April 29, 2009
Racism is common to most and probably all societies. Laws never seem entirely to eliminate it. It was the essential tool in the creation of modern settler states. The United States could not have come into existence without the obliteration of North American Indian cultures and of large numbers of the people themselves. They had to die so the US could be born. In Australia the indigenous people of Tasmania were wiped out to the last man, woman and child, while on the mainland the tribes were massacred, confined, stripped of their ancestral land and eventually turned into fringe dwellers. Until recently Australia had a prime minister who could deny that aboriginal children of mixed ‘blood’ were taken from their parents up to the 1930s and refused to issue any expression of remorse for their mistreatment. More recent targets of racism have been Lebanese and Vietnamese immigrants, while the Howard federal government’s racist treatment of Iraqi and Afghan refugees and asylum seekers remains one of the most shameful chapters of Australia’s history.
In the US the election of a colored president would have been inconceivable until very recently. It was so unbelievable that people wept when Barack Obama won the elections.
Racism comes in many shades. Discrimination against people on the grounds of skin color, ethnicity or religion is a basic human rights issue, a first cousin to discrimination, harassment and denial of opportunity on the basis of gender. President Mahmud Ahmedinejad, in his recent speech at the Durban Review Conference in Geneva, drew attention to Israel as a racist state but Iran has serious issues of its own to deal with. Homosexuality in Iran is treated as a crime. Gays and prostitutes are executed in public. The Bahais have been the victims of discrimination and persecution throughout Iran’s modern history and this remains the case today. They have no legal identity in Iran. On all of these issues, Iran is itself vulnerable to criticism on the grounds of human rights, which does not, of course, detract in any way from his criticism of Israel. The outrage directed against Ahmedinajad obscured the real issue at the heart of what he was saying: is Israel a racist state?
In settler societies such as the United States, Australia and Canada, the crude racism which drove invasion and colonization mostly belongs to the past, when there was an active concept of race, allied with the categories of civilization, barbarism and savagery. The North American Indian was regarded by the white settlers as a savage, perhaps noble, mean or cunning, but a savage ‘redskin’ nevertheless. In Australia the indigenous people were scarcely counted as human beings. It was not until the 1960s that they were even given the vote. The same relegation of ‘Negroes’ to a contingent category of humanity (at best) justified slavery and segregation in the southern states of the United States. The dehumanization of all of these groups was essential to the colonizing process (including the colonization of Algeria after the French invasion of 1830) and the enrichment of white settlers.
All modern ‘western’ colonial settler states share the same characteristics, i.e. the obliteration of indigenous cultures and the displacement of people from their land. This was true of the North American settlers, the Australian colonists and the Boers who eliminated the Herero people of southwest Africa in the early 20th century. Treaties in which the indigenous people were compelled to consent to the invasion and settlement of their land were signed in North America and New Zealand but not in Australia, where the colonists regarded the indigenous people as less than human and could therefore assert that the land was ’empty’. There are numerous parallels here with Zionism not only on the basis of an ’empty’ land being settled or of civilization being brought to a ‘primitive’ people but in the double nature of the colonialism. In North America and Palestine, settlement was fostered by a distant government against which the settlers eventually rebelled before declaring their ‘independence’.
Gradually, mostly only in the last half century, laws and attitudes changed. This rolling process met with resistance at every stage from those who justified discrimination on the basis of the Bible or racist genetic theories. Not until the 1960s and 1970s were racially discriminatory laws eliminated from the statute books in modern settler states such as the US and Australia, which does not mean that structural racism has been eliminated. It has not. It can be measured in education, health and welfare statistics, while episodes of racism involving police and the public at large show that attitudes are harder to change than laws.
The difference between Israel and these other settler states is partly one of timing. Israel was founded not at the beginning or the middle of the historical cycle of the settler state phenomenon but right at the end. Israel is a paradox – a settler state arising at the beginning of the post-colonial era. Across Africa, southeast Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, national liberation movements challenged powers unwilling to voluntarily relinquish the territories they had seized in the 19th century. The right of native people to self-determination was expressed in the UN Charter. It was at this precise moment that Israel was established. At a time when universal values were being emphasized Israel headed in the opposite direction.
