The Dystopia principle and the strategic basis for a
just peace in Palestine
Introduction: compassion, conflict and clarity
Making choices 5
Core and periphery
Expansion and contraction
Colonialism and utopia 8
The battle over Zionism
Jewish Nationalism and the Dystopia Principle
Facts and shadows 13
Proximate and Ultimate Goals
In the crosshairs
Jewish self-image and Nationalism
On the menu: Zionism and Jihad
Israel’s empty mirror
Palestine’s clouded window
Democracy and despotism
Big picture little picture
Creating a change 25
Peace and Jewish ultimate goals
Peace and Palestinian ultimate goals
Making it real: turning strategy into tactics
States of confusion
Terms of conflict 34
Hate and connection
Guerrilla war and attrition
Asymmetrical conflict and solidarity
Cannibalism or transformation
Jewish oppression and the possibility of wolves
Jewish oppression and Palestinian struggle
Finding the road 46
Seats at the table
The shifting ground
The road to peace
Introduction: conflict, compassion and clarity
The conflict over Palestine has settled into a kind of dynamic stalemate. The state of Israel
pursues a strategy of escalating brutality against Palestinian civilian society. The dominant forces
on the Palestinian side oscillate between attacks on civilians in Israel and concessions to Israeli
demands. Each side chooses from a limited and predictable menu of responses which do not alter
the underlying balance of forces. The dynamics of this brutal standoff are raising the temperature
in each society and bringing internal divisions into play. Glimpses of more promising initiatives
can be seen on the ground but they are eclipsed by the military/paramilitary players who set the
rhythm and pace of the conflict. What follows is an analysis of the factors underlying the
stalemate, and an attempt to highlight the possibilities for transforming the strategic landscape.
This requires identifying points of leverage in the conflict, identifying how they can be utilized and
who is in a position to do so. To be meaningful, such an analysis must also address the perceptions
held by people in the conflict that make the idea of a strategic shift appear hopeless. For it to be of
use, a lever must be within reach.
The lever that is identified in this analysis I have called ‘Lihish’ta’weel,’ a composite of words
meaning ‘transformation’ in Arabic (tahweel) and Hebrew (lihishtaneh). The transformation in
question is from a ‘Jewish/Palestinian’ conflict to a struggle for social justice. Neither Palestinian
nor Jewish ultimate goals (as expressed in the lives and dreams of ‘ordinary’ people) are well
served by the prevailing understandings of the conflict. These ultimate goals, as we shall see
below, are not mutually exclusive but mutually dependent. For either people to achieve their goals
will require a change in the vision and dynamics of the conflict. This transformation will create
the conditions to replace the military-political elite that controls the Israeli state with a leadership
capable of ushering in a democratic order in partnership with a newly invigorated Palestinian civil
society. This is what will be necessary to deliver the Palestinian and Jewish needs for land rights
and safety respectively. This scenario will seem like wishful thinking only because the brutality of
this conflict has given it the intractable rhythm of a blood feud, obscuring the cultural and political
currents at work that provide the keys to its solution. This paper will introduce tools of analysis to
make these currents—and the possibilities they embody—visible.
For a strategic vision to hold water, it must deal—in a forthright manner—with the most
contentious dimensions of the conflict: colonial oppression, ethnic displacement, theft of
resources, violent targeting of non-combatants, terror tactics, denial of services, the role of
international opinion and the legacy of current and past racial victimization of Arabs and Jews.
Nothing must be left off the table.
Many of the elements of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are echoed in, and linked to, past and
current struggles around the world. The idea that this conflict is completely unique–existing in a
world of its own–is a myth that deprives us of necessary perspective. There are, for sure, unique
aspects to this conflict. This is true of every conflict. Understanding what is specific to this
struggle and what can be learned from other instances of conflict is key to finding the points of
pressure that can unlock the creative power of the “ordinary” people whose actions can end the log
jam. The case will be made that it is among these people, not in the capitols of the United States
and Europe, that the leverage can be found to redefine and redirect this struggle. The interests of
the officials in those capitols do not, in any case, correspond to those of the people in Haifa,
Jerusalem, and Jenin. Any strategic initiatives with the potential to resolve the conflict must be
within the reach of ‘ordinary’ people on the ground.
Every analysis begins with a goal. If I wish to travel to a neighboring city to purchase a pair of
shoes and return in time for supper, my analysis must consider the conditions of the roads, the
weather, the distance to be traveled, the means of transportation available to me and the amount of
money in my wallet. If my goal is to be standing on the moon within twenty years then an entirely
different set of variables will come to mind.
The goal of this analysis is to offer a new perspective on some of the puzzling dynamics of the
conflict. It is offered with the intention of identifying sources of “traction” that can move the
conflict toward a just outcome. A “just” solution does not refer to a compromise between the
stated positions of leaders and governments but to an outcome that embraces the ultimate needs of
the families, communities and individuals who make up the mass of the population. My
commitment to this goal is uncompromising. I have brought up two children. The challenges I
have experienced along the way have raised questions about how to fulfill my task of bringing
them safely to adulthood. They have never called into question the goal itself. Similarly, injustice,
oppression, racism and arbitrary brutality are realities we must come to terms with in order to find
the necessary steps toward a peace that leaves no one behind. The question is “how” to
accomplish that, not “if.” A solution that does not address everyone’s needs is not a viable option.
What if it were suggested that such a solution is possible; that the current dynamic of conflict can
be interrupted by realistic strategies that are within reach of activists; that these can result in a
realignment of forces that will produce a strategic alliance between the people of Palestine and a
significant sector of Israeli Jews–the very people, we have been led to believe, whose needs are
irreconcilable and whose hostility is incurable? In what follows I will seek to demonstrate the
practicality of this optimistic assessment. I will address the underlying dynamics that, by being
misunderstood, have confounded the elaboration of viable strategies. If good ideas alone would
solve the conflict it would by now be a distant memory. Any credible effort to bring fresh air into
the strategic discussion must counter and address the weight of discouragement borne by those
who have wrestled with the issues for many years only to see the brutality grind on.
