This morning the Palestinians of Susiya returned to their original home, if only for a brief moment.
Khirbet Susiya is a village in the South Hebron Hills where until recently, Palestinians lived for at least a century. The people of Susiya originally lived in caves and maintained a simple agrarian life, cultivating fields and shepherding their flocks. Everything changed when Israel began to archaeologically excavate their land in the 1970s, eventually uncovering an ancient synagogue underneath a mosque on the land. In 1983 a new Jewish settlement, also called Susiya was established nearby. In 1986, Israel expelled Palestinian villagers and expropriated their land. They moved to an area close to the settlement of Susiya and the original site of the village; in 1991 they were expelled from this site as well. They eventually went to live elsewhere on their cultivated farmland, where they still live today.
The people of Susiya have been engaged in a constant fight to remain on their land where, like the Bedouin residents of Umm al-Kheir, they under the constant threat of demolition and expulsion. Their struggle has gained the attention of solidarity activists in Israel and around the world – and their cause has now even reached the EU and the US State Department.
This morning, our delegation went to Susiya to help them briefly return to the site of their original homes. It is now located in an archaeological park; as is the case in so many other sites around the country Israel uses archaeology to lay claim to the land – and highlight its Jewish history in a manner that erases the memory of any people who might have lived there before.
Today’s action was undertaken by the Center for Jewish Nonviolence along with the Israeli anti-occupation collective, All That’s Left. The plan was fairly simple. We met the villagers in Susiya and walked down the road to the entrance of the archaeological park. We then bought tickets for Jews and Palestinians alike and just entered the site.
At least three generations were represented, including adults and elders who remembered their life before the expulsion as well as children who were seeing their families’ original home for the very first time. The children ran ahead immediately, peering down into wells, running up and down the stairs of the ruins. It’s hard to describe the emotions we felt as we watched parents and grandparents showing their children their place where they played as when they were young.
We gathered at the site of the synagogue and heard from village leaders who told us stories about their life in their village before the expulsion. In the picture above you can see Nasser Nawaja (in the blue shirt) and his father and mother speaking to our group, with CJNV leader Isaac Kates Rose interpreting their words for us. We also heard from Fatma Nawaja, who related to us in depth her memories of when Israeli archaeologists first came to their village. At first their relations were quite friendly she said, and they would often offer the workers food and drink. They had no idea, said Fatma, that this project would one day cause them to be expelled them from their homes.
She also told us about the village midwife Haji Sara, who delivered many of the young people who were present at our gathering. Haji Sara was no longer alive, but Fatma made a point of telling us how much this moment would have meant to her. Later, when we toured the site, we were shown the cave that was Haji Sara’s home (below). It is now used to house a multi-media presentation on the archeological site.
While we were fully prepared for the IDF to interrupt our visit (and had a nonviolent contingency plan in place), thankfully this did not occur. It was truly a blessing to be able to experience this visit without the traumatic presence of soldiers to remind the villagers of the brutal reality of their life under occupation. As it turned out, as we walked back to Susiya, we saw a green bus filled with soldiers roaring toward the archaeological park. About ten minutes later it passed us, heading back in the opposite direction. (Mission accomplished).
It seemed to me that there was something very Jewish about this witness of the exiled returning to their homes. Of course I was also aware that it was our own Jewish privilege in an ethnocentric nation-state that allowed this to brief return to happen at all. We can only hope that this moment offered us all a glimpse of a future when all Palestinians will be able to return to their homes
Tomorrow we’re going back to Hebron, then back to Susiya for Shabbat. I will be reporting on something very special in my next post.
Today we spent a second morning/afternoon in Umm al-Kheir. While one half of our group continued to clear the field for zatar planting, the rest of us went to the other side of the village to rebuild one of the thirty five homes that was destroyed this past April.
Our group was led by a village leader named Eid Suleiman Hathaleen, who did his best to explain the complex, Kafka-esque bureaucracy behind the IDF’s practice of home demolitions and land confiscation. The IDF’s Civil Authority relies on an arcane mix of land laws from the Ottoman, British and/or Jordanian administrations – the three legal systems that once governed what is called today the West Bank. One such law states that those who claim rights in rocky land must prove that they cultivated at least 50 percent of the entire parcel – otherwise, the entire parcel will be deemed state land and Palestinians will be left with no rights whatsoever. For this reason, we are helping the villagers expand their tillable land.
