temporary facilities as well as the pleas of worshippers to leave it in place until after prayers. Others insisted that Roach agreed, but in the interim,  Attorney General Norman Bentwich  ordered the removal not knowing that Roach had agreed to an extended time to allow it to stay in place. The mechitza was removed forcefully by ten policemen in the morning; the police were attacked by Jewish worshippers.

The ardent anti-Zionist Haj Amin al Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, distributed leaflets throughout the Arab world claiming Jews were planning to take over the al-Aqsa Mosque. He held the British authorities and Jews to be jointly responsible for any actions the Arabs in Palestine might take to defend against illegal intrusions by Jews.

Zionists, in turn, demanded sole control over the wall; Ben Gurion called for its “redemption”. In the spring of 1929, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the leader of the Revisionist Zionists, launched a campaign in the Jewish right-wing newspaper to claim Jewish ownership and reverse the British decision to award control over the wall to the Waqf. Op-eds also advocated the use of violence to advance the claim.

On Thursday, 15 August, during the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av, several hundred right-wing youth, including members of Jabotinsky’s Betar youth organization, marched to the Western Wall shouting “the Wall is ours” and sang Hatikva, the Zionist national anthem. According to the Shaw Commission, the marchers were unarmed. The following day, on a Friday after a rabble-rousing sermon in a mosque, the Supreme Muslim Council led an unprecedented march to the wall where the crowd burnt prayer books, liturgical fixtures and notes of supplication left in the Wall’s cracks. The Beadle was injured, and the destruction spread to the Jewish commercial area.

The next day, on Shabbat, a 17-year-old Mizrachi Jew, Abraham Mizrachi, was stabbed just outside of Mea Shearim; he died on August 20th. Nine days after the original Zionist march demanding ownership of the Wailing Wall, on the 23rd of August, prompted again by rumours as in the 1921 Jaffa riots, this time that the Zionists were going to march to the Temple Mount to claim ownership of it, thousands of Arab villagers from the surrounding countryside carrying sticks and knives arrived to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.  

In the meanwhile, in Me’a Shirim during the noon hour, three Arabs were killed by Jews, either in response to what the Arabs had said or done or as revenge for what had taken place at the Wailing Wall, depending on whose account you believe.[iii] At 1:15, responding to the news, Arabs went on a rampage and started murdering Jews, beginning in Jerusalem and quickly spreading throughout Palestine. British police, overwhelmed by the huge numbers, stood by as Arabs murdered Jews at the Jaffa gate. The number of Jewish victims would have been many times greater if Arab neighbours had not hidden and protected their Jewish ffriends.

The worst atrocities took place at Hebron and Safed, though six Jewish villages were entirely destroyed. The British on 24 August had deputized and armed about 60 Jews to defend Jewish communities, but several days later, under threats by the Mufti, rescinded the appointments and disarmed the constables on 27 August.

Though the Jewish para-military Haganah had offered the Maklef family in the village of Motza protection, the patriarch refused since he had always enjoyed good relations with his Arab neighbours. But on 24 August, Arabs from neighbouring Qalunya invaded Motza, murdered the patriarch and his son as well as two rabbinical guests, tortured Chaya, the wife and mother, and hung her on a fence. They also raped and murdered two daughters.

In Hebron, where the Jews again rejected Hagana offers of protection, insisting that they had lived at peace with their Arab neighbours for years, almost 70 Jews were killed, many tortured in advance, including women and children. The atrocities were followed by looting and wanton destruction. However, many of the Jews who survived had been hidden in Arab homes. Mutilations and murders of Yeshiva students followed. In Safed, just under twenty Jews were killed and many homes and businesses were set on fire. The eye-witness descriptions of the murders are horrific: Aphriat, a school teacher along with his wife and mother, were murdered; Toledano, a lawyer, was cut to pieces with knives; children in orphanages had their hands and heads cut off; Yitshak Mammon, a tenant of an Arab family, was repeatedly stabbed and then trampled to death. 

A few atrocious reprisal attacks took place, including a raid on Sheikh ‘Abd al-Chani ‘Awn’ home, killing all the adults but not the children. The Nebi Akasha Jerusalem mosque built beside the Tomb of the Prophets where Muhammed’s companion, Ukasha ibn al-Mihsan was buried, was desecrated.

What was the result? A few Jews and many Arabs were sentenced to death. Almost all the sentences were commuted. On 21 October 1930, the Hope Simpson Royal Commission recommended limiting Jewish immigration on the fallacious grounds that there was not enough arable land to support a large population. None of the actions prevented the march towards a much greater catastrophe.

[i] Great Britain (1930) Parliamentary Papers: Report of the Commission on the Palestine Disturbances of August 2029.

[ii] ME Lundsten (1978) “Zionist and Palestinian Strategies in Jerusalem, 1928,” Journal of Palestinian Studies 8: 3-27, p. 3.

[iii] As the Shaw Commission concluded, there was no objective definitive account of what had happened.

Blog 22

C. I is for the Inter-Jewish/Palestinan Hundred-Year-War

The Roots of the War

External Western Nations may have constructed the foundations for this war over a century ago in Palestine, but the roots were planted by the rival parties themselves, but in cooperation with the British and the French. The target then was not Western nations, but the Ottoman Empire of which Palestine formed a part. While David Ben Gurion was soliciting support from the Sultan for the restoration of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, on 5 June 1916, the sons of King of Hejaz, Sharif Hussein ibn Ali, the emirs Ali and Feisal, attacked the Ottoman garrison at Medina. They had tried to capture its railway station as the first stage in capturing the second holiest city in the Muslim world.  

The goal was a pan-Arabic nation with Hussein as the caliph. Just over two years later, the so-called Egyptian Expeditionary Force, created by the British and Lawrence of Arabia, had captured Palestine as well as Lebanon, Syria and parts of the Arabian Peninsula. But the promise of a pan-Arab independent political entity led by Hussein was discarded. Instead, the Sykes-Picot Agreement split control of the area between the two allied powers, Britain and France. The UK inherited the Mandate of Palestine covering present day Jordan and all of Palestine. And it was Ibn Saud, not Hussein, who inherited Mecca, Medina and Jeddah.

But this was not the betrayal that Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, cited when the United Nations celebrated its first Nakba Day on 15 May 2023.[i] He blamed the US as well as Britain for abandoning Arab independence in favour of planting the Jewish nation in the heart of Palestine. They, he claimed, bore “political and ethical responsibility directly for the Nakba of the Palestinian people because they took part in rendering our people a victim when they decided to establish and plant another entity in our historic homeland for their own colonial goals. These countries wanted to get rid of their Jews and benefit from their presence in Palestine.”

