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A civic Zionist’s powerful vision of a truly democratic Israel for all its citizens
Source: Jews for Justice for Palestinians
David B Green writes in Haaretz on 8 March 2023
If this is the time for a paradigm shift in the nature of Israel’s political regime, social entrepreneur Shuli Dichter’s ideas have a great deal to contribute – as revealed in his just-translated memoir
Social entrepreneur Shuli Dichter. His memoir, "Sharing the Promised Land," is refreshingly honest and thought-provoking.Credit: Nathan Caspi
“Sharing the Promised Land: In Pursuit of Equality between Jewish and Arab Citizens in Israel,” by Shuli Dichter (translated from Hebrew by Joyce Klein and Aloma Halter). Ebook-pro.com, 228 pages, $12.99 (paperback), $2.99 (Kindle)
"Sharing the Promised Land is a memoir, not an autobiography, in which the author recounts a string of eye-opening personal experiences, and the changes they wrought in his own way of thinking. (Originally published in Hebrew in 2014, this English version is self-published, but was translated and edited with obvious professional care. I should also acknowledge that I have known and admired the author for years.)"
In the early 1990s, Shuli Dichter entered the home of a wealthy Arab businessman in the northern Israeli town of Baka al-Garbiyeh. Dichter, who was then around 40 and living nearby in Kibbutz Ma’anit, was hoping to get his host to finally sign up for a joint real-estate venture he had proposed more than a year earlier.
This was during the optimistic days following the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords and Dichter – though he probably knew more about the issue of Arab-Jewish coexistence than business – nonetheless had dreams of a project that would benefit both communities.
Ma’anit, a veteran kibbutz founded in 1942, had a long-term lease from the government on some 70 dunams (18 acres) of agricultural land that, because of recent regulatory changes, could now be rezoned for far-more profitable commercial purposes. The neighbor from Baka owned five cement plants. Why not join forces to build a shopping center on the site, which they could then operate and profit from together?
Only after he received a preliminary green light from the kibbutz did Dichter approach the cement tycoon. Thereupon followed months of one-sided courtship, during which the latter remained oddly noncommittal. Over the course of several meetings, Dichter recounts in his recently translated memoir “Sharing the Promised Land,” the Arab did not go beyond promising to “check out” the details of the proposal.
Now, however, the businessman had invited Dichter to his home, and the latter arrived determined not to leave without a decision. He was led into a vast living room “that could have held 100 guests,” where he was greeted by only his host and his nephew (who also served as his accountant). An intimate meeting.
Dichter recounted the terms of the proposed partnership for his host, who confirmed his understanding: “It’s clear to me what I am to bring to this partnership – all of the construction materials for the shopping mall,” the author recalls him saying. “For that purpose, I will enlist my five factories in Israel and the West Bank.” But he also had a question of his own: “What is the kibbutz contributing?”
“The land,” Dichter reminded him, still confident that this was a win-win proposition, a no-brainer. That was how, he writes, “In my enthusiasm, I did not see the trap he had set for me, with the cruelty of an injured man. He raised his two large eyes and looked at me: ‘Fine … but this land is not really yours. How will you bring to the table something that does not belong to you?’”
Naïve perhaps, but not stupid, Dichter grasped immediately that there was not going to be a joint venture. He excused himself a short time later, leaving the Baka al-Garbiyeh mansion with nothing concrete (as it were) to show for his efforts, but a great deal to ponder.
The Israeli-built separation barrier that splits Baka al-Garbiyeh from the West Bank
When it was founded in September 1942, Ma’anit was the first of a handful of kibbutzim to be situated amid a cluster of Arab towns at the western end of Wadi Ara, an area known as the Triangle. These towns supplied many of the fighters who participated in the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, which was directed against the British Mandatory government in Palestine and its then-liberal policy on Jewish immigration. The area continued to be the Zionist project’s soft underbelly until Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967.
According to a manifesto published by the kibbutz movement at the time of its founding, Ma’anit was expected to “drive a wedge into the hills that had cast a shadow of terror over us during the days of the ‘disturbances,’ and provided cover for nests of murderers.” Shuli grew up hearing that manifesto read out on the anniversary of Ma’anit’s establishment each year.
If it sounds surprisingly militant these days, at the time the kibbutz was proud of the part it had taken in defending the young state, and unapologetic about its hardheaded approach to its Arab neighbors.
But young Shuli and his comrades also heard messages no less sincere about the aspiration to pacific coexistence with the Arab residents of places like Baka al-Garbiyeh and the village of Umm al-Kutuf. Some of the men from those towns were employed by the kibbutz, but there were also social and cultural exchanges between Jews and Arabs – particularly among the young people. For his part, the teenage Shuli studied Arabic intensely at the kibbutz movement’s nearby Givat Haviva educational center, and he used his knowledge of the language on his own personal visits to the villages of Arabs he had met working in the kibbutz fields.
Fifty years ago, agriculture was still a major component of the economy of this and most other kibbutzim, and all able-bodied members were expected to contribute their labor, especially at harvest time. (The importance of agriculture had declined by the 1990s, and the kibbutzim used their political heft to have their lands rezoned for development.)
Dichter describes the pleasure he felt letting the dark, fertile soil run between his fingers, and also in driving a tractor and patrolling Ma’anit’s fields on the back of a horse. The kibbutz was intent on preventing trespassing on even a single square centimeter of its land. If Arab shepherds were accustomed to letting their livestock graze freely, without regard for Israeli land deeds, the kibbutz went to great trouble to fence off its lands – a project Shuli took part in.
When he learned to plow with a tractor after finishing high school, the field work coordinator instructed Shuli to make sure to turn the earth over so it fell onto the Arabs’ side of the property line, “so they know who’s in charge here.” Dichter lived with and sensed the dissonance, and, as he grew older, found himself compelled to examine it.
