Category Archives: Interviews

Foreign Policy: Israeli Arabs, The One State and the Likud

(Cross-posted with +972 Magazine)

I have a new piece in Foreign Policy, discussing the relations between Jewish and Arab MKs and their perspective on the one state solution. Interviewed are Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud), Deputy-Speaker Ahmed Tibi (Raam-Taal), and MK Hanin Zoabi (of Balad and of the Gaza flotilla fame).  Naturally, I don’t think they’re talking about the same “one state” solution; but if we get to a situation where the main argument is about which kind of a one state is most desirable, this will be after tremendous shift in Israeli and regional politics. For now, the fact they are talking about this once-taboo solution and use similar terminology is significant enough.

I’m pessimistic in the extreme about the current talks in Washington; in a nutshell, the Palestinians were bullie into the negotiations, and Netanyahu appears to be mostly concerned with buying time. He can be fairly sure the Administration won’t seriously pressure him so close to an alreadybleakly looking midterms. After that, there’s very little time before the 2012 campaign kicks in, and I would guess much of the American effort will be dedicated to keep the peace process cooking on slow flames, keeping fingers crossed it does not explode when Netanyahu renews building in settlements, when the Hamas decides to escalate its power struggle with the PLO, or when something else goes suddenly and terribly wrong and just happens to be the last straw.

Against this background, developments like the ones I track in the Foreign Policy piece are encouraging – however they might develop further, they shake up the status quo and offer fresh perspectives. We could all use some cure for the déjà vu.

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Backing from the Precipice | Haaretz

[גרסא עברית ]

1213There’s a lot of anger here,” says Jon McCourt, a former Irish Republican Army activist turned peace worker, speaking from Derry, Northern Ireland. “They’re saying they are killing for a cause, but they can’t seem to explain what that cause is and how doing what they are doing is going to get them there.” 

When McCourt says “they,” he means the IRA splinter groups that claimed responsibility for killing two British soldiers and a member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland last month. 


These attacks trained the spotlight once again on one of the most publicized conflicts of the 20th century – a conflict between two communities over a small piece of land: one, a poorer, more religious minority with roots in the region dating back a millennium; the other, descended from immigrants s

ettled under the auspices of the British. The minority protested against oppression, disenfranchisment, discrimination and lack of jobs and housing. The majority felt it was living under constant siege, perceiving itself as more enlightened and progressive, and proud of the democracy it headed – despite the discriminatory laws it enacted, with the rationale that it was protecting itself from a demographic threat: The birth rate among the minority was considerably higher.

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Interview: Johann Hari

Johann Hari is perhaps unique in British journalism in that he is as vehemently despised both on the traditional Right and the traditional Left. The assignment on City’s “Radicalism” course was to interview a radical journalist. With a biweekly column in a national newspaper, appearances in lucrative outlets abroad and an impressive list of prominent interviewees – Tony Blair, Hugo Chavez and the Dalai Lama, plus a handful of luxurious awards to his name – Johann Hari is hardly your typical, Bethnal Green, fortnightly -xeroxed-A5-rag kind of a radical. But not unlike George Orwell, Hari had maintained a political course of his own, challenging dogmas on left and right – to me, this is radical enough. The interview took place in Hari’s flat near Brick Lane market; a new concrete appartment block off a side street. The video-intercom maybe standard, but the lift which requires a four-digit code just to go up is slightly odd. The flat itself is piled with books; on the wall, a vampirish Saddam Hussein is glaring from a rug apparently copied from a red-eyed photograph; just beneath him, the TV is blaring out Big Brother, appropriately enough.   

Considering your unusual position for someone widely regarded as a radical, perhaps we should begin with the ultimate problem of any radical journalist – how to avoid being marginalized.

There is definitely a dose of that, but then again, radicalism is a relative concept. Most of the positions I take are within the mainstream of British and European public opinion. The difficulty is, though, that often, the press is so skewed towards serving the interests of the powerful and the Right that people get a completely distorted sense of what is “central ground”. If you look at the opinion polling, the majority of people in Britain believe in, say, not renewing Trident or much more drastic redistribution of wealth from rich to poor or all sorts of things that are considered kind of radical leftwing positions, but they’re actually completely mainstream positions.Hugo Chavez is considered radical, but actually some seventy percent of the Venezuelan people vote for him. I think there is certainly a danger that there are certain positions that are hard to articulate on certain newspapers. But I’m very lucky in the Independent. The “Indy” is a place where I really can say what I want. I can’t imagine ever writing anything where they would say you can’t say that.

But on the other hand, the “Indy” has probably the smallest readership among the national dailies.

Its true, and I could not work for the Times and say what I say. But I’m not going to stop saying what I say in order to work in other newspapers. So there is definitely a challenge to that. And also, there’s a problem with so many people that start as left wing journalists. If anything I’ve become more left-wing in the five years I’ve been a journalist. An awful lot of journalist are on the opposite trajectory. So really distinguished left-wing journalists, do things like Nick Cohen did. And I like Nick, I like him as a person a lot, and I still think he has some valuable things to say, but I think he’s just gone too far..

“Did a Hitchens”?

I know Christopher Hitchens and I love him, but I disagree with the trajectory he’s taking . I’m just writing a big piece, actually, for an American magazine called “Dissent” about this, how there were three readings to the pro war left. One was the reading of Islamic fundamentalism which said that Islamic fundamentalism is profoundly antithetical to the values of the left and all left wing people should oppose it. I completely agree with that. The second was a reading of the left, which is to say the role of the left is to show solidarity with suffering strangers wherever they are. But the third and disastrous reading – I think those two readings were boarderly persuasive – the third reading was a reading of neo-conservatism, which was to say that neo-conservatives were sincerely interested in spreading democracy, and that they where, as Nick notoriously put it, fighting the last battles for them. I just think you just can’t sustain that in relation to what actually happened. The last battles are not fought with cluster bombs, IMF structure adjustments, and mercenary armies that operate above the law.

You famously supported the invasion of Iraq at the time, also citing similar reasons.

