Ofer Cassif Is Fighting Israeli Extremism From Within the Knesset

Ofer Cassif

Ofer Cassif, an Israeli member of the Knesset, talks to Jacobin about the “pyromaniac psychopath” Benjamin Netanyahu and why, as a Jewish politician, he joined the struggle for socialism and Palestinian liberation.

Ofer Cassif, member of the Israeli Knesset for the Joint List, on April 19, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Leena Dallasheh

Dr Ofer Cassif is a member of the Knesset for the Joint List — an alliance of the four Palestinian-majority political parties in Israel. One of the few Jewish members in the alliance, he serves as a representative of the left-wing Jabha (Hadash) coalition, an Arab-Israeli group which includes the Israeli Communist Party.

Cassif has been a political activist for decades. He was the first Israeli to be imprisoned for refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories during the First Intifada. Around the same time, he joined the Communist Party and served as parliamentary assistant for Meir Vilner, one of the party’s leading figures.

In his column for Haaretz, noted left-wing intellectual Gideon Levy has described Cassif as “a very important person” and a “Knesset leftist of a new stripe” who doesn’t mince words when it comes to taking a clear anti-Zionist stance.

Cassif’s radicalism has made him a target for police violence and death threats. This, Cassif says, is not unique to him — increasingly, Israeli settler colonial violence is taking aim at Jews who offer any type of critique of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli occupation policies.

Cassif spoke with Leena Dallasheh about the recent escalation in violence, noting its direct connection with the current political impasse in Israel and Netanyahu’s attempts to maintain control of the country. He also elaborates on his party’s vision for ending the conflict, highlighting the primacy of ending the occupation as a first step toward a just solution that must also include the right of return for refugees, and equality and rights for Palestinians within Israel.

Leena Dallasheh

Can you start by giving us a brief overview of the situation since the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas?

Ofer Cassif

As long as the occupation continues, the ceasefire will not change much. Of course, it changes a lot for the people who have been suffering from the recent bloodshed. But as far as the general picture is concerned, nothing has changed. It doesn’t seem that the government of Israel, and specifically Netanyahu and his thugs, are going to change anything — and if they are going to change anything, I’m afraid it’s going to be for the worse. So, in that sense, there is a lot of tension in the air, especially when you get into places like occupied East Jerusalem, the south of Israel, or the occupied territories. In those areas, there’s no profound difference since the ceasefire.

Leena Dallasheh

You tweeted a few days ago: “Netanyahu ignited a fire to maintain his role. We shall say that everywhere and in every language.”

This actually ties into a question I wanted to ask you about the timing of this latest round of escalation. As you said, this fits into a longer historical pattern, but the timing of the recent escalation also seems to be connected with the political impasse within Israel, namely that Netanyahu has failed to form a government and his hold on power is weak. Can you elaborate on that part of the current conflict?

Ofer Cassif

Netanyahu is a pyromaniac psychopath. I’m not the only one who says so — even people not from my political camp agree.

Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister of Israel (who is not exactly a leftist) warned over two weeks ago that Netanyahu is going to “start a fire,” specifically in Jerusalem, in order to stay in power. He actually said that two or three days before the escalation itself began. Dan Halutz, the former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces — clearly not a leftist — said something very similar. And yesterday or the day before, in the newspaper Maariv, there was an article showing that people within Netanyahu’s own Likud Party are saying that he wants the escalation to continue in order to stay in power, and that if Israel goes to a fifth round of elections, he believes that he can pick up much more seats thanks to the conflict.

I do believe it’s a kind of strategy. Like I said, Netanyahu is a pyromaniac psychopath, and one of the main characteristics of psychopaths is that they don’t care about anyone. Netanyahu only wants to stay in power — in large part because he doesn’t want to go to prison [for corruption charges].

Again, one cannot ignore the possibility that the beginning of this escalation was directly attached to Netanyahu’s loss of a governing mandate — he lost it to opposition leader Yair Lapid. Netanyahu has actually been laying the groundwork for such an escalation for quite a long time: in 2019, he ordered police to put fences up in Bāb al-‘Āmūd, the Damascus Gate, knowing that this was going to stir up a lot of controversy, because the Damascus Gate is a traditional place where young Palestinian people gather after they fast. He ordered the building of the fences knowing that it was going to stir rage — he did it on purpose.

