Skip to main content
book review

Palestinian artists paint murals on the walls of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) office in Gaza City, on Oct. 28, 2021.MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

Title: The State of Israel Vs. The Jews

Author: Sylvain Cypel (originally written in French, translated into English by William Rodarmor)

Publisher: Other Press


Title: Unsilencing Gaza

Author: Sara Roy

Publisher: Pluto Press

In a scene from the 2017 documentary Disappearances, an urban planner explains to a group of students how Moroccan Jews who settled in Manshiye, Israel, during the 1950s were evicted from their homes to make way for a business complex. A teacher then asks the planner why he doesn’t tell another important historical story: how that same neighbourhood was once inhabited by Palestinians who were forcefully expelled from their land in 1948 during the final days of the Jewish insurgency in Mandatory Palestine. The planner’s terse reply: “History is written by the winners.”

This anecdote “can serve as a metaphor for the most important change that Jewish-Israeli society has undergone in a half-century of occupation,” writes French journalist Sylvain Cypel in The State of Israel Vs. The Jews. The book is built around a single argument that is quite convincing: Zionism comes from an aggressive but outdated mode of 19th-century European nationalism that is no longer compatible with pluralistic democratic values in the 21st-century Western-led global order.

Cypel begins with a real history lesson. He claims a fictitious version of the past was propagated by Israel’s first prime minster, David Ben-Gurion, right after the Jewish homeland and sovereign nation-state of Israel was formally proclaimed in May, 1948 – namely, that all Palestinians left their land voluntarily.

Handout

Cypel was once seduced by this noble version of Israeli history, but changed his mind after going to live and work in the country – first as a soldier, then as a student, and eventually as a journalist. This personal side to his story gives the book’s main argument a considerable persuasive edge. Cypel’s writing is realistic – angry, cynical and even despairing at times. He clearly feels betrayed by a nation he once believed could become a model socialist secular-egalitarian state.

His staunch commitment to Zionism was at one time primal and atavistic. Most of Cypel’s father’s relatives were murdered by Nazis in Ukraine during the Holocaust. This inspired Cypel to leave France as a teenager to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). He witnessed the messianic euphoria that surfaced after Israel’s monumental victory in the 1967 Six-Day War – a brief but bloody conflict fought between the young Jewish rookie nation-state and its nearest hostile Arab neighbours: Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

After seizing the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, Israel suddenly tripled the territory it controlled in less than a week, and became an occupying power in charge of 1.1 million Palestinians. A trend towards building Jewish settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (illegal under international law) was normalized – and even encouraged – a decade later, when hawkish Zionist revisionist Menachem Begin took power with the Likud party in May, 1977. That shift towards the radical right has continued over the last four decades and turned Israel “into a racist, bullying little superpower,” Cypel writes.

Cypel’s argument isn’t just subjective opinion. In his book, he continually quotes from conversations he’s had with Israeli spies, politicians, journalists, former army officers, intellectuals and human rights activists. Some are Zionist extremists. Others are left-wing moderates who believe in a two-state solution. For that to happen, they say Israel must return to the internationally recognized pre-1967 borders and discontinue building Jewish settlements, and that it must stop treating Palestinians as second-class citizens in a political regime that normalizes division.

He cites the nation-state law the Knesset adopted in 2018 as a typical example of “state apartheid” being given legitimate legal authority in Israel. The law stipulates that Arabs and other (non-Jewish) ethnic groups residing in the state of Israel are now excluded from full citizenship rights – even though they account for one-fifth of Israel’s population. This goes against the fundamental principles of Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence, which promised political equality for all its citizens without distinction of race or creed.

Cypel began writing this book on May 14, 2018 – when Israel was celebrating two major historical events: the 70th anniversary of the country’s birth, and a formal recognition by the United States of Israel’s new capital, Jerusalem. Meanwhile, 76 kilometres away, on the frontier between Israel and the Gaza Strip, IDF snipers were operating on a shoot-to-kill policy. 58 Palestinians were killed and a further 1,350 were wounded on that single day alone. Most were unarmed. They were protesting against what Israelis were raising a toast to in Jerusalem: the official opening of a new U.S. embassy there.

“All the constraints that Israel imposes on the Palestinians are carried out under the ideological banner of the ‘war on terrorism,’” Cypel writes. He claims this system of control ultimately reduces all Palestinians to a distorted identity: Israel always views and treats them collectively as a “terrorist people.”

American political economist Sara Roy also shares similar concerns. In her new book Unsilencing Gaza, she argues that Israel uses the threat of terrorism to marginalize Gaza politically and economically. Roy, a senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, contends that a lasting and permanent peace settlement between Arabs and Jews in the region will never be possible without a drastic economic and humanitarian improvement to the lives of most ordinary Gazans.

