MRP is now offering free copies of A Land With A People in an effort to encourage people to form study groups–as just a first step towards action. Write to [email protected] and tell us about your group and how many copies you need — and keep us posted on your next steps!
In the service of furthering public knowledge of the roots of the current horrors in Gaza and beyond, Monthly Review Press is offering you, in full, an easily circulated online version of Rosalind Petchesky‘s introduction to A Land With A People. Please circulate the below widely.
Petchesky co-edited A Land With A People alongside Esther Farmer and Sarah Sills – all three of whom have recently engaged in nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience in the form of sit-ins and traffic blockades. They have been arrested on a major Brooklyn thoroughfare in front of Chuck Schumer’s house, in the halls of the U.S. Congress, and, most recently, during a massive action that successfully shut down Grand Central Station in New York City.
Fundamentals of Zionism: Settler Colonialism, Racism, Antisemitism, Patriarchy
…Zionism is the ideology that fuses creation of (ancient) Jewish collectivity with claims to (modern) sovereignty over land allegedly promised by God to Jews and their descendants. Its myth of a common ethnos (culture and blood ties) relies on the process of transforming the Old Testament into a literal historical reference book, certifying the Jewish people as an uprooted “race” and a “chosen people” by virtue of their unique covenant with God. God promised Jews their return to their biblical homeland, turning all others who resided in that land over the centuries into “strangers” or “infiltrators.”8 This elaborate fiction of racial unity and singularity contradicts the diasporic reality of Jews as persons who, for centuries, have practiced various religious customs and rituals in diverse cultures, languages, racial identities, and geographies across the globe. To convert this polyphony into “theological-colonial nationalism” required not only a race-ethnic construct but also a common land or territory and what German sociologist Max Weber called a “monopoly over the legitimate use of force.”9 And it required a concerted strategy to eliminate the “others” while recruiting Jews from across the globe into the colonizing enterprise. As renowned Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and others foresaw, Zionism was a project that would necessitate endless violence, injustice, and war.
Homogenizing Jews as a single national or racial identity inextricably bound to the State of Israel is itself a form of antisemitism with very old roots. From its origins in nineteenth-century Europe, Zionism has been an ideology and set of practices that constituted a racist system of settler colonialism. Like all racisms, it is double-sided, facing both outward toward its “others” and inward toward its own. Its early alignment with European assumptions about Western and white superiority produced, and was based on, the oppression and exclusion of Palestinian Arabs, North Africans, and Muslims, while its equation of Jewishness with allegiance to an exclusively Jewish Israeli state has entailed efforts to racialize, whiten, and nationalize Jews. This last has edged perilously toward antisemitism by internalizing stereotypes of Jews as a “race,” aliens in any location but the Israeli homeland. To be an anti-Zionist Jew thus invites the labels not only of “self-hating” but also of traitor.
Multiple sources attest to the ways that racism, antisemitism, and masculinism were intertwined among Zionism’s founders and early proponents. Theodore Herzl, long seen as the father of nineteenth-century Zionism, identified strongly in his youth with the Prussian aristocracy, as well as dueling, hyper-masculinity, and a disdain for East European and diasporic Jews as “weak.” His Die Judenstaat (The Jews’ State) in 1896 was an appeal to Europe’s Ashkenazi (West European) Jews to migrate to Palestine rather than try to assimilate in Europe—an expression of “strong” nationalism that may also have been an effort to reclaim Jewish masculinity in the eyes of white European Christian men.10 British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour’s letter to Lord Rothschild, a Zionist and Britain’s most famous Jewish citizen, in 1917 promising British support for the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” was motivated as much by Balfour’s eagerness to rid Britain of its Jews as it was by the British Empire’s colonial interests in having a stronghold in the Middle East. Above all, European and Zionist endorsement of Jewish settler colonialism was laced from the start with the white supremacist elimination or denigration of Palestinian Arabs in favor of honorable, civilized Jewish men.11
Precursors to the Nakba—From Balfour to 1947
The 1917 Balfour Declaration and the League of Nations Covenant that set up the British Mandate paid lip service to the civil and religious rights of “non-Jewish communities” but ignored their national rights to self-determination. In blatant contravention of the role of mandatory as laid out in the Covenant (Article 22), the Palestine Mandate entirely erased Palestinian or even Arab presence in historic Palestine in deference to prioritizing Jewish immigration and establishing “a national home for the Jewish people.” This blatant discrimination occurred even though indigenous Palestinian Arabs constituted 90 percent of the population of Palestine at the time, in contrast to the Jewish settlers’ 10 percent. In other words, the “wishes of the [indigenous] communities” cited in the League Covenant were subordinated to the World Zionist Organization’s dream.12
In the years immediately following the Balfour Declaration and the increased Jewish immigration to Palestine that it unleashed, Arab and Palestinian protests accelerated. In 1919, the first Palestinian Arab congress met in Jerusalem and framed a national charter demanding independence for Palestine, rejecting British rule, and denouncing the Balfour Declaration.13 In 1920, the annual Muslim Nebi Musa Festival grew into skirmishes between Muslims and Jews (who were led by right-wing Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky). At anti-Zionist protests in Nablus, Muslim protesters sang, “We are the children of Jabal al-Nar (Nablus)/We are a thorn in the throat of the occupation.”14 In 1921, Palestinian women founded the Palestinian Women’s Union, which led organized demonstrations against Balfour and the British Mandate, and later formed the General Palestinian Women’s Congress in Jerusalem.15 In England, even the single Jewish member of the British cabinet, Edwin Montagu, publicly opposed the Balfour framework and Zionism.16 But in Europe after the First World War, power and racist settler colonialism were indivisible. Soon after the war, international Zionist organizations laid claim to Eretz Yisrael—a sovereign nation state based on exclusive Jewish ownership of the land—on behalf of Jews throughout the world.
In its racism and its dreams of racially superior masculinity, Zionism is in no way exceptional; it is simply appropriating the European settler-colonialist dogma, found in texts going back to John Locke.17 At the core of this dogma is the claim that the settlers would bring superior intellectual and technological capacity and thus improvement to lands they portrayed as barren and neglected—a spurious claim used to justify indigenous dispossession in Palestine, India, the Americas, and elsewhere. In the early- to mid-twentieth century, Zionist rabbis disseminated this racist-colonialist trope in local synagogues in towns and cities across America, building allegiance to the Zionist movement among their congregations.