Discouragement reflects the ineffectiveness of the predominant strategies that in turn reflect
misunderstandings of the political and cultural geography. Discouragement also leads us to fight
hard for half-measures and partial solutions because bolder goals seem out of reach. This report
recommends a different approach.
Any discussion of this conflict is as explosive as the conflict itself. There is a natural interest in,
and suspicion about, the agenda of any commentator. It is fair, then, that I lay my cards on the
table at the outset so that you will understand the intentions and assumptions of this project. I
come to this table not as a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs but rather as an participant/observer
of social movements and student of social movement strategy. I am a Jewish child of the Puerto
Rican anti-colonial movement. As a colonial subject I can readily identify with the victims of
colonial occupation and am intimate with its mythologies and justifications. As a Jew and the son
of two homelands (one of which is the United States) I do not believe in the inherent evil of any
people. Therefore I seek explanations for how we behave, in the histories–real and imagined–that
we carry with us and in the conditions of the real world.
This paper will touch upon these histories. They will not prove anything. They are not meant to.
They are brought in to illustrate the undercurrents beneath the landscape that can help to explain its
seemingly conflicting laws of motion. They represent a skeletal description of the forces that have
brought us here. The implications of this rough sketch will be fleshed out in a strategic overview
and translated into proposals for actions that could turn the new understandings into power on the
street. These proposals will sound like crazy-talk without the third element of this paper: a
theoretical framework for understanding the choices that people make under the stress of conflict.
It is this framework that allows a fresh look at strategy to move beyond the level of fantasy.
One element of this framework–which runs counter to common assumptions–is that “intractable”
hatreds, racist ideologies, rigid positions and seemingly contradictory demands are, in fact, quite
fluid. They respond to changing conditions and these conditions are subject to human action. In
the Palestine/Israel nexus people–like people everywhere–make the best choices they can see
under the circumstances they face. When new options emerge, alignments can change rapidly. If
we were to take as given the postures and rhetoric of the moment and attempt to fashion it into a
peace program, we would be doomed to failure. The negotiating table only reflects the conditions,
balance of forces and perceptions current in the world outside. There is greater potential for
flexibility in that outside world than in that negotiating room. Even the best seeds cannot take root
in barren soil. It is the soil that requires our attention and that is the focus of this project.
There are three lenses through which this analysis is attempted. The first is compassion. It is
commonly feared that recognizing the full humanity of all of the players will deprive us of the
ability to confront people’s complicity with structural violence and oppression; that we cannot
simultaneously understand people and hold them accountable. If this paper contributes anything, I
hope it will be to demonstrate that strategic compassion is indispensable for a clear analysis and
that without it we are susceptible to strategic mysticism, racism, “clashes of civilizations,” and
The second lens is unsentimentality. This means that we look at history to find out what
happened, not to find comfort in stories that will make us–or those we sympathize with– look
good. It requires facing ugly truths. The purpose of acknowledging crimes that have been
committed is not to build a case for the prosecution but to prescribe with maximum precision the
steps we must take to interrupt crimes still in progress. The truth can be a cruel and unsympathetic
friend–but it is never an enemy. This goes to the heart of the project. I will seek to demonstrate
that no matter how harsh the facts of the case, it is possible to approach it in a way that honors the
ultimate interests of all of the peoples involved. This is an unwavering commitment. This
attitude, which will seem unduly optimistic to some, allows us to set aside the temptation to shape
the facts for our convenience. It proposes that the only hope lies in clarity of vision. It is a process
that has generated its share of surprises for this writer.
The third lens is that of political ecology. This is the idea that society resembles an ecosystem
more than a chessboard. Any actions taken cause reactions in many directions, some large, some
invisible. A gardener can create the conditions for the desired plants to flourish and can continue
to monitor and react to the results–but cannot truly control the process. The gardener must above
all understand the life cycle of plants, the patterns of rain and sun, and the interlocking fortunes of
vegetables, weeds, birds and insects. Even so there will be uninvited guests and unforeseen
conditions. Farming is an improvisational process, not the fulfillment of a blueprint. If peace has
not come, it is not for lack of blueprints and peace plans. Peace proposals are the seeds that need
hospitable soil and sufficient water to grow. This paper suggests an approach–a “diplomacy of
action”– intended to prepare the conditions, the soil if you will, that will permit a genuine peace
process to take root. This process is what we will call Lihish’ta’weel. It is not a blueprint to stop
the conflict but a strategy for transforming it into one that can give birth to a just resolution.
Finally, I must clarify that this paper is about the possibility of achieving peace and justice. It is
not about fairness. The struggle for justice is not fair. People die who should not die. Lives are
spent striving for things that should be everyone’s birthright. In the end, people who should face
criminal charges for unspeakable crimes walk free. The burden of making necessary changes, of
forcing history onto new paths, does not fall upon those who should bear it, it falls on those who
must. The heaviest price is often paid by the wise, the generous or the innocent.
The most unforgivable sin of strategic thinking is self-deception. Whatever short term advantages
can be gained by convincing ourselves of falsehoods, it will exact a heavy toll over time. If one
side in a conflict has sufficient power to impose its will unilaterally, the consequences of these
illusions may be postponed, but the bill eventually comes due. If the balance of forces is not so
imbalanced, then the price will be immediate and continual since our choices will be based on
unreliable assumptions. What will follow contains some harsh assessments. Unsentimental vision
is the most important tool we can apply to secure ultimate safety, peace and healing for the Arab,
Jewish and other peoples of the region.
In late 2003, eight months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I wrote the following: “The eighty seven
billion dollars in public funds approved by the U.S. Congress this fall will be used mostly in a vain
attempt to escape a stubborn reality: that the United States has lost its war in Iraq.” I suggested
that the United States, dazzled by its dreams of power and its unprecedented military superiority
had sealed its ultimate defeat by tripping in a common blind spot of the militarily powerful: “a
dismissal of the complex cultural experience of ordinary people.”1 That complex experience is the
central character of this account.
