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 this region 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 against 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.
As I was reading the various analyses of the Brexit vote yesterday, I remembered an article I had read back in 2011 by the International Affairs scholar, Stephen M. Walt. His basic thesis was that despite all of the new global trends in 21st century, nationalism was still “the most powerful political force in the world.”
Unless we fully appreciate the power of nationalism, in short, we are going to get a lot of things wrong about the contemporary political life. It is the most powerful political force in the world, and we ignore it at our peril.
I recall being a bit irritated when I that article. Like many, I believed that the world had certainly learned its lesson from two cataclysmic world wars and that for all the problems that came with globalization, nationalism was a relic of the past.
But I’m convinced now. And at the risk of sounding too apocalyptic about it, I’m wondering if the peril we’ve ignored is now at our door.
It’s hard not to see the increasing national fervor developing all around us. Great Britain has voted to exit the European Union and other member countries are threatening to follow suit. Nationalist parties are making big gains in countries around Western Europe and Vladimir Putin has whipped a strong nationalist fervor in Russia. Many countries throughout Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and the Far East are led by leaders who use nationalist rhetoric to win elections and promote their domestic policies.
I’ve never been a fan of nationalism. I accept that nation states are part of the social, political and economic fabric of the modern world – but I’ve long believed that the nation-statism too often fuses with tribalism – particularly during time of economic instability. This phenomenon, as we know all too well, has inevitably led the modern world to dark and destructive places.
As a Jew, I view the ultra-right nationalism that increasingly grips Israel’s political culture as the inevitable outcome of a nation that predicates its identity on one specific group of people. And as an American, I’m watching the toxic, seething national fervor unleashed by Donald Trump with genuine alarm.
In his article, Walt suggested that the US isn’t as susceptible to overt nationalism as other other countries:
Because American national identity tends to emphasize the civic dimension (based on supposedly universal principles such as individual liberty) and tends to downplay the historic and cultural elements (though they clearly exist).
Yes they clearly do exist in this country. Even if Trump loses in November – and I do believe he will – the sick nationalist fervor he has unleashed will not vanish overnight. Nor will the nations around the world that are currently increasing xenophobia, racism and fear of the other.
Now more than ever we need to stand down the sorrows of nationalism. I don’t think its too alarmist to suggest that we heed the lessons of the past lest it become an unimaginable future. As journalist Ed Fuller recently wrote in the aptly titled article: “Nationalism: Back Again Like a Bad Dream:”
I can’t help but think about the political excesses of the 1930s, the protectionism and the xenophobic zeal that were all part of the Nationalistic wave that swept the world following the First World War. It ultimately resulted in Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland and Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor, ending with Hiroshima. Something to think about as we grapple with the challenges facing our world today.
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.
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.
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.