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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 10/13/14

Gaza Calling: It's the Colonialism, Stupid!

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[This is an abridged version of an essay that is posted here.]

On how Gaza lays Zionism bare.

Subjugate, expel, exterminate
This summer's Israeli assault on Gaza was a horror show. Whole families killed, whole neighborhoods levelled, schools and hospitals attacked, electricity, water, and waste treatment facilities destroyed, about 500 children killed, 3000 injured (1000 with lifelong disabilities), and 1500 orphaned -- utter devastation. We've all seen the pictures. I've written about it. I'm not going to go over the specifics again.1

I share with many the conviction that this deliberately disproportionate carnage constitutes a despicable crime. It has certainly forced everyone to confront the deep disparities and injustices embedded in what's called the Israel-Palestine conflict. The incessant waves of death and destruction visited on Palestinians for decades have challenged even those Westerners predisposed to "liberal Zionism" to question more radically what they think the Jewish state, and the Zionist project, is, was, or could be all about.

Conversely, the aftermath of the Gaza carnage has seen the defenders of Israel become ever more frantic and adamant in asserting the absolute righteousness of the Zionist project--not just refuting, but wherever possible refusing to allow any fundamental questioning of its legitimacy. Ask Stephen Solaita.

Yet, casualty figures and atrocity photos are not really what the argument is about. We have to remember, as Miko Peled points out , that: "Israel began attacking Gaza when the Strip was populated with the first generation refugees in the early 1950s."2 This summer's Gaza carnage helps reveal the problem, but it is not itself the fundamental problem.

The fundamental problem is colonialism. You know, that thing where a group of people, who want the land somebody else is living on, take it. By subjugating, expelling, and/or exterminating the indigenous population.

The fundamental argument here between Zionists and non- or anti-Zionists is not about civilian casualties, but about colonialism. It is not about how many civilians the IDF (or Hamas) killed last month, but about the ongoing colonialism-in-progress that necessarily produces these casualties. It's colonialism that provides the context which gives the facts and events their ethico-political meaning.

This needs to sink in. Israel is a colonial-settler state. Zionism is a colonialist project.

Forty years ago, when Maxime Rodinson pointed this out in a small book, nobody in the West wanted to hear it, and he was therefore cast into oblivion by Western intellectuals for saying it.3 Today, largely because the internet has made it impossible to hide the relevant facts and research, as well as the shredded bodies and demolished neighborhoods, no serious-minded person can deny it: Zionism is colonialism. Israeli historians (Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe) have verified this, and honest "liberal" defenders of Zionism (Avi Shavit, Peter Beinart) acknowledge it. As Anthony Lerman says : "Both liberal Zionism and the left accept the established historical record: Jews forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes to make way for the establishment of a Jewish state."4

The shunned "colonialism" analysis of forty years ago is now so unavoidable that the New York Times has seen fit to acknowledge its legitimacy, by publishing an op-ed from Palestinian political scientist Ali Jarbawi, entitled "Israel's Colonialism Must End," which flatly proclaims that: "The Israeli occupation of Palestine is one of the only remaining settler-colonial occupations in the world today."

To be sure, the NYT only published Jarbawi's piece in its international edition--American eyes being too sensitive, I guess--and only because Jarbawi discreetly refers to the last "47 years" of occupation, but, just as everybody can read the NYT "international" website, everybody can understand that "Israel's colonialism" did not start in 1967. Zionism has been a colonialist project, in principle and practice, since day one.5 And Israel's devastation of Gaza this summer can only be understood as one element of an overall colonial project: the elimination of the Palestinian people as an obstacle to the formation of a Jewish state in historic Palestine (what Zionists call Eretz Israel).

The point: There are still a lot of people (especially Americans) who are ignorant of the facts and history, and there will always be a few holdouts who will stubbornly refuse to admit this, but, by and large, liberal-minded, intellectually-honest supporters of Israel and Zionism know that it is no longer possible to deny that Zionism is colonialism and Israel is a colonialist state.

