Uri Avnery Is Dead Wrong

by John Spritzler
April 25, 2007



Uri Avnery, in his The Bed of Sodom, attacks the idea of a One-State Solution to the Palestine/Israel conflict, i.e. the solution that says make all of historic Palestine from the Jordan River to the Sea be a single democratic state with equal rights for all regardless of ethnicity or religion. Avnery also attacks the idea of a general boycott of Israel. He doesn't mind a boycott of specific Israeli companies, or settlers, to force Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian land outside its 1967 borders, but he does oppose a general boycott of Israel aimed at causing the state of Israel to collapse (like the apartheid state of South Africa did after it was boycotted by the world) and be replaced by One-Democratic State.

Avnery is wrong. But to see why, one must get out of the reformist box that so much of the discourse on this topic resides in, and think about these questions from a revolutionary point of view. This is the perspective from which I will refute Avnery's arguments. First, what exactly are his arguments?
Here are Avnery's reasons for opposing the One-State Solution:
1. It "diverts the effort from a solution that has now, after many years, a broad public basis [the 'Two-State Solution'--JS], in favor of a solution that has no chance at all."
2. It has no chance at all because "There is no doubt that 99.99% of Jewish Israelis want the State of Israel to exist as a state with a robust Jewish majority, whatever its borders."
3. And even if it did come to pass, it would be bad because: "it is a dangerous idea, especially for the Palestinians. Statistically, the Israeli Jews constitute, as of now, the absolute majority between the sea and the river. To that, one must add an even more important fact: the average annual income of an Arab Palestinian is about 800 dollars, that of a Jewish Israeli is about 20,000 dollars - 25 times (!) higher. The Israeli economy is growing every year. The Palestinians would be 'hewers of wood and drawers of water'. That means that if the imaginary joint state did indeed come into being, the Jews there would wield in it absolute power. They would, of course, use this power to consolidate their dominance and prevent the return of refugees."
And here are his reasons for opposing a general boycott of Israel:
1. The general boycott of Israel idea is based on a false premise, says Avnery, and the false premise goes like this: "The problem is the very essence of Israel as a Zionist state. This essence is unchangeable as long as the state exists. No change from the inside is possible, because in Israel there is no essential difference between Right and Left. Both are accomplices in a policy whose real aim is ethnic cleansing, the expulsion of the Palestinians not only from the occupied territories, but also from Israel proper."
On the contrary, says Avnery, "it is possible to change the historical direction of Israel" from within. His evidence for this is the fact that the Israeli peace movement has already "attained impressive achievements: the recognition of the existence of the Palestinian people has become general, and so has the readiness of most Israelis to accept the idea of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as the capital of both states. We have compelled our government to recognize the PLO, and we shall compel them to recognize Hamas."
2. Furthermore, argues Avnery, a general boycott will never work: "The entire world has imposed a blockade on the Palestinian people. But in spite of the terrible misery of the Palestinians, they have not been brought to their knees. Why do you think that a boycott would break the Israeli public, which is far stronger economically, so that they would give up the Jewish character of the state?"
3. And besides, Avnery says, even if it would work, a general boycott is impossible to pull off in the first place: "In any case, such a boycott is quite impossible. Here and there, an organization can declare a boycott, small circles of justice-lovers can keep it, but there is no chance that in the coming decades a world-wide boycott movement, like the one that broke the racist regime in South Africa, will come about. That regime was headed by declared asmirers of the Nazis. A boycott of the "Jewish State", which is identified with the victims of the Nazis, just will not happen. It will be enough to remind people that the long road to the gas chambers started with the 1933 Nazi slogan 'Kauft nicht bei Juden' ('Don't buy from Jews')."
 What's Wrong with Avnery's Arguments?
The key flaw in Avnery's case is that he completely ignores the fact of class conflict. He ignores the class conflict that rages within Israel among the mainly Jewish population (described below) as well as the class conflict that rages in all of the rest of the Middle East among the mainly non-Jewish population (for example Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose governments oppress their own workers with assistance from the Israeli regime.) Assessing the possibilities for solving the conflict in Palestine/Israel while ignoring this key aspect of reality--class conflict--is as bound to lead to wrong and fundamentally pessimistic conclusions as a doctor, who is ignorant of the fact that a patient has an immune system that fights invading organisms, assessing the possibility of saving the patient's life.  
