Interview with Yehouda Shenhav


Now that the chaggim have drawn to a close, people in Israel are coming back from vacation, returning to work, and settling back into their typical routines. From my end, this means that Israelis are again available to meet.

Without skipping a beat, yesterday I was already back on the road for interviews. My meeting was with Tel Aviv University sociologist and critical theorist, Yehouda Shenhav. Professor Shenhav’s work has contributed significantly to the study of bureaucracy, management, and capitalism in general and complex understandings of ethnicity in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Shenhav first caught my attention in Noam Sheizaf’s article in Haaretz entitled “Endgame,” in which he called the Israeli left to task for their political distinction between Arab Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza, and elsewhere. He argued, agreeing with settlers who oppose further Israeli territorial withdrawals, that separation from the Palestinians is impossible. Taking a position considered by many to be contradictory even for those deeply knowledgeable of the politics of the region, he supports the full return of Palestinian refugees to Israel yet opposes the evacuation of Jewish settlements.

In this sense, he is part of a growing minority of intellectuals and political activists in Israel who see a one-state approach as the only just or indeed plausible long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Shenhav’s thinking is founded on the principle of the Land as a “single space,” an unpartitionable natural whole which can only property function and thrive as a united entity. From a theoretical perspective, he maintains that it is critical to break down the “natural” connections between sovereignty, territory, and citizenship inherent in the nation-state project and rooted in “anachronistic” Westphalian norms and political institutions. Only by doing away with these concepts is it possible to develop a new lexicon which would allow for more creative territorial and societal conflict resolution.

He admits that it is difficult to pick practical options for conflict resolution even in this frame of understanding. Perhaps this single space would privilege both distinct national communities equally, Israeli and Palestinian, while opening up a greater institutional framework for regional and local governance. Whatever the “borders” of these entities would be, they must necessarily be blurred. Here he points to the original UN Partition Plan of 1947 which although proposing distinct territories for the Jewish and Arab polities, it called for joint economic and administrative consultation at the highest levels.

The main conflict today, he asserts, is that both the Jewish and Palestinian communities perceive that space must be monopolized for the exclusive privilege of their own group despite the reality of overlapping boundaries between the two. The source of this conflict, then, is not so much that each community asserts sovereign prerogatives over the same space, but that they are operating in an international environment which dictates that territory must be exclusively controlled.

If Israel were to partition a distinct and separate Palestinian state in the territory in the West Bank and Gaza under this paradigm, what would prevent the one million Palestinians who reside in the Galilee from becoming irredentist in the future? The Jewish state he asserts, must understand that both Arab populations are inextricably intertwined and that the Jewish population is intertwined with them. As long as it clings to the notion of a homogenous nation-state in a linear territorial space with exclusive borders, than the very notion of a homeland for the Jewish people will collapse.

The “fantasy” to which many Israelis cling today of a “Jewish Democratic State” is rather treated as a reality. But, under a system of exclusive national control of homogenous space, Shenhav asserts that these terms are necessarily in conflict. What is fundamentally needed is an entirely new definition of sovereignty. The point of a Jewish state, to defend the rights of Jews in the Middle East and the world at large, is undermined by the existence of the Jewish state in its current form.

To preserve the fiction of exclusive national space in the framework of democracy, a constant state of emergency must be preserved. Under this condition of exceptionalism, the state must rely on decisionism rather than parliamentarianism, collecting instruments of rule not available in law but employed under the auspices of law. This is a state of governance which Shenhav believes characterize all modern liberal democracies to one degree or another. It is simply more visible in the Israeli case.

The product of such thinking is apparent in what he termed the “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. Where a nation-state must be conceived as being under the exclusive monopoly of the dominant national group, this might be considered a natural outcome. Shenhav did not himself argue this, but one could certainly make the argument in reverse: that failed Arab efforts to militarily wipe out the Israeli state and push its inhabitants into the sea, figuratively or literally, are a product of the same exclusivist political paradigm.

