Posted on 25th July 2012, by & filed under Ideas, Israeli Public Opinion, Jeff Halper, Narratives of the conflict, Paradigm, Peace Movement, Zionism.

We are all creatures of culture. As human beings possessing the ability for abstract thought, we live in realities that we construct ourselves, both collectively and individually. We construct everything; nothing is “natural.” Our constructions of reality – embodied in ideologies, narratives and symbols — make sense to us. The rest on shared assumptions, experiences, identities, values and interests that shape our very way of perceiving the world and other people. They possess a compelling internal logic. We internalize these paradigms, as these constructions are also called, so that they exert paradigms a strong power over our actions and views. They are more “real” to us to “reality” itself. They are self-evident, “normal” ways of perceiving the world, events and others.

The connection between paradigms and political change is a complex one. Changes in the relationships between states (or in our case between a state and a para-state “authority”) do not take place because leaders like each other or have been convinced of the validity of the other’s positions. They take place because shifting political, economic, social and sometimes environmental realities make them necessary, often prodded by conflict or the threat of conflict if they do not occur. To be sure, a bold leader can generate a process of both political and paradigmatic change by a dramatic act that suddenly changes the rules of the game, as did Arafat and Rabin when they shook hands on the White House lawn.

Still, paradigms do define the positions of various social and political groups. They have the power to slow or hasten change, to make it conflictual (as in Netanyahu’s approach to the peace process) or to create an atmosphere and channels for each side to deal honestly with the claims and needs of the other. The longer the historical process the more structural elements determine directions of change. But in the short-run – over a period of months or even a decade or two – paradigms play a major role. A Palestinian state may eventually emerge, but the events on the way – house demolitions, massive expropriation of Palestinian land, the dislocation of thousands of people, closure and impoverishment, opportunities available or not to the young generation, violence, death – all these and more matter to actual people far more than historical processes. Paradigm change may not be sufficient to create new political realities, but since our lives are measured in the “short-run,” it can make a huge difference in the lives of the current generation (and more) of Israelis and Palestinians.

Paradigm Panic

No attempt to prepare the Israeli public for peace or to “persuade” skeptical Israelis to accept – even welcome – a Palestinian state will succeed unless the paradigms of the various “camps” are understood and strategies for generating paradigm change in the direction of peace is developed. Paradigms are hard to change. Even more to the point, the process of changing political realities without addressing the process of paradigm shift can be dangerous for a society, creating extreme reactions and even generating violence. Intertwined as they are with our very identities, paradigms require a strategy of intercultural dialogue. Attempts of one sector of society to simply impose its policies on the others, through election victories, mass demonstrations or public relations campaigns, will not do the trick.

Since paradigms organize the world for us and make it coherent, we can enter into a “paradigm panic” when things change too fast. This is a frightening state for many people, since the world becomes a huge confused jumble once our accepted categories and narratives fall apart. Who is right? What is right? Who are the bad guys and the good guys? What is happening? What changed things so quickly? Where are we headed? The consequences of paradigm panic can be catastrophic. Without minimizing the seriousness of the hate
campaign waged against Rabin in the months before his assassination, one can assign it partly to such fear and panic, especially among people without the educational background to understand the forces at work. A common bumper-sticker at that time was Shalom Balahot – a “nightmare peace.” In this context, Yigal Amir’s heinous crime expressed far more than the political act of an isolated “fanatic.” Indeed, Rabin’s murder is still invoked by many who resist the passage to a new paradigm of peace. Even as this is being written (May 19, 1999), fans of the Likud-related Betar Jerusalem soccer team, having lost a championship game to the Labor-related Hapoel Tel Aviv “Reds,” are chanting: “Kill Barak, just like Rabin!” and “Death to Arabs!”

We cling to our paradigms tenaciously, and feel existentially threatened if reality changes too quickly. Rabin personified the Sabra: taciturn, non-articulate, military-operational in his approach to the world. The Israeli public had been raised for generations on several unshakable propositions: that “we” are the good guys and “they” are the bad guys; that “we” are the victims and “they” are murders of children; that peace with “Arabs” is impossible, that they have always hated us and always will; that Arafat is an absolutely unacceptable partner for negotiations; that, indeed, Palestinians don’t even exist. It was illegal to even meet PLO people, and Abie Natan spent time in prison for violating that law. Yet here was Rabin, one bright day on the White House lawn, having sprung Oslo on an unprepared Israeli public, shaking hands with Arafat and throwing millions of Israelis into a complete paradigm panic. People need time to process change and incorporate new realities into their ongoing constructions. They need to be taken by the hand, to have changes explained to them in clear and simple terms. They need to be able to work things out, to reject and yell and question, and contemplate and be convinced. There is not only a peace process, there is also a paradigm-shift process, and it must also be respected. Failure to appreciate the depths of paradigm panic can, indeed, be deadly and, for a society, ultimately polarizing.