Avnery's world view resides in a reformist box, inside of which one takes capitalist class inequality as a permanent, uncontroversial, given fact of nature. His world view is therefore blind to the ways in which working class Jewish Israelis, despite the undeniable fact that many of them fear Palestinians more than their own rulers, are nonetheless already engaged in a fight against their Zionist rulers over issues that separate people according to their basic values: equality versus inequality, competition versus solidarity, democracy versus rule by an elite--in other words working class values versus capitalist values. It is blind to the implicitly revolutionary conflict between what ordinary Jews actually want versus what their Zionist leaders actually want. It is blind to the fact that when people are forced to fight against their leaders they may start to question the lies their leaders tell them to control them, like the Big Lie about Palestinians wanting to "drive the Jews into the sea." And it is blind to the potential for revolutionary change that can take place when people start to see through the racist lies that they formerly believed. Some people, of course, like to stay in the reformist box, and they like to be blind (or keep others blind) because they don't want the capitalist system of class inequality to be abolished. They don't want others to see the possibilities for optimism and hope that lie outside the box, where one can see the implicitly revolutionary aspirations for a better world that are shared by millions of working class people regardless of their race or religion or nationality.
Some may ask, "What class conflict inside Israel?" Well, follow these links to read about it if you are skeptical.
Read about how Israel is not really a "Jewish state" but rather a "rich Jews' state."
Read how the upper class is driving down the rest of the people.
Read in The Jewish Daily Forward how
"Israel’s growing population of retirees has been reduced to a state of profound economic insecurity in recent years, as self-styled economic reformers have hollowed out the Jewish state’s time-honored system of care for the elderly. Pensions have been frozen. Social security payments, known in Israel as national insurance, have been relentlessly whittled away — cut by 35% in a single decade. Health care and prescription drug coverage have been slashed, along with funds for senior housing and assisted living. It’s part of a deliberate move by Jerusalem policy-makers to modernize Israel’s economy, by which they mean to remodel it along American lines. Determined to bury the socialist ethos of Israel’s founders, successive governments since the mid-1980s have slashed income supports and welfare payments even as they’ve privatized and deregulated industries, opened capital markets to international competition and reduced workers’ job security (they call it “liberalizing labor laws”). Over the past three years, under the economic leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, the reforms have been ramped up to a revolution."
The Forward explains the "meteoric rise of the Pensioners' Party" in the April, 2006 election this way: "And then there was the simple, glaring fact of poverty. Too many Israelis had reached the point where their own personal security seemed more precarious than their country’s."
Read in the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California about: "Poverty in Israel — Hunger and homelessness surge in the Jewish state"
Read how "Recent measures taken by Israel’s government to undermine the welfare state have harmed women first of all, both Arab and Jewish. Of the Jewish, many who in the past had gained a foothold in the middle class find themselves shunted to the margins of society. The income supplements they depended on have been whisked out from under them. The same cuts have worsened the plight of Arab women. Despite the fact that both groups, indeed the lower classes in general on both the Arab and Jewish sides, suffer from an erosion in living-standards – and often for identical reasons – there is an utter lack of dialogue between them."
But Israelis are resisting this capitalist attack on their lives, in many different ways:
Read Jenny Cohen-Khallas's description of "Penury and Hunger in Israel" and how "vociferous segments of the public are demanding that governmental resources be channeled to welfare and other domestic resources, rather than to strengthening settlements beyond the green line."
Read about single mothers, the homeless and the unemployed camping out in front of Israel's Finance Ministry and in Tel Aviv: "The choice of place is no accident," says Israel Twito, 38, a divorcee who is bringing up three daughters alone. "The contrast between our miserable campsite and the neighbourhood’s luxury shops and apartment blocks symbolises the ever-widening abyss between rich and poor."
Is it any wonder, then, that one can read how more people are leaving Israel than entering it, and how " Almost half of the country's young people were thinking of leaving the country" because of "dissatisfaction with the government, the education system, a lack of confidence in the political ruling class and concern over the security situation"?
Read about the way working class Israelis have been forced to engage in large strikes to protect themselves, not from "the Arabs" but from their Jewish ruling class:
On September 21, [2004] the Israeli General Federation of Labour (Histadrut) held a general strike in protest against the ongoing failure of the government to pay wages to local authorities’ employees. Some 400,000 public sector workers across 265 municipalities came out, bringing the state to a halt. Flights, seaports, railways, post offices, banks and the stock exchange were all shut down, whilst hospitals and the fire service operated on an emergency footing. Schools, day-care centres, kindergartens, and universities were also affected.

The strike also included the Israeli Electrical Corporation, Mekorot National Water Company, oil refineries, public works departments, and the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company. Border crossings were closed, and all government offices including civilian employees in the Israeli Defence Force and at the Negev Nuclear Research Plant were on strike.

