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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
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04/07/2005 Archived Entry: "Book review: On the Border"

On the Border
By Michel Warschawski
Publisher: South End Press

Review by Allison Burnett

The Third Way

Before the United States declared its global war on terror, no subject could more quickly inflame and divide a gathering of the politically aware than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Today, it's a tie. Hardly surprising, when you consider how much the two conflicts have in common. After all, both involve questions of national security, religious fundamentalism, terrorism, colonialism, and the struggle for basic human rights, and more recently, since the invasion of Iraq, the two conflicts are entwined to the point of being almost indistinguishable.

The best evidence that the real or imagined security needs of Israel lay near the heart of the neo-conservatives' drive to topple Saddam Hussein is the simple fact that Israel is almost never mentioned by U.S. policymakers in any discussion of the war. It's almost as though Israel did not exist. When, last year, Israel was cited, by General Anthony Zinni, as one of the reasons for the war, he was roundly attacked as an anti-Semite and the discussion moved on.

For this reason, Michel Warschawski's book On The Border could not have come at a better time for the American reader, because its bold and honest examination of the dangerous schisms that the Palestinian question has opened in Israeli society warns us of the similar schisms that the war on terror is opening in ours. It is a book that speaks to a great upheaval going on in the world today: between those who draw borders between people and those who despise them.

Warschawski -- known widely to Israelis and Palestinians as "Mikado" -- is a radical activist who has spent his life hating borders, perhaps because he has lived on both sides of so many. Although he moved to Israel as a teenager to study the Talmud, he is today an agnostic. Although he loves Israel with all his heart, he is a radical anti-Zionist; and, while not of Arabic descent, he has spent much of his life seeking to understand and honor Arab aspirations. He is an internationalist in the truest sense, whose loyalty is not to short-term partisan agendas, but to universal human principles -- justice, tolerance, freedom, and the right to self-determination -- and for this reason he is the ideal writer to examine the Israeli-Palestinian question.

A book of such importance does not come along very often and so any attempt here to capture its full scope and depth will necessarily be reductive, so I will only hint at a few of its glories. On the Border is, among other things, a memoir that traces the evolution of Warschawksi from a deeply religious teenage immigrant, ignorant of Israeli history and the roots of the Israeli-Arab conflict, to a deeply committed Anti-Zionist radical. The first turning point came after the June 1967 war, when he witnessed first hand "hundreds of men and women and children marching to the east, loaded down with bundles of every sort." He was witnessing the forced deportation of three Palestinian villages. A few weeks later the villages were razed to make room for a park. In the weeks that followed, Warschawski leapt over the border meant to divide him from the Palestinians. He allied himself with occupied instead of the occupier. Fortunately, his father, also deeply religious, supported him. "Any kind of occupation is wrong," he told his son, "and morally corrupts those who take part in it; pray to heavens that this one ends as quickly as possible."

From here, Warschawski takes us on a thirty-five year journey through the changes that took place in Israeli society. We learn of his involvement with Matzpen, a Marxist, anti-Zionist organization, which was the first to speak out against the occupation: "To all those who insist on illusions, we repeat: the economic or political superiority on one human group over another has never provided the means to resolve political problems between nations." The fact that this statement was published in conjunction with Arabs was deemed by many as an act of treason. So out of step was Matzpen with the mainstream of Israeli society at the time that its members were shunned, libeled, harassed, threatened, and arrested. Some, like the author, were even imprisoned.

But then came the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which struck Israeli society as a "hugely traumatizing surprise." The surprise was that Israel had come so close to defeat that Golda Meir had actually considered the use of nuclear weapons. Only the intervention of the United States saved the day. This trauma, Warschawksi asserts, shattered the arrogance of the Israelis, ushering in a new era of self-doubt and introspection, where healthy political debate was at last possible. So marked was the change that when Anwar Sadat began his peace initiative, 100,000 Israeli demonstrators forced the government to retreat from Sinai and to dismantle its settlements.

But, as so often happens, no sooner does liberalism take hold, but a conservative backlash occurs. In this case, it was the invasion of Lebanon, a national tragedy which cost thousands of lives and revealed deep divisions in Israeli society. For the first time since 1967, there was a powerful and vocal peace movement. Soldiers in great numbers refused to fight. Suddenly, the positions of Matzpen had moved from the farthest left of the debate to its very center. Warschawski gives one a vivid sense of what it was like to be on the front lines of radicalism throughout these events, as well as through both intifada, all the way up to the horror of the Sharon government.

Warschawski is brilliant on the subject of the religious right and the way that it has moved (as it has in the U.S.) from an ignored and often ridiculed minority to one of the most powerful forces in Israeli political life. It is no surprise that Warschawski does not admire those who want to turn Israel back toward a fundamentalist Judaism; what is, perhaps, surprising is that his contempt for the Zionist left is far more withering. The former he at least respects for its consistency and frankness; the latter he disdains for its hypocrisy, its craven bad faith. It is hard to read his attack on the Zionist left and not think of our own Democratic party, so devoid of courage, honesty, and authenticity.

In this brave chapter, entitled "The Left-Wing Colonizer," Warschawski writes: "There is no need to elaborate on the internal contradiction between a socialist or at least humanist ideology, and a colonial project, which under the worthy guise of building a refuge for persecuted Jews, denies not only the most elementary human rights but the very existence of an indigenous community, deprives it of its lands and its access to work in order to provoke its eventual mass exodus. To live with this contradiction the left Zionist must deny reality; literally erase it from his memory." Warschawksi is thorough and merciless in his illumination of this brand of liberal amnesia, which "has nothing to do with historical facts; since his intentions are pure and the values he defends noble, he can never be held responsible for the crimes he has committed. If he killed or stole or expelled, it's because he was attacked, and he is twice a victim: for being attacked and for being forced to do a bad thing to defend himself. The schizophrenia of the left Zionist is supported by a shrill paranoia that beholds the Jew as Jew, an eternal and absolute victim."

Despite Warshawski's attacks, laments, and disappointments, this is a book of hope, for he never loses sight of what he calls "the Third Way" -- a path between, on the one hand, the liberal "dream of reconstituting national unity around colonialism with a human face, and on the other the headlong fight toward an archaic, Messianic, nationalist and fundamentalist Judaism." He believes this Third Way is being forged by young anti-globalists who fight all forms of injustice and repression, whether they are inflicted by Nike, the IMF, or the IDF. It is also being forged by the New Historians and the New Sociologists, intellectuals who have become a dominant voice in Israeli universities. First and foremost, theirs is a movement of honesty that seeks to tell the truth of the past, free of mythology and self-deception. No longer will the underlying struggle of the past fifty years be seen as based on inveterate, baseless hatred of Jews by Arabs, but of Arabic "resistance to a colonial enterprise."

In the end, what the author believes in most fervently is a world without borders. He believes that for his own survival the Israeli must see through the imaginary border that he has placed between himself and his enemy. "It is only by rediscovering its Jewish roots and opening itself up to the Arab dimension of its identity and its environment that Israeli society will be able at last to live normally and plan the future of its children with serenity."

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