This ideological campaign was only in part a defense against European antisemitism; it was also a direct reaction to the robust but ultimately overpowered resistance movement by Palestinian Arabs against British mandatory rule and British-sponsored Zionist colonialism in Palestine. Historian Rashid Khalidi writes:
The 1936 Palestinian general strike and the armed revolt that followed were momentous events for the Palestinians, the region, and the British Empire. The six-month general strike, which ran from April until October and involved work stoppages and boycotts of the British- and Zionist-controlled parts of the economy, was the longest anticolonial strike of its kind until that point in history, and perhaps the longest ever.18
A stunning example of the Zionist propaganda efforts in mid-century Middle America appeared in research that I conducted in the archives of my family’s reform synagogue in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A June 1936 issue of the Tulsa Jewish Review, a publication of the Tulsa Council of Jewish Women (of which my grandmother was a member), featured an article by the local rabbi reassuring its readers that “the recent disturbances in Palestine”—clearly referring to the gen-eral strike—did not reflect hostility to Jewish settlers among the Palestinians or endanger “Anglo-Jewish friendship.” In addition to characterizing the Palestinian resistance of that momentous year as “acts of terrorism” and urging the British to stand fast, the rabbi denigrates the rebels as victims of “propaganda and threats” whose “earthly happiness” could only come from Jewish colonialism.19 It is important to understand that the settler colonial project to “de-Arabise Palestine” and bring all of historic Palestine under Zionist sovereignty long pre-dated both the Nakba and worldwide knowledge of the Nazi holocaust. The 1929 constitution of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the para-statal agency that basically manages distribution of land throughout all Israeli-controlled territory to this day, declared JNF land to be “the inalienable property of the Jewish people” and that “[the JNF] is not obliged to act for the good of all its citizens [but] for the good of the Jewish people only.”20 Israel’s first Prime Minister and longtime Zionist leader, David Ben-Gurion, was obsessed with the idea of “demographic balance” as a means to maintain Zionist hegemony over Palestine. As early as 1937, he observed that establishing what he considered an optimal balance between Arabs and Jews might necessitate the use of force, and in a 1947 speech he affirmed that “only a state with at least 80 percent Jews is a viable and stable state.”21
Particularly striking is a top-secret meeting that took place in New Court, Britain, in 1941, of twenty Zionist leaders who together formed an elite West European Zionist patriarchate.22 What is remarkable about this meeting is not only the disagreements about strategies to realize Zionism but also the central theme: the transfer of populations. Participants Chaim Weizmann and Ben-Gurion urged the necessity of establishing not just a “homeland” but also a Jewish state with a Jewish majority, encouraging as much immigration as possible of Jews from around the world. One dissenter from this view, Sir Robert Waley Cohen, worried that the idea of a “Jewish state” seemed “dangerous,” exclusionary, even sort of Hitler-like in its emphasis “on one religion and one race.” But Weizmann and Ben-Gurion’s ethnocentric vision, while invoking the principles of non-discrimination and “voluntary” transfer, won the day. They insisted on the necessity of a majority Jewish state with a Jewish name based, not on Judaism as a religion, but “being a Jew”—that is, ethnicity and birth. Most indigenous Arabs would be relocated and their place taken by the millions of Jewish immigrants assumed to be yearning for “the Promised Land.”23 Zionists and their British sponsors had envisioned various forms of “population transfer” for some years before, but we can see in this meeting the seeds of Plan Dalet and the mass expulsions of 1947–1948. We can also see a false presumption that all Jews everywhere would eagerly adopt the Zionist ideal and rush to a new-found State of Israel. Any who rejected this ideal, in Weizmann’s words, should be considered “antisemites.”24 But this presumption was a fantasy. Many European Jews had long rejected the notion of an ingathering of all Jews to a homeland. These defectors included both Orthodox sects that regarded Jewish national sovereignty as a blasphemy against God and the Torah, and Reform Jewish leaders who regarded Judaism as a “worldwide religious community comprising many different citizens of many different countries and cultures.” The idea of “Jewish blood and soil,” at the heart of Zionism, they saw as a profoundly antisemitic fiction.25 Members of the Bund, formed in 1897 and representing Jewish workers in Russia, Poland, and Lithuania, expressly opposed Zionism, choosing to fight for justice and freedom against the tsarist regimes where they lived.26
Both before and after the Second World War, many Jews who were seeking to escape antisemitism in Western Europe or the pogroms in Russia and Poland had their sights set on America or other countries in the West or Latin America. These included the grandparents and great-grandparents of most of this book’s Jewish contributors. But two forces combined to funnel many Jewish immigrants, regardless of their desires, into colonizing Palestine and later populating the State of Israel: (1) exclusionary racist and antisemitic immigration laws, particularly in the United States and Britain in the 1920s and 1930s; and (2) complicity of political leaders in those countries with the Zionist movement’s aims. From the time of the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate, then, Zionism has been entangled with global geopolitics and required the alignment of powerful elites to be realized. Efforts at the highest levels conspired to foreclose alternatives to Zionist settler colonialism in Palestine.27
1948 and the UN Partition Plan
The Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe, was originally launched in 1947–1948, but many historians and political analysts refer to the “ongoing Nakba,” since the methods and goals of that first phase have never really ended. Plan D (Dalet in Hebrew) was the fourth in a series of master plans introduced by Jewish military officers in 1948 for carrying out mass expulsions, intimidation, bombings, and destruction of Palestinian villages and urban areas. The immediate result was the massacre and forcible expulsion of some 750,000 Palestinians from their ancestral villages and homes, what historian Ilan Pappe has called “the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.”28 Atrocities committed by Jewish terrorist groups were especially brutal in the villages surrounding Jerusalem, most famously Deir Yasin, where 110 Palestinian men, women, and children were slaughtered. But it is important to remember that these horrors were a means to intimidate and terrorize to achieve the larger end—a massive land grab that continues to this day with annexations. Author and Middle East analyst Nathan Thrall tells us that Israel has seized more than three-quarters of the land of all indigenous Palestinians, a “continuous project [of] expropriation.”29
Despite many obstacles, every turn of the seven-decade-long Nakba has been met with unyielding resistance by Palestinians, oftentimes led by women, and also by Jews condemning Zionism’s extreme violence and injustice.30 In the mid-twentieth century, many of the most prominent Jewish intellectuals in Europe and the United States—such as Ahad Na’am, Martin Buber, Hans Kohn, Albert Einstein, and Hannah Arendt—were highly critical of the ethno-nationalist form Zionism had taken, favoring some kind of cultural Zionism or bi-national state in Palestine.31 In December 1948, a group of twenty-eight of these leftist Jewish intellectuals wrote a letter to the New York Times protesting the visit to the United States of Menachem Begin, the leader of a new right-wing political party in Israel that would become the Likud, the party of Netanyahu and the Israeli right. This so-called “Freedom Party,” the letter pointed out, had grown out of the Irgun Zvai Leumi (Irgun), the terrorist organization also led by Begin and responsible for the worst massacres and expulsions of Palestinians, including the notorious massacre in Deir Yassin. The letter’s signatories denounced not only the party’s fascist leanings and “gangster methods” but also the complicit silence of “the top leadership of American Zionism.”32
Protests over the injustices and violations of international law entailed in the founding of the Zionist state and the dispossession of Palestinians found a home in the United Nations from its earliest days. In 1947, the UN formed the Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), which recommended a partition plan that would have divided Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. But UNSCOP’s legal subcommittee report to the General Assembly recognized that imposing the partition “against the expressed wishes of the majority of its population” in order to create a “Jewish national home” was “contrary to the principles of the [UN] Charter,” particularly the principle of self-determination. Nonetheless, in November 1947, the General Assembly, against strong protests from the Arab delegations, passed Resolution 181 imposing the partition and allocating 55.5 percent of the land to the one-third minority Jewish population, who at that time owned under 7 percent. Under pressure from the Catholic Church and Catholic countries, the plan also declared Jerusalem, including its surrounding villages, an international city under UN jurisdiction. Yet almost immediately, the Zionist forces violated these seemingly favorable terms—unleashing Plan D on the Palestinian villages and, after unilaterally declaring the State of Israel in May 1948, proceeding to annex west Jerusalem, including “some 10,000 Palestinian homes and their contents.”33
Law as Lawfare
Quickly following Jewish Israelis’ self-proclaimed independence in 1948, the Zionist state began putting into place its two-pronged strategy to consolidate Jewish control over historic Palestine via: (1) a complex web of laws, policies, and practices related to who “belonged” as nationals or citizens, who were “infiltrators,” who could exercise civil rights; and (2) a massive infrastructure of militarism and surveillance to enforce and supplement this legal framework: the Israeli security state. Between 1948 and 1954, Israel enacted:
• The 1950 Right of Return Law, giving automatic Jewish nationality and Israeli citizenship to all Jews anywhere in the world (defined as those “born of a Jewish mother” or having converted to Judaism)—even those whose families have never lived in Palestine—while denying a right of return to indigenous Palestinians whose families have lived there for hundreds of years.34
• The 1950 Absentee Property Law, amended through the 1970s, an Orwellian absurdity whereby Palestinians, including those living in Israel or the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967, were deemed “present absentees,” mostly disqualified from being able to reclaim their stolen homes in Israel and Jerusalem.35
• The 1952 Nationality Law, enabling only Palestinians who remained in Israel between 1948 and 1952 to become citizens of Israel, thus barring all those whom the Nakba had expelled or driven into exile. These two laws together create another absurdity, “bifurcating Jewish nationality from Israeli citizenship.” In effect, there is no such thing as Israeli nationality, with only “Jewish” or “Arab” designated on passports and ID cards.36The 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law, defining as “infiltrators” any Palestinians who “left” Israel for whatever reason and might claim their right of return to reclaim their stolen lands and property. This created a new category that would be applied to many unwanted groups, such as African asylum seekers, beginning in 2008.
