About “The Elephant in the Room” petition: Joel Whitebook’s response

Nearly 2,800 public figures, most of them Israeli and American (including a very large number of academics), have signed an open letter, The Elephant in the Room, calling on them to speak out against the “ultimate goal” of the judicial reform proposed by the current Israeli government: the maintenance of the “apartheid regime”. This last qualification is debatable – and even contested by some of the petition’s signatories. So why did they sign it? This is Joel Whitebook’s response.

>>>About the open letter The Elephant in the room, read: “Apartheid: an elephant painted red”.


You have signed a petition that is a wake-up call about Israel, both its current policy and the long evolution that has produced it. This petition uses the term “apartheid” to describe this policy, both within the borders and in the occupied territories, and endorses the choice of this lexicon to describe the Israeli situation. Is your signature a sort of mea culpa, meaning that the description was already valid beforehand? Or did you sign and choose this wording to denounce the current policy of the extreme right-wing government in Israel?

Far from representing a mea culpa for not having registered my position earlier, I welcomed the petition as an opportunity to effectively endorse views that I have held for a long time.  I understand why its authors chose to use the contentious term “apartheid” to make their case. For good reason, they wanted to drive home the unprecedented urgency of the situation.  Furthermore, whether or not Israel is currently an apartheid state, it is undoubtedly on the way to becoming one.  My primary concern, however, is not with the term itself, but with the appalling and indefensible conditions that it is meant to refer to, including the illegal occupation of the territories, the violation of basic rights to the Palestinian people, and the daily violence and humiliation that is inflicted on them.

I reject the claim, sometimes made by Jewish and non-Jewish anti-Zionists, that the current state of affairs reveals the true essence of Zionism because it is essentialist and historical inaccurate.  The sheer heterogeneity and size of the Zionist Movement rules out any such assertion.  I don’t believe, however, that the current crisis is only the result of an aberrant coalition of rightwing racists, nationalists, and religious zealots who have hijacked the system, but that it represents the culmination of decades-long tendencies in Israeli politics.  Central among them has been the Labor Party’s persistent unwillingness to confront the Settlers’ Movement and to address the plight of the Palestinians, thinking that they could “manage” the problems indefinitely, albeit at the cost of regular eruptions of considerable violence.  An inconvenient fact that is rarely mentioned is that more settlements were built under Ehud Barak than under any other prime minister.  In a much-quoted article, Hillel Halkin said, “For years now, Israel has seemed to me like a man sleepwalking toward a cliff. Now we’ve fallen from it.”  I would add that evading the Palestinian question comprised a huge piece of that somnolence.

While I agree with the petition’s statement that “there cannot be democracy for Jews in Israel as long as Palestinians live under a regime of apartheid,” I would point out that it has several meanings. One concerns the obvious fact that clearing-the-way for the annexation of the West Bank is a driving force behind the attack on the Israeli legal system.   Another concerns an implicit motive for the circulating petition, to raise a question about the pro-democracy demonstrations themselves.  After a long period in which Israeli liberals had been relatively dormant, we Jewish Leftists in the diaspora have been moved and proud to see hundreds of thousands of demonstrators take to the streets week-after-week to fight for democracy.  But at the same time, there is fundamental question that remains to be answered:  How far are the demonstrators prepared to go?  Will they be satisfied simply to return to the status quo ante, that is, the version of democracy which was in place before the current government, and which largely denied the Palestinians their rights?  Or will they expand the struggle for democracy to include the Palestinian cause?  Let us not forget that many of the secular and prosperous citizens of Tel Aviv who are now in the streets were content to remain silent about the Palestinian cause as long as their situation wasn’t threatened.  A recent article in Haaretz suggests that the demonstrations may in fact be expanding to include a broader range of issues.

