Seeing the contradictions inherent in Zionism, it is crucial for progressive Jews to respond carefully and thoughtfully.
I have been indoctrinated by Zionists throughout my life. As a child, I was told that the State of Israel was somehow “necessary” to prevent another Holocaust. I was also told that Palestine/Israel was empty and uninhabited when Jews began immigrating there in the late 1800s. I was taught that the Jews are a chosen people with the right to their own homeland. I was fed all this propaganda in school, in visits to Israel and by my family. Eventually, however, I started to see the contradictions and began questioning this ideology.
Every time I make my views on Zionism heard, I incur a backlash from Zionist Jews who take it as their responsibility to teach me — as if I am somehow naïve to the history of the colonization of Palestine. I often hear arguments such as: “But Hamas uses children as human shields,” or “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.” Eventually, when these arguments are addressed, I am inevitably dismissed or declared a “self-hating Jew.” But as someone born into a Jewish background, with the knowledge of thousands of years of persecution that this entails, it is my obligation to also identify with the persecution of others — especially if it is being done in the name of my ethnic identity.
When on the receiving end of Zionist-based arguments, I believe it is important to respond fully by putting the violence in the necessary historical context of a long history of Western colonialism and imperialism, rather than an exception to this story. This is the only way to really understand why there are no two equal sides to the Palestine-Israel conflict, a conflict which arose from oppression and resistance to that oppression.
Here follows a condensed and oversimplified summary which one can use to answer an apologist for the Zionist occupation of Palestine.
Before the British took control of the area now named Palestine/Israel, it was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, mostly as part of the Eyalet of Damascus. So it is true that, while the name has been used many times throughout history, there was no such independent country called “Palestine.” However, it is equally true that there was no South Africa before the Dutch arrived. But just like in South Africa, the area was highly populated.
Who were these people living in Palestine/Israel at the time? There were a few Jewish and Druze communities who had lived there for thousands of years, but for the most part, the population almost entirely consisted of Muslims and Christians who today identify as Palestinians. The mix of Jews, Druze, Christians and Muslims who lived in the area before the British took over can collectively be considered the indigenous population of Palestine, as they had been there for thousands of years.
Despite previous small Jewish migration into Palestine, Zionism began in earnest in 1897, the year of the First Zionist Congress. A crucial role was played by a small group of European Jews organized around their leader Theodor Herzl. Herzl — the founder of the World Zionist Organisation and author of Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), published in 1896 — wanted a Jewish-only homeland. However, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Zionism took greater root and resulted in hundreds of thousands of European and Middle Eastern Jews, and later millions of eastern European Jews, moving to Palestine.
This mass influx of people was similar to European settler colonialism of much of Africa and the Americas. Settler colonialism needs to be understood as the core of the conflict.
The numbers of the dead and injured speaks for itself. At least 1,462 Palestinian civilians to only four Israeli civilians, a ratio of 365:1.
The British encouraged Jews to colonize the Palestinian protectorate in order to act as a buffer between the indigenous population and the British political mandate. This was done in the same way that Indians were used as a political buffer in many settler colonies such as Kenya. However, this backfired for the British when Zionist organizations such as the Haganah, the Irgun and the Stern Gang began armed campaigns against the British. These included hiding their arms in synagogues and acts of terrorism against the local Muslim and Christian population.
The Two-State Solution
The two-state solution must be recognized as a nationalist solution and therefore racist. It is the equivalent of South Africa being divided into a white state and a black state. These divisions were the aims of South African apartheid as well as settler colonialism in general. Anti-colonial thinkers, such as Frantz Fanon and Mahmood Mamdani, have written in depth about the separate white and black colonial states – what Mamdani called the bifurcated state – operating together to serve the political and economic interests of whites. The two-state solution has been constructed to ensure that Israel maintains the most valuable land and natural resource gains of its colonialism.
