The founders of Zionism — the ideology which proclaims that Jews have a right to settle and control the area which is now Israel — were rather honest about the nature of their project. For them, Zionism was colonialist, plain and simple — and we cannot allow modern-day denials and apologetics to erase this basic fact.
Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism and the “father of the State of Israel,” wrote in 1896 that the future Jewish state in the Middle East would “form a part of a wall of defense for Europe and Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism.” Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the most prominent figure in the generation of Zionists who came after Herzl, was open about Zionism being a fundamentally colonialist project. He said as much, writing in 1923 that “every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonized. That is what the Arabs in Palestine are doing and what they will persist in doing as long as there remains a solitary spark of hope that they will be able to prevent the transformation of Palestine into the Land of Israel.” Notice how Jabotinsky is shameless about using the words “colonists” and “colonized” to describe the situation in what would become Israel — and also how Jabotinsky speaks in terms of “resistance” and “danger,” a vocabulary of violence whose implications are made much clearer by the fact that Jabotinsky was the founder of the Irgun, the predecessor of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
But even putting aside the fact that the founders of Zionism made no pretense of being anything other than colonialist, it’s hard to think of any other word to describe the way in which Israel came to be. Large numbers of people arriving suddenly from foreign nations, laying claim to lands which belong to others, displacing the existing inhabitants by force, setting up a government dominated by these new arrivals — what else does one call that? How is that meaningfully different from what Britain or France did in Africa? And given that Zionists frequently claim God-given approval for their actions, how is it different from the similarly “divine” theory of Manifest Destiny?
The defenders of the Israeli state make various arguments to counter this. The most common among them is that Israel is the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people, and therefore it is impossible for Jews in Israel to be colonizers. While this is certainly appealing on face value, there’s little logical sense to this argument — if we redistributed the entire global population to where their ancestors were at some point in the distant past, things would get rather chaotic. 600 years ago, Spain was inhabited largely by Moroccan muslims, but you don’t see anybody demanding the reanimation of the Caliphate of Cordoba. At the time that Israel was Jewish, Celtic peoples inhabited most of Central Europe — but no one is proposing an Irish state in Austria. My ancestral homeland is some brambly forest in southern Germany, but if I showed up at a Bavarian farmer’s house and ejected him from that land at gunpoint, I’d probably be prosecuted. And the timescale involved here simply isn’t meaningful to the average person; the ancient Israelites lived closer to the time of King Tut than to our day. To the Palestinians inhabiting that land, it’s all they’ve ever known. Nothing entitles one people to wreck the homes of another, and that includes some claim of ownership from a time that might as well be mythical compared to the length of a human life.
If colonialism is Israel’s original sin, it is far from its only one. There are the crimes against humanity perpetrated by its military, from the bombing of a UN school in Gaza to the sniper killings of medical personnel; from the indiscriminate bombing of the Gaza Strip it carried out last month to the epidemic of killings of unarmed Palestinians in the West Bank (which tragically mirror America’s own plague of police violence). The popular claim that the IDF is the “most moral army” is thoroughly refuted by all the macabre statistics which IDF attacks leave in their wake; like the fact that, during the 2014 Gaza war, a quarter of the IDF’s 2,000 victims were children.
