Commemorating Nakba 2015

May 20, 2015

What are the successes and challenges facing the Palestinian liberation movement?

EACH YEAR, May 15 marks the commemoration of the "Nakba," the Arabic word for "catastrophe," which Palestinians use to describe the campaign of ethnic cleansing that established Israel on their land.

It is a commemoration of a single day, but it represents the ongoing ethnic cleansing and colonization of Palestine since 1948. In that year, 750,000 Palestinians--about half the population of Palestine at the time--were expelled from their homes to make way for Jewish colonial settlers from Europe.

As somber as the Nakba commemoration is, last week also made room for some bits of good news for the Palestinian struggle. First, the Vatican announced it would recognize Palestine in a new treaty, and then Vatican officials said they would make two Palestinian Christian women saints, providing some boost to morale. These announcements are both the result of and a further contribution to positive developments in recent years for the Palestine solidarity movement.

In the wake of Israel's punishing assault on Gaza last summer, there has been a significant growth of interest among people in the U.S. in organizations sympathetic to Palestine. One such organization, Jewish Voice for Peace, has seen the size of its membership nearly triple. Campus-based Palestine solidarity groups are also reporting increasing numbers, and the overall attitude toward Palestine, especially among younger Americans, is making significant improvements.

A demonstration in Berlin to mark the Palestinian Nakba
A demonstration in Berlin to mark the Palestinian Nakba

In early and mid-2014, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign made tremendous strides--from SodaStream announcing massive profit losses, followed by an announcement that it would move one of its factories in the West Bank, to a host of European and Latin American countries encouraging their citizens not to invest in Israeli apartheid.

During last summer's bombing of Gaza--essentially the world's largest open-air prison--Israel's war machine killed more than 2,000 people, most of them civilians and more than 500 of them children.

Whenever Israel lashes out and begins another bombing campaign, activists around the world turn out in the streets to demonstrate against it. It is beautiful to behold such displays of solidarity from people showing their opposition to Israel's brutality--and equally stunning to see that support come home to the U.S., which is Israel's most important ally. In August, Palestinian activists returned the solidarity when they reached out to U.S. activists in Ferguson, Missouri, rising up against the police murder of Mike Brown.

WHILE THESE protests are inspiring in their own right, they are part of a larger picture. As socialists, opposition to Zionism is both a moral necessity, as it is a matter of principle to stand with any people resisting their own extermination at the hands of an occupying force, and part of a larger analysis of the world that places Zionism in the context of the imperialist domination of the planet.

It's essential to understand that the enemy is Zionism--namely, the political project of establishing a Jewish state that treats the indigenous people of Palestine as second-class citizens in their own land. However, the U.S. State Department and even most European governments condemn protests of Israel and the BDS movement as "inherently anti-Semitic". But as Israeli historian and Palestine activist Ilan Pappe has explained:

It is as if in the heyday of the struggle against apartheid, you were only allowed to criticize certain policies of the South African society but not the very nature of the regime. [Israel] defined the parameters of the game: you are allowed to demonstrate against Israeli policies, but if you demonstrate against Israel, you demonstrate against the Jewish State and therefore you demonstrate against Judaism. That is why it is very important to bring this to the fore of the discussion.

For the same reasons that socialists see capitalism at the heart of many social ills, and try to convince others of the same, so too must we insist that Zionism is at the heart of the conflict in Israel-Palestine. Fortunately, we can see such arguments are making their way into somewhat mainstream progressive politics, with an increasing emphasis on Zionism as a colonial project.

ANOTHER EXAMPLE of success for Palestine activists is the growing rejection of Israel's founding narrative as "unique" and/or "complex." The key for Israel has been spinning the story of their bombing campaigns as justified, because just look at Hamas! Of course, the violence of the oppressed is fundamentally different from the violence of the oppressor, but that's actually not the only angle to come from.

Israel's success in advancing its one-sided narrative about itself stems from its ability to convince people to look at the situation and have them say, "Well, it's complicated," or worse, to spin it as a religious conflict. But for those who stand with the Palestinian struggle, it is important to show that not only is it not unique, it's actually not very complex. The movie of Palestine is one we've all seen before: European settlers move to a new place, expel or exterminate the native population, and build homes on the ruins that they created.

That principle created the United States, and is considered one of the darkest times in our history. That same principle should extend to Palestine. As Ilan Pappe says, the only thing that separates Israel from other instances of colonization is that colonization is a 19th century project that Israel is trying to undertake in the 21st century. We look back at past instances of colonization in order to reflect on the damage done, and ideally what can we do today to rectify it. In Palestine, however, that colonization is ongoing, with full endorsement from the United States.

The other point of refuge for the Israeli narrative is painting resistance as attacks on Judaism, and having people (especially in the U.S.) think of it as an age-old religious conflict. But since when is it religious to fight back against occupation? That would be like saying that the American Revolution was a fight between Anglicans and Protestants instead of a fight over what was seen as excessive taxation and underrepresentation. To claim legitimacy through this is to engage in ideological chicanery.

The role of activists in the U.S. should in part take on the job of putting the ball in Israel's court...well, actually Israel has already done so. After each successive attack on Palestine, from something as seemingly small yet despicable as bulldozing homes in the occupied West Bank, to full-scale war on open-air prisons and civilians in Gaza, Israel increasingly has to justify its actions to a world that finds it less and less legitimate.

And while the Palestine solidarity community is growing in number, there is still a lot of work to be done on this front. Israel has chosen the path of becoming a pariah state; international activists didn't do that for them, but we can quicken that process by having these conversations with our friends, family and fellow activists. We can't shy away from these discussions. Standing with the oppressed means standing on the right side of history, and Palestine will be free.

Further Reading

From the archives