Is Israel Unique
by Mazin Qumsiyeh
In the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr was being tugged in two different directions. One segment of the movement wanted him to take a stand on the Vietnam War while a few argued that this issue was too divisive and that he should stick to the issue of Civil rights. In his book, “From Yale to Jail”, David Dellinger (one of the original Chicago Eight) explained the intricate mechanics and internal politics of the budding anti-War movement in the 1960s. MLK came to agree with Dellinger and others after some struggle. In retrospect, it is so obvious that it could not have been any other way. As King put it “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere” and more eloquently: "I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today - my own government.... There is something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that would praise you when you say, 'Be nonviolent toward Jim Clark,' but will curse and damn you when you say, 'Be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children!' There is something wrong with that press...." -- Martin Luther King, Jr.
We are reminded of these things as we see a few (rare but vocal) individuals ask the current anti-war movement to not deal with the US-funded Israeli atrocities committed against native Palestinians for the past 58 years. The methods used to silence those who speak for justice range from claiming the inclusion of this issue is “divisive” to the tired canard of equating critiques of Israel with anti-Semitism. In between one finds the vague argument that “I am against certain Israeli policies but we should not ….” (fill in the blanks). If you probe deeper with such folks you will find that they oppose basic human rights like the rights of refugees to return to their homes and lands and be treated equally. Even beyond those fundamental issues, you can ask simply if they support cutting off US aid, engaging in divestments, and/or boycotts until Israel corrects the policies they claim they do not support (e.g. land confiscation, home demolitions etc). The answer would be no.
Probing deeper you will find that the last resort such individuals have is to argue that Israel is a democracy unlike South Africa under apartheid. And Zionism cannot be analyzed or critiqued. But what is Zionism and what is the nature of Israel’s democracy? For this we have to step back a little and look at what Zionism is and then address current Israeli basic laws (Israel has no constitution but a set of basic laws that govern its structure as a state by and for “the Jewish People”).
Lord Balfour wrote in a memorandum to Lord Curzon, his successor at the Foreign Office, on 11 August 1919 (two years after the Balfour declaration): "In Palestine we do not propose to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants... Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land." While this statement grossly underestimated the number of native people in Palestine at the time, it is significant in its colonial language. As events unfolded later, there was good reason for the fears of the native population. This was especially after Great Britain twisted arms at the league of nations to acquire a “mandate” in Palestine appointing a Zionist to carry Zionist dreams which were contrary to the founding charter of the league of nations which called for self-determination. Ironically history repeated itself when the US and the Soviet Union (replacing England and France as dominant superpowers) lobbied for partition of Palestine in 1947 even when this was contrary to the UN charter, which is clear on issues of self-determination.
But in either case, from the beginning of the British occupation in 1919 to the Palestinian revolt of 1936 against British occupation with its concomitant Zionist colonization, the percentage of Jews in the population rose from less than 6% to 27.8% (Michael J. Cohen, The Origin and Evolution of the Arab-Zionist Conflict, p. 90). Yet, private land ownership by Jews jumped (only) from less than 2% to about 6-7% between 1919 and 1947 (the remainder still owned by Christian and Palestinian Muslims). The acquisition of Palestine from its owners was not accomplished by the land purchases even when these were unjustly aided b British colonial laws that were designed to help the Zionist project. Rather it was planned to be accomplished by war and direct ethnic cleansing.
Israeli historians who were allowed access to Israeli archives and records detail the specific methods employed to remove Palestinians in numerous books. Historians like Avi Schlaim, Tom Segev, Ilan Pappe, Benny Morris, Sternhall and others, documented how this happened. Israeli leaders while in public feigning humanity and caring and democracy were very clear in private about what needed to be done. Here is a section from the diary of Israel’s first Prime Minister written years before the 1948 war:
"it must be clear that there is no room in the country for both peoples . . . If the Arabs leave it, the country will become wide and spacious for us . . . The only solution is a Land of Israel, at least a western land of Israel (i.e. Palestine since Transjordan is the eastern portion), without Arabs. There is no room here for compromises . . . There is no way but to transfer the Arabs from here to the neighboring countries, to transfer all of them, save perhaps for Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the old Jerusalem. Not one village must be left, not one tribe. The transfer must be directed at Iraq, Syria, and even Transjordan. For this goal funds will be found . . . And only after this transfer will the country be able to absorb millions of our brothers and the Jewish problem will cease to exist. There is no other solution." (cited in Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestine Refugee Problem, Cambridge University Press,1989, p. 27 & Nur Masalha, Expulsion Of The Palestinians, ibid pp. 131-132)
The book by Nur Masalha is a definitive analysis of this era but one can find similar information in other books by Israeli Jewish historians listed above. Perhaps more significantly is that the first order of business in the newly constituted Israeli “Knesset” was promulgation of a set of laws that are contrary to International law that ensured no refugees are allowed to return (as customarily happens at the end of a war) and that their land is confiscated for use by Jews only (“absentee property” laws). The removal of 75-80% of non-Jews from what became Israel by 1949 was a necessary but not sufficient condition for creating and maintaining a Zionist-defined Jewish state. What the nascent state did subsequently was equally important. Israel has no constitution but promulgated a set of basic laws that govern it essentially “for the benefit of the Jewish people”. These laws recognize members of a particular religion (including converts) as nationals of the state regardless of where they live or their current citizenship. In Israeli law, all Jews are part of Am Yisrael (the people of Israel). To get papers of citizenship all they have to do is show up in the state and claim their automatic citizenship. The closest to this in the last 100 years of world history is Nazi Germany which instituted laws that recognized that all Aryan people whose mother tongue is German are nationals of the third Reich even if they happen to be then citizens of say Poland or Serbia. To my knowledge there is no Christian or Muslim majority country (not even US-backed dictatorial regimes with religious laws like Saudi Arabia) today that recognized that anybody who is Muslim or Christian or convert to those religions could get automatic citizenship. Israel is simply not “Jewish” like there are “Christian” states. No “Christian state” has a national anthem that even comes close to the Israeli one that sings of Jewish hearts yearning for Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel. How would one feel if the US national anthem was about Christians yearning for our manifest destiny of ruling this Christian nation?