In 1968 Pakistani revolutionary scholar Eqbal Ahmad was asked to give the principal address at a
conference of Arab activists, including some of the leaders of the recently formed coalition, the
Palestine Liberation Organization.2 The delegates were stunned when Ahmad, a veteran leader of
the Algerian revolution, outlined an unexpected analysis of the Palestinian situation. He suggested
that the principle task of a liberation movement–whether armed or not–was to “out-legitimize” its
opponent. This meant to dramatize the central contradiction in the colonizing society until it can
no longer sustain the strain. This is how Gandhi understood the achievement of Indian
independence. The Indian movement undermined the self-image of the English people. Their
view of themselves as a decent, generous and democratic nation could not withstand the pressure
of seeing British troops shooting, brutalizing, imprisoning unarmed civilians for the crimes of
collecting salt and weaving cloth. Public support for the occupation collapsed and Britain pulled
out rather than risk a deepening internal crisis. At this time Ahmad recommended a parallel
strategy for Palestine: “This is a moment to fit ships in Cyprus, fit boats in Lebanon and say,
‘We’re not going to destroy Israel. That is not our intent. We just want to go home.’ Reverse the
symbols of the Exodus. See if the Israelis are in a mood to sink some ships. They probably will.
Some of us will die. Let us die.” He predicted that Israel would be unable to contain the internal
pressures that would build up. Ahmad’s address was received with the politeness required for a
figure of his stature and his words were carried away on the breeze as though they had never been
This was the era of the rising tide of national liberation movements. The Cuban revolution had
triumphed and the United States military had followed France into the unforgiving jungles of Viet
Nam. Guerrilla movements were causing tremors through colonial and semi-colonial regimes
across Africa, Asia and Latin America. The road of armed struggle was the top item on the menu
and it promised great successes to those who embarked upon it. Ahmad would return, along with
his protégé, Edward Said, to meet with Palestinian leaders at later turning points in the Palestinian-
Israeli conflict. Each time they would propose equally innovative courses of action. Each time
they would be graciously thanked and their ideas ignored.
Given the actual course that history has followed, it is worth taking note of the trajectory of other
anti-colonial and secessionist movements. Those conflicts that began as–or were transformed
into–racial or religious confrontations between peoples, fueled by a cycle of retaliatory atrocities
(Sri Lanka, the Basque country and Ireland as well as Palestine) are still ongoing or were fought to
a standstill. Those who effectively highlighted the colonial or racist nature of the conflict and
engendered divisions in the opposing civil society (India, Viet Nam, the Portuguese colonies in
Africa–Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau–and South Africa) divided the citizenry of the
colonizer, isolated their governments, and achieved victory. In the Algerian revolution–which
employed both terrorism and guerrilla warfare–the rebellion was defeated militarily by French
counterinsurgency but had shifted the center of the struggle to the political arena and succeeded by
securing the moral isolation of the French government.
Self-image, more than any other factor, determines the choices that each of us makes every day.
Our view of ourselves as family or community members, workers or soldiers, devout worshipers,
lovers or leaders, is something which we must continually reaffirm through our actions and which
we expect to see reflected back to us by the people with whom we interact.
There are two elements to self-image — whether it be of an individual, a nation, an organization or
any other grouping. The first is self-preservation: we must know that we are capable of protecting
ourselves, that we have the necessary competence and courage to survive. The second is
connection: we believe that we are generous and righteous in our interactions with others, that we
contribute to the community of which we are a part. These two imperatives — self-preservation
and group cohesiveness — govern our social world.
We sometimes fall short of our utopian self-image. When we do, we must justify our
shortcomings in order to preserve a flattering image of ourselves. The primary justification for
violating the integrity of others is self-preservation– that our survival is at stake. “I thought my
life was in danger” is a defense that permits behaviors otherwise deemed unacceptable. The other
justification is to claim or to believe that we have acted out of concern for others. This can be seen
in Bush administration rationales for the invasion of Iraq. Initially it was claimed to be in self
defense (“weapons of mass destruction”). When that was discredited, the new rationale was
generosity (to establish democracy). The actual reasons were neither of these but the war needed
to be framed in one of these two ways in order to flatter the moral self-image of the U.S. people.
This dual self-image applies even in the most extreme cases. The Nazi regime resorted first to the
self-preservation instinct: it conjured up the specter of a massive Jewish organization with global
reach and evil intentions to justify its racial regimentation. Its invasion of Poland was framed as a
preemptive strike to prevent an imminent Polish attack on Germany. Equally important, as an
element of Nazi ideology, was that they defined targeted peoples as not being part of humanity.
This allowed for extreme measures of cruelty to protect the sanctity of the (now narrowly defined)
Core and Periphery
The core of any system is the component that determines the direction and motions of the system
as a whole. To study the behavior of the planets you must understand the forceful presence of the
sun at the gravitational center of the solar system.
Arabs experienced the establishment of Israel as one more expression of European colonialism.
The core issue was the implantation of a colonial settler state in Arab lands. If we follow Ahmad’s
thinking, an effective strategy would be one that keeps local and international attention focused on
the core issue of colonialism and isolates the colonial regime and its backers. Peripheral issues
would be any factors that interact with (and may distract from) that core dynamic. To say that
these matters are peripheral is not to suggest that they are unimportant. Such issues can
overwhelm the dynamics of a conflict and put the solution to the core issue out of reach. This
occurred in Northern Ireland where a nationalist, anti-colonial struggle was diverted into a
religious feud characterized by atrocities against non-combatants. In the end, an agreement was
imposed that addressed the peripheral issues and left the core ones unresolved.
