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The Desert of Israeli Democracy

Posted on Oct 14, 2013
Physicians for Human Rights - Israel (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A child stands in an “unrecognized Bedouin village” in the Negev Desert in Israel.

By Max Blumenthal, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

Unrestricted by the center-left’s pretensions to tolerance, rightist members of the government launched a festival of unprecedented racist incitement. Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the Shas Party (replaced after the 2013 election), for example, falsely described African asylum seekers as infected with “a range of diseases” and lamented that they “think the country doesn’t belong to us, the white man.”

“Until I can deport them,” he promised, “I’ll lock them up to make their lives miserable.”

At a May 2012 anti-African rally in Tel Aviv, on a stage before more than 1,000 riled up demonstrators, Knesset member and former Israeli army spokesperson Miri Regev proclaimed, “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body!” Incited into a violent frenzy, hundreds of protesters then rampaged through south Tel Aviv, smashing the windows of African businesses and attacking any migrant they could find. “The people want the Africans to be burned!” they chanted.

As during other dark moments in history, eliminationist cries booming from an urban mob against a class of outcasts signaled a coming campaign of ethnic purification. And following the night of shattered glass, the cells of Saharonim continued to fill up.

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Going South

Just as Western media consumers will find details about the Prawer Plan and the Saharonim camp hard to come by, casual visitors to the Negev Desert will find little evidence of the state’s more disturbing endeavors. Instead, highway signs will direct them to a little museum at Sde Boker, the humble kibbutz that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, called home.

In Ben Gurion’s memoirs, he fantasized about evacuating Tel Aviv and settling five million Jews in small outposts across the Negev, where they would be weaned off the rootless cosmopolitanism they inherited from diaspora life. Just as he resented the worldly attitude of Jews from Tel Aviv and New York City, Ben Gurion was repelled by the sight of the open desert, describing it as a “criminal waste” and “occupied territory.”  Indeed, from his standpoint, the Arabs were the occupiers. As early as 1937, he had plans for their removal, writing in a letter to his son Amos, “We must expel Arabs and take their places.”

Ben Gurion’s house is an austere-looking, single-story structure, sparsely furnished and poorly lit. The separate, spartan bedrooms he and his wife slept in are impeccably preserved, as though they might return home at any time. Nearby is a compact, somewhat shabby museum commemorating his legacy in a series of exhibits that do not appear to have been updated for at least a decade.

The site is a crumbling remnant of a bygone era that the country has left in the dust. The enlightened public of Israel’s coastal center has turned its back on the desert, preferring instead to face toward the urbane capitals of Europe, while the rest of the country draws increasing energy from the religious nationalist fervor emanating from the hilltops of the occupied West Bank. In the Negev, perhaps all that endures of Ben Gurion’s legacy is the continuous expulsion of the Bedouins.

On a gravelly path leading towards his home, a series of plaques highlight tidbits of wisdom from that Israeli founding father. One quote stands out from the others. Engraved on a narrow slab of granite, it reads, “The State of Israel, to exist, must go south.”

Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Daily Beast, the Nation, the Huffington Post, the Independent Film Channel, Salon.com, Al Jazeera English, and other publications. He is the author of the bestselling book Republican Gomorrah. His new book, just published, is Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (Nation Books)

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Max Blumenthal

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