What I have to say about the term “colonialism” or “settler colonialism” is similar to what I had to say about “apartheid.”  In my opinion, it is not inaccurate to describe the history of Israel, as well as that of the United States, as a case of “settler colonialism.”  Again, however, I am not primarily concerned with the accuracy of the term. Instead, I am interested in opposing the way it is used in certain circles to argue against Israel’s right to exist.  To begin with, the argument rests on the childish assumption that in order for a state to be legitimate, it must have been the product of an immaculate conception. If this were the case, there would be few legitimate states. We can see absurdity of the argument by comparing the case of Israel to that of the United States.  Whatever crimes were in fact committed by the Zionists, they pale in significance compared to the slavery and genocide that were essential for creating the “City on the Hill.”  Yet, would any reasonable person claim that this invalidates America’s right to exist?  The question for both the Israelis and Americans is where do we go once we acknowledge our blood-soaked histories?

Is there more to this “No more silence” than opening the floodgates to criticism? In other words, is it in your mind to initiate a change in the relationship between the diaspora and Israel, where the diaspora not only assumes a say in Israel’s internal policy, but goes so far asto break away when that policy goes off the rails of the rule of law? Do you see a shift in the balance of the Jewish world in the current period?

Because I am an American Jew and in light of the unique relationship between the United States and Israel, I will not address the question with respect to the diaspora in general, but only as it pertains to the States. Let me be clear, I not only want to “initiate a change in the relationship between” American Jewry and Israel, I believe that such a change is long overdue.  At an early age, I was told by my mother — who was raised in a devoted Zionist family — that we had no right to criticize Israel because we were not facing the hardships and danger that the Israelis had to confront on a daily basis.  I believe that this attitude was relatively widespread in the postwar American Jewish Community and that the prohibition has played a significant role in shaping the relationship between American Jews and Israel.  From my current vantagepoint, I see my mother’s injunction as the product of a complicated set of motives.  These included, one the one hand, a sense of guilt for having been spared the fate of her relatives in Eastern Europe, for not having done more to rescue the victims of the Holocaust, and for not having made Aliya, and the all-too-understandable imperative to support and defend the endangered, fledgling Jewish state, on the other. But however understandable the prohibition may have been for that time, I believe that, in the long run, it has not served Israel’s best interests.  By silencing criticism, it has not only abetted the Israeli establishment’s persistent evasion of the Palestinian question, but it has also made it possible for the country’s supporters to ferry favorable legislation through Congress with little scrutiny.

The attempt to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism represents the latest effort to silence criticism of Israeli policy and actions. There is no question that the equation must be categorically rejected and that a space must be defended in which legitimate criticisms of Israel can be made.  But there is another point which must also be frankly acknowledged.  There is a long history, particularly on the Left, in which anti-Zionism has in fact been used as a camouflaged vehicle for the expression of anti-Semitism.  We must therefore affirm the following proposition.  While it is true that anti-Zionism doesn’t equal anti-Semitism, it is also true that anti-Zionism can be used and has been used as a cover for expressing anti-Semitic sentiments and ideas.  A similar difficulty can occur when criticizing developments in in the Muslim World.  Just as Islamophobia is a real phenomenon that must be vigorously combated, the accusation of Islamophobia is also deployed to silence legitimate criticism.

The argument denying American Jews a say in internal Israeli policy is wrong on several counts.  In the first place, it rests on a denial of Israel’s historical dependence on the support of the American Jewish community.  Over the long run, and especially since the Six Day War, Israel’s security and remarkable economic development would be inconceivable without it.  Yet, I would argue, Israelis have, by and large, needed to deny that dependency for psychological as well as for political reasons. Psychologically, acknowledging it would threaten their counterphobic self-image where they pictures themselves as invincible and self-sufficient, the complete antithesis of the weak and disparaged shtetl Jew.  Menachem Begin’s indignant declaration that America should not treat Israel like “a banana republic” was a piece of puffery whose grandiosity betrayed the actual fragility of that sense of self-sufficiency. I should also add, however, that not all counterphobia is maladaptive. At one time that inflated self-image may have been necessary insofar as it bolstered a vulnerable nation in its fight to surmount seemingly insurmountable odds.