As I mentioned in my last post, the Bedouin residents of Umm al-Kheir purchased their land from the Palestinian town of Yatta over 6o years ago after their expulsion from the Arad region of the Negev desert. In the picture below Eid and his father Suleiman Hathaleen the patriarch of village, shows us the original document that gives his family their rights to the land.
Despite their clear legal right, Eid and his fellow villagers are constantly on the verge of eviction and the regular reality of home and structure demolitions. The Civil Authority can demolish homes and structures for any number of reasons: it can claim the area to be a military “firing zone,” it will deem a house over 35 meters to be unlawfully high, or it might respond with demolition orders for any structure based on complaints from settlers.
The neighboring settlement of Carmel has lodged several such complaints against the people of Umm al-Kheir; once, for instance they sued the village over the smell of manure, which resulted the demolitions of their chicken coops and sheep/goat pens. Perhaps the most bizarre complaint occurred over the aroma of baking bread from the village’s communal taboun (oven). Yes, they were actually forced to go to court to keep the Israeli army from demolishing their stove.
As we prepared to our work rebuilding the home, Eid explained that it was being constructed in different location than the original since demolition orders still apply to any homes or structures built on the same sites. By rebuilding in another spot, the entire bureaucratic process would have to be started from the beginning, and could take up to a year or more to be completed.
There are several new temporary structures donated by the European Union in different locations throughout the village. They are simple metal boxes, essentially four walls without floors. Our job was to take the rubble from the demolished homes and haul them to the new sites to create a floor for one of the new structures. In the picture below, a few of us are shoveling rubble into wheelbarrows to bring over the new home. The picture beneath it shows the final product of our work – not a complete floor yet, but hopefully a good start:
On our way back to the fields, Eid took us on a short detour to show us his art studio. Among other things, Eid is a talented self-taught artist who makes miniature trucks, bulldozers and helicopters from scraps he finds from his village, most of them from demolished structures (see pic below). As he explained it to us, these models (which are so intricate that the steering wheels of the vehicles actually move their tires) constitute a form of artistic resistance – i.e. making something constructive out of acts of destruction. There is of course a profound irony that Eid creates for instance, the very Caterpillar bulldozers that regularly come to destroy his village. Of course this is an intrinsic part of his artistic intention. (You can see more of Eid’s work, contact him or order items from his website here).
Our group then returned to newly cleared field to plant hundreds of zatar plants (pic at the top of this post). While summer is not the traditional time for planting, it was important for the people of Umm al-Kheir to get the plants into the ground as soon as possible for the above mentioned legal reasons. After the planting, the villagers quickly installed irrigation pipes to keep the ground well watered.
I’m sure that some reading these words might be asking why they are working so hard to rebuild homes or sow plants that were all too likely to be demolished or uprooted by the IDF? The answer of course, is that this work is a very disciplined and steadfast form of resistance. The goal of Israel’s draconian military/legal bureaucracy is ultimately to make things so intolerable for the people of Umm al-Kheir – and so many other Palestinian communities throughout the West Bank – that they will eventually be driven from their homes. However, it is all too clear to us that their connection to their land, their homes and their communities is unshakeable. As Sulieman Hathaleen, the patriarch of Umm al-Kheir recently said to a reporter,
We went through so many catastrophes: 1948, 1967 and now the settlements, which have taken most of our land. They left us with nothing. And now they want to expel us. But we will not leave.
I believe him.
After lunch, we traveled to Hebron to tour Area H2 with a guide from the Israeli organization, Breaking the Silence. I’ve written about Hebron and BTS several times before (here and here, for instance.) For now I will only say that the situation in Hebron is even more appalling than ever – if such a thing is even possible. After the tour however, we met with Palestinian non-violent activist Issa Amro (below), the inspiring founder of direct action group Youth Against the Settlements. YAS is truly one of the bright lights in the dark reality that is Hebron and is becoming most well known for its Open Shehudeh Street campaign.
I will have more to say about Hebron, Issa and Youth Against the Settlements in future posts. Stay tuned.
For our delegation’s first day in the field we traveled to the Bedouin village of Umm al-Kheir in the South Hebron Hills.The Bedouin residents of Umm al-Kheir came to the South Hebron Hills over 60 years ago, after they were expelled from Tel Arad (in the Negev desert) by the Israeli military. After coming north, they purchased this land from the Palestinian village of Yatta and lived there peacefully until the mid-1980’s, when the Jewish settlement of Carmel was built directly next to it.
