There have been many posts on Zionism, antisemitism, Israel and Palestine, Mbembe (in Germany), colonialism and post-colonialism in the last month. This is because the Israeli independence day coincided with the coalition between Netanyahu and Ganz which made some frustrated, and in Germany, a dispute started about a passage by the Cameronian philosopher Achilles Mbembe, which some argued was antisemitic.
I fear, I kept somewhat out of the debate. I feel that all attempts are too short a string. As some will know, the discussion is close to my former doctoral studies (non-completed) at UCL and Univ. of Leeds, which goes atop my previous studies at SOAS and Goldsmiths. I also worked in a Jewish – Palestinian organisation for six years (Wahat al-Salam – Neve Shalom) and was CEO of Meretz-UK a left progressive Zionist organisation.
The points below are somewhat fragmented, but I nevertheless wanted to lay them out, rather than say nothing at all. If not in this style, they would have required a far lengthier response, over many pages, and that would have taken a while. I wanted to allow this to be available faster and hence the format.
On the topic, I wanted to begin with questions rather than with lengthy passages, some answered, and end with some observations, they make the reading and transmission of ideas faster:
- ) Is Zionism colonial in the way that European colonialism was, in going to a country or place unrelated to the arriving? What about the Jewish presence that never, in fact, ended, only expanded? What about the centrality of the land in Jewish religion and the very concept of return to Zion?
2.) If Zionism is constructed, what about all other constructed identities all over the globe? The meta-analysis of that destroys all national prescribed identities if one looks closely. It, therefore, can not be applied only to Zionism alone.
3.) In comparison with the broader region, how does tolerance of difference fair? Jewish, Christian and other non-Muslim people in Arab and Persian speaking lands have a story to tell here, Kurds, Beduines, African migrants another (or rather the same).
4.) Was Palestine a land empty of people? Was land gained only by honest ways and never by force and causing fear and expulsions? How can wrongs be addressed?
5.) What can be said about questions of violence and human rights infringements and despotic regimes in the broader region in the last 150 years? Is Israel really the worst of all? What is being kept from being reported? What role does scapegoating play? Jews, they have been a minority in many societies for millennia and therefore representing “the other”, have been historically and conveniently blamed for problems of the majority that had nothing to do with them.
6.) What role does religious faith have in the conflict? How can the cities of Jerusalem and Hebron a.o, be shared so that all feel they are equal and respected shareholders? Have not all faiths been too protective, obstructing access and should not all be more open to sharing, in the name of the one God they all believe in, and concerning basic fundamental human rights? What work is being done on that account, and how wide-spread is it?
7.) How many resources enabling good life for all are wasted in the region in the attempt to fight the imaginary or real other? How can people on all sides be taught to co-operate and invest instead in health, jobs, schools, care and businesses?
8.) Who drew the principle borders in the region? The answer points straight to Europeans who did so with little regard to locals, arbitrarily and to their own advantage.
In the interest of peace, Israel is asked to concede some territories gained in armed conflict repeatedly. But why are other countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon never part of any equation of conceding land, to let go of some areas assigned to them by the line drawing of European clerical officials (now defended as supposed sancto-sacral international law)? If all worked together, more space and security could be created in and for a dense and explosive region for all, both for Jews and Palestinians.
9.) Jewish Israelis have rightly been reminded to protect Palestinians and other non-Jewish minorities and ensure they have full equality under the law and representation. How can that be done whilst guaranteeing that Jews remain in charge of their self-determination within a democratic state? From the Jewish perspective, the last 2000 years have not been good experiences of living in countries in which Jews are not the majority. The last 130 years or so have also not been great for Palestinians. Does that requirement mean that only a federal or two-state solution is viable rather than a one-state solution?
10.) What can be said about the difference in treatment for Palestinians and non-Jews in Israel compared to Jews? nd what can be said bout how Palestinian society at large treats minorities of any kind? How can it be improved further?
11.) If Palestinians should be given all guarantees within Israel (and rightly so), what safeguards exist for the possibility of a future Jewish minority to live in a future Palestinian administered independent Palestinian majority state side by side the Jewish majority state of Israel?
12.) How much of the land acquisitions since the 19th. century have been totally fair? How can ownership and claims be addressed between Jews and Palestinians in a way that is agreeable to all parties?