You see, I visited Iraq and made a lot of Iraqi friends. Before I went there, my position was, basically, the common one on the Left – Iraq has nothing to do with 9/11, the WMD arguments are transparently absurd – indeed if they had WMD that would be a very good reason not to invade – and that George Bush can’t be trusted to do anything. After I went to Iraq I came to the conclusion, on the basis of speaking to Iraqis, that the majority of Iraqis would rather take their chances with an Anglo-American invasion, terrible as that was going to be, than with the certainty of Saddam and his sons ruling for generations. And that turned out to be true, in the sense that when there were opinion polls after Saddam fell, they showed that the majority of Iraqis did want the invasion to go ahead. Even though they were very worried and they thought it was about oil, they thought it was about Israel, they thought it was about all sorts of things, they still wanted it to go ahead. Even the guy in the famous Abu Graib picture, with the leash – he said after he was released, “yeah, I have supported the invasion”. What was disastrous in the position I took is that I grossly underestimated and got wrong that an invasion motivated primarily by the taking over the oil supplies was ultimately going to be a vicious imperial occupation, as indeed it turned out to be. The mistake Nick and Christopher Hitchens had made and I never made was to assume almost that the American Army had become the armed wing of the Amnesty International, and was motivated by benign causes. I never thought that, but I thought in choosing between two bad options, the American invasion was the better one. It turns out that that was a terrible misjudgment. I mean, to give you just one example, I think the catastrophes of the military occupation are quite well known but one of the really underrated things about all this is how bad the economic occupation has been. I mean, Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist, put it very well. He said, “Its like they looked at post-Soviet Russia and thought ‘that worked really well, lets do that!'”. The only problem is they didn’t go far enough. You know, they imposed upon Iraq a program of such extreme economic readjustment that you’ve got now a situation where you’ve got in most parts of Iraq eighty percent unemployment. Well, if we had eighty percent unemployment in Britain with a relatively stable democratic tradition, we would have bombs going off. So to do it in Iraq, was just madness, and I think almost everything else stems from that disaster.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but you did credit Tony Blair’s decision to join the war with some good intentions.

Yeah, and I think that’s true. I think for Tony Blair the absolute formative intellectual foreign policy experience is Kosovo. The paradigmatic example of Blair’s good intentions, that they existed to some degree was Sierra-Leone. Sierra-Leone – no one has yet been able to find an explanation for why Britain acted in Sierra-Leone other than the fact that British troops happened to be there and Blair said “Oh, we could stop these disgusting hand-chopping folks taking over the country with relatively little cost,” only one British solider died, I mean obviously its horrific for the British soldier’s family, but more people would have died had there not been that intervention. And even Noam Chomsky accepts that that was a humanitarian intervention.

Chomsky did rather furiously respond to your interpretation of his position..

He still didn’t deny that he thinks it was a humanitarian intervention. It was a very strange response I thought…It was so abusive, wasn’t it? I mean, it was bizarre. But back to Sierra-Leone, and I think that that emerged with the experience of Kosovo. I’ve yet to hear a persuasive explanation of why Blair did Kosovo, other than that he was appalled by the inactivity of the British Government. Well, actually, the inactivity is not really the word for it: Everyone says that the British government didn’t do anything in the Balkan’s all through the Nineties, while, actually, we did do something, we effectively helped the Serbs murdering everyone else, because we imposed an arms embargo. If you surround a serial killer’s house and impose an arms embargo, you’re helping the serial killer cause the victim doesn’t have an axe to hit back with. This went even to the point where the Bosnian government considered taking the British government to the World Court for denying them the right to self-defense, and quite rightly, if they were effectively accomplices to a genocide.
Let’s look at the alternative explanations given to Blair’s action in Kosovo. Harold Pinter has given the most facile, he says, “Blair likes killing children,” which is just silly. The second is the Chomsky explanation, that NATO needed a new purpose for his fiftieth birthday, and this is why he did it. I don’t find that persuasive. It would have been very easy for Blair to continue the strategy that the British government had taken, of basically blocking it off and pretending it didn’t happen. I think broadly Blair thought, you know, this is an opportunity to do some good in a very complex world. And broadly, although, the situation in Kosovo is certainly extremely problematic – we’ve seen the kind of ethnic cleansing of Serb civilians to a very significant degree since the war ended, which is horrific. There are suddenly a hell of a lot problems in Kosovo. But back then it ended with, you know, civilians cheering, refugees going home, and Blair thinking ‘Well, that worked well’. And I think he took that mental template and applied it to Iraq, not realizing that Iraq was such a drastically different situation. And I’m not saying that Blair wasn’t also to some degree implicated in the much worse motivations for the war. At the very least he willfully deluded himself.

Coming back to journalism – you say that your writing is more about reflecting a prevailing public sentiment rather than trying to change it.

But it does produce a sort of change, because hearing a view expressed in the newspaper makes people realize they’re not crazy.I certainly remember that my family who did not consider themselves very political used to get quite a right-wing newspaper. And I remember thinking, as I read as a kid, ‘Oh, that must be what you’re meant to think then’. Hearing a view expressed, makes you realize that actually it’s legitimate. And the more times people hear it, the more they realize it’s a realistic option .

The Independent, on the other hand, has a very clearly defined and a very certain kind of readership. Is there much of a point voicing those opinions for the already strongly opinionated?

It’s difficult because one of the questions for a journalist, generally, is are you trying to influence the public so that they will in turn influence power or are you trying to directly influence power yourself. My feeling is that if you see yourself as a power-player, and you’ll get a lot of journalists who do that, you’ve got yourself a recipe for disaster. It just corrupts you. I try to meet politicians as little as possible. Because generally when I like Labor politicians, or Liberal-Democrat politicians I find it much harder to be nasty about them, so I try to just not meet them anymore. So, you know, there is a kind of soft corruption of journalists who believe they have access to power and therefore can sway it, and therefore enter into this very complex nexus. From my experience, what you get from access to politicians is very limited anyway. They can’t tell you something that you can’t find out by just reading the official documents. So I just try to avoid that whole game. You know, I mean, I really agree with I. F. Stone and all the stuff he says about, you know, you just find out from reading the documents, from reading the stuff.

Do you think there is a point in trying to return to a very kind of loud, populist, screamer-headlines leftist journalism?

I think we underestimate the intelligence of people generally. And I always try to write in a simplest style as possible. One of the other curses of political journalists is they end up writing for an elite. There’s a famous story about one of the BBC’s economics editors, who had a column. A reader wrote to him and said, “I couldn’t understand what you were saying”, and he wrote back saying “since you are neither the Prime-Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer , nor the governor of the bank of England, you were not one of my target readers, and therefore it doesn’t matter to me that you didn’t understand what I said”.

It’s like the reverse of “the girl that works at “Boots””…

Exactly. Both my parents left school when they were fifteen and never went back into education. I always ask myself, could my mom and dad understand what I was saying if they read this? And even really quite complex ideas can be expressed in a fairly straightforward way. So I think you should always be as populist as possible. I’ve never understood why the world populist is used as a term of abuse. The Populist movement in the 1890’s was one of the greatest movements in American history. So I think we should reclaim populism.

How would you estimate the general condition of the British press in terms of the scope of opinion it allows? Alexander Chancellor recently spoke at a panel at SOAS to suggest the fact of himself writing in the Daily Mail is a token of the media’s liberality..