Criminal Intent
Here's the thing, and it's the principal thing: Colonialism is, in principle and practice, a crime. It's a crime because colonialists must subjugate, expel, or exterminate the colonized indigenous population.
Whether or not colonialism contravenes any institutionally-enforceable law, it is a crime against humanity, a politically and ethically illegitimate and disgraced practice that has been cast into the historical ignominy it deserves, and is now abhorrent to the conscience of humanity. Whatever the lawyers say, colonialism is, as Nuremberg prosecutor Robert Jackson said of "aggressive war," the kind of "supreme international crime [that] contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."
Because, again, colonists must subjugate, expel, or exterminate the indigenous population, colonialism 'contains within itself'--in some combination, at various levels of intensity--a web of necessary supportive crimes like apartheid, genocide, aggressive wars, and wars of territorial conquest. Thus, colonialism also 'contains within itself', and bears the prime responsibility for, the violence that arises from the the colonists' attempts to impose, and from the indigenes' anti-colonial resistance to, that subjugation, expulsion, or extermination.
"Prime" does not equal "all" or "only"; in the Palestine-Israel context, it does mean colonialism is the master crime from which the moral meaning of Gaza's past, present and future derives, and around which sides are chosen. It means there is, indeed, no moral equivalence between the force used to enforce colonial rule and the force used in anti-colonial resistance.
So Much Older Then

Zionism has the particular distinction of being the last major initiation of a blatant settler-colonial project. At the end of WWII (1945-8), it was still possible to sell that as a legitimate project to the "international community" of the day--i.e., the victors of World War II.

It was possible because racism and ethno-supremacist colonialism were still integral parts of the Western worldview.

It was possible because Zionists had, for decades, worked diligently on the imperialist powers, from Balfour to Truman. The culmination of this historic lobbying effort came at the crucial moment in 1948, when the American diplomatic corps was opposed to Palestine partition plans that ignored the Arab population's consent, because such plans, which "recognize the principle of a theocratic racial state," were "in definite contravention to various principles laid down in the [UN] Charter as well as to principles on which American concepts of Government are based," such principles as self-determination and majority rule," and because they "would guarantee that the Palestine problem would be permanent and still more complicated in the future."14 At that crucial moment, as Steve Smith, Ted Kennedy's brother-in-law, recounted : "Two million dollars went aboard the Truman [campaign] train in a paper bag, and that's what paid for the state of Israel."15

It was possible because a large number of displaced European Jews who had been targets of Hitler's exterminationist policy were shepherded into Palestine by the Zionist movement. Although Zionist leaders at the time clearly understood that, "Zionism is not a refugee movement. It is not a product of the Second World War". Were there no displaced Jews in Europe, "Zionism would still be an imperative necessity."16 They also insisted that the only way for the victorious powers to express their great sympathy, and assuage their great guilt, for the Jews who had suffered under European fascism, was to enable the forcible ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Arabs. (See previous post on the "Exodus-effect.")

At the time, it wasn't so hard for the great world powers to blithely consider the lives, land, and humanity of an Arab population as dispensable--secondary both to the aspirations of the largely European Jews who formed the Zionist vanguard and to the guilty consciences of European gentiles. It was compensatory colonialism, with the compensation paid by an expendable third world people. (Arguably just would have been a Jewish state in Bavaria, but nobody would dare suggest doing to Europeans what was, and is still being, done to Palestinian Arabs: not throwing any White Europeans out of the lifeboat.)

In those historical and ideological conditions, from 1946-8, it was possible for Zionists to carry out an abrupt and brutal ethnic cleansing of least 726,000 Palestinian Arabs--enough to secure for a good while at least, a Jewish-majority "Jewish State" on most of the territory of historic Palestine. (By 1948, Zionists had seized 78% of the territory, up a bit from the 6% owned by the Jewish population in 1947.)17

In that context, Zionism had the further peculiar distinction of being able to conjure about itself an aura of virtue that effectively occluded the blatant injustice of the colonialism it is. Thanks to the consistent and intensive Zionist influence on Euro-American political, media, and cultural institutions, that aura has enshrouded Zionism for Westerners' eyes for 65 years, long past colonialism's sell-by date. That aura of Zionist virtue is, I think, what makes the break-up with Zionism so hard to do for so many to this day.

Of course, in the late-1940s, colonialism was approaching its event horizon, on the verge of being decisively defeated and disgraced. Ten years before, the Zionist conquest would have been impossible because the imperialist powers would not have permitted it and world Jewry was against it. Ten years later, it would have been impossible because colonialism was in full retreat, and no Western liberals were imagining there was any virtue in it.

