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The fact that I am a Jew myself drove them crazy… If you are an Israeli Jew you must support Israel and the crimes it commits.Ofer Cassif

Originally published at Mint Press News

This past July I met with Israeli Knesset member Ofer Cassif at his office in the Knesset. The full interview with him can be viewed on my Patreon page. Cassif is arguably the most progressive Israeli politician in the Knesset and has a history of being on the front line of whatever progressive cause has needed him. Among the first Israelis to refuse to serve in the West Bank, he has also been a champion for Palestinian rights throughout his life.

Attempts to disqualify

Cassif is arguably the most progressive Israeli politician in the Knesset.
When Cassif was elected, there was an outcry on the Israeli political right and a serious attempt to disqualify him from becoming a member of Knesset. Cassif is a member of the Hadash Party, which is the successor to the Israeli Communist Party. Today, Hadash is part of the Joint List. “It is almost a ritual,” Cassif says, noting that during every election, members of the Israeli right appeal to the Election Committee in the Knesset, which determines who qualifies and who does not, in order to disqualify political parties or individuals from running because they support justice for Palestinians.

“The fact that I am a Jew myself drove them crazy,” Cassfi admits, and he explains that the right in general, and the Israeli right in particular, has a “superficial, linear, and one-dimensional perspective of the world.” In other words, if you are an Israeli Jew you must support Israel and the crimes it commits.

During the 1984 Knesset elections, my father ran on a joint Arab-Jewish list called the Progressive Party for Peace. The right demanded that the list be disqualified because many of its members were progressive Palestinians whom the Israeli right wanted to silence. The party’s platform called for a Two State Solution and full equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

That same year, the violent, racist hate-monger Me’ir Kahana was also running for the Knesset. The left demanded that he be disqualified for his blatant racism and calls to forcibly transfer the Palestinians out of Palestine. However, when the case came to the Israeli court, the court ruled that both the Progressive Party calling for peace and equality and the violent, racist Kahana be permitted to run, as though there was symmetry between the “two extremes.”

An Anti-Zionist in the Knesset

I asked MK Cassif about a claim he made that Zionism contributes to the rise of antisemitism in the world. “This was in an article I published in Catalan,” he said, “and the title was ‘Why Am I An Anti-Zionist Jew.’” The article Cassif wrote explained that Zionism is a racist, colonialist movement, which is why he opposes it. Furthermore, he added, “Zionism – sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly – supports antisemitism.” This is not a conspiracy notion and not a claim that this is even done consciously, but “it is inherent to Zionism.”

“About 80 of the 120 members of the current Knesset are hardcore, militant right wing.”
Cassif is intellectually unparalleled in Israeli politics. He quotes the words of Gramsci, Foucault, and Karl Marx. His office walls are covered with tributes to all the great socialists and to the Palestinian struggle. Cassif got his Ph.D. at the London School of Economics and his postdoc at Columbia University. He then returned to London and taught at LSE for two years. I was curious as to what a progressive, socialist anti-Zionist is doing in the Israeli parliament.

“This is one of the arenas in which we need to conduct the struggle,” he says. “We need to be in the arena where decisions are made,” and he emphasizes it is not the only or even the most important arena, but it is one where we must have a presence. Furthermore, Cassif notes that the state of Israel, while being a Zionist entity today, could change into something else. “I don’t say by what name it will be,” hinting at the possibility of the state being transformed into a free and democratic Palestine. Either way, the institutions of the state will still need to function, and “we who struggle against injustice need to be there to fight the injustices. If we cede the Knesset, we will lose ground,” he says.

“I will talk as a communist now, and I will quote from Lenin,” he says to me, quoting from Lenin’s work, “What Is To Be Done,” which was written at the end of 1901 and early in 1902:

Lenin explained at length why and under what circumstances communists should participate in parliaments, trade unions, etc., even if they are reactionary, and the bottom line of what he said is that communists should be present in these arenas and access them in order to change them into more progressive.

I will quote from Lenin again and say that the difference between us as communists and the bourgeois politicians is that for them the elections are the goal, whereas for a communist the elections are a means.”

This is why Cassif travels throughout the country to support workers in factories who he knows would never vote for him but whose struggle he nevertheless supports.

A “fig leaf”

“Meretz and the Islamic Party are the fig leaf for this government,” Cassif says. This government – the Bennett government – gives the impression that it is better, more moderate than the Netanyahu government because it includes Meretz and the Islamist Ra’am Party. But, Cassif says:

As a matter of fact, I can give you several examples from the last two weeks where this government acted in ways that are far worse than the Netanyahu government, but because it has the fig leaf of Meretz, Labor and the Islamic Party, people are not noticing and not criticizing the government.”

One of the examples he gave was regarding an illegal outpost named “Aviatar” that was built by militant settlers on stolen Palestinian land in the northern West Bank. In order to avoid clashes with the settlers, the government allowed them to remain even though the Israeli army recommended they be removed. Meretz, Labor and the Islamic Party voted with the government. Meretz, which supposedly carries the banner of the Zionist-Left, voting to allow an outpost that is considered illegal even by Israeli standards is a new, though not surprising, development.

A party of “yes men” and “yes women”

“About 80 of the 120 members of the current Knesset are hardcore, militant right wing,” Cassif stresses, and yet, thankfully, because they are split on the issue of Netanyahu — half are pro and half are against him — they will not sit together in a unified government.

The Likud, which was the prominent party in Israeli politics for decades, is now in the hands of a charismatic leader – namely, Benjamin Netanyahu — who has created a party of “yes men and yes women, and who obey the leader rather than what is good for the party or the political ideology of the Likud.” This is why even Beyamin Ze’ev Begin – the son of the former leader of the Likud and first right-wing prime minister of Israel, Menahem Begin – found himself out of the party his family led for almost an entire century.

However, in spite of all the dysfunction, racism, and violence that make up Israeli politics, Cassif ended our conversation on an optimistic note. “Our goal is to change the balance of power and I believe that we will,” he said, and then added a sentence from another great Marxist leader and thinker, Antonio Gramsci:

With your permission I want to end with one sentence, quoting Antonio Gramsci: “A socialist should stick to the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will.” And that is what I do.”

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