16 May 2021, Amsterdam, Netherlands: a Black woman seen holding a placard over her head against colonialism during a demonstration. In Amsterdam thousands of Dutch people gathered at the Dam Square in Amsterdam to condemn the Israeli attacks and the forced evictions of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem.
Israeli-Palestinian dialogue

Israel, Palestine – and nuance as the moral imperative

As someone accustomed to presenting his country to interested outsiders, Israeli teacher and tour guide Noam Yatsiv makes the case for a more nuanced appreciation of the historical circumstances in Israel/Palestine, deeming it a "moral obligation" of European observers

The latest flare-up of violence in Israel and Palestine came with the expected barrage of related content on social media. As an Israeli guide working mostly with European travellers, I have a lot of contact with internationals – these days, mostly digital, due to the pandemic. More than ever before, much of the content I have come across indicates how little people actually know about the modern history of the place.

I know tensions are running high, and the outrageous politics of both Israel and Hamas require more attention than what anyone says or thinks in Europe. However, I do feel an urge to write this now, because this is when people might be willing to think about anything related to Israel/Palestine seriously.

What strikes me especially is a concerning correlation between the use of certain buzzwords and a very superficial understanding of the conflict. Examples that come to mind are an article, an open letter by academics and a statement shared by German Facebook contacts of mine, all of which feature excessive use of the term "colonial" as a backdrop for the conflict. These are mere examples of what is seemingly becoming axiomatic amongst ever-growing influential activist and intellectual circles.

Judicious use of the "colonial" label

Vocabulary that used to be almost exclusively limited to academic debates is becoming integral to the mainstream conversation about Israel/Palestine. More and more people support the Palestinians as part of a global anti-colonial and "intersectional" struggle that aims to unite marginalised groups and progressives around the idea that Israel is the pinnacle of European hegemony's historical ills – a dangerous and absolutely ahistorical concept.

I don't, by any means, reject attentive, refined use of these terms. Many early Zionists from Europe were indeed products of their surroundings and their era, and viewed Palestine as a place in need of some kind of "civilising mission". The "colonial" framework can be valuable in understanding several aspects of Jewish settlement, some historic dynamics between Jews and Arabs in Palestine and perhaps something – but certainly not everything – about the origins of racism in Israel.

Jewish settlers in Palestine in the 1880s (source: https://orientxxi.info)
Those Jews who arrived in Ottoman Palestine from the 1870s onwards were overseas settlers of which Jewish government exactly? Were they, several dozens of years before the Balfour Declaration, pawns of a sovereign power exploiting people or natural resources in this part of the Ottoman Empire? Were the settlers arriving here up until Israel's foundation – and to a large extent afterwards, as well – not, by today’s definition, refugees or asylum seekers?

It can also teach us a lot about practices in the Occupied Territories since 1967. There are, however, countless layers of context to this history that are missing when the term is thrown around crudely. Using "colonial" as a synonym for Israel's entire being obstructs a deeper understanding of the situation.

The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy's definition of "colonialism" states that "the practice of colonialism usually involved the transfer of population to a new territory, where the arrivals lived as permanent settlers while maintaining political allegiance to their country of origin". Based on this definition, people should be able to answer several crucial questions, before dubbing Israel "colonial" in every other sentence:

Those Jews who arrived in Ottoman Palestine from the 1870s onwards were overseas settlers of which Jewish government exactly? Were they, several dozens of years before the Balfour Declaration, pawns of a sovereign power exploiting people or natural resources in this part of the Ottoman Empire? Were the settlers arriving here up until Israel's foundation – and to a large extent afterwards, as well – not, by today’s definition, refugees or asylum seekers?

They were part of an emancipation movement that courted imperial powers (first the Ottomans, later the British Empire), and eventually turned to violent resistance against British rule. Numerous Zionist thinkers, Hannah Arendt included, envisioned a bi-national homeland rather than an exclusively "Jewish state", or at the least a fully egalitarian one. This vision was tarnished by bilateral nationalist violence from 1920 onwards, culminating in the 1948 war, but it still resonates with many people who understand themselves as "Zionist".

The question of indigenousness

Then there’s the question of indigenousness. Were the Jewish settlers truly equivalent to the French in Algeria or the Dutch in South Africa? Jewish civilization is a very unique phenomenon – it's not merely "a religion". It understands itself over millennia through the concept of peoplehood. And this collective, for centuries before Zionism, defined the land of Israel as a homeland. Jews in every corner of the globe have always prayed about "returning to Zion". Even anti-Zionist ultra-orthodox Jews still pray using the same text to this very day.

Think of colonial names in North America: "New York", "Nova Scotia", "New Brunswick" and others. It's no coincidence that there is no "New Vilnius", "New Berlin" or "New Baghdad" in Israel. Hebrew names such as "Galil" ("Jalil" in Arabic/"Galilee" in English) or "Yehuda" (the same in Arabic/"Judea" in English) have always been integral to Jewish consciousness. There has been a constant Jewish presence in this land down the ages, not to mention documented pilgrimages and a burial industry of Rabbinic sages and prosperous Jews.

Zionist immigration in the modern era was indeed organised and on a larger scale, but Jews were not the only immigrants to Palestine during that period. Why is an Arab who immigrated to Haifa from Iraq or Lebanon in 1910 regarded as indigenous by definition, and a Jew arriving at the same time from Turkey or Romania as colonialist by definition?

