Mental State

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Review of 'Occupied Minds', Arthur Neslen, Pluto Press £16.99

This is an extraordinary but terrifying book. It consists of interviews with some 50 Israelis from an incredibly diverse range of backgrounds - secret servicemen and those who risked their lives supporting Palestinians, rabbis and secularists, racists and those who have married Arabs, and many more. Topics discussed range from the status of Yiddish to the treatment of gays, Kabbalistic theology to the rock scene, the Holocaust to football.

Although an anti-Zionist who puts the Israel/Palestine issue at the core of the book, Neslen lets the characters speak for themselves and provides a minimal running commentary. This is risky, because the overwhelming majority of interviewees defend the Israeli state (to a greater or lesser degree). Some support a "two-state solution" - though how progressive this is, given the fact that the Israeli "security" wall is supposed to be the border, is questionable. The one person who advocates a single democratic secular state for both Palestinians and Israelis counsels others against promoting this too strongly, because it will ruin their lives.

Can Neslen be accused of giving a platform to reactionary views with little counter-balance? The answer is no, and the risk pays off. It is reminiscent of Paul Preston's oral history of the Spanish Civil War, Blood of Spain, which presents Franco's supporters alongside Republicans, giving the reader an insight that academic or polemical writing cannot achieve. If the overall picture gleaned from Neslen's book is often deeply unappealing, and indeed repulsive, it is because Israeli society is so.

The book takes political risks, but also risks with its readers. Neslen's wish to present a wide spectrum of Israeli society means there can be no clear thread of argument. Someone who is not already knowledgeable about Zionism, imperialism, Israel and Palestine will probably be left floundering. The number of issues reduces overall coherence too. Just as we discover Israeli children of Yemeni origin were abducted and adopted into "superior" families from the West, we are whisked away into considering the fate of Holocaust survivors, they are lauded as the justification for the existence of Israel but simultaneously denigrated as "soap" (a human product of Auschwitz), or forgotten.

Neslen's brief commentaries and copious footnotes are all the more tantalising for this reason. We find, for example, that belonging to the Jewish people is defined through the mother's line because rape of Jewish women in the past was so extensive that it was impossible to be sure of a child's parentage on any other basis. We are told that Jews of Eastern or Oriental origin (Mizrahi) form the majority of Israel's population, yet 88 percent in the upper income bracket are Ashkenazi or of Western origin. Alas, the book can give us only a glimmer of these issues because of its structure.

Nevertheless, taken as a whole, this is an extremely powerful book which meets the challenge of its title. Norman Finkelstein accuses the pro-Israeli camp of defending Zionist crimes by pretending that the Middle East situation is "very complex" when in fact it is a very straightforward matter of injustice against the Palestinians. Neslen manages to show the complexity of Israeli society without in any way falling into this trap.

Asking whether Israel should exist as a state, he tries to find "a small and optimistic part of the answer... in the words (and silences) of some of the people in this book". And here's my only disagreement with him. The evidence he presents suggests that the solution to the crisis in the Middle East will not come from within Israeli society, but from outside.