The ideal solution, I believe, is a single state not based on religion and ethnicity, but with a constitution that guarantees equal rights for all. This single state would include what is now Israel and all of the currently Occupied Palestinian Territories and guarantee the right of return for all Palestinians who used to live within those borders. That is the only non-racist solution to the conflict even though it accepts Jewish colonizers as legitimate residents. This model was the solution to colonialism and apartheid advocated by the African National Congress (ANC) as well as the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), although the PAC always maintained that it reserved the right to the land for blacks first and foremost. Palestinian resistance through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s favored a one-state solution with the PLO’s 1969 resolution aiming “to establish a free and democratic society in Palestine for all Palestinians whether they are Muslims, Christians or Jews.” Much of Palestinian civil society still favors this solution even while public opinion shifts quite often in this regard. Since the Oslo accords, Fatah has been conflicted about this solution, while Hamas remains in support of a single state. Israel as a racist, Jewish-first state has no place in a world that is supposed to be based on equal rights for all.
That being said, while the one-state solution is the ideal solution, the two-state solution based on the 1967 borders might be a feasible compromise despite its acquiescence to racist nationalism. Much of Palestinian society and both Fatah and Hamas are willing to agree to a two-state solution under certain conditions because they may see it as the only viable option. However, the reality of massive and growing Israeli settlements in the West Bank is quickly making a two-state solution a practical impossibility.
The Israeli state is content to prop up the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA) as the official representative of the Palestinians, even while the PA has lost popular legitimacy in recent years. It is seen as corrupt, with much of its leadership co-opted by Israel. The PA only survives because Israel strengthens it financially, politically and militarily. This works in Israel’s favor because it makes the PA responsible for the policing of the occupation and demobilizing popular resistance, while the Israeli army remains its ultimate authority. This is not a new colonial tactic – this is exactly what colonial governments did in propping up authoritarian traditional leaders in Africa. Hamas is problematic in many respects and is certainly not a progressive organization, but its election in 2006 and continued support has proved that it has popular legitimacy.
Palestinian Unity and the Right to Resistance
The Palestinian resistance to Israel’s occupation is not just up against the Israeli army, which is already one of the strongest armies in the world. Israel’s alliance with the United States and Egypt and the persistent neglect of most Arab states (which besides a few hot-air statements of sympathy, do not dare risk their cozy relationship with the US), mean that Palestinians are economically and politically isolated. For instance, the eight-year blockade of the Gaza Strip would be weakened significantly if Egypt was not complicit.
The recent war in Gaza needs this background. Some months before the current fighting started, Hamas and Fatah put aside their differences and formed a unity government. They know that the only way to negotiate a solution — even a two-state solution — is to unite politically so that together they can represent all Palestinians in negotiations with the Israeli state.
The Israeli political establishment, particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rejected this unity government and suspended the peace talks. In order to avoid genuine negotiations with a united Palestinian front, Israel threatened to withhold all aid to the PA government in the West Bank if it did not break off the pact with Hamas, which Israel and the US label as “terrorists.” To Fatah’s credit, they refused Netanyahu’s demands. The pact favored Fatah because it would allow the PA to move its security forces back into Gaza without reciprocal positions for Hamas in the PA government and West Bank security apparatus. The agreement would also essentially give Fatah political control over Hamas in negotiations with Israel.
This is why Netanyahu used the killing of three Israeli teenagers, for which he falsely blamed Hamas, as a pretext for outright repression in the West Bank and the arrests of hundreds of Hamas members. This led to West Bank protests and sparked the recent Gaza conflict after militants from non-Hamas factions began firing rockets into Israel. It should be noted that almost every time there is progress in peace negotiations, Israel typically attacks Gaza or Hezbollah-controlled parts of Lebanon.
Based on the fact that the West Bank and Gaza are considered occupied territories by the UN and that they are economically and politically controlled by Israel with no freedom for its residents, I believe they have the absolute right to fight for that freedom. I do not think Hamas’ rockets are a productive strategy of resistance, but they still have the right to respond in such a manner — as do any liberation movements against colonialism.
Use of Force and Proportionality
Based on this socio-political history, the argument over whether there is disproportionate use of force by the Israeli army is largely irrelevant. We are dealing with a situation of colonization where Palestinians are resisting the occupation of a colonizer. Therefore any act maintaining the occupation is by definition disproportionate and illegitimate. Yet it is still worth stating the statistics to show where most of the violence is coming from during the recent Israeli army operation in Gaza:
* At least 69% of Palestinians killed were civilians.