Expansion and contraction
Human choices are regulated by love and fear. These correspond to the two components of selfimage:
fear is the mechanism for self-preservation when we are under threat, love for connection
with others. Both are necessary for our survival. In general we experience these as a zero sum
balance: when we operate from fear our ability to connect is lessened.
Both these forms of response address the need for safety. Connection allows us to lessen potential
dangers by strengthening the social networks that sustain us, creating a circle of community that
affords safety through peace and mutual support. Fear kicks in when the circle is violated from
without or from within.
When a people are not under imminent threat and experience amicable social relations with other
communities, they experience a period of social expansion. The circle of community enlarges to
include greater numbers of people. A period of social contraction occurs when a threat is
perceived and the parameters of who is in your circle of mutual support narrow. It can contract to
the size of your nation, your family or even only yourself.
All peoples pass through periods of expansion and contraction in the course of their histories and
these periods leave their imprint on their cultures. When faced with a perceived grave threat,
people will draw on the traditions that have helped them confront dangers in past times of threat.
Times of social expansion will awaken a revival of social and religious traditions from expansive
periods in their history. This is natural. When your car breaks down your memory brings up
everything you know about car motors. When dear friends are coming to your home, you
remember your best recipes. When a stranger breaks down your door you remember where your
weapon is kept.
The fear response is physiologically expressed in individuals as the “fight or flight” reflex. It
provides the energy to respond to immediate peril. The body’s resources are diverted from longterm
regeneration and growth and applied to the task of confronting the danger. When neither
fight nor flight seem adequate to address the scale of the threat, our senses are overloaded and we
freeze into helpless paralysis. This is known as trauma. Trauma can damage both our capacity to
protect ourselves and our ability to connect. Any intimation of a threat can convince us that we are
once again experiencing the original attack and that whoever is nearby is the perpetrator. Under
the effects of Post Traumatic Stress this reflex is constantly stimulated at a high cost to the body’s
well being. This can affect any people who have been traumatized and imposes complex
challenges to the resolution of core issues.
Which of these responses becomes dominant at any given time is determined not by eloquent
theological or ideological debates, but by the lived experience of people. It is difficult for
contractive, fear-based ideologies to take hold during an expansive, generous time. Likewise it is
hard to find traction for solidarity-based perspectives during a time of social contraction.
These two modes of responding to the world are not equally balanced. People naturally gravitate
toward an expansive mode of being. This is the most conducive to making a living, raising
children and building community life. Conditions of war do not lend themselves to safe and stable
Deer grazing in the wild will go into a state of full alert at any sign of a threat but will return to
relaxed, quiet grazing as soon as the perception of danger has passed. The expansive mode is
naturally preferred, but to choose it we must be convinced that it is safe to do so.
Mobilizing for war requires stimulating the fear impulse. Most conflict is instigated out of greed–
a malfunction of the self-preservation aspect of human character. The first Crusade in 1095, a
violent campaign of conquest and plunder, was motivated by the hunger of an ascendant merchant
class for control of Arab and Byzantine trade routes to south and east Asia. It was presented to the
European lower classes, however, as a campaign to free the Holy Land from infidels and avenge
alleged outrages committed against Christian pilgrims: as an act of self-preservation. Pope Urban
II, acting on a request from eastern emperor Alexius Comnenus, placed a divine stamp on the
enterprise, providing the moral pretext and even promising direct ascendancy to Heaven to those
martyred in battle.
Colonialism and utopia
The battle over Zionism
The roots of the Mid-east crisis are to be found in Europe. Jewish people there were excluded
from land ownership by means of discriminatory laws. We often filled niches in the local
economy and government bureaucracy as merchants, tax collectors and other positions that created
a buffer between the elite and their subjects. Public dissatisfaction with government could be
redirected at the Jewish community, who were the public representatives of the more distant,
Christian elites. Pogroms, expulsions, and other forms of harassment and humiliation were
directed at all Jews regardless of class, occupation or age.
This function–an ethnic group occupying a buffer position–has been fulfilled elsewhere by ethnic
Chinese in Indonesia and Viet Nam, by South Asians in Tanzania and Uganda, and by Koreans in
the United States. Sometimes worsening conditions are enough to put intermediary population
groups in danger. While different groups have filled this role at times in history it is a particularity
of Jewish oppression that it seems to have been a recurring feature of Jewish life over the course of
It is worth lingering for a moment on the rise of ultra-nationalism to its pre-eminent position
within Zionism. This is a story that is little known to people on either side, given the smoke and
mirrors that obscure the pre-history of the conflict.
By the 19th century the European Jewry was divided into three major ideological camps. The
religious community organized around the Synagogue; the socialist, anarchist and liberal partisans
of the labor movement (where my people are mostly from); and the smaller nationalist movement
(known as Zionism) that advocated the establishment of a Jewish nation as a bulwark against racial
oppression. The relations between these currents were complex. Like other nationalist
movements, Jewish nationalism overlapped with other right and left wing tendencies in the
community. The same people might support socialist labor demonstrations and donate funds to
support Jewish settlement in Palestine.
Political and ideological loyalties can shift quickly when conditions demand. The assassination of
Tsar Alexander II in 1881 unleashed a wave of anti-Jewish violence across Russian and its
territories. Many Jewish communities–such as Odessa, Ukraine, one of the largest in Europe–
that had pursued assimilationist strategies, now shifted in the direction of emigration to Palestine.
Even so, converts to the nationalist cause also flocked to the opposition movements agitating for
the overthrow of the anti-Jewish Tsar Alexander III and Jews were well represented in the
leadership of the Bolshevik Party that overthrew the Tsarist regime in 1917.
As the stream of Jewish emigrants from Europe settling in Palestine grew, so did the debate among
Jewish intellectuals over the nature and implications of the settlements. These debates would
continue even as the exclusive/colonialist wing of the movement steadily marginalized more
moderate tendencies during the early decades of the twentieth century. Jewish arguments against
extreme nationalism were summarized in 1929 by prominent Zionist leader Rabbi Judah L.