If anything, we overestimate the liberality of the British media. The Daily Mail is a very good example. The Daily mail really is, and I don’t mean this as an insult to Russian people, really is as strictly controlled as Pravda. There is nothing that goes into the Daily Mail that does not confirm to the very extreme, very creepy world-view of Paul Daker, which is wholey divorced even from the reality even of Middle England. I mean, this is, there’s this myth – i think Paul Daker said it, “politicians fight elections every five years, I fight one every day”, millions of people agree with what I put in my paper, and so on. It’s just not true. If you look at the people who read the Daily Mail, it’s people like my mom, who could not disagree more with the Daily Mail’s politics, but she buys the Mai because she likes the women section. The idea that people buy tabloid newspapers for their political views is a misconception. But so is the idea that the British press is liberal. Harold Wilson’s press secretary expressed it very neatly when she said, “the liberal press in Britain bends over backwards to include the voices of the Conservatives and to be nice to the Right, and so does the right-wing press”. In the Independent we have our range of right-wing voices, which I think is commendable. The Telegraph doesn’t have, you know, someone like me. The left wing press bends over backwards to be fair, and the right wing never does. Now, if most newspapers are owned by right-wing billionaires, don’t be surprised if they end up writing like right wing billionaires think. The Independent is a very honorable exception – we are owned by a billionaire who does appear give us some kind of editorial freedom – a very significant degree of editorial freedom, actually. But that is very rare. I think Chomsky’s model of corporate propaganda is to a large degree true.

There are some things that the fascination they hold for the right wing press is to me bewildering – for example, all those homophobic columns at the Sun…

This is interesting, because it’s actually changing very quickly.. I remember reading homophobic stuff when I was a kid, just as I was gradually realizing I was gay, and it was naturally very dispiriting. Now it’s a lot less – also, because, I think that unlike the US, Britain doesn’t have a very wide homophobic constituency. Even right-wing Middle England people have gay cousins, have gay kids, and don’t necessarily want to read about gay-bashing all day long.

So who does Richard Littlejohn write for?

Well, Richard Litteljohn has a mental disorder. He is profoundly mentally unwell. No normal heterosexual man thinks of gay sex as compulsively. Richard Littlejohn thinks about gay sex more than I do, and I’m gay! You know? He’s got a serious problem. There is this very right wing fringe that thinks that gay people are an archetype of everything that’s gone wrong with the world, but if you look at the opinion polls, 80% of the people in Britain supported civil partnership. When it comes to homosexuality, this is an amazingly liberal country. And the right wing press is picking up on that. In the last ten years, the Government had basically introduced almost full gay equality in Britain, and the opposition to that was very limited. Even the most right wing parts of the press like the Telegraph and the Mail didn’t put up that much of a fight, because they knew they lost. And besides, the British Right doesn’t have this frenzied, foaming religious character that much of the American Right has.

* * *

Why the extraordinary security in the lift and at the door?

Oh, that’s because the lovely flat above mine once housed those three lovely brazilian girls who turned out to be running a brothel. I always thought they dressed a bit strangely for the London climate, but they were very nice. I personally do have an emergency button in the flat though, because of all those death threats..

How serious does it get?

I always work on the assumption that if they say they’re going to kill you, they’re not going to kill you. I mean a murderer will hardly ring you up to warn you in advance! So I just tend to ignore it, you can’t just sit there cowering in fear all the time. They get quite serious though and I get a lot of them. They started sending dead animals to the Independent at one point, it was really awful.

Any particular threats that stand out in mind?

There are those really elaborate ones where they tell you exactly how they’re going to kill you: I’m going to kidnap you, take you to the middle of the ocean, take the skin off of you and dip you in the water – it’s like aww, you really put some thought to it, didn’t you? It’s touching, almost.

Drawing on that, would you care to reflect on the basic kinds of pressure on a journalist? Let’s say, official censorship, corporate censorship, readers’ pressure and self-censorship?

In terms of official censorship, there is virtually none in Britain, unless you breach the Official Secrets Act. Corporate censorship is more complicated, but then again, the Independent happily takes on corporations, so I never get this thing of “ooh, don’t write about Nike”. Where it does get in the way is in the libel laws, and we are very lucky to have this superb team of lawyers working for the Independent. From my limited experience of working with American press it’s amazing how easy it is over there. I think we need privacy laws but much easier libel laws. The readers – well, the only thing readers can really do is threaten to kill you. My dad, incidentally, always becomes incredibly proud of me when I get death threats, because I never was much of a macho kid in school. Whenever someone is saying something my dad is going “Ah, my son, they are trying to kill you! I’m so proud!”. He found a website called “Shoot Johann Hari”, and he was really pleased. Sometimes you get death threats when writing about, say, Islamic fundamentalists wanting to kill gays – and in that case it’s “thank you, you’ve proved my point”. I think if I had children, I would be more intimidated. In terms of self censorship – if I was not very secure at the Independent, and I am, I understand how I would always have my eye on “where else would I go to work?”. Because the more radical you are, the more you rule yourself out of various places of employment. There was a period when I was in favor of the invasion of Iraq, and people misjudged me and though I was lot more right-wing than I was, and I would get occasional offers from quite right-wing outlets, and you think to yourself “no, you don’t understand – I couldn’t be me and write for you”. But I can understand how it can be very tempting to people, and there are many journalists who are much more liberal than their public face. I think corporate censorship and self-censorship are densely interconnected. I think people censor themselves because they internalize what is sayable.

There is one area of criticism which is particularly difficult to get across – that of the State of Israel. It’s not at all as powerful here as it is in the States, but…

There is far less criticism of Israel in the American press than there is in the Israeli press. I mean this is just bizarre. If you look at Jimmy Carter – I mean, Carter is just such a moderate – he’s just fed to the wolves for writing a really straightforward book. What’s astonishing about large parts of the American Right which support a Likkud view of the world (I wouldn’t say support Israel – I support Israel in terms of wanting it to be peaceful and happy alongside a happy and peaceful Palestine), this faction is so dishonest. Say, for example, Jimmy Carter writes a book titled “Peace not Apartheid”, and makes it very clear – I think on the first page of the book – that the term “apartheid” is applied not to Israel itself, but to the Occupied Territories. They just ignore that! And off they go, “how dare he say that Israel is an Apartheid state?!”. He’s not talking about this, he’s talking about the Occupied Territories! I wrote a piece when I was in Gaza and the West Bank last, talking about some of the women who have given birth at checkpoints and whose babies died. I interviewed a woman whose son died at a checkpoint. Her village was gated by the Israeli military. She wasn’t allowed out, they said you’ve got to stay here until 6am, she went to give birth and the baby died. And just the lies that were told about this story! One of the websites, WorldNetDaily, very popular in the American right published something by its founder who told an outrageous lie. He said “Johann represents this as a story of that woman whose baby died – well, she was trying across the border into Israel to get into an Israeli hospital only because the Palestinian hospitals are so terrible – of course they’re not going to let her in. But this isn’t even what had happened, he obviously doesn’t know anything about the West Bank, nobody would even dream of doing that – she was just trying to get to a hospital inside the West Bank. Or a guy in the Jewish Chronicle – I quoted a completely innocent UN statistic that was even reported on Fox News, that 38 women and babies have died in the last four years at checkpoints. The Jewish Chronicle guy goes, “Johann Hari’s view of facts is very slippery. For example…” and he gives this statement. So he wrote saying that ll my facts were wrong, and the only example that he gave was that fact – which was right! I mean, couldn’t he have Googled for a bit? Another website put up an “alert” about me describing me as a supporter of Islamic fundamentalism. I’m sorry? I’m completely opposed to Islamic fundamentalism, I wrote so much against it I’m constantly being smeared as an Islamophobe. I get death threats from these fucking people. It’s incredible the way people that try to criticize critics of Israel seem to just float free of any facts at all.