There is also a long-standing project of ethnic cleansing in Sheikh Jarrah (although not just there). This ethnic cleansing actually reached much more brutal levels in the last few days before the escalation.

Some people say that far-right Knesset member and settlement leader Itamar Ben-Gvir was responsible for inciting violence in Sheikh Jarrah, but I think Netanyahu was responsible. For me, Ben-Gvir was just a proxy. Ben-Gvir went to Sheikh Jarrah, to the middle of the Palestinian neighborhood, and set up his offices in front of the houses there that are going to be evicted and handed over to Jews. But I think what Netanyahu did was give the matches to Ben-Gvir, to start the fire.

Two days before Hamas began shooting missiles, Netanyahu told Ben-Gvir: “Leave Sheikh Jarrah, because if you don’t, Hamas is going to launch missiles at Jerusalem.”

For Palestinians, especially Muslim Palestinians, the occupation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque was the turning point. They shot grenades within the mosque, just as Netanyahu ordered them to do. And, of course, the other key moment were the huge demonstrations of so-called “Judeo-Nazis”: far-right Jewish supremacist groups Lehava and La Familia were patrolling the streets of Jerusalem looking for Palestinians and Jewish leftists to beat up and abuse.

Netanyahu was actually responsible for all of these things, either directly or by proxy. Those were the events immediately before Hamas began shooting missiles at Jerusalem. You would have to be blind to ignore the causality between the deeds of Netanyahu and the escalation that we experienced.

I have no doubt that Netanyahu is responsible for the bloodshed, especially in Gaza, but I will not ignore that people died in Israel, too. When I see the children — two children in Israel and the seventy children in Gaza — that have died, this just breaks my heart.

Of course, Israel has been killing Palestinians since the Nakba. But this is probably the first time that society at large — of course, not all Israelis — has legitimized this killing.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz coined the term “Judeo-Nazis” about forty years ago. When he was asked, “How can you say that? How dare you use that term? We aren’t going to build gas chambers or pursue a systematic elimination project,” his response consisted of two parts. First of all, he said, “If the only difference between us and the Nazis is that we are not going to build gas chambers, we are already in deep trouble.” And the second thing he said, which is more relevant to our discussion, was: “They may not build gas chambers and pursue a plan of elimination, but the social mentality that dominates Israel would allow for that.”

This is exactly what I mean: Netanyahu has turned this “Judeo-Nazi” mentality, to use Leibowitz’s term, into a hegemonic discourse. This is the most dangerous thing — it is becoming legitimate now among many Israelis to kill not only Palestinians but also leftists. There is a demonstration in front of my house calling to expel me from the city where I live. Some people wrote on social media that the planes that were sent to Gaza should be sent to bomb my house. This is something that Netanyahu not only allows — he encourages it.

The world must understand that Netanyahu is a psychopath vis-à-vis the Palestinians, but also vis-à-vis anyone who criticizes him. You are regarded as a traitor to Israel if you criticize Netanyahu, and not long ago, treason was punishable by death in Israel.

Leena Dallasheh

You’ve alluded to this point, but I would like you to expand on the idea that the settler movement led by Ben-Gvir and his associates has now kind of extended its campaign within the 1948 border.

Ofer Cassif

For many years now — but, again, especially under Netanyahu — the settlers in the Palestinian occupied territories (the territories Israel occupied in 1967) have styled themselves as the “Lords of the Land.” They see themselves as lords in the sense that no rules apply to them. In the occupied territories, they shoot Palestinians, burn their fields, and cut their trees down. They throw stones and shoot to kill — the law doesn’t seem to apply to them.

Leibowitz, whom I mentioned before, wrote an article in September 1967, just a few months after the occupation. There, he said that the occupation is going to penetrate and destroy the state of Israel proper, like any colonial system. It’s not because he was a prophet — it’s just so clear from history that this is the outcome of such a colonial situation.

Again, this colonialist attitude has begun to seep into Israel itself. These fanatics do the things that I mentioned with no punishment, and all the while, the prime minister refers to them as if they were pioneers and heroes. Eventually, they turn the violence against Jews, too.

