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An interview with the Israeli socialist and Knesset member Ofer Cassif


Knesset member Ofer Cassif speaks during a protest against the Evyatar settler outspot near the West Bank city of Nablus, 18 February 2022. Photo: Flash90 / Sraya Diamant

The political news coming out of Israel has been dominated by right-wing and far-right forces since 7 October. The Hamas attack on Israeli civilians and subsequent military response dramatically shrunk the space for Israel’s already deeply marginalized radical Left to operate, while the centre-left parties have largely refrained from criticizing Israel’s destruction of the Gaza Strip. One of the few voices who has refused to give in to the revanchist mood is Israeli political scientist Ofer Cassif, a member of the Communist Party and member of the Knesset for the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash), the socialist coalition his party founded in 1977.

Ofer Cassif has represented the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash) in the Israeli Knesset since 2019.

Cassif made international headlines in January when he announced his support for South Africa’s case against Israel brought before the International Court of Justice under the Genocide Convention — a move that nearly saw him expelled from the Knesset by his fellow parliamentarians. Since surviving the impeachment attempt, Cassif has continued to speak up against the war and in favour of a two-state solution, no matter the consequences.

Cassif recently spoke with Gil Shohat, director of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Israel Office, about the mood in Israel since 7 October, his own political journey from Labour Zionism to anti-Zionism, and the relationship between the Left in Israel and the rest of the world since the war began.

Let’s start with a brief review of the last few months in the Knesset, where you are a parliamentarian for the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, more widely known under its Hebrew acronym, “Hadash”. In February, you survived an attempted impeachment by a few votes. In hindsight, how do you assess the process given the current restrictive political climate in Israel?

First and foremost, the very law that allows members of the Knesset to impeach another member, enacted in 2016, is by definition anti-democratic — a tyranny of the majority. An impeachment process against a member of the Knesset can be initiated for two reasons. The first is if that member supported racism — this is ironic, because if the clause were truly adhered to, the vast majority of Israeli parliamentarians would face impeachment proceedings. The second reason is if they support armed struggle or terrorism against Israel.

My case began after I signed a petition organized by a few Israeli peace activists and signed by almost 900 Israeli citizens in support of the South African case submitted to the International Court of Justice in December 2023. The petition stated that the ICJ is the appropriate body to investigate what is happening in Gaza, as it has the authority to stop the war or at least demand a ceasefire.

One member of a right-wing opposition party decided that my support for the petition constituted support of armed struggle against Israel, which is totally Orwellian, as I signed a petition against violence. This member succeeded in getting 86 signatures to start the impeachment process. Looking back, there was no due process at all. It was politically motivated, as there was no real reason to begin the impeachment because, as I said, there was no support for armed struggle.

Secondly, the members of the Knesset were supposed to serve as the jury. However, some of them actually said to me explicitly that they were going to vote according to their political agenda and not according to the facts. In the end, the vote in the plenary fell four short of expelling me. Nevertheless, the fact that out of 120 Knesset members, 86 of them actually wanted to impeach me shows the democratic deficit in Israel, which was always there, but is now getting worse because everybody knew it was unlawful. They did not care.

I salute my comrades from my Knesset faction because they invested a lot of energy and efforts in order to prevent the vote against me. On the other hand, I am very disappointed with many fellow parliamentarians with whom I previously had good relations. This is not because they do not agree with my views — we did not agree before. It is because I expected some integrity from them. At least two of them with whom I had very good relations before told me that they were going to vote according to their political interests and not in accordance with the law or the facts in my case. Now I can hardly look at their faces, because what they did was really cynical and dishonest.

Why did you sign the petition?

I signed the petition because I do not trust the government of Israel in any respect, as I do not trust governments in general, especially regarding their own deeds. One of the fundamentals of a modern democracy is scepticism towards your own government. This is why we have an opposition in parliament. But the distrust of the opposition parties faded away after the Hamas massacre.