Other laws and judicial rulings add personal and family restrictions to the architecture of Israeli apartheid. Following the start of the occupation in 1967, Israel assigned Palestinians in East Jerusalem the status of “permanent residency,” a revocable status that reduces them to aliens in their own homes. It issued West Bank IDs and Gaza IDs to the remainder of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). This ID system impacts all aspects of Palestinian life, ranging from employment to where a family may or may not live. As a result of Israel’s regular denial of family unification requests, even for the children and spouses of its Palestinian citizens, families are often separated or forced to maintain two households. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, documents how the Zionist paranoia about being invaded or overwhelmed by the Other weaponizes marriage and stigmatizes internally displaced migrants as metaphorical rapists of the nation.37
The crown of this legal edifice assuring Zionist control is the Jewish Nation-State Law, passed in the Knesset in July 2018 and still (in early 2021) being contested in Israeli courts by Palestinian and Jewish dissenters. Intended as the culmination of Israel’s Basic Laws, the 2018 law codifies a series of measures—cultural, political, social, linguistic—to thoroughly Judaicize everything under Israeli control and effectively render apartheid the law of the land.38
Among its provisions are those…
• Declaring the State of Israel “the nation-state of the Jewish people” and “the right of national self-determination” to be “unique to the Jewish people” within its borders
• Making official national symbols and holidays entirely Jewish ones (Star of David, Menorah, so-called Independence Day, Holocaust Memorial Day, etc.)
• Declaring “the unified and complete [city of] Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital”Making Hebrew the state’s official language, thereby demoting the status of Arabic
• Naming “Jewish settlement as a national value” and promising that the state will “promote its establishment and development.”
Thus, the Nation-State Law effaces the rights of Palestinians not only to self-determination but also to be co-equal citizens in their own land. It also severely impacts Palestinians in the OPT, the target for illegal settlements.
Since the Nation-State Law was first proposed, resistance to it has been persistent. During the debates in the Knesset leading up to its adoption, Arab parties countered with amendments that would make Israel “a state of all its citizens.” But then Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, invoking Zionism’s split between citizenship and nationality, retorted: “Israel is a Jewish state. It isn’t a state of all its nations. That is, equal rights to all citizens but not equal national rights.”39 At the end of 2020 and in early 2021, fifteen different groups and individuals—including Palestinians and Jews, academics and lawyers, Mizrahim, Bedouins, the Arab Joint List party, the Jewish Meretz Party, and Adalah—petitioned the Israeli High Court in protest against the Nation-State Law’s discriminatory and anti-democratic effects. Adalah’s petition asserted that the High Court’s failure to overturn the law in toto would basically “perpetuate principles of an apartheid regime as the basis for Israel’s legal system.”40
As with every system of laws codifying the dominance of one group over another, the Israeli system depends on an armature of policing and violence.41 Today, the visible aspects of Israel’s security state are on display to any visitor—gun-bearing Israeli Occupation Force (IOF) officers patrolling the streets, hundreds of checkpoints and other obstacles to movement, the immense apartheid wall, and all the faces of militarization in everyday life. Also, like other settler-colonial and fascist regimes, Zionism’s hyper-military fortress has deep psychological and existential meanings. Shalhoub-Kevorkian associates the “politics of fear” intrinsic to settler-colonial power in the Israeli case with what she names security theology. This is a set of beliefs that welds the biblical injunction of God’s covenant with the Jews to the indisputable stamp of “national security” on any police, military, or confiscatory action the state wishes to take. It brands every single Palestinian or “other” a potential terrorist—even those who are not yet born or are already dead (witness the IOF’s practice of withholding the bodies of Palestinians murdered by Israeli soldiers from their families),while anointing the settlers as God’s “chosen.”42 Yet, ironically, the Zionist state is tethered to its Palestinian victims. Shalhoub-Kevorkian describes a contradictory need to erase or displace the indigenous population but simultaneously to keep them present as a constant threat. Without the Palestinian Other, the entire security apparatus of walls, checkpoints, militarized environments, land appropriations—to say nothing of billions of dollars a year in U.S. military aid and a global Israeli security and surveillance industry—would lose its rationale. Like Hegel’s dialectic of the master and slave, the master can never fully eliminate the slave; like the master without the slave, Israel without Palestinians would cease to exist.
Zionism’s Other Racisms
And what of the other “others,” including Jews who do not share the white Ashkenazi background of Zionism’s European founders? Seventy-three years of the Europeanization and whitening of Israeliness expose the bias against people of African and Levantine descent that Zionism shares with all Western European colonialisms. Cultural critic and NYU professor Ella Shohat argues that “in fact the majority of Jews [from the Middle East and North Africa] were decidedly not Zionists”; their displacement in the 1950s and 1960s from the Arab cultures in which they had lived and thrived for generations was, for them, a kind of “dismemberment.” Shohat herself was part of the Iraqi Jewish migration, squeezed between Arab nationalism and Zionist propaganda against Arabs. She sees the “ambivalent positioning” of Arab Jews and the “invention of Mizrahim” as fraught with cultural loss and disempowerment. Yet resistance emerged here too, with the formation of the Israeli Black Panthers in the 1970s.43
From 1948 through the mid-1960s, Israel’s obsession with achieving Jewish demographic superiority vis-à-vis Palestinians produced a schizophrenic policy of first recruiting around one million Jews from countries like Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq, and Iran, and then desperately trying to “de-Arabise” them through biopolitical practices which many might consider genocidal. The most famous example is the now well-documented case of thousands of Yemenite children whom Israeli doctors, nurses, and social workers stole from their parents and gave for adoption to Ashkenazi Jewish parents. The parents were told that their babies had died in the hospital but were never shown any burial sites or death certificates. Only in February 2021 did the Israeli cabinet formally express “sorrow” for these reprehensible acts and vote to pay substantial reparations to the affected Yemenite families.44 A similarly disturbing example is that of Ethiopian migrants. In the 1970s, the Mossad began a campaign of airlifting thousands of Ethiopian Jews out of Sudanese refugee camps and into Israel. But this attempt to elevate Jewish numbers with Black African immigrants has created a conflict with white Ashkenazi racism. Young Ethiopian women and men are deemed fit to serve in the military and often posted in front-line positions as guards at checkpoints. Yet, since their arrival in Israel, the Ethiopian Jewish community, now numbering some 135,000, has been subjected to housing discrimination, high rates of unemployment, and segregated schools. They have suffered disproportionately high rates of poverty and have protested recurrent incidents of police brutality. In 2013, after exposure in a global media campaign, Israeli government officials acknowledged the past practice of injecting in-migrating Ethiopian women with the controversial contraceptive Depo-Provera, in greatly disproportionate numbers to Ashkenazi women, without the Ethiopian women’s full knowledge or consent. After studies ascertained that birthrates among Israeli Ethiopian women had declined by half, for unknown reasons, the practice was officially abandoned. Still, white racism contends with the demographic aim of raising the number of Jews, regardless of color. Thus, Israel airlifted hundreds more Ethiopian Jews into Israel from the embattled Tigray region in 2020.45
Although Israel signed the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Refugees, in a typical pattern of disdain for international law and human rights it has consistently ignored its treaty obligations. When, beginning in 2008–2009, a new wave of African refugees from Eritrea, Sudan, and Côte d’Ivoire began arriving through Egypt into Israel, Israeli courts, legislators, and politicians aimed the same tools of exclusion and restriction against Africans—the new “infiltrators”—that they had been using against Palestinians for decades. Ethnic identity, not residency or persecution in their home countries, would determine their legal status and limit their rights and movement, even their ability to live.
