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A Trip Through the Desert of Israeli Democracy

The Negev Desert and Israel’s national nightmare

| Mon Oct. 14, 2013 1:55 PM EDT

As long as the state of Israel holds fast to its demographic imperatives, the non-Jewish outclass must be "concentrated" to make room for exclusively Jewish settlement and economic development. This is not a particularly humane system, to be sure, but it is one that all within the spectrum of Zionist opinion, from the Kahanist right to the J Street left, necessarily support. Indeed, if there is any substantial disagreement between the two seemingly divergent camps, it is over the style of rhetoric they deploy in defense of Israel's ethnocracy. As the revisionist Zionist ideologue Ze'ev Jabotinsky wrote in his famous 1923 "Iron Wall" essay outlining the logic of what would become Israel's deterrence strategy, "there are no meaningful differences between our 'militarists' and our 'vegetarians.'"

During the Oslo era, the time of hope that prevailed in mid-1990's Israel, it was the "dovish" Labor Party of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak that began surrounding the Gaza Strip with barricades and electrified fencing while drawing up plans for a wall separating the West Bank from "Israel proper." (That blueprint was implemented under the prime ministership of Ariel Sharon.)

"Us over here, them over there" was the slogan of Barak's campaign for reelection in 1999, and of the Peace Now camp supporting a two-state solution at the time. Through the fulfillment of the Labor Party's separationist policies, the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank have gradually disappeared from Israel's prosperous coastal center, consolidating cities like Tel Aviv as meccas of European cosmopolitanism—"a villa in the jungle," as Barak said.

With the post-Oslo political transition that shattered Israel's "peace camp," ascendant right-wing parties set out to finish the job that Labor had started. By 2009, when Israel elected the most hawkish government in its history, the country was still full of "infiltrators," the most visible of whom were those African migrants, deprived of work permits and increasingly forced to sleep in parks in south Tel Aviv. According to a report by the newspaper Haaretz on a brand new Israel Democracy Institute poll on Israeli attitudes, "Arabs no longer top the list of neighbors Israeli Jews would consider undesirable, replaced now by foreign workers. Almost 57% of Jewish respondents said that having foreign workers as neighbors would bother them."

Unrestricted by the center-left's pretensions to tolerance, rightist members of the government launched a festival of unprecedented racist incitement. Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the Shas Party (replaced after the 2013 election), for example, falsely described African asylum seekers as infected with "a range of diseases" and lamented that they "think the country doesn't belong to us, the white man."

"Until I can deport them," he promised, "I'll lock them up to make their lives miserable."

At a May 2012 anti-African rally in Tel Aviv, on a stage before more than 1,000 riled up demonstrators, Knesset member and former Israeli army spokesperson Miri Regev proclaimed, "The Sudanese are a cancer in our body!" Incited into a violent frenzy, hundreds of protesters then rampaged through south Tel Aviv, smashing the windows of African businesses and attacking any migrant they could find. "The people want the Africans to be burned!" they chanted.

As during other dark moments in history, eliminationist cries booming from an urban mob against a class of outcasts signaled a coming campaign of ethnic purification. And following the night of shattered glass, the cells of Saharonim continued to fill up.

Going South

Just as Western media consumers will find details about the Prawer Plan and the Saharonim camp hard to come by, casual visitors to the Negev Desert will find little evidence of the state's more disturbing endeavors. Instead, highway signs will direct them to a little museum at Sde Boker, the humble kibbutz that Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, called home.

In Ben Gurion's memoirs, he fantasized about evacuating Tel Aviv and settling five million Jews in small outposts across the Negev, where they would be weaned off the rootless cosmopolitanism they inherited from diaspora life. Just as he resented the worldly attitude of Jews from Tel Aviv and New York City, Ben Gurion was repelled by the sight of the open desert, describing it as a "criminal waste" and "occupied territory." Indeed, from his standpoint, the Arabs were the occupiers. As early as 1937, he had plans for their removal, writing in a letter to his son Amos, "We must expel Arabs and take their places."

Ben Gurion's house is an austere-looking, single-story structure, sparsely furnished and poorly lit. The separate, spartan bedrooms he and his wife slept in are impeccably preserved, as though they might return home at any time. Nearby is a compact, somewhat shabby museum commemorating his legacy in a series of exhibits that do not appear to have been updated for at least a decade.

The site is a crumbling remnant of a bygone era that the country has left in the dust. The enlightened public of Israel's coastal center has turned its back on the desert, preferring instead to face toward the urbane capitals of Europe, while the rest of the country draws increasing energy from the religious nationalist fervor emanating from the hilltops of the occupied West Bank. In the Negev, perhaps all that endures of Ben Gurion's legacy is the continuous expulsion of the Bedouins.

On a gravelly path leading towards his home, a series of plaques highlight tidbits of wisdom from that Israeli founding father. One quote stands out from the others. Engraved on a narrow slab of granite, it reads, "The State of Israel, to exist, must go south."

Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Daily Beast, the Nation, the Huffington Post, the Independent Film Channel, Salon.com, Al Jazeera English, and other publications. He is the author of the bestselling book Republican Gomorrah. His new book, just published, is Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (Nation Books)

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