False Dichotomies


We the (Israeli) People

In a recent article on +972, Larry Derfner argues that the anti-asylum seeker violence that has swept South Tel Aviv over the last few weeks is more reprehensible than similar attacks in Greece. His reasoning? “Greece’s economy is in ruins. The whole society is panicking, and for very good reason. Such conditions, of course, have routinely produced xenophobia and strains of fascism in societies, so what’s happening in Greece is actually normal and predictable.” In the Jewish State, however, “Netanyahu is right: Except for the haredim and Arabs, Israel’s economy is in great shape compared to just about every other country in the world. Terror has never been less of a threat; Israelis have never been so safe.” His conclusion? “The better our quality of life, the more decisively we triumph over our enemies, the meaner we become.”

Christopher Hitchens once warned that you should always be suspicious when commentators begin using the first-person plural. This is because it’s an attempt to co-opt people to a certain point of view without first asking for their consent. Larry Derfner, however, deploys it for another reason – to distinguish liberal, humane Israelis like him and the rest of the +972 crew from the nasty, racist Israelis who have been attacking African asylum seekers.

Except, one week earlier, the same Larry Derfner who bizarrely wants to blame the entire country for the violence in South Tel Aviv wrote an article specifically blaming South Tel Aviv residents for violence and racism towards the Africans, arguing that more privileged Israelis shouldn’t excuse them on account of their poverty. In that piece, Derfner acknowledged that the ‘We’ve never had it so good’ argument doesn’t necessarily apply to South Tel Aviv and other peripheral neighbourhoods around the country. So he must also know that, while Netanyahu’s statement might make some sense on a macro level, on a micro level it’s hopelessly misleading. The gap between rich and poor continues to rise, the government continues to cut welfare services, and – notwithstanding some minor breakthroughs as a result of the J14 protests – the cost of living continues to go up.

The people who suffer most from this live in low-income neighbourhoods like HaTikva. And those are the sort of neighbourhoods where most of the asylum seekers are going. It’s why Dernfer writes, “It isn’t fair to the HaTikva and Shapira quarters to have to absorb such a large, alien, troubled and in some ways troubling population when middle-class and upper-class Israel doesn’t have to absorb any refugees at all.” In other words, it’s perfectly possible to be in favour of a more equitable policy towards the asylum seekers without advocating that they all be dumped in South Tel Aviv.

Derfner’s argument simply isn’t true. The violence against asylum seekers has been carried out by a sector of the population who have suffered terribly from neoliberal policies. Perhaps not at the same level as the people of Greece, but certainly at a level that shouldn’t be ignored. Derfner may prove his liberal credentials by rushing to label the entire Israeli population as mean, but it’s not a wise way to make friends and influence people in the place where he’s built his life.



4 Comments so far

  1. Nick June 11th, 2012 1:10 pm

    I don’t buy your analysis about his use of “we”. Surely it’s to identify himself with the people he criticizes as a means of admitting and thus purging guilt; as if recent events were an inevitable part of the Israeli condition and a trajectory of increasing malevolence rather than ones engendered by circumstances that – as you rightly point out – seem to have much to do with class based inequity (as well MKs despicably pandering to a constituency; few words can do justice to how disgusting these men are).

    By saying “they” and identifying “we” with an alternative consensus (around such issues as humane treatment of migrants, Arab rights, two states) of course, he would be depicting Israel as a heterogeneous, plural nation capable of transforming and renewing itself in unpredictable ways. But this would of course go against the narrative of Israel / Zionism as unerringly malign.

  2. Alex Stein June 12th, 2012 12:04 pm

    I agree with your second paragraph, but I’m not clear about the point you’re making in the first. I think it’s a rhetorical device. He says ‘we’ but he doesn’t really include himself.

  3. Nick June 13th, 2012 8:43 am

    I think it’s quite a standard device – you identify yourself by use of the first person with the state violence / oppression in question, while making your shame and abhorrence clear. It’s an admission of guilt, because he sees the Israeli “fallen” condition as something that is basically inescapable.

    The latter part of his article confirms this. He denies that Israel’s degradation was inevitable – a good sign that he thinks it was – but then goes on, sure enough, to say that because of “ethnocentrism” it basically was. It’s a “cancer” that cannot be defeated, and all that can be done is to acknowledge your share of the sin and wait for things to get worse. No historical or immediate context. No real analysis. No attempt to identify an alternative perspective on the riots other than shame – one of disgust or condemnation. No programme. All Israelis are basically the same, in his perspective, it’s just that some have the honesty to look themselves in the mirror.

    This is like middle-class guilt, and as useless.

  4. Nick June 13th, 2012 8:48 am

    Actually, to his credit, there is a little historical context when he talks about the destruction of Israeli liberalism by the second intifada. But my basic point still holds.

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