We must once and for all give up ideas of a “Jewish Palestine” in the sense that a Jewish
Palestine is to exclude and do away with an Arab Palestine…The fact is that nothing there is
possible unless Jews and Arabs work together in peace for the benefit of their common Holy
Land. It must be our endeavor first to convince ourselves and then to convince others that
Jews and Arabs, Moslems, Christians, and Jews have each as much right there, no more and
no less, than the other: equal rights and equal privileges and equal duties. That is practically
quite sufficient for all purposes of the Jewish religion, and it is the sole ethical basis of our
claims there. Judaism did not begin with Zionism, and if Zionism is not in accord with
Judaism, so much the worse for Zionism.3
Already in the 1890s Jewish observers were disturbed by the fanatical tendencies of many settlers.
Ukraininan essayist Ahad Ha’am complained after an investigative trip to Palestine in 1891:
…we should be cautious in our dealings with a foreign people among whom we returned to
live, to handle these people with love and respect and, needless to say, with justice and good
judgment. And what do our brothers do? Exactly the opposite! They were slaves in their
diasporas, and suddenly they find themselves with unlimited freedom, wild freedom that only
a country like Turkey can offer. This sudden change has planted despotic tendencies in their
hearts as always happens to former slaves. They deal with the Arabs with hostility and
cruelty, trespass unjustly, beat them shamefully for no sufficient reason, and even boast
about their actions. There is no one to stop the flood and put an end to this despicable and
Rabbi Magnes again, writing to nationalist leader Chaim Weizmann contrasted his vision to that of
the movement‘s leadership, “The one policy may be termed that of militarist, imperialist, political
Zionism; the other that of pacific, international, spiritual Zionism.”
“Moreover,” he added. “A Jewish Home in Palestine built on bayonets and oppression is not worth
having, even though it succeed.”
What is important to note is that the Jewish nationalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries was as diverse and complex as other nationalist movements. The segment that demanded
an ethnically pure state built on the expulsion of the Arab population was one current within
Zionism. It is the current that gained ascendancy, in part through the use of violence. Some of this
was directed against Jewish critics in Palestine but more against Arab and, eventually, British
targets as well. Arab retaliation placed the armed Jewish ultra-nationalists in the role of protectors
of the Jewish settlers who now reaped the bitter harvest of anger that the extremists had sown.
Jewish critics of this ultra-nationalist trend spoke out, sometimes with heartbreaking prescience,
about a bunker society, perpetually at war, which they predicted would result from the campaign to
create an ethnically pure Jewish nation on Arab lands.
The Nationalist movement that organized the establishment and expansion of Jewish settlements in
Palestine following the Second World War, included the tattered remnants of all of the disparate
Jewish currents, under the domination of the ultra-nationalists. The horrors experienced during the
third Reich left the Jewish survivors desperate for a safe haven and in search of a course of action
that would protect them from future attacks. As historian Isaac Deutscher described it; “From a
burning or sinking ship people jump no matter where–onto a lifeboat, a raft, or a float. The
jumping is for them an ‘historic necessity’: and the raft is in a sense the basis of their whole
existence.”5 That raft was the Nationalist movement with its goal of a homeland in Palestine
populated only by Jews. No other Jewish tendency at that time had a program to respond to, or
even a framework to explain, the genocidal terror they had just experienced.
The post-war Nationalist initiative took place in a global context of an upsurge in anti-colonial
struggles. In the wake of the war, colonialism was out of fashion (but as profitable as ever). The
colonial powers moved quickly to reestablish their empires (so necessary to rebuild their own
battered economies). In this atmosphere Zionism initiated the establishment of a new nation-state
utilizing the practices of colonialism and the language of national liberation.
This, in part, reflected the diverse ideological cross-currents that had become enmeshed in the
project. It encompassed reactionaries who had sought to secure Mussolini’s support for an
authoritarian Jewish state allied with fascism, as well as idealists who envisioned a homeland of
socialist workers’ cooperatives.
It is common to find right and left wing currents coexisting uneasily in emergent nationalist
movements. In China, the movement led by Sun Yat Sen in the 1920s gave rise to Mao Tse Tung
and Chiang Kai Shek, who would confront each other as leaders of the left and right wings of
Chinese society. Likewise, in Viet Nam, the Communist Ho Chi Minh and neo-colonialist Ngo
Dinh Diem had been part of the same nationalist upsurge.6 In Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Nicaragua, and
many other movements, the nationalist organizations and coalitions included elements with diverse
visions that would come into conflict as their struggles matured. In my Puerto Rican homeland,
the nineteenth century struggle against Spanish colonialism brought together partisans of an
independent republic along with those seeking annexation to the United States. The diverse
tendencies in a nationalist movement can enter into conflict under a number of conditions, chief
among these is the assurance of victory (which sharpens divisions over the nature of the future
state) or the likelihood of defeat (which brings questions of strategy to the fore). In the case of
Jewish Nationalism these conditions did not develop and the disparate wings of the movement
would remain joined together as it pursued an explicitly colonial external program combined with
a utopian socialist internal monologue.
Jewish Nationalism and the dystopia principle
At the Zionist convention in Atlantic City in 1944, the program adopted included a demand for the
“whole of Palestine, undivided and undiminished” for the Jews and dropped previous references to
the existence of an Arab population. It represented the triumph of the militarist, exclusivist
tendency in Jewish Nationalism–those who demanded the removal of non-Jews from the territory
of a future Jewish homeland. In the following years, as military conflict loomed, Hannah Arendt,
perhaps the most prophetic of Zionist critics, foresaw a bleak future for a victorious Israeli state
founded on the displacement of the Palestinians:
“The land that would come into being would be something quite other than the dream of
world Jewry, Zionist and non-Zionist. The “victorious” Jews would live surrounded by an
entirely hostile Arab population, secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with
physical self-defense to a degree that would submerge all other interests and activities.”7
Arendt identified a particularly troubling element of Nationalist ideology that would come to play
a decisive role in the unfolding of contemporary Israeli identity, “the cynical and deep-rooted
conviction that everybody and everything is against the Jews.” She characterized this conviction as
“plain racist chauvinism” which contributed to an atmosphere in which Jewish “terrorism and
totalitarian methods are silently tolerated and secretly applauded.” This isolationist idea–what we
will call the “dystopia principle”—had gained prominence under the leadership of Zionist patriarch
Theodore Herzl. It constitutes a central tenet of the core nationalist ideology that still guides
Israeli policy. More than a popular aphorism, we will show that the precept that Jews are uniquely
isolated in a hostile world is a key to understanding the laws of motion of the conflict.
