Ofra Yeshua-Lyth and the Case for a New Israeli Left

Published in Mondoweiss on October 09, 2014

by Arpan Roy

“Fatah’s slogan was we want a secular democratic state,” recalls Ofra Yeshua-Lyth, a former foreign correspondent for the Israeli daily Ma’ariv. I remember myself as a journalist explaining that a secular democratic state is actually a call for the annihilation of Israel.  Today I say the same thing.  It’s true, but now I support it.”

Ofra and I are sitting in a café on a pedestrianized rue in Tel Aviv’s Florentin district.  Scrawls of animal rights graffiti have appeared as fast as new cafés and boutiques since the last time I was here.  It’s a quickly gentrifying stretch of Florentin, Ofra points out.  Dog owners walk their dogs.  Water drips lazily from leaking air conditioner units onto the pavement.  There is no sign of an Israel/Palestine conflict here.  How to explain such a society?  The Case for a Secular New Jerusalem, the new English edition of Ofra’s book, first published in Hebrew in 2004, attempts to explain precisely this. Through the eight chapters of the book, Ofra puts forth the argument that of all the competing visions for a future of Europe’s Jews that circulated in the early Zionist movement, the eventual triumph of a mostly religious/cultural model, now enshrined in the Israeli state, is the most self-destructive.  Religion, she argues, is the cancer of Israeli society. “One of the book experts who read it said that people who can’t stand Zionism wouldn’t like this book because it’s too easy on Israeli society,” Ofra says. “It describes it as a normal place, more or less.  For Israelis and Jews, it’s impossible because they can’t stand the bottom line.”

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Ofra Yeshua-Lyth (Photo: Arpen Roy)

What is the bottom line?  Part life history, part memoir from a gloomy post-Oslo haze, and part polemic against Israel’s religious-political makeup, the book is many things.  It is a multifaceted portrait of internal issues within Israel, an understanding of which, I believe, should be a prerequisite for a critique of Israel.  It is a society, Ofra tells me, that “inflicts a lot of misery on itself.”  This is not to be confused with the “shoot and cry” discourse, an institutionalized attempt to humanize Israel’s military aggression, so pervasive in Israel’s self-portraits in politics, poetry, literature, and film.  Rather, Ofra’s book is an existential depiction of a society that exists, and shows that this existence is complicated by matters that are often not immediately linked to Palestinians.  But, then again, they are.  Regarding this, Ofra, a key organizer with the anti-Zionist activist group One Democratic State (ODS), makes her political position precise: “It’s to stop the regime.  Today I consider myself first of all an opponent of the regime.”

Chatting with Ofra about her personal evolution from the mainstream Israeli narrative to a supporter of the two-state solution to a continuing political metamorphosis that pushes her increasingly farther into the radical left, it’s apparent that supporting the Palestinian narrative as a Jewish Israeli raises more questions than answers.  She tells me, for instance, about her friends who boycott elections in Israel, a gesture of civil disobedience against the state to which she is ambivalent: “I always refused to boycott the elections and voted for Hadash or Balad [the Arab-Israeli parties] and said that we want these people in,” Ofra tells me. “I’m not sure anymore.  It’s not something I have answers to.”

Ofra left Ma’ariv years ago and these days runs a consulting firm, but her passion is her work with ODS, with which she has been involved for eight years.  Despite her energy for which she is admired in Tel Aviv’s leftist circles, she admits that the group’s success in advocating a one state solution to the Israel/Palestine impasse has thus far been underwhelming in lieu of an Israeli society that is becoming increasingly religious. “ODS doesn’t have grassroots support in the way that religious movements have,” she says. “It doesn’t offer any congregational comfort in the way that religious groups do.  It’s an idea that’s accepted by lots of people, even lots of Israelis deep down.  But we haven’t cracked it.”

To speak of cracking the inner worlds of Israelis is ambitious.  All recent signs point to the opposite occurring.  Leftist Israelis are leaving in hordes, and the emigration of Sayed Kashua, the celebrated Palestinian writer of Hebrew, is one recent and tragic example of Palestinian citizens of Israel in the public sphere doing the same.  Talk of a shared Arab/Jewish future sounds distant and utopic after the Summer’s massacres in Gaza.  Palestinians from the West Bank also constantly talk of leaving.  I’m sometimes asked by Palestinians for help in writing motivation letters for jobs in Europe, or assistance in finding scholarships to American universities.  Who will remain in the saddest strip of the Eastern Mediterranean?

In researching and writing about activism in Israel, as I have been doing for the last few years, the question I keep coming back to is how individuals who totally reject their own society, as Ofra does, can nonetheless continue living in it.  I have as yet been unable to answer this question.  Knowing Ofra and her work with ODS prior to reading her book, I can’t help but relate the autobiographical memories in Ofra’s book to the activist identity that Ofra would later develop.  For an anthropologist like myself, Ofra’s book is as interesting for what she wants to share about her world as it is for being something of an anthropology of all the Ofras of Israel in what the reader can intuit about the being-in-the-world of these most liminal individuals.  In the words of Victor Turner, they are “threshold people” who “elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space.”

The experience of being an anti-Zionist activist in Israel is often critiqued by Palestinians and Palestine solidarity activists.  Most recently, a debate briefly arose, tweedled a bit, and vanished into the crevices of social media chaos during the Gaza massacres, in which the alienation in suffering from a marginal political position in Israel was dismissed in comparison to the obviously much greater suffering of Palestinians both past and present.  This discourse saddens me.  How Israel is able to handle internal dissidence is a so closely related to how Palestinian freedom might be shaped.  It is not at all irrelevant.  In The Case for a New Jerusalem, Ofra views this shaping coming from a departure from the religious component of Israel’s sociopolitical foundation, and not necessarily the more complicated and multivocal ethnic/collective consciousness makeup of Israeli mythistory.  “We sent the book to some experts, and they all said that religion is irrelevant to the Israel/Palestine conflict,” Ofra tells me. “They said it’s an old hat, that it has nothing to do with religion.  This is the Marxist view.  The book was disliked by Zionists, but it was also disliked by the left wing.  The Marxist ideology would say that it’s all about a class/colonial struggle.”

These are deeply serious questions that need to be answered.  This search for answers must come not only from within Israel, but also from Palestinians and the world.  I reiterate here that a critique of Israel, or a rejection, should be preceded by an understanding of it.  This is the value of Ofra’s book.  “We can’t make these discussions in the Israeli public sphere,” Ofra tells me. ”I hope these subjects will become a respectable subject for discussion in Israel or abroad.”

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