The news of the month isnít the Democratic capture of the US House of Representatives; the real news is the appointment of a racist Israeli politician, Avigdor Lieberman, as deputy prime minister of that country. I might have said that the real news was the killing of 18 Palestinians in Gaza, mainly women and children, as a result of Israeli shelling, but some would argue that this isnít news at all because some fifty Palestinians had been killed just before this in Israelís latest ďincursionĒ (as the Washington Post genteelly termed it) into Gaza, though even by west Asiaís brutal standards, the slaughter of sleeping women and children is a new low.
The justificatory back story that makes such killings tut-tut-worthy but fundamentally all right (and we heard this story rehearsed over and over again as cover for Israelís destruction of Lebanon) is made up of the following elements. One, the near-extermination of European Jews during the Holocaust justifies a secure Jewish state in Palestine. Two, the Jewish state has a right to defend itself against the hostility of those of its Arab neighbours who refuse to recognize its existence: how can Israel be expected to respond proportionately to those who would undo its existence' And three, rocket-firing Arab refuseniks are responsible for Israeli reprisals because they futilely challenge the historical reality of Israel. Israel, in this account of west Asian conflict, exists as a sovereign democratic state in a sea of Arab authoritarianism, seeking co-existence with a Palestinian state that Israelis are willing to negotiate into existence, were there a negotiating partner.
This legitimizing narrative is misleading. The violence in Palestine is not generated by the struggle of a secular democracy defending itself against Muslim terrorism: it is the consequence of a majoritarian nationalism, Zionism, trying to force the people it dispossessed, the Palestinians, into accepting their dispossession, into accepting their ethnic cleansing as a necessary cost that humanity had to pay to right the wrong done by Hitler to European Jewry.
Avigdor Lieberman is a Russian Jew who advocates population transfers to consolidate Israelís Jewish nature. He wants the Arabs of north-eastern Israel to be stripped of Israeli citizenship and their areas merged with a Palestinian statelet. In return, he wants Israel to annex large parts of the West Bank as territorial compensation. He is part of a far-right fascist party and his political instincts are the same as those of Le Pen or Jorge Haider. Israelís ruling coalition has tried to distance itself from his ethnic cleansing prescriptions by describing them as his personal views, not those of the Israeli state.
The truth, though, is that from its inception, the expansion and consolidation of Israel as a Jewish state have been predicated on a policy of ethnic cleansing. As a new generation of Israeli historians like Benny Morris, Tom Segev and Ilan Pappe have shown through detailed archival research, Palestinian Arabs didnít leave their lands voluntarily or through the urging of neighbouring Arab states: they were terrorized into leaving by the Israeli army. David Ben Gurion and his fellow Zionists were keen on Ďpopulation transfersí and through pre-meditation or opportunism, achieved them in 1948.
Iím not trying to precis the history of Palestinian dispossession or to demonstrate that Zionism is a uniquely awful sort of nationalism. The point Iím making is that modern nationalism as invented in Europe invokes a homogenous People as its justification. Homogenous People multiplied by Self-Determination = Nation. These self-determining Peoples are nearly always defined by a mix of language, religion and race, a mix that contemporary usage calls ethnicity. Like the European nationalisms on which it was based, Zionism is an ethnic nationalism that established an ethnic state whose organic citizens were Jews. If the natural citizens of Israel are Jews, by definition a Zionist state will see non-Jews as a problem, as foreigners who dilute the People.
When Lieberman argues that Israel should have no Arab citizens because a Palestinian state in the West Bank will have no Jews, he is saying openly what many Israelis privately believe. He is taking to its logical conclusion a policy of discrimination and dispossession that every Israeli government, Labour, Likud or other, follows. The creation of dense Jewish settler enclaves on the West Bank, the systematically engineered changes in the demography of East Jerusalem, the restrictions placed on the entry of the relatives of Israeli Arabs, the self-evidently second-class status of Arab citizens, taken together make Liebermanís prescriptions a logical consequence of ethnic nationalism, not an aberration.
Pakistani liberals have argued that Jinnah, having secured a Muslim majority state, intended Pakistan to be a secular democracy, not an Islamic state. The brutal, incoherent history of Pakistan shows us clearly that a nation founded in the name of a faith-based People is essentially sectarian and illiberal. Even democratic states like Sri Lanka or Israel create a class of helots once they nominate an ethnic majority as the proprietors of the nation.
Ilan Pappe believes that there can be no peace in Palestine till Israel acknowledges and atones for the ethnic cleansing of 1948 by allowing those refugees the right to return. He says this knowing that such a policy would threaten Israelís Jewish majority and endanger the Zionist project of a Jewish homeland. In effect, he is recommending a bi-national state where Jews and Arabs would be equal citizens. In this he isnít alone. Tony Judt, a historian and a Jew, argued not long ago the case for a bi-national state in Palestine.
In the West the very idea of a properly secular, pluralist state in what was once Palestine is outrageous, a symptom of insidious anti-semitism. But as citizens of a pluralist republic surrounded by failed majoritarian states, Indians must argue that our experience teaches us that ethnic nationalism is a prescription for civil war and ethnic cleansing. Western nationalisms achieved the homogeneity they desired by suppressing difference in faith and language in Europe, by killing off the natives in their settler colonies and by ignoring the humanity of slaves. These arenít examples that younger nations should imitate. When Western policy establishments extend uncritical support to Israel because they see that country as a beacon of Western values, they should know that their embrace includes Avigdor Lieberman and the Zionist tradition of ethnic cleansing.
For Indians, Avigdor Lieberman is a reminder that the violence, purging and subordination that he plans to subject Israelís Arabs to, has already been visited on Gujaratís Muslims by a political tendency that is a close cousin of Zionism, Hindutva. In recent weeks the Hindustan Times and Himal, a magazine published out of Kathmandu, have separately described the systematic and continuing subordination of Gujaratís Muslims in the aftermath of the pogroms. We have, on our western border, an educated, wealthy province which once gave us Gandhi and is now incubating an Indian fascism.
Thatís why, wherever in the world we live, the news of the month is that Avigdor Lieberman, a man who advocates the forcible transfer of Arab populations, is now the deputy prime minister of Israel.