In late 2007, the Knesset passed an amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Act to allow deportation of African refugees back to their country of origin (such as Sudan, where many faced death threats) or to a culturally alien third country (such as Rwanda). Others were detained in the remote and oppressive conditions of Holot prison in the desert, with the express purpose of making their lives, as a former Israeli interior minister said, “so miserable that they would voluntarily leave the country.” Danish-Israeli musician and writer Jonathan Ofir, who often writes about Israel’s racist policies, remarks how Trump’s frequent racist barbs about immigrants of color and “shithole countries” might come directly from the playbook of a list of Israel’s top officials, who for years have labeled African refugees as infiltrators and “a cancer in our body.” But Africans in Israel resisted deportation, chaining themselves outside the Knesset in 2018, holding a mock “slave auction” to protest their inhumane treatment, and capturing the attention of global social media.46
Land Expropriation and Creeping Annexation
As this book’s title connotes, Zionism’s project has always been about appropriating and controlling land. That another people had long inhabited and nurtured this land was an inconvenience, a problem, as Said observed, and how Israeli Jews have variously addressed this problem over nearly three-quarters of a century is fundamental to the story of Israel. The 1967 War was a major turning point, considered a victory by the Zionist forces, and a Naksa, or setback, for Palestinians. As a result of the war, Israel gained control of the Palestinian-inhabited territories that had been under the jurisdiction of Jordan and Egypt: the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as East Jerusalem, the Syrian Golan, and the Sinai Peninsula (later returned to Egypt). Hundreds of thousands more Palestinians were displaced and became internal or external refugees. What became an official military Occupation, supposedly subject to what is known in international law as the “law of belligerent occupation,” began here, while Israel’s conquest over Egypt in the war established it once and for all “as a formidable military power” in international arenas.47
Though Israeli officials in diplomatic and UN debates insisted that the 1967 War and its territorial yields were mainly defensive, there seems little question that the objective for Israel was outright territorial expansion. Since 1967, Israel has used a variety of policies in order to appropriate land and control its use, such as declaring it to be State land, a closed military zone, or a nature preserve. These practices, in contravention of international law and the UN Charter, have always been a principal tool of Zionist expansion, even in areas supposedly deemed Palestinian.48
The Oslo Accords created a jurisdictional framework dividing the West Bank, excluding annexed East Jerusalem, into three areas: Area A, under full Palestinian Authority (PA) control and constituting around 18 percent of the West Bank; Area B, around 22 percent where supposedly the PA would have civil control but, in practice, at least since 2000, the Israelis have full control; and Area C, a full 60 percent of the West Bank, where, pending the forever delayed “final status negotiations,” Israel exerts almost total control. This unequal arrangement, enforced by Israel’s police and military supremacy over the entire area, has provided the cover for:
• expanding illegal settlements throughout Area C and East Jerusalem and expelling Palestinians from their homes and fields
• building bypass roads that give settlers vertical and horizontal mobility across the terrain and direct connection to Israel, while further fragmenting the territory and restricting Palestinian movement and access
• consistently denying Palestinians building or renovation permits, forcing them to build “illegally” and thus subjecting their homes, infrastructure, etc. to demolition, sometimes requiring that they carry out such demolition themselves49
• annexing de facto parts of the fertile Jordan Valley and Dead Sea area and continuing to target Bedouin communities for bulldozing and forceful transfer from the West Bank, even though the Bedouins resist and rebuild, time and time again.50
The apartheid wall, deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice, zigzags along and into much of the West Bank and is itself an instrument of land annexation. Construction of the wall began in 2003, after the Second Intifada, and continues, ultimately expected to reach a length of 440 miles. In some places, the wall cuts as much as eleven miles into the West Bank, effectively annexing a broad swath of Palestinian territory and cutting off some twenty-five thousand Palestinians from their fields, villages, and houses. Its looming physicality has become the most prominent symbol of Israeli apartheid “and its conception of colonial, territorial, and demographic security.”51 And yet, the wall, too, has become a site of resistance, its surfaces covered end to end with the world’s longest gallery of graffiti and colorful protest art.
Further menacing Palestinians living in the shadow of ever-expanding illegal settlements are the settlers themselves. Some thirty-seven new settler outposts have been established without a permit in the West Bank in recent years. The Israeli authorities do nothing to remove these illegal structures, and ultimately approve them, using the common pretext of “state land.” Palestinian efforts to file complaints with Israeli police about settler vandalism and harassment rarely lead to criminal charges. The settlers, given virtual impunity, regularly invade the Palestinian villages, graze their animals there, swim in the water, and harass the residents, particularly the women.52 By enabling these incursions, the Israeli government can achieve de facto annexation on the ground without a formal edict. Indeed, as Nathan Thrall has argued, settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem inhabit their stolen land with a degree of civil and political privilege identical to that of Jews in pre-1967 Israel. This reality belies the “fiction of separate regimes” and makes clear there is only one real system of power and apartheid from the river to the sea.53
Indeed, the entire history of the ongoing Nakba is a story of elimination and replacement, in both urban and rural areas. As Haaretz journalist Amira Hass has argued, “Land-grabbing right-wing [Jewish] NGOs with a religious and messianic patina” function as an unofficial branch of government, helping to implement policies of Israeli officials and courts to evict Palestinians from their long-held lands and homes. In the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, for example, right-wing settler organizations have for decades sought to secure eviction of Palestinian residents from their homes and their replacement by Jewish settlers. Some sixty-seven adults and children had been forcibly displaced from the neighborhood in the spring of 2021, with dozens more families facing imminent eviction.54 And yet, once again, Palestinians refuse the status of victims and continue to resist. When six of the families awaiting eviction were ordered by the Israeli Supreme Court to “reach an agreement” with the settlers to become their tenants, a social media campaign, #SaveSheikhJarrah, mobilized thousands of protests all over Palestine and throughout the world, including in the U.S. Congress. The threatened Palestinian families announced they “firmly reject” any such agreement: “these are our homes, and the settlers are not our landlords…we will continue our international campaign to stop this ethnic cleansing.”55
Militarism, Detention, and Criminal Injustice
Israel’s two-tier criminal injustice system is itself one of the most blatant examples of its version of apartheid. Only Jewish Israelis, including settlers, are subject to ordinary civilian or even criminal law; all Palestinians are subject instead to a separate system of military law, in which soldiers and military tribunals become judge, jury, and executioner. The documented conviction rate for Palestinians post-arrest is 99 percent. Moreover, under Israel’s military law, any Palestinian, including children, can be seized for pre-trial “administrative detention” and held for up to seventy-five days without being charged. During this time, detainees are vulnerable to physical and verbal abuse, including torture, beatings, solitary confinement, forced confessions, and being denied visitors for weeks or months on end.