To be sure, “paradigm shifts” usually follow rather than precede structural changes. Rabin could have softened the impact of his sudden political turn-about and better prepared the public for what was about to take place, but he could not have avoided paradigm panic altogether. Although Rabin died and Peres lost the 1996 elections, the process of paradigm change they initiated did in time take hold. When Sharon, upon departing for Wye, announced he would not shake Arafat’s hand, he came off as ridiculous across the political spectrum. The Israeli public had moved beyond that now anachronistic position. In hindsight, we might say that Netanyahu’s loss was ultimately due to the paradigm shift that had taken place in the five years since Oslo. While Barak failed to present a coherent vision of where he would take the country, Netanyahu represented an old, now-irrelevant paradigm that obviously had no future. The notion that Israelis could make peace with the Palestinians, that a Palestinian state was probably inevitable, and that Arafat had a legitimate role to play, had finally sunk in. (Ironically, the Israeli TV satire Khabubot, patterned after Britain’s Splitiing Image, played a key role in “humanizing” Arafat and bringing him into the “family.” The characatures of Netanyahu, Sharon, Eitan, Barak and Arafat often appeared together in songs and skits, significantly mollifying Arafat’s once-threatening persona and making him into a sympathetic figure as frustrated with Netanyahu as was the rest of us.) Thus, although Netanyahu’s legacy of polarization and a renewed oppression of Palestinians was tragically superfluous, his tenure in office did serve the purpose of creating a space – served by “stalling” the peace process – that allowed Israelis to catch their breath, digest the new realities and move ahead to the new paradigm (the “New Middle East”?) envisioned by Rabin and Peres.

What, then, are the elements of Israeli paradigms, and what strategies should we employ to change them in the direction of peace?

The Israeli Meta-Paradigm and Paradigms of ‘Right’ and ‘Left’

Underlying the polarization of Israeli society are a number of competing ideological “camps,” each with its particular experiences, views and interests. Some of the major ones include : Labor Zionism (shading off to the “left”), the populist Revisionism of the Likud; Ashkenazi and Sephardi Ultra-Orthodoxy, and the diverse Palestinian-Arab population. Over the years, however, a kind of meta-paradigm has emerged to which most Israelis – Palestinian and segments of the Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox excepted — subscribe. It contains a number of critical elements:

  •  National Home-Coming. Beginning in the later half of the nineteenth century, a highly detailed and compelling narrative of national home-coming and liberation began to emerge, later given form and substance by the various Labor Zionist organizations and their in-house intellectuals. Its central tenet held that the Jews constitute a nation in the secular-political sense, and therefore possess the same inherent right to self-determination in its historic homeland that other nations claim.

    At this point the “Left” and the Right” diverge. Labor Zionism came to consider the state its primary vehicle of national expression. That state was an irreducible entity. Since self-determination is considered the primary goal of Zionism, it could not be compromised in some “bi-national” formula. (Whether a confederation or “community” satisfies the requirement of Jewish self-determination remains to be seen.) While, in this conception, the Jewish state had to be located in the historic “Land of Israel,” it did not have to encompass the entire Land. Thus there is nothing in the Labor Zionist paradigm that precludes territorial compromise with the Palestinians. The “right,” by contrast, developed a “territorial” Zionism. Whether based on the biblical “tribal” concept which by definition excludes competing national claims and thus considers Palestinians “intruders” in the Land, as in the religious paradigm, or a secular tribalism deriving from the Fascist movements of the 1920s and ‘30s, as in the case of the Revisionist (Likud) paradigm, this model places exclusive Jewish control over the entire “Greater Land of Israel” over all other considerations.