How about co-opting, absorbing dissent into the system as safety valves, as it were?

Well, I think Chomsky would say that, that if you allow a small degree of dissent you actually make your system a lot stronger. This is probably true to an extent. But I don’t think you need to underestimate the value of gradual reform. For example, there are still horrific inequalities in the States – young black men’s life expectancy in Harlem is lower than in, say, Nairobi. But on the other hand, young black men are no longer blocked from going into bars, or banned from voting. There is the argument that the Conservative Party and the Labor Party are one and the same thing, there isn’t a cigarette paper between them, and all the rest of it. I think they are fare too close together – I’d like a much more radical Labor Party – but this is simply not true. John Lennon had a good line about it – he said, are just a few inches between the political parties, but a lot of people live in those few inches. And if you think of the kind of government Cameron would have if got in power, well, he would probably abolish family credit of the kind that my sister gets, which allows her to take her kids on a holiday once a year, and for a lot of people it’s living in poverty or not. So for a lot of people this is a major difference, and it’s insulting for them to say that it’s not a difference. Gradual reform has its place. Obviously, when you have insufficient traction in a system, you need to have more radical reform, and the position should always be trying to get there constitutionally, gradually, as best as you can.

But in terms of media, there is still the feeling that 70% or so of the media are vaguely to explicitly supportive of the current course...

Oh yes, more than 70%. A lot of the British press is very much skewed towards the Conservative Party, to the point where they find David Cameron, who is actually very right wing, too liberal.

So how do you challenge that?

You can have very simple laws, for example, that would allow one organization to only run one newspaper or one TV channel. The consolidation is very dangerous. But this is a genuine and difficult question – how do you democratize the media? it’s really hard, and there are very few models to show you how you can do it better, other than having very strict rules on who can own, having as strong diversity as possible, protecting things like the BBC and making sure they stick to the things they are meant to do, rather then becoming as right wing as they are now. Publicly owned broadcasting is a good model, but it’s really hard to come up with one solution. I mean about my work – some of my left wing friends will say, you became a part of the system, a safety valve. But then you ask – what’s the alternative, to have no one in any newspaper, arguing for nuclear disarmament, arguing for keeping us the right side of two degree centigrade so that we don’t end up in an absolutely horrific nuclear warming situation, to have no one arguing about the grotesquely super-rich in Britain or writing about the war in Congo. How does it benefit anyone, not having any of this reported? It’s not going to bring the system crashing down if me and George Monbiot go on strike, sadly.

How do you view “radical” papers, like the Socialist Worker?

The Socialist Workers Party is a cult, sadly enough. Again, they are doing some remarkably good work – they are trying to keep asylum seekers from being deported, and this is fantastic, but unfortunately they are a deranged cult. I much prefer the Alliance for Workers Liberty, who are smaller but not insane. I mean it’s self-discrediting politics to hark back to Lenin. It’s just grotesque. Lenin and Trotsky were deranged gangsters who built a tyranny. The whole idea that the problem comes with Stalin is just not true. Niel Harding, the great scholar of Leninism, said that Leninism would have found its Stalin sooner or later. So any valuable critique they make, and they do make a lot of valuable critique, just gets lost in this stupid harking back to the early Soviet Union.

And then there is George Galloway…

George Galloway is a psychopath – I’m not sure I can say this legally. George Galloway is a profoundly evil man. The role of George Galloway is primarily to discredit the Left in the eyes of anyone who bothers to listen to him.This is a man who, when asked whether Saddam Hussein was hated by ordinary Iraqis, said “not at all, not at all”. This is a man who describes Hussein’s genocide of the Kurds as a “civil war”. This is the man who blamed Salman Rushdie for getting people trying to murder him. He also describes the day the Soviet Union fell as “the worst day of his life”. Unfortunately, he’s my bloody MP. Just don’t engage with him, don’t give him the attention he wants. He’s not worth it.

What do you think of the journalism school system? Up until quite recently it was still cadetship, and many journalists even today don’t go to journalism school – yourself, for instance.

I generally don’t agree with journalism schools. I think the one valuable thing they teach which I wish I had is shorthand. Other than that I think that people who went to journalism schools wasted their time and money. I don’t know about the specific City course but I’ve never really met anyone who went to a Journalism course and genuinely benefited from it. I think that generally you’d be better off spending a year learning another language, or history. In a way, the skills of journalism are very general skills that an intelligent person can pick up in a few months on a job. But even so, at the moment, we have this very major structure problem in British journalism: just to get started you are expected to work for up to six months, unpaid, in the middle of London. This automatically rules out most people. I was in a very lucky position when I graduated, because my family would quite simply laugh in my face if I said, I would live for a year for nothing. I was lucky because I contacted the editor of the New Statesman when I was a student, and said – look, you believe in left wing principles, my dad’s a bus driver, I don’t have the money to start out – give me a job. Nothing very fancy, but enough to live on, and I promise I will write loads of stuff for you. And he said yes. But in most cases, if you are guaranteeing that most young journalists are children of the rich, well, you naturally discriminate in favor of the people who are already quite right wing – obviously there are shining exceptions, but most of them are people who are quite happy with the status quo and want to preserve it. This is just a scandalous problem we have in the British media, which is actually very bad for the media itself – children of the very rich don’t tend to get insights into how ordinary people live, so you get a very divorced media. There’s a big problem there.

What do you make of citizen journalism, cellphone reporting, blogging and so on?

