Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Uri Davis: A man and his Journey

I watched Uri Davis being interviewed on Jeera's Riz Khan without ever before having heard of him. Impressive. The first person of Jewish descent to join the Revolutionary Council of Fatah. When a caller ('Frank from London') decided to try and insult him, he chose not even to answer. So I looked him up, Uri that is...

Here he is in The Guardian/Observer, 2009...

Why Israeli Jew Uri Davis joined Fatah to save Palestine

The first Jewish member of the Revolutionary Council of Fatah talks about a unique political journey

Uri Davis is used to denunciations. A "traitor", "scum", "mentally unstable": those are just some of the condemnations that have been posted in the Israeli blogosphere in recent days. As the first person of Jewish origin to be elected to the Revolutionary Council of the Palestinian FatahDavis has tapped a deep reserve of Israeli resentment. Some have even called for him to be deported. movement, an organisation once dominated by Yasser Arafat,

He has been here before, not least as the man who first proposed the critique of Israel as an "apartheid state" in the late 1980s. Davis's involvement in the first UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001 was condemned by the Anti-Defamation League. During a career of protest he has been described – inevitably – as a "self-hating Jew". He calls himself an "anti-Zionist". And his personal history is a fascinating testimony to the troubled history of the postwar Israeli left and forgotten trajectories in the story of Israel itself.

The man elected to the Revolutionary Council in 31st place from a field of 600 has been as much shaped by the tidal forces of recent Jewish history – not least his own family's sufferings in the Holocaust – as any fellow citizen of Israel. But he disputes a largely manufactured account of that experience that he believes has been used deliberately "to camouflage" its "apartheid programme". Now he enjoys an extraordinary mandate to explain his own views. And he hopes, too, that just as the small number of white members of the ANC widened its legitimacy during the apartheid era in South Africa, other Jews can be attracted to participate in Fatah, transforming it into a broader-based movement that stands for equal rights for both Arabs and Jews in a federated state.

So what does Davis believe, and why? His father was a British Jew who met his mother, a Czech, in British Mandatory Palestine in the mid-1930s, where they married in 1939, four years before his birth. While his mother escaped the transports to the gas chambers at Auschwitz, many in her family did not. It is a familiar story in Israel. But the lesson that Davis learnt from it was different from the vast majority of Jews who concluded that never again could Jews depend on others to guarantee their security from persecution.

"An important part of the education that I received from my parents," Davis recalled last week, "was never to generalise. To beware of every sentence that begins with 'all'. It was not 'all' Germans who killed my mother's family. It was some Nazis." Another distinction was emphasised by his mother. "If she heard the suggestion of vengeance, she would be horrified. She sought justice. One of the biggest problems addressing a Zionist audience is that the distinction between justice and vengeance has collapsed."

He is 66 now, but that warning from his parents on the risk of demonising the Other still resonates in Davis's language. He is insistent that generalities should be avoided, not least the "normative idea all Israelis are exposed to: that all Arabs hate the Jews and all Arabs want to drive the Jews into the sea".

His own self-description is a case in point, fine-tuned over the decades. "It has gone through a number of stages. In my autobiography in the mid-1990s I described myself as a Palestinian Jew. That has now changed to a Palestinian Hebrew of Jewish origins." How he frames his own identity is part of his attempt to impose an "alternative narrative" to the one that has dominated Israel since its foundation in 1948 by what he describes as "a settler-colonialist" strand of Zionism built on a massive act of "ethnic cleansing". That moment – known as the "Nakba", or the catastrophe to Arabs – saw the flight of 650,000-750,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes by Jewish forces.

Davis is careful with his definitions of both "Zionism" and his own "anti-Zionism". The Zionism that he opposes is the "political Zionism" of Israel's founders, the Zionism that amounts, he says, to land grab based on ethnic cleansing.

Davis himself insists on reclaiming a wider meaning for the word, not least because he was shaped, as he grew up, by a different school: the "spiritual Zionism" of thinkers such as Ahad Ha'am, religious philosopher Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, co-founder of Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

In contrast to political Zionism, which saw Jewish statehood alone as a solution to the Jewish question, these spiritual Zionists believed Palestine could not accommodate a Jewish homeland but should become a national spiritual centre that would support and reinvigorate the Jewish diaspora.

Davis has written how his own "intellectual and moral development was profoundly influenced by Buber's writings" although he has fiercely condemned Buber's later actions, not least Buber's appropriation of a house in Jerusalem belonging to the family of the late Palestinian activist and writer Edward Said.