Thus began the politics of resentment rather than any effort at an objective historical account. First, the US had played no part in the betrayal. Second, the core of the Jewish nation in 1917 was not established in Palestine but restored and enhanced. Third, the Palestinians were not victimized by that act; they could have welcomed the Jews back to their homeland and prospered alongside them. Fourth, colonial goals played a much more prominent part in initiating the Arab Revolt than in the Balfour Declaration which was an initiative of the ideals of British Christian Zionists who could trace their heritage back before Jewish Zionism to the mid-nineteenth century and George Eliot’s novel, Daniel Deronda.[ii] Finally, the desire to rid Britain of Jews played no part; the British promoters were philo-Jews, not antisemites.

The Arab resentment was evidenced in the Jaffa Riots with Arabs targeting Jews on May Day – the first of May 2021. What began as rival parades between the Jewish Communist Party and the Jewish socialists, Ahdut HaAvoda, clashes between the two groups and some fisticuffs led to rumours that Jews were attacking Arabs. Arab men poured out of Jaffa armed with clubs, knives, swords and even pistols, and attacked Jewish businesses and homes killing Jews wantonly and looting their properties.  Arab police sent to quell the rioters joined the attack against the Jews. The most casualties took place in a Jewish immigrant centre holding over one hundred. Eventually, British forces intervened and turned on the Arab rioters to stop the melee that spread over the next week and throughout Palestine.[iii] The one-hundred-year war between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine began with a populist pogrom against Jews stirred up by false rumours in which police followed the path of the Arab rioters.  

The consequences were profound. Among the dead were Yosef Haim Brenner, a pioneer in modern Hebrew literature, along with his landlord, his landlord’s teenaged son and son-in-law as well as two other tenants. But more significant than the deaths were two policy initiatives taken by Sir Herbert Samuel, the British High Commissioner. He was a Jew, sympathetic to Zionism, but not himself a Zionist. Under Arab pressure in the aftermath of the riots, he acceded to their demands and put a stop order on Jewish immigration. 300 Jewish immigrants still on boats were returned to Istanbul. Samuel also appointed al-Husseini’s nephew, Amin al-Husseini, as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. Widely regarded in the Jewish community in Palestine as an antisemite, he was ardently opposed to Jewish immigration and, though he subsequently collaborated with the Nazis, he was not known to have played any part in the Shoah.

In the investigative commission that followed – the Haycraft Commission of Inquiry – though primary blame was placed on the Arabs, Jews were held responsible for not being considerate enough of Arab concerns and apprehensions. “The fundamental cause of the violence and the subsequent acts of violence was a feeling among the Arabs of discontent with, and hostility to, the Jews, due to political and economic causes, and connected with Jewish immigration, and with their conception of Zionist policy as derived from Jewish exponents.” In other words, though Arab rioters were the primary proximate cause and aggressors, abetted by ill-trained Arab police, the underlying cause was Zionist ideology that was held responsible for planting in Arab hearts acute anti-Jewish feelings. In other words, the prime victims were to blame more than the murderers. It was another case of blaming the victims for their own victimization.

In June of 1921, Sir Hebert Samuel gave a speech lifting the embargo on Jewish immigration while, on the other hand, placing immigration under severe restrictions with respect to numbers allowing Jewish immigration “only to the extent that it did not burden the economy.” The principle would be echoed over the following two-and-a-half decades. Unfortunately, this did not stop anti-Jewish riots from breaking out in the Old City of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter on 2 November 2021 when five Jews were killed and three Arab attackers were shot dead by police.  

Was 1921 just an expression of violence? Or was it the nascent start of the long war? I contend that it was the latter, first because the violence was not inter-personal but collective. More importantly, the central issue at stake in the long war was the right of Jews to immigrate to their ancient homeland and create a national presence in the land. The leadership of the large Arab majority were unalterably opposed. This constituted the essence of the long war.

[i] Israel vehemently opposed the decision to memorialize Nakba Day on  May 15 and the UK and US joined 45 other UN member states in boycotting the event.

[ii] Cf. Bernadette Waterman Ward (2004) “Zion’s Mimetic Angel: George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda,” Shofar, an interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 22(2), 105-115.

[iii] Cf. Tom Segev (2005) One Palestine, Complete, 173-190.

Blog 22

I is for Intra- and Inter-State Wars

B. Foundations Built by Others for the Hundred-Year Jewish/Palestinian War

To state the obvious, violence and war are not the same, even though war is a form of extreme violence. Both employ physical force. Both are intended to harm another. Both employ language that is itself a form of violence. Both result in psychological damage. But violence at its base is personal; it is aimed at harming individuals. Whether sexual or emotional, psychological or cultural, verbal or economic, coercive violence is used to control the behaviour of another. War, on the other hand, is a collective enterprise, an intense and always armed conflict between states that employ armies or mercenaries (the Wagner Group by the Russians in 2023 in Ukraine) or between groups that seek to have exclusive control of a government responsible for a specific territory and population (a civil war). Either inter-state or civil wars may use militias or insurgents. Unlike mere violence, the extreme violence of war results in destruction and mortality on a scale well beyond that of mere violence. But, like inter-personal violence, war is an act of coercion designed to compel another to be subject to one’s will by ultimately rendering the other relatively powerless.

The war between the Jews and Arabs in what was once Mandatory Palestine has continued for over one hundred years. The war began with the assignment of Mandatory Palestine to British control in the Versailles Treaty and confirmed Britain’s 1917 commitment to the Jews of the world to establish a national home for the Jews in Palestine. That promise was known as the Balfour Declaration and was a direct product of the growth in strength and conviction of British Christian Zionists who preceded their Jewish cousins. In effect, the Jewish Zionist enterprise was a by-product of a British imperial victory in a world war. However, in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, the UK also promised to support Arab independence in all regions demanded by the Sherif of Mecca in return for the Arabs revolting against the Ottoman Empire.[i]

The peacemakers in Paris in 1919 offered a template on how NOT to create a stable world order in the wake of the end of a world war by confirming contradictory promises made to two different groups re government of the same territory.[ii] The peace agreement was no sooner signed than it began to unravel. Partly that was the result of the clashing interests and ideologies of the four dominant male personalities at the Paris meeting: Dr. Georges Clémenceau (78), the elder statesman of the group and former mayor of the Parisian commune of Montmartre after France’s 1870 defeat by the Prussians; he was determined Never Again to allow Germany to threaten France [See the eight-episode 2022 Netflix series Women at War – France lost 1.4 million men with another 3 million wounded]; the charismatic and opportunistic British Liberal leader, David Lloyd George (56); the Italian former Professor of Law and Prime Minister, Vittorio Emmanuelle Orlando (59) in search of protecting and advancing Italy’s emerging imperial interests even though he was personally a liberal; and last, but not least, the fiery verbal self-righteous (and racist) Presbyterian American President Woodrow Wilson (63) who came to the talks determined to forge a political “peace without victory” and left behind a moralistic punitive agreement. The one minimal lesson was that morality, though important in dictating boundaries, cannot provide a foundation for a new political order. Blaming one party, whether it be Germans, Jews or Arabs, only distorts history and does not allow recovery from historical mistakes.