Calling the strike was forced upon Histadrut by the depth of opposition and anger amongst workers. Histadrut’s chief and Member of the Knesset Amir Peretz said, “I used to believe in the prime minister, the Knesset, and the courts, yet when I realised there are Israelis hungry for bread, I decided to act.”

“No one, not even the Prime Minister, has the right to set any conditions whatsoever for payment of many months of salaries owed to the workers,” Peretz noted. “The government is turning wages into charity. Wages are not a favour, they are a legal obligation. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Minister of Finance Benjamin Netanyahu, and Minister of Internal Affairs Avraham Poraz are not enforcing the law. They’re turning Israel into a third world country.”


Where, we might ask Avnery, is it written in stone that Arabs and Jews in Palestine, who suffer at the hands of the same Israeli ruling class, will never start talking to each other about their shared problem--the Israeli ruling class--and their shared aspirations for a decent life for themselves and their children--a life in a society with peace and security, one where half the youth aren't thinking about leaving and where people don't have to camp out in protest or wage general strikes to defend themselves against a rapacious government serving billionaires and generals while it does everything it can to foment a war of Orwellian social control between Jews and non-Jews in Palestine/Israel? Where is it written that working class Jews will never understand that their Zionist leaders tell them lies about Palestinians--especially the Big Lie that Palestinians want to "drive the Jews into the sea"--purely for the purpose of making Israeli Jews easier to control and exploit?
What about Avnery's first two arguments against the One-State Solution--that it diverts from the Two-State Solution, which is the only practical one because 99.99%  of Jewish Israelis want a Jewish state with a robust Jewish majority? From inside the reformist box, where there is no conflict in people's minds, or in society, between working class and capitalist values like equality versus inequality, this statement seems reasonable. But let's look outside the box. The same kind of statement that Avrneri makes about "99.99% of Jewish Israelis" could have been made about white South Africans overwhelmingly wanting apartheid before South Africa's President deKlerk, as a result of the world wide boycott against apartheid South Africa, decided to give white South Africans, for the very first time, a green light to express their true feelings about apartheid. Prior to this, any white person who expressed a criticism of apartheid was accused of being "anti-Christian" and therefore many just kept their mouths shut. But when they were allowed to speak more freely this is what happened. In 1992, the BBC reported on how whites voted on the referendum, supported by the de Klerk government, to abolish apartheid:
White South Africans have backed an overwhelming mandate for political reforms to end apartheid and create a power-sharing multi-racial government.

In a landslide victory for change, the government swept the polls in all four provinces, and all but one of 15 referendum regions.

It won 68.6% of the vote in a record turn-out, which, in some districts exceeded 96%.

What about Avnery's third argument against the One-State Solution--that, since Jews are currently a majority in all of Palestine, and since the income of Jews is much greater than non-Jews, then if all of Palestine were one democratic state the "Palestinians would be 'hewers of wood and drawers of water'. That means that if the imaginary joint state did indeed come into being, the Jews there would wield in it absolute power. They would, of course, use this power to consolidate their dominance and prevent the return of refugees."

Inside Averneri's reformist box, where class conflict does not exist, sure, of course, "Jews would consolidate their dominance." But outside the box one can see that working class Jews (as opposed to their rulers) are NOT dominant even today, never mind the notion of their "consolidating" their dominance in the future democratic state.

It is indeed curious that Avnery doesn't talk about class inequality in this context EXCEPT to use his supposed worry about some people being "hewers of wood and drawers of water" as an argument against our movement aiming for a single democratic state where all have equal rights. Acording to Avnery, in order to prevent some people from being dominated by others we need to aim for--what else can one call it other than apartheid?--two separate states, one with a guaranteed robust Jewish majority, and one for the non-Jews.

From outside the reformist box, the answer to the problem of some people being other people's "hewers of wood and drawers of water"--in other words the problem of some people being the wage slaves of a capitalist class--is social revolution against the capitalist system of wage slavery. The answer to the problem of inequality in society is to build a movement that is explicitly for equality, and for overthrowing the power of the ruling class that defends inequality and uses it to pit people against each other in order to more easily control them. 

From inside the box, this kind of social revolution is so impossible and out of the question that it is foolish to even think about it. From outside the box, however, one can see that it is the commonsense solution to what most ordinary people, be they Jewish or not, really want. Orwellian wars of social control, like the Jews versus non-Jews war in Palestine that is ruining the lives of Jews and Palestinians, are what ruling elites foment in order to control ordinary people who, in a genuine democracy, would create a more equal society in which people helped each other instead of being pitted against each other as today. Those who wish to maintain a social system based on class inequality, who treat class inequality as a permanent fact of life and who want everybody else to see it the same way, meaning to not see it at all, the way fish don't see the water, tell us that it is foolish to aim for a non-capitalist society based on equality and solidarity. Why should we believe them? Building such a society is perfectly possible, and one glimpse of how it might be done is offered in After the Revolution, What?

