The ‘Hamasnik’ candidate who wants Palestinians to recognize the Jewish state
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The ‘Hamasnik’ candidate who wants Palestinians to recognize the Jewish state

Philosophy professor Yossi Yona, now running for Knesset, says the 2011 protests helped him overcome his disillusion with Zionism

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Yossi Yona at a press conference in 2011. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Yossi Yona at a press conference in 2011. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

The clip starts with an image of the Hamas logo and menacing music. Then a quote appears: “There’s no difference between the Jewish Holocaust Day and the Palestinian Nakba.” The line, written in broken Hebrew, suggesting it was written by Arabs, refers to the “catastrophe” that for Palestinians is Israel’s creation in 1948.

Images of the Holocaust and violent Palestinian uprisings emerge, followed by more controversial statements, such as “Respect for Zionist soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied territories” and “As long as there is occupation there will be terror,” mixed with footage of Palestinian protests.

At the end of the one-minute clip, it says: “This is not Hamas! This is Yossi Yona [from] the Labor party headed by [Isaac] Boujie [Herzog].”

This election is defined by its viral campaign videos more than anything else and yet this clip, released by Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett in a bid to denounce Yona as sympathetic to Hamas, is a particularly crass example. It’s not every day that an Israeli philosophy professor who believes the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state is compared to a murderous terrorist organization.

“I was appalled, I was angry, I was hurt,” Yona, number 23 on the Zionist Union’s list and according to polls likely to be a future MK, told The Times of Israel during a recent interview. “Though I am critical and sometimes some of my comments were provocative, they were never stated with any desire or wish for this place to unravel. This place, Israel, is dear to me.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxVk-ueod6c

Yona, an Ivy League-educated social activist living in Tel Aviv, was in Thailand when the clip first surfaced in late January. His party’s legal advisor appealed to the Central Elections Committee, but the complaint was rebuffed because the ad was not deemed to contain any incitement. In the meantime, the clip has been watched more than 50,000 times.

Did Yona, a professor of the philosophy of education at Ben Gurion University, actually say all the things Bennett claims?

Most of them are either total fabrications or partial statements ripped out of context, Yona asserted. Only one statement attributed to him was accurately reflected in the clip, and he has since retracted it, he added.

The Times of Israel looked up some of the controversial statements ostensibly made by the Knesset hopeful.

While he never uttered the quote about Holocaust Day and Nakba Day being identical, he did juxtapose the two somewhat confusingly. In an October 2005 interview with Haaretz, Yona described his vision of Israel as a multicultural state in which Arabs and Jews live at peace with each other. “I would propose,” he said when asked whether the siren would sound on Memorial Day and Holocaust Remembrance Day, “that the mourning days be united into one day, in which appropriate expression would also be given to the Arabs; mourning, for example for their Naqba day.”

‘I believed once that refusal to serve in the West Bank may be an effective means to halt the settlement project, which is inconsistent with the ability to sustain a sovereign Jewish state’

This statement in no way equates the Nakba and the Holocaust as suggested by Bennett’s clip, Yona insisted. “I said that when there is a full reconciliation between rivaling people there is a point in which they recognize each other’s pain and suffering.”

He did not call for the creation of only one day of mourning in which both the Palestinian and the Jewish plights are remembered, he added. “My idea is that reconciliation between people means mutual recognition.”

In the United States, whites commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, recognizing that they are at least partially responsible for the blacks’ suffering, he said. Jews and Arabs will not become one people any time soon, like Americans are one people, “but nonetheless I thought of a utopian day when there is full reconciliation.”

What about his support for conscientious objection? It is true that more than a decade ago he signed a petition calling on soldiers to refuse to serve in the territories, but he has since disavowed this view, he said.

“I believed once that refusal to serve in the West Bank may be an effective means to halt the settlement project, which is in my view inconsistent with the ability to sustain a sovereign Jewish state. I no longer hold this view,” he said. One major reason he reconsidered was the realization that conscientious objection could also backfire — when right-leaning soldiers refused to dismantle illegal settlements, for instance.

"This is not Hamas! This is Yossi Yona [from] the Labor party headed by [Isaac] Buji [Herzog]” reads this campaign video posted online by Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett (photo credit: screen grab YouTube)
“This is not Hamas! This is Yossi Yona [from] the Labor party headed by [Isaac] Buji [Herzog]” reads this campaign video posted online by Jewish Home party chairman Naftali Bennett (photo credit: screen grab YouTube)
Knowing how controversial disobedience is in Israel, where many consider army service a sacred duty, he refused to elaborate further. Asked how a soldier should act if he or she for moral reasons doesn’t want to serve in the West Bank, he hesitated.

“I have no position on that,” he said, a statement opportune for a politician but not very brave for a philosopher. “The moment I have a position on that it is a public statement. So I don’t have a position on that.”