However, the main problem was that the parties continued to believe that peace could be constructed by protecting and securing the sovereignty of a nation and failed to recognize that the only way to keep rival national sovereigns at peace was through collective security. Anyone who expects the Palestinians and Jews of Israel to forge a lasting peace by themselves is in desperate need of an encounter with the lessons of history. Defending the right to self-determination of any nation will inevitably bring about a clash with another nation determined to protect and develop its right to self-determination. Yet those who push for a two-state solution between the parties or a utopian one-state solution for both nations that have been at war for one hundred years are suffering from mind blindness. The only peace that can be forged between the Jews of Israel and the Palestinians will be a collective security arrangement guaranteed by outside parties. But I am getting ahead of myself.

A bad example of conceding on an issue of self-determination to one group at the expense of another can be found in the concessions given to the Japanese in the Treaty of Versailles. The Japanese, insisting on their imperial equality with the nations of the West, were awarded the German concession in the Shandong Province in China, a step from which a direct line can be drawn to the Japanese atrocities committed in Nanjing and around which Dr. Joseph Wong has organized the creation of a new museum in Toronto opening in November 2023 and directed to teaching children in Ontario schools and remembering the sacrifices the Chinese were forced to bear in WWII. At the end of 1937, the Japanese military looted and burned at least one-third of Nanjing’s buildings, raped and tortured at least 20,000 and up to 80,000 Chinese women, both young and old.

The bitterness of betrayal, whether in China or Palestine, led directly to the creation of organized insurrectionist groups. On May 4, 1919, Chinese students in reprisal burned the European parts of Beijing and created the May Fourth Movement, the embryo for the Chinese Communist Party. On the other hand, the war debts would eventually lead to the total unravelling of the imperial order with which the twentieth century began. By 1947, Britain would be forced by its weakening economy to abandon its bridge to the Far East through Palestine. But in 1947, the Brits, the Americans, the French and the Italians were all blind to the threat that would break open twenty years later.

Who in 1919 would have predicted that two nations that barely existed in the minds of their respective peoples at the time would consolidate into powerful rival nationalisms which would go to war for a century? More significantly, who would have predicted that the downtrodden Jews of the European and Arab world would emerge as the foremost power in the Middle East? For that matter, who would have predicted that in 2019, China would become a rival for world hegemony with the United States?

Several lessons have been learned from the failures of 1919. One, as evidenced in Ukraine; proxy wars, however horrid, are preferable to conflicts involving a multitude of nations. The Western nations are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the post WWI period when they sent armed forces in to reverse the Bolshevik ambitions. Secondly, if limited militarism is better than expansionist militarism, liberal internationalism always seems to retreat in the face of collective violence and the convictions behind self-determination. Thus, Canada’s ambitious attempt under Lloyd Axworthy to introduce and institutionalize a collective security arrangement based on A Responsibility to Protect led to its universal adoption by the United Nations only a few years later – wrongly applauded as a great success – but with the added Chinese condition that intervention would only be allowed following the agreement of the affected country. The sovereignty principle once again prevailed over collective security.

The third lesson is the most relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Do not send contradictory messages. One cannot promise national self-determination for Jews in the same land on which self-determination is expected by the rival majoritarian population. The only way to resolve the dispute, as has long been repeatedly recognized, is not by hoping for a love-in within a single united state but by a division of the land between the two peoples. Unfortunately, as we shall see, as each war has been fought at approximately twenty-year intervals over the last century, the lines of division have shifted in one direction as one of those rival peoples became more populous on the ground and also grew in economic and military strength. It is very difficult to accept new dividing lines. But it is even more fruitless to fight to restore dividing lines consecrated in the past.

However, in 1917 and 1919, the Jews had only been promised a national home within Palestine, not a state of their own. But even that limited goal was rejected by the large majoritarian population of Palestine at the time, or, at least, by the leaders even though the challenge had not permeated widely in the minds of the inhabitants, though, in total, there were not that many then – under a million. If even in that nascent situation one could not establish a legal regime acceptable to both groups that would ensure a stable peace rooted in compromise, conciliation and even arbitration, how could one expect even more after the scars inflicted by a hundred-year war?

One final lesson. Beware of collective agreements that cannot be implemented and that will have unintended consequences that will reverse and subvert every one of both the lofty and self-interested motives behind that collective agreement. We have learned to manage rather than end wars. We have learned to mitigate their terrible effects through multilateralism and to contain their horrific results through concerted international efforts. Most of all, we have learned how the support of civil society within each national group is even more important than the stances of the respective rival governments. As we shall see, the Jews of Israel and the Palestinian Arabs have carried the burden, both of the failures and the successes, of earlier history ever since.

NEXT: The Opening Stage of the one-hundred year Jewish-Palestinian War

[i] Cf. 1915-1916.

[ii] Jay Winter (2019) “The Peacemakers of 1919 a Century On,” in Alex de Walle (ed.) Think Peace: Essays for an Age of Disorder, Carnegie. Jay Winter is Charles J. Stille Professor of History emeritus at Yale University.

Davy the Punk


Howard Adelman

My next blog will resume my writing on Israel. I took a week off to recover from minor surgery. During the week, among my visitors was Bob Bossin and his partner, Sima Shefrin. She is a visual artist and together they live on Gabriola Island less than an hour north of where I now live in the village of Cobble Hill on Vancouver Island. Bob moved to the island in 1980, just over forty years ago. Bob had phoned me and followed up with a visit to interview me about Rochdale College, for he was writing an article on this subject. He had lived in Rochdale in the late sixties.