But let us place on hold the question of whether a sweeping social revolution is possible. There is a huge here-and-now reason why our movement should advocate the One-State Solution. Quite simply, advocating the One-State Solution is a winner when it comes to persuading the public in countries like the United States that their government should stop supporting Israel, and advocating the Two-State Solution is a loser. And we all can agree that if countries like the U.S. stopped supporting Israel then the forces of justice and decency in Palestine/Israel would gain strength relative to their foes.

Why is it so much more effective to advocate the One- versus the Two-State Solution? This is why. The One-State Solution appeals to the basic universal value of equality that working class people around the world believe in very strongly. When we say to people: "The problem in Palestine/Israel is that Israel is based on ethnic cleansing and the obvious solution is for Israel to stop it, and to allow the refugees to return to their homes inside of Israel, and yes, this would be the end of a robust Jewish majority inside Israel but so what?, it is racist to insist that any particular religion or ethnic group must be the majority inside a state--its KKK thinking!--, and besides, the Israeli rulers only push this "We need a Jewish state of our own" idea as a way to destroy solidarity between working class Jews and working class non-Jews" then it resonates with people; they nod their heads in agreement; it makes sense to them; it seems right; they see exactly why their government should not support Israel.

I know this from much personal experience talking to people going door to door in Somerville, Massachusetts. On one occasion I rang the doorbell and an elderly (white) woman answered, and she told me she knew nothing about what was going on in Israel, but she'd like to talk with me about it; fifteen minutes later her husband came by and asked her what we were talking about and she proceeded to explain to him the root of the conflict in Israel/Palestine with confidence, based, by the way, on her experience of class conflict in her own life, and her knowledge of how employers control working people with lies and manipulation. These kinds of conversations can only happen if we get outside the reformist box and talk to people about the class conflict over values that they understand very well from their own personal experience.

If, on the other hand, we stay inside the box and talk about a Two-State Solution, then we're talking about separating the Jews from the non-Jews, we're ignoring the fact that working class Jews and working class non-Jews have more in common with each other than with their ruling elites, we're avoiding even mentioning the basic fact of life--class conflict--and we're turning the question into a dispute over where the border between two hostile peoples should be drawn in a far-away part of the world that it is impossible to really know much about, and since the Jews and the non-Jews are so inherently hostile to each other that they cannot even live in the same state with each other it must follow that they need protection from each other, and since the Jews are the perpetual victims of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, well then, why SHOULDN'T our government provide support to Israel? If this isn't a loser of an argument I don't know what is!



The first reason Avnery gives for opposing a general boycott of Israel is that it is based on a false premise, namely the premise that only pressure external to Israel can make things improve because there is no positive force inside Israel itself. Avnery says that there is, indeed, a positive force internal to Israel (by which he means his Peace movement), as evidenced by its "impressive achievements:" getting Israelis to recognize the existence of the Palestinian people and making them ready to accept a Palestinian state and, he predicts, willing soon to recognize Hamas.

What a muddle Avnery has created on this question!

First, the issue isn't whether or not there is a positive force inside Israel; the issue is a disagreement over what that positive force is. Avnery says it is the force that is willing to accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel so that Israel can maintain its robust Jewish majority. But the positive force inside Israel is, on the contrary, the Israeli working class that opposes class inequality and that fights the Israeli ruling class over this issue, even while being weakened greatly by the influence of Zionist racist propaganda telling them that the Palestinians are their real enemy.  Avnery says that the thing to do is to strengthen the forces who want a separate Jewish and Palestinian state. On the contrary, the thing to do is to strengthen the political clarity and understanding of the Israeli working class so they will be able to win the fight that they are in against the Zionist ruling class by rejecting the Zionist ideology and seeing who their real allies (non-Jewish working class people) are in the struggle that they are, in fact, presently fighting.

Second, a general boycott of Israel does not, as Avnery claims, rest on the premise that there is no positive force inside Israel. It rests on the premise (at least when one gets outside of the reformist box) that a general boycott of Israel will strengthen the positive force inside of Israel. (This is what happened in the case of South Africa, so the burden of proof would seem to fall on those who deny it, not those who affirm it.)

Which leads us to Avnery's second argument for opposing a general boycott of Israel.

