Progressive activists in North America have been inundated for weeks now with analysis and commentary about what happened to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. The cracks that opened up in the seemingly impenetrable wall of the pro-Israel lobby are indeed a good thing; now, the opportunity should be taken to highlight why Zionism constitutes a supremacist ideology. But one voice that consistently seems to be missing from most of this debate is the voice of Zionism’s primary victims, the Palestinians. Once again, the Palestinian narrative is marginalized and not considered pivotal to the “issues of the day”. Now is the time to challenge one of the basic thrusts of the Zionist lobby, which has always been to block out Palestinian voices and accordingly nullify their humanity.
In an article in Mondoweiss on February 19, 2019, cofounder Philip Weiss wrote: “The Jewish divide is the reason there is a debate. People defer to Jews on this issue…Now we are giving them permission to wonder.” And he is correct that the divide in the American Jewish community has been a propelling force to push this issue forward at this particular time, but let us consider the implications of what that means. “Now we are giving them permission to wonder” – not the Palestinians, not the hundreds of deaths on the Gaza border, not the horrific siege on Gaza, not the millions of refugees. Not even the two very young Palestinian children that died just last week in a blaze in alKhalil/Hebron as Israeli authorities blocked the fire trucks from reaching them. Those things may have helped deepen the divide Weiss talked about, but only because of the steadfastness of the Palestinians and the horrible price they have had to pay.
The Palestinians are still relegated to bit players in their own tragedy, at least in North America, and that has to change. “People defer to Jews on this issue…” – again true, and any Palestinian activist can confirm that for you. How many times has an analysis from a Palestinian been ignored only to be embraced when espoused by a progressive Jewish ally? Not because the second presentation was more articulate or more carefully documented, but simply because of whose voice it was. Not only must this change but progressive Jews must understand and accept the responsibility they now carry for ensuring that the parameters of this debate are expanded and correctly assessed. If indeed their voice is more privileged and more listened to, then that includes a duty to change the boundaries and not allow the old Zionist narratives to prevail. There is no genuine debate without Palestinian voices and without challenging the whole premise of the roots and trajectory of Zionism.
This is not to say that there haven’t been extremely positive developments, like the statement a few months ago by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) in the U.S. that “unequivocally opposed Zionism”.
Or Gideon Levy’s article in the Israeli paper Haaretz on Feb. 10, 2019, stating that “Its Leftism or Zionism…you can’t have both”.
“Liberal Zionists” or “left Zionists” are often described as those who support the basics of Zionism i.e. a national homeland for Jews in a Jewish-majority state, but claim that the Zionist project went awry in either 1948 during the Nakba or (more often) in 1976, during the further occupation of Palestinian and Arab territories.
The flaw with this school of thought has to do with ascribing noble motives to the origins of the Zionist movement, most notably that it was a reaction to anti-Semitism at the time. However, even if that were true, the solution cannot lie in taking another peoples’ land to impose your own state in which you will have to ensure a Jewish majority. How did anyone think this was going to be achieved?
Zionism was coined on the model of the European settler colonialist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and shared the same basis of racism, supremacy and disregard for the indigenous peoples. Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, wrote in his book The Jewish State in 1896: “We should there form a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” And the Zionist leadership of the day were more than willing to search for support from the most notorious and racist governments, be they Russian, British or otherwise. This tradition continues today as Israel and the Zionist lobby openly collaborate with extreme anti-Semites and racists as long as they are pro-Israel.
We can only move forward if Zionism is recognized as the settler colonialist movement that it is, and always was, from its inception. This heightened discussion about criticizing Israeli policy offers a historic chance to start redefining how this debate unfolds. However, the roadmap to any future of a just peace should include several key points. It must be acknowledged that the Palestinian narrative and voice is often marginalized, even by those who are supportive of their struggle. It is also imperative that Zionism is clearly called out as a form of racism, a racism that has done irreparable harm to the Palestinians for decades and is as insidious and dangerous as any other form of racism. And lastly, there is no possibility to reconcile the ideology of Zionism with principles of equality and justice; all efforts to do that will simply prolong the pain and suffering of the Palestinians, a people that have sacrificed enough on the altar of Western imperial greed and hegemony.