Decades ago, I knew Bob as a founder of the Canadian folk singing group, Stringband. Before we parted after our lunch, Bob gave me a copy of his book that he had published by Porcupine’s Quill in 2014, Davy the Punk. It is ostensibly a memoir primarily about his father. I had never heard of the book before. I read it over the next three days. I do not know how well it sold at the time of its release, but if you are interested in buying a copy, email Bob at

It is a terrific read. And far more than a memoir. It is a tour of the “criminal” underground in Canada, primarily Toronto, of the thirties and forties. Bob’s father was a layoff man, the insurance broker of bets for a vast array of Toronto bookies, mostly Jewish it seems. He was also the managing publisher of the Canadian Racing and Financial News, (CRFN), a racing sheet sold at newsstands around Toronto for a quarter, but also the bible for bookies. But he also provided an “internet” service at the time, at one level, a phone service for readers of CRFN to answer their questions about races, and, at a second level, a subscription service for bookies to get the most up-to-date odds on races, as well a precise starting time and reportage furlong by furlong. Davy the Punk was the bookies’ booky.

If you want to read about the Bossin family tree, there is a brief account by Allen Bossin written in 2004 on the internet ( that overlaps and reinforces that minor aspect of Bob’s book as well as imitating Dave’s and adumbrating Bob’s narrative skills in a few sketches that he provides. Both Allen and Bob tell the same story of Babe Ruth. Bob’s grandfather deplored his boys’ love of baseball; it was a wastrel’s activity. The boys protested. Babe Ruth earns $50,000 a year. Grandfather Zussman shook his head and replied, “Fur makhn yenem?” (For doing that?) Zadie Zussman died ten years before Bob was born, but it is clear that the stories about him were embedded deep in Bob’s psyche.

After providing a sketch of Bob’s brilliant but very tough “zadie”, and the fame and success of Dave’s two younger brothers, Hye and Art, this is how Allen summarized Dave’s career:

Zussman never had enough money to send his children to university and that was certainly a shame for son number one. Dave had been born in January 1905 aboard the ship St. Cecilia that carried his mother, Chava, to Canada. He had to go to work at an early age to support the Bossin household. He had a way with numbers, that uncanny ability to arrive at complex arithmetic solutions in his head. He also always seemed to have fabulous sums of money and he was tied in with a group of businessmen, lead by Abe Orpin, a racetrack owner. Abe played the horses and made a lot of money. Dave never bet himself; instead, he was a handicapper who went under the name Reilly. They had a clientele of 25 or 30 professional men that constantly placed bets and Dave was quite a success. [That is, Allen does not explain, Davy was a tout, an expert on horses in a race who offers tips for a percentage of winnings or of the bets.] By the 1930s, Dave was providing instantaneous racing results and, when challenged by the court system, he was successful in proving that plying his trade was perfectly legal. Dave headed a syndicate with a room of about 20 girls on the telephones announcing racing results across the country. The authorities were constantly hassling him, but he was always, quite legally, one step ahead. At one time he partnered with Jack Slavin, his brother-in-law in Chicago. Finally, in 1944 he had had enough of the harassment, and he went into business earning commissions placing bets for the next few years. Eventually he became a booking agent. But Dave died at an early age leaving his wife Marcia to raise their young son, Bob. Dave would have been proud to see Bob go on to give the Bossin name recognition across Canada as an accomplished singer and writer.

Dave died in 1963 when Bob was only 17. His mother, Marci Bossin, “the most beautiful woman in Toronto” (if you do not believe it, look at the picture on p. 97) outlived her husband by a quarter of a century. The book includes insightful vignettes of his mother, at once disarmingly candid with the disguise of a ditzy Gracie Allen. Bob had to navigate the sixties without the guidance and financial aid of his dad. Though perhaps not as brilliant mathematically as his father proved to be, Bob was an accomplished undergraduate and could have easily gone onto grad school. Instead, he became a performer, songwriter and writer. And for the last, I am grateful.

Partly it is personal; I could identify with many elements in the story. Bob tells of the role I served for a time as an eleven-year-old runner (Bob called the role a front-ender, but I had never heard that term) for the bookie at the north-west corner of Lippincott and College St. in front of Koffler’s drugstore. (Murray Koffler would subsequently found Shopper’s Drug Mart). At one point, Bob described the location of a bookie in The Kensington market who operated out of a thin laneway that was a continuation of St. Andrew’s Street. He used the stall of a Shoichet (a ritual kosher slaughterer) as a front. I never knew it was a bookie joint in 1943-44 when I went up the same lane to the identical Shoichet carrying my grandfather’s chickens from his chicken store a few doors north on Kensington Avenue to watch the Shoichet tie the chicken up by its legs, slit its throat as the headless bird continued to flap its wings wildly as the Shoichet began the process of plucking its feather. I earned five cents per chicken run. Seven years later, I was earning twice that sum for my message and bet runs for the bookie on College St.

We had moved to the house in the lane beside my grandfather’s chicken store after we had lived with my mother’s parents on Havelock opposite the Dufferin racetrack that is such an important landmark in the tale Bob spins. But the many locations in Toronto, such as the United Dairy Restaurant on Spadina Avenue, with which I could identify, were not the only memories evoked in reading Bob’s book. There was my life as a corner newspaper vendor followed by my even very lucrative life as a Toronto Star delivery boy.  

Bob tells the story of Toronto the Good chaining up the swings in the children’s playgrounds around the city on Saturday evening and unchaining them on Monday morning to prevent children being engaged in frivolity on the Christian sabbath. After Kensington, we moved north of College St. to live on Ulster St.  The area was overwhelmingly dominated by Jewish homes and small shtetl synagogues in converted houses. But Lippincott, one block west of Borden, was a gentile street. And when we played hockey or baseball in the lane between the two streets on a Sunday, as often as not the police would arrive to break up the game having been summoned by one of the non-Jewish neighbours. After all, we were desecrating their sabbath.

There are also the literary allusions in the book. At one point, Bob identified one of the many characters that populate the book with the sad sack lachrymose donkey, Eeyore, from Winnie the Pooh. “Nobody cares about me,” was often used – by myself and others – as a jocular plea for more consideration of our personal interests and desires. But perhaps one of the most identifiable moments was when Bob described the tough Irish cops of Toronto. We moved from Ulster St. even further north of Bloor St. to Palmerston Avenue (not the boulevard with its much more stately homes), exactly one block west of the Number Twelve Police station. How often did we hear the screams and cries of arrested prisoners! Everyone knew they had been subjected to a beating. But I never saw or heard of anyone regarding these events as anything unusual.

The tale bob tells has many more even deeper themes than Toronto the Good, Toronto the Tough or Toronto the Corrupt. There was the antisemitism. Bob tells the story of Eaton’s Department store refusing to hire Jews, including Bob’s mother, while its rival, Simpson’s did hire Jews. My mother worked for Simpson’s for years as a comptroller operator in its accounting department and was always treated respectfully there. However, when she was single, she had worked for one of the elite clubs in Toronto, but only by pretending she was not Jewish. Genteel, and sometimes not so genteel, antisemitism characterized Toronto at the time. It also went deep into the Canadian polity and Bob refers to and quotes from Irv Abella and Hesh Troper’s book, None is Too Many that provides the evidence and quotes to explain why Canada had the worst record for admitting Jewish refugees before, during and even after WWII.