How does one relate to the frequent change of ownership in periods of conquests by successive powers over millennia? This is a question that goes back to biblical days and needs explicit acknowledgement, compromise and agreement. If the wider context is not considered, it will come back and back again.
13.) Who can be trusted to be fair to Palestinians and Israeli Jews as a neutral body? Both sides claim that they suffer from macropolitical bias from different forces.
14.) How does one address the loss of lives on all aiswa, over the last centuries and draw a line?
15.) How do both states and societies, in general, protect themselves against interference by fanatics within in a peace process? How can they deal with atrocities and violent incidents designed to derail any befriending and change of the status quo?
16.) In a possible one-state scenario for the future, some suggest this, how can safety and security be warranted for all. What limits to religious and political expression are required from all in such a situation?
On Achilles Mbembe colonialism and slavery:
The above questions already show the complexity of the situation of Zionism and Israel and Palestine. However, I like to raise a few points specific about the issue of colonialism and comparisons to black movements and Zionism.
Black Liberation Movements were informed and inspired by early Zionists, including figures like Marcus Garvey. There are other examples in this regard also. On the other hand, sometimes Jews were used as others (Nation of Islam and early phase of Elhajj Malik Al-Shabazz, when he still called himself Malcolm X in particular).
The relationship between Israel and African politics is complex. It ranges from relationships and training of the armed wing of the ANC by Israel, early relations between Israel and new independent African states, to Israel’s later relations with Apartheid South Africa (at the same time Jewish ANC supporters at risk were able to receive refuge in Israel), the rejections and deportations of African migrants and the treatment of African migrants (particularly pressing in the case of Darfurian refugees) within the country. It also encompasses the comprehensive agreement of African countries to side with calls of some North-African states to boycott Israel (a curious state of affairs given few other countries were ever boycotted).
In its relationship to the European majorities and their othering, Jewish people share the position with Black people (and people of Muslim faith). It is, of course, both different and related. But nationalist liberation movements responded to the racism and marginalisation in both wider cases.
After slavery, the countries of Liberia and the city-state of Freetown in today’s Sierra Leone were both creations that are not dissimilar to Israel in the way that these states provided sanctuary and a new beginning to people of the African diaspora after the catastrophe of their enslavement by Europeans. Settlements in Ghana (following Garvey and Blyden) and Ethiopia (following Rastafarianism) can also be mentioned within this regard. The first “homecomings” in Liberia and Sierra Leone were met with stiff resistance and opposition by regional locals – people were amongst others murdered. The dichotomies of difference were a factor in the respective civil wars there. Sierra Leone Creole’s (Kreo-) community has more or less been out-populated and it struggles to upkeep its cultural distinctiveness. This illustrates that some basic rules to specificity and protection of particular groups are necessary (if one considers again the one-state option that some suggest for Israel / Palestine).
Israel’s maintenance of the status quo of the West Bank is an issue of concern that can be rightly criticised, but it can not be understood without context. The relationship of Jewish people to Israel is totally different to the relationship of the average European seeking to conquer and cultivate colonially acquired territories. That said, the continued expansion and land-acquisitions without due and fair process is and was a reality and victimised Palestinians. Some land was inhabited by Jews, in deed there’s were Jewish cities like Zfad, Jerusalem, Hebron and others where Jews represented a considerable part of society even before Jewish people from elsewhere were considering a larger return (The “returns” were happening for different reasons, one that is strikingly different from European Jews is the migration of Yemenite Jews.)
Jewish acquisitions for settlement expansion (also refered to as the yishuv) were gained through legal agreements, sponsorship collections and allocation, whilst others were in deed gained in conflict, through fear, or indeed occupations, taking advantage of power balances. In the Jewish case, there are references to biblical presence, which allow for the argument of return or reclaim, but undoubtedly many areas were no longer in Jewish possession for a couple of thousand years, with other people having taken custody and ownership of land, often subject to armed conflicts and conquests century after century. Any return must have been negotiated on the basis of taking account of that, and even in its best and most amicable scenario would have yielded tensions, in my view.
At the same time the question of the near-total expulsion of Jewish populations from Arab and Persian speaking lands, not to speak of teh shoah in Europe, requiring somewhere to live, complicates this issue to the detriment of Palestinians. Politically motivated hate of Jews in countries such as Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and others intended to help Palestinians, In reality it aggravated the situation. It did that because there were both new requirements to accommodate Jewish refugees, as well as the possibility of Jews living in countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt or Syria becoming an impossibility.