    Despite these fundamental variations on a theme, the meta-narrative of national home-coming and the right of the Jews to the Land became the basis of what is called by Israeli politicians and educators “the national consensus.” It achieved a high degree of acceptance in Israeli society because it was transmitted to generations of school pupils and immigrants through educational institutions and their textbooks, through immigrant “absorption” programs and through the mass media, all controlled by the Labor Zionist “hosts” and given legitimacy by Labor-oriented academics. In these authoritative contexts in which the public was “taught,” the narrative of national home-coming became a compelling, self-contained and self-evident “truth,” beyond the realm of critical discussion and dissent. Even political discussion on the “left” conforms to the broad outlines of this national narrative, making it difficult to conceive or suggest alternatives such as a binational state, or to fundamentally criticize it (kibbutz members are as adamant as settlers when it comes to refusing to even consider Arab land claims).

  • “The Arabs Just Want to Kill Us”/”There are No Palestinians” From the very start the national meta-narrative was a self-contained and exclusively Jewish one, able to maintain its internal logic despite the realities “on the ground” and the major events that took place over the past century. The narrative begins by portraying the Jewish nation as wanting only cultural renewal in its own homeland. The romantic nationalism of the Nineteenth Century required, however, that each discrete “nation” have its own exclusive state. Thus, even before setting foot in Palestine, the Zionist movement coined its famous phrase: “A land without a people for a people without a land.” (The early Zionist Nordau was reported to have been shocked to find the land populated by Arabs upon his visit there, and expressed the fear that Zionism was perpetuating an injustice on the local inhabitants.)

    Soon two mechanisms allowed the national paradigm to eliminate consideration of Arabs altogether and retain its self-contained nature: the idealization of the “Arabs” as a part of the biblical “East,” thus rendering them mere romantic “background” rather than a community with claims of its own; and, as conflict grew, casting them as devious and threatening, dark primitive figures hiding behind kafiyas whose only goal in life was to steal from or attack innocent Jewish farmers. Eliminating Palestinians from the “story” as a national collective took several forms: (1) Palestinians were turned into “Arabs” indistinguishable from the masses of the Arab world; (2) acts of resistance to Zionism were decontextualized and portrayed solely as acts of unthinking and hate-filled “mobs” or individuals against peaceful Jews; and (3) the Palestinian leadership was either demonized (Haj Amin al-Huseini as a “Nazi”) or, if it did not fit the narrative (such as the peace-seeking Musa Alawi), was simply ignored. Thus the meta-narrative reduced the Palestinian economic and political Revolt of 1936-39 into a series of violent yet marginal “events,” “disturbances” or “riots.”

    Both these depictions – the romantic and the gratuitously violent — eliminated the Arabs as a legitimate presence in the country whose claims had to be dealt with; both relegated them to the sidelines of the national paradigm, thus maintaining the purity and continuity of its narrative line. From the 1910s until today, the major upheavals affecting the Palestinian people — the rise of Palestinian nationalism, the intifadas of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1980s, the Nakba and its massive dislocations, the contact – following the 1967 war — took place without ruffling a feather of the Labor Zionist ideology. Its paradigm of 1999 would be easily recognized by its paradigmatic ancestors of 1919, of not 1899. Even from the standpoint of Israel’s own experience — the destruction of 418 Palestinian villages and urban neighborhoods in 1948, the subsequent “Israelification” of the landscape, official denials that a Palestinian people even exists, the “liberation” of “Judea and Samaria” in 1967 and the vigorous settlement campaign of the past 25 years — all these demonstrate the power of a paradigm to relegate real people to non-intrusive abstractions. “Let them (the “Arabs”) go live in one of the other twenty-two Arab countries” is an often-heard contemporary slogan in Israel.

