Israel and Palestine
I had wanted to write a blogpost about Israel and Palestine last month when fighting broke out once again among Hamas in Palestine and the Israeli government. While I did not get the chance to write a post then, I still think it is very important to draw attention to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory (especially when it is out of the main news cycle) and the furthering of an apartheid system within Israel between Jews and Arabs. The new prime minister of Israel, Naftali Bennet, who replaced the far-right Benjamin Netanyahu, has claimed to be an ultra-nationalist and even more far-right than Netanyahu, although he has formed a coalition with centrist partners in order to oust Netanyahu. He has also claimed that Jews have a historical and religious right to claim the land that is today Israel including the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, which Israel occupies illegally under international law.
Before I dig deeper into the current oppression of Palestinians by the Israeli state, I want to take a look back at the intellectual history of the formation of Israel. By intellectual history, I mean looking at the ideas and thinkers who shaped the foundation of Israel and led to a state being forcibly created in the land that had belonged to Palestinians. Looking at this history will give a good indication of why Israel has become an apartheid state today. The organization Human Rights Watch argues that Israel is an apartheid state because it systematically discriminates against the rights of Palestinians and has given greater rights to Israeli settlers to such an extent that it constitutes crimes against humanity. But why has Israel turned into a state where your religion determines what rights you have? I now want to take a look back at the intellectual history of Zionism (the idea that a state of Israel should be created) to search for answers to this question.
Brief Intellectual History of Zionism
In The Palestine Nakba, Decolonising history, Narrating the Subaltern, Reclaiming Memory, Palestinian historian Nur Masalha shows how late 19th century Jewish thinkers like Heinrich Graetz and Simon Dubnow, in line with other nation-building projects in Europe, helped create a Jewish nationality that was rooted in settler-colonization of Palestine and establishing a Jewish state there. Modern Hebrew was invented as a language that could unite the Jews in Palestine. These thinkers conceptualized Jews as a race and wanted to claim Palestine as the land that should belong to the Jewish race. In the 1880s, there were already Zionist movements in the Tsarist Russian empire, and they were looking to Palestine. In 1896, the Zionist Theodor Herzl published his pamphlet The Jewish State, which called for the establishment of a political movement to advocate for the creation of a new Jewish homeland where the Jewish race could establish a Jewish nation.
Another prominent Zionist and the first President of Israel was the Russian-born Jew Chaim Weizmann. In 1917, the Balfour Declaration was issued in large part through the lobbying of Weizmann. Historian T. G. Fraser argues in Chaim Weizmann: The Zionist Dream that Britain hoped that by issuing a declaration in support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine that they could gain the support of Jews in Europe and North America during WWI. Thus, the declaration represented for the first time a British commitment to creating a Jewish nation. The question of establishing a Jewish nation would, of course, come to a head during WW2 with the Nazi Holocaust.
As Masalha argues, Israel was in fact created in part as a refuge for Jews to escape the Holocaust, but this does not condone the fact that Israel was created as a settler-colonialist state, which displaced indigenous Palestinians in an ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948. This ethnic cleansing is referred to as the Nakba by Palestinians, which means catastrophe, and 750,000 Palestinians were made refugees while roughly 15,000 Palestinians were massacred by Zionists during this catastrophe. The decision by the United States to support the creation of a Jewish homeland cemented in place the idea that Israel belonged to the Jews and that Jews should always have greater rights than others who live in Israel.
Remembering the Nakba Today
In 2019, the magazine Haaretz documented how the Israeli Defense Ministry is systematically destroying documents that detail evidence of atrocities committed during the Nakba in 1947–1948. The original creation of Israel was precipitated by UN Resolution 181, which divided Palestine into Arab and Jewish partitions. After the passing of this resolution, Zionist groups began displacing Palestinians from their homes in order to pave the way for the creation of a Jewish state. Later in the Naksa, or set-back, Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip after their victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. To add insult to injury, Israel has not only been destroying evidence of these atrocities but they have also banned Palestinians in Israel from commemorating the Nakba.
The Zionist ideas that led to the formation of Israel in 1948 with their idea of creating a Jewish nation have directly led to the apartheid now present in Israel. In South Africa, white supremacist leaders brutalized and oppressed the black population by ensuring that they were treated far worse than white South Africans until Nelson Mandela negotiated the weakening of apartheid in the early 1990s. The Zionist idea that Israel must be a Jewish state has led to a similar kind of apartheid because in order for Israel to be maintained as a Jewish homeland, Palestinians cannot be allowed to have the same rights or be allowed to outnumber the Jewish population. The destruction of documents showing how Israel has brutalized Palestinians serves to sooth the conscience of Jewish Israeli citizens, but it does not undo the fact that Israel was founded upon colonialist and racist ideas that materialized in the displacement of Palestinians.
But is the Nakba truly over? Israel and the Israeli army continue to brutalize Palestinian citizens today. Another reason that Israel is a colonial state is because of the settlements it has created. Orthodox Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have built settlements in the lands occupied by Israel since the 1967 war. They have instituted forced demolitions of Palestinian homes, and Palestinians have also been killed by Israeli law enforcement. According to Amnesty International, Palestinians often face checkpoints (which is inherently unequal treatment compared with Jewish citizens) and there have also been reports of torture against Palestinian citizens by the Israeli military.
One potential way to heal the wounds of the Nakba would be to create two states, one for Palestinians and one for Israelis. But the settlements have meant that Israeli governments are unwilling to consider a two-state solution because they do not want to oppose the settlers. In this sense, the Israeli government knowingly supports the colonization of the Palestinian people to the present day. If the wounds of the Nakba are to be healed, there will have to be a reckoning with the colonialist nature of the modern Israeli state as rooted in the ideas of Zionism and the Jewish race.
In light of the historical roots of Zionism and the present treatment of Palestinian citizens by the Israeli state, #Free Palestine should clearly be supported. The idea that opposing the state of Israel is anti-Semitic is ridiculous. From its very foundation, Israel has been an exploitative, settler-colonialist state. Israel’s status as a US ally and the only “democracy” (I put this in quotes because that is not true) in the Middle East mean that analysts overlook Israel’s problems. Indeed, the US supported Israel throughout the last crisis around a month ago because the US sees Israel as one of its most important allies. The US has always ignored human rights abuses when it is convenient for their interests to do so.
At the very least, Palestine should have its own state in a sort of two-state solution. One of the movements that seeks to promote Palestinian rights, and which has come under a lot of fire is the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement. While critics of the movement portray it as virulently anti-Semitic, the movement’s goals are to force Israel to comply with international law and forcing Israel to not violate Palestinian’s human rights. In fact, there was a similar movement to put sanctions on South Africa during apartheid there. While calling for the dissolution of the state of Israel might seem justified after the crimes it has perpetrated, BDS does not do that. Instead, it calls for the peaceful boycott of Israeli goods, divestment from banks that sustain Israeli apartheid, and sanctioning Israeli businesses that are involved in the settlements. Recently, Ben and Jerry’s committed to stop selling their ice cream in the settlements as a protest against Israeli apartheid. It is clear that opposing Israel does not stem from anti-Semitism but rather from opposing the human rights abuses committed by the Israeli state.
Similar to the struggles of indigenous peoples against exploitative corporations in Latin America or fighting against South African apartheid, the Left should stand in solidarity with the sub-altern in Palestine. There can be no justice for the Nakba until the Israeli state acknowledges the harm it has caused and treats Palestinian citizens as human beings. The Left must call out the abuses perpetrated by the Israeli state and seek to #Free Palestine by conducting a continuous (not only when Palestine is in the news) struggle for Palestinian liberation.