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.”

C) The Israeli-Jewish Palestinian Fault Line

a) Yom Ha-Atzma’ut and Nakba

The hundred-year-war between the Jews of Israel and the Palestinians continues, not unabated, but not without casualties. On April 24, 2023, Israel National News reported a car-ramming attack near Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehudah open-air market; 5 civilians were injured, 1 very critically, while the driver was shot and killed by another Israeli civilian. The next day, Memorial Da, Yom HaZikaron for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism, another attacker shot at a group of Israeli runners. At the same time, rockets from Lebanon were reigning down on Israel’s northern areas.

The hundred-year-war took its most radical turn when Zionists in Israel declared its independence. That day is celebrated in Israel every tear as Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, the birthday of the State of Israel. May 15, 2023 was the 75th anniversary of the state of Israel, but the day is celebrated in accordance with the Hebrew calendar and the celebrations took place in 2023 on April 26th. The previous day was memorialized for Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron. However, Nakba Day (ذكرى النكبة) or Dhikra an-Nakba, Memory of the Catastrophe, is generally commemorated on 15 May of the Gregorian Calendar, the day Israel declared independence in the eyes of the international community, even though the actual declaration took place on May 14th because May 15th in 1948 fell on Saturday, shabbat. Nakba memorializes the Palestinian Catastrophe, the day on which the large displacement of Palestinians from what became Israel as a result of the 1948-49 war (720,000) and the armistice, even though flight began before Israel was established and continued throughout the most critical phase of the hundred year war.

Both Israelis and Palestinians sanctify the whole land of what was called Palestine under the British Mandate.[i]  For Israeli Jews, the sanctity of the land (הארץ הארץ) was introduced into the Declaration of Independence by Harry Zvi Davidowitz, an American rabbi and former lieutenant in the United States Army who fought in the war of independence and was awarded both the Purple Heart and the Victory Medal by the American government.[ii] He also became a translator of Shakespeare’s plays into Hebrew, translations that are used in Israeli schools; in addition, he served as a congregational rabbi. He advised including in the Declaration the biblical phrase, Tsur Yisra’el (Rock of Israel), to mollify the differences between secularist and religious Jews, thereby consecrating at the same time unity in spite of the radical differences between the two groups as well as the sacredness of the land for both groups.

At the beginning of the state of Israel, many, if not most, observers, believed as I did in 1967, that in 1948, Israel would be crushed by five invading Arab armies. This was true even among those Brits who, very influenced by George Eliot’s nineteenth century novel, Daniel Derrida (an assimilated Jew who discovers his identity and makes Zionism his cause) became philo-Semites and even Christian Zionists as an inheritance. In the nineteenth century these Christian Zionists had been the precursors to the Jewish political Zionists at the end of that century.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence is as much a moral as well as political document. It declares the right of Jews to establish a state not only because of the UN resolution of 1947, but because of the connection to the land as recorded in the Torah, the Jewish bible. When Ben Gurion, as head of both the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Palestine, read out the Declaration (מגילת העצמאות) in the Tel Aviv Museum at 4:00 p.m. on May 14, 1948 (5 Iyyar 5708),  he declared Israel an independent state. It is noteworthy that the declaration only came halfway through the text. Preceding that political statement was a prologue that rooted the declaration in that traced Jewish habitation in the land for over three millennia, even though, in the Torah, they are first immigrants to the land and later, refugees in flight from Egypt.  The only religious justification and implicit (but not explicit) acknowledgement of God’s role, as stated above, is the phrase “with trust in the rock of Israel” (מתוך בטחון בצור ישראל). Further, the main emphasis is on the right of Jews to self-determination as is the right of all nations. There is NO appeal to the Jews as God’s chosen people or of a divine promise. Nor is Israel’s right to the land contingent on Jews keeping their covenant with God, but an irrevocable one as a result of the November 1947 resolution of the United Nations General Assembly. According to Ben Gurion, Jews were the native and indigenous people that had been exiled from their land for centuries and the UN document was a declaration of restoration, similar to the idea presented in the Book of Chronicles as distinct from the Torah.

