Antiracists for apartheid?

July 12, 2012

No genuine antiracist can oppose bigotry at home and defend apartheid in Israel.

NO AMOUNT of clever advertising hucksterism can change the fact that if public opinion regarding Israel were a bond, it could be downgraded to junk status.

The Jerusalem Post reported in May that of the more than 24,000 people polled by the BBC in 22 countries around the world, citizens of 17 of those nations hold mostly negative views of Israel, on par with opinions of North Korea. Not just majority Muslim countries like Israel's rebellious neighbor Egypt, where 85 percent hold negative views, but 74 percent of Spaniards, 65 percent of the French and 68 percent of the British regard Israel in a negative light, especially due to its foreign policies.

Not surprisingly, here in the U.S., 50 percent of people hold a mostly positive view versus 35 percent who view Israel's policies negatively, down 6 percent, according to BBC pollsters. Yet even here in the States, where debates about Israel's apartheid policies toward the Palestinian population are far more censored than in Israel itself, much evidence points to the hollow nature of a significant portion of Israel's support, including, if not especially, among Jews themselves.

For starters, there is the well-publicized New York Review of Books article by Peter Beinart in which he famously wrote, "For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism's door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead."

And there is Time magazine's piece on "Why Fewer Young American Jews Share Their Parents' View of Israel," which cites these stats:

A 2007 poll by Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College and Ari Kelman of the University of California at Davis found that although the majority of American Jews of all ages continue to identify as "pro-Israel," those under 35 are less likely to identify as "Zionist." Over 40 percent of American Jews under 35 believe that "Israel occupies land belonging to someone else," and over 30 percent report sometimes feeling "ashamed" of Israel's actions.

Those of us who have been speaking on college campuses about Israel-Palestine for years have noted a striking shift. In the 1990s and earlier, the announcement of a forum even mildly critical of Israel garnered death threats from the Jewish Defense Organization, universities often required metal detectors and guards at our talks, and we were frequently disrupted by large numbers of confident Zionist students.

In one memorable episode at New York University, the campus Zionists marched in, carrying an Israeli flag and singing Israel's national anthem "Hatikva" as I rose to speak. At Harvard, students got up and threateningly jeered that I was an anti-Semite; they only backed down when Howard Zinn stood and put his arm around my shoulder and said, "She and I are both Jews, and we refuse to be silenced by a mob."

Those days are gone. Today, meetings that openly declare Israel an apartheid state and dissect the myths of Zionism are not only well-attended, but the Zionists are often cowed and only half-convinced of their own rhetoric, when they summon the nerve to speak at all. Among the latest victories of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel is the Church of England's overwhelming vote to continue its aid to Palestinians, as well as the Presbyterian Church's vote to boycott all products from Israeli colonial settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and its call on all nations to "prohibit the import of products made by enterprises in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land."

BUT THERE remains much work to be done among the broadening layer of Americans who are coming to consciousness in an era of revolutions, occupations and mass protest. They are participating in marches against the New Jim Crow and stop-and-frisk--yet they remain unschooled or unconvinced of Israel's racist policies and colonialist practices.

A recent article by Occupy Wall Street activist Yotam Marom in Haaretz gives advice to Israel's social protest movement, calling for "equity" and "self-determination"--but without any mention of the Palestinians who are also ignored by the youthful social protest movement there.

Occupy activists who've worked alongside Marom know him to be an antiracist, and his blind spot when it comes to crimes against the Palestinians is all too common among other progressives who have read critically about the world, yet, when it comes to Israel, often defend it without the vigor of historical analysis and ideas, contradicting so much of their world view. This is a precarious racism of antiracists.

In my encounters with growing numbers of these sincere social justice activists, the question of Israel is posed as if it concerns the right of an oppressed minority to have a state of their own--but that's not what Israel is an expression of or ever was.