The dystopia principle is a vital component of Jewish nationalist self-perception. If I enter the
phrase “why does the world hate the Jews?” into an internet search engine I find over six million
entries. Some are anti-Semitic tracts but more are Zionist sites. Some answer the question with
theological explanations, for others it points to resentment of Jews’ superior morality, for yet
others it is an inexplicable human defect. Some Christian sites attribute it to Satan’s anger that the
Jewish people produced Jesus. All of them take as a given that the non-Jewish peoples of the
world harbor a deep-seated hatred for Jews and ultimately yearn for our extermination.
The strategy for establishing the new state was based on a fantasy narrative of the European
colonization of North America. There would be a brutal but brief process of displacing the
natives, who would be absorbed into the surrounding Arab countries. Zionism would establish a
democratic Jewish utopia, memories of the conflict would fade away to be replaced with more
appealing foundation myths, and Israel would take its place in the community of nations. Did not
all nations have such skeletons in their closets?
Zionist ideologue Vladimir Jabotinsky articulated the positions of the racialist, authoritarian
current which would become the dominant force in the movement. It is worth quoting several
excerpts of his writings to shed light on the ideology which has guided disciples from Menachem
Begin to Yitzak Shamir to Ariel Sharon. “Natives,” wrote Jabotinsky. “Always struggle
obstinately against the colonists–and it is all the same whether they are cultured or uncultured.
The comrades in arms of Cortez or Pizarro conducted themselves like brigands… The natives
struggled because any kind of colonization anywhere at any time is inadmissible to any native
people…(The Arabs) have the precise psychology that we have. They look upon Palestine with
the same instinctive love and true fervor that any Aztec looked upon his Mexico or any Sioux upon
his prairie. Each people will struggle against colonizers until the last spark of hope that they can
avoid the dangers of conquest and colonization is extinguished. The Palestinians will struggle in
this way until there is hardly any spark of hope.”8
Jabotinsky goes on to insist that colonization must proceed without permitting any agreement to be
reached with any Arabs, Palestinian or otherwise, ever, and that there must never be compensation
offered or agreed to for the farms, homes, businesses and communities to be seized or destroyed.
Jabotinsky lambastes those who would have moral qualms: “To the hackneyed reproach that this
point of view is unethical, I answer, ‘absolutely untrue.’ This is our ethic. There is no other ethic.
As long as there is the faintest hope for the Arabs to impede us, they will not sell these hopes–not
for any sweet words nor for any tasty morsel, because this is not a rabble but a people, a living
people. And no people makes such enormous concessions on such fateful questions, except when
there is no hope left, until we have removed every opening visible in the iron wall.”
This is the ideological ship that carried European Jews to the founding of Israel. Not all who rode
along could accept the logical implications of their enterprise. For them Jabotinsky had only
scorn. Only superior force could bring about the removal of one society for the implantation of
another. “This is our Arab policy. To formulate it any other way would be hypocrisy.”
Many other Zionist leaders (Moyshe Dayan, Golda Meir, David Ben Gurion) were just as frank
about the colonial nature of their enterprise. They conceded the presence of an established people,
terraced hills, thriving towns and farms. The campaign of assassinations, massacres, and forced
“transfer” directed by the Nationalist paramilitary organizations and army, were seen as the
necessary convulsive moment that would give birth to the new nation. A majority Arab land must
be transformed into a majority Jewish land by whatever means necessary.
As tensions rose in Palestine, the nationalist right consolidated its power. In December, 1948 a
group of 28 U.S. Jewish intellectuals, including Arendt and Albert Einstein published a letter in the
New York Times protesting the visit of ultra-Nationalist leader Menachem Begin to the United
Among the most disturbing political phenomena of our time is the emergence in the newly
created state of Israel of the “Freedom Party,” a political party closely akin in it’s
organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.
It was formed out of the membership and following of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, a terrorist,
right-wing, chauvinist organization in Palestine.
The current visit of, Menachem Begin, leader of this party, to the United States is obviously
calculated to give the impression of American support for his party…9
The authors go on to describe the indiscriminate massacre of 240 civilians carried out by Begin’s
group in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin. They continue:
The Deir Yassin incident exemplifies the character and actions of the Freedom Party.
Within the Jewish community they have preached an admixture of ultranationalism,
religious mysticism, and racial superiority. Like other Fascist parties they have been used to
break strikes, and have themselves pressed for the destruction of free trade unions. In their
stead they have proposed corporate unions on the Italian Fascist model.
During the last years of sporadic anti-British violence, the IZL [the paramilitary Irgun, ed.]
and Stern groups inaugurated a reign of terror in the Palestine Jewish community. Teachers
were beaten up for speaking against them, adults were shot for not letting their children join
them. By gangster methods, beatings, window-smashing, and widespread robberies, the
terrorists intimidated the population and exacted a heavy tribute.