We all remember the protests in the streets before 7 October. Now, after the massacre committed by Hamas — which we all obviously condemn, to say the least — suddenly almost the entire opposition stands by the government when they say “there’s no genocide”, “there are no crimes in Gaza committed by Israel”. Why should I, as an opposition politician, accept that? Because war suddenly makes the government honest — or, alternatively, legitimates lies?

I signed the petition in order to enable an investigation as well as to stop the war and stop the bloodshed of both Palestinians and Israelis. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have been butchered — there’s no other way to describe it. We are talking about at least 30,000 people, mostly innocent civilians, more than one third of them children. That must be stopped immediately! But we are also talking about Israeli soldiers and the poor hostages who are literally dying in Hamas’s hands. The government does not prioritize the hostages. It wants only to survive and carry on its rampant revenge.

One of the things we talked about the other day at an event supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation was the necessity to stand by your principles as a politician. You supported the struggle of constituents from southern Israel who have not received state support following the 7 October massacre in Knesset committee hearings, although, realistically speaking, you have little chance of getting any votes from them. When you mention the Knesset members who voted against their principles for very cynical reasons, is this indicative of the overall political culture in Israel?

That is the reason I am there: to stand in for the underprivileged. I was a university lecturer for 20 years. I enjoyed it very much, I could have continued with that. But for me, to be a member of the Knesset is not an end in itself. My main reason, and the reason that I have been a member of the Communist Party of Israel for 35 years, is because we have values, we have beliefs, we have an ideology. We have to do whatever we can in order to realize that ideology, or at least to block the opposite.

But even in terms of realpolitik: I truly believe that by not standing for what you really believe politically, you will eventually lose. The first reason is because people, even if they despise you for your views, appreciate your devotion and honesty, even if often it takes them time to admit that. If you lie in order to get support, it will eventually be exposed. One of the reasons that the Knesset in general is so disliked in Israel is due to the widespread dishonesty of so many politicians. I am sure that even those who despise my views know that they cannot say this about me.

Many people are beginning to understand that this is crazy, it cannot continue. Some of them are finding that those who provide an answer, or the only ones who actually are ready to confront this craziness, are those who oppose the war and occupation altogether.

When you say the truth and stand by it, it will be appreciated and supported in the long run. If I say that I support the independence of the Palestinian people, it is not only because I think it is important, it is because I truly believe that it will be realized in the future — hopefully soon. People are going to look back and say that we were right about this, although it was tough.

Another aspect is more philosophical: the so-called “spiral of silence”, a term coined by German scholar Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. In a nutshell, it means that the public and the media play an essential role in the common beliefs of society at large. People who think differently will probably shut up in order to be socially accepted. The main reason that I do not allow myself to shut up is because once I do, the spiral of silence is going to win. That means that an alternative will not be merely unthinkable, but eventually unthought.

Given Hadash’s precarious position in Israeli politics, how can you convince the majority of Israeli society to support your goals? Is it sometimes strategically expedient not to say everything you think in order to be more palatable? Can speaking truth to power also become an obstacle to achieving your aims?

Strategically, I don’t just say whatever I want, regardless of conditions and public opinion. That’s not what being a politician is about. However, the real question is not whether but where the balance between realpolitik and ideology should be. Of course, there are things that I do not say, or I try to say them in in different manner, but I will never lie. I will never say something that I don’t believe in.

That’s the difference between strategy and cynicism, you might say.

Absolutely. I keep my cynicism out of my politics.

For instance, I know that we as Hadash will hardly get any votes in the cities of Sderot and Ashkelon [in southern Israel], but still, I was the one who raised the issue of Ashkelon and Sderot being discriminated against in governmental compensation schemes following the massacre of 7 October. I did not do so in order to get more votes there, but because I think it’s the right thing to do. I am sure that 20 years from now, when someone from Ashkelon or Sderot looks back and sees who supported and struggled for the people of Sderot or Ashkelon, they will see that we from the Left did, and that, I believe, may change their attitude.