Like the United States, Israel is a carceral state, where the reality and continual threat of mass incarceration operate as a pervasive form of bio-political control over “minority” populations. Since 1967, around eight hundred thousand Palestinians have been arrested and detained: 20 percent of the entire Palestinian population and 40 percent of all males.56 What this means is that virtually every Palestinian family has members who are currently, or have been, imprisoned, and that the struggle against the insidious Israeli penal system is indistinguishable from the Palestinian struggle for freedom writ large. As a result, periodic hunger strikes by prisoners have long been one of the most common and widely practiced forms of Palestinian popular resistance, with mothers and other family members, activists, and organizations expressing soli-darity through protest marches, statements, and gatherings in strike support tents.
When it comes to children, Israel is uniquely cruel in its human rights abuses. It is the only country in the world that systematically prosecutes, each year, between five hundred and seven hundred children as young as twelve in military courts. Children in detention are subjected to physical and psychological torment, separation from parents or lawyers, beatings, solitary confinement, and forced confessions.57 Indeed, Israel’s criminal injustice system permeates Palestinian families, making their daily lives a state of siege. The process of carrying out detentions normalizes human rights violations that brutalize entire families and communities. Soldiers routinely make raids at night, enter houses with dogs and lasers looking for “suspects,” traumatize children, and take people away to unknown detention sites. In one case in 2021, a 17-year-old Palestinian boy with life-threatening medical conditions was ordered rearrested by the military prosecutor and sentenced to six months of administrative detention for allegedly throwing stones (a typical charge against Palestinian boys).58
Israel prides itself on having developed the most technologically advanced system of surveillance—cameras, biometrics, spyware embedded in social media apps, drones—to control dissent and what it sees as the pervasive threat of terrorism. But, of course, the main target of these technologies—apart from a global market of national governments and local militarized police forces—are Palestinians living their everyday lives.59 This surveillance and the militarization of daily life haunt Palestinian children at every turn: the constant fear of night raids or arrest of parents, siblings, and friends; the confinement to restricted neighborhoods or the tiny, crowded streets of refugee camps, without any space to play; above all, the need for constant vigilance. Soldiers, for instance, can harass girls walking to school, even enter their classrooms and arrest their teachers. Shalhoub-Kevorkian names this perpetration of violence on and virtual incarceration of children “the politics of unchilding.” Through dozens of interviews with Palestinian children living in East Jerusalem, she documents the cruel effects of violence on their ability to thrive, emotionally and educationally.60
For Palestinian adults as well as children, the ways in which settler colonialism penetrates their homes and neighborhoods are deeply personal. Surrounded by Jewish settlements, Palestinians in East Jerusalem and Area C are harassed and attacked on a daily basis, while IOF soldiers and Israeli officials look the other way. Right-wing settler gangs, such as Tag Mehir (followers of deceased Zionist terrorist Meir Kahane) commit acts of vandalism and spray paint walls of homes and mosques with ugly Islamophobic slogans. The terrorizing presence of these settler thugs in the roads, added to the constant scrutiny of IOF soldiers and surveillance cameras, creates in Palestinian women under occupation a sense of being constantly followed, hunted down, and thus imprisoned in their own homes.61 In the rural and Bedouin areas, settlers burn Palestinian crops, cut down olive trees, poison wells, and divert water from village aquifers, causing chronic shortages. A Palestinian farmer in Area C, whose village experienced this water theft, explains that, to dig their own wells, Palestinians must secure a permit, which almost never happens. “But this is our land,” he laments angrily, “and we shouldn’t have to get any permits to live on it. We want to live.”62
During periods of heightened tension, which often happen around important holidays, the collusion between Israeli police forces and right-wing Jewish extremists comes into full view. Events during Ramadan in 2021 echoed many previous instances of combined state and unofficial violence. First, on the pretext of keeping order, police erected barricades and checkpoints around the Damascus Gate steps in the Old City, a place where Palestinians typically gather during the nights of Ramadan. Then gangs of young male Jewish thugs, organized by the far-right group Lehava, began rampaging through the streets of the Old City, chanting “Death to Arabs” and assaulting Palestinian homes, terrorizing pedestrians and children. According to one Palestinian resident, “the police paved the way for the settlers and blocked us from reaching our homes,” a “very scary and upsetting” situation. When Muslim Palestinians gathered to pray at their third holiest site, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, they were repeatedly attacked by Israeli forces, leaving hundreds of Palestinians injured and hospitalized. The cycle of violence continued with Israel bombing and killing some 243 civilians, including 67 children; in Gaza in response to Hamas rocket fire that killed ten adults and two children in Israel; and Jewish Zionist youth poised to march again through the Old City.63 In this way, aroused settler gangs—like private militias in every fascist regime in memory—become “privatized branches of the government” and ultimately “a tool of dispossession.”64 The Nakba goes on, its aim being to drive all Palestinians out of Jerusalem.