Then there was Leon Roth, one of his father's relatives and a fellow professor of Buber at the new Hebrew University. Roth resigned his post after witnessing the treatment of the Palestinian Arabs in the creation of Israel and returned to Cambridge.

But if these were formative influences on Davis, it is how he interpreted what he saw growing up in the young state of Israel that marked him out as different. Reading Gandhi and Martin Luther King led him to a pacifist position that saw him refuse military service in the 1960s, at a time when it was almost unheard of. He was eventually assigned to "alternative" service working on a kibbutz on the border with the Gaza Strip.

"I refused to participate in the armed patrols of the kibbutz fence on the border and that led to daily shouting matches. Then one of the members took me to the periphery of the kibbutz where there was a cluster of eucalyptus trees. He said: 'What can you see?' And I said trees. Then he took me into the wood and showed me a pile of stones. He asked me what I could see and I said: 'A pile of stones.' He said: 'No. This is the [Arab] village of Dirma. Its residents are refugees while we cultivate their land. Now do you understand why they hate us and want to drive us into the sea?

"And I said, 'But there is an alternative. We could invite them back and share it with them.'" He pauses. "If looks could kill. I saw that he saw me as a hopeless case. And I'm proud to say I'm still that hopeless case."

Davis experienced a second moment of epiphany decades later during the first Gulf war, when Iraq was firing Scud missiles at Israel – a moment of insight related to an unresolved question from his childhood. "I was born in Jerusalem, but I grew up on a farm near Herziliya. I would walk with my peers down to the beach and pass the ruins of an Arab village under the shadow of a mosque that was still intact. And the dominant narrative deleted the reality. The elders of my community said they had pleaded with the elders of the Arab village to stay. And the elders of the Arab village refused. I had no way to challenge this for decades.

"During the first Gulf war the penny dropped. The mayor of Tel Aviv was abusing all those residents who had fled under the threat from Scuds. After the war ended, the families returned. They used their keys. Put their cash cards in the ATMs. Re-opened their shops. What was significant was that no one said to them: anyone who has left has lost their property rights. That was my second crossroads."

Davis published Israel: An Apartheid State in 1987. He distinguishes between racism and apartheid, which, he argues, requires not simply an official value system that distinguishes on a racial basis but a legal reality. Indeed, Davis has written that it is wrong to single out Israel on the grounds that it is more racist than other states in the UN. Rather he believes it should be singled out because, as he wrote in a letter to Al-Ahram newspaper in 2003, "it applies the force of law to compel its citizens to make racial choices, first and foremost in all matters pertaining to access to land, housing and freedom of residence".

Davis's lifetime of dissent has not been without consequences. After joining Fatah, Davis began a long period of "de facto exile" at the suggestion of his lawyer to avoid a show trial. He taught during that time at a number of British universities, including Bradford, Exeter and Durham.

Returning to Israel and the Occupied Territories in the mid-1990s, following the Oslo Accords, Davis struggled for years to secure an appointment at an Israeli academic institution. " I kept my affiliation with Exeter and Durham, which helped me with periodical research that they farmed out to me. I also had an inheritance." It was only recently that he was appointed to teach a course at the Palestinian Al-Quds university on critical Israeli studies.

His marriage in 2008 to a Palestinian woman has not made life easier for him. She has been denied a permit to live in Israel, while Davis is forbidden by Israeli law to live in an area under Palestinian authority control as an Israeli citizen. In consequence, he is vague both about the circumstances of his conversion to Islam shortly before the wedding and where he now lives, describing those arrangements as "private".

What does he hope to achieve as a Palestinian Hebrew who is a full member of the Revolutionary Council?

His core message, he explains, is "to suggest" to his new colleagues that there is nothing to fear in recognising the notion of a Jewish state. "The correct response is that we will not recognise an Israel defined by political Zionism." And perhaps just as importantly, Davis believes that Fatah can expand its role from representing only Palestinian Arabs to representing all of those who oppose "settler-colonialism".

"It cannot win the struggle for equality that it has waged for so long as long as it remains only representative of Palestinians. To win the moral [high ground] it has to project itself as a democratic alternative for all. That is the message I first delivered and that I have persevered with and has led to my election to the Revolutionary Council after 25 years." It seems unlikely that condemnations on Israeli websites will prevent Uri Davis from giving up on his unique mission now.

Versions of Zionism

Zionism Coined by Nathan Birnbaum (1864-1937) in 1890, who also first articulated the idea of political Zionism.