More broadly speaking, how would you describe the status of Hadash and the Israeli Left in general in the post-7 October climate?

My lawyer, Michael Sfard, recently coined the term “chronic minority”. The Communist Party of Israel, under different names and partnerships since the establishment of the State of Israel, was always a chronic minority — not only as far as the numbers of seats and votes are concerned, but also in terms of our beliefs. We have been consistently excluded, not only because of our views, but also because we are the only Palestinian–Jewish parliamentary force.

We cling to Jewish–Palestinian partnership, brotherhood and sisterhood, and comradeship as a matter of principle. We believe in it because neither of these peoples are going away, but also because a core value of the Left — and who would know that better than the namesakes of Rosa Luxemburg — is internationalism, even in the toughest of times. After the massacre of 7 October and the massacre that the Israeli government has been carrying out in Gaza, what is easier then clinging to a dichotomy between the peoples?

It is very easy and very populist to mobilize Jews against Palestinians and Palestinians against Jews. Israelis and Jews, Arabs, Palestinians — everybody is enraged because everybody was hurt. So, obviously, it’s much more difficult to stick to and even strengthen the partnership. Nevertheless, there are thousands of people within Israel who support our values, but maybe not automatically us as a political movement.

I am a Marxist, first of all, and to have doubts is the Marxist way of life.

This was also the case in the past. We all remember that the Netanyahu government wanted to carry out a judicial coup in 2023. They failed mainly because of the mass protests. But now, only a minority takes to the streets. Since October there is even more political silencing and persecution of alternative voices. People have been arrested, interrogated, suspended from university, fired, and beaten up for speaking out against the war.

We are part of this minority. We succeeded in organizing more than 40 organizations, mostly from civil society, into a coalition called the Peace Partnership. We continue our struggle to stop the war, to release the hostages on the basis of the principle of “all for all”, and of course, for peace and an end to the occupation. It is tough, but it is not hopeless.

Since the beginning of this year, I’ve observed a tendency for organizations in Israel to try to overcome internal differences and mobilize towards the greater goal. I think it is important to not understate the fact that there are also developments on the Left in Israel.

There‘s a shift now, because of the government’s total neglect of the hostages. I do not want to sound like no one apart from us cares about the Palestinians, that is absolutely not the case, but the main incentive in the beginning was that people began to understand that Netanyahu and his bigots don’t really care about the hostages. They don’t care about the well-being — even the lives — of the soldiers, either, by the way, let alone the Palestinians. They are ready to sacrifice them in order for the government to survive.

More and more people are beginning to understand, given the words of bigots like [Minister of National Security] Itamar Ben-Gvir and [Minister of Finance] Bezalel Smotrich and other messianic fanatics, that the hostages and the lives of people are not that important to them. It is more important to occupy Gaza to bring the coming of the Messiah nearer and things like that.

Many people are beginning to understand that this is crazy, it cannot continue. Some of them are finding that those who provide an answer, or the only ones who actually are ready to confront this craziness, are those who oppose the war and occupation altogether.

How would you characterize the relationship between the Israeli Left and the global Left?

I think there are two main problems, two sides of the same coin. Some of the Left — sometimes, perhaps most of the time, unknowingly — collaborate with anti-Semites. Too many do not want to make the distinction between anti-Semitism and criticizing Israel, some of them are not aware of it. They miss the distinction between anti-Semitism, which is a form of racism that we should fight against like any other racism, and objecting to the policy of the government of Israel — the occupation, the war, even Zionism.

I’m anti-Zionist. Anti-Zionism is a legitimate criticism or objection to a specific ideology, like I am against capitalism or fascism, but I am not anti-Israeli and I am of course 100-percent against anti-Semitism. That’s the thing: I’m Jewish. I’m an atheist, but I’m Jewish and not alienated from it. On my mother’s side, no one survived the Holocaust apart from my grandparents, who came to Palestine five years before World War II. They lost their entire families. Everybody was killed by the Nazis. Surely, I make a clear distinction between the Nazis and the Germans, they are not the same.