Today, in the 21st Century, I do not think any person of a modern, secular, liberal cast of mind would deny that the abolition and rejection of colonialism is one of history's irrefutably progressive milestones. To attempt a colonial conquest on the planet earth today is a crime against history itself.

Yet that is exactly what Israel is doing. Israel is exactly that attempt.

Only Just Begun

"Attempt" is an important word here. Liberal Zionists like to speak as if whatever crimes were committed in order to make it possible, the nasty, colonial work of establishing Israel, which occurred in the ancient times of 1945-8, is over.

This attitude is epitomized by Israeli reporter Ari Shavit, who, in his much-f ȇ ted (by American Zionists) book, My Promised Land, speaks forthrightly about the brutal ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians that made Israel possible. Shavit uses the massacre and expulsion of the inhabitants of Lydda (now the Israel town of Lod) as an example. Lydda was a town of some 70,000 Arabs lying outside the area set aside for the Jewish state by the UN Partition Plan, which was attacked by the most-moral Zionist army in July, 1948, resulting in, as the New York Herald Tribune correspondent put it : "the corpses of Arab men, women and even children strewn about in the wake of the ruthlessly brilliant charge." Light-unto-nations Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered that all surviving inhabitants "be expelled quickly without attention to age."18

The murder of at least 250 and the expulsion of about 70,000 Arabs: an important, emblematic victory for the Zionist colonial project, as Shavit acknowledges.

Shavit is "sad," even "horrified" by the conquest and "cleansing" of Lydda, and knows very well it's only one example among many. Here , for example, is the testimony of a Zionist soldier, published in a leftist Israeli union paper, regarding events in the Palestinian village of Duelma in 1948:

Killed between 80 to 100 Arabs, women and children. To kill the children they fractured their heads with sticks. There was not one house without corpses. The men and women of the villages were pushed into houses without food or water. Then the saboteurs came to dynamite the houses. One commander ordered a soldier to bring two women into a house he was about to blow up. . . . Another soldier prided himself upon having raped an Arab woman before shooting her to death. Another Arab woman with her newborn baby was made to clean the place for a couple of days, and then they shot her and the baby. Educated and well-mannered commanders who were considered "good guys". . . became base murderers, and this not in the storm of battle, but as a method of expulsion and extermination. The fewer the Arabs who remain, the better.19
There's a nasty coda to these massacres that's just come to light in research by Salman Abu Sitta and Terry Rempel, based on ICRC (International Red Cross) records, as reported in Al-Akhbar . It seems that all the Palestinian survivors of Lydda and other village cleansings were not immediately expelled. Instead, Israel imprisoned thousands of them in at least 22 forced-labor camps, for years (some until 1955), doing "public and military work" in "conditions described by one ICRC official as 'slavery.'" Here's how the authors present an interview with one such prisoner, Marwan Iqab al-Yehiya:
We had to cut and carry stones all day [in a quarry]. Our daily food was only one potato in the morning and half dried fish at night. They beat anyone who disobeyed orders." This labor was interspersed with acts of humiliation by the Israeli guards, as Yehiya speaks of prisoners being "lined up and ordered to strip naked as a punishment for the escape of two prisoners at night."
"[Jewish] Adults and children came from nearby kibbutz to watch us line up naked and laugh. To us this was most degrading," he added.
Another prisoner recounts how, "Anyone who refused to work was shot," and the study finds that detainees were "routinely shot on the pretense that they had been attempting to escape."
A UN report talks plainly about "a Jewish concentration camp," and Abu Sitta can't help but notice: "It is amazing to me, and many Europeans, who have seen my evidence, that a forced labor camp was opened in Palestine three years after they were closed in Germany, and were run by former prisoners -- there were German Jewish guards."
Only after Israel extracted this forced labor from them, were these people thrown out of their own country--"expelled across the armistice line without any food, supplies, or shelter, and told to walk into the distance, never to return."
Of course, the ICRC's and other organizations' protests about these camps at the time, "were simply ineffective as Israel ignored its condemnations with impunity, in addition to the diplomatic cover of major Western powers."20

Civilians captured during the fall of Lydda and Ramle around the time of July 12, 1948 and taken to labor camps.

