Breaking Ground at Cinema Hebron

This past Friday, I had the honor to participate in an incredible, unprecedented mass action of civil disobedience in the H2 section of Hebron – in the heart of Israel’s unjust and illegal occupation.

I’ll start with a little bit of history:

In 1968, a year after Israel conquered the West Bank, a group of radical religious settlers led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, led a group of followers to a hotel in Hebron – with the government’s support – to observe a Passover seder. When it was over, they refused to leave; and following a negotiation with the government, they were allowed to create a settlement to the east of Hebron that they named Kiryat Arba  Since that time, Jewish settlers gradually moved into Hebron proper. Over the years tension gradually increased in Hebron. Things changed drastically in 1995 after Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in the Ibrahimi mosque. Fearful of reprisals, the IDF imposed increasing curfews and restriction of movement on the Palestinian population.

In 1996, as part of the Oslo agreement, Hebron was divided into two sections: H1 and H2. H1 is locally governed by the Palestinian Authority and is home to approximately 120,000 Palestinians. Tens of thousands of Palestinians live in H2 along with 600 Jewish settlers. Since the Second Intifada, Israel increased their security crackdown on this part of the city, blocking off major streets to Palestinians – most notably the main commercial road, Shuhadah Street. (The army refers to them as “sterile roads”).

Virtually every Palestinian shop in H2 has been closed and their doors welded shut by the army. Because the Palestinian residents of Shuhadah St. are not allowed to walk on the road, they must enter and exit through the rear of homes because they cannot leave their own front doors. Because of these measures – and the ongoing harassment and violence at the hands of Jewish settlers – what was once the busting commercial center of Hebron has become a ghost town. 42% of its Palestinian homes are empty and 70% of its Palestinian business have been shut down.

We visited Hebron earlier this week and it was a truly chilling experience. Our group went on a tour led by Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli army veterans who are speaking out about the abuses the IDF are committing in Hebron. I did a BTS tour in 2008 during my first real foray into the reality of contemporary Hebron. Today, the situation there is even more dire if such a thing is possible.

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With Colm Toibin in Hebron

Before we started our tour, we witnessed an incident in which a settler attacked an Israeli photographer and damaged his camera. As it turned out the photographer was the celebrated photojournalist Oren Ziv. who was accompanying a private BTS tour for Irish author Colm Tóibín. The incident was captured on film by a member of our delegation. He gave a copy of the video to Ziv so he could press charges against the settler for damages. (We never found out whether or not he actually succeeded).

As we walked down Shuhadah St., the intimidating presence of the settlers was impossible to ignore. At one point we saw Tóibín and his tour guide on the side of the road. A car with two settlers drove up and the driver proceeded to scream obscenities at them for ten minutes.

Hebron’s settlers are truly the most brutal, ideologically extreme and heavily armed of the entire settler movement. They walk and drive the streets with impunity and full protection of the IDF.  As is the case throughout the West Bank, Jews are governed by Israeli civil law – and as a result the army cannot and does not intervene when settlers harass Palestinians. However, since Palestinians are subject to military law, they face dual oppression from soldiers and settlers alike.

After our BTS tour we walked to the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron to meet with Issa Amro, founder/director of Youth Against the Settlements. YAS is an increasingly powerful and important Palestinian nonviolent organization; among other things, it sponsors the annual Open Shuhadah Street campaign and regularly organizes/empowers the youth of Hebron.

Issa is truly a visionary leader in the Palestinian popular resistance movement. He has been arrested and detained countless times for his activism but has clearly become well known throughout Hebron as force to be reckoned with. Palestinian activists such as Issa tend to infuriate the Israeli military because their principled commitment to nonviolence cannot be quelled militarily. Although he and his comrades have been arrested and detained numerous times, YAS has come to represent a ray of hope for the Palestinian residents of Hebron.

We met Issa in the YAS center, which has an interesting history all its own. Originally Palestinian-owned, the building was taken over by settlers several years ago. But through a methodical campaign of legal pressure and nonviolent resistance, the settlers were eventually evicted and it was turned into YAS’s central headquarters. Last November, the center was raided by the IDF and temporarily declared a “closed military zone” (I’ll get back to this term later). Still, Issa and YAS remain steadfast.

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With Issa Amro of Youth Against the Settlements

On Thursday we prepared to return to Hebron for our nonviolent direct action, which had been almost two years in the planning by YAS and the Israeli anti-occupation collective All That’s Left. The Center for Jewish Nonviolence was invited to be part of this action as well so that its message could be strengthened through the solidarity of diaspora Jewry. CJNV has cultivated a strong relationship with both YAS and ATL and other Israeli/Palestinian partners on the ground. It is truly a sign of the times that diaspora Jews are joining this increasingly broad-based solidarity movement.

The goal of the action was to begin the process of turning an old metal factory in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron into a movie theater: Cinema Hebron.YAS chose to build a movie theater so that the isolated, segregated Palestinian residents of H2 could have a place to come together in community – to experience even a little slice of normalcy in this intensely abnormal, unjust environment. It was also designed to be a statement to the settler community that the Palestinian residents of Hebron will continue to resist the theft of their property – and that Jews from around the world are ready to stand in solidarity with them.

The factory is owned by Jawad Abu Aisha, the patriarch of a prominent family in Tel Rumeida. As was the case with the YAS center, Jewish settlers were gradually encroaching toward this particular property – and based on past history, it seemed it was only a matter of time before it was taken it over completely. Tel Rumeida is heavily desired by settlers and has long been one of the tensest areas of Hebron. (This past March, Tel Rumeida made the news after a solider was filmed shooting a wounded Palestinian in the head while he was lying in the street.)

We spent all day Thursday preparing for the action, which was prepared down to the most minute detail. Our plan was to go to the old, cluttered site, begin the process of cleaning it up and announce our intention to turn it into Cinema Hebron to the press. Inevitably the IDF and police would show up and eventually declare it a “closed military zone” – their standard operating procedure when dealing with protests.

Legally speaking, the military needs to get a signed order to declare a closed military zone, but they often dispense with that pretense. Our plan was to keep cleaning up the site until the soldiers returned with their order. In the meantime, we would put up a mock marquee, pass out Cinema Hebron popcorn, give interviews to press, chant and sing, and do our best to clean up the site before they soldiers and police ordered us out.

There were 60 participants all told – 40 from CJNV and another twenty from Youth against the Settlements and All That’s Left. Our group split up into three “pods” – Green (those who would work until the soldiers returned but would not take an arrest), Yellow (those who would would be willing to be arrested if it was deemed necessary by our leaders) and Red (those who would stay until they were arrested.)

cinemahebronAs an extra precautionary measure, we drove to the site in separate vans to the site. Unfortunately, the military was somehow tipped off that there was some kind of action being planned for Hebron that day – and the van coming with ATF activists from Jerusalem was stopped en route. Our CJNV delegation all made it in safely, however. We gathered in an old metal warehouse until we were given the word that our tools had arrived. Then we put up the marquee and got to work.

The site was heavily overgrown with high weeds and all kinds of scrap metal everywhere. As we started raking, hauling, piling junk we sang a every Jewish song and civil rights chant we knew. In short order settlers started to gather, peering at us through the front gate. The IDF and police arrived soon as well – we worked for about an hour or an hour and a half before they actually entered the site. They began arguing with the Palestinian owners and after some back and forth, they eventually fell back and we continued with our work.

After another hour or so, they returned and announced that the area was closed military zone. At this point, the some members of our delegation left and the rest of us sat down in the middle of the site, continuing to chant and sing. A police officer came up to us and told us that our presence on the site was illegal and if we did not leave in two minutes, we would be arrested (below). When our two minutes were up, they started to physically remove us (see the clip at the top of this post). They shoved us to the back of the site, gathered us together and ordered to take out our passports. They then asked the six Israelis from our delegation to take out their identity cards and led them away. We were sent out in the other direction and told to leave the site.