Since that time every structure in Umm al-Kheir has endured a series of home and structural demolitions.Meanwhile, since Umm al-Kheir is not officially recognized by the Civil Authority of IDF, it has no access to electricity or water and must depend on solar panels and trucked-in water to survive. The entire town is essentially remains under demolition order; the reality of this constant threat has become a part of daily reality for the people of Umm al-Kheir. The latest occurred this past April, when the IDF destroyed six homes and left 35 villagers homeless.
The village looks as you might expect, with small metal homes and pens for their sheep and goats. They have also constructed a larger structure to serve as a community center and have begun to clear out land for agricultural use. For the people of Umm al-Kheir, existence is resistance.
As I wrote in my previous post, the village of Umm al-Kheir asked the Center for Jewish Nonviolence to help them finish clearing out their land and to plant grow zatar (thyme). This agricultural work is itself an act of defiance – and a statement by the villagers to the military Civil Authority that they intend to remain on their land even as they live under the constant threat of expulsion.
After we arrived, our group was warmly welcomed by our host Aziz and were given a brief history of the village and the current state of their struggle with the military and the settlers who regularly harass them. We then spent the morning clear out their field of rocks and weeds to make the ground viable for planting:
Take a close look at the picture above. Just behind the three members of our delegation you can see the proximity of the village to Carmel, which lies just beyond the chain link fence. As we worked, it was impossible to ignore the presence of this settlement, filled with beautiful homes and green lawns literally looming over the village. At one point a soldier drove up on the Carmel side of the fence, got out of his car, and watched us for the duration of the afternoon.
During our rest breaks, we had the chance to talk with several of the villagers and play with the children. At one point, we were joined by a small group of young people celebrating, carrying one of their friends on their shoulders. We were told that he had just passed his High School matriculation test (the equivalent of the SAT in the United States) and was now eligible to apply to University. They joyfully taught us a Bedouin song so we could join in the celebration with them.
As has always been the case whenever I’ve visited Palestinian villages or refugee camps, our hosts showed us profound and gracious hospitality. After work, we shared a delicious lunch together, after which there was more singing and an awesome dance performance by the children of the village. Needless to say, it was a day of many mixed emotions for our delegation. We return tomorrow to finish clearing out the field and start the planting of hundreds of zatar plants.
After lunch our delegation visited the village of Susiya, where will working later this week (stay tuned.) We also visited Al-Twani – the largest village in the South Hebron Hills. There is much to say about this remarkable place, which is the center of the Palestinian nonviolent movement in the region and also the home to a notable archaeological site. I’ll write more about Al-Twani in a future post.
For more on the struggles of Umm al-Kheir, I highly recommend this 2011 article from Ha’aretz. For now, it’s off to bed after a long full day.
I’ll soon be traveling Israel/Palestine this weekend with 40 other Jews from around the world as part of a solidarity delegation to Hebron and the South Hebron Hills sponsored by the Center for Jewish Nonviolence. CJNV is a relatively new organization that has been doing important work bringing Diaspora Jews to Israel/Palestine to stand in solidarity with Palestinians in nonviolent actions agains the occupation. Last year, CJNV traveled to Tent of Nations (a very special place about which I’ve written many times before) to plant trees to replace the 1,500 fruit bearing trees that had been destroyed by the IDF. More recently the CJNV participated in an action at the World Zionist Congress to protest the complete absence of the occupation from the World Zionist Organization’s agenda.
The name of this new campaign is entitled “Occupation is not our Judaism” and will include work in the village of Susiya (which recently experienced home demolitions that left 26 Palestinians homeless) and planting in the nearby village of Umm Al Khair (see photo above). We’ll also be standing in solidarity with Palestinian residents of the city of Hebron – I’ll be writing more about this aspect of our work in the coming days.
I’ve visited and written about the injustices wrought upon Hevron in posts from past visits – and since that time the situation has only grown more dire. You may have read about the recent visit to Hevron by authors Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. After their experience there the clearly shaken Chabon was quoted as saying:
(This is) the most grievous injustice I have ever seen in my life … this is the worst thing I have ever seen, just purely in terms of injustice. If saying that is going to lose me readers, I don’t want those readers. They can go away and never come back.