Nakba recalls 1948 very differently. Though Palestinians, like the Zionist Jews, are also celebrated for their resilience, the call to resistance is the major theme. It is to “Free Palestinian land, Free Palestinian people, Free Palestinian art and Free Palestinian culture. FREE PALESTINE!”[iv] Note the reference is to Palestine and not just the West Bank, Gaza or East Jerusalem. In the 2021 documentary film Recovery by Rashid Masharawi shot at the beginning of the Covid Pandemic and shown at the 2023 Toronto Palestinian Film Festival (TPFF), the audience is taken on a journey through memory lane of Palestinian life in Jaffa (now a very integral part of Tel Aviv) between 1930 and 1948 before the declaration of Israel as an independent state and his father’s forced exile. It is a film of nostalgia. It is a film of dreams. As the first Palestinian to show his film at Cannes. Masharawi described film as escapist: “Cinema is like dreams. Israel cannot occupy dreams. They can occupy houses. We want to dream. In a refugee camp you dream as well. You want to change your reality.” When he recalls seeing three movies for two pennies with his father, I am thrown back to a very early period in my life when my father took me to one of the big movie houses on Yonge Street in Toronto where I was treated to candies, two films and a serial.

Using photographs, oral testimony, sensuality and sound, life in Jaffa, as conveyed in the old mesmerizing stills, the vivid VHS tapes of Taher Al-Qalyubi and Viktor Epp’s perfect sound track, we stroll with Taher (who fled Jaffa and was not forced to flee) as we experience the sounds and smells of its streets, the sweetness of its inhabitants and its spirit, and the gentle waves on Jaffa’s shore while watching Palestinian fishermen. It is remarkable at how brilliantly he translates the feelings of closure and confinement, of curfews and coercion, of the Covid shutdowns that so enhanced and enriched his memories of his childhood in the Al-Shati, the Beach refugee camp in northern Gaza.

In contrast, there is the delightful experience as a kid of summer camp perched on a camel presumably with siblings or cousins. There is also a “sacred” personal rock and the taste and smell of Jaffa oranges identified in international memory entirely as an Israeli creation.

The film is, however, not primarily about delight, but about loss, a sense of loss that is reinforced as refugees haul out their keys to their former homes, and about confinement and compression.  Of course, it is admittedly a film of mnemonic history and not objective history. It is an exercise brought forth through the lens of recollected experience with no attempt to provide a comprehensive and detached portrait of Jaffa at the time. Because the film starts in 1930, the writer and director cannot be expected to record anything about the Arab riots in Jaffa between May 1 and May 7, 1920, that killed 95 Jews. But the Arab revolt of 1936 definitely had an impact on experience but the filmmaker was too young at the time to be affected by the violence.

The revolt against the British began with spontaneous acts of violence committed by the religiously and nationalistically motivated followers of Sheikh ʿIzz al-Dīn al-Qassām, who personally had instigated the violence in 1935. After he was killed by the British, in April of 1936, his group initiated a general strike in Gaza as well as a general strike not only in Nablus but in Jaffa as well. Rumours spread in Jaffa that Arabs had been killed by Jews and Arabs began a riot. The British killed two of the rioters when the Anglo-Palestine Bank was attacked. The mob began killing Jews in the street. A general strike was the instigated by the Arab Higher Committee. The History of the Haganah claims that the rioting first broke out among the dockworkers in Jaffa Port where a mob of Arab men rampaging through the mixed Muslim, Christian and Jewish neighbourhoods wrecking businesses and homes and beating and killing Jews. 9 Jews dies; many others were wounded, mostly by knives. Ultimately, the British suppressed the riots.[v]

It is well to resurrect objective history as well as mnemonic history, if only, in part, to understand the motives of the Israeli nationalist right at the same time as one notes that the 2023 government of Israel is both maintaining and deepening its occupation over the Palestinians. As the Jewish reestablishment of the Jewish presence in what was once the Mandate of Palestine expands and Palestinian control and occupation of the land shrinks and is compressed, as the new government of 2023 establishes new settlements and extends new ones, throws overboard any intention to resurrect the two-state solution based on a land divided between two nations, we instead experience the hardship on Palestinians enhanced by their nostalgic dreams while progressive Israelis protest against blinkered nationalism and the undermining of Israeli democratic institutions, of Israeli rights while putting Palestinian rights on the back burner.

[i] Cf. Nili Wazana (2018) “Declaration of Independence and the Biblical Right to the Land,” Torah Journal.

[ii] “The Conservative Rabbi Who Kept God – by Another Name – in Israel’s Founding Document,” Mosaic, April 25, 2023.

[iii] R. Avital Hochstein (2023) “Sanctity and Land Yom HaZikaron & Yom Ha-Atzma’ut 5783,” Mosaic Magazine.

[iv] Toronto Palestinian Film Festival (TPFF) 2023.

[v] Albert Viton (1936) “Why Arabs Kill Jews,” The Nation, June 3; Aryeh Avneri (1982) The Claim of Dispossession: Jewish Land-Settlement and the Arabs, 1878-1948. Transaction Publishers. p. 32.

Fissures, Fractures and Fault Lines

B) The conflicting fault lines within the Jewish Community

Any survey of social and class differences in Israel will reveal cleavages, multiple cleavages. But the groups and sub-groups that form are fluid. They shift over time. They grow or shrink as we move on. Thus, if we posit a gap between the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox in Israel versus the progressive elements in the Jewish religious population, where do we place the egalitarian Orthodox groups? These have been growing. In 2018, they performed approximately one thousand marriages. The next year it was 1800.i  

But in other areas we find both growth and shrinkage. There are now over 125 Reform or Conservative (Masorti) congregations in Israel. 8-10 Reform rabbis are ordained each year. There is a Reform rabbi as a member of the Knesset and the Environmental Minister is a Conservative who lives on a Conservative religious kibbutz. Progressive Orthodox rabbis conduct 400 conversions a year. More spectacularly, 12-13% of Jews in Israel (800,000) identify as Reform or Conservative. Their rabbis perform marriages, some even same-sex marriages, but those marriages are neither legal nor recognized by the state.ii The numbers who identify may be growing, but the percentage affiliated have been shrinking. This is a global pattern.

These figures are telling in another way. The majority have nothing or little to do with organized religion. Conservative and Reform Judaism are both in general decline. Larger shifts lie ahead. The younger generation is turning less and less to the sort of institutions and the forms of Judaism that were strong in the second half of the 20th century. As for Orthodoxy, as indicated above, in the words of Schiff, “There is no one thing called ‘Orthodoxy.’ Orthodoxy comprises a range of different types of observance. There are those who call themselves modern Orthodox; there are those who call themselves Hasidic; there are those who have more of a Yeshiva-type orientation. All these forms of Judaism, which are lumped together under the heading of Orthodoxy, are really quite distinct one from the other.”iii

Tears in the flesh of the body politic of the nation do not a crisis make. Instead, it is the very structural elements that lead to fractures and not just tears. And some are compound fractures that break through the flesh. Then, conflict becomes pervasive and society fractures; the result may be a failed state.

However, fractures are the result of falls. Fractures are the result of external blows. And these alone are insufficient to result in a failed state. Look at Ukraine as it fights its war with Putin. Its sense of identity and mission have both grown as the infrastructure is being blown to smithereens. In the case of Israel, there are even deeper problems than fissures or fractures. Israel has possibly been constructed on two very fundamentally different fault lines. There are deeper divides than rifts or fissures in the flesh of the body politic. The first potential fault line is the internal one, between and amongst Jews. The external one between Jews and Palestiniansmuch more clearly a fault line. (See next blog.)

Have fractures within the Jewish community revealed a deeper fault line. Or are the schisms just fractures, or not even fractures but simply deep fissures? After all, as great as the strains are within the Jewish polity, there have been no signs of civil war, few signs of even a fracture let alone a compound one. And that has to be a surprise. In almost any other country the strains and stress to which the Israeli polity has been subject to would have led to significant coercive pressure from the government side or militant dissent from the opposition. Or both!

But perhaps these appearances simply hide or disguise fault lines within the Jewish community. Let’s begin with the divisions within the religious community with which we began this section. One obvious division cannot be avoided. The vast majority of Jews, from the black hat ultra-Orthodox to the religiously more moderate knitted cap Israeli religious Jews, is almost 90% right-wing. Among the ultra-Orthodox can be found the most extreme racists in the country. The West Bank nationalist settler movement is dominated by the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. Liberal and left, including moderate or progressive religious Jews, as much as they have grown in numbers, long ago lost the battle for the hearts and minds of Jewish religious Israelis. Further, of the four parties in the current government (April 2023), three are religious, the Sephardic Shas Party, the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism Party and the third, Religious Zionism, a merger of three far-right parties that leans towards ultra-Orthodoxy.

If the religious members (about 7) of Likud, the largest party in the four-party coalition, are counted, then about half of the 64 seats of the current government are held by conservative and right-wing religious Jews. Yet they only constitute 17% of the population, 12% of which are Haredi. In contrast, Progressive religious Jews, as described in the opening paragraphs, make up the same percentage of the population as Haredi Jews. Yet they have no representation in Government. Does this suggest that the deeper division is ideological? Or is ideology merely an expression of a certain type of Jewish religion?

In the 2023 controversy over judicial “reform”, it is well to remember that in a state where there is no significant separation of church and state, it is the Supreme Court that has protected religious freedom and pluralism and enlarged the small separation of church and state. It should then be no surprise that Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox politicians have lined up on the side attacking the Supreme Court.  

In March 2021, the Supreme Court recognized non-Orthodox conversions for purposes of citizenship; this was viewed as a calamity for the Orthodox religious monopoly on conversion. The previous Bennett government instituted a radical overhaul of the rules governing kashrut certification. Previous court decisions allowed the state to pay part of the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis. The court has ruled against gender segregation on public transportation. It is the Court that decided that any individual with at least one Jewish grandparent would be eligible to immigrate to Israel with a spouse and dependent children even if the spouse had no Jewish grandparent. Will the new government allow the new Tel Aviv light rail to operate on Shabbat? Will it “override” (if an override provision is passed) so-called “Utah” on-line civil marriages?

These are but a few of the legal and legislative issues that have aroused the ire of the Orthodox and especially ultra-Orthodox in Israel and pushed them to advocate an override provision with respect to Supreme Court rulings. Even these parties never expected the new government to propose the radical vast array of proposed changes beyond the override proposal to challenge the independence of the judiciary. Netanyahu has even committed his government to increased funding for Haredi schools and promised that funding would not be contingent on teaching core subjects that would enhance the ability of the ultra-Orthodox to gain employment in a modern economy.

But there is also a geographical divide in Israel between the orthodox Jewish community versus the progressive religious and secular Jewish communities. If one believes that the outpouring of strong and repeated protests against judicial “reform” is unprecedented, wait to see what happens if the Knesset passes a law preventing the new Tel Aviv light rail from operating on Friday evening and Saturday until sundown. Protests will immobilize government and become an initial clue that the religious divide between coastal Israel, Tel Aviv and Haifa (progressive and secular), and the interior of Israel, including Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem, might threaten to become a political one.

Ironically, this divide has an almost mirror reflection in the United States between red and blue states, but the opposite relationship between the majority progressive Jewish population of the United States. Netanyahu seems to have always been willing to sacrifice the relationship between Israel and diaspora Jews, mostly American, to his close relationship with the Republican Party in the US. In Israel, stats reveal the alignment of religious convictions with political ideology.

Issue                                                   Right                                   Centre                             Secular

Religious Beliefs                        51%                                     34%                                     15%

Kosher                                45%                                      17%                           No

There is another issue which overlaps the above divide – economic status. The majority of Israelis (54%) are Jews who escaped from Arab lands (Sephardic or Mizrachi), Iran, and Ethiopia. They parallel Blacks in the US, though Blacks have never achieved political control. But the most important overlap is that the greatest proportion of lower middle- and lower-class member of the Israeli polity belong to this cluster of “coloured” Israelis.

This is the mirror opposite of the U.S.  The darker skinned “minority” is the core base of support for Israel’s right-wing government but the key supporters of the Democratic Party in the US. However, in both Israel, this religious minority is deeply rooted in traditional values, but in Israel they align with the right and in the US with the left. This group in both countries belong largely to the lower and lower middle-income group. Thus, most the one-third of religious Jews and most of the one-third of traditional Jews support the political right. There is large overlap between colour, country of origin and landed status of one converging side versus the other large group of secular and middle and upper-class Ashkenazi Jews.

But the proof that there is no fracture let alone a fault line between the two groups is the rate of inter-marriage between the two groups – over 35% of infants are children of inter-married couples from both groups. This is a major difference with the US. However, there is very deep fissure and polarization between the two groups that is reflected in the difference between the protesters and government supporters.

As we shall see, this is a sharp contrast with the relationship of Jews and Palestinians.