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Photo: A. Daniel Roth – http://allthesedays.org

At that point we gathered together and discussed what to do next. It seemed clear to us that the Israelis were targeted because they were easier to process – and that the authorities likely wanted to avoid the bad publicity of arresting internationals. When we received word from our lawyers that our six friends had been taken to the police station in Kiryat Arba, we decided to walk there together and demand their release.

After walking for only ten minutes or so we were stopped by five soldiers who told us we couldn’t continue because the area was (you guessed it) a closed military zone. We refused to leave and said we simply wanted to visit our friends in the police station. Thus began a stand off, during which the lead soldier called his commander four or five times. They clearly had never dealt with a group like ours and were somewhat bewildered that we wouldn’t leave when ordered. Finally Issa arrived and argued loudly with the soldiers. I’m not sure how he managed it but we were finally told we could continue along a detoured route.

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We eventually made it to Shuhadah St., continued down the road, passed the Ibrahimi Mosque and headed up a hill that led us in the direction of Kiryat Arba. As we walked in, we were joined by soldiers who silently walked alongside us. It quickly became clear to me that they weren’t there to impede us but rather to protect us from angry settlers. (I’m fairly sure this was the first time the residents of Kiryat Arba had ever witnessed a group of singing diaspora Jews walking down the street wearing “Occupation in Not Our Judaism” T-shirts ).

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Photo: A. Daniel Roth – http://allthesedays.org

We finally arrived at a gated area and faced yet another gauntlet of soldiers. After yet another round of back and forth, we were sent around to the front gate. Then we walked down a residential community to the end of the street where the police station was located. We talked to the guard at the front gate and explained we wanted to see our friends inside. After other policemen gathered we were told that our six friends were indeed inside but that we would not be allowed to see them. At this point, increasing numbers of residents from the neighborhood had come to mock and taunt us. Many of them filmed us with their cell phones. Eventually we sat down on the ground in front of the station gate and began to sing and chant once more.

The leaders of our delegation were in cell phone contact with the lawyers and our friends inside, who told us they could actually hear us singing and calling out their names. They were in the process of being interrogated by the police one by one but were otherwise fine. By this point quite a crowd had started to gather around us. We kept on singing as more police cars arrived. The original officer came back to us and told us that this was an illegal assembly – and that we had two minutes to disperse before they arrested us.

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Photo credit: Jewish Forward

After talking with our lawyers, we decided against taking an arrest. They told us they believed our friends would likely be released in several hours, adding that our arrest would not help their cause and might even hinder it. So after spending an hour at the station we got up, walked together down the street and gathered near the front gate. As Shabbat was getting closer, we sang Shalom Aleichem and Lecha Dodi together with our other songs. Then together, we walked to a YAS home in H1 to meet up with the rest of our crew, eat a late lunch, debrief, share stories and nap after our physically/emotionally exhausting experience. Eventually we boarded our bus and returned to Susiya, in the South Hebron Hills where we would spend our Shabbat.

That evening just after a gorgeous sunset, we made a circle on a rocky hill and I began to lead our Shabbat service. As I prepared to lead Lecha Dodi, the prayer that welcomes the Shabbat bride, I heard someone shout. I looked up and saw two cars pulling up. Our six friends got out, grinning ear to ear as we cheered their arrival. After lots of hugs and laughter, we all continued with our service.

Shabbat had arrived.

(PS: You can read about our Cinema Hebron action here and here and our Shabbat in Susiya here).


Solidarity in Hevron: Occupation is Not Our Judaism

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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.


For Shavuot: They Saw the Thunder

A Palestinian farmer harvests barley on a farm near the border of southern Gaza Strip with Israel

Photo: Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Looking up from the barley harvest
they heard the sounds, like the blaring of trumpets
echoing across the hills.

Thick smoke rose up like smoke from a kiln
and then they saw the thunder,
fire sparking and flashing
as mortar shells fell from the sky.