The Holocaust generated enormous emotional support across the western world for the establishment of Israel. It might not have been the ‘pretext’ for its creation of Israel, as Mahmud Ahmedinejad is reported to have said in Geneva, but it was certainly exploited by the Zionists to make sure that Israel came into existence. Refugees from Europe might have gone elsewhere, but for ideological reasons the only place the Zionist movement wanted them to go was Palestine. The media joined the chorus calling for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine as a solution to the refugee problem and an antidote to anti-semitism. In fact removing the victims from the scene of the crime was no answer to the historical problem of European anti-semitism. Their ‘solution’ allowed European governments to evade responsibility for the consequences of actions in which all of them were in some way complicit. A people who were in no way responsible for the massive crimes which had been committed against Jews were being made to pay for them. Their rights and interests were treated with as much indifference or disdain as anti-semites had traditionally treated the rights and interests of Jews. The export of the ‘Jewish problem’ to Palestine was in its own way anti-semitic.
Within the British government there were objections but only for financial reasons. Britain was broke and could not afford the extra cost of policing Palestine were 100,000 Jewish refugees from Europe to be admitted as the Zionists and President Truman were demanding in 1946. Even within the US administrations there were reservations. How, for example, could the principle of self-determination be reconciled with the denial of the right of the majority of the people of Palestine to decide their own future? Would not a ‘socialist’ Jewish state in Palestine further the ambitions of the USSR in the Middle East? And what of America’s interests and its relations with the Arab world? They could only be seriously damaged by support for this project.
Ultimately it was Truman and not the UN who decided that Israel would be created in Palestine. Without his direct intervention the partition vote would never have got across the finishing line at the UN General Assembly. It still has to remembered that the vote was only a recommendation, anyway, swept aside when Ben-Gurion, ignoring the provisions of the partition plan, made a unilateral declaration of ‘independence’ in the name of the state of Israel six months after the plan was passed. In essence it was no different from the declaration of UDI made in the 1960s by the Rhodesian Prime Minister, Ian Smith. In the name of ‘independence’, both Smith and David Ben-Gurion declared war on the right of an indigenous people to determine their own future on their own land. One got away with it and one did not.
What kind of state Israel would become was predetermined. In Israel today there are individuals and organizations fighting for coexistence with the Palestinians but since the beginning of Zionist settlement such voices have always spoken from the margins. From Herzl’s time onward it was understand within the mainstream that the Palestinians would never give up their land voluntarily and somehow would have to be removed from it. Thus Israel deliberately set itself from the beginning not just against the Palestinians but against the entire population of the Middle East, for whom Palestine (with Jerusalem at its heart) was an inalienable part of the Arab-Islamic heritage. Zionist justification rested on the argument that the ‘Jewish people’ were the true indigenous people of Palestine and that Muslims and Christians were present only as ‘caretakers’ whose role in history had now come to an end. The secondary moral position was that the suffering of Jews throughout history added up to a stronger claim than the rights of the Palestinians, a line of reasoning supported by Arthur James Balfour in 1917. The end justified the means. If it took the deprivation of Palestinian rights for a Jewish state to come into existence, so be it.
In a land in which the vast bulk of the population was not Jewish, a Jewish state could only be constructed by taking one inherently racist measure after another. If the state were to be Jewish so would land ownership and labor. The conditions written into the charter of the Jewish National Fund and other land-purchasing organizations stipulated that land once acquired could never be retained to non-Jewish hands. This ‘extra-territorialisation’ of land as it was described by a British commission of inquiry sent to Palestine fuelled the Palestinian rebellion of 1936-39. Exclusive Jewish access to the land was followed through after 1948 by the destruction of approximately 500 villages and the passage of ‘absent property’ and ‘present absentee’ laws which prevented even Palestinians remaining inside Israel from returning to the property they owned.
Security laws were another means of separating the Palestinians from their land. Consolidation of the Jewish presence on the land has continued through the attempt to erase the Palestinian presence in Jaffa and other cities inside the ‘green line’.