Political Zionism Associated most closely with Theodor Herzl (1860 - 1904), who saw the Jewish issue as a political one requiring action in the international arena.

Spiritual Zionism Associated with Ahad Ha'am (1856-1927). Believed Judaism needed to reinvigorate its cultural assets. Argued for limited settlement in Palestine and focused on educational activity.

Revisionist Zionism Associated with Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky (1880-1940). Argued for a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan.

Modern Zionism According to the Anti-Defamation League: "Zionism stands for a safe and secure Israel open to all Jews seeking refuge and a Jewish homeland, the preservation of Judaism and Jewish people." Its harshest critics - like Uri Davis - argue that the dominant form of political zionism since the foundation of Israel in 1948 represents "settler-colonialist" project.


At 9:42 AM, Blogger Daniel Marks said...

In the name of intellectual honesty, it should be pointed out that Davis does not see himself as a Jew and has, in fact, converted to Islam.

Leaving aside the theological or halachic questions, neither of which you are likely to understand (I gather this from your "real estate" cracks about the Jewish understanding of God), I guess it sounds better in the context of your lonely posting to call him a Jew.

On the other hand, since nobody seems to be listening anyway, you might as well be truthful.


Am I the only one who ever reads your blog?

At 2:32 PM, Blogger Gert said...


Accuracy really isn't your strong suit: in my short blurb I describe Uri Davis as 'of Jewish descent'. Try and curb your enthusiasm...

At 2:46 PM, Blogger Gert said...

As regards "Leaving aside the theological or halachic questions, neither of which you are likely to understand [...]", be careful what you wish for: I'm an atheist/agnostic but not an anti-religious bigot, I may well know far more than you surmise...

At 8:40 PM, Blogger Daniel Marks said...

"Why Israeli Jew Uri Davis joined Fatah to save Palestine..."

"And he hopes...other Jews can be attracted to participate in Fatah.."

I'll let your readers decide, if you have any.

At 9:22 PM, Blogger Gert said...

You want to do 'petty'? I can do petty. This is a reprint (NOT my text). In my blurb a wrote 'of Jewish descent'.

I wouldn't worry about my readers: most of them can read.

At 4:12 AM, Blogger Daniel Marks said...

Oh, so you reprint things you don't agree with a concede are factually incorrect. Why not say so?

Do you mean "all your readers" or "both of them" and who's the other one?

At 2:12 PM, Blogger Gert said...


With all due respect [cough!] but I'm surprised you still have the gall to come here, pretending to be 'reasonable' after throwing some seriously vile sexual taunts at me elsewhere. I guess some people just don't have any shame or principles...

You and some of your 'friends' at Richard Millett are proof that antisemitism is indeed not only morally wrong but also logically fallacious. It goes like this.

Humanist anti-racism assumes that social groups, 'races', nations etc etc are broadly equal, allowing exception for individuals that do indeed differ from one to another. This equality implies that such groups also roughly host the same quota of imbeciles, racists or merely deeply annoying people. You and your new-found friends are part of that quota (in this case Jewish) and thus part for the logical proof that antisemitism is indeed logically speaking nonsense!

At 3:41 PM, Blogger Daniel Marks said...

I come to your blog, matey, because I love going, "where no man has gone before." Bit of peace and quiet here.

Unable to answer whether why you reprint things that you don't agree with and concede are factually incorrect, you chose to go off on a tangent.

Attention span problems Willy Wonker?

At 3:49 PM, Blogger Gert said...


Either you start behaving or you're out. It's one thing to be insulted at another person's blog, quite another to be insulted at one's own. I've been quite tolerant of you, yet you're now starting to behave like a troll.

At 7:24 PM, Blogger Daniel Marks said...

Still unable to explain why you reprint things that you don't agree with and concede are factually incorrect? If you want to ban me, that's up to you. Did you think I'd stop exposing you for the fraud and hypocrite that you are because of your threat.

If the question about why you reprint things that you don't agree with and concede are factually incorrect is really hard to answer you could always erase it.

Cheer up mate and don't worry about feeling humiliated. Nobody reads your blog anyway!

At 8:14 PM, Blogger Gert said...


You really are testing my patience over a petty point:

This is what I wrote in my blurb:

"The first person of Jewish descent to join the Revolutionary Council of Fatah[...]

This is what's in the actual article:

"As the first person of Jewish origin to be elected [...]"


"In my autobiography in the mid-1990s I described myself as a Palestinian Jew. That has now changed to a Palestinian Hebrew of Jewish origins [...]"