This also complicates the option of Jews living in a future Palestinian country or even now under the auspices of the PA as. minority (side by side Israel). On what basis, should Jewish people put their trust and need for essential security with the PA? The fact that neighbouring countries showed themselves to be totally hostile to the extend that Jews were not tolerated in their midst and that wars were fought together against “the Jews” (to wipe the “infidels” and “invaders” off the “holy land” and into the sea) meant that Israel’s defensive ethos was also solidified.
Such points are hardly considered in the wider discussion. They are however elementary. The expulsions of non-European Jews are for example rarely raised, despite their effect being totally devastating and amount to complete ethnic cleansing over huge territories. In the creation of Israel, this occurred at most partially to Palestinians, nevertheless just as devastating for those concerned. But many, of course not all Palestinians, are still living inside Israel and there with rights, albeit not perfect, and in the West Bank, and Gaza where life is not free of Israeli control, a circumstance that Palestinians rightly object to and which, the longer it remains also harms the moral integrity of Israel.
The conditions in Gaza and the West Bank and in Israel proper can certainly be better, and should lead to a Palestinian state side by side Israel, federal or independent, but for that, the narrative that one can exist only if the other does not must cease. The doctrine of Hamas is an example of such ideology.
Zionism is as controversial as any nationalist movement. It has winners and losers. Zionism is a response to European nationalism and the rejection of Jews. It is a movement also of liberation from oppression. It was merely one of competing ideas before 1933 (one other was for a Jewish autonomy, or the status of official recognition in Poland, for example) but then gained huge importance due to the genocide against Europe’s Jews, that left little other options.
Nationalist liberation in the Black and African context is a complex matter for different consideration in the ways of the methods used and who can partake and against whom it is led. In Zimbabwe Mugabe lived out his fight against white oppressors. His legitimate fight for liberation, in the end, led to the destruction and self-destruction of Zimbabwe. In that sense, any nationalist and freedom movement has its time and place and its ability to liberate and self-destroy as well as destroy others. If it can not adapt and provide for inclusive change and widening towards greater human goals, it derail in its inability to consider others and because it fails to lay down arms in an eternal state of defence and elimination of weakness. This is not a healthy state of affairs to any group, let alone a state. In Israel this has led to the growth of a part of society following ultra nationalism, sometimes interlinked with religious metaphysical sentiments, which is just as troublesome as similar ideologies in any one country, when they begin to disregard the existence of others, and their human rights. You do not need to look very far to find a counterpart of the very same, just across the border amongst Palestinians.
It is to be remembered that in the Israeli – Palestinian context these days, as before, two nationalist movements stand opposite each other. Both are potent and can kill. Whilst one is clearly locally the stronger force, controlling the other, on a wider geographical scale the dice looks different, and Israel becomes a singular state of “others” with a significant religious and ethnic difference in a wider Islam -dominated non-sympathetic geographical sphere, against which it has to sustain itself. This is not just due to the difference of religion, but also due to cunning and deliberate misdirection by successive regimes in the area that steered deliberate hatred against Israel and Jews in general, not infrequently also borrowing from antisemitic schools of thought. As both sides can be deadly to each other, there is huge need to try to discharge wall building and bring the conflict down to a human(e) level, where conflict is argued over with words, rather than with arms, negotiated and agreed upon, and only the results of that (a peace settlement of sorts) eventually protected and heavily guarded.
Therefore, nothing easily compares to the specificity of Israel and Palestine. Allegories to colonial projects on the African continent or Apartheid are useless, therefore. The situation must be understood within its own context and challenges. Everything, of course, needs to be done to overcome hurdles and work towards an approximation that makes life possible and liveable and dignifying for all concerned.
Last but not least, I do not call Mbembe an Antisemite, someone who explicitly hates Jews. The conditions of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict are far-reaching and complex. Arguments can be, in fact must be had. But we we must all also remember to dedicate our efforts to support exchange, conflict reduction projects, and any initiative that allows Palestinians and Jews to meet, exchange and encounter each other, ideally over long sustained periods and on equal footings. It is the consideration of many of these points and the discourse and negotiation between that, which leads to something transformational, in a way that both can find a way and will to live in the region side by side and together in a shared destiny of common resolve and purpose that can leave the past behind without forgetting its warnings.