* The UN has estimated that more than 500,000 Palestinians were displaced at the height of the conflict.
* Four Israeli civilians and a Thai migrant worker have been killed by rocket fire from Gaza.
* About 65 Israeli soldiers have been killed in combat – all as a result of the army’s ground invasion.
* Israel has bombed schools, hospitals, a clinic for the disabled, a UN refugee center and more.
* The Israeli army has also killed approximately 16 Palestinians in the West Bank during protests against the assault on Gaza.
Warning Gazan residents that their home or hospital or school is about to be bombed is a useless endeavor, a superficial effort to make the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) look like they are conducting the war in a humanitarian way. These warnings have not stopped the increasing deaths since the residents of Gaza have nowhere to escape.
The argument that Hamas is using human shields also has no weight. There is no evidence that this is actually occurring en masse. Gaza is tiny — smaller than the Queens Borough of New York City. It is one of the most densely populated places on the planet, with basically no uninhabited place where Hamas can stockpile arms. Furthermore, the Israeli army can also be accused of using human shields. Israel is so militarized that nearly every Israeli bus or fast food joint has armed soldiers. Soldiers are ubiquitous in Israeli society. It is tragic that Palestinian children, given the nature of the occupation, are growing up learning about the virtues of violence firsthand. Likewise, when I was a child, my family took me on tours of American and Israeli army bases to see the “amazing” military force “we” have. In retrospect, that too was disgusting.
Colonial subjects have the right to resist as every legitimate anti-colonial movement has done in the past. It is up to Israel to end its occupation.
The most disturbing part of this saga is the assertion that an Israeli life is worth much more than the life of a Palestinian. Zionists want to try to turn the tables and blame it all on Hamas. Yet who is really killing whom? The numbers of the dead and injured speaks for itself. At least 1,462 Palestinian civilians to only four Israeli civilians, a ratio of 365:1.
Oppression As a Result of Occupation and Colonialism
Given all the above, political and economic isolation of Israel is the only way that people of conscience outside Palestine-Israel can pressure the Israeli government not just into agreeing to permanent ceasefire, but relinquishing its occupation of both Gaza and the West Bank. The issue is not really about extensive violence or lack of peace. When the Israeli army is not bombing Gaza, both Israel and the occupied territories are relatively safe places to live when compared to much of Latin America or South Africa. The call for peace negotiations is a decoy. Instead, the issue is oppression stemming from the occupation and colonialism. Hamas’ terrorist tactics (the real terrorism actually comes from Israel) is a non-issue and merely an excuse for Israel to continue its occupation. Colonial subjects have the right to resist as every legitimate anti-colonial movement has done in the past. It is up to Israel to end its occupation. Likewise it is up to people of conscience to support the Palestinians in order to force Israel to end their occupation. It is that part of the conflict that is simple and without any moral ambiguity.
For liberal Zionists, the most recent Gaza conflict has heightened the contradictions between liberalism and Zionism, as the violence of the occupation is laid bare for all to see. But, as Jonathan Freedland has written, they have to choose which values they truly uphold. If one is not able to see this conflict as one about the resistance of a people against colonialism and oppression, it is simply because one is emotionally connected to nationalist rather than liberal or progressive values.
It is sad that many Jews have not yet learned about the pitfalls of nationalism, particularly after it ravaged our people during the Holocaust. When the Nazis forced more than 400,000 Polish Jews into a tiny corner of Warsaw that became known as the Warsaw Ghetto, many residents of the ghetto began an armed resistance campaign. Some of the Jewish survivors of this resistance, including Chavka Fulman-Raban, have denounced the occupation of Palestinian land on a similar basis, comparing the open-air prison Jews were forced into in Warsaw with the effective imprisonment of 1.8 million people in Gaza.
When we as Jews say “never again” to another Holocaust, it must hold for all peoples, not just Jews. I, for one, will never keep quiet while my people are complicit in the subjugation of anyone else – particularly when it is based on racist and nationalist ideology. It is encouraging that an increasing number of Jews in Israel and worldwide are standing with the Palestinians in their struggle for justice.
[Note: An earlier version of this article was originally published by the Mail & Guardian.]