Like Cypel, Roy has a left-leaning, anti-Zionist perspective. She is also a descendant of Holocaust survivors from central Europe. Roy has been visiting Gaza since 1985, and lived there during the first Palestinian Intifada in 1987. This on-the-ground experience lends her point of view significant credibility and authenticity.

Unsilencing Gaza also devotes considerable time and energy to the political and humanitarian implications of the Gaza blockade that has been in place since 2007. Israel uses the blockade “to control and dominate the Palestinian economy, shaping it to serve its own interests,” she writes, and to “attack Gaza’s economic structure with the aim of permanently disabling it.” She points out how Israel is intentionally using the blockade to punish Gazans for supporting Hamas, and as a political and economic weapon to turn the occupation into a humanitarian problem.

Handout

Roy’s empathetic writing paints a depressing picture of daily life in Gaza. 80 per cent of Gaza’s total population are now completely dependent on international aid to simply live, eat and survive. The decision taken during the Trump administration to drastically cut U.S. contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides aid to 5.2 million Palestinians scattered across the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and in surrounding Arab nations, had disastrous consequences. Roy also notes how “Canada’s decision to first reduce and then terminate funding to the agency [in 2013] was extremely injurious.” That decision was reversed in 2016, and last year, Canada announced $90-million in funding to UNRWA over a three-year period.

Roy also examines the schism within the broader Palestinian body politic between the hardline religious Hamas in Gaza, and the more moderate and secular Fatah in the West Bank. That disunity grew following the death in 2004 of the first president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Nobel Peace Prize winner Yasser Arafat. Roy writes that this political polarity is hitting ordinary Gaza citizens where it hurts the most: their wallets. Since 2017, the current PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, has cut millions from Gaza’s economy in an attempt to put political pressure on Hamas.

Roy’s attempt to assess Hamas as a credible and legitimate political entity fails to convince, mainly because her sympathies clearly lie with a pro-Palestinian agenda – which means she defends their viewpoint even when it’s clear she doesn’t fully believe in certain aspects of Palestinian politics herself. Roy notes, for instance, that Hamas has voiced support for a permanent peace with Israel if it promises to return to its internationally recognized pre-1967 borders. But she draws almost no attention to the fact that Hamas (unlike the Palestine Liberation Organization) does not recognize the state of Israel, and also uses antisemitic language as part of its charter. She does, however, point to Hamas’s widespread corruption, and to the coercion and violence the group has used even against its own supporters in Gaza. Many ordinary Gazans have been “subjected to beatings, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and ill treatment,” she writes.

Neither Unsilencing Gaza nor The State of Israel Vs. The Jews offers any viable solutions for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict any time soon – mainly because right now, they simply don’t exist. Both Cypel and Roy point to one main reason for such a depressing political impasse: Israel has become far too dominating and powerful, while Palestinians have at the same time become weak and impoverished.

Both authors also agree on four fundamental issues underlying the quagmire: First, the occupation must end. Once this happens, they claim it will forge a path for achieving Palestinian statehood within the parameters of a two-state solution.

Secondly, they demonstrate how uneven the conflict has become. The body-count statistics speak volumes. According to B’Tselem, a Jerusalem-based Israeli NGO, between December, 1987, and April, 2021, 13,969 lives were lost from politically motivated violence between Israelis and Palestinians. 87 per cent of the dead were Palestinian.

Thirdly, Cypel and Roy also argue that Jewish settlements are a barrier to peace. In 2017, the Israeli Jewish settlement population stood at 427,000 in the West Bank, and 220,000 in East Jerusalem. The paradigm for negotiations between Jews and Arabs since 1967 has mainly centred around the phrase “land for peace.” But what happens when there is no land?

And finally, both writers claim no lasting peace settlement can occur unless the United States, the EU and other major international actors force Israel to give up its domination over the Palestinians. That view is also shared by many progressive Jews across the global Jewish diaspora. But can this influence Israel’s cozy relationship with Washington and other key political players in the coming years? Perhaps. But maybe not.

With overwhelming military and economic advantages, Israel is now the dominant power in a decades-old conflict. Palestinians, by contrast, are occupied, divided, poor, isolated, humiliated, disengaged and lacking any real credible political unity or leadership – which means they don’t possess a great deal of bargaining power at the negotiating table, should any real possibility for a lasting peace settlement with Israel arise in the near future.

And yet, as long as the occupation remains in place, victory can never be fully claimed by Israel, either. The threat of violence from their nearest neighbours always looms on the horizon. As Cypel aptly puts it: “Israel is too powerful to lose, but it isn’t able to win.”

Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct