Understanding Israel's War as Racist Is Crucial to Ending Occupation
The nearly month-long attack by Israeli forces on Gaza has revealed that anti-Arab racism permeates many levels of Israeli society. Indeed, to acknowledge Palestinians as humans worthy of a state, a home and basic necessities such as medical care, electricity, food and water, would undermine the brutality of Operation Protective Edge.
Racism among the Israeli population is either stronger than ever, or simply more visible today thanks to social media and the proliferation of