How have developments since 7 October changed that relationship?

On the one hand, I see many good people — devoted leftists, anti-imperialists, and socialists — who don’t make a distinction, who don’t understand that the Jews are not the enemy, that the policy of the government and the people are not the same. In that sense, they serve the most fanatic anti-Semites, fascists, sometimes even neo-Nazis.

They must be aware of what they’re doing. When I read what some anti-colonialist professors at North American universities said about 7 October, I was in shock. So shallow, so superficial. So stupid. So inhuman. You should be ashamed of yourself, and everybody that shares such views. In what sense are you different from the neo-Nazis?

The carnage of 7 October proves that under the current circumstances, there’s no chance of one state — perhaps in the future, but not at the moment. You cannot end more than 100 years of terrible hostility in one day, that’s not going to work.

I say to them: be against colonialism, be against the occupation, be against the war, be against the genocidal assault on Gaza, but be against anti-Semitism as well — don’t collaborate with anti-Semites. If you go to a demonstration against the assault on Gaza, I will come with you. But if you welcome anti-Semites to those demonstrations, I will never be with you.

The other side is exactly the opposite: they don’t make the distinction between anti-Semitism, anti-war, anti-occupation, and anti-Zionism because they blindly support the government of Israel. Both sides are wrong, terribly wrong. Because of that, they are two sides of the same coin. It‘s stupid. Life is much more complicated.

You mentioned your pride in being a member of an internationalist, Jewish–Palestinian party — maybe even Palestinian–Jewish, since the majority is Palestinian — inside Israel. What brought you into the party? More specifically, what brought you to the Knesset?

I joined the Communist Party in 1988, after I refused to serve as a reservist in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

But you served in the army, didn’t you?

I did, because I was born into a Labour Zionist family, and it took me some time to, you know, “evolve”. I joined a left-wing Zionist youth movement when I was 15 or 16, the youth group of the most left-wing Zionist party at the time, “Sheli” — an acronym meaning “Peace and Equality for Israel”, it doesn’t exist anymore — and I did go to the army. Now, of course, I regret it.

Afterwards, when I went to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for my first degree, the first Intifada began. I was sent in as a paratrooper and was supposed to serve as a reservist in Gaza. I refused and was sent to prison, and then I began to move further left.

I began to understand the shortcomings, to say the least, of Zionist ideology and practice. I began to form my anti-Zionist ideas and beliefs, and I joined the Communist Party. I was the parliamentary assistant of Meir Vilner, the general secretary and a legendary leader of the party. During that period, I was sent to prison three more times, so altogether I spent four terms in the military prison for refusing to serve in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Around 15 years ago, I was elected to the Politburo of the party, and before that to the Central Committee. About five years ago, I decided that the time had come to present my candidacy for the Knesset. I consulted some comrades, realized that I had broad support, and happily, I succeeded.

What factors aided or propelled you on your journey to anti-Zionism? Do you share these experiences with others who are perhaps moving towards your politics but not there yet?

I am a Marxist, first of all, and to have doubts is the Marxist way of life. I was the first one to refuse to serve and be imprisoned during the First Intifada. It was a very radical, almost revolutionary act because no one had done that before. I didn’t know if I was going to get any support, because I wasn’t a member of the Communist Party yet, and the people I knew from other political activities totally rejected the idea of refusing to serve.

But I received massive support from the comrades of the Communist Party, including the members of the Knesset, and from the Yesh Gvul movement, the so-called “trade union of conscientious objectors”. They all came to demonstrate in front of the prison in support of me. That gave me a lot of confidence, and helped me to muster the courage to continue. Knowing me, I probably would have stuck to my beliefs anyway, but having such broad support was very encouraging.

After the second time I went to prison for refusing to serve, my parents also began to change their views. That also helped me to keep going.