For more on the daily reality faced by Palestinians in Susiya and the South Hevron Hills, check out the clip below:
Finally, like everyone else in our country I’m following recent events in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas, and am mindful that racist state violence is all too brutally real right here at home as well. As I leave, I’m taking to heart the very wise words that my friend, the historian/writer/activist Barbara Ransby has just posted on her Facebook page:
In these difficult and trying times, as we grieve the horrible murders of our people, suffer the skewed media coverage that attempts to relegate our work to the gutter, and witness the backlash that has already begun, our response must be sober and strategic. Fear is understandable. But a fierce fortitude is what is required. And a principled unity is necessary today more than ever.
Whether it’s here or anywhere else in the world, I’m more convinced than ever that my place is to be accountable to those affected by this violence and take our cue from their “fierce fortitude.”
I look forward to sharing my experiences with you in the coming days.
If there’s one thing that virtually all Zionists can agree upon, from the political right to left and everywhere in between, it is their abject unwillingness to accept the Palestinian right of return.
There is an almost visceral quality to this rejection, which is invariably presented as an existential necessity, rather than a political argument. Read here, for instance, the comments of the relatively moderate Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi:
The right of return is a euphemism for the destruction of Israel through demographic assault: Overwhelmed with bitter Palestinian refugees raised on hatred, the Jewish state would implode.
Amos Oz, poet laureate of the Israeli peace movement, used identical rhetoric in a 2013 NY Times interview:
The right of return is a euphemism for the liquidation of Israel. Even for a dove like myself this is out of the question.
Since Palestinian civil society issued its call for Boycott, Divest and Sanctions, which includes the goal of “respecting, protecting and promoting” the Palestinian right of return, many now claim that supporting BDS – a nonviolent call for equality, freedom and human rights – is itself tantamount to calling for the destruction of the state of Israel. The progressive American Jewish commentator Peter Beinart has written versions of this position repeatedly over the years:
(BDS) calls not only for boycotting all Israeli products and ending the occupation of the West Bank but also demands the right of millions of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes — an agenda that, if fulfilled, could dismantle Israel as a Jewish state.
Conveniently lost amidst all the rhetoric, however, is the fact that the right of return is not a “euphemism” for liquidation. It is a legitimately claimed right enshrined in international law. And therein lies the crux of the matter. Beinart’s point actually makes it very clear: the choice we ultimately face is one between a Jewish state vs. international law, justice and human rights for all.
“The Old will Die and the Young will Forget”
Between November 1947 and October 1948, 750,000 Palestinians fled or were forcibly expelled from their homes by Jewish militias, an event Israel refers to as the War of Independence and Palestinians call collectively the Nakba (“catastrophe”). In December of 1948, as Palestinian refugees languished in camps waiting to return to their homes, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 194 by a majority of 34 countries, including the United States.
Article 11 of the resolution stated:
Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity.
The government of the newly declared state of Israel, however, refused to allow dislocated Palestinians to return to their homes. Over 400 villages were completely destroyed, many of which had new Jewish settlements built upon them. In towns and cities, new Jewish immigrants moved into empty Palestinian houses that had been appropriated by Israel. And to this day, “the earliest practical date” for the return of Palestinians to their homes remains unrealized.
According to the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Refugee and Residency Rights, there are currently 7.9 million Palestinian refugees worldwide – the largest refugee population in the world. Yet almost 70 years later, the Palestinian people continue to hold their right of return as sacrosanct – as both a collective dream and as an inalienable right. At the same time, virtually all Israelis and Israel advocates have dismissed the right of return as a pipe dream – a political non-starter that will never come to pass.
“The old will die and the young will forget.” This quote is often attributed David Ben-Gurion, who reportedly made it while commenting on the future of Palestinian refugees. While there is no documentary evidence that Ben-Gurion actually uttered these words, it is clear that the prediction has not come to pass. Quite the contrary: the children and grandchildren of the 1948 refugees have not forgotten. If anything, the right of return has become an increasingly indelible aspect of Palestinian culture, famously represented by the original keys to homes in Palestine which are passed down from one family generation to the next.
As for me, I can state openly and unabashedly that I support the Palestinian people’s right of return. I believe it is their inalienable right – not a “euphemism” or cynical political ploy that can be wished, threatened or rationalized away. And I do believe that there will never be a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians until Israel honestly faces the injustices it has perpetrated against the Palestinian people and honors the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.