The orders came in:
we have set bounds for the village
take care not to cross it
lest you be put to death.

They were sent out on the third day
and headed east into the hills
to the place where the Moabites once lived.

While back home, the unharvested barley
scattered like dry grass in the wind
and homes toppled into piles of stone.

Those were the days
the judges ceased to judge.


On Passover, Israel and Demographic Threats

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(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Crossposted with Truthout

The weeklong Jewish festival of Passover is coming to a close, but like many Jews around the world I’m still digesting the myriad questions, answers and discussions that ensued as we retold the biblical story of the Exodus at our seder. While it’s a story our community returns to over and over again, I’m continually astonished at the ways it provides a frame for understanding struggles for liberation past and present.

This year, I’ve been contemplating one aspect of the story in particular: when a new pharaoh arises over Egypt “who did not know Joseph.” We immediately learn in no uncertain terms that this new ruler was considerably more xenophobic than his predecessor:

And (Pharaoh) said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us.” (Exodus 1:8-9)

To use contemporary parlance, Pharaoh clearly views the Israelites as a “demographic threat” to the Egyptians.

The demographic threat meme, of course, has been played out countless times since the age of the pharaohs. It has certainly been a deeply woven thread in the fabric of American culture from our very origins. To cite but one example: Centuries before Donald Trump started railing against Mexican “criminals” and “rapists,” Benjamin Franklin wrote a 1751 essay in which he bemoaned the influx of “Palatine Boors” into the colonies who would “shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.”

So yes, as an American, I can’t read these words from the Exodus story without connecting it to an ignoble aspect of my own country’s legacy — one that is all too real even today.

And as an American Jew, I can’t help but connect it to another country that also purports to act in my name.

Indeed, ever since Israel’s establishment, Zionist leaders knew well that the future Jewish state would only be “viable” if it could create and maintain a demographic Jewish majority in historic Palestine. In the late 19th century, this must surely have seemed like a tall order, since Jews constituted but 2 to 5 percent of the population. By 1947, following decades of Zionist colonization and Jewish immigration, their number had swelled to 32 percent. Under the UN-sponsored partition plan, the percentage of Jews allotted to the new Jewish state would have been 55 percent.

During the 1948 war — known as the War of Independence by Zionists and the Nakba (“catastrophe”) by Palestinians — the issue of demographics was solved through the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and Israel’s refusal to allow them to return. However, the demographic stakes were raised once again in 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza and began a military occupation that exists to this day.

In 2010, Jews officially become a minority population from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea; around the same time, it was determined that the Jewish majority in Israel proper was slowly diminishing. For some time now, Zionists have been warning that the Palestinians’ birth rate poses a “demographic threat” to the future of the Jewish state.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this rhetoric is that it doesn’t only come from Israel’s far right, but from liberal Zionists, who use the demographic argument to advocate for a two-state solution. Witness, for instance, the words of J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami:

When it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peace, the two-state solution and the inexorable demographic threat to Israel’s future as a democratic state that remains the homeland for the Jewish people, our position is the same as that of the Israeli government, the Obama administration and the vast bulk of the American Jewish community.

Leaving aside the issues of whether or not the two-state solution actually is the policyof the Israeli government, let’s unpack this statement for a moment. The liberal Zionist argument for a “democratic Jewish state” is predicated on a view of Palestinians as a “demographic threat.” As an American, if I referred to any other ethnic group in this country with such a term, I would surely be viewed as a bigot or a racist. But as a Jew, I can refer to Palestinians with this epithet and still remain a member in good standing of the liberal peace camp.

Thus the inherent contradiction of liberal Zionism: democracy and demographic engineering simply do not go hand in hand. At the end of the day, there is nothing liberal about supporting an ethno-national project predicated upon the identity of one group over another. The late Meir Kahane, revered by Israel’s ultra right, loved to make liberal Zionists squirm by repeatedly articulating this point: “A western democracy and Zionism are not compatible. You can’t have both.”