Institutionalized Precarity, Slow Death, and the Agony of Gaza
Many critics of Israeli policies have observed a long-term strategy that some call “slow death,” a process of sapping Palestinians’ energy and will to resist or remain in Palestine, through the policies and practices of harassment, intimidation, and violence discussed above. Frequently those engaged in active resistance encounter policies of either shoot to kill or shoot to disable, for example, when IOF soldiers deliberately aim at the legs of protesters to cripple or kneecap them. “The sustained practice of maiming,” or “not letting die,” argues author and queer theorist Jasbir Puar, allows Israeli authorities to claim that they are not committing genocide, but rather using restraint when they attack Palestinian civilians.65 This policy gained notoriety during the First Intifada, in the late 1980s, when Yitzhak Rabin called for breaking the limbs of Palestinians. It again reached heightened visibility during the Great March of Return in 2018–2019, with not only hundreds killed by Israeli sniper fire but also dozens permanently crippled, blinded, and maimed.66
The starkest example of Israel’s colonial policy of attrition, dehumani-zation, and slow death is the Gaza Strip. In the annals of racist settler colonialism, Gaza stands as a frightening paradox. Israel claims to have officially ended its occupation there in 2005; yet a system of colonial rule by remote control has continued through four large-scale attacks on the area (Operations Cast Lead in 2008–2009, Pillar of Defense in 2012, Protective Edge in 2014, and renewed bombing in 2021) and enforcement of a nearly fifteen-year blockade as an act of collective punishment.67 Not only have recurrent Israeli bombings destroyed 150,258 buildings and displaced or killed tens of thousands of civilians; Israel also controls all avenues in and out of Gaza, restricts the import of food, medical, and building supplies, and restricts electricity access to a few hours a day. As a result of the blockade and attacks, over 90 percent of Gaza’s water is now undrinkable and, according to United Nations officials, its conditions of life have become unlivable.68
Referring to Gaza as the world’s largest open-air prison, while by now almost a cliché, reflects a literal truth. Its nearly two million residents, the majority of whom are internal refugees from the Nakba, live packed into a territory of just over 140 square miles. They can almost never obtain permits to leave through “the two tightly-controlled border checkpoints in the north and south,” whether for medical reasons, to travel, or pursue education. Attempting to escape unauthorized, either by sea or “over the heavily guarded perimeter fence” bordering Israel, will mean certain death.69 So, one has to wonder, what conceivable function does Gaza serve for apartheid Israel, beyond a training ground for warfare? In the words of professor and founder of Decolonizing Architecture, Eyal Weizman, Gaza is “a laboratory” for testing “all sorts of new control technologies, munitions, legal and humanitarian tools,” but most of all for trying out “the limits of violence” a state will be allowed to inflict “in the name of ‘war on terror.’”70
While this book was in preparation, the world was undergoing the dreadful Coronavirus pandemic that has killed millions and devastated economies and health care systems. Covid-19 and the consequent crisis around vaccine distribution exposed the vast inequalities in health care, both within and between countries, globally. Nowhere was this more starkly revealed than in the context of Israeli apartheid, and specifically medical apartheid, where decades of colonial “de-development” in the OPT, especially in Gaza, had already left Palestinians with critical shortages of viable health facilities, essential medicines, and the infrastructure necessary for health care to function.71
As infection and death rates rose among both Palestinians and Israeli Jews in the fall and winter of 2020–2021, Israel quickly ramped up its purchase and dissemination of vaccines, winning mass media acclaim for the most ambitious and rapid vaccination rollout campaign anywhere—for its citizens, including settlers living in illegal West Bank settlements. By early 2021, Israel had vaccinated over half its Jewish citizens, but a far smaller percentage of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. Besides those East Jerusalem Palestinians, this effort entirely excluded the five million Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Only grudgingly, under immense internal and external pressure, did the Israeli government eventually agree to provide vaccines to the approximately 130,000 Palestinians who work for low wages in construction sites and factories within Israel and in the settlements.72
The patent injustices in Israel’s vaccine distribution program quickly prompted an international outcry. Over one hundred Palestinian NGOs and human rights groups were joined by international health professionals, a strong cohort of Democratic representatives in the United States Congress, Jewish Voice for Peace, and even the pro-Israel lobbying group J Street to remind Israel of its clear obligations as a military occupying power under both international human rights and international humanitarian law: it must protect the right to health of the populations under its control, including their access to lifesaving medicines and vaccines.73 Israel has long rejected that responsibility, based on its interpretation of the Oslo Accords, hypocritically insisting on dominating all aspects of Palestinian lives and movement when it comes to anything related to “security,” but holding the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas responsible when it comes to health care and other social needs.74
As elsewhere, the pandemic in Palestine and Israel lays bare not only the gross immorality but also the colossal irrationality of racism. Israeli Zionists cling to their illusion of moral and political exceptionalism and their refusal to see their shared destiny and proximity with their Palestinian cohabitants, despite the obvious risks to their own people. This is mainly about power, not morality or even public health. The Israelis still control what goods, medicines, and people can flow into and out of the OPT; only when faced with immense international condemnation have they opened the valves to a small degree and agreed to vaccinate their own Palestinian workers. As a Human Rights Watch observer remarked, “vaccinating only those Palestinians who come in contact with Israelis reinforces that, to Israeli authorities, Palestinian life only matters to the extent it affects Jewish life.”75
Sumud: Resistance Continues
Those who berate Zionism’s critics—and undoubtedly will target this book—often complain we are unfairly “singling out” Israel. Quite the contrary is true. A main purpose of A Land With A People, and of this historical introduction, is to show how Zionism is of a piece with many other cases of settler colonialism and racism. The point is to see how Zionism is not exceptional or deserving of exoneration—and for all of us, as Jews and Palestinians, to grieve and denounce its willing participation in the wrongs of colonialism and apartheid that have afflicted most settler- and post-colonial societies. What is exceptional is Palestinians’ refusal to give up.
As the preceding historical review and the Timeline at the end of the book remind us, those wrongs have persistently called forth acts of resistance. Nowhere did this resistance materialize more powerfully than in Gaza, with the youth-led Great March of Return throughout 2018 and 2019, which courageously protested the prolonged closure of Gaza and called for the implementation of the Palestinian right of return. The Zionist-leaning mainstream media falsely labeled this massive, grassroots resistance movement “terrorist,” controlled by Hamas, while Israeli forces unleashed sniper attacks that deliberately maimed and killed hundreds of demonstrators and medics who had peacefully gathered near the fence bordering Israel. When the protestors deployed (nonlethal) incendiary kites, the Israelis launched airstrikes. According to the United Nations, 214 Palestinians, including forty-six children, were killed and over 36,100, nearly a fourth of them children, were injured in these protests—many by live ammunition.76 These events further galvanized JVP members and many Jews outside JVP; we could not “unsee” that these atrocities, too, were the bitter fruits of Zionism.