“The Jewish Character of the State”
To those who claim that the return of refugees would “imperil the Jewish character of the state of Israel,” I would respond that there is a serious problem when the character of a country is dependent upon the denial of basic human rights to an entire people. When we speak of the “Jewish character of the state,” we are really talking about a form of ethnic nationalism that necessarily privileges Jews over non-Jews.
In order to maintain this national character, Israel has created a system that allows any Jew in the world to become an immediate citizen of the Jewish state upon arrival – while millions of people who actually lived in the land (or have ancestors who did) are unable to set literally foot there for no other reason than they are not Jews. The bottom line: the Palestinian right of return raises the prospect of one democratic state of all its citizens – which for Israelis and Israel advocates means “the dismantling of the Jewish state.”
There may arguably have been a time in which the right of return could have been realistically imagined within the context of a two state solution. Peace activist Uri Avnery is one of the rare Israelis who dared to imagine and sketch out the details of such a possibility. In a 2000 article, he wrote:
A basic element of the Right of Return is the right of every single refugee to choose freely between return and compensation.
This is a personal right. While the recognition in principle is a collective right, its implementation in practice is in the realm of the individual Palestinian. In order to be able to make his decision, he must know all the rights accruing to him: what sums will be paid to those choosing not to return and what possibilities are open to those who wish to return…
The historic compromise between Israel and Palestine is based on the principle of “Two States for Two Peoples”. The State of Palestine is designed to embody the historic personality of the Palestinian-Arab people and the State of Israel is designed to embody the historic personality of the Israeli-Jewish people, with the Arab citizens of Israel, who constitute a fifth of all Israeli citizens, being full partners in the state.
It is clear that the return of millions of Palestinian refugees to the State of Israel would completely change the character of the state, contrary to the intentions of its founders and most of its citizens. It would abolish the principle of Two States for Two Peoples, on which the demand for a Palestinian state is based.
All this leads to the conclusion that most of the refugees who opt for return will find their place in the State of Palestine. As Palestinian citizens they will be able to build their life there, subject to the laws and decisions of their government.
Perhaps the last real chance at a negotiated two state solution that involved an Israeli acknowledgement of the right of return occurred during the Taba peace summit in January 2001. According to reports, both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators admitted that a mutually agreed upon deal could have been reached in a matter of weeks. It was also reported that Israeli justice minister Yossi Beilin wrote on a draft document: “The desire to return will be implemented in such a way that will confirm to the existence of the state of Israel and the homeland of the Jewish people.”
As it turned out the negotiations at Taba eventually failed – not because of the oft-claimed canard of the “Palestinian rejection of a generous offer,” but because Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak suspended negotiations during the onset of the Israeli elections. Barak would go on to be defeated by Ariel Sharon, who promptly negated the talks.
At any rate, the question of whether or not the right of return might be honored as part of a two state settlement is now moot. Israel’s policies of unmitigated West Bank settlement and displacement of Palestinians into virtual cantons in Areas A and B have made the prospect of a viable two state solution impossible. Whatever else we might say about the failure of the so-called peace process, it is not due to the Palestinians’ intransigent insistence upon their right of return, Rather, it due is to Israel’s desire to create a permanent Jewish presence in “Greater Israel”– and the world’s unwillingness to hold it to account.
“Exchange of Populations”
Many who reject the Palestinian right of return make a kind of “tit for tat” argument between the Palestinian refugees in 1948 and the 856,000 Jews of Arab countries who were either expelled, immigrated or brought to Israel around the same time. It is not uncommon for Israel advocates to equate the two, and claim that the events of 1948 resulted in an “exchange of populations.”
It’s a spurious argument on several levels. In the first place, while the actions of the governments of Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco and Syria cannot be excused for their violence their against their Jewish populations, Jews from Arab countries (or Mizrahi Jews) did not become refugees – they were absorbed into Israel and became citizens, fulfilling the state’s demographic need for a Jewish majority. Palestinians experienced the exact opposite: in 1948 they were forced from their homes and turned into refugees.
Moreover, the two expulsions did not occur at the same time. The Jews from Iraq and other Arab countries occurred after the Nakba and both occurred under very different circumstances. There is absolutely no documentary evidence to prove Israeli leadership intended an “exchange of populations” when they made the decision to prevent expelled Palestinians from returning to their homes.
