Thursday, April 25, 2013

Zionism, Palestinians, And Ideology - A Response

"Reflections of a Mumkin" is an excellent blog that my colleague - a Ph.D candidate in political science - maintains from Ramallah.  The blog is very well-written and engages analytically in the very controversial subject of Palestinian nationalism.  For anyone interested in both atmospherics and analysis on the Palestinian territories, following the blog is highly recommended.

The blog's latest post on Zionism takes a critical look at the linkages between Zionism, racism, and illiberal governance.  Unlike many pieces on the subject, my colleague has approached the topic in an analytical way.  His piece opens a rare opportunity for reasonable discussion in what is usually a cacophony of talking points and mud-slinging.  In that respect, this response to the piece is analytical as well.

The response below contends that the blog post glosses over complexities in Israeli history and society.  Understanding this complexity is critical both for understanding the conflict as it stands today, and determining ways to ease the suffering of Israelis and Palestinians alike.  Of course, certain aspects of Israel's treatment of Palestinians - segregation, division, arbitrary arrests, and the like - are not complicated.  They are injustices which weigh on the Palestinian people, and do not serve the long-term interests of Israel.  But ignoring other complexities is dangerous in a conflict where the price of misunderstanding is too often blood.

The piece begins with a discussion of the Elad-funded tour at the City of David, describing the slanted narrative the tour guide at the site as "contentious" and a "historical inaccuracy."  Those judgements are both correct.  They are also the judgement of Israeli NGOs such as Emek Shaveh and Professors of Archaeology such as Aren Maeir of Bar Ilan University and Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University.  True, the Israel Antiquities authority looks with favor upon archaeological digs that establish an Jewish presence in Israel - but on digs that present real archaeological evidence versus highly contested stories based on biblical accounts as a source.  The point is that there are far more criticisms of the one-sided narrative by Israelis than a read through the piece might indicate.

The main thrust of the piece however, is the equation of Zionism with a) extreme racism, and b) colonialism.  Again, since the piece is analytical rather than the often charged rantings on the topic, it deserves an honest examination.

Zionism as Racism?

The piece describes Zionist "cooperation" Nazi policies of racist segregation of Jews under the Haavara agreement.  Under this agreement, the Nazi regime agreed to allow Jewish emigration to historical Palestine.  The agreement was controversial (even among Zionists) - but primarily because it lent support to Germany's economy during a time of increasing discrimination against Jews.  History has shown clearly the harm of racial segregation.  But let us be clear: collusion with racial segregation is very different than support for Nazism, especially as we conceive of it today.  Objectively speaking, even a "shared ideology" of racial segregation does not equate to support for the Holocaust.  Segregation is not the same thing as mass genocide, torture, or senseless violence.  Perhaps that is why the piece can make no explicit causal connection between some Zionists who colluded with the German government and Israel's contemporary treatment of Palestinians - none exists.  The piece is not equating Zionism with Naziism.  It is, however, implying a link between Zionist collaboration with Naziism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2013.  Ultimately, this linkage as it is described in the piece is unconvincing.

Of course, the Haavara agreement is not the only example of contact between Germany and some elements of the Zionist movement.  For example, Lehi leader Avraham Stern attempted to cooperate with the German military against the British in historical Palestine.  But Stern experienced blowback from other members of the radical Lehi militant group, and from the broader Zionist community.  Just months before the Haavara Agreement, American Zionist leader Stephen S. Wise organized an anti-Nazi boycott at Madison Square Garden in New York.  55,000 people attended the rally, captured in this iconic image.  

Today, Zionism remains a movement of many ideas.  Some of these ideas are hurtful while others are helpful to the region's people.  But to say that "Zionism" is the cause of Palestinian suffering ignores the fact that there is no one "Zionism."  Religious Zionism argues that Jews have a divine right to land on which Palestinians have lived for centuries.  Liberal Zionists - such as the leadership of Israel's far-left Meretz party - support the immediate withdrawal of the IDF from Palestinian territories.  Acknowledging these vast differences is essential for making sense of this conflict.

Zionism as Colonialism?

In response to the points above, my colleague might identify support for colonial rule as the common thread across these shades of Zionism.  The piece argues that colonialism is one of the "ideological underpinnings" of the Zionist movement.  It argues that "Zionism was forged in the crucible of European colonialism," which is true.  But the piece then writes off Western academia for shying away from "lumping Israel together with other colonial cases."

The debate over "colonialism" is largely a debate over definitions, and this debate is not mere academic navel gazing.  Definitions frame causes of problems, which in turn frame solutions.  Since the choice of a definition is ultimately arbitrary, the piece is not "wrong" per se.  However, its understanding of colonialism is, in this blogger's opinion, unhelpful.

Calling Israel's presence in the West Bank "colonialism" is controversial in two respects.  The first is that colonialism implies that the colonizer is foreign.  Delving into this topic would take an encyclopedia-long blog post and still would not address every consideration on the issue.  Whether Jews or Palestinians are "foreign" or "indigenous" in historical Palestine is a subjective matter of how far back one begins retelling the history.  For this reason, calling Israelis "foreign" to Israel is an analytical non-starter for the question at hand.  It crashes the discussion before it ever leaves the ground.

Secondly, many forms of colonialism imply an economic element.  In the piece's context of 19th century European colonialism, colonists were part of a mercantilist system in which raw goods were shipped back to a mother country to be made into goods and sold in that country's economy.  This economic model does not fit the Israeli case as it fits most other colonialist cases.  Israel not only does not gain money from settlements, it loses money on them.  Settlements are subsidized and require the protection of the Israel Defense Forces.  

Worse, those who accept the economic aspect of colonialism have jumped onto the bandwagon of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS).  While BDS may be admirable in that it is a non-violent form of protest, its track record of success is limited at best.  Unfortunately, the act of not buying Ahava face cream at the mall has little effect on the daily hardships Palestinians face as a result of Israel's presence in the West Bank.  This is because ideology and perceptions, not economics, are motivating Israeli policy in the Territories.  Using words like "colonialism" which imply otherwise leads well-meaning supporters of Palestinian self-determination astray, and indirectly perpetuates the status quo in the region.

In conclusion, the piece is a well-constructed attempt to tackle the underbelly of Zionist ideology.  It illustrates the benefits of an analytical approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  My colleague expresses concern that the slant of the piece may "crush his chances of an academic job" but its thoughtfulness suggests otherwise (as does its ideology, as the political science department at that academic backwater Columbia University might concur).  At the same time, the nuances of Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not go without consideration.  Regardless of whether those nuances reveal unsavory truths or thought-provoking insights, grasping fully these complexities is the only way to move the region forward from the pain and suffering its people currently face.