On Thursday, I traveled to Sde Boqer in the south of Israel for an interview with Uri Gordon. Uri is a leading intellectual within the small anarchist movement in Israel. He holds a Ph.D. from Oxford University and has published a book based on his dissertation entitled Anarchy Alive!: Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory which explores anarchist theory in practice. He also lectures at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in the Negev.
In addition to his academic pursuits, Uri is active in the Anarchists Against the Wall. This “direct action group” was founded in 2003 and brings together Israelis to participate in non-violent demonstrations with Palestinians in West Bank villages against the Israeli security barrier. Their broad objective is to build and maintain a “joint non-violent movement for justice for all inhabitants of the region.” He emphasized that the group is not a formal organization in that it lacks any legal personality, has no fixed membership and no permanent “nodes” other than its website and email list.
As a joke to open the interview, I asked if it wasn’t a contradiction in terms for anarchists to belong to an “organization.” He pointed out that a theory of anarchy does not entail a lack of organization, but rather the lack of a ruler. Anarchy describes a social order of voluntary associations, mutual aid, maximum freedom, and equality for all. It is an approach which rejects as illegitimate established power, class, and economic structures and modes of production and fundamentally challenges a world order constructed around states which perpetuate these structures. Without a clear understanding of these founding postulates, an informed conversation about anarchist theory and practice is difficult to say the least.
Having established a baseline for our conversation, I asked why he and the organization is against the barrier. He responded it is because they believe the wall is not a security measure but rather a land grab which is effectively annexing large parts of the West Bank to Israel. It leaves most settlers on the “so-called Israeli side” and creates facts on the ground in an “non-negotiated manner” which works against the possibility of a viable peace agreement in the region.
Their mobilization against the barrier is important, he believes, in that it is galvanizing a bi-national movement on an unprecedented scale creating a space for a “different kind of politics” in the region. What is this politics? One which he contends is based on actions over words and not dictated by any political party or organization which seeks political power and which allows for grassroots direct cooperation between Israelis, Palestinians, and international activists. This cooperation belies black and white imagery of the conflict which is prominent outside of Israel and shows a living example of binational cooperation for justice which may sew “the seeds of a free and equal society.”
The political implications of this manner and model of organization are not clear even to the anarchists themselves. As a whole, Anarchists Against the Wall does not present a comprehensive solution for the conflict nor do they present a blueprint for the future. For Uri himself, he believes that a real solution to the conflict is one in which the Middle East is without borders, classes, or violence where land is controlled by the farmers, factories are controlled by the workers, and decision-making is controlled at a local level. He does not expect that such a society of voluntary associations and mutual aid will come any day soon. In the immediate future, he does not believe the onus is on him to take a stance on what should be because the “politicians don’t give a fuck what I think.”
Uri does, however, support the creation of a Palestinian state, which might be seen as paradoxical from an anarchist perspective. To this, Uri gave three answers. First, while being anti-state and pro-Palestinian state may be a contradiction, it is one that he can live with. Concerns for human freedom and dignity trump the anti-statist position and it does not help to tell Palestinians that they must wait to fulfill their demands until anarchy can do away with the form of the state. Second, as a form of social relations, the Israeli state is already in control. Whether the space claimed by Palestinians is under an Israeli or Palestinian flag is equally bad, but it is probably better for Palestinians if they are under their own.
Third, and most importantly, he sees a Palestinian state as a pragmatic step to open up the stage for other struggles in the region, whether economic, feminist, ecological, etc. To the degree that a two-state arrangement can significantly reduce violent hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians, it will allow these societies to focus on other forms of injustice in the region. It is a good chance, he believes, that these new movements will be bi-national in character, building on those connections established in the fight for a Palestinian state.
An obvious corollary to this conversation is whether anarchists can also support the existence of an Israeli state. Uri asserted that he cannot see why, in a world of states, that only the Jews should not be entitled to have one. When it comes to challenging the state system, he believes it is eminently more important to bring down those states which exercise considerable power in the international sphere, say the United State and Russia. As for whether an Israeli state can also be a Jewish one, he argued that the more important question is whether the state treats all its citizens equally. As an Israeli citizen, he believes it is his responsibility first and foremost to oppose the policies of his own government.
Our conversation flowed from here into an examination of anarchist positions with regard to nationhood and nationalism. Here he asserted that anarchists have always objected to loyalty to one’s “nation-state” as patriotism and nationalism pose a false unity between the exploited and the exploiters. The oppressed, he believes, have more in common with each other than the ruling classes in their own states.
That said, some anarchists do accept the idea of “folk” as a valid entity which preceded the creation of the state; that one’s folk is an organic form of social organization which could flourish in a positive direction under the conditions of stateless socialism. However, today in most capitalist countries, societies are so ethnically and culturally mixed that the idea of an “organic ethnocultural community is politically meaningless and potentially dangerous.” Here he pointed to the growth of the far right in Europe and their efforts to mimic elements of leftist ideology in their use of terms like “national anarchism” and “autonomous nationalism” as well as imitating their forms of social organization: open, grassroots mobilization and voluntary associations which he believes barely mask their racist sentiments.
Uri differentiated, however, between western oriented nationalism and those nationalisms which grew out of the colonial experience. These nationalisms, say those which were developed under Spanish, French, or British colonial rule, are the product of adopting non-indigenous forms of political organization and collective identification for which they are not to blame. The anarchist movement, he asserted, is rooted in the Western experience and does not give credence to ethnocultural identity as political useful. It may not be so outside of western states.