Another important difference: while the right of return is almost universally cherished by all Palestinians, there is no equivalent call for return from Mizrahi Jews. If anything, the lion’s share of Mizrahi protest has been directed toward discriminatory treatment at the hands of Israel’s Askenazic elite and its erasure of their Arab cultural identity. Throughout the years, in fact there have been a number of Arab Jewish movements of solidarity with Palestinian Arabs, from the Israeli Black Panthers of the 1960s and 70s to the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition that formed in the 1990s, to the current efforts of Mizrahi activists who are seeking to join the Arab Joint List party in the Knesset.
Ironically enough, it was recently reported that the calls to define Mizrahi Jews as “refugees,” have now been taken up by the Israeli government, presumably in order to somehow politically equate them with Palestinian refugees. By so doing, however, this cynical maneuver actually contradicts a central Zionist dictum: that all Jews are welcome and to become citizens of the Jewish state. It’s also profoundly insulting to Mizrahi Jews themselves, as scholar Zachary Smith explains:
Mizrahi Jews came sometimes of their own free will and sometimes not of their own free will—a clear distinction in a complex history of Jewish immigration to Israel.Mizrahim were, for the most part, individual agents and actors making decisions about Zionism and Israel. Denying them this Zionist impulse does not just hurt Mizrahi collective identity by portraying them as helpless. It also hurts Israel, because refugees, as is apparent in the Palestinian case, demand to return home.
“They Will Throw the Jews into the Sea”
To return to the theme with which I began, there are those who claim that a return of refugees would existentially endanger the Jews of Israel. Upon their return, the argument goes, “Palestinian refugees raised on hatred” would undoubtedly throw the Jews into the sea.
This is a patently racist argument that essentializes Palestinians as incorrigibly violent. In the end, we cannot honestly discuss Palestinian violence against Israel without recognizing the context of the daily violence in which Palestinians have been living for almost seven decades. Palestinian violence is not a product of their upbringing – it is a response to Israel’s violent expulsion of their families from their homes and the violence of brutal, ongoing oppression.
I have no doubt that there will be those who will respond to me by saying it’s all well and good for me to preach to Israelis that they must live side by side with Palestinians from the comfort and safety of my home in the United States, when it is the Israelis who will have to live with the consequences. It’s a fair question – and in good Jewish fashion I’ll answer it with another question: what will ensure the long term safety of both peoples: the continuance of an oppressive status quo that will only guarantee a future of violence or an honestly negotiated settlement that includes authentic reparation and repatriation as well as mutually agreed upon guarantees of security for Israelis and Palestinians?
Obviously we are a long way from an “honestly negotiated settlement.” But before we even get to the practical considerations of how the Palestinian right of return might be implemented, that right must first be acknowledged and honored on its own merits. We cannot yet say how this right will be practically realized – this can only come through mutual agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. But in the meantime, the Palestinian right of return cannot be summarily dismissed by shrugging our shoulders and assuming “all nations are created this way.”
No, history cannot be turned back, but Israelis and Palestinians can go forward together. The repatriation of refugees is not a pipe dream – it is a very real and practical concept for which we have ample historical precedent. The real question is not whether or not return is possible. It is rather: does Israel have the political and moral will to own the injustice it inflicted (and continues to inflict) on the Palestinian people and accept their inherent right to return to their homes?
I do believe this acceptance is the necessary first step toward a truly just peace in Israel/Palestine.
Your child will ask
why do we observe this festival?
And you will answer
it is because of what God did for us
when we were set free from the land of Egypt.
Your child will ask
were we set free from the land of Egypt
that we might hold tightly
to the pain of our enslavement
with a mighty hand?
And you will answer
we were set free from Egypt
that we might release our pain
by reaching with an outstretched arm
to all who struggle for freedom.
Your child will ask
were we set free from the land of Egypt
because we are God’s chosen people?
And you will answer
we were set free from the land of Egypt
so that we will finally come to learn
all who are oppressed
are God’s chosen.
Your child will ask
were we set free from the land of Egypt
that we might conquer and settle
a land inhabited by others?
And you will answer
we were set free from the land of Egypt
that we might open wide the doors
Let all who are dispossessed return home.
Let all who wander find welcome at the table.
Let all who hunger for liberation
come and eat.
Is Zionism “settler colonialism?” It’s an important question that is increasingly invoked in public debates over Israel/Palestine – and BDS in particular.
While I personally do believe Israel to be a settler colonial state, I think it’s critical to understand what we mean when we use this term, what it means in the context of Israel/Palestine, and its implications for the wider struggle against systems of oppression in the US and throughout the world.