You mentioned both internationalism as well as anti-Zionism. In the aftermath of 7 October, the massacres of Israeli civilians but also, and now more urgently, the massacres happening every day in Gaza, what future do you see for an internationalist perspective in Israel–Palestine after all of this horror?

I think, if there is one conception that was proven right, it’s ours. Because what we’ve been warning against not only since 1967, but since the Nakba [in 1948], is that if the Palestinians are not free, if the Palestinian people do not get their own state, they’re going to explode. The situation is going to erupt, and everybody will pay the price, Palestinians and Israelis.

Hadash members of the Knesset in fact opposed Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005. They spoke against it and said that without real independence for the Palestinian people, without a dialogue with the Palestinian leadership, there can be no solution. Gaza would turn into a huge prison. Twenty years later, everything that happened is exactly like we anticipated. So, I just have to repeat what we’ve been saying for ages.

More often than not, some German leftists suffer from the one of those afflictions that I mentioned — they don’t make a clear distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, anti-occupation, and anti-war political beliefs and activities. Because of that, unfortunately, they often fail to realize that they support the government of Israel and not the people of Israel.

In the short term, we are going to see a lot of more bloodshed, I’m afraid. In the long run, however, I’m optimistic, because I’m sure that now everybody around the world — but also more and more people within Israel itself — understands that the only way to stop the bloodshed and the suffering on both sides is Palestinian independence and a sovereign Palestinian state in the territories that Israel occupied in 1967 — the two-state solution. There is no other option.

Moreover, I believe that the international community is going to endorse this vision practically, not only verbally, and do something to realize it. It may take one year or two years, maybe five, but it’s closer than it was on 6 October.

What would that mean practically for Israel itself? Some argue that the settlements have made the two-state solution impossible and a one-state solution inevitable.

First of all, basically all the settlements are illegal. They are based on violent dispossession. They all should be dismantled.

I’m talking about a two-state solution in the sense of a fully independent, sovereign Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Now, if later on, with the consent of everybody involved, there is a way of transforming the two states into one state — a confederation, for example, there are many ideas — I have no problem with that, provided it is democratic and a safe haven for everyone living within its borders and based, as I said, upon the consent of all sides.

On this issue, I am very critical of people — some of whom I really appreciate — who speak about a one-state solution. There’s no option of a one-state solution under the current circumstances. It’s a vision that ideally I may endorse, but practically we need to find the right balance between ideals and realpolitik. The carnage of 7 October proves that under the current circumstances, there’s no chance of one state — perhaps in the future, but not at the moment. You cannot end more than 100 years of terrible hostility in one day, that’s not going to work.

There’s no option but the two-state solution. At the same time, the Communist Party as a whole and I personally truly, strongly believe that Israel itself must be democratized. It cannot be based on the supremacy of either group. A change must also occur in domestic Israeli politics and society.

Since you are speaking with a representative of a German foundation linked to a German democratic socialist party, I would like to conclude with “our” position: what do you make of the German Left’s role in the past weeks and months, but also years? And what would you ask of German leftists going forward?

Going back to what I said before, more often than not, some German leftists suffer from the one of those afflictions that I mentioned — they don’t make a clear distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, anti-occupation, and anti-war political beliefs and activities. Because of that, unfortunately, they often fail to realize that they support the government of Israel and not the people of Israel.

In my view, those who support the government of Israel are against the people of Israel, and I would expect them, for instance, not to criminalize the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. You don’t have to accept or agree with the premise, but don’t criminalize it — don’t criminalize BDS demonstrations, don’t criminalize those who oppose the occupation.

Don’t criminalize those who support a one-state solution, either. I don’t agree with them, but those who shout, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” in the streets are not necessarily anti-Semites. Some of them are, I don’t delude myself, and I will fight them like any other racists, but many of them are good people who really believe in a democratic, secular state for everyone between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.

More than once or twice, I have encountered people from Die Linke who support limiting the rights of speech of those people. I think that’s a disaster. Don’t do that. You merely play into the hands of the most extremist Right.