An honest liberal Israeli like Shavit recognizes--and if he does, his liberal Zionist confrères in America and Europe must--that carnage like this was "an inevitable phase of the Zionist revolution." Knowing this, he nonetheless "stand[s] by the damned" ethnic cleansers, because, if it wasn't for the "horrifying" work of the Zionist armed forces in 1948, "If it wasn't for them, I would not have been born. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live." 21

Revolution? Note the surreptitious, and pathetic, rhetorical attempt to melodize the screech of Zionist history for sensitive liberal ears: "The fewer Arabs the better" is the slogan of a racist colonialism, not the rallying cry of a progressive "revolution." With all of this history available to anyone who wants to find it, liberal Zionists find it hard to deny that the violence of the Zionist "revolution" of 1945-48 that created Israel was anything more than colonialist ethnic cleansing. And they know very well that if such a project were to be proposed today, everyone, including themselves, would denounce and reject it--no ifs, ands or buts.
What we've seen in Gaza this summer of 2014 is the continuation of Gaza in 2012, and in 2008-9, and of Gaza and Lebanon in 2006, and in Lebanon in 1982, and in Lydda and Duelma and Deir Yassin in 1948. After this summer's slaughter, "Then it was 'dirty, filthy' ethnic cleansing; now it is 'self-defense'" rings hollow. To be intellectually and ethically honest, everyone who supports the completion of the Zionist colonial enterprise has to accept that then is now, and to embrace, to do, the continuing, unfinished work of the damned that is yet to be done.
As Saree Makdisi says:
Israel's disregard for Palestinian life in Gaza today is, in short, a direct extension of its disregard for Palestinian life since 1948, and what is happening in Gaza today is the continuation of what happened six decades ago. Eighty percent of the people crammed into Gaza's hovels and shanties are refugees or the descendants of refugees that armed Zionist gangs, which eventually coalesced into the infant Israeli army, terrorized from their homes elsewhere in southwestern Palestine in 1948. They have been herded, penned, and slaughtered by a remorseless power that clearly regards them as subhuman .24
It's not hard to figure out that the loaded question 'Does Israel have a right to exist?' really means: "Do you agree that it was right for Zionists to establish a colonial-settler Jewish State, 'dirty, filthy work' notwithstanding?" The question, in other words, is really demanding that Palestinians (and the world) ratify the ethico-political legitimacy of their own ethnic cleansing. But the critique of the question has to be more thorough than that. The question also asks: "Do you agree that it is right for Zionists to be establishing a colonial-settler Jewish State, 'dirty, filthy work' and all?" Will you sign on for that?"
The "right to exist" question is posed by Zionists so insistently precisely because it is an unsettled question about the future. It's not about past events--whether Zionists back in the day had the right to establish the colonial entity they did, but about a present, aspirational practice--whether they now have the right to establish the colonial entity they would like to. The question, really--and Zionists know it--is: Will Israel exist?
This is so because the Palestinians are not defeated and have not surrendered. Too few of them have been exterminated; they have not been expelled far enough away; they have not been thoroughly enough subjugated. The existence and resistance of Palestinians put the lie to the idea that Israel is a stable, finished state and that the dirty work of Zionist colonialism is in the past. As the rallying cry of many Zionists in Israel today has it, they still have to "finish '48" 25 Gaza 2014 is an illuminating moment in the ongoing, unfinished colonial project of slaughtering the colonial subjects into submission.
Israel will only be finished and stable if it achieves that. One can argue that it's almost there or that it's a long way off, but done it ain't. In fact, I think it can be said that both perceptions are true, just as '48 is both in the past and right here and now. Therein lies the danger and opportunity.
Ali Jarbawi recognizes:
The longer any colonial occupation endures, the greater the settlers' racism and extremism tends to grow. This is especially true if the occupiers encounter resistance; at that point, the occupied population becomes an obstacle that must either be forced to submit or removed through expulsion or murder.
Liberal Zionists like to imagine '48 is finished in some democratically acceptable way; militant Zionists know they still have to finish '48 as ruthlessly as possible; principled anti-Zionists--that is, principled anti-colonialists--have to work very hard to see, precisely, that '48 ends in failure, and that Israel never becomes the finished colonial project it wishes to be.
Gaza Calling
Why is this our responsibility as Americans? Because, as Noam Chomsky reminds us:
In 1958, South Africa's foreign minister informed the US ambassador that although his country was becoming a pariah state, it would not matter as long as US support continued. His assessment proved fairly accurate.28
The other thing that Zionism thought was taken care of once and for all, that one thing Zionism needs to persist--American, especially Jewish-American, support for Israeli colonialism--turns out to be still a work-in-progress, too. Though it's hard to see in mainstream media, where it is being fiercely held at bay, a sea-change is underway in American cultural ideology toward Zionism, especially among youth, and importantly, within the Jewish community.
To be clear (and to dismiss a canard), though most American and Western Jews may now be (they were not before WWII) at least casually Zionist, the vast majority of Zionists in America (and the world) are not Jews, many of the most effective critics of Israel and Zionism have been Jews, and many of the most fervent proponents and enablers of Zionism have been anti-Semites. There is no necessary correlation between one's religion or one's attitude toward Jews and one's embrace of Zionism.
Despite its being kept in the cultural shadows, many Americans have some awareness of the critical tradition toward Zionism and Israel, from Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein. Anyone who is politically aware today cannot avoid confronting the fearless critiques and new cross-identity alliances we see in the work of actors like Max Blumenthal, Ali Abunimah ( Electronic Intifada ), Philp Weiss (Mondoweiss), Jewish Voice for Peace, Students for Justice in Palestine, and the BDS movement. On American campuses today, Zionism is losing the all-important ideological battle, and the effects of that will radiate throughout the culture.