Canada’s version of McCarthyism also becomes part of the story and George Drew when he was premier of Ontario launched an anti-Communist crusade in Ontario. Allen Bossin describes one of Bob’s aunts as a communist, but Bob in his book was caught up in the larger political narrative as well as the underground one of the crusade of Ontario’s puritanical premier against gambling and his illegal prosecution and even more illegal persecution of Dave Bossin.

But all of the above are the extras. For the book is much more than a memoir if it is even that. Though not a formal history in the academic sense, it is a marvellous history of Jews and their role in the gambling underground in Toronto. It is a tale told with the gift of the story for which Bob’s dad was so famous. I used to love hanging out in the “shvitz” (the steam baths) on Sunday and listening to the men tell their stories to one another as they ate schmaltz herring and drank whiskey on the leather couches in the rest rooms after taking their steaming hot baths. Bob’s book not only took me back there, but did so through story after story that evoked his father’s character at the same time as he provided a history not found in our textbooks.

The book is populated by stories of Harry Belafonte and Frank Sinatra, Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and his nemesis, Senator Estes Kefauver, Tommy Dorsey and Louis Armstrong, Sammy Luftspring and Moses Annenberg, Gordon Sinclair and Jocko Thomas, Bernie Shapiro, who became president of McGill University, and his twin brother Harold who became President of Princeton University, as well as their father Max who owned Montreal’s famous Ruby Foo Chinese restaurant and was also a gambling kingpin in Montreal.

It’s a wonderful read.

G is for Governance

Blog 17 C) Policies and Practices

In the second week of March, Prime Minister Netanyahu went to Italy to commune with his fellow rightest and leader of Italy; Bibi needed  a morale boost. He also met with the Union of Italy’s Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization that represents all major Orthodox communities in Italy. Noemi Di Segni, the president, gave an unprecedented speech criticizing the Netanyahu government’s attempted judicial overhaul.  She also condemned the “political and ministerial legitimation” of mob violence against Palestinians (a subtle reference to the events in Hawara). As someone born in Jerusalem who served in the IDF, her strong critique was even more biting.

Di Segni focused her criticism, not on the substance of the changes, but on the government’s unilateral approach and absence of a wide process of consultation. This was in spite of mass protests and the “divisions that are growing within Israel.” While “the elected majority can legitimately promote, support and approve its own political design,” being politically responsible “means understanding how important and central these institutions are in the long term for a complex country like Israel. It means looking beyond the majority.”[i]

In other words, the problem addressed was simply about the political mishandling of the proposed judicial reforms. Instead of stealth and a focused attack on the Supreme Court, the government launched a broad assault on the whole rule of law system. It was as if the Netanyahu government had adopted the terrible strategies employed by Putin’s Russia when it attacked Ukraine, but, in this case, the bad management targeted the domestic situation rather than foreign policy.

If this had been the only area of ineptitude of the Israeli government, the problem would be serious. But the 2023 coalition, as manager of the body politic, has demonstrated a wide swath of mismanaged issues involving virtually every area of government responsibility.

Netanyahu’s 2023 coalition has proven to be catastrophic in only its first four months. Take the economic sector. The Likud party ran on a platform of fiscal rectitude and responsibility and promised as its first priority to tackle the issue of inflation (“the first thing we are dealing with is the cost of living”) and the housing shortage. What has actually happened? While the rate of inflation has dropped significantly in both Canada and the United States, the inflation rate in the first third of 2023 in Israel has declined, but only by a mere 0.1% to 4.38% from the previous year’s 4.39%. And it is anticipated that the annual rate in 2023 will exceed the 2022 rate.

The government may claim that it has not had time to realize the outcomes of its policies. But look at how the government has managed one specific area of the economy – the control of the price of dairy products. The Likud had promised not only to stop the continuing rise in prices, but to set the price of dairy products on a downward trajectory. What actually happened? One might have expected a right-wing government to kill the supply management system, akin in many ways to Canada’s, and allow the free market to determine the price. That might lower the price of dairy products, as the system in the US has, but at a cost of security and stability in the dairy agricultural sector. Instead, Israel has continued to intervene in dairy pricing even more than in Canada by assuming the responsibility of setting those prices.

What is worse, the government introduced a dairy pricing policy guaranteed to raise the consumer price index in spite of its promise to lower the cost of living, “Israel’s Finance Ministry agreed to a 9.28 percent increase in the price of milk,”[ii] and, hence, increased prices for all dairy products. If that were not bad enough, prices will increase by a further 3.1% spread evenly over the next three years. Clearly, this sphere has not been about ideology. For the government believes in reducing its intervention in the economy and increasing competitiveness. Yet Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich insisted that this was a win for consumers: “we stopped the increase in price which was supposed to be double.” In other words, the government may not have decreased the cost of living significantly at all, but claimed that it had prevented an even greater increase. This is unequivocally doublespeak.

What about the cost and supply of housing? The government has said that it expects housing starts to be even greater in 2023 than in 2022. But that was because there had been a record volume of state land released for housing in 2021 and 2022. “For the first time in a number of years, the last government  dramatically increased the sale of land for development and worked to increase the number of homes for sale.”[iii] Unfortunately, the unavailability of housing and apartment lots is not the only problem. As in many other political jurisdictions, buyers are faced with:

  • The lack of infrastructure in municipalities which lack the resources (or the will) to improve and expand roads, sewers, and fresh water supplies;
  • Rising interest rates that freeze the movement in the existing supply since most Israelis have variable rate mortgages and their interest rates have increased quarterly;
  • New buyers face even greater obstacles in obtaining financing
  • not only increased interest rates, but more arduous income-to-repayment requirements
  • price increases in 2022 which averaged 20.3% year-on-year while salaries only rose 4%
  • as a result, larger equity and downpayments were required;
  • The bureaucratic obstacle to issuing new building permits;
  • A rising cost of building materials along with a shortage of skilled trades; (Currently the building sector relies on 80,000 Palestinians entering Israel from the West Bank and Gaza as well as 15,000 foreign workers.

As a result, while the rising bubble in housing prices has mostly burst not only in Canada and the US, but around the world, in Israel prices have continued to rise. Even more than all these problems that both prospective buyers and renters face, Israel is led by a government that has done virtually nothing to address any of these problems. The government is preoccupied with the issue of judicial “reform”.

