Israel and Palestine

There are two colliding and conflicting narratives to Israel and Palestine.

  1. From the Zionist side (note: I do not call this the "Jewish" or "Israeli" side, since not all Jews or Israelis are Zionists), the foundation of Israel was an act of self-liberation by the Jewish people, a response to the historic persecution of Jews (mainly in Europe, culminating in the Holocaust), and the state has been fighting for its existence ever since, in particular against neighbouring Arab countries, who are motivated, at least in part, by anti-Semitism (or more pedantically, anti-Jewish prejudice, since Arabs are technically also Semites). The violent acts that Israel has committed have been in self-defense, committed reluctantly and regrettably by an embattled state forced to defend itself. Any abuses are regrettable, identified as isolated acts by misguided individuals, and are inevitable accompaniments of war in a tough neighbourhood.
  2. From the Palestinian side, Zionism is and always has been a colonialist project, similar in its actions and philosophy to other European colonialist projects such as those in Africa, and has always had as its explicit intention to disposses the Arab inhabitants of Palestine of their lands and resources. The historic injustices committed against Jews, which were in any case committed almost exclusively by Europeans, are used by Israel as a cover to deflect criticism and to discredit opponents of Zionism. The violent acts that Palestinians have committed have been overwhelming legitimate acts of self-defense by a colonized and dispossed people.

These conflicting interpretations should be judged by the actions of the parties involved, and not by their stated intentions, or how well they articulate those stated intentions. History shows that even the best-intentioned people are easily caught up in processes beyond their control. Furthermore, studies of human psychology reveal that everyone readily constructs explanations and justifications for their actions - and that these artificial, and sometimes absurd, constructions are often not even evident to the person involved.

In order to develop a proper understanding of historical events, it is important to concentrate on the facts, and not on the mental constructions (or deliberate propaganda) the parties use to defend their own actions.

My own view is that Zionism was always of debatable merit even from the purely Jewish point of view. There is no doubt that Zionism was initially formulated as a colonialist project (a site in Africa was even proposed by Zionist leaders at one point) and there is also no doubt that Zionism sought and received early support from Britain explicitly for colonialist reasons. Many quotations from the leading figures of Zionism and of Israel itself make this explicit. Much more importantly, the actions of Israel from the earliest days to the present time are thoroughly consistent and explicable only in terms of a colonial narrative. The dispossession, land robbery, erasure of villages and towns, and renaming of historic locations to expunge even the memory of Arab presence are not explicable as acts of Jewish liberation, or even as Jewish self-defense. They only make sense as the actions of a group whose intentions and actions are to take over the land and its resources and to eliminate or expel the current inhabitants.

Any colonial project requires ideological justification. It is not a nice business to kill and drive people out, so most human beings require an internal mechanism of self-justification from a higher source - religious or ideological. In the case of Zionism, there are several sources of ideology which have been pressed into service. One is the religious traditions of Jews, which contains the doctrines of a "chosen people" and a "promised land". The Judaic tradition also contains very strong elements of hereditary descent through the maternal line as a means to classify membership of the "chosen people". Both of these elements are similar to those in many other old religious traditions (for example, Hinduism). But in combination with military and political power, and colonial aspirations, these old religious traditions have revealed their highly divisive and racist aspects, and their great potential for murderous violence. It is a curious but revealing fact that many early Zionists adhered (at least superficially) to communist ideology and were explicitly anti-religious. This did not prevent them from using religious justifications for their colonialist actions - an old Zionist saying goes: "God does not exist, but God gave us this land".

The holocaust (the industrial killing of millions of Jews in central Europe, in the 1940's) is also used routinely by Zionists as a justification for Zionist actions. It is one of the most morally repugnant aspects of current Zionism that this appalling historic event is used as an ideological weapon to justify the killing, expulsion, and oppression of another people. The memory of the holocaust and the residual guilt of many European nations is used completely shamelessly to dampen international criticism, in particular from the European community.