Let’s start with the definition itself. Many people use the term “settler colonialism” and “colonialism” interchangeably, but they are not in fact the same thing. Colonialism is defined by the Collins Dictionary as “the policy and practice of a power in extending control over weaker peoples or areas.” Historically speaking, it generally refers to specific European imperial powers during a period that lasted from the 16th to mid-20th centuries.
“Settler colonialism,” is a different concept, as Professor of Anthropology Tate A. LeFevre explains:
Though often conflated with colonialism more generally, settler colonialism is a distinct imperial formation. Both colonialism and settler colonialism are premised on exogenous domination, but only settler colonialism seeks to replace the original population of the colonized territory with a new society of settlers (usually from the colonial metropole). This new society needs land, and so settler colonialism depends primarily on access to territory. Britain, for example, implemented the doctrine of “terra nullius” (“land belonging to no one”) to claim sovereignty over Australia. The entire continent was thereby declared legally uninhabited, despite millennia of Aboriginal occupation.
In other words, while colonialism typically refers to events, settler-colonialism is viewed as an ongoing process. Professor LeFevre puts it this way: “Settler colonialism is premised on occupation and the elimination of the native population, while colonialism is primarily about conquest.”
Given this definition, the claim that Zionism is a form of settler colonialism it is not at all inappropriate and certainly not anti-Semitic (as some of the more vociferous Israel advocates will often claim).
There is, for instance, a striking similarity between the British colonial concept of “terra nullius” and the early Zionist slogan, “a land without a people for a people without a land.” This is not say that Zionists viewed the land as literally empty – they most certainly recognized the existence of an Arab population in Palestine. It does mean, however, that they did not always factor its indigenous inhabitants into their equations – and when they did, it was invariably as a problem to be dealt with.
The father of modern Zionism made this clear in his diary when he wrote of Palestinian Arabs:
We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries whilst denying it any employment in our own country.
David Ben-Gurion expressed similar intentions in a 1937 letter to his son Amos (who was critical of his father’s intention to support the 1937 Peel Commission partition plan):
My assumption (which is why I am a fervent proponent of a state, even though it is now linked to partition) is that a Jewish state on only part of the land is not the end but the beginning…
The establishment of a state, even if only on a portion of the land, is the maximal reinforcement of our strength at the present time and a powerful boost to our historical endeavors to liberate the entire country.
We shall admit into the state all the Jews we can. We firmly believe that we can admit more than two million Jews. We shall build a multi-faceted Jewish economy– agricultural, industrial, and maritime. We shall organize an advanced defense force—a superior army which I have no doubt will be one of the best armies in the world. At that point I am confident that we would not fail in settling in the remaining parts of the country, through agreement and understanding with our Arab neighbors, or through some other means.
Thanks to Israeli historians such as Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev and Ilan Pappe, we now know that the creation of Israel was accomplished through “some other means.” More recently, journalist Avi Shavit recently made reference to this ignoble history in his book, “My Promised Land.” The most chilling chapter (which was reprinted in the New Yorker magazine) describes in detail the depopulation of the Palestinian village of Lydda.
Even more chilling are Shavit’s musings on the meaning of this tragic event:
Looking straight ahead at Lydda, I wonder if peace is possible. Our side is clear: we had to come into the Lydda Valley and we had to take the Lydda Valley. There is no other home for us, and there was no other way. But the Arabs’ side, the Palestinian side, is equally clear: they cannot forget Lydda and they cannot forgive us for Lydda. You can argue that it is not the occupation of 1967 that is at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but the tragedy of 1948. It’s not only the settlements that are an obstacle to peace but the Palestinians’ yearning to return, one way or another, to Lydda and to dozens of other towns and villages that vanished during one cataclysmic year. But the Jewish State cannot let them return.
Many who reject the “Zionism as Settler Colonialism” label often argue that this claim ignores the historic and Biblical connection of the Jewish people to the land – and that Jews are its “true indigenous people” who have been longing for a return and restoration to their ancient homeland for centuries.
Leaving aside the use of a profoundly ahistorical document such as the Bible as justification for the establishment for a modern Jewish nation state, let’s look more closely at the Zionist claim of Jewish indigeneity to the land.