Sharing the Promised Land is a memoir, not an autobiography, in which the author recounts a string of eye-opening personal experiences, and the changes they wrought in his own way of thinking. (Originally published in Hebrew in 2014, this English version is self-published, but was translated and edited with obvious professional care. I should also acknowledge that I have known and admired the author for years.)
More successful in the role of educator and social activist than as a business entrepreneur, Dichter spent most of the ’90s co-directing a program meant to inculcate Arab and Jewish schoolchildren in the ways of peaceful coexistence. From 1998 to 2008, he was the co-executive director of the influential NGO Sikkuy (now Sikkuy-Aufoq): The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, following which he headed up the Hand in Hand network of Arabic-Hebrew bilingual schools, of which there are today seven.
Each new endeavor brought him closer to his current understanding that only full equality under the law and shared existence on the social level – rather than mere coexistence – will make Israel truly just and democratic.
That is a vision that would seem to have a limited audience these days. However, if there is a silver lining to the fierce political storm stirred up by the government’s planned constitutional overhaul, it may be that it has precipitated serious public discussion of principles that Israeli society has long avoided confronting. In the past, such discussions rarely got beyond the question of whether Israel can be both Jewish and democratic.
Whenever Dichter felt like he had things figured out, his complacency would be shaken by events, whether on the national level or in his own work. For example, during the ’90s he led Children Teaching Children, a program that brought together classes of Arab and Jewish children from the region for the study of civics. Although Dichter and the other Jewish educators were confident that the program was being run jointly and equitably, his Arab partners forced him to recognize that this was not the case.
The Arab teachers had a level of political consciousness that allowed them to protest built-in inequities that the Jews were oblivious to. Whether it was insisting on having access to all the financial details about the program’s funding and operation, or on the use of Arabic in teachers’ meetings, or even the way the Arab teachers described to outsiders what they saw as the goal of the program (“This is not a program for encounters between children,” the author recalls, with some discomfort, their telling visitors. “It is a program for the construction of equal power relationships”), Dichter’s partners, he writes, showed an “awareness only clear to those on the weaker side of the power equation.”
Their discontent didn’t stop his Arab colleagues from calling on Dichter to use his connections with the authorities on their behalf – such as when they needed help in arranging the release of someone in their community who’d been arrested by an overzealous police officer, or wanted to persuade the Education Ministry to fund a few extra monthly hours of Children Teaching Children. But his intervention only seemed to remind them of their own relative powerlessness and, in place of expressing gratitude, they displayed resentment.
As he began to acknowledge the built-in nature of the power imbalance, Dichter also came to believe that his generation was misguided in expecting its children to resolve the profound problems they, the parents, had given up on fixing. “In the present reality,” he writes, without the systemic change for which he now advocates, “an encounter of Jewish-Arab youth is, at most, a negligible social event at which participants eat hummus together, play soccer or argue about who started the war.” He even cites academic research suggesting that the positive effects of such educational encounters tend to wear off within two months.
Coexistence activities for children, Dichter now believes, won’t be meaningful before the adults reorganize things so that all Israeli citizens are truly equal before the law. This message, he says, is directed at all who want Israel “to be a state based on liberal and humanistic values, part of the economic and cultural world to which all here aspire, in which citizenship is a common message to all citizens without regard for religion, race or gender.”
That may sound like a prescription for a “state of all its citizens” – an idea that has long been beyond the pale in polite Israeli society, as it is understood as meaning recognition of Palestinians’ “national” rights, and not just individual ones as citizens. For many, that is assumed to be inherently at odds with the concept of a Jewish state, even though Israel’s Declaration of Independence commits it to guaranteeing “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.”
Dichter doesn’t mention the state-of-all-its-citizens concept, and in event, “Sharing the Promised Land” does not purport to be a detailed plan for the liberal democracy he aspires it to be.
He does say, courageously, that the Law of Return can’t remain in its current form. While the right to automatic citizenship played an essential role for both the Jewish people and the state in its early years, today, according to Dichter, it “hangs like a millstone around the neck of Zionism.” He still believes that “the right of return of the People of Israel to their land cannot be jeopardized,” but he believes that “it must be expressed in legislation that does not discriminate against the Palestinian citizens of Israel who live here with us.”
Again, it’s difficult to imagine a reformulation of Israel’s immigration and naturalization laws taking place in the current climate (although some members of the ruling coalition have proposed eliminating the “grandfather clause” in the Law of Return), but that minefield will need to be crossed if there is an aspiration to achieve equality. And we are witnessing today what can happen when such equality is not a basic and shared principle.
Dichter still defines himself as a Zionist: specifically, an advocate of what he calls “civic Zionism,” which he distinguishes from the “Zionism of separation” (“They will be there and we will be here”); “military Zionism” (which “promises an entire life lived by the sword”); and “Zionism of the land” (which “dictates Jewish hegemony in the State at every level and in all areas”).
Dichter is not so naïve as to think that his message will be instantly embraced by many. But he does have the credentials to weigh in on the subject. Decades of personal trial and error, which he recounts with refreshing honesty, led him to the conclusions he presents in his book. And his anecdotes, combined with intellectual digressions that testify to a great sense of curiosity about the world, make it stimulating and enjoyable, even as it is unsettling.
Whatever their politics, most Israelis these days – whether Jews or Arabs, right- or left-wing – have got to be wondering where their country went wrong, and where it may be headed. Assumptions held for a lifetime are being reevaluated by necessity, and it seems clear (to me, at least!) that the dramatic, overnight overhaul of the judicial system the current government is attempting will not be the final word on that subject.
If this is the time for a paradigm shift in the nature of Israel’s political regime, Shuli Dichter’s ideas have a great deal to contribute to the process.
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