The impotence of the government is expressed in many other sectors as well. The prospects of expanding the reach of the Abraham Accords (say to Saudi Arabia) have decreased while Sudan, an early signatory, collapsed into civil war. The relations with Egypt and Jordan have rapidly deteriorated. Like its predecessors, the current Israeli government has not developed a coherent policy in dealing with Iran. At the same time, Netanyahu’s relations with both President Biden and American Jews have also been shattered; Bibi has fallen back on partnering only with Republicans.

The coalition had been preoccupied with protecting the Prime Minister. In March, it passed legislation requiring a three-quarter majority either in the cabinet or the Knesset to remove a prime minister.  What happened to the parliamentary principle that a government had to have a simple majority of parliamentary support to remain in office – and in many democracies even that has shown to be insufficient? What happened to the principle that a government had to win a vote of confidence in the parliament by 50%, not a 75% vote to remove a Prime Minister.

Then, in the attempt to fulfill the coalition agreement with Shas, there was the futile attempt to appoint Aryeh Deri, its leader, to head both the health and interior ministries. Ten of eleven judges on the Supreme Court had ruled that Deri was ineligible, not only because he had been convicted of tax fraud, but because, as part of his plea deal, his prison sentence had been suspended in return for his commitment not to assume any government responsibilities. Shas agreed to appoint Moshe Arbel in Deri’s place, but insisted that this was only a temporary move.

There are many more problems in the failure to provide competent management of the polis. The most dramatic and theatrical has first been the failure to deliver on the announced appointment May Golan to the Office of the Consul General in New York (the Lishka) which serves as the liaison between the State of Israel and promoting a positive image of Israel. The American government and the American Jewish community responded loudly and negatively to Golan becoming Consul General. In any case, she did not really want that job. Instead, a new ministerial portfolio was created for her – minister for the advancement of women.

However, no sooner had her appointment been approved by the Knesset than she had to be removed from the Knesset floor by four security guards. The speaker ordered such an unprecedented removal because Golan, a died-in-the-wool extreme right-wing rabble rouser, had yelled at and cursed Merav Ben Ari from Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. Ben Ari had criticized Golan for not serving in the military; Golan had claimed (falsely) that she was religious and entitled to an exemption. Ben Ari had worked for years with young Israelis from disadvantaged backgrounds engaged in meaningful military service, so Golan’s excuse that she lied because she had to support a single mother did not cut it.

But this brouhaha in the Knesset was just a culmination demonstrating that the Prime Minister seemed incapable of appointing an effective executive to run the country. In a parliamentary democracy, incompetence, not ideology, is the greatest curse.

[i] The Jerusalem Post, March 23, 2023.[ii] Haaretz, “Netanyahu Promised to Bring Down Cost of Living, but Israel Is Becoming More Expensive,” May 1, 2023.

[iii] Shai Posner, deputy director general, Israel Builders Association (ACB), Danielle Nagler, The Times of Israel, January 6, 2023.

G is for Governance  

Blog 16 B: The Structures Underpinning Israel’s Procedural Democracy

It is one thing to write about the different ideas of democracy – in this case liberal democratic versus parliamentarian populist majoritarian democracy – and the constraints or lack of constraints on each.  It is another to describe the actual structure of Israel’s democracy or the particular practices of one democratic regime or another. The latter may or may not reflect the democratic ideology behind the practice (see Blog 17C), but practices may be successful or unsuccessful regardless of democratic ideology, though I would argue that there is a degree of correlation between one ideology and its shortcomings in practices versus those of another ideology. However, in this section, I will focus on the structural limitations of a specific state – Israel – regardless of ideology.

The limitations in governing a polis may be a result of ideology, but whatever the ideology, they are all reinforced by the specific structure of Israel’s political system.  Israel is not only a social democracy, albeit a declining one, but also a procedural democracy with an intricate system allowing its citizens to elect a governing majority for a limited term. Members of the Knesset, however, are nominated, not on the basis of the votes of the constituencies they represent, but by party leaders. This means very central control, even though the exclusive proportional representation method of elections, with a low threshold of entry to becoming a recognized party – 3.5% of the vote in an election – and the state financing of political parties, enable even small groups to win seats in the Knesset.

Israel’s excellence as a procedural democracy is most evident in this electoral system based on proportional representation. Of course, this ends up favouring not simply a multi-party system, but a system with a myriad of parties. The result: a multi-multi-party system and coalition governments as the norm. On that side, representation gains, but at the cost of governability.

Procedural democracies ensure “civil rights for all, separation of powers, rule of law, a multi-party system, regular and fair elections, change of governments, free mass media, an independent judiciary, and national security services under civilian control.”[i] Israeli citizens, including the 307,000 Arab permanent residents in East Jerusalem (who are entitled to acquire Israeli citizenship), generally enjoy fundamental rights of free speech, movement, association, voting, representation, and the right to peaceful protest – though with some restrictions. Though non-Jews may apply to be citizens of Israel, only Jews enjoy an almost automatic right to become citizens.[ii] Israel is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention and Palestinian refugees are denied a right of return. Thus, equal access to membership does not exist in Israel.

Much of the procedural system fosters disunity and incoherence rather than collaboration and cooperation among the different elements of Israeli society. Further, legislation and policies already adopted begin to be built into the structure of Israel’s democracy, such as:

  • The Entry Law preventing family reunion by denying residency rights to the spouse of an Israeli citizen who lives in an enemy area.
  • Calling for a boycott of Israeli goods and services is banned.
  • Palestinian citizens are forbidden to commemorate Nakba Day.
  • NGOs are required to disclose their funding sources if over half of their monies come from foreign governments.
  • Emergency Regulations permit press censorship, administrative detention, banning of an organization and land expropriations.
  • Even though not enforced as in an authoritarian state, a permit is required for a demonstration to be held and for a newspaper to be published.

On the other hand, perhaps the best indicator of Israel’s high status as a democracy that protects minority rights while allowing the majority to rule is its current judicial system with its very independent and impartial judiciary that is now under threat. The appointment of judges ensures that the process is not dominated by political considerations. Court rulings are binding and are followed. However, in the Israeli system, the independence of judicial figures is even more extensive. The Attorney General has an independent status in the government and legal advisers are appointed to each department independently of the Minister or Deputy Minister. This is the system of procedural democracy currently under the greatest threat and the extent of that threat will be dealt with later.