Personally I believe how Uri Davis sees or describes himself is entirely up to him...

At 5:55 AM, Blogger Daniel Marks said...

I was amused at your writing " Mark:…Accuracy really isn't your strong suit:" later on you called me David. Marks and David are both fine names. Mine is Daniel.

I shall write politely this time and we'll see how it goes.

In my opinion Davies' decision to convert to Islam and marry an Arab lady were crucially important facts and worthy of mentioning either in your blurb or bracketed by statements like, "Why Israeli Jew Uri Davis joined Fatah to save Palestine..." and "And he hopes...other Jews can be attracted to participate in Fatah.." .

Basically, the only supposedly remarkable element of the article is the fact that we are talking about an Israeli Jew. Davies' holds views such as:

"..a settler-colonialist" strand of Zionism built on a massive act of "ethnic cleansing".

Without us getting into an argument whether they're right or not (we might not agree) I'm sure that you'd concede that there's nothing remarkable or innovative about this and that had their espousers' name have been Abul or even Chris nobody would have even noticed him. Davies' claim to fame is exactly his Jewish roots or origins, if he's a Jew and he says so it can't be anti-Semitism etc. "Look even a Jew says so and he hopes...other Jews can be attracted to participate in Fatah too. It is for that reason that the fact of his conversion was crucially important to have mentioned in the name of intellectual honesty.

Finally, your implication that by using the expression 'of Jewish descent' readers could infer that he had abandoned Judaism and converted to Islam is, in my opinion, at best mendacious, and at worst…oh yes, I said I'd be polite.

At 1:50 PM, Blogger Gert said...


The reason why on this very petty point you are practically calling me 'at best mendacious' is that Davis' conversion is of great significance to you, while to me it simply isn't.

In my book people are firstly people and Jews/Christian/Muslim/Other secondly. Davis' religious views aren't so important to me in this context: they don't affect the validity/invalidity of his views.

Anyone reading the article will understand Davis is not a Jew but merely of Jewish descent. You're turning a mole heap into a mountain.

At 6:31 AM, Blogger Daniel Marks said...

The title of the article you published was, "Why Israeli Jew Uri Davis joined Fatah to save Palestine" and its first line read, "The first Jewish member of the Revolutionary Council of Fatah talks about a unique political journey".
Nowhere in the article is the fact of Davis' decision to convert to Islam mentioned, why?

Well it can't be because, "Davis' religious views aren't so important to me in this context: they don't affect the validity/invalidity of his views." To the article the opposite is true. His being Jewish is the only fact that "affects the validity/invalidity of his views" After all he says nothing new and as I've said there are millions of other Moslems with similar and often more original ideas who don't get an article of their own.

Therefore, it was intellectually dishonest of the Guardian to title an article about a Moslem, "Why Israeli Jew Uri Davis joined Fatah to save Palestine". Your replies are:

1. I didn't write the article.

2. I said he was of Jewish descent.

3. His religion is unimportant to me.

Regarding your first answer it seems ingenuous to publish an article that you disagree with, without stating as much. Regarding your second, nobody would guess that your use of the term "of Jewish descent" was in fact a correction and that Davis had converted.

Therefore your final argument namely, "Davis' religious views aren't so important to me in this context: they don't affect the validity/invalidity of his views." If that is the case why was so much play made of him being, " he first Jewish member of the Revolutionary Council of Fatah"? Hardly the attitude of someone who says, " In my book people are firstly people and Jews/Christian/Muslim/Other secondly".

By the way in Davis' book, namely the Koran, this is hardly the case. If you don't believe me, ask your mate Gamil.

At 3:24 PM, Blogger Gert said...

For the last time, 'Gamil' (assuming he actually exists) is not my 'mate'.

At 6:58 AM, Blogger Daniel Marks said...

"For the last time, 'Gamil' (assuming he actually exists)..."

- This attempt to ignore the existence of the Palestinian people has never been my way and will lead to no good results.

While it's true that many early Zionist leaders did also tend to deny the existence of a Palestinian nation (Golda Meyer famously) you'll find that as early as the 1930 Vladimir Jabotinski acknowledged their existence and even the morality of their claim to Palestine. His argument was it was a matter of competing claims by legitimate nations.

At 2:39 PM, Blogger Gert said...

It's rather typical that Vladimir Jabotinski was a 'transferist'...

At 3:02 PM, Blogger Daniel Marks said...


At 3:10 PM, Blogger Gert said...

A difference without a distinction, I feel...


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