Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


The Palestinian View on the Zionism Debate

It may not be wise for a Palestinian to barge into an internal discussion between liberal Zionists and traditional Zionists, as has been taking place online, in the pages of various publications, and even in the streets of late. Wise or not, both sides deserve to know that their deliberations are not only of interest to them; they are, without exaggeration, a matter of life and death to the eighteen million or so Palestinians, whether they be in the Holy Land or anywhere else. In that spirit, what follows are a few considerations from the Palestinian view.

Whether liberal or traditional, Zionists never seem to question the initial assumptions of the political ideology to which they both subscribe, and that has always been a thorn in the side of real progress. In addition, neither faction seems to think that now is the time to rethink, review, or revise its tenets, although Zionism was a product of another age. Many thoughtful Jewish scholars have written abundant critiques of Zionism, yet one would be hard-pressed to name a single major adjustment to Zionism’s fundaments that has resulted from them. Could it be that Zionists have managed to convince non-Zionists that Zionism is as sacred as Judaism, or perhaps that it is identical with Judaism, and therefore ordained by God?

In truth, Zionists’ attempts to equate Zionism with Judaism have created serious problems for Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims. Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, were brought up on the idea of respecting Judaism as a divine religion, and we were taught to respect Biblical prophets as our own. Now, are we expected to also accept an offshoot political ideology that calls for our extinction?

Naturally, many Zionists and others of the “unconditional support” mindset are quick to point out that Zionism does not explicitly call for Palestinian erasure, but some Zionists do call for it, and many others revert to the posture that Palestinians always have a choice if we wish to avoid extinction: Find another homeland. Here, one should admit that the liberal wing seems to at least question whether establishing a Jewish homeland could have been done without uprooting the Palestinians. That is progress.

For decades, Zionists did not want to admit that there were any other people in Palestine when they arrived, as embodied in the now-infamous propaganda slogan about “a land without a people for a people without a land.” When they finally did acknowledge our existence, they reluctantly called us the “non-Jewish” population and even managed to get major world powers and the League of Nations to refer to us as such. What President Thomas Jefferson summarized as an attitude of “non-benevolence towards others” has characterized Zionism since its inception. Early Zionist leaders knew that a Jewish state in Palestine could not be had unless Arabs were expelled, and their place taken by Jewish settlers. My father was in Palestine during the British Mandate and saw first-hand the brutality of expulsion, as well as the efforts exerted by the British government in realizing the objective of creating a Jewish state.

Zionist leaders did not give much thought as to what would become of the Palestinian Arabs. Since the Nakba, Palestinians have waited decades for a responsible Zionist leader, Israeli or American, to simply acknowledge that Zionists bear a grave responsibility for what happened in Palestine. As the last eight months have shown, people are growing appalled that leaders of pro-Zionist organizations continue to wear blinders that prevent them from seeing Palestinians as fellow human beings who should have the same rights and obligations as their Jewish neighbors. Watercarriers maintain that Arab citizens of Israel aren’t truly second-class citizens, but that a basic review of reality easily thwarts propaganda. Pro-Zionist blinders seek to obscure Israel’s unspeakable violations of the dignity and rights of the innocent people it occupies militarily.

If liberal Zionists are serious about making a difference, there is much room for constructive change. Palestinians would advise showing respect for Palestinians as both human beings and individuals. They can do that by opposing Israel’s endless and illegal military occupation, and the draconian, de-humanizing measures that drive it. They can also oppose fellow Zionists when they propose “solutions” to the conflict that continue to belittle Palestinians, like giving them toys but not political rights. They can oppose Israel ruining Palestinian economics and culture; a simple port need not be seen as a dire threat to security. Israel already exists. Opposing further occupation and expansion isn’t anti-Israel.

Beyond these basics, liberal Zionists can make real progress by standing against the hardline talking points that intentionally make productive discussion of the situation more arduous and less likely to result in positive change. Chief among these are the willful dilution of the definition of Zionism and the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. How Webster defines Zionism is frankly immaterial; the practical definition, application, and impact of Zionism in the real world is what matters, and that practical definition is the focus of all those protesters and activists. Zionism is as Zionism does. When an Israel supporter claims that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are one and the same, it is other Jews and Zionists who must correct them, firmly and consistently, for as long as it takes to clear the room of that fog. Efforts to target Zionism for censure or critique are not in and of themselves anti-Semitic, and that narrative must be countered. On this issue alone, liberal Zionists could do a world of good.

Also being heard over the last eight months is a clear message to the traditional Zionist faction: It is time they realize that simply establishing a Jewish state in Palestine does not assure the safety and welfare of the Jewish people. Throughout history, no small state has lasted for very long, no matter how militant. Striking fear in the hearts of one’s neighbors can only take one so far. It sounds so simple that it should be taken as given, but Israel really can better secure its interests by assuring the respect of its neighbors. It is not in Israel’s long-term interest to continue making enemies, be they Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, or others. If nothing else, Israel’s Gaza campaign has proven the non-viability of the status quo. Change needs to come. And change is always better, stronger, and more durable when it comes primarily from within. Zionists have the power to bring peace and security to Palestine and Israel. Now is the time.