It is certainly true following the destruction of the Temple in 73 CE and the spread of the Jewish people throughout the diaspora, Jewish tradition continued to maintain an important attachment to the land of Israel. Eretz Yisrael (“the Land of Israel”) is a central subject in many sacred Jewish texts and numerous traditional Jewish prayers express a longing for a return of the Jewish people to the land. It is also true that there have been small Jewish communities in historic Palestine throughout the ages and that pilgrimage to Eretz Yisrael was considered to be a mitzvah (“or sacred commandment”.)
However, it is important to note that the Jewish attachment to this land has traditionally been expressed as an inherently religious connection. From its very beginnings, Judaism has spiritualized the concept of the land. Moreover, throughout the centuries, rabbinical authorities strictly prohibited an en masse return to the land in order to establish a Third Jewish Commonwealth. Such an act was viewed as an anathema – a profane forcing of God’s hand. The restoration of the Jewish People to the land would only occur with the coming of the Messiah and the onset of the Messianic Era.
It is against this context that we must understand Zionism as a modern political movement, arising in the 19th century as an explicit rejection of Jewish tradition. While Judaism was a diaspora-based religion that taught God could be found anywhere in the world, Zionism preached “shlilat hagalut” (“negation of the diaspora”), advocating for a literal return to the land in order to establish a modern Jewish nation state. Influenced by the European nationalisms of its day, Zionism sought to create a new kind of Judaism and indeed, a new kind of Jew.
This radical revisioning of Jewish life and culture in many ways represents the exact opposite of indigeneity. Indigenous peoples by definition maintain unique cultural and linguistic practices distinctive to their presence in a particular land. Zionism created a completely new Hebraic Jewish culture – one that was deeply influenced by a European Ashkenazic ethos and transplanted into the Middle East. To be clear: this is not to say that Jews have no connection to this land and no right to live there, only that the claim of Jewish indigeneity is ideological, rather than factual – and that this claim has had a devastating impact on the actual indigenous people of this land.
Other critics of the settler colonialist label point out that there is no such thing as a discrete “Zionism;” that this movement was historically made up of many different Zionisms, not all of which shared the same political goals. There were, for instance, cultural Zionists such as Ahad Ha’am who did not share Herzl’s desire of a Jewish political state but rather advocated for a gradual colonization of Palestine that would make it the center of a Jewish cultural renaissance. There also Zionists such as Judah Magnes and Hannah Arendt, who believed in the creation of a bi-national Jewish/Arab state in Palestine.
These variants of Zionism represent an important fact of history. But it is also true that they are precisely that: part of the historical past. If Magnes or Arendt were living today, they would surely be considered “anti-Zionist”. In the end, the form of Zionism that ultimately triumphed was the political Zionism advocated by those who sought to create a sovereign Jewish state in historic Palestine. And it was this Zionism that aimed to solve the problem of Palestine’s indigenous population “through some other means” – that is, by means of settler colonialism.
In one of the most comprehensive treatments I’ve yet read on this subject, Bennett Muraskin writes:
Zionism is described by its supporters as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, but it must be recognized that until the 1947 UN Partition Plan, the land it sought to liberate had a minority of Jews, consisting mainly of recent Europeans immigrants living under the protection of an imperial power. When the British turned against the Jewish colony, the Zionists succeeded in liberating themselves, but in the war it fought with the Palestinian Arabs and Arab armies, the Zionists dispossessed the native population.
In this sense, Israel is a colonial settler state.
Muraskin, however, then goes on to list the ways that make Israel different from other settler colonial states. His intention, I assume, is to leave open the possibility that it somehow isn’t. This equivocal attitude is obvious from the outset – Muraskin’s article is actually entitled “Is Israel a Colonial Settler State? Perhaps but with Lots of Provisos.”
In the end, however, I believe these “provisos” only demonstrate that Zionism represents but one form of settler colonialism. One obvious difference is that Israel was created by what began as a small movement, not an existing colonial power such as Great Britain, France or Belgium. However it is also true that Israel could never have been created without the help of great world powers (Britain and later the US) who supported the creation of the Jewish state because it advanced their own imperial agendas. James Baldwin put it very aptly in 1979: he state of Israel was not created for the salvation of the Jews; it was created for the salvation of the Western interests.”
In the end, this insight explains why the debate over this term is more than just academic or semantical. Israel’s oppressive policies against the Palestinians do not exist in a vacuum. They are but part of a larger hegemonic system of white supremacy and institutionalized racism that exists in the US and throughout the world.
As Professor LeFevre writes, “Settler colonialism does not really ever ‘end.’” Perhaps the first step in that direction is to call it out for what it really and truly is.