And politically, the denial has allowed Israelis to benefit from the reliable support of American Jews while simultaneously prohibiting their supporters from raising any serious questions about many ill-advised policies. Finally, with his unprecedented appearance before Congress in an attempt to block the Iranian nuclear deal, which represented a shameless attempt to have it both ways, Benjamin Netanyahu vacated, as it were, the de jure argument that prohibits intervening into the internal affairs of a sovereign nation.

If it is legitimate for American Jews, who are committed to Israel’s unequivocal right to exist but are deeply troubled by the direction in which the country has been heading, to criticize its policies, it is also legitimate for them, as United States citizens, to protest their countries foreign policy insofar as it facilitates that troubling trajectory.  In fact, I would claim it is there duty. There is one obvious place to lodge that protest, namely, that portion of the nearly four billion dollars in military aid, provided by the US to Israel, which is used to enforce its West Bank policy and oppress the Palestinians who live there.  That aid not only violates established American laws and a broad international consensus concerning the illegality of the occupation, it also diverts taxpayer money away from urgent domestic problems, including climate change, a crumbling infrastructure, a housing crisis, and a scandalous healthcare system.  And this at a time when Israel — whose economy in 2022 ranked fourth in the developed world — can fend for itself.  Furthermore, Americans who are critical of the of their own mammoth defense budget should note that a sizeable portion of the military aid that goes to Israel is funneled back to companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.  At this point, American Jews should use any leverage they have with the current administration to influence Biden to bring pressure on Netanyahu to stop the coup.

There is increasing evidence that a significant portion of the American, Jewish community, which has traditionally been liberal, is moving away from its historical support for Israel.  As the memory of the Holocaust and of Israel’s stature as a heroic underdog fighting for its existence fade into the past, this is especially true of the younger generation — who, moreover, increasingly identify with Black Lives Matter, the LGBTQ Movement, and other liberations struggles, and largely see the Israelis as the oppressors of the Palestinians.  Netanyahu’s coziness with such detested characters as Donald Trump and Victor Orban doesn’t help the situation.  In my opinion, these developments are to be welcomed insofar as they result in a more autonomous Jewish community, which doesn’t feel obliged to tow-the-line but is free to develop an independent and reflective stance towards both Israeli and American policy.

How the Israelis would respond to such an outcome is an open question.  But a comment by the country’s former ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, that Israel should pursue the “passionate and unequivocal” support of the Evangelical Christian Community and not fret about the American Jews “who are disproportionately among our critics” doesn’t inspire confidence.  Dermer’s statement is reminiscent of a similar comment allegedly made by another diplomat, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State James Baker III, “Fuck the Jews, the Jews don’t vote for us anyway.”

The petition speaks on behalf of the American Jewish diaspora, and recruits its signatories mainly from Israeli and American universities. These signatories include both anti-Zionists and Zionists. How do you understand such a coalition? And what coherent movement could result from it, in Israel itself? Isn't it in tension with the democratic mobilisation of recent months, which was rooted in a reminder of the 1948 Declaration of Independence, and was therefore genuinely Zionist, against the government accused of betraying Zionism?

 Again, I will abstain from addressing the terminological question.  Indeed, not doing so may even make more sense with “Zionism” than it did with “apartheid” and “colonialism.”  The question assumes that there is a clearcut definitions of “Zionism,” but this is hardly the case.  To paraphrase a familiar Jewish joke, “Put two Zionists in a room and you’ll get three definitions of ‘Zionism.’”  Furthermore, although “which side are you on?” questions — Are you a true communist, a true feminist, or a true Zionist? — may be useful for mobilizing one’s constituents, in my experience, they don’t lend themselves to differentiated and effective political judgments.