However, Israel’s status as a democracy has mixed reviews. In an incisive article, Ian Parameter argued that Israel is indeed a democracy, but a flawed one.[iii] After all, in 2020 alone Israelis went through three elections in less than a single year. The suggestion was that Israel’s democracy suffered from systemic structural problems. The Global Democracy Index for 2019 of The Economist ranked Israel among 167 countries by five democratic criteria and determined that Israel was a “flawed democracy” though it still ranked 28th on the list. The five criteria used were:

(1) electoral process/pluralism;

(2) functioning of government;

(3) political participation;

(4) political culture;

(5) civil liberties.

As indicated above, Israel scored high marks on electoral process/pluralism and political participation, but poorly on three other criteria: civil liberties, political culture and government functioning. On the issue of civil liberties, Israel scored only 5.88 out of a possible 10.

Again, as described above, Israel’s system of choosing political representatives has been the most democratic in the region with legal and legislative procedures, as well as most outcomes, reinforcing strong democratic institutions. But, as I also stated, the system encourages populism that is antithetical to a liberal democratic regime. Elected members of the Knesset fear their own leaders who determine not only whether they can command ministries, but how high they are on the party electoral list, and, therefore, the prospects of becoming a member of the Knesset. The parties are also subject to the will of an electorate often driven by its own fears and passions.

The elections themselves are overseen by the Central Elections Committee (CEC) with an additional protective rider: CEC decisions can be appealed to the Supreme Court. The many parties seeking election cover the full spectrum of Israeli political opinion from right to left, from Jewish to Arab inclinations. There are Ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox Jewish religious parties and an Arab religious party that is unique in willing to enter an Israeli government on condition that Arab interests are taken into account in passing a budget and other legislation. There is a Jewish nationalist party and an old-fashioned socialist party, though the latter failed to cross the threshold for a place in the Knesset in the 2022 election. The various media also reflect the diversity of Israeli opinions. Knesset debates are spirited and generally respectful though sometimes rowdy.

Israel has had the most independent judiciary among all Western democracies and has even overruled CEC decisions repeatedly overturning attempts to limit Arab participation. It has only once confirmed banning a party, a Jewish extremist party, Kach, from which Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) emerged. Like its predecessor, the party not only espouses Kahanism, but also anti-Arabism.

The courts have jailed a former Prime Minister (Ehud Olmert) for corruption, a former President (Moshe Katsav) for sexual offences, and has charged the current Prime Minister (Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu) with corruption.

However, the system of strict proportional representation, with only a threshold of 3.25% of total votes cast to obtain a Knesset seat, ensures a large number of parties and party groupings in the 120-seat Knesset. Coalition governments are inevitable with the dominant centrist party beholden to outliers. In order to get smaller parties to join a coalition, compromises on legislation are necessary. But the negotiations are often grubby with agreements made to satisfy particular interests going well beyond what a majority of the electorate would support. This perilous situation to a liberal democracy has been exacerbated by the growing nationalist settler movement numbering over 700,000, 10% of Israel’s Jewish population.

However, I believe that actual practices are even more important than structural and ideological ones in determining the success of a government. I will deal with those in the next blog.

[i] Op. cit.

[ii] There is increasing controversy over the question of “Who is a Jew.” There are powerful forces within Israel that want to narrow accessibility.

[iii] Ian Parmeter 2020) “Israel’s democracy: a systemic problem,” The Interpreter published by the Lowy Institute, February 20.

G is for Governance

Blog 14 A) Majoritarian Procedural versus Liberal Rule of Law Democracy

Israel just turned seventy-five. Most Israelis did not anticipate that a conflict over the rule of law would almost overshadow the commemoration. For Israel has now been immersed in an unprecedented polarization. On one side, there is an alliance among Orthodox and Ultra-orthodox, militant nationalists and the remnants of a once proud libertarian right wing party so eager to stay in power that it has sold its soul to right-wing radicals of various stripes and colours. On the other side, are pragmatic centrists, liberals and a remnant of leftists. What unites the first group is an antipathy to the rule of law that is at the core of democracy, though the motives for that antipathy vary from religious self-interest to ideological passion that pushes majoritarian populist rule at the expense of democratic good governance. What unites the second group, whatever their policy differences within, is a determination to save procedural democracy, the protection of minorities and the rule of law as the core values of liberalism and progressivism.

However, after eighteen straight weeks of demonstrations, on both sides one sees the depth of the Israeli public’s commitment to civility and discourse, though to very different degrees on each side. But there is no violence. No fighting in the streets. Virtually no intimidation. However, both sides are very united on another issue, a concord on placing the Palestinian issue on the back burner. Some Israelis favor trading land in the West Bank, even if only to ensure that Israel can remain both Jewish and democratic. Other Israelis have no interest in defending procedural liberal democracy in Israel and certainly no interest in addressing the dignity and rights of Palestinians. All sides have agreed to set two states for two peoples off the table as a doable goal. But one state that is democratic is not the answer, for it would result either in civil war or an apartheid state with Jews ruling over rather than alongside Palestinians.[i]

Though the two sides have managed to avoid both violence, but also the pursuit of peace with the Palestinians, neither side is capable of governing, the right because, in the first four months of 2023, it has proven itself as capable only of governing very badly (see a later blog on governance) and the left-liberal alliance as bereft of enough command of the need to blend pragmatism and power. As Hilary Clinton has written about all these divisive and unintended uniting issues, “Governance depends on the attitudes of different segments of the body politic as well as who is included (my italics) in that body politic, not only because they live there but, to different degrees, have a democratic voice even when they cannot vote. Governance also depends on whether your allies and enemies respect how a country conducts its affairs.”[ii] Quasi-democracies, like Poland, Hungary and Turkey, ally with the right in Israel; in contrast, foreign liberal governments failed to offer the liberal left in Israel very strong support.

Of course, the United States has its own form of polarization and weak democratic governance. Instead of the United States providing stability, security, predictability and manageable change, congressional brinkmanship on the debt ceiling predominates. And American allies quake at the possible repercussions, an America willing to risk an international financial meltdown and a total opening for China to emerge predominant in the world economy because America is both divided on and distracted by its domestic issues. And not because reducing the debt is the real issue, but because of an inability to pass a budget that will ensure past debts are paid. Similarly, the underling problem in Israel is not reforming the legal system but whether the Supreme Court can serve as a check on a populist majoritarian Knesset to protect rights and minorities.

If good governance does depend upon on the attitudes of different segments of the body politic, the opinions of those different segments count. In the B’Tselem public opinion survey conducted by Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin and Dr. Khalil Shikaki[iii], citizens of Israel, both Jewish and Palestinian, as well as Palestinians who are not citizens in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, two-thirds (67%) of the total population between the river and the sea believe Israel controls the West Bank, either exclusively or with the PA –  93% of Palestinians and 50% of Jews. More significantly, only a small minority believes that Israel intends to reach a two-state solution – 12% of Palestinian subjects and 14% of Israeli citizens chose a two-state solution. More ominous, in the face of creeping annexation, a solid majority of Palestinians (58%) and even one-third of Israelis (32%) believe Israel intends to annex the West Bank and 43% believe that Israel seeks to continue its military control.

