Is Israel a colonial-settler state, and are the Palestinians colonially oppressed people? Supporters of Israel will say definitely not and emphatically denounce a “yes” answer as anti-Semitic propaganda against a state established by people seeking to end millennia of exile and bondage.
Then, is Zionism a political-religious ideology that discriminates against non-Jews? Again, the answer given by many Jews is no, while those who would venture a “yes” are themselves liable to be labelled as oppressors.
But as uncomfortable as they are, these are two fundamental questions that must be addressed by all who seek a lasting solution to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peace will never come to Jews nor to Arabs, unless these issues are honestly addressed — especially by the state of Israel, which has the upper hand in military, political and economic power.
Israel, of course, does not precisely fit the model of former white racist South Africa, but there are striking analogies here that bear reflection. One is that Zionists, unlike most European colonialists, openly advocated creating a social base upon which to take over a particular territory. In doing so, their vision excluded the indigenous population — “a land without a people for a people without a land,” as leading Zionist, Israel Zangwill, put it.
In the 1930s and 40s, Zionist racism was no worse than the pro- caucasian racism that prevailed in much of Europe. But the idea of establishing an exclusively Jewish state in Arab Palestine at first found little favor, even among Jews, until the British were persuaded to support it. By becoming involved in this way, they could justify their continued political and economic intervention in the Middle East.
Thus it happened that thousands of Jews — either fleeing Hitler before the war, or the wretched Displaced Persons Camps after the war — found refuge in British Mandate Palestine, all because they were not accepted by those western democracies who today are so friendly to Israel.
The refugees, themselves so recently victims of persecution, were absorbed into armed-settlement communities that served only to intensify the colonialist impact upon native Palestinians. The same was true for Oriental (eastern) Jews who arrived later. Some were under Zionist pressure or persuasion, while others had been expelled from their Arab countries of origin in retaliation for Israel’s expulsion of Palestinians. In both cases, it was the Palestinians who were made to suffer for the deeds of others.
Throughout the ensuing 53 years, it has proven impossible for the once-struggling Zionist state — now fully formed and securely established — to assume any kind of normal relationship with the conquered and occupied Palestinian people who once lived in this “empty” land.
What has made things increasingly worse over the passing decades is that Israel has unashamedly built its prosperity on the backs of hired Palestinian labor from the Occupied Territories. And, with willing American help, it has grown accustomed to continually expanding the notorious armed Jewish settlements that oppress the Palestinians right in their own neighbourhoods, in addition to exploiting them as a captive pool of cheap labor.
Writing in 1972, prominent Israeli dissident Yehoshua Arieli pointed to the deleterious effects of occupation, which then included (and still do): producing political conformity, spurring new vested interests, deepening social and material inequality, and leaving Zionist values “jettisoned” by hiring Arabs to do mainly “the dirty work.”
This brings us back to my opening point, that Israelis must address fundamental issues of the Occupation, particularly the ongoing presence of armed settlements and, especially, the Zionist ideology on which their state was built. Yet most remain blind to the dire need for national self-examination by overwhelming support from the U.S. and by half a century of Israeli military, political and economic victories. These have bolstered a false sense of superiority, even arrogance, toward the very idea of Palestine and Palestinians as a cultural and national entity.
But the reality is this: Palestinians, despite Israelis’ wishful thinking, are not going away. In 1967, Joseph Weitz, former head of the Jewish Agency Colonization Department, wrote “…when the U.N. passed a resolution to partition Palestine into two states, the War of Independence broke out to our great good fortune; and in this war a twofold miracle happened: a territorial victory and the flight of the Arabs. In the Six Days’ War, one great miracle happened: a tremendous territorial victory; but most of the inhabitants of the liberated territories remained stuck to their places — which may destroy the very foundation of our state.”
Weitz was one of the main architects of a “transfer solution,” which advocateed transferring Arabs from within Israel out to neighbouring countries; in fact, “to transfer all of them; not one village, not one tribe should be left.”
It seems incredible that after 53 years, so many Israeli Jews still deny concrete historical reality and blame Palestinians entirely for the current unrest. It is even more incredible that the racist colonial-settler character of Israel has not been widely recognized by so many of its supporters — even those who normally sympathize with the oppressed. The majority of western nations, still influenced by unresolved post-Holocaust guilt, have condoned the handing-over of Palestine in the name of atonement and compassion — while feeling relief that all those Holocaust survivors, and their descendants, wouldn’t be knocking at their doors. In so doing, they continue to punish both Palestinians and Israelis, many times over. How sad!
Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.