Call it what you will, what I want to defend is not only the right for a Jewish state to exist, but for it to exist in peace and security.  Because I am a secularist, I don’t base my argument on an appeal to ancient history or the Bible.  As I see it, the Holocaust — the fact that the so-called civilized nations of the world allowed it to happen — provides the decisive case justifying the existence of a State in which Jews are in charge of their own destiny.  And as a consequence of that claim, I support the two-state solution, for, given the logic of the situation, it is the only way I can conceive of the long-term survival of a Jewish State that is democratic and worth defending. My reasoning is based on familiar demographic considerations.  Though the statistics are challenged by politicians on the Right, reliable sources predict that the Arab population will outnumber the Jewish population in Israel proper and the occupied territories within the next twenty to thirty years.  Were this to happen, the result would be a one-state solution with a Jewish minority ruling over an Arab population that outnumbered it.  It is safe to say that if Israel isn’t an apartheid state now, it would surely become one under those circumstances.

On purely conceptual grounds, then, it is difficult to see how an outcome of that sort could be avoided without a two-state solution. One must admit, however, that it has always been a longshot.  Indeed, Yitzhak Rabin may have been the only one who could have pulled it off owing to his unique stature and military credentials.  And by assassinating him, Yigdal Amir, a rightwing Zionist who believed his actions were mandated by Jewish law, sought to make sure that that wouldn’t happen.  Recently, after all that has happened in the intervening years, an argument has been gaining ground which rejects the two-state solution for practical as well as principled reasons.  Practically, its proponents argue that it is simply no longer possible, that, as they say, the train left the station a long time ago.  And regarding the principled argument, since Israel’s inception, liberal Zionists have struggled to square the circle and explain how a state, with a sizeable Arab population, can be both Jewish and Democratic.  Now, a number of progressives and representatives of the peace movement have concluded that it cannot.  They therefore advocate a one-state solution which would take the form of a bi-national state, founded on the principles of liberal democracy, and jointly governed by Arabs and Jews, which would protect the rights of both groups.

This one-state solution understandably appeals to people committed to the principles of liberal democracy. Furthermore, a plausible case can be made for it on theoretical grounds.  Nevertheless, from a realistic perspective, however, it represents what Hegel called “an empty ought.”   Given the long history of enmity, suspicion, and bloodshed between the two groups, the trust required for a bi-national state doesn’t exist.  Indeed, in one of his last interviews, a melancholy Edward Said admitted to Ari Shavit that he understood why it would be next-to-impossible for Israeli Jews to entrust the protection of their rights to Arabs.  And finally, mention must be made of the most massive elephant in the room. For it is unimaginable that the Israel politicians of any political stripe would share the nuclear codes with anyone, much less with their long-standing enemies.  In other words, the existence of the doomsday device as the ultimate guarantor of Israeli sovereignty and survival excludes the possibility of the sort of democratic one-state solution envisioned by liberals.

If both the authoritarian and the democratic versions of the one-state solution are ruled out, then a two-state, based on a mature divorce, as Amos Oz has suggested, and perhaps linked to some sort of federation, is the only remaining option — however slim the chances of achieving it may be. And if this is the case, two conclusions follow. Anyone committed to the survival of Israel as a Jewish state that is worth defending must work to keep the possibility of the two-state solution alive. And because recognizing the rights of the Palestinians is the precondition for achieving it, they must also do their most to promote that recognition.

Joel Whitebook

Joel Whitebook is a philosopher and psychoanalyst who maintained a private practice in New York City for twenty-five years. He is currently in the faculty of the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research and Director of the University’s Psychoanalytic Studies Program. He is the author ofPerversion and Utopia” (1995), “Der gefesselte Odysseus: Studien zur Kritischen Theorie und Psychoanalyse” and numerous articles.

Contact the author

    Support us!

    You can help us

    With the support of:

    Thanks to the Paris office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for their cooperation in the design of the magazine’s website.