  • “Security.” If the “Land of Israel” paradigm dismisses Palestinian claims on the basis of exclusive Jewish rights to the Land, the concept of “security” as used by the Labor Zio
    nists achieves the same conclusion, even though the Labor Zionist paradigm is able to conceive of territorial compromise. The particular nature of the conflict between the peoples contributed to this. Unlike conventional inter-state conflicts where one side defends its discrete territory against the enemy “over there,” the Jewish/Palestinian conflict took on characteristics of colonial struggles, where the conflicting populations are geographically intertwined and concerns of “internal security” outweigh those of external threats. The Palestinians became a kind of “enemy-within,” leading the bitkhonistim — the generals and secret “security services” officers who rose to prominence in Labor (and subsequently Likud) – to adopt an all-encompassing notion of “security” that virtually eliminated any other kinds of political considerations. In the best case, “security” prevented Israeli leaders of all camps from perceiving, creating or exploiting the numerous opportunities for peace that emerged over the years. At its worse, “security” becomes a convenient pretense for occupation and oppression. Anyone who has suddenly found a Palestinian house declared a “closed military zone” because peace activists wish to visit, has followed Israeli Supreme Court decisions allowing torture, extended “administrative detention” or house demolitions out of unspecified “security concerns,” or has been unable to hold a workshop on peace because the Palestinian participants could not get “permits” to enter Israel, realizes the degree to which “security” has been transformed from a legitimate concern into an irrational obstacle to normalization and peace.
  • “Fortress Israel.” The combination of a self-contained national narrative, a concept of “security” verging on paranoia and an effective military and security system has turned Israel into an insulated “fortress” in the Middle East, a rarified environment where life proceeds along lines of internal discourse, sometimes agitated but not fundamentally altered by outside events. Israel has effectively sealed itself off from its Middle Eastern context. Jews from the Muslim world have been thoroughly “de-Easternized” as part of the process of “absorption;” Palestinian-Israelis are referred to vaguely as “Israeli Arabs” and kept safely on the margins of social and political life; and the broader Middle East has been reduced to little more than a general but vague presence. Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank, someone commented, is further from Israel than Thailand, a terra incognito kept distant by fear and disinterest. Within Fortress Israel values of peace and democracy flourish, supported by a liberal Labor Zionist paradigm that allows Israelis to “live with” house demolitions, closure, torture, the exploitation of cheap labor and other aspects of occupation.
  • The Self-Serving “Victim.” Labor Zionism attempted to distance itself from the image of the Jew as a helpless victim. The historian Ettinger mocked what the litany of persecutions that often comprises Jewish “history” as “a cry-baby historiography.” It took the Labor Zionist paradigm decades to decide how to present and mark the Holocaust, and in the end Israel celebrates “Holocaust and Martyrs Day,” with an emphasis on active heroism and resistance to the Nazis. Israel’s initiative at Oslo is perhaps an expression of the Labor Zionist image of the Jew – the Hebrew, the Israeli – who boldly takes his fate in his own hands. Still, the idea of a tiny “David” versus an Arab “Goliath” was always a popular image in Israel.

    But casting oneself as victim can be political expedient and effective. Victims (or the “David” underdog) generally win public sympathy. More important, perhaps, they have no responsibility. Since victims are not in control of events they cannot be held accountable, cannot be expected to take any initiatives. Things happen to them, and they merely react. Golda Meir used this devise effectively when she termed Israel’s wars as “wars of ein breira” – no choice. She even berated the Arabs for “forcing us” to kill their sons. Presenting itself as the victim lets Israel claim the high moral ground of “self-defense,” “persecution” and – “security.” Begin was the first to bring to bring the Holocaust into Israeli political discourse, and it has been used cynically by the right ever since. It also sets up a false symmetry. Israel, with its powerful military machine, including a nuclear arsenal, a GNP that is 35 times that of the Palestinians and billions of dollars more than the economies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine combined, casts itself as the weak and vulnerable party in its conflict with the as-yet stateless Palestinians. Nothing Clinton said in his address to the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza infuriated Israel more than his suggesting that Israel does not have a monopoly over suffering in this conflict.

    (As Coordinator of the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions, I can testify to yet another unfortunate aspect of Israel casting itself as a victim – cruelty. Victims can have no victims, and can have no compassion for other victims. Thus Israel pursues policies in the Occupied Territories — home demolitions being foremost among them – that can only be described as persecution. And since claiming a monopoly over suffering is crucial to maintaining one’s status as a victim, the suffering Israel inflicts on the Palestinian population cannot be acknowledged, something that will make the task of reconciliation all the more difficult.)

Towards a New Paradigm of Peace: The Need for a Strategy

Israel today is in a pivotal position. A major paradigm shift has taken place in which the vast majority of Israelis are prepared for a Palestinian state and for major redeployments (including settlements) on the West Bank, Gaza and even East Jerusalem. (Because it has been ringed by massive Israeli satellite cities, Jerusalem is much less amenable to physical change.) The defeat of Netanyahu indicates that old
paradigms have been rendered largely irrelevant. But no new paradigm or vision has yet taken the place of the old ones. Only Shimon Peres has offered anything approaching a vision of a “new” Middle East. Unless the shift in the readiness for compromise is reinforced by a compelling and specific paradigm of peace, the elements of the old paradigms — “security” against “Arab enemies” if not the Greater Land of Israel ideology will reassert themselves and prevent new paradigms – and their structural prerequisites – from emerging.