On the other side of the green line the tactics are cruder and more obvious. Open demographic war is being waged against the Palestinians in East Jerusalem while in Hebron the centre of the city has been closed down and residents around the market moved out in the name of ‘security’, i.e. the protection of racist and fanatical Jewish settlers living in the heights above. Across the occupied West Bank it is the armed interlopers who describe the Palestinians as interlopers and ‘infiltrators’ of their own occupied land. All of their vandalism, bullying, harassment of men, women and children, destruction of property and uprooting of olive trees and occasional killing is underwritten by the state, and yet the state is outraged when the charge of racism is raised in Geneva. The colonization of the territories is not incidental or accidental racism but the carefully thought out strategic and ideological racism of a racist state. The fact that it continues every single day is testimony to Israel’s contempt for universal values and international law.
Just as the land would have to be the exclusive possession of the Jewish ‘people’ (as 93 per cent of it is now legally classified), so it could only be worked by Jewish labor. Jewish employers were explicitly prohibited from hiring ‘Arab’ workers in the 1920s and 1930s. Until the 1960s the central Israeli labor organization, the Histadrut, would only admit Jewish members. In practice, labor discrimination has never worked perfectly because of the low cost of ‘Arab’ labor compared to ‘Jewish’ labor and because of the Palestinian need to work, a situation which has led to Palestinian laborers building the settlements being constructed on their own occupied land. When the Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir visited Gaza in the 1970s she expressed shock, not at the establishment of Jewish settlements on expropriated land, but at the use of ‘Arab’ labor to work the land for the settlers.
As Israel was the state for Jews wherever they lived and not for all the people who lived within its borders (so to speak, seeing that Israel has never actually declared its borders), the laws would have to be framed accordingly. The Nationality Law automatically conferred Israeli citizenship only on Jews (i.e born of a Jewish mother). The Law of Return granted the ‘right’ of ‘return’ to Jews who had never lived in Palestine while denying the right of return to Palestinians who had lived there for generations. Some families could trace their origins in Palestine back to the Islamic conquest of the 7th century.
The structural discrimination against the Palestinians can be measured in socio-economic statistics dealing with poverty, unemployment, access to government services and education, house construction and funding for municipalities. Taking their cue from the government, and the openly racist statements made by senior political, military and religious figures, describing the Palestinians as ‘two legged animals’, ‘drugged cockroaches’, ‘insects’, ‘snakes’ and ‘a cancer’, large numbers of Israelis polled have said they do not want to live in the same apartment blocks as ‘Arabs’ and in fact would like to see them out of the state altogether. The racism coming out of the mouths of rabbis and religious seminaries, couched in terms of an exclusive Jewish right to ‘Eretz Israel’, with many of the students or graduates of these seminaries living in the most aggressive of the West Bank settlements, is amongst the worst.
Having set out on this path Israel has followed it unswervingly. One flagrant violation of human rights must be followed by another. Without war and without racism in spirit, deed and law there can be no Zionism and no ‘Jewish state’. The Palestinians have been pursued wherever they have gone because by their presence they constitute an existential threat to Israel. Over the years the attitudes of the Israeli mainstream towards the Palestinian ‘enemy’ have grown even harsher. Palestinian armed struggle, suicide bombings and the rocketing of settlements near Gaza are not connected with the policies pursued by Israel against the Palestinians for six decades but with some ex nihilio desire to kill Jews and destroy Israel. This state of mind is deliberately cultivated from the top with the aim of keeping Israel’s Jewish citizens in a state of permanent readiness for the next war. The recent ‘war’ in Gaza was approved by more than 80 per cent of Israel’s Jewish population. The misrepresentation of a massive military onslaught on a largely defenseless civilian population as a ‘war’ allowed the civilian mainstream to justify the crimes that were being committed. Israelis looked on with indifference and even with approval as ‘our boys’ killed hundreds of people in three weeks, most of them civilians and 400 of them children. The media turned into a kingdom of lies. Every specious argument of the political and military establishment was accepted without question and transformed into truth.