Yona, who speaks fluent English and Arabic, was also attacked for not being “Zionist” enough. Again, at issue was something he said in that 2005 interview to Haaretz. Asked if he still defined himself as a Zionist, he replied: “I admit that I do not connect with that word, Zionism. It does not express who I am. In my youth I was a Zionist.”

Yona now says he is undoubtedly a Zionist, but adds that he had sought at the time to express his “alienation and estrangement only with the chauvinistic and nationalistic interpretations given to [Zionism] by the right wing.” Zionism has been hijacked by the right, he said, and if it means occupation and turning the West Bank into an apartheid state, he wants nothing to do with it.

For Yona, being a true Zionist means believing in a two-state solution and turning Israel once more into a progressive welfare state, he went on. He had once lost hope that Israel could fulfill that ideal, but the social protest movement of 2011 rekindled his Zionist fervor.

“Seeing half a million people taking to the streets, yearning for a new hope, is quite a miracle.”

Injured in war, advised Rabin, opposed Trajtenberg

Yona was born and raised in Kiryat Ata, northeast of Haifa, to parents who immigrated to Israel from Iraq in the 1950s. He served in the armored corps, and the “traumatic experiences” and “emotional scars” he received from fighting in the 1973 Yom Kippur war — his tank was hit five times — formed his political views, he recalled. Too many of his comrades died, and he felt the country’s leaders were “smug and overconfident,” he said. “So you sober up. But you don’t lose your loyalty to this place. I remained loyal and committed to it, but you have a sense of anger and frustration.”

After the army, Yona studied philosophy, history and art history at the University of Haifa and earned a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. Upon returning to Israel, he began teaching philosophy and became engaged in peace and social justice movements, including a stint in politics advising prime minister Yitzhak Rabin on education issues.

After Rabin was murdered, he felt the “right-wing ideology leading us to the abyss.” Disillusioned with politics, he focused on research and wrote a novel. But when the social protest movement erupted four years ago his political passions were aroused once more. “I was yearning for something to happen,” he recalled.

Yona became one of the movement’s most vocal intellectuals, and ironically, perhaps, the fiercest critic of the government-sponsored report intended to answer the people’s call for action, written by Manuel Trajtenberg — the same Trajtenberg now running as the Zionist Union’s candidate for finance minister.

Yossi Yona, far right, next to Daphne Leaf, Stav Shafir and  Avia Spivak, the initiators of the 2011 protests against rising housing and property prices, social inequalities and the high cost of living in Israel, in front of Knesset, September 6, 2011 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Yossi Yona, far right, next to Daphne Leaf, Stav Shafir and Avia Spivak, the initiators of the 2011 protests against rising housing and property prices, social inequalities and the high cost of living in Israel, in front of Knesset, September 6, 2011 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

“I still believe that he knew that the recommendations his committee drafted can hardly meet the protestors’ demands nor can they seriously ease the economic distresses that took them to the streets,” Yona said about Trajtenberg. The committee he headed was “a ploy by Prime Minister Netanyahu to defuse the social outrage and to misguide the protesters, having them believe, erroneously, that his government is sincere in its attempts to provide remedies to their plights.” But by joining the Zionist Union, Yona said, Trajtenberg showed he “went through a considerable ideological transformation.” Still, Yona bluntly acknowledges he does not fully agree with the party’s economic platform.

Although Yona continues to be branded by the right wing as the Zionist Union’s far-left Achilles’ heel — he was attacked last week again for suggesting that his party would consider dividing Jerusalem — his vision for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not differ dramatically from those of most of his colleagues in Labor. If anything, he appears to insist on a major Palestinian concession even many centrists are ready to ignore: the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

‘Mutual recognition is a basic human need. Our sense of selfhood — on either a personal or collective level — is reaffirmed by such recognition’

Netanyahu has placed this demand at the core of the conflict: there can be no peace, he argues, as long as the Palestinians do not recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Some consider his insistence on recognition unnecessary, intended to derail any meaningful peace negotiations. Not so Yona. He considers Netanyahu’s demand for recognition not only legitimate but “essential,” even though he accuses the prime minister of using it as an excuse to obstruct peace talks with the Palestinians.

“Being a student of modern philosophy, I do believe that mutual recognition, either on a personal level or a collective level, is a basic human need,” Yona said. “Our sense of selfhood — on either a personal or collective level — is reaffirmed by such recognition.”

It may well be that the Palestinians’ stubborn refusal to grant this recognition indicates their unwillingness to recognize the Jewish people’s right to sovereignty, he allowed — just as there are many Jews who reject the very existence of a Palestinian people, let alone their right to an independent state. “Well, it seems that we both, Palestinians and Jews, are facing a tall order, a real and heavy challenge in this respect. But we should not lose hope. We should work towards reconciliation and mutual recognition.”

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