Then there’s the issue of the apartheid regime that Israel imposes on the territory it occupies. This word is contentious, and its use tends to draw considerable ire from Israel’s defenders, but it is really the only accurate term to describe what Israel does to the people of the land it occupies. And this is not a fringe position either; Human Rights Watch, United Nations investigators, and the African National Congress (the organization responsible for the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa) have all used that term. And so have Israeli human rights groups, including B’tselem and Yesh Din. It’s not hard to see why, when looking at the facts on the ground: a 1973 United Nations resolution defined apartheid as “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group over another racial group and systematically oppressing them,” with specific examples of acts of segregation and oppression being listed in Article II of the document linked here. While defenders of the Israeli state will claim that Israel cannot be an apartheid state because the subsection of Arabs living within Israeli’s UN-designated borders are allowed citizenship and the right to vote, this is a pretty severe misrepresentation of the broader situation. Most Palestinian Arabs don’t live in the area within Israel’s official boundaries, but rather in the area which Israel occupies contrary to its rights under international law. It is in those occupied territories, which Israel controls but which are not legally within its borders, that the apartheid occurs. In the areas occupied by Israel, Palestinians are forced to use separate roads, pass through frequent military checkpoints, and are banned from traveling freely without possessing a pass obtained under a restrictive permit system. Israel has built a wall to separate majority-Jewish from majority-Arab areas, and has constructed settlements within Palestinian territory in which Jews live fully separately from the nearby Arab populations. In the occupied territories, Jews and Arabs are even subject to different sets of laws. Residents of the occupied territories and Gaza are likewise ineligible for the Israeli citizenship that can usually be obtained by marrying someone who is already a citizen of Israel. The systematic separation of ethnic groups and the discrimination perpetrated against Palestinians is eerily reminiscent of exactly the sort of apartheid infamously practiced in South Africa. And once again, the Israeli state contradicts the arguments of defenders with its own words: the official term for the Israeli regime in the occupied territories is “hafrada,” a Hebrew word meaning “separateness.”
When the defenders of the Israeli state cannot defend Israel’s actions on their merits, they generally resort to a peculiar form of character assassination; namely the accusation that Israel’s critics are antisemites. As a person of Jewish heritage myself, this certainly seems like a stretch in my case; and there are many other Jews, prominent activists like Noam Chomsky or Norman Finkelstein, who vehemently oppose Israel’s appartheid and colonialism. For many, one’s Jewish heritage is actually what impels them to oppose Israel’s actions; knowing that the Jewish people were brutalized and oppressed for thousands of years, it hurts to think that Jews would turn around and inflict the same thing on another people. My heritage tells me to oppose oppression, not to support it. My great grandmother on my father’s side was the only member of her family to survive Auschwitz. On my mother’s side, my great grandfather was murdered by the SS because he fought the Nazis as a member of the German resistance. My family’s stories are the foundation of my belief that every single person, regardless of their race, religion, or origin, deserves to live a decent and dignified life free from bigotry and oppression. And if an oppressive government is composed of people with a similar heritage to me, I do not see how that particularly matters; what’s wrong is wrong and that is the end of it.
But let’s return to what I mentioned above briefly — the idea that criticism of Israel (especially by non-Jews) is antisemitic. This makes transparently no sense; wanting Palestinian children to not be shot to death clearly has absolutely nothing to do with how one feels about Jewish people as a whole. But I think the ultimate proof of there being no relationship between opposing Israel and hating Jews is the fact that many people are both pro-Israel and rabidly antisemitic. Look at former President Donald Trump for instance: his niece wrote that he used the most vile antisemitic slurs in conversation, and he refused to condemn the Nazis who marched in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us.” But despite this track record of blatant antisemitic behavior, Trump himself was probably the most pro-Israel president in American history; going so far as to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a huge symbolic win for Israel and a move so drastic that previous US presidents had declined to consider it. (The international consensus that Jerusalem is still legally divided between an Israeli West Jerusalem and a Palestinian East Jerusalem, and so the city of Jerusalem cannot be an undivided capital city. East Jerusalem has been under Israeli occupation since 1967.) And similarly to Trump, many of the most pro-Israel Americans hold antisemitic views: take as an example Evangelical Christians, a group who have long been a bastion of support for Israel (for reasons I’ll get into in a moment). In spite of very high support for Israel among evangelicals, surveys find that antisemitc beliefs are rampant among this exact group. So, if not love for the Jewish people, why do these groups support Israel? For Trump and his ilk, it’s probably a decision based on pure geostrategic interests. For those who are obsessed with projecting US strength across the globe, having a US ally in the Middle East is critical to maintaining America’s strategic interests in that region. And for Evangelicals, the reasons are fundamentally theological in nature: the Bible states that the Jews returning to the Holy Land is one of the main events preceding the return of Christ, and so Jews establishing and emigrating to Israel is a means of bringing about the End Times. Such individuals and groups still support Israel for their own reasons despite often being fairly antisemitic themselves — and so it’s clear that one’s stance on Israel is in now way related to one’s stance on Jews. One can hate Jews but love Israel, and one can absolutely have the utmost respect for Jewish people as fellow human beings while still opposing the actions of the Israeli state when those actions are wrong or criminal.