The racist t-shirts printed by Israeli ‘soldiers’ engaged in the attack on Gaza were only the surface manifestation of a much deeper psychosis. The t-shirts captured the attention of the outside world in a way that slow, structural, incremental racism never does. Literally every day brings some new or continuing manifestation of Israeli state racism to the surface. After 50 years the beduin are still being driven off their traditional land in the Naqab. Palestinians married to Israelis are prevented from living inside Israel with their spouses and families. The recently declared Jerusalem Regional Master Plan is inherently racist but apparently too complex for the outside media to work out its implications. It embodies the next stage of programmed discrimination that has continued without letup since 1967. The Jerusalem municipality is itself an illegal and racist body whose ‘master plan’ is a template for the further ‘Judaisation’ of Jerusalem whatever the cost to the Palestinians. It must be remembered that until 1948 Palestinian Muslims and Christians owned about 70 per cent of the property in West Jerusalem and all but one or two per cent of the property in the east. They did not forfeit their rights to their houses and land. Their rights have simply been usurped. In normal legal parlance the appropriation of their property is known as theft. For the first time since the Crusaders massacred Jews and Christians in the 11th century Jerusalem is being transformed into a city for a people of only one religious denomination. Under Arab and Ottoman rule Jerusalem remained a polyglot city. What the Jerusalem municipality and the state of Israel both want is a city cleansed of its non-Jewish population except for tourists and a colorful ethnic remnant hanging around the old city.
Is all of this racist? Of course it is. In fact, those who care to study the UN’s Convention on Genocide, passed in 1948 as Zionist militias were still driving Palestinians off their land and destroying their villages, will see that Israel’s behavior meets some of the criteria of article 2 of the convention which describes genocide as any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy in whole or part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group:
(a) killing members of the group
(b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
(c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
Israelis involved in the struggle against racism and occupation are fighting an uphill battle. The structural discrimination of the state against its non-Jewish citizens and against the Palestinians living in the occupied territories (as well as the Syrians living on the occupied Golan Heights) is a motor driving Israel and its people from one extreme to another. Thirty years ago it was regarded as unthinkable that Menahim Begin could ever be Israel’s Prime Minister but Begin was followed by Yitzhak Shamir, Benyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert. All of them come out of the same school of Revisionist Zionism. Now revisionism is the mainstream, the labor movement is marginalized and Israel has again elected Netanyahu as its Prime Minister. He in turn has chosen as Foreign Minister the crude, arrogant, provocative and openly racist West Bank settler Avigdor Liebermann.
Racism in Israel is not like racism in other states, which is usually a matter of changing laws and slowly working on public opinion. In Israel racism is so deeply embedded in Zionist ideology and the structure of the state that without racism Israel cannot remain the state that it has become. Yet there are no signs that the Israeli people or the politicians they are electing as their leaders have any intention of changing direction. When they have a powerful military and when they are under no pressure from the outside world they see no reason to change. In its blockade of Gaza Israel has been supported from the beginning by the US, the EU and the Quartet. None of these venerable authorities could see any reason for Israel to be punished or restrained even after the killing of 1400 Palestinians in Gaza from late December 2008 to mid-January 2009. Their indulgence encourages a dangerous state of mind. The politicians, the generals, the rabbis, the media commentators and the academics know that they are in the right and that everyone else is in the wrong. The outrage at criticism, the arrogance, the self-righteousness, the self-justification, the endless claims of moral superiority and the contempt and hatred of the Palestinians are extremely disturbing. Israel is not a small, weak state in the middle of nowhere. It is a powerful state, armed with nuclear weapons, in the middle of the Middle East. The refusal of the ‘international community’ to restrain states which live outside the law has led to many disasters in the past. The species of animal life known as homo sapiens has a poor record when it comes to averting calamities ahead of time. In the Middle East the creation of Israel brought disaster down on the heads of the Palestinians and the surrounding Arab countries. The states which created Israel have not yet taken responsibility for the consequences of their actions, but have rather made themselves more complicit in the crimes still being committed. As long as the disaster is someone else’s (and not Israel’s) they do not seem to be concerned. How else can this be understood but as their own racism? Do they have to be pushed to the point where they are directly and unavoidably involved in Israel’s confrontation with the Palestinians and the surrounding Arab world to realize the consequences of what they have done these past six decades?
– Jeremy Salt is associate professor in Middle Eastern History and Politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Previously, he taught at Bosporus University in Istanbul and the University of Melbourne in the Departments of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science. Professor Salt has written many articles on Middle East issues, particularly Palestine, and was a journalist for The Age newspaper when he lived in Melbourne. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.