Israel is unique among the nations in not being a country of its citizens but of “Jewish people everywhere”. No other country defines itself as a country for members of a particular religion (including converts) regardless of where they live. No other country has supranational entities that have authority superceding state authority and native people rights. For example, the JNF is not a state agency but it has on its own website the amazing statement that “The Jewish National Fund is the custodian of the land of Israel on behalf of its owners Jewish people everywhere.” 91% of the land (most taken from the 530 Palestinian towns and villages depopulated between 1947-1949) is not privately owned but turned over from the custodian of “absentee property” to the JNF (Jewish Agency before) for lease by Jews. More recently some of this land was turned over for “management” by the Israel Lands authority. I am very familiar with the latter group’s “work” with the Israeli government in reclassifying Palestinian lands (including near my own village) to “Green areas” (or taking over areas classified as military Zones) and then reclassifying them as “residential” and then building Jewish only settlements/colonies on them.
Another basic law denies refugees the right to return to their lands and confiscates land without compensation (so called “absentee property law”). So far 2/3rds of the native Palestinians are refugees and displaced people (all simply for being of the wrong religion). I say so far because this is a continuing process. Just in the past 4 years alone 35,000 more Palestinians were made homeless by home demolitions and land confiscations.
Other basic laws define Israel as Jewish-dominated in more hidden ways and result in lack of equality to non-Jews in the state. After the expulsion of 3/4th of the native Palestinians the 1/4th who managed to stay were subjected to Marshal law between 1948-1966. Even after 1966, they were not integrated in the society and remain as foreigners in their own lands. Since they do not get drafted into the army like other Israeli citizens, a number of laws do not specifically give preference to Jews but to those who serve in the army. Further Israeli law considers one fourth of those people (about 300,000 of the 1.3 million Palestinians with Israeli citizenship) as “present absentees”. This means that their land and/or homes were confiscated from them and turned to the Jewish Agency/JNF. By international law they are considered internally displaced people (refugees).
Israel uniqueness extends to hundreds of other ways that other countries do not have access to. For example, countries are divided into those who declared themselves nuclear powers and those that did not and signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Israel is well known to have nuclear weapons (hundreds) but never signed this treaty or agreed to non-proliferation let alone international inspections.
Another example is the fact that Israel and many in the Zionist movement milked billions of dollars from European governments, individuals, and corporations by claiming Israel and Zionism represent victims of European atrocities. The reality is that the victims (and their relatives) got nothing or a tiny percentage of this money that was used to support the destruction of Palestine. A good study of this is in Norman Finkelstein’s book “The Holocaust Industry.” More atrocious is that Zionism actually owes these victims compensation instead of collecting it on their behalf. After all, many Zionists not only profited from the atrocities but also directly collaborated with the perpetrators.
Political Zionists of various stripes in the 1930s belonged to the World Zionist Organization (this is still functioning and serves as umbrella for all including “Dovish” Zionist groups). Their response to European Ethnocentric chauvinistic Nationalism was a project to create its own ethnocentric chauvinistic nationalism (at the time ethnic by virtue of Ashkenazi ethnicity, later religious). That explains why in Hitler’s book “Mein Kempf” the only “good” Jews mentioned are the Zionists. He states ironically that: “whatever doubts I had (-about Jews being a separate race and not merely a religion-) were dispelled by the attitude of a segment of the Jews themselves (....) a great movement out of Vienna.. the Zionists” (highlight in original). This also explained why the German Zionist Organization sent letters to Hitler and the Nazi party supporting his program of German Aryan Christian “revival” adding that that is precisely what Zionism wants to do for European Jews by moving them to Palestine and “reviving” a Jewish form of ethnocentric nationalism. That explains why Zionists challenged Socialist Jews (the Bund) and broke the Bund’s (and other progressive) groups’ boycott of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Eichman was invited to Haifa as a guest of the Haganna (forerunner of Israeli army). The Zionist Organization of Germany was in fact the last group operating in Nazi Germany and openly Jewish (up to 1942, well after Jews and others where being killed). Lenni Brenner books (e.g. Zionism in the Age of Dictators and “51 Documents: History of Nazi-Zionist collaboration”) and Edwin Black (“The Transfer Agreement”) elaborate on some of these issues.