There’s one last thing I’d like to address here: the role of America in all of this. I’ve heard some say that, yes, the actions of the Israeli state may be reprehensible, but it’s senseless for us as Americans to get worked up about them — after all, this argument goes, it’s happening on the other side of the world and what can we do about it? I disagree with this for two reasons — firstly I don’t think that our empathy and humanity ought to be bounded and closed off by national borders, and secondly it’s a crucial fact that America is the primary enabler of Israel’s actions. The US sends Israel hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of military aid every single year; our bombs are used in IDF attacks on schools and hospitals and houses in Gaza, and our bullets are used to maim children and protestors in the West Bank. Our government gives Israel diplomatic cover on the world stage, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital contrary to the will of the international community and vetoing UN resolutions which condemn Israel’s actions. Our government is deeply enmeshed with the crimes I have written about here; it is in our power to change that. Without the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, without American planes and bombs and bullets, the Israeli government’s ability to oppress and brutalize would be severely curtailed. America’s massive support for Israel could be used as leverage to force Israel to change. This is something we as Americans have power over directly: we can elect representatives who will work to stop America’s unconditional support for Israel through the legislative process, and we can protest and petition our government to make the changes we want to see. And above all, we can organize in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
The basic goal of BDS is to apply the same types of pressure to Israel which were applied to Apartheid South Africa in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s: boycotting Israeli goods and products, convincing corporations and institutions to end financial dealings in Israel, and placing economic sanctions against Israel in order to encourage a change in Israeli policy. When applied to South Africa, these measures convinced the South African government that Apartheid was simply costing the country too much to continue — opening the way for the multiracial democracy in place today. It’s for these reasons that leading figures in the anti-apartheid movement — widely regarded as one of the greatest human rights struggles in history — have endorsed BDS: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, world-renowned human rights activist, has lent his support to the movement, as has the African National Congress.
A large portion of BDS’s activists are Jewish, but the movement is still attacked as anti-semitic by those who wish to discredit the push for Palestinian rights. BDS’s opponents will say that BDS “singles out” Israel for criticism and sanction, which they’ll therefore construe as evidence of some alleged ant-semitic basis for the movement. This, however, makes no sense: BDS does not single out Israel, but merely demands that Israel receive the same treatment as other human rights violators. American companies refuse to do business in countries which violate human rights all around the world, and the US government places sanctions on numerous oppressive governments; BDS only asks that Israel be included on that list. There’s nothing in BDS which states that Israel is the only oppressive government on earth. As is the case with so much criticism of Israel, pro-Israel reactions to BDS usually take the form of baseless ad-hominem attacks designed to discredit a genuine movement fighting on behalf of human rights.
The governmental response to BDS has been utterly egregious. 35 states in the US have passed bills designed to punish participation in BDS, to various degrees. Under numerous state laws, groups participating in boycotts of Israel are barred from receiving government funds or contracts; some local laws go even further, including barring BDS supporters from serving as public employees. These laws represent a blatant attack on free speech, and in many cases represent an extreme deviation from traditional practice; for example, it’s perfectly fine under state law for the government to do business with a Klansman, but not with a person who supports BDS. This is directly contrary to the freedom of speech and expression which America claims to stand for. Fighting these antidemocratic laws is likewise something that we as Americans can do to further for the struggle for Palestinian rights.
The situation in Palestine is one of the great moral tests of our time, and I hope that we are able to meet it. I hope that we are able to come to terms with the true nature of Zionism and the Israeli state, and that those realizations will guide us on a path to ending our nation’s complicity in oppression and crimes against humanity. Now is the time to say finally and definitively that every single human being on this earth deserves the right to live in peace and the right to be seen as equally worthy of life and happiness. The values of freedom, justice, and equality are fundamentally at odds with the policies implemented by the Israeli government and supported by the United States. Either the values must go, or the policies must; let us decide to let go of the latter, and hold the former closer to our hearts.