I then asked for his assessment of the state of Israeli politics today, particularly as it relates to questions of territorial partition versus annexation. With regard to the Israeli left, he unabashedly asserted that when it comes to their concept of territory, they are wholly more “fascist” than even the far right. Referring to a somewhat recent supplement in the settler periodical, Makor Rishon, there is a vocal discussion occurring in rightist intellectual circles about what might be done “the day after” an Israeli territorial disengagement from the West Bank. These articles made clear that for these Jewish residents of the territories, the idea of living in Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) was more important to them than living in Medinat Yisrael (the state of Israel). In this sense, they have considerably deconstructed the notions of sovereignty, territory, and citizenship in way that the left in Israel has altogether failed to grasp in his estimation.

On the left, their insistence on dividing the state is based on two erroneous conclusions. The first is that separation is even possible, that a perfect correlation between national identity and territorial control can be found. The second is that the sustainability of “immoral” instruments of state control, namely those exceptional measures employed by Israel to exclude Palestinians as citizens. In this, Shenhav believes that the left including Meretz, Shalom Achshav, and Kadima among a host of others are caught up in a fascist notion of territory. What is the demographic war which they so often cite? A one-way ticket to further repression and possible population transfer.

In terms of Avigdor Lieberman, the controversial Israeli foreign minister, Shenav asserts that while disagreeing with his moral positions, he agrees 100% with the FM’s analysis of the situation. While the whole of the Israeli left prefers to see the Israeli Arabs as separate from the Palestinians, Lieberman is the “only innovative, original person in politics” who rejects such a distinction. The challenge of the Arabs is one of the Arabs as a whole, not of any particular, artificially isolated territorial population grouping.

I then asked for his assessment of the security situation vis-a-vis the Palestinians. While it may be true that Israel is a less than perfect democracy, it can certainly be argued that Israel’s treatment of its Arab minority has more to do with perceptions of threat posed by a hostile population. To this, he asserted that this is a confusion of cause and effect. While there is certainly the problem of the prisoners’ dilemma between the two parties, the very condition of conflict between the two is predicated on particular assumptions of each regarding the other molded by demands for exclusive territorial control.

Arabs, just like Jews, must be seen as like any other people: there are those who are good and those who are bad. There are no essential characteristics of ethnic groups which determine that they must be violent or passive. Pointing to the Israeli-Arabs, Shenhav argues that they are one of the most docile ethnic groups compared to other minority ethnicities the world over, especially compared to violence perpetrated by Arabs across the Green Line. The default is not identity, but what happens on the ground.

Turning finally to the question of the mutability of identity in the conflict, I asked if, even in an ideal setting of a single political and territorial space, national identities would still matter. He believes that they certainly will; these binary identities will remain important defining characteristics of each population, but so too will other elements rise to importance: gender, economic status, regional residence, religiosity, etc. Referring to the final point, he noted that there is nothing secular about “secular” Israelis.

“Secularism” in Israel is a heterodox concept which varies depending on the cultural, regional, and religious background of the person professing it. While individuals may claim to be non-religious, as a collective, Israelis are deeply embedded in the discourses and practices of Jewish religion. For more on this, peruse the latter portion of my recent review of Shlomo Sand’s Invention of the Jewish People. Through what Shenhav terms hadata or religionization, most major political and social issues in Israel are seen through the prism of religion.

At this point, we had opened an entirely new chapter of our discussion, but he had to be going to his next appointment. Perhaps we will meet again to discuss these issues further. Placing Professor Shenhav’s comments in the broader context, I would argue that his perspective on the “single space” of the Land of Israel takes him outside of the traditional left-right divide. This in much the same way as those in both the settlement communities and traditional rightist parties who oppose partition and those on the far left as with the anarchists who reject the notion of political borders entirely.

Common between these threads is a mostly shared belief that Israelis do indeed have an unambiguous historical right to live here and that the land is an organic whole which cannot be clearly divided. The question for all concerned, to which each come to slightly different answers, is under what political auspices and arrangements will this be achieved. One should be cautious in coming to the conclusion that this basic perspective is shared by the majority of Israelis. However, it does appear to me that the discussion of one state or at least one land is gaining momentum particularly as much heralded two-state proposals continue to disappoint all parties engaged in the conflict.

One Response to Interview with Yehouda Shenhav

  1. […] It is also indicative of an underlying notion that coexistence itself is impossible. Yet partition, without considering the place of Israel’s Arab Palestinian minority as a part of the bigger pictur…, will do little to alleviate the clear lack of social […]

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