Documents from the Israeli Defense Forces Archives, analyzed by Haifa University historian Ilan
Pappe, illuminate systematic preparation for the planned expulsion of the natives, which belies the
official line that the Arab exodus was the unfortunate byproduct of war. Detailed instructions were
transmitted to military unit commanders based on several years of researching and mapping
targeted villages and neighborhoods. Prescribed tactics included the destruction of public meeting
places, sources of sustenance and transportation and the demolition of village housing. Military
directives advised planting land mines in the rubble to prevent any chance that the owners would
return. The populations were to be removed beyond the borders of the new state. “Plan Dalet,” as
it was called by the small planning group headed by Ben Gurion, was carried out over six months
in 1948, emptying 513 villages and 11 urban communities of Palestinians.10
Prominent Nationalist historian Benny Morris meticulously researched the systematic and violent
nature of the expulsion but bemoans the fact that the job was left unfinished. He, too, invokes the
North American analogy: "Even the great American democracy could not have been created
without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies
harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history."
Note that for Morris, the displacement of indigenous societies by white colonialists is assumed to
be a sign of progress. Morris foresees that conditions permitting the expulsion of all remaining
Arabs from Israel and the occupied territories might be ripe in another five to ten years. His public
comments signal the return of the vocabulary of racial purification to mainstream Israeli discourse.
For most the most part, the history of what Ben Gurion considered a necessary “revolutionary
moment” does not play a part in contemporary Israel’s internal discourse. Even alluding to them is
seen as capitulation to Jew-haters. Similarly, the Jewish critics of nationalism from an earlier era
have been banished from the collective memory. In Pappe’s words:
“If you look at Israeli textbooks, curricula, media, and political discourse you see how this
chapter in Jewish history – the chapter of expulsion, colonization, massacres, rape, and the
burning of villages – is totally absent. It is not there. It is replaced by a chapter of heroism,
glorious campaigns and amazing stories of moral courage and superiority unheard of in any
other histories of people’s liberation in the 20th century. So whenever I speak of the ethnic
cleansing of Palestine in 1948, we must remember that not just the very terms of “ethnic
cleansing” and “expulsion” are totally alien to the community and society from which I come
and from where I grew up; the very history of that chapter is either distorted in the
recollection of people, or totally absent.” 11
Defenders of the expulsion point to the absence of a local Palestinian state and to the existence of
numerous Arab lands to which the displaced population could relocate to make way for the
homeless Jews. The mostly urban, professional leaders of the Zionist movement can perhaps be
forgiven their ignorance of mercantile and agrarian society. I doubt that my neighbors in my
Puerto Rican mountain community would take well the suggestion that abandoning their
communities and family lands would be acceptable because they can always settle in Spanishspeaking
Paraguay or Guatemala. No evidence suggests that local societies are any more or less
tied to their land and communities for want of a local bureaucracy.
If–in the framework of the dystopia principle–the entire world is fundamentally anti-Jewish, then
solidarity with non-Jews is not a real option. All alliances must be tactical, based on calculated
interests. This justified the continuation of the familiar European arrangement of offering Jewish
services to powerful elites–however distasteful–in exchange for sponsorship. If such
arrangements helped one group of anti-Semites at the expense of another, so be it, so long as it
furthers the nationalist project. Theodore Herzl offered his movement’s services to the Ottoman
empire as an “outpost of civilization” in exchange for Palestinian land (while Palestinian
communities welcomed Armenian survivors of the Turkish genocide, Zionist leaders offered their
backing to the Turkish state). Later Chaim Weizmann suggested that a future Israel, populated by
a projected one million Jews, could serve British interests and could “develop the country, bring
back civilization to it and form a very effective guard for the Suez canal.”12 During the British
occupation, Moyshe Dayan and other Zionist firebrands served in the British police force, helping
to repress Arab resistance.13 Later they were to arrange French sponsorship in exchange for their
assistance combating the Algerian revolution.14 They secured support from racist politicians and
financiers in Rhodesia and S. Africa, appealing to them as fellow beacons of civilization in dark,
barbarian lands. 15
The dystopia principle has also provided the rationale for Israeli arms sales and counterinsurgency
training to some of the most repressive regimes of our times, including the anti-Jewish dictatorship
in Argentina. Israeli military sales and expertise helped to sustain the armies and secret police
forces of the Shah of Iran; Mobutu in the Congo; Amin in Uganda; Bokassa in the Central African
Republic; Somoza in Nicaragua (accounting for 98% of his arms during the final year of the
dictatorship); Haile Selassie in Ethiopia; the Guatemalan dictatorship (including establishment of
arms manufacturing in that country and provision of the main computers for both the army and the
death squads);16 the Suharto regime in Indonesia as it pursued genocidal persecution of the East
Timorese; and the juntas in Chile and Brazil. Israel defied the international arms embargo on
apartheid South Africa, providing counterinsurgency training as well as weaponry, supplying the
warships, patrol boats, missiles, tanks, computers, radar bases and gun technology needed to
suppress domestic unrest and destabilize neighboring countries.
The Jewish Nationalist program did not question the legitimacy of Arab claims to Palestine, it
simply asserted that these claims must give way to Jewish ones. By the time of the declaration of
the founding of Israel, Zionism was under the control of its ultra-nationalist, colonialist faction and
firmly committed to ethnic displacement as its non-negotiable founding principle. The clash
between the core ideological assumptions of the new Nationalist state and the stubborn reality that
the Arab residents would not obligingly disappear, set the course for the next sixty years of brutal
Nothing in this narrative should suggest an endorsement of the Arab regimes of the day. Not all
stories figure with visionary, heroic leaders. That should not distract us from recognizing that the
exclusivist ambitions of Jewish ultra-nationalism–not the confused, dysfunctional, and often
reactionary responses of the Arab states– set the die for the inevitable violent confrontations which
Facts and shadows
Proximate and Ultimate Goals
If I am hungry, I may decide that I want a sandwich. I may want it very badly and will expend
significant effort in order to secure one. If I’m unable to find either a sandwich or the means to
make one, I could decide to find another way to satisfy my hunger. In other words I am able to
abandon my proximate goal–to find a sandwich to eat–in order to achieve my ultimate goal of
satisfying my hunger. The Lebanese movement Hizbullah provides a more concrete example.