Avnery says, "The entire world has imposed a blockade on the Palestinian people. But in spite of the terrible misery of the Palestinians, they have not been brought to their knees. Why do you think that a boycott would break the Israeli public, which is far stronger economically, so that they would give up the Jewish character of the state?"

The difference between the blockade on the Palestinian people and a boycott of Israel is not obvious to Avnery because he is inside the reformist box, where class conflict does not exist and people think of themselves as being "a Palestinian" or "a Jew." But outside the reformist box, in the real world in other words, people think about what is right and what is wrong, about what conforms to their working class values of equality and democracy and what conforms to the elitist values of inequality and anti-democracy of their capitalist rulers.

When people come under attack they care about why. The Palestinians know that the blockade against them is part of an effort to deny them their right of return and their right to be equals with Jews in Palestine. This is the obvious reason why they do not fall to their knees in response to the blockade. But when people are attacked because they, or their government, are committing something morally wrong, they don't automatically increase their resolve to remain strong and unbowed.

Consider, as a sharp illustration of this fact, the American GIs in Vietnam who came under violent attack by the Viet Cong. They started to wonder,  "Why are we being attacked when, as we have been told, we are in Vietnam to help the Vietnamese have freedom and democracy?" They figured out that they had been lied to, and that the reason they were being attacked was because they were actually being used to suppress a peasant revolt against a repressive U.S.-backed regime. GIs then started to refuse to fight, in many different ways, from going out and only pretending to engage the "enemy," to fragging "gung-ho" officers who ordered them to fight, to getting stoned on drugs; and their refusal grew so widespread that it was one of the main reasons why Nixon withdrew from Vietnam--the generals knew that they could no longer rely on American soldiers to fight the war.

This shows that what is key in determining how people respond to an attack on themselves or their government--be the attack in the form of a bullet or a boycott--is how they view the moral rightness or wrongness of what their attacker is trying to accomplish. So even if a general boycott caused problems for working class Jews in Israel, as it might, it would not be as sharp an attack on them as the bullets the Viet Cong fired at GIs, and so it seems reasonable to expect that Israeli working class Jews would respond by asking, Why are they boycotting Israel?, and that they would, like the American GIs, figure out that the boycott was to make the world more equal and democratic, and that it was therefore a good thing.

Finally, what about Avnery's third and last argument against a general boycott of Israel. He writes: "A boycott of the 'Jewish State', which is identified with the victims of the Nazis, just will not happen. It will be enough to remind people that the long road to the gas chambers started with the 1933 Nazi slogan 'Kauft nicht bei Juden' ('Don't buy from Jews')."

Again, Avnery's logic only seems right inside the reformist box, where Jews are indistinguishable by class, and where gentiles around the world cannot see class distinctions either. Only in this box do the Zionist leaders of Israel, and their "Jews versus gentiles" ideology, seem to be alligned with the admirable sympathy that people have for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Outside the box, in the real world, is the fact that the Zionist leaders who became Israel's leaders betrayed the European Jews during the Holocaust by opposing all rescue efforts that did not focus on bringing Jews to Palestine. Outside the box is the fact that Zionist leaders in 1948 were essentially fascists in attacking Jewish as well as non-Jewish working class people. Outside the box is the fact that Israel's ruling class betrayed Russian Jews in the 1980's by working to get other countries to restrict immigration of Russian Jews so they would be forced to go to Israel when they fled anti-Semitism in Russia. We can easily show the public in places like the United States that supporting the Israeli ruling class and its ethnic cleansing is actually supporting the very people who betrayed European victims of the Holocaust, and who have nothing but contempt for the survivors of the Holocaust, one third of whom live in poverty in Israel.



We can learn something very important from Uri Avnery. In order to move forward and overcome the arguments people like him will hurl against us, we will need to get outside the reformist box and adopt a frankly revolutionary outlook, one that clearly sees the class conflict that rages all around us, that speaks to people about it directly, that asks people to evaluate ideas and events in light of their own insights into the world based on their personal experience of the class war, and that aims not merely to act as a cheerleader for this or that "lesser evil" scheme of our capitalist rulers but to win the class war so that ordinary people can shape society by their positive values. The One-State Solution and a general boycott of Israel are excellent ideas, but they will only be successful if we use them and advocate them in an openly revolutionary manner. Otherwise, the Uri Avnerys will befuddle us and millions of others with wrong-headed thinking that only makes sense in the fantasy world inside the reformist box.


John Spritzler is the author of The People As Enemy: The Leaders' Hidden Agenda In World War II, and a Research Scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health.


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