I’m spending a vacation in Portugal with my girlfriend. Having posted various photos and videos on social media, the responses are basically all positive and endearing. “I love Portugal”, “what a place”, they write etc.
I’m from Israel, and with my political involvement and historical awareness, this immediately throws me into comparisons. I can’t help it. And the striking comparison here is that of Portugal as a past colonialist empire, as opposed to Israel, a current and continuing settler-colonialist venture.
It appears many are not that aware of how big a colonialist force Portugal was – its current size may be misleading. It was the largest and longest standing colonialist empire, starting in 1415 and ending only in 1999 (with the handing over of Macau to China). Stretching from Asia to South America, it was the leading player in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, transporting an estimated 6 million African slaves. The British were a distant 2nd place, transporting an estimated 3.2 million African slaves.
Unsurprisingly, the debate about the framing of this horrid past is still ongoing. Just this year, the Lisbon incumbent Socialist mayor wanted to establish a “Museum of the Discoveries”, and the name alone stirred a fierce debate about the whitewashing and glorification of this past.
“It would only reinforce Portuguese colonial ideology, which portrays that period as heroic and simply glosses over the glaring issues of slavery, mass killings and other abuses,” said Joacine Katar-Moreira, a researcher at the University Institute of Lisbon and co-author of an open letter criticising the proposal that was signed by 100 black activists.
Katar-Moreira went on:
“There are already so many statues and monuments paying homage to that moment in history. We don’t need another one, which, like the others, would be an instrument for stroking national self-esteem.”
But I don’t want to delve too deeply into the Portuguese colonialist past right now, because my point is really more comparative – comparing it to Israel.
The point is, I can now easily wander around in Portugal and enjoy it, appreciate its nature, its people, its current culture. Sure, I’m aware of that past, but I’m also aware that it’s a past.
With Israel, it’s different. I visit Israel because I have family there. But if I were a tourist, this would be a whole other story. Being a tourist in Israel would be visiting an Apartheid state, with a current and active settler-colonialist reality. Visiting it just for pleasure, as a tourist, would be immoral.
But Portugal gives me hope. It’s a national story that says that it is indeed possible to abolish colonialism, and to move on to a future of freedom, justice and equality. Sure, there will be ongoing debates about the past – but it would be a past. In Israel, it’s a present.
When I’m in Israel, I don’t post photos and videos as I do here in Portugal, even though my visits to Israel are in a way ‘touristic’, since I don’t live there, and I travel around with family etc. I simply do not want to help ‘market’ Israel and assist its ‘branding’. For me, this is a rather simple moral issue. It’s one thing if one is actively assisting the oppressed Palestinians, and is there for that purpose (which Israel seeks to prevent). Israel is simply so immersed in this colonial, oppressive and murderous present, that any mentioning of it is political. You are either fighting it, or you are endorsing it by promoting it.
Portugal offers me the reflection of how liberating it can be to end colonization.
To be sure, most Zionists would not appreciate the notion of colonization as a description of their venture. They consider that name-calling, an application of a generally condemned anachronism that mostly applies to the past, not the present. They do this by various means of denial. These include not only the institutional denial of the 1948 Nakba ethnic cleansing, but also the framing of the 1967 occupation as a temporary response (as the term occupation suggests), rather than an act of ongoing colonization.
It is becoming increasingly clear to many around the world that the Israeli reality is not a mere set of nationalist military responses to this or that temporary aggression, but rather a premeditated settler-colonialist venture throughout the land, in the name of Zionism.
Right now, Israel is so much in the midst and depth of it, that a future of freedom, justice and equality seems hard to even perceive. That future is the goal of the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, and it is something that Israel sees as a strategic threat, because equality is anathema to Zionism.
Of course, the Zionists think that it is necessary, existentially necessary, to keep those Palestinians subdued. Just as the Portuguese colonialists once thought it was necessary to keep the African slaves and the colonies.