They were able to abandon their original objective of establishing a Lebanese government based
on Islamic law when it became clear to them that Lebanese society comprised too delicate a
balance of religious/ethnic populations for that to be a viable option.17 Having concluded this, they
determined that their ultimate goal of a renewed and powerful Islamic society would have to be
pursued without achieving exclusive control of the state. This resulted in a number of selfreinforcing
choices. At the end of the first Israeli occupation of Lebanon, when Hizbullah took
possession of the areas formerly controlled by the right wing Christian Southern Lebanese Forces,
it prohibited any acts of revenge against its former foes (even those responsible for serious
crimes).18 This marked the beginning of significant Christian electoral support for Hizbullah and a
realignment of Lebanese political forces.
Israel cannot make such a shift. The dystopia principle, the conviction that the world is inherently
hostile to Jews, dictates that Zionism cannot distinguish between its proximate and ultimate goals.
If the whole world hates the Jews, then there is only one conceivable solution to the problem of
Jewish safety. There must be a racially regulated nation-state which will guarantee Jewish
demographic dominance and which commands permanent military and economic superiority over
all of its neighbors. If it were to become clear that this formula does not, in fact, enhance the
safety of the Jewish people, there is no plan B. The racialized fortress state is the only strategy
imaginable in a world composed entirely of active or latent enemies. Israel’s legal system and
practices must be structured to guarantee demographic and political dominance by Jews. No
neighboring country must be allowed to reach a level of development that could challenge Israeli
dominance. Israel’s inability (rooted in the dystopia principle) to distinguish proximate from
ultimate goals is the key to decoding the laws of motion of this conflict.
The first implication of this observation is that–in a reversal of the common “wisdom”–Palestine
has never had a negotiating partner. This is because Israel cannot go into peace talks openly
demanding the right to a racially stratified state with military and economic dominance over its
neighbors. Such a position would never be acceptable to Arabs or to the rest of the world. If that
is my bottom line position, then I can only go to the peace table under the pretense of negotiating.
Any credible peace agreement would require some concession to the right of Palestinians to pursue
their own development and to have control over access to water, the right to build homes, and
other necessities within the contested lands. Seen through the lens of the dystopia principle such
concessions would pose an “existential threat” to the Israeli nation.
David Ben Gurion put it succinctly in 1948. Discussing the proposed partition of Palestine
between Jews and Arabs, he said that he would be “satisfied with part of the country, but on the
basis of the assumption that after we build up a strong force following the establishment of the
state–we will abolish the partition of the country and we will expand to the whole Land of Israel."
This observation also sheds light on a feature of Israeli behavior that has long perplexed even
Israel’s supporters: each time there is a move toward peace, a concession to Israeli demands, or
even the possibility of a concession, Israel immediately goes on the offensive. It accelerates the
construction of settlements, assassinates Palestinian activists, closes borders, bombs
neighborhoods, attacks a neighboring country or otherwise provokes an eventual Arab response.
This has been true even when the agreement in question overwhelmingly favors Israeli public
demands. The 2006 massive assault on Gaza came just as the leading Palestinian factions
appeared prepared to accept Israel’s demand for recognition. Raids on Hizbullah camps in the first
days of the ceasefire in Lebanon follow this pattern, but one can look to any past “breakthrough”
to observe the same reflexive response. In the closing days of 2006, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert
met with Palestinian President Abbas and announced some areas of cooperation. The next day
Israel announced the establishment of a new settlement on the West Bank. Abbas was left to either
break off talks with Israel and be ostracized by the global powers or be shamed before his own
people for acquiescing to another Israeli humiliation. Two weeks later the story was repeated
when Israeli forces chose to attack the West Bank the day before Prime Minister Olmert’s meeting
with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak was left to either cancel the meeting or appear
to tacitly endorse the Israeli action.
Past rounds of negotiations have featured western endorsement of Israel’s “reasonable” positions
and demands for Palestinian “concessions.”
Ben Gurion University professor Jeff Halpern describes Israel’s approach to the Oslo process:
They never really negotiated with Palestinians. In the Oslo peace accords, it demanded the
Palestinians to recognize Israel in 78 percent of the country, but it never recognized the
rights of Palestinians. Israel seemed to be negotiating, but doubled the settlements in that
period…That’s why the second intifada came out, because Palestinians said ‘What is this?
We are sitting for seven years to talk to you, now there were twice the settlements than the
beginning of the peace process.’19
Palestinian negotiators of various persuasions have regularly acceded to what amounted to terms of
surrender in order to halt the construction of settlements and secure a commitment to discuss their
issues at an undefined future date. Each such moment has immediately given rise to major
violations of Israeli commitments under the latest agreement, followed by calls for further
In the Crosshairs
The tenacity of Arab civil society is a problem that has confounded Israel from the outset.
Increasing the pressure on the civilian Arab population by Israel has been at the heart of
Nationalist strategy since the inception of the state. The point here is not to make the case that
Israel has done mean things, or even to demonstrate that these were strategically designed. Such
discussions can be pursued elsewhere. Our concern is to understand why this Israeli strategy
makes sense within the ideological framework of the Nationalist political-military elite and how it
is made sense of by the rest of Israeli and Jewish society. Understanding the logic behind this
policy is a necessary step toward a solution that will assure peace and safety for both peoples.
The founding scenario of the Jewish Nationalist state called for the “transfer” of the Arab
population in order to permit the establishment of a majority-Jewish territory. It has been the
source of frustrated Israeli rage that the Zionist dream is thwarted by the simple refusal by
Palestinians to disappear. The Palestinian civilian population must be persuaded to leave in order
for the Zionist program to be consummated, and it is to secure their departure that policy has been
constructed. The index of Palestinian suffering has been ratcheted upward as each new level of
repression has failed to break their tenacity. It has now reached the ext