I think the problem is you’ve got to have filters. The newspapers filters are partly those of quality, and partly those of “do conform to the views of our corporate advertisers”. So in self-published journalism you do away with the second filter but not really with the first. And what you get sometimes wonderful stuff, and sometimes it’s the pure, unfiltered bloke-in-the-chip-shop “I saw this happen”. It’s not very interesting. I think citizen journalism is at a very early stage. There are certainly amazing not-for-profit outlets. If you watch Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, they are among the best news sources in the world: accessible, populist, but also absolutely factually impeccable. This is professional citizen journalism. But I think the idea that now that everyone have a mobile phone with a video camera on they can be journalists – that’s not going to work.

Can journalism today really cause dramatic change, more than the occasional “sleaze assasination” of individual politicians?

I think that basically yeah, whether it’s the Pentagon Papers…

The Pentagon Papers were forty years ago…

Well, yes, fair enough I guess. But you can still change public opinion by enlarging and informing it. Take global warming, for example. Global warming is quite a complex subject, and quite difficult to get our heads around – what, we’re changing the weather- it sounds bizarre. I think journalism made a lot of difference on this. Even media moguls like Rupert Murdoch have been forced to accept the reality of this. A tipping point comes when even the Right has to accept some things. The certainty, at any rate, is that if we don’t write then certainly nothing will happen. What we write may or may not make a change, but if we stop…

Coming back to the influence of journalism, especially radical journalism – you make it sound a little like one option is not writing at all, and the other is writing more or less within the status quo – so how do we move on?

But in this status quo things can change so quickly! If you told my grandfather that his grandson will be able to be openly gay, to be married to another man – it would have seen the most ludicrous thing from a bad book of science fiction! And yet here we are, it happened. Pe ople can force things onto the news agenda. There is a right wing filter, sure enough, but you can push things past it. One very good example is the misnamed anti-globalization movement. They literally forced the IMF and the World Bank onto the news agenda, before that they were just taken for granted as parts of the international architecture. Now they are seriously contested, due to all those “ordinary”, average citizens, who went out and just made a fuss about it. Major changes can still be forced by ordinary people.



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Interview: Avrum Burg

[This was done in June for the Jewish Chronicle, but they backed out. For your pleasure. ]

The common wisdom is that history never remains at a standstill. Nations change, as do the ideological frameworks that support them. A number of weeks ago, one of Israel’s most respected politicians gave an interview to the Haaretz newspaper, which sent shock waves throughout the Jewish world and beyond it – and appeared to signify many of the questions and changes now being undergone by the state of Israel.

Avraham “Avrum” Burg, 52, comes from the very core of the Israeli Zionist experience. He is son to Yosef Burg, founder of the National-Religious Party, and he himself had served in two of the most significant positions in the Israeli political world: head of the Zionist Agency, responsible for persuading Diaspora Jews to come to Israel; and chairman of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. It’s difficult to think of anything more mainstream. But in the interview to “Haaretz”, given to mark the release of a new book, Burg spoke of the failure of the Jewish character of the state, calling for it to be reconsidered; suggested opening up the Law of Return; and praised the pre-Zionist sense of Jewish cosmopolitanism. The Israeli public reacted with dismay. Knesset members called for Burg’s citizenship to be withdrawn, and for his state pension to be cancelled. Now that a few weeks had passed I sought to speak to him for a calmer consideration of the issues that came up in the interview – can the Jewish state remain Jewish while maintaining even a semblance of democracy? Where is Jewishness today in regard to human rights, to social justice? And how does someone come from where he was to where he is today?

Thank you for agreeing to this interview. My first question would be about the process that one goes through – from the center and even the summit of the Zionist experience to the new positions that you hold. How does this happen?

Тhe word, indeed, is “process”, a rather srtange word to the Israeli political experience. I’ve been observing the Israeli politics for some time, and in many ways they have come to resemble a black hole – a great planet whose energy imploded – and one of the reasons for that is that we ran out of political thinking. If I would expand on that, I should say that three pillars of the Israeli political discourse collapsed. The pillars were the aliya, the settlement and the security. The aliya had run out: now that most of the Jews live in the democratic hemisphere, not under any real physical threat, the immigration of distress was bound to have run out. The settlement is no longer a political platform, neither on the right nor on the left. Even the current plans to “judaize” the Negev and the Galilee are either “retro” or just plain pathetic. They would never come to signify what settlement used to signify 60 or 70 years ago. And as far as security is concern, it’s plain to see where we ended up. Now this vacuum that was left is increasingly occupied by the traumatic discourse. Every thing is going through the trauma test. There is a situation of “only presence” of trauma plus Holocaust in our lives. Every enemy is a Hitler, any threat is a total threat, every years is 1938, etc etc. And the central premise of my book is that we have to abandon the trauma discourse and to change it for a new discourse of trust: between us to ourselves, between us and our enviorment, and most importantly between us and the rest of the world.

How is it to be done?

I have deliberately avoided dealing with current day issues in my book. Current affairs always take you to a thousand places of possibility and impossiblity. All I’m doing in my book is trying to draft the lines of the next Israeli landscape. And it takes time, it’s a very slow process. But if you’d ask me what is the ingredient that has to be injected into the Israeli political formulae, I’d say it a deep, national commitment to humanism in the Israeli society, and a return, or perhaps reconnection to the universalist strand in Judaism, which had run completely dry in the last few decades. We ditched universality and we have become enclosed, particularistic, and ghettoized, which strangles both our minds and spirits.
There is a struggle going on now for the future of humanity, of humanism. A struggle between the developed and the undeveloped countries, rich nations and poor nations, between theocracy and democracy, within religions, between religions, an epic struggle for the future of humankind. And for the first time in history, us Jews are not a positive player in all of this; I mean of course both Israel and the Jewish communities in the diaspora, as collectives, not as individuals. It’s impossible to comprehend Western culture without realizing the Jewish contribution through Jesus and through christianity, for better or for worse. It’s impossible to fully understand the Renaissance without realizing how the Rambam (Maimonides) brought Hellenism back to Europe from the Islam. You can’t understand the modern era without Mendelsohn, Heine and Spinoza. You can’t understand the 20th century without Marx and Freud. You can’t even understand fully the great civil rights changes of the mid-20th century without remembering that Jews played a more than central role in that And today when we are witnessing perhaps the most meaningful struggle of this kind for generation to come – the state of Israel is definitely out of the game and the Jewish communities are at best taking a stand at the conservative establishment’s side, and not on the side of the progress.
One of the reasons is that we are dug up so deep inside our own wounds – and maybe justly so, no nation had gone what we have gone through – that are would not allow ourselves to go from trauma to contribution (“truma”). How do we approach a world that’s facing all this evil, take our motto of “never again” and turn it from “never again shall it happen to me” to “never again shall I let it happen to anyone else”, to “I have duty to utilize my traumatic experience to prevent any similar trauma happening anywhere in the world”? And we are not doing any of this! We were doing this for one fascinating moment in the 1960’s when Israel was the greatest partner of the African nations. And now it’s over. And this is something I would like to see returned.