Since the Great March, despite exhaustion and disappointment, Gazans have shown extraordinary resilience and sumud (“steadfastness,” in Arabic). In 2020, young activists from the march transitioned to new forms of civil disobedience. A further iteration of the freedom movement, “We Want to Live” (bidna n’eesh), brought Gazans into the streets to protest unemployment, rising taxes and prices, and then to greater reliance on social media as an outlet for anger and social protest.77 Following a long tradition of Palestinian struggle, Gazans have also turned to cultural expression and art. We Are Not Numbers (WANN), an organization based in Gaza City, is a storytelling project that has mentored over three hundred young Palestinians to write stories and essays that are then published on its website. In addition, WANN has used its online capacity to conduct tours of Gazan cities for visitors, to sponsor a series of talks by Palestinian intellectuals and activists, and to provide mental health support for its writers.78
Cultural expression through stories, poetry, art, theater, and song is a timeless form of resistance against oppression that this book seeks not only to honor but also to emulate. Another stunning example of art as resistance exists in the neighborhood of Batan al-Hawa in Silwan, a large and ancient Palestinian town in occupied East Jerusalem, beset by settler harassment and displacement.79 At this writing, well over a dozen Palestinian families in this neighborhood had been evicted through orders initiated by the Israeli settler group, Ateret Cohanim, and some eighty-four others were fighting eviction in Israeli courts. A remarkable art project has painted murals of giant eyes, birds, and flowers on the hillside buildings of Batan al-Hawa, facing West Jerusalem and the Old City. Called “I Witness Silwan,” this installation turns the colonial gaze back on the perpetrators. In this way, art becomes an instrument of visual decolonization, (see photo on p. 147) “making visible what was invisible and enabling and empowering others to bear witness, in solidarity with the Palestinian people, to colonial violence and dispossession.” 80
Palestinian resistance includes opposing the gender and sexual stereotypes that Zionists and others perpetuate about Palestinians and Arabs and Muslims, generally. Palestinian feminists have demolished the false images of Palestinian (and Muslim) women as victims of gender oppression who need to be pitied and “saved,” celebrating generations of fierce, outspoken Palestinian women leaders in every era since the 1920s.81 Queer Palestinians and their allies have organized against Israel’s “pinkwashing” campaign—a government-organized marketing and public relations program to brand Israel as LGBTQ-friendly and thus enhance its reputation as modern, cosmopolitan, democratic, and a champion of human rights.82
Palestinian LGBTQ and other activists paint a different and distinctly oppositional picture. The grassroots Palestinian organization Al Qaws for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society has worked independently since 2007 from its base in occupied Jerusalem to build a vibrant culture that celebrates diverse sexualities, sexual orientations, and genders. Al Qaws’ important political analysis challenges Zionist propaganda by exposing pinkwashing as not merely a “global marketing strategy” but, more importantly, an instrument that props up settler colonialism and colonial violence. The IOF may boast of its inclusion of openly gay officers, “but for Palestinians the sexuality [or gender or color] of the soldier at a checkpoint makes little difference. They all wield the same guns, wear the same boots, and maintain the same colonial regime.”83
Finally, it is crucial to understand that the Palestinian movement for liberation has always taken a strongly internationalist perspective, identifying and expressing material solidarity with many other liberation movements across the globe. In this way, it has contributed immeasurably to international solidarity movements against colonialism, racism, apartheid, and imperialism. Likewise, those international movements have helped to breathe hope into the Palestinian struggle. Examples of strong mutual support abound (South Africa, Puerto Rico, Northern Ireland, Algeria, the Caribbean), but the dynamic relationship for decades between the Palestinian struggle and the movement for Black liberation and against anti-Black racism in the United States has particular resonance today.84 Prior to the 1960s, all but a few African-American leaders saw Zionism as a kindred anti-colonial struggle and identified with the biblical Jewish Exodus narrative. Likewise, Black leaders in the mid-twentieth century supported the founding of the State of Israel as a triumph by an oppressed people over a history of slavery, persecution, and genocide. It took Malcolm X to break with “Zionist Logic” (the title of his 1964 essay, written after visiting Palestinians in an Egyptian refugee camp) and to name Zionism a “new form of colonialism” supported by U.S. “dollarism.”85
After the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, African-American/Palestinian relations took a sharp turn in favor of Palestinian liberation. Black radicals in Chicago, leaders of the Black Panther Party (BPP) like Fred Hampton and Huey Newton, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the political prisoner George Jackson all took strong stands denouncing the Israeli state as a product of U.S. imperialism and Zionism as a form of racist settler colonialism.86 Members of the BPP had an especially close relationship with the Palestinian movement, issuing several official solidarity statements in the decade between 1970 and 1980 and meeting with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on a number of occasions in Algiers in 1969–1970.87
Perhaps the most enduring and powerful expression of Black-Palestinian solidarity has been that forged by Black and Palestinian feminists. In 1971, Palestinian political prisoners incarcerated in Israeli jails wrote a letter of solidarity to Angela Davis, who was then imprisoned in the United States. Through much of her life, unwavering commitment to Palestine liberation has been an integral part of Davis’s extraordinary global activism and revolutionary thought. Like her friend, the great Black feminist poet June Jordan, she has attempted “to embody the juncture of Black and Palestine liberation.”88 Davis cites as a high point in this journey her participation in a historic 2011 delegation of women of color and indigenous women activists, led by Palestinian activist and professor Rabab Abdulhadi, to the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem.
Following Angela Davis’s lead, many other women of color have created crucial nodes of intersectional politics and coalition building, joining Palestine solidarity and support for BDS with campaigns against war, racism, state violence, colonialism, and the prison-industrial complex.89 In March 2021, a group of U.S.-based Palestinian feminist activists posted a “Palestinian Feminist Collective Pledge” recognizing “Palestinian liberation as a critical feminist issue” and the long history of Palestinian women struggling “to end multiple forms of oppression.” The pledge quickly drew hundreds of individual signatures and organizational endorsements throughout the United States and Palestine and countries around the world—a culmination of decades of intersectional feminist work.90
The convergence of two horrific atrocities in 2014—the brutal police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the Israeli siege and massacre of civilians in Gaza—cemented Black-Palestinian bonds. Demonstrators in Ferguson held up signs pledging solidarity with Palestine, and Palestinians sent Ferguson activists instructions about how to defend against tear gas—from the same U.S.-branded canisters that had rained down on Gazans. The following year, another historic delegation made up of young organizers, journalists, and artists representing Black Lives Matter, Dream Defenders, Black Youth Project 100, and Ferguson activists—nearly all founded or led by queer women of color—traveled to Palestine to make political connections and learn from the Palestinian struggle. That same year, some 1,100 Black organizers, activists, artists, students, professors, clergy, and political prisoners from twenty-five countries, plus fifty organizations, signed the statement “Black for Palestine” declaring, “our commitment to working through cultural, economic, and political means to ensure Palestinian liberation at the same time as we work towards our own.”91
International solidarity is indispensable for the resistance and vitality of the Palestine movement; as such, it is perceived as a direct threat to Zionism. Those who engage in it are the target of vicious backlash campaigns from the much larger, more powerful and richly resourced pro-Israel organizations, which wield accusations of antisemitism like rhetorical grenades. Black movements face this danger with particular vengeance. When the Movement for Black Lives published its Comprehensive Vision for Black Lives Platform in 2016, it dared to include a section denouncing the billions of dollars in U.S. taxpayers’ money sent to the Israeli government every year, the militarization of Palestinian lives, illegal settlements, apartheid, and “the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.” This statement, especially its use of the word “genocide,” immediately drew a barrage of angry attacks from Zionist groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council.92 Palestine solidarity and anti-Zionism have become the new “communism.”
