This time it’s personal

Issue: 131

Simon Englert

Illan Pappe, Out of the Frame: The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel (Pluto, 2010), £13

In this excellent book, the Israeli academic Illan Pappe breaks from his usual style to offer a mixture of personal stories, general overviews, historical insights and fictional accounts to paint a clear and damning picture of the state of critical thought in Israel.

Pappe guides the reader through the last 30 years of political and academic history in Israeli society. From the opening up of internal debate following the first intifada through the Oslo talks and the shutting down of dissenting voices by the end of the 1990s, Pappe describes in a vivid, personal and resonant language his journey to anti-Zionism and his attempts to hold those politics inside Israel and its academia.

Using examples such as the 2006 second war on Lebanon and the assault on Gaza which began in December 2008, Pappe argues that a clique of generals have managed to take over key aspects of Israeli society. Many key politicians, media bosses and political commentators are former generals in the Israeli military. The ability of this clique to shut down dissenting voices and organise public and academic debate while simultaneously setting and implementing policy is described with a chilling clarity.

An interesting question is raised through the accounts of personal and political attacks against the author, namely, whether a consistent and viable
anti-Zionist politics is possible inside Israel itself. Pappe seems to have answered that question by deciding that the most helpful thing for him to do was to leave the country (after huge professional and political pressures) and to throw his energy into promoting and spreading the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign. It is also worth noting that Pappe’s break with Zionism began while he was studying in England and was accelerated through contact with Palestinian activists, freedom fighters and revolutionaries. Pappe’s emphasis on the need to apply pressure upon Israel from the outside and isolate it as a rogue state suggests that he sees only a limited possibility for internal dissent for the time being.

While the politics of Out of the Frame are generally solid, towards the end the author describes Zionism as being born originally from a progressive impulse to oppose anti-Semitism. Although a minor point in the book, I think it is inaccurate. Early Zionists, who were indeed reacting to anti-Semitism, were a small minority of Jews. They felt European racism could not be fought and that the Jews should emigrate. But at the same time thousands of Jews were actively involved in anti-racist, anti-fascist and revolutionary politics. As a matter of fact, in his book The Jewish State, Theodore Herzl argued Zionism would deal with both anti-Semitism and the strong influence of socialism on the Jewish masses. Zionism was a reactionary ideology from its inception and should be remembered as such.