After Apartheid South Africa, Israel is the only remaining colonial state with an exclusivist/supremacist ideology (Zionism). Unlike South Africa, Israel’s exclusivity is based on religion not skin color or ethnicity (Jews are of various ethnicities and skin color). Israel is also unique in that its constituents are not just Israei citizens but Zioonists around the world (and it aims to recruit all Jews to the cause of Zionism). These influential Zionists include people like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Henry Kissinger, Douglas Feith, and others who are able to execute wars and use other people as fooder for their pet wars.
If this particular quasi-religious colonial project continues, the ramifications can be severe. A war on Iran next? Also a poor example to follow. Some members of every religious minority in the world may think it can get away with developing new states that are exclusive or at least run by a majority of that particular religion while destroying societies that already inhabit the desired territory. Zionism cannot be mainatained except by: a) support of a superpower (first Britain and then the US), and b) if native people resistance continues to be crushed. Israel is funded to the tune of $5 billion (3 billion in direct aid, 2 billion other) from our (US) taxes or shielded from International law and basic human rights conventions by our government (e.g. 37 vetoes at the UN security Council). We thus hold special responsibility in this situation (and in the atrocities in Iraq that derive from it), which is not the same for example for Darfur, Sudan (where our government is not funding oppression but is actually at least verbally trying to stop it).
But is Zionism monolithic and is there anything to point out as a positive aspect of it? To my knowledge all branches of political Zionism believed in a “Jewish political sovereignty” defining Judaism not as a religion but a national group in need of separation. Relying on “us here them there” programs necessitated removing natives to have a “comfortable” Jewish majority which by consensus was “set” at 80% (laws are constantly being tweaked to ensure Jerusalem is 70-80% “Jewish”). Cultural Zionists like Martin Buber argued for a revival of Hebrew and Jewish traditions etc but without the unrealistic effort of political separateness. They argued instead for political coexistence while maintaining cultural and religious uniqueness. For a better understanding of the psychological aspect of relationship between Zionism, Judaism, and hatred of Jews, I recommend “Out of the Ashes” by Prof. Marc Ellis (a Jewish theologian/philosopher at Baylor).
Most Palestinians never argued for political or cultural separateness. We have always welcomed persecuted people and integrated diverse communities: Armenians, Druze, Ethiopians, Circasians, Copts, Syriacs, Hebrews, Ashkenazim, Mizrachim, Samaritans, Armenians (came after the pogroms and genocide), etc. In fact, Palestine is an amalgamation of all. The self-exclusion by some Jews from its mosaic is transitory and a reintegration into its fabric is just the way to move forward. One of course need not be anti-Zionist in the 21st century to do so. One can become a post-Zionist. A post-Zionist can recognize that the mindset of a Hertzl or Ben Gurion was shaped by their own upbringing and circumstances. Instead, now one can look to a future where people can coexist based on human rights and equality. Those who choose to keep the Hebrew culture and language should be no different than those who choose to keep Armenian or Circassian culture and language. Equality must be the key. Like in the struggle against apartheid South Africa, everyone (Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, all others) needs to take a moral stand based on the principle that there is no room in the 21st century for racism and discrimination.
Those in the peace and justice movement regardless of their religious or philosophical affiliation must thus take a moral stance for equality and other basic human rights. It is the only sustainable stance. It goes by the clear mandate that all people are equal. Those who try to take morally compromising stand in the name of being “pragmatic” only nourish continuing violence and oppression. These lessons were learned in the anti-Apartheid movement, work for civil rights, work against the war on Vietnam, for Woman Suffrage, and other struggles (not to mention earlier with WWI and II atrocities, ending slavery etc). The overarching lesson is that silence in situations of injustice and racism is not being neutral but being complicit. In the case of US citizens whose taxes are used to fund the Israeli colonization efforts that have left two thirds of the native Palestinians as refugees or displaced people, silent complicity is nothing short of criminal.
Many Israelis are beginning to speak out. Such moral stances stretch from the Israeli group that is now commemorating the Palestinian Nakba (see http://www.zochrot.org/index.php?id=206) to the Israeli Artists’ declaration:
"If the state of Israel aspires to perceive itself as a democracy, it should abandon once and for all, any legal and ideological foundation of religious, ethnic, and demographic discrimination. The state of Israel should strive to become the state of all its citizens. We call for the annulment of all laws that make Israel an apartheid state, including the Jewish law of return in its present form" (artists' Declaration 2002).
Can we remain silent (especially in the US who make the continuation of this tragedy possible)?
As Martin Luther King, Jr stated: "We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people". Archbishop Desmond Tutu who supported boycotts and divestments from Israel said in short: "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor." I can only quote to those who think violence and oppression are tools to achieve something: “what would one gain if they gain the whole world and lose themselves”.