Jewish Anti-Zionism in the Present
In 2018, Jewish Voice for Peace, as a national organization, adopted a position paper entitled “Our Approach to Zionism.” In a statement reflecting several years of rigorous, democratic consultations among all its local and national constituents, JVP concluded that “Zionism was a false and failed answer to the desperately real question many of our ancestors faced of how to protect Jewish lives from murderous antisemitism in Europe.” Quoting the Jewish feminist writer Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, who advocated what she called “diasporism” as an alternative to Zionism, the statement asserts: “the Zionism that took hold and stands today is a settler-colonial movement, establishing an apartheid state where Jews have more rights than others . . . [W]e unequivocally oppose Zionism because it is counter to [our] ideals . . . of justice, equality and freedom for all people . . . we choose solidarity.”93
JVP’s approach is no longer a fringe position among progressives, and especially progressive Jews, in the United States and abroad. Polls show a widening gap between older and younger generations of Jewish Americans around Zionism. Support for Israel and the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has markedly declined among the young, who refuse to accept the false equation between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. More and more, young Jews are living and expressing their Jewishness in ways that decouple tradition and spiritual values from political loyalty to the State of Israel. This includes a growing consciousness that the Nakba and its endurance in contemporary Israeli policies casts a huge, ugly shadow over the origins of the Israeli state and the very meanings of Zionism. It also includes a dramatic shift in the language used to describe this historical and current reality, with terms like “settler colonialism” and “apartheid” becoming increasingly commonplace not only among activists but also liberal Jewish intellectuals and advocacy organizations. In January 2021, the Israeli human rights group B’tselem published a kind of manifesto, declaring, “a regime that uses laws, practices and organized violence to cement the supremacy of one group over another is an apartheid regime,” and naming Israel’s “regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea” unequivocally apartheid. This statement received enormous attention across the globe, even as it failed to acknowledge that Palestinians had been saying this for many decades.94
The Trump years and their aftermath were, for many of us, the darkest period we had known. Yet what seemed an avalanche of global and local crises related to systemic racism, the pandemic, climate catastrophe, immigration, economic injustice, and so much else, also opened up opportunities for vibrant multi-racial coalitions and strategic alignments. For JVP, standing as Jews with Muslims, immigrants, people of color, and all those who come under the white supremacist hate agenda became inextricably woven into our commitment to justice for Palestine and ending Israeli apartheid. JVP and its political branch, JVP-Action, joined with fifty-six Palestinian and Muslim partner organizations to challenge the spurious International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of Zionism as antisemitism and its adoption by social media platforms like Facebook.95
We helped to elect progressive, pro-Palestine representatives at congressional, state, and local levels and then worked with them to create legislation to roll back U.S. military funding for Israel, defeat anti-BDS laws, and end what many now call the Deadly Exchange policing programs between the United States and Israel.96 We continued to work in community-based and women-of–color-led coalitions for prison abolition, moving public funds from policing to community and safety care, and stopping immigrant detentions. And, in partnership with Muslim and Palestine solidarity groups, we tried to mobilize a vocal campaign among progressive U.S. congresspeople to pressure Israel to end its medical apartheid and provide anti-Covid vaccines throughout the West Bank and Gaza. In a signal that coalition work is having results, a dozen Democratic members of Congress signed a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, calling for a serious change in U.S. policy toward Palestine and Israel, including opposing home demolitions, settlements, and “all forms of ongoing, de facto annexation [and] settler colonialism in any form” in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, while demanding vaccines “to all Palestinians living under military occupation,” including “in the besieged Gaza Strip.” This was followed in April 2021 by Congresswoman Betty McCollum introducing her Palestinian Children and Families Act (HR 2590), which bars U.S. military aid to Israel in the case of a wide range of human rights abuses: home demolitions, killing of Palestinian civilians, annexing their land, military detention of children, among other crimes. This was a historic step, though only the beginning of a long, uphill struggle in the U.S. Congress.97 Meanwhile, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah, a rabbinical human rights organization, called on Jewish groups to stop casting the far-right Jewish thugs who terrorize Palestinian neighborhoods “as marginalized outsiders.” Rabbi Jacobs called out the network of U.S.-based Zionist foundations and organizations (such as the Central Fund of Israel) that channel millions of dollars to Israeli right-wing and terrorist groups. “[We] must insist,” she urged fellow Jews, “that the institutions to which we are connected do not contribute to the groups that promote genocide and organize Jews to take part in violent rampages.”98 A U.S. rabbi’s unapologetic use of the word “genocide” with regard to Israeli and Zionist organizations’ treatment of Palestinians indicates an important rhetorical shift.
Within Israel, there have always been courageous Jewish citizens who have stood up to their government’s anti-Palestinian militarism and apartheid policies—and in some cases, such as refusing compulsory military service, suffered punitive sanctions and even imprisonment. Organizations like Mesarvot (Refusal), a network of activists who support political and military refusal and opening up critical discussion among the Israeli public; Zochrot, whose aim is to educate the Jewish Israeli public about the Nakba, lead tours through destroyed Palestinian village sites, and generate not only awareness but also a sense of responsibility and accountability among Jews; the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions (ICAHD), which conducts peaceful direct action against demolitions of Palestinian houses and more generally opposes Israeli settlements in the OPT; and Boycott from Within, which calls on all citizens of Israel to join and support the BDS movement, have worked for years in defiance of the increasingly right-wing and racist tendencies of their government. Jewish feminist groups, such as the Coalition of Women for Peace, which, until its recent closure, documented the deadly exchange and investments in military technology of Israel’s military-industrial complex; and Machsom (Checkpoint) Watch, a group of Israeli Jewish women who monitor and document the conduct of soldiers and police at checkpoints in the occupied West Bank, as well as proceedings in Israeli military courts, are part of the international movement that understands war, militarism, and colonial occupation as distinctly feminist issues.99
Progressive Jews in Israel also rise to the occasion when particular crises, such as attacks on Gaza, annexations in the Jordan Valley, or expulsions of refugees arise. In 2018, a group of thirty-six Israeli Holocaust survivors signed a letter protesting the government’s attempt to deport some 38,000 African asylum seekers, urging that such harsh action went against the very founding of Israel as a haven for Jewish refugees.100 In 2021, Israeli public health experts demanded that the Israeli government provide urgently needed vaccinations to Palestinians in the OPT on both public health and equity grounds, in order to end the pandemic and to address the “crippling healthcare” emergency among Palestinians. And, of course, individual Israeli journalists and intellectuals such as Amira Hass, Ilan Pappe, Shlomo Sand, Gideon Levy, Jonathan Ofir, and others have spoken out for decades in support of Palestinian rights and to expose the injustices of the Nakba and occupation. These efforts are small but courageous steps “to begin building the future in the present, to prefigure a post-apartheid/post-Zionist society.”101
And maybe the world is finally starting to listen. On March 3, 2021, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in the Hague announced that the Court would begin a formal investigation into war crimes in all the occupied Palestinian Territories, including “forcible transfer” and illegal settlements. The ICC decision was welcomed by the Palestinian Authority but denounced by the United States and Israeli governments, with Netanyahu predictably calling it “antisemitic.”102 Then, in late April 2021, Human Rights Watch, the world’s leading international human rights organization, issued the strongest, most authoritative report yet, affirming that Israel’s official and systematic oppression of Palestinians constitutes the legal crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution, as defined in the ICC Rome Statute and international customary law. The report calls on the ICC prosecutor’s office to investigate and try Israeli officials implicated in these crimes and on all countries, under the principle of universal jurisdiction, to impose sanctions, travel bans, and arrests on implicated Israeli authorities.103
To be clear, we must not confuse these developments with justice, which requires full recognition of Palestinians’ right of return, restitution of stolen lands and properties, full equality and dignity for all Palestinians, an end forever to the violence of the endless Nakba, and so much more. But maybe we are seeing the beginning of some accountability and of Zionism’s twilight.
In 1944, in the midst of the Second World War, Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt described the specter that still haunts Zionism and those who stand against it—Palestinians, Jews, the colonized, the displaced:
The real obstacle to solving the problem of refugees and statelessness lies in the fact that it is simply unsolvable as long as peoples are organized within the old system of nation-states. Instead, those who are stateless reveal more clearly than anything else the crisis of the nation-state. And we shall not master this crisis by heaping one injustice upon another merely so that we can reestablish an order that does not correspond either to a modern sense of justice or to modern conditions under which peoples actually live together.104
The Israeli state came into existence in a world organized around “the old system of nation-states” whose core was a principle of sovereignty—meaning total power over land, people, and the terms of belonging. To challenge Zionism in the name of Palestinian liberation and right of return is to challenge that principle and the hegemony and inherent racism of nation states. Perhaps we need to be imagining something new and hitherto unknown in the modern world: the integrity and self-determination of peoples and the possibility of “peoples actually [living] together.”105 The writers, poets, and artists represented in this book have all used their voices and memories to confront and transcend Zionist injustice. Together, from different sites and vantage points, all help guide us toward more collective visions and more liberated futures.
A Land With A People: Palestinians and Jews Confront Zionism
Edited by Esther Farmer, Rosalind Petchesky and Sarah Sills
$19 / 200 pages / 978-1-58367-929-6