Zionism was never a national liberation movement, and Israel is not the outcome of a mass movement for a Jewish state. Israel is today and always was a colonial-settler state that ties its fortunes to world powers--it attempted to do so with the Ottoman Empire, then the Brits and finally the Americans. Israel exists on land that was stolen from the indigenous population, and Zionists aim to ethnically cleanse--in their words, "transfer"--the remaining native inhabitants, that is, the Palestinians.

Here's how Vladimir Jabotinsky, a leading Zionist, posed it back in 1923:

Zionism is a colonizing adventure and therefore it stands or falls by the question of armed force. It is important to build, it is important to speak Hebrew, but, unfortunately, it is even more important to be able to shoot--or else I am through with playing at colonization.

More contemporary Zionist leaders have been quite explicit about their goals. Joseph Weitz headed up what was known as the Jewish Agency's Colonization Department (!!). Writing in the Labor newspaper Davar, which means work, in 1967, he declared:

Between ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both peoples together in this small country...We shall not achieve our goal of being an independent people with the Arabs in this small country. The only solution is Palestine without Arabs...And there is no other way but to transfer the Arabs from here to the neighboring countries; to transfer all of them; not one village, not one tribe should be left.

Rather than the result of some 2,000-year-old yearning, Zionism is a modern movement that, as the late, great Palestinian scholar Edward Said reminds us, coincided with the period of unparalleled European territorial acquisition in Asia and Africa. Zionism never spoke of itself as a Jewish liberation movement, but rather as a Jewish movement for colonial settlement in the Middle East. As Said puts it: "Imperialism was the theory, colonialism the practice" of "civilizing" the Middle East--in the view of racist, middle-class European Jews.

IT'S NOT the case that early Zionists didn't know the land was inhabited--multiple diaries, articles and books attest to this fact. No, when Golda Meier, the Israeli prime minister from 1969-74, said about Israel: "To a people without a land, a land without a people," it wasn't necessarily literal. Zionists like her were well aware that Israel drove out nearly 800,000 Palestinians to form the state of Israel and then occupied the remaining Arabs who refused to leave. It was an expression of how Zionism has always accepted the generic racial concepts of European culture. Palestine was populated, in their view, with a backward people unworthy of the land. Unlike European missionaries, however, Zionists didn't come to "civilize" the population, but to replace them and drive them out.

The Israeli trade union movement, the Histadrut, based itself on Jewish-only labor. In the name of building a strong Zionist labor force, its supporters smashed Arab produce in the markets, destroyed shops where Arab goods were sold, and forced employers to hire only Jews. It was and is racist to the core.

Even the mythology surrounding the kibbutzim is a deception--Israel's work and living collectives were never some socialist utopian endeavor. They are Jewish-only, and their purpose was for settling new territory and guarding borders against dispossessed Arabs--not opening a road to Jewish socialism, if such a separatist notion were even desirable.

Lest anyone think those earlier quotes were anomalous or out-of-date, here is the chief Sapphardic rabbi in a letter to Israeli President Ehud Olmert about the 2007 rocket attacks on Gaza, as printed in the Jerusalem Post: "There is absolutely no moral prohibition against the indiscriminate killing of civilians during a potential massive military offensive on Gaza aimed at stopping the rocket launchings."

His rabbi son went on to say: "If they don't stop after we kill 100, then we must kill 1,000, and if they do not stop after 1,000, then we must kill 10,000. If they still don't stop, we must kill 100,000, even 1 million. Whatever it takes to make them stop."

This man, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, who called for the killing of a million Palestinians, was just appointed the head of Israel's Red Cross, known as the Magen David Adom.

These are the ravings of racists, defending the indefensible. No radicalizing antiracist can sustain for long these contradictory positions between racism at home and racism in Israel. They must pick a side and decide which one they're on.

It is my honest assessment that in 20 years or so, people will look back on the defenders of apartheid Israel the way we now look back on Alabama's most infamous racist sheriff, Bull Connor, who terrorized Blacks with dogs and fire hoses--as racists defending a supremacist order. And antiracists here must answer the question: Which side are you on?

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