One can imagine, for example, that one day, not because of any principled change of heart, but--as in the South African example--through a combination of domestic and international ideological, economic, and political pressures, the United States will start acting in the Middle East in ways that, without the confusion of its support of Zionism, more effectively serve its own imperial interests. On that day--and not one second before--an Israeli government may start to seriously negotiate a two-state solution, accept '67-ish borders, etc. And it will be two seconds too late. Because that day will only come once the movement for a democratic polity incorporating Jews and Arabs as equal citizens has gained too much momentum to stop.29

Per Chomsky's point about South African apartheid, Israeli colonialism hangs by the thread of American support. It's time for principled American anti-colonialists to pull it.

I'll leave the last word to Miko Peled, former IDF Special Forces soldier, whose grandfather signed Israel's Declaration of Independence and whose father was a well-known general who served as military governor of Gaza--someone, in other words, who knows whereof he speaks. Peled describes Israel succinctly as a state in which "half of the population lives in what it thinks is a Western democracy while keeping the other half imprisoned by a ruthless defense apparatus that is becoming more violent by the day,"30 and he challenges us to take the lesson of what we saw with our own eyes this summer:

Gaza is being punished because Gaza is a constant reminder to Israel and the world of the original sin of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the creation of a so-called Jewish state. "
Israel is an illegitimate creation brought about by a union between racism and colonialism. The refugees who make up the majority of the population in the Gaza Strip are a constant reminder of this.
Ending the insufferable, brutal and racist regime that was created by the Zionists in Palestine is the call of our time.
Notes and Links

[3] Israel: A Colonial-Settler State Pathfinder Press: 2002 (first published 1973).

[5] "Zionism" throughout refers to the political Zionism we see in the Israeli state since 1948. The other, and interesting, strain of "cultural Zionism" associated with figures like Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt has been rendered historically moot, and is beyond the scope of this discussion.

[16] Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, President of the Zionist Organization of America, quoted in,Alfred M. Lilienthal, What Price Israel? (1953).

[29] Note to all sincere two-staters: Start criticizing actual Israel policy, start denouncing all AIPAC-like fealty demands, and start participating in activist groups protesting Israeli occupation and aggression--including BDS, which takes no official position on one or two states--now, if you want to retrieve a chance for your preferred outcome.

(Article changed on October 13, 2014 at 19:08)


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Former college professor, native and denizen of New York City. Blogging at, from a left-socialist perspective. Also publishing on Counterpunch, The Greanville Post, Medium, Dandelion Salad, and other sites around the net. (more...)

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