My friend [Rabbi] Arik Ascherman was viciously attacked by settlers. If they are allowed to attack Palestinians, why not do the same with a human rights activist, even if they are not Palestinians — even if they are Jews themselves?

These settlers build their own “nests” in so-called “mixed cities” like Acre, Jaffa, Haifa, Lod — they’re not going there in order to live and build good relations with their neighbors, the Palestinians. They go there in order to substitute those indigenous neighbors. So the potential for this explosion was there all the time.

Places like Lod, Jaffa, and Acre are the seeds of this explosion. And they just waited for the right circumstances. This KKK-like atmosphere has penetrated Israel, too, because of the occupation and because of the prime minister’s policies. Netanyahu has said that he will not allow Arabs to create pogroms for Jews, but he didn’t say one word against or even refer to Jews doing lynching. That implied that it’s okay for Jews to lynch.

I want to be very clear and emphasize that violence against civilians is something that my friends and I totally reject. It doesn’t matter if it’s Palestinians against Jews or Jews against Palestinians. We are against this KKK-like atmosphere of lynching that has seeped into Israel because of the occupation, specifically because of the prime minister’s policies. Opposing violence against Palestinians doesn’t imply that we support the violence against Jews, and vice versa.

Unfortunately, the media in Israel is very biased. They want to create the impression that there is a cleavage between Palestinians and Jews. This is not true. The cleavage is not between Jews and Palestinians in Israel and in general; it’s between those who support Jewish supremacy and those who support equality and democracy.

Leena Dallasheh

You’ve alluded to Israel’s colonial framework several times. Within that framework, how do you view your political project and that of the Joint List?

Ofer Cassif

The most important thing at the moment is to totally eliminate the occupation of 1967. This is a cancer in the body of our society. So many of the things that we’ve been experiencing in the last two weeks are a natural by-product of this occupation.

This colonial project must be dismantled immediately. Here I accuse the international community of being silent for so many years and of doing nothing. They are, to a great extent, guilty for the current deterioration and escalation, and for the bloodshed, because they haven’t done anything serious to end the occupation.

It’s clear that if the international community joined forces and said to Israel, “You are going to end the occupation, you must begin negotiations now,” Israel would have no way to survive without international community support.

To be clear, I want for Israel to survive, but I want it to survive as a democratic, just society, not as the colonialist, racist entity that it is. My struggle is not against the state of Israel. It is against the policies that make the state of Israel racist and colonialist.

So the first thing that should be done is to totally end the occupation of 1967, establishing a Palestinian independent sovereign state in Gaza and the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Also, there must be a just solution to the Palestinian refugee issue in accordance with the decisions accepted by the UN for right of return, and so on. This is the first thing that must be done.

The second thing is to tell the Israeli state — under whatever new name it would assume — that it must become a real democratic state, with no difference between citizens based on one’s ethnic origin, nationality, religion, or whatever. I’m shocked when so many leaders and states in the world refer to Israel as a democracy. Everybody knows that a modern democracy is based on one basic principle, which is equality.

We may disagree about what equality means exactly and what it should include. As a communist, of course, I think that it must include deep social and economic equality. But the very minimum that a modern democracy requires is civic equality, and Israel doesn’t even have that.

Everybody says, “Yes, but look, Palestinians within Israel are citizens.” I would respond to that in two ways: first of all, it’s not totally accurate, because there is an amendment to the basic law of the Knesset from 1985 that prevents any electoral list that does not accept the Jewish character of the state from participating in elections. It’s true that, countless times, the courts allowed lists with some critical stance to participate in elections, but formally, the law doesn’t allow you to actually challenge the Jewish character of the state.

It’s not substantially different from South Africa, and I want to be very precise here: there are differences. But substantially, there’s no difference, because in South Africa, the state was identified and constitutionally defined as a state of white people. And you could not challenge that, even if you were white. In Israel, the state is defined as a Jewish state, even though it is also defined as a democratic state. But simply, that’s a contradiction in terms.

Again, it is a sham to say that there is even civic equality in Israel. Israel has no formal Constitution — the basic laws in Israel divide and distinguish between the Jews and non-Jews, especially Palestinians. This is not only a legal issue — it’s a social issue.