In light of that , what do you think of the Israeli attitude to catastrophes befalling to other peoples?

I think a distinction should be made between two type of responses. In the first category is the reaction to a natural disaster, like the tsunami or an earthquake. In such a case the rallying to help the victims is immediate and overwhelming. But when a man-made disaster happens, Israel definitely doesn’t rally to the call. Because a natural disaster supposedly doesn’t require us to take a stand, also because ecology is not an ideological issue yet. I can tell myself that I’m not against anyone out there, I don’t need to form a moral stand on this or that. But when we get to massacre by man, whether its Tjanamen, Cambodia or Armenia, we are suddenly asked to take a stand. And we won’t. For two reasons: first, on a very deep level we are not willing to “share” our experience with other peoples. We won’t accept, for example. the fact that the Armenians see their experience as a Holocaust. We want to retain the monopoly on that. And as a result, we are not empthatic partners to the experience of the 20th century in which aside from us, over 160,000,000 people were butchered in crimes against humanity alone. These are unimaginable numbers. You have to remember Mao, and Stalin, and Darfour, not to mention Ruanda and East Timor. So that’s one reason: we won’t let anyone into our experience, we say it’s exclusively ours, and I say, no, on the contrary, we have to open it up, we have to be able to say “I understand, and we have to prevent this from recurring together”. The other reason is that Israel, for political interests, is not ready to take the moral stand. I have a political need in Turkey, so I’ll give up on a moral stand about the Armenians.

Can Israel really forfeit its political interests to take the moral stand? Risk losing Turkey to stand up for the Armenians, risk angering the Americans by standing up for East Timor…

Look, we have always been so smart and we always love talking “real-politik”, and deciding what good for us and what’s bad for us, and you can’t help but wonder – how come all this wisdom resulted in such a mediocre kind of world? Maybe now that we see that real-politik didn’t get us to anywhere that anyone would want to be in, it’s time to go to the place that should be so natural for us – the moral place, the place of values, that place that I would call truly Jewish; and from that place, to be able to say that this is the uniqueness of Israel, “a light onto the nations”, this is why the country was established in the first place, and maybe when we are a light onto the nation it would result in a better political alternative than what we have today. I really don’t think that the reality we’re facing is dichotomous, a reality of either or: either the Indian Gandhi or the Israeli “Gandhi” [the nickname for Rechavaam Zeevi, a radical right-wing politician]; either sword or pacifism. We should be dealing with a mixture of all of these. And today we don’t have that sense of mixture. We have only fears, only trauma, only real-politik. And I want to introduce other dimensions, that it won’t be “only” but “as well as”.

The process you describe is supposed to start in the Jewish society alone, or do the Israeli Palestinians also have a role to play?

I don’t believe in Israel, the country of no one but its Jews. I don’t believe in it morally. I also don’t believe it’s right for Jewish minorities living elsewhere in the world. Think about England for example. Imagine you get the Anglican church, which is also the official state church, saying “England for the English”. Would it go down well with anyone at all? I don’t think their Trustees would be too happy. And I think we, as a nation that knows so well how is it like being “the other”, should develop in Israel a model of accepting the other, and not a world-known model of rejecting the other. I think that Israel, with over 20% of its population not being Jewish, is an invitation to develop a model of containing dialgoue, rather than excluding dialog.

But hold on – one of Israel’s basic arguments is that Jews always participated in multi-ethnical societies, and many of them ended up turning on up. The state of Israel was supposedly established to provide a society in which Jews would be dominant, if not even on their own.

Let’s take a look at this exclusivity idea. I’d like to start from a very obvious point: this is not the reality we live in. If once upon a time there will be a heaven in which you can organize a society with no one but your kind, then we can talk. At the moment, such places don’t exist. I believe that the reality on the ground obliges us to certain things. Martin Buber called it “compromising with the possibilities”. I’m scared of people who tell each other “this is our dream, so why don’t we kick out everyone who’s different”. You know how it’s going to be like: first we’ll expel the Palestinians, and no one will say anything, then we’ll kick out all the lefties, and no one will say anything, and then we’ll drive out all the seculars, and no one will say anything, and then we’ll kick you – for instance you, Dimi – and no one will have been left to say anything. It doesn’t work like that. It’s dangerous. But I say – let’s turn the danger into an opportunity. I’ll go further: we in the Middle East are blamed for a lot of things, like our conflict spilling over to the streets of Paris. And I ask myself, we can’t we take what is happening to us here, in Jerusalem, or between us and the Palestinians, or us and the Arab citizens of Israel, and with a great effort turn it into a model for solution? Why do we have to hold on to that national rhetoric of ours, prophesizing that what happens to us now will happen to you five years later? When riots break out in Paris, or a bomb goes off in London, there is always the inevitable Israeli spokesperson who goes to the press and says “now, you see, now you understands us”. As we speak today I still don’t have a clear understanding of what is happening in Gaza, beyond the obvious human disaster. But up until a few weeks ago, when things were clearer, I could still say “let’s turn Jerusalem into a model that Paris can benefit from”, or “let’s turn the Palestinian-Israeli conflict into something of educational value for English constituencies”.

In the Haaretz interview, you pretty much said that the idea of the national Jewish state is dead. Is the two national states solution still alive?

I didn’t say that the Jewish state was dead. But have harbored for years a great degree of criticism of the definition of the Israeli state as “Jewish and democratic”. I’ve believed all my life in separation of church and state. The state – a political instrument of control – should never have a religious dimension to it. As soon as you endow a state with a religious or a messianic aspect, you’ve made the first step towards the establishment of a new Jewish theocracy. If there is a struggle happening between the Jewish, religious identity of the state and the democratic one, the Jewish part of the identity will persist and the democratic part will be eroded. There is another issue here – as soon as you define the state as Jewish, you’re getting into autopilot. So if the population is 100% Jewish, it’s a Jewish state, and if it’s 50% Jewish, it’s still a Jewish state, and even if it’s 10% it will still be a Jewish state, and the only dilemma is which tools we’ll use to enforce this Jewish identity. I have never subscribed to this view because of how I see the question of church and state. I believe that the character of the state of Israel should be defined by the people that live there, and it should be defined as a country of the Jewish people, under a democratic government. A country of the Jewish people means that this is the country where we choose to settle. We’ll be a majority here so long as the majority of us remains here, we’ll design its public sphere, we’ll decide its meaning and its content, and it can we a wonderful state to live in. If we decide not to do that, or we abuse our power, or run away, then there won’t be a state of the Jewish people, but at least we won’t get there on autopilot. I’d rather not comment on the two state solution, its too topical an issue.