Times Square in downtown New York (photo: picture-alliance/photoshot)
To what territory on earth are Jews indigenous? Think of colonial names in North America: "New York", "Nova Scotia", "New Brunswick" and others. It's no coincidence that there is no "New Vilnius", "New Berlin" or "New Baghdad" in Israel. Hebrew names such as "Galil" ("Jalil" in Arabic, "Galilee" in English) or "Yehuda" (the same in Arabic, "Judea" in English) have always been integral to Jewish consciousness

This can also be asked differently. If we accept that Palestinian Arabs are indigenous to this land – and I certainly do – then to what territory on earth are Jews indigenous? Are they "indigenous" to Europe, where they were repeatedly persecuted and eventually annihilated? Or to dozens of other lands where they were often "othered" and harassed, including in the Middle East? These settlers belonged to the same collective that ended up in death camps in Europe. That is not a minor detail, and it shouldn't be met with cynicism.

Yes, Palestinian Arabs have subjectively perceived many modern Jewish immigrants as merely "European". But did this "Europeanness", or "Jewish whiteness" – these days a popular idea – come with what we consider to be "privilege"? Did it shield them from pogroms in the places they fled from? What does being "white" or "European" even mean, when talking about the Jewish experience in Europe? And how does this concept of Jews as "white" fit in with Jews being a primary target of neo-Nazi and white supremacist terror?

Many valid reasons for increased criticism of Israel

I do not ask these questions in order to justify any wrongdoing by Israel. Crimes have been committed and injustice continues to exist. Criticism of Israel is on the rise for many valid reasons. Netanyahu's Israel is ultranationalist, at times openly racist, and shows zero interest in moving towards a resolution of the conflict. Quite the contrary: it benefits from the Fatah-Hamas schism, and goes to great lengths to help preserve it.

It continues to deepen its hold on the occupied West Bank while releasing inflammatory statements about annexation. It is prolonging a cruel siege over Gaza’s population, having long since ceased to argue that this policy is aimed at toppling Hamas' rule. Israel’s current government colludes with radical right-wing organisations and it passed the "Nation-State law" – a humiliating gesture towards its non-Jewish citizens.

I do understand the urge to align with, and amplify, voices of the oppressed – and Palestinians are oppressed. Anyone is entitled to make concrete demands of Israel. But educating Jews as to where they are (and aren’t) indigenous, or urging them to "de-colonise" their own identities, is not a concrete demand. Furthermore, it has no moral validity when coming from members of societies that have expelled or murdered their ancestors, such as Germans or Austrians. It's that simple.

Finding other ways to care for Palestine is neither impossible, nor is it too much to ask. Criticism based on knowledge and recognition of the conflict's complexity might help. Projections, simplifications and prejudices hinder the prospects of finally resolving this tragic conflict and preventing more deaths and dispossession.

It’s clear that most Palestinians have no understanding for Zionism. Its realisation eventually came, to a large extent, at their expense. Their national nemesis indeed happens to be a Jewish one. Some Palestinians are willing to consider the points I raise; some are even noble enough to find empathy for their adversary’s perspective. Most do not, and that’s understandable.

People who are not Palestinians, however, do have a moral obligation to reflect on the questions that I pose before denouncing Israel as merely "colonial". This is not about silencing Palestine solidarity or policing its language, it's about urging everyone to examine the situation critically, rather than repeat bite-sized slogans. Just like I expect people to question the idea that everything Israel does in Gaza is "self-defence". It's no different.

Activist jargon excludes most Jews

Activists should understand that wearing "Israel is colonialism" as a banner alienates them from most Jews. Within Europe, that means small communities of descendants of genocide survivors, exposed to increasing anti-Semitism. It creates an atmosphere that condemns most of them, including peace-seeking moderates, for not subscribing to "anti-colonial" jargon vis-a-vis Israel.

 

It sets up a litmus-test that they must pass in order to earn their place in the "community of the good". It baffles me that there’s a vocal part of the Left, renowned for its sensitivity towards minority groups, that simply doesn’t seem to be bothered about that. The politics of Jeremy Corbyn and other "anti-imperialist" movements are emblematic of the phenomenon.

And one last note: no, the situation is not symmetrical. Israel is a sovereign state and a military superpower, and that must come with responsibility and accountability. But ending the occupation does not necessarily guarantee peace. It could be followed by conflict between two states or civil war within one state. Therefore one symmetrical element does exist: genuine, enduring reconciliation must be based on the mutual acceptance of the other collective's legitimate existence here.

Both peoples have very good reasons to feel bound to nowhere else but this land. Israeli Jews will never leave, nor will they ever internalise that their presence and self-determination in the region is nothing but brutal colonialism, no matter how many "open letters" are published by scholars. Palestinians will never leave, nor will they ever accept a future as second-class "guests" on exclusively Jewish soil. Both are right. If you care for the future of people here, stop fuelling these fantasies.

Noam Yatsiv

© Qantara.de 2021

Noam Yatsiv is a Haifa-based teacher and tour guide working with educators, academics and other visitors to Israel. He graduated from a regional studies programme at the University of Haifa, and also holds a degree in Music Composition from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

More on this topic