The Israeli “peace movement” is an uncoordinated and gangly collection of peace organizations, dialogue groups, academic institutions, human rights organizations, concerned individuals, a few Knesset members, some performers, a number of legal groups and information centers. What it lacks in financial resources, coordination and an effective program, however, it makes up for in terms of high-quality professional people and activists. Unfortunately, we often do not exploit the professional skills of those who come to our political actions, often preferring to use them as simply numbers and sign-bearers. Identifying the talent in our ranks and formulating a concerted campaign of paradigm change would measurably increase public support for the peace process. Such a campaign would involve several steps:

  1.  Presenting the Public With a Coherent and “Self-Serving” Vision. In order to have a coherent something to shift into, the public has to be offered a coherent and compelling alternative vision of how a future in peace might look and why it would be good for us. Israelis tend to see peace in negative terms: as giving up territory and security, or becoming more vulnerable to people (Palestinians and the wider Arab world) whose intentions cannot be trusted. They have little interest, if any, in peace with the Arabs for its own sake. (Working-class Israelis of Middle Eastern origin tend to see peace for its own sake as an “Ashkenazi peace,” something else to distract national attention from their economic and social plight.) And Israelis are also not convinced that peace will bring any tangible benefits. Given these reservations, a necessary first step is simply demonstrating the connection between peace, economic development, social mobility and security.
  2. Pursuing the Political and Structural Requirements for Peace. Paradigm change can facilitate political processes and it can consolidate peaceful relations after new political arrangements have been agreed upon and implemented, but it cannot determine whether or not a structure of peace capable of supporting new attitudes and paradigms will actually be put into place. That is a product of political activity. The Israeli peace movement, like much of the Israeli public, speaks of “peace;” tellingly, Palestinians speak of a “just peace.” What is the difference? The peace camp, in conjunction with the Palestinians, must identify the elements of a just and viable structure of peace, and then develop effective strategies to secure them. How much of the paralyzing matrix of settlements, by-pass roads, industrial parks, army bases, expropriated lands and checkpoints must be dismantled, for example, for a truly viable Palestinian state to emerge? What subtle forms of hegemony must be removed so that peace does not become a sham? What structures and programs must be instituted (cross-border tourism and joint economic projects, for example) to provide all the peoples involved with incentives to maintain the course of peace instead of reverting to old patterns of conflict? New paradigms of peace depend upon a structure of peace that substantially satisfies the claims of the various parties.
  3. Towards a New Meta-Paradigm. As we have mentioned, people cling to the paradigms they grew up with and feel threatened if reality changes too quickly. Paradigm shift is a process, and so is paradigm replacement. Strategies of engagement, of dialogue, with the “unpersuaded” (as far as peace goes) are essential. The issue of peace is only one component of a broader process of paradigm change, however, and it is not necessarily the main one. Indeed, issues of peace might arise only later in the process of paradigm change so as not to enter into immediately conflict with target populations. Instead, “natural” links might be sought between the target groups and the new peace paradigm that would provide a more comfortable basis for change. For Jews originating in Muslim countries, for example, the issue of identity and de-culturalization at the hands of the Ashkenazim are still burning issues, as Shas rabbis, politicians and pirate radio announcers declare daily. “Reinserting” them into the Middle East by validating their cultures and histories might offer them a more viable and “authentic” identity than can Shas. As issues of identity are raised, the historic relationship between Middle Eastern Jews and Arabs might be renewed, with great implications for Israeli-Arab reconciliation. Process of genuine communication, reflection, learning, dialogue and critical analysis must accompany paradigm change for peace, since in the end new paradigms must be accepted and integrated rather than merely “taught.” In this process of paradigm change the peace camp can take a leading role in articulating a new meta-paradigm, since it has the breadth of vision, knowledge and critical ability to articulate the outlines of a paradigm of the future.
  4. Let a Thousand Paradigms Blossom! That is as far as an induced process of paradigm change can go. Once the conditions for peace are met and a process of paradigm change is begun – which means reconciliation among the Israeli camps as well as with the Palestinians – the different paradigms of Israel’s cultural mosaic will take care of themselves.



Jeff Halper is the co-founder and director of ICAHD. He can be reached at

Published in Palestine/Israel Journal 3 (1999).