It seems that you are suggesting is a return of sorts to the Balfour Declaration. Not a State for the Jews but a kind of a national home. And next to this home there can be a national home for the Palestinians, and so on and so forth.

Look, the Balfour Declaration is an expired document. On November 29 1947 the General Assembly of the UN heard the declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel. At this point the Balfour declaration became irrelevant, and the generator of the state of Israel became instead the International Law. This was supposed to be the framework: here are the borders and the fences, while the content within these borders and those fences was to be defined by the community within them. I’ll use an analogy. Imagine if the Saxons that comprise a part of the Anglo-Saxon part of the British population would pack their bags and return to Saxony. England would be a different country, wouldn’t it? So just as the idea of Englishness is defined by all those who live in England, between its borders, so too the Jewishness and Israeliness of Israel should be defined by those who live here.

So just as Britishness today is defined by Muslim Britons, Hindu Britons, Christian Britons and so on, Israeliness should be defined by Muslim Israelis, Jewish Israelis and Christian Israelis?

Exactly. And if there will be plenty of Jews here, whether with a universalist or some other outlook, this will be the character of our society; and if it won’t be, it means we failed as a people.

In this context, how do you relate to the recent declarations by members of the Palestinian Israeli community, the so-called vision documents?

In my view, these attempts to develop and re-structure the Palestinian-Israeli, or Arab-Israeli narrative are a testimony to the failure of their integration into Israeli society. It is a testimony of failure, discrimination and neglect. I think that with the exception of the Rabin years, when the the Palestinians inside the 1967 borders were considered to be as strategically important as the Palestinians outside the 1967 borders, in the last sixty years there wasn’t neither a de jure or de facto policy of equality for the Arab citizens of Israel. The results of this discrimination are the vision documents. I will not, of course, agree to consider them something final and absolute. I think many of the Israeli Arabs, both leadership and private individuals, are not saying “we want to leave”, but rather “we are inviting you to a dialog, something can be done”. And I think that a part of this dialog will be working to create a general, containing, rather than excluding, narrative.

We spoke of how religion influences politics in our context. What do you think of the influence of politics on Judaism in our time?

It seems that most of my answers to you today begin with “terrible”. The combination of politics and religion corrupted both systems. I’ll give you an illustration that is not very commonly made, and I’m sorry if I have to generalize. If you look, in a very generalized manner, at the politicized religious Jewish world outside Israel and most certainly inside Israel, you will most commonly find it on the right side of the territorial question. There is a close alliance between the political Judaism and the territorial right – not just territorial, but also anti-human rights and anti-liberal. And it seems almost impossible, especially if you consider that in all the Jewish canon – the Torah, the Talmud and the Halachah combined – issues of land and territory don’t get the one thousandth of the attention dedicated to the rights and injuries of the widow, the orphan and the poor, solidarity, humanism and so on. How is it possible that in a society like ours, where the gaps between the rich and the poor are growing almost daily, you don’t find the religious camp next to the beaten wife, the poor person, the immigrant who only just set foot here, but you will find it in the midst of right-wing territorial politics? And if you ask me, this constitutes a dire violation of our religious ethics. The territorial issues of the past 40 years, with all the messianic motives camouflaged within the territorial aspirations, have really turned religious Jews indifferent to economic and social distress. This is of course a sweeping generalization, because there are individuals who are a remarkable exception to the rule. But most of the religious community is not on the social-economic pole, but on that of the territorial struggle. And this is definitely what I would call a corruption [of religious values].

What do you think of the so-called New anti-Semitism?

It’s really not down to me to explain why an anti-Semite is an anti-Semite. But I do see an embarrassing and worrying nearing between the traditional religious anti-Semitism, and secular left-wing and right-wing anti-Semitism. Whether it stems from criticism of Israel or criticism of the Jews is not, to me, as important. What I’m wondering about is that the cry of “wolf” had become so loud that people are beginning to talk about a second Holocaust. And my answer to this is a very definite “no”. I would like to counter that with two alternative snapshots, if you will. The first is this: let’s say that anti-Semitism today is drawn by criticism of Israel; that when you say ” I hate the Jews”, what you mean to say is “I hate Israel”; and that a Jew in Hampstead, for example, “gets it” for what Avrum Burg had done in Jerusalem, or in Tel Aviv, or who knows where. Suppose that this is true. This means I have an opportunity. Can I take the Jewish people in its Diaspora, and say that rather than being a hostage to the criticism against Israel, this people would invest all its energy and resources in “tikkun olam” – in mending the world? in the relationship between the minority and the society it’s part of, in dialogues between different minorities, in acknowledging responsibility for Darfur and other Third World issues? And I mean, we know that when we get involved, we really get involved. So maybe in five years’ time, or seven years’ time, someone will look at us and say, I like Jews so much I’m willing to step back and take another look at their State of Israel. If people are capable of hating the Jews because their dislike for the State of Israel, they might also be able to like the State of Israel because of their liking for the Jews. Unfortunately, in many places in the world, particularly in North America, the Jews have forsaken the dialog with “the other”, and became a part of the establishment.
The second issue that I would like to raise is that the anti-Semitism today is also different in another crucial way. In the past, anti-Semitism was almost exclusively against us, against the Jews. Today it’s just a part of a great wave of hatred rising all over the world; certainly in the West there’s xenophobia, migrant workers go home, less immigrants, you had Heider in Austria, La Penne in France, and the list goes on. This is a reason for us to stop saying: there is anti-Semitism in the world today, and as a Jew I must put up a fight to it, and begin saying: there is hatred in the world today, some of it is directed towards us, and some of it is directed towards others. Let us begin building worldwide coalitions against hate.

Would you say that Jewish organizations, like the ADL are wrong to invest their efforts in fighting anti-Semitism but not Islamophobia?

I’m not very well familiar with the activity of the ADL, so I would rather not comment on that. But I can tell you that in my opinion, the greatest and most important cultural phenomena of the last few decades is the emergence of a Western Islam; a European and maybe even American Islam. Will it choose dialog, or will it be confrontational? This is the greatest question of our times, above all others. And in this context, I think that when there is Islamo-phobia, Jews should be the first to come forward and say: enough. We were victims of the Judo-phobia. Look at what we lost because that, what Europe lost because of that, and what the world has lost in that. We need to learn from it, so that God forbids, the same thing that happened to the Jews sixty years ago, won’t happen to Muslims in the West sixty years from now.

You have been criticized for seeking refuge in cosmopolitanism, boasting your dual citizenship, and in general taking the easy way our rather than staying and promoting the ideas you put forward.

