Israel needs a ‘civil rights revolution’

Two days after Daniel Levy finished his compulsory service in the Israeli Defence Force, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. 

As part of his service, Levy had been working as a negotiator attached to the Oslo accords. The years leading up to this moment had been a small window of optimism in the struggle for peace between Israel and Palestine, and Rabin’s assassination at the hands of an Israeli extremist marked not just the death of a statesman, but – for some of Levy’s friends and colleagues – the death of hope.

‘I have some friends in Israel who say that, today, “being on the left means being a dissident”’. 

As someone who has lived the struggle for peace, including as an advisor to Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the turn of the millennium, Levy is well-positioned to describe the ‘fissure’ in today’s Israeli left. In a nation born out of fear and a flight from persecution, the country’s mainstream left is failing to find an identity that doesn’t push Israel further into the hands of ‘international ethnocrats’, as he puts it. 

‘This is about articulating something that most of the mainstream left has failed to do: what would an inclusive Israel look like?’

Over the last few years, there has been a concerning shift that most people on the mainstream left around the world have tried hard not to acknowledge. The likelihood of a peaceful two-state solution, with a democratic Palestine possessing any meaningful amount of land and autonomy, is slipping away. It’s easy to trot out the usual ‘we condemn antisemitism and want a two-state solution’ – but what happens when that becomes meaningless?

Because there is an increasingly good chance that the tension between a democratic Israel and a Jewish Israel is no longer a tension: it is a fork in the road. 

The crux of Levy’s argument, which he laid out with Peter Hain in this piece for OpenDemocracy, is that it is impossible to have this important conversation while the Labour party here in the UK is mired in its own antisemitism crisis. We cannot advocate for Palestine in a way that’s useful if we cannot deal with antisemitism in our own ranks. But while Levy acknowledges that some of Labour’s debate has ‘gone well beyond criticism of Israel’ and at times has morphed into a ‘visceral hostility to Jews’, he has also warned against hyperbole coming from the other side: ‘some of the community’s response has been counterproductive, self-defeating and has fed the beast.’

But if we can get our house in order, we on the left can help find an answer for that looming question: what could a progressive Israel look like? Levy thinks that the country’s current consensus is ‘not fit for purpose’ and that ‘there is a new generation that understands there has to be a civil rights revolution component to dragging Israel out of the terrifyingly dark place it is in.’ And this means assessing the purpose of a two-state solution in the first place.

‘If the idea of a two-state solution is to solve a demographic problem, then you’ve already got it wrong. Once you see Palestinians as a demographic threat, then you’ve gone a significant and unhelpful way to dehumanising the very people you need to humanise.’

It’s hard to see where the room for optimism is. It’s been said many times since its founding that Israel needs the backing of at least one major superpower for its existence to be secure. In the wake of the Second World War, it was a unifying cause taken up by the entire political spectrum of the United States. But now Israel is not allied with the US; it is allied with the Trump administration. This not only destabilises its credibility as a liberal democratic ally but encourages the annexation of Palestinian land – an endeavour that is sure to destabilise Israel’s very existence, pushing it closer to the democratic fork in the road.

Another tragic death to have left its mark on Levy was that of the son of his friend – and famous left-wing Israeli novelist – David Grossman. Levy told me that his greatest moment of despair came in 2006, when, two days after he and David were on the streets protesting against the war in Lebanon, David’s son was killed on the front lines. It was Grossman himself who, when writing about searching for optimism for the future of Israel, said that ‘I’m more sad, maybe desperate, but not in a way that paralyses me. Maybe I cannot afford the luxury of despair.’ 

Neither can we. At Progress, we have been unashamedly vocal in our support of the Jewish Labour movement and Labour Friends of Israel in the face of dog-whistle politics and outright antisemitism. That is a separate conversation. If we, as progressive Labour members, care about the future of Israel then we cannot afford to ignore this elephant in the room. Levy clearly thinks that this is a debate that can, and must, happen in a space sealed from antisemitism – but it’s down to grassroots Labour activists like us to make that happen.

You can listen to Stefan Rollnick’s full interview with Daniel Levy on the Progressive Britain podcast, available on Acast, iTunes, Spotify, or on the Progress website.