This raised the obvious question of the identity and social role of Zionism: is it rooted in the western or “colonial” experience? First, it may depend on who is espousing Zionism identifying the negative western model with the “Ashkenazi elite” and the more positive, anti-oppression model with “non-white Jews” of North African and Middle Eastern descent. Ben Gurion, he believes, fulfilled the role of Sukarno in Indonesia, biding together disparate people under a single, monolithic national identity which submerges differences and masks internal conflict and relationships of power within the nation.
Next there is an issue of historical progression. At a minimum, the Zionist idea, Uri believes, was of Jewish settlement in this century. While it had a source in both persecution and long standing religious sentiment (read acceptable nationalism), it was very quickly absorbed into the political genes and state-power structures (read unacceptable nationalism). The utopian society of Zionism embodied in the kibbutz movement was the exception proving the rule. Once the state was centralized under the rule of Ben Gurion’s party, the radical notions of organized socialism embodied in the kibbutz movement simply were absorbed into and lost in the statist ideology of contemporary Zionism.
Finally, he sees Zionism as loyalty to a narrative where Jews were forced to return to “Palestine” and later Israel as a result of persecution elsewhere in the world. Here, the fundamental quality of Jewishness, he asserted, was not a shared culture or identity but a mutual fear of annihilation. This set up the Jewish state in the mind of many Israelis and Jews world-wide as all that is standing between the Jewish People and the second Holocaust. This traumatic and tragic event deeply affected the political psychology of Israelis and has only been stoked by Israeli popular culture, ritual, and rhetoric.
One of the most horrific aspects of this national psychosis, Uri believes, is that instead of enforcing a shared opposition to horror and brutality, it “becomes the limit of justifiable violence carried out by the survivors.” For many, he asserted, the recent war in Gaza was deemed acceptable because it was “not as bad as the holocaust,” as if the only alternative to accepting government policy is welcoming the “total annihilation of the society.” This tendency to see all conflicts and violent conflagrations in the region in terms of existential threats is, he believes, a very active force behind many Israelis attitudes toward the conflict.
That said, Uri expressed a strong opposition to the way in which international opposition to the state of Israel has been constructed and expressed. The object of much criticism of Israel particularly when employing the language of colonial domination is, he believes, is to “fret on the nerves of Jews and to make them feel that their presence in this country is under question.” By using the language of anti-colonialism, detractors are knowingly promoting a notion that Jews should be forced to leave the Middle East.
The colonial metaphor is, he asserts, inaccurate and a construct “intended to get at Jews” represents the truly existent phenomenon of “anti-Semitism on the left.” The polarization of debate around such concepts of existential threat has led to a normalization of provocative and threatening language on both sides which fail to distinguish between governments and governed. This, he believes, is not a useful way of engaging in political discussion.
Why, then, should Jews be allowed to live here? Uri responded simply because he was born here and the land belongs to who tills it. Such entitlement is not based on any ethnocultural narrative, but the livelihoods of the land’s inhabitants. Asking whether Jews should be allowed to live here is like asking why people of English descent should be living in Australia or New Zealand and not be deported to the UK. The genocides conducted there against native inhabitants was much more complete than anything that happened in Israel, yet no one would countenance such expulsion.
The rectification of historical wrongs needs to be on a symbolic level and the focus needs to be on those who are currently oppressed. One cannot rectify one ethnic cleansing with another, and Uri would like to see a future in which borders are open and people are allowed to live wherever they want. This does not only mean the relocation of Palestinian refugees into Israel but the repopulation of Jewish communities in Cairo and Damascus.
For Uri, the Palestinian “right of return” is not about rectifying the past, but as a corollary of freedom of movement. The past wrongs when Palestinians were forced out should be acknowledged and a willingness to compensate those who suffered should be expressed. That said, the first priority is freedom of movement; the second is rectifying those conditions in which Palestinian refugees currently find themselves. UNWRA refugee camps are well-known for their depressed living conditions and Palestinians have found almost no welcome in the neighboring Arab states in which they live. Perhaps moving into what is now Israel would provide them with more promising opportunities for social and economic advancement. Rectifying symbolic injustice is a tertiary concern.
We then discussed his approach to what he termed ethnocultural concerns. He admitted that while he does not believe that such ideas should guide conflict resolution nor that they should determine entitlements, he believes that most people will continue to be driven by both religious and ethnocultural ideologies. He foresees that over time, a greater share of both Israelis and Palestinians will become religious, and unless a stable two-state arrangement is reached, either violence between the parties will continue or a theocratic resolution will come to the fore.
To the Israeli left’s increasing emphasis of an Arab demographic threat as propelling a need for conflict resolution and ethnic separation, Uri is irreverent. He believes that such positions pander to a fear of annihilation; that a two-state arrangement must be reached or the Arabs will throw the Jews into the sea. It is “emblematic of the Zionist left’s loss of values.” Where the left was once concerned with asserting positive alternatives to “catastrophic Zionism”, there is now a believe that it must pander to second Holocaust imagery to regain political power which he believes has long been the trope of the political right. This, he argues, is why the left has lost its legitimacy.
If the left simply chooses to adopt those positions of the right, why would anyone vote for them as an alternative? To rightists recent moves for a single state, he is skeptical that they intend to give Palestinians any rights regardless. Uri is a staunch supporter of the “no state solution” and expressed little interest in directing his energies toward such statist policies. It is difficult to imagine what cultural forms and associations might exist in a non-hierarchical, non-statist society, so he could not say if there would still be Israelis or Palestinians in such a future.
This, however, is not his major concern. Rather, he believes anarchists need to focus their energies on a looming industrial, capitalist collapse. Pointing to the decay of industrial society and global ecology, especially obvious in the Middle East, the question is not how to work within existing systems, but how to make the best of the chaos which will be left in the wake of their collapse. This may be an unprecedented opportunity for directing the energies of society toward a borderless, egalitarian, and free world. Rather than fearing the future, anarchists believe they are preparing for it.