Palestinians don’t trust Israeli law enforcement (82%) and even more the judicial system. 87% believe the Israeli Supreme Court would NOT treat them fairly. What if there were a single state over the entire area? 68% of Jews would oppose the one-state idea. At the same time, over one third of all Israelis support repealing the Nation State law (36% of all Israelis, and 29% of Jews). Only 46% of Israelis (53% of Jews) support keeping the law as is.  Almost half of Jewish Israelis believe Palestinian Israelis should participate in the governing structure. However, if there were a single state with equal rights for all citizens, 2/3rds of Palestinian West Bankers and Gazans said they would not vote in an Israeli election. There seems very little optimism let alone enthusiasm for a single-state solution.

The political structures within Israel contribute to its internal divisiveness. Israel is a very divided society. But it also claims to be, and is generally acknowledged to be, a democracy. However, democratic forces and divided societies have a propensity to move in opposite directions. “Democracy is particularly problematic in deeply divided societies. These are made up of ethnic or national groups split by language, culture, religion and identity; separate in residence, institutions, politics and civil society; sharply disputed on future vision and basic ideology; and substantially unequal in resources and opportunities. They are vulnerable to the ‘tyranny of the majority.’ Invoking majority rule, the majority might exploit its numerical preponderance to make fateful unilateral decisions, ignore the minority’s aspirations and needs, and practice institutional discrimination and exclusion. The depth of intergroup divergence in such societies often leads to political instability and violence. (my italics)The question is how such states maintain stability and tranquility and what type of democracy can serve them best.”[iv]

The principles of a liberal democracy respect the absolute values of equality, liberty, dignity, respect, justice and fairness. These values enable individuals to obtain self-autonomy and self-fulfillment and provide individuals and minorities protection against majority rule irrespective of who governs. Their aim is to prevent majority rule from turning into a “tyranny of the majority.” While procedural democracy furnishes freedom of choice of a ruling majority, liberal democracy is a tool to effectively contain the majority by constitutional individual rights and to prevent a parliamentary majority from abusing power where the value of protecting all its citizens is breached. And frequently and routinely. The discrimination is evident in access to housing permits, to land and to support from the state even in areas like policing and the prevention of crime.[v]

Does this mean that Israel is not a democracy and perhaps should better be dubbed an ethnocracy since it is not based on the principle of equality of all its citizens, not to take into consideration that the state occupies land and rules over a large stateless and non-citizen population? There are certainly constraints on Israel’s procedural democracy:

  • Continuing threats to its national security from adjacent populations of Palestinians
  • The boundaries of the state have never been fixed
  • Religion, not civil society, regulates personal status (marriage, divorce, gender equality, burial, etc.)
  • Israel as a Zionist state as a preserve for the Jewish people
  • Israel lacks a constitution
  • The Knesset by a majority of 61 of 120 can theoretically pass any law, though the judicial reforms of the 1990’s introduced boundaries, an issue which has led to the storm over the proposed judicial reforms.[vi] (see later)
  • The judicial changes proposed by the Israeli government in February of 2023 amounted to a complete overhaul of the constitutional basis of Israel.

Effectively, most of the changes would put ALL governing power in the hands of the political majority in the Knesset. The fundamental principle of a democracy committed to the protection of minorities would be set aside. In any index of judiciousness, Israel seemed to be slip-sliding into a fragile democracy. The proposals were a power grab to overthrow the institutions guaranteeing a political system of checks and balances.

The politics of resentment and demographic shifts had allowed a consortium of: the ultra-Orthodox, who want Halahic rule, to govern the state according to the primacy of Jewish law instead of the Western tradition of the rule of law and the protection of human rights. Thus, Orit Struck of the Religious Zionist Party proposed a bill that would exempt religious doctors from providing services to patients with whom they disagreed “politically”, such as LGBT patients. Proposals have been put forth to expand gender segregated beaches or shut down corner stores on Shabbat. More significantly, on March 27, 2023, MK Moshe Gafni from Orthodox United Torah promoted a bill to ban bread in hospitals over Passover, thereby enshrining Jewish religious edicts into state law. There have been other moves to expand the legal advantages of the Orthodox. These include exempting ultra-Orthodox Jews from army service until the age of 26 even if they have left their Yeshiva studies, primarily because by the age of 26 they would be married and have enough children to be exempt from army service. They also advocate a law that would set aside any Court ruling by a Knesset majority vote, hence their support for the judicial “reforms”. The reasons are straight forward; they threaten to leave a coalition government if the Knesset did not override a court ruling that diminished their power and influence in Israel’s body politic.

At the same time, the nationalist settler movement wants to accelerate de facto annexation of the West Bank. It does not want a ruling of the Supreme Court to stand in its way. At the same time, the extreme right is intent on pushing the Likud to completing its transformation from a party of the economic and liberal right to a populist anti-establishment party led by an all-powerful leader. The consortium did not make up a majority of the country, but their concentration and determination propelled them to get a majority in the Knesset, act like a majority and attempt a legal coup.  

[i][i] CF. Dennis Ross, William Davidson and David Makovsky in a position paper on the same topic, but one they wrote for The Washington Institute for Near East Policy from an overlapping but very different perspective.

[ii] Hillary Clinton (2023) “Republicans Are Playing into the Hands of Putin and Xi,” Oped, The New York Times, April 24. Hilary wrote this in the face of America’s very different polarization between Republicans who seem willing to play chicken and possibly provoke a debt repayment crisis in order to get social expenditures reduced as a means of reducing the debt, versus Democrats who would increase taxes on the upper middle and upper economic classes so that social benefits can be preserved.


[iv] Sammy Smooha (2016) “Israeli Democracy: Civic and Ethnonational Components”. In Handbook of Israel: Major Debates, Volume 2, edited by Eliezer Ben-Rafael, Julius H. Schoeps, Yitzhak Sternberg and Olaf Glöckner. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter Publishers, pp. 672-690. In this section I have drawn extensively from Sammy Smooha’s writings.

[v] Eliezer Ben-Rafael, ‎Julius H. Schoeps and ‎Yitzhak Sternberg (2016) Handbook of Israel: Major Debates.

[vi] In the “constitutional revolution” of 1992, Aharon Barak, the Chief Justice ruled discriminatory laws as invalid and made two of the basic laws preeminent: “Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation” and “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom.”