Remember, in 2015, Netanyahu warned on the evening of the elections [in which the Joint List was drawing high voter turnout among Arabs] that Arabs were “heading to the poll stations in droves.”  That means, on the one hand, that formally and legally the Arabs in Israel can vote; but on the other hand, it means that their vote is not the same as the vote of Jews. So, in many respects — legally, and especially in terms of political culture — Israel is just not a democracy; it’s an ethnocracy.

Leena Dallasheh

Some might argue that there’s a contradiction in what you’re saying, because, on the one hand, you do use a colonial framework and highlight the similarities to the apartheid regime in South Africa. But, on the other hand, you seem to be maintaining the Jabha and Communist Party line of a two-state solution, which many argue is no longer viable. How would you respond to that?

Ofer Cassif

It’s a long-standing debate, especially in the last few years. I would say two things in regard to that. First of all, as a matter of principle, we support a two-state solution, because the Palestinian people never enjoyed self-determination, and we believe in a people’s self-determination in keeping with the communist legacy of Vladimir Lenin (before the Brest-Litovsk accords). We believe that the Palestinian people deserve self-determination and a sovereign, independent state.

In Lenin’s time, there were debates about the self-determination of the Ukrainians, for instance, which Lenin supported. And he explained that, in order to decrease hostility between peoples who were at war, self-determination and free national liberty is a must. There’s no chance to achieve socialism in a country where there is hostility between peoples. And this is also what we say: national self-determination of the Palestinian people is not only a part of the national alliance of the Palestinian people, it is also a means for promoting a socialist society.

These are two reasons for why we support a two-state solution (and, of course, we support national rights for the national Palestinian minority in Israel, too). Our support of the two-state solution is based on those two principles: self-determination and the creation of a socialist society. And don’t forget that the Palestinians are indigenous people.

Now, I do not know anyone in my party who ideologically rejects a one-state solution. But we all view that, under the current circumstances, a one-state solution is going to be another apartheid state. It’s not going to be a democratic state, because the power is in the hands of the Jewish majority.

And even if it’s not going to be a numerical majority, it’s a problem. Just assume hypothetically that, tomorrow, we will have one state, and it’s going to be divided more or less fifty-fifty (between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, there are, more or less, an equal number of Jews and Palestinians). Still, who controls the resources? Who controls the arms? Who controls everything? Vastly, the Jewish community controls all this. And note that I’m not talking about individuals — it’s the Jewish community.

That situation is not going to lead to equality and a real democratic state; it’s going to lead to an apartheid state. I say that this is “our view,” because it’s not for me to tell the Palestinians what they ought to do or ought not to do. This is something that Palestinians and Jews alike within our party believe.

We think that, politically, the single-state solution is going to pose a risk to the interests of the Palestinians, because of the current circumstances. But in the long run, assuming there are two states, upon consent, nobody rejects the possibility of joining together into a federated single state in the future. We do not reject that at all.

Historically speaking, the majority of communists in our region — Palestinians and Jews alike — supported a two-state solution since the middle of the ’40s in the last century.

Leena Dallasheh

Jewish communists, not Palestinians.

Ofer Cassif

No, no, it’s not true. The Palestinians, too. There was debate between communist Arabs like Emile Habibi, Emile Touma, Tawfik Toubi, and others.

Leena Dallasheh

But only in 1948.

Ofer Cassif

No, no, but the debate began a bit before. Of course, that position was to a great extent because of the view of the Soviet Union. But, historically speaking, since a bit before ’48, most of the communists, I don’t want to say all of them, did support the two-state solution. Since the 1970s, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine supported a one-state solution. The communist Nayef Hawatmeh told me, “Yes, we always supported a one-state solution, and we still do. But we do not reject the possibility or the necessity of a two-state situation on the path to the one-state solution.”

Now, the communist Palestinian People’s Party says. “Yes, we still support a two-state solution, but we look forward to solutions in the long run like a federated one-state, after a two-state solution.”

So, again, to summarize: we do support a two-state solution, but we do not reject in the future a federated one-state solution.

Leena Dallasheh

One final question: how do you view the way forward with this impasse?

Ofer Cassif

We just need to continue our struggle. As I said before, we must struggle for Palestinian liberation and against occupation, which is becoming much more brutal. And on the other end, we must struggle for serious and profound equality within the state of Israel. That’s it. We must never give in; we must never surrender. I don’t often quote Winston Churchill, but . . .