Anyone who criticizes Israel or Zionism must expect heavy and organized accusations of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism, in its genuine form of racial prejudice against Jews, is a real and dangerous phenomenon, although fortunately subdued in most current European societies. The deliberate Zionist conflation of anti-Semitism with political criticism of Israel has obscured the nature and reality of anti-Semitism and in fact represents one of the ways that Zionism and Israel has become a danger to Jews.

There is one aspect, and possibly only one aspect, in which Zionism is sharply different in its ideology and actions to other colonialist projects such as the European settlement of South Africa. In Africa, Europeans, like Zionists, use arguments of racial/cultural superiority to justify their dispossession of the inhabitants and other violent acts. However the intention of European colonists was never to drive out the Africans from the country, but instead to exploit them as a source of cheap labour in order to enrich themselves. For the most part the Zionist project is different. The aim seems to be to remove the Arab inhabitants completely, rather than exploiting them. The intention appears to be to lock up the Arab inhabitants in large walled prison camps, supervised by a client police force, having grabbed the most productive land, the key resources such as water, and as many historical and cultural sites as possible.

The current strategy appears to be not only to complete this breathtakingly arrogant and violent act of racism and dispossession, but to get the international community to support it under deceptive titles such as "The Road Map", the "Peace Plan" and the "Two-State Solution". At the time of writing (september 2009) this project appears to be well on the way to completion, with even very many sympathetic and highly knowledgeable observers supporting the "Two-State Solution".

It is as if the anti-Apartheid activists of the 1960's to the 1990's were calling for the establishment of Bantustans, rather than the dismantling of the Apartheid South African state and equal rights for all people living there.

In my view the best way to understand the current political situation is to view all of historic Palestine (i.e. Israel+WestBank+Jerusalem+Gaza) as a single state, but containing several large prison camps in which most of the non-Jewish population are confined and controlled, under the subterfuge and pretence that a "Palestinian state" will some day emerge on those areas. Israel has no intention of negotiating seriously on the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, but instead plays along with the current situation since it finds the status quo relatively beneficial. Israel has herded most non-Jews into large quasi-prison camps, at the same time as absolving itself of all costs and responsibility for the people there. The international community has been tricked into going along with this sham and is even picking up the tab for basic care of the imprisoned population.

The strategy of the Israeli government seems to be resist the establishment of a Palestinian state to the very last moment, all the time grabbing more land, more resources, and squeezing further and further the boundaries of Palestinian control and the living standards of the Palestinian population (which are already a stupendous scandal). At the last moment there may be "recognition" of a few miserable and destitute prison camps as a "Palestinian state" in return for final "concessions from the Palestinian side" (probably involving further land grabs, statutory betrayal of the refugee population, perhaps also military or economic actions against third countries, such as Iran). Handshakes will ensue on the White House lawn, Nobel peace prizes will be handed out, and the Palestinians will be left even more hopeless and destitute than before -- and the Jews even more firmly in the grip of the rabbis and the generals. It is not a recipe that is likely to lead to a better world for any of us, or our children.

Just think about it: Israel has declared Jerusalem to be the "indivisible capital of the Jewish people". Not a city to be shared between all of the different traditions that value it, but "indivisible" and "Jewish". Jerusalem is the 3rd most holy city in Islam. The Dome of the Rock is the earliest masterpiece of Islamic architecture, in fact the model upon which all the familiar Islamic mosques and monuments are based. Is it an action of Jewish liberation, or even remotely smart from the Jewish point of view, to declare, and to take actions, to make Jerusalem exclusively Jewish? Is such an act not a deliberate and astonishing provocation of the world's ~1.5 billion Islamic population, endangering Jews everywhere (quite apart from the injustice and discrimination imposed on non-Jews)?

Personal context

Comment on the Gaza flotilla boarding (aug 2010)

Future prospects (jan 2009)

NMR mailing list posting in Jan 2009, and responses

Viewpoint article on Ilan Pappe and responses

Viewpoint article on OneState for Israel/Palestine


The current situation (nov 2005)

Boycott of Israeli academic institutions

Southampton OneState group

Recommended reading


Back to my political site.

I welcome debate! I will try to respond to emails as soon as I can.