I’m not moving anywhere. I live here, my family lives here, my children live here, and my language is spoken here. But like many people in Israel and elsewhere, I posses a second citizenship. I don’t see it as divorcing my Israeliness, but rather as extending it. I think we have always been global and cosmopolitan, but in recent decades this had considerably declined. In the last ten or fifteen years it had become possible again. I’m excited by this opportunity and have no desire to miss out on it.

Do you intend to forward the process that you call for?

Any ideas how? I mean, there had been remarkable support. I have been involved in quite a few political controversies in my time – the opposition to the first Lebanese war, the conflict between church and state, the drafting of the yeshiva students, and many more. I cannot recall a greater controversy than this, nor any controversy within which I have received so much support, quite a substantial part of it coming from young people. Take my own children, for instance. I have not always received support from them for my political position. In this case it had been practically unanimous. Another example is all the letters I’ve been getting. Take even the comments on the website – and it’s a very rough, very unreserved, very culture that we have here – about twenty to thirty percent of the commentary had been positive, ranging from “let’s talk about it” to all-out support. So I think the potential for change is there. But I also think that in contemporary Israel, the ideas that I am suggesting are still a bit far-off.

But in the Haaretz interview you say that the Israeli society had hit a dead end. This feeling is quite widespread, along with a sense of panic and a loss of way – maybe it’s not too early for your ideas after all?

What I’ve done is merely filing a suggestion to the agenda. So now people will talk about it, they will respond to it, some will object it, some will support it, and from it other ideas will be born. I don’t know how exactly it will happen: I ask more questions than I have answers to. Maybe those that will come later will have the answers. It’s too early for me to start a movement; I’m not saying either yes or no. Let’s see where this going to.

When did you tell yourself “hang on, this isn’t working”?

Look, every Israeli feels that something isn’t working. People blame the government, the ideology, the economy, the Arabs, the Orthodox, the rest of the world and whatnot, but they all share the feeling that something had gone wrong. And they usually arrive at one of two conclusions Either they decide it’s a strike of fate – so what if it’s not working, it’s not working in America either, Bush is not better that our government,

…and Finland has a much higher rate of suicide…

Exactly, and Tony Blair messed up, Segolene Royal lost the elections, the whole world is going to bits, so we are not to blame. The other conclusion that people can arrive at is that the political system is rotten and can’t be held, so let us channel our energies in other directions. So then you suddenly have this amazing economy emerging, which people really put their hearts and souls to, you see beautiful art flourishing, you see solidarity – as in the last war, for example, where individuals suddenly joined into a collective and did remarkable voluntary work. What I am trying to do now is not to say – look, this is stuck and this is stuck and this is stuck, but rather find the overriding reason that keeps getting us stuck here in the first place. When people look for overriding reasons they can come up with all kinds of things – the Jewish-Arab interaction, the Occupation, and so on. What I’m saying is that this is much greater than this – I’m saying that the first, primal, overriding, almost abstract reason for Israel being the way it is today is that we look at everything through our traumatic past. We define our experience through the trauma. As a result, everyone is suspect, and reality is permanently nightmarish. But I think we can water down the trauma with a bit more hopefulness, a bit more confidence, a little less clawing and a bit more manners. Which is why I went out on this journey to find where it all begins – before that I was like everybody else, complaining that this is wrong and that is wrong and this is even worse. And once I found an explanation, which for now and for me is satisfying, I began making proposals and suggestions how it can be amended. These proposals are very small, they are partial, they are insufficient, but this is a beginning.

Do you think that Israel can be changed from without, through sanctions?

To me, one of the greatest ills of the 21st century is unilateralism. If the 1990s were the years where the Berlin Wall came down, the apartheid ended and even Oslo proved hopeful for a while. It was, overall, a decade of dialog. The 21st century so far proves to be quite different. There is no great difference, to my mind, between someone who work through boycott to George Bush or Ariel Sharon with his unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Boycotting is the antithesis of dialog. It’s wrong. In this specific case, it’s also fantastically stupid – the call now is to boycott Israeli academia, one of the few establishments in Israel that still carry the banner of humanism, understanding and openness. Boycotting them is stupid and unjust. I’m boycotting this boycott.

Why do you insist on constantly comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, of all times and places? Why not South Africa, or Northern Ireland, or any other place?

I’m not saying that Israel resembles, or even that it will eventually come to resemble, the Germany of the twilight years of Hitler’s rule. Germany to me is a long historic process, commencing with Bismarck and going through the Weimar Republic to the beginning of the Nazi era. And you cannot ignore that the Israeli democracy is very weak, almost as weak as the Weimar one. Voices from the Right that I personally thought extinct are calling for expulsion – just take Avigdor Liberman. There is a horrible racist element in much of the religious ideology and theology in Israel. Added to that is deeply rooted militarism, there is a worship of power, there is the contempt for anyone who’s different, there are the graffiti all over the streets – “Kill the Arabs” “Expel the Arabs”. There are things that one cannot ignore.

Let’s go back for a while to your time as head of the Zionist Agency. You have contributed to the immigration to Israel of quite a number of Diaspora Jews…

I would say that in my time [as head of the Jewish Agency] around 400,000 Jews came to Israel.

Wouldn’t you say there is a contradiction between calling for cosmopolitanism and actively persuading people to develop and pursuit a very strong national identity?

First of all, ten years ago, when I was head of the Agency, I was thinking differently from what I do today. Since then, reality changed, the world had changed, and so did I. But to be honest, I don’t really see a contradiction. I want a society that is strong and not afraid to look out and communicate with the outside world. In this context, the great wave of immigration from the Soviet Union, which washed Israel in the 1990’s and changed the country, is first of all a great opportunity of interaction with the world outside; and the Ethiopian immigration forced Israel to understand that “Jew” does not mean only “white”. I think that both of them enriched Israel and made it more diverse and open.

What about the Law of Return?

I want to open it up, for two reasons. First of all, the Law of Return defines how a person can become a member of the Jewish state. I don’t think that sixty years after the holocaust, we can afford ourselves to still be asking the question “is Jewishness genetic”? The law of return, who defines a Jew as one born of a Jewish mother, is in fact a law which defines Jewishness by a genetic criteria. The law should be changed to say that anyone who chooses to commit himself or herself to living here, adopting the language, the culture, comitting to military service and other contribution to society, tying himself to the Israeli collective, is also passing the test of belonging to this commonwealth.

Would that apply to Palestinian families also?

At the end of the day, there is a great conflict between the Law of Return and the Right of Return. I have been supporting a peaceful resolution of the conflict for years, I want to see a Palestinian state, but I would not want to see a one and a half Palestinian state: the whole of the Palestinian state and a half of the Israeli state. I think that when the Right of Return is recognized it will be a return of Palestinians to Palestine and of Jews to Israel.

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