Kahane’s solution, of course, was “forced transfer” of the Palestinian population. The current government of Israel is accomplishing this goal through more subtle means:home demolitions, land expropriation and the revocation of Palestinians’ residency and citizenship. In truth, Israel has been dealing with its demographic threat under cover of US support for years, all the while claiming the mantle of “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

This, along with its massive settlement expansion has brought Israel’s demographic problem home to roost. The real decision before them is not between a one-state or two-state solution, but between two one-state solutions: an apartheid Jewish state or one state of all its citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity.

As I watch this tragic process unfold this Passover, I find myself returning to the universal lesson this festival imparts on the corrupt abuse of state power. Although the Exodus story is considered sacred in Jewish tradition, it would be a mistake to assume that the contemporary state of Israel must be seen as equivalent to the biblical Israelites.

On the contrary, any people who suffer under oppressive government policies are, in a sense, Israelites. And any state — even a Jewish state — that views a people in its midst as a demographic threat can become a Pharaoh.


New for Passover: “Your Child Will Ask”

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Photo:Marko Djurica/Reuters

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
to proclaim:

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.


Campus Update: Hateful Islamophobia at IUPUI

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Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) has done important and inspirational work on colleges around the country – often in the face of death threats, harassment and personal attack. The latest example: just this past week, a student leader of the SJP at University of Indiana – Purdue University Indianapolis (UIPUI) named Haneen (I’ve been asked to not use her last name out of concern for her safety) has been subject to threats, harassment and defamation through anonymous blog posts and flyers left on campus.

Among other things, this hate campaign characterized her as an advocate and supporter of terrorism, made sexist comments about her appearance, urged “authorities to look into her history of violence and investigate whether or not she is an immediate threat to…the nation’s capital.” One post attacked her for partnering with Black Lives Matter , calling it “a group that is also prone to acts of violence.” She has also received harassing phone calls at her home.

Haneen has received heartening support from a variety of corners, including a group of seventy five UIPUI faculty members and student who have signed a letter that calls upon UIPUI Chancellor Nasser Paydar to:

(1) to issue a strong public statement condemning these attacks and (2) to make clear the status of the University’s investigation of these heinous acts.

We encourage the Deans of each IUPUI school to educate their communities on sexism, Islamophobia, racism, and other threats to our sense of communal well-being.

We ask every IUPUI community member to challenge sexism, racism, Islamophobia, and all other forms of discrimination in their everyday interactions both on and off campus.

Making clear our university community’s values and mission in the face of fear and intimidation is necessary to creating a welcoming campus for all. Courage, hope, and love can defeat the hatred that has shown its face among us. We pledge to help in whatever ways we can.

I was encouraged to learn that the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council has written Haneen a letter of support as well. Despite the appropriate demands that the University administration take immediate and meaningful action, however, the only response to date has been a bland, general statement from Chancellor Paydar that IUPUI “abhors all forms of racism, bigotry and discrimination, including discrimination based on religious beliefs or political views.” 

Representing the faculty letter signers, lecturer Lindsay Lettrell rightly and eloquently responded:

Dear Chancellor Paydar,

While we welcome your statement affirming that “the university abhors all forms of racism, bigotry and discrimination, including discrimination based on religious beliefs or political views,” we, faculty, staff and student supporters of Haneen, believe that these immediate, specific problems of racism, sexism, and Islamophobia need to named and condemned explicitly. Our student’s safety and future is on the line, and Haneen has asked that her University speak publicly about her right to safety as a part of our campus community. While the generalities in your message are relevant, we still ask you to address this specifically. After all, as the team of her supporters has reminded us, “She is a real person, not an idea. Her name is Haneen. She is Palestinian. She is a Muslim. She is a woman. (And, I add, she is our student.) She has a face. She has a voice. And her voice is our voice.”

Click here to contact Chancellor Paydar and demand that IUPUI denounce this act of hatred and move swiftly to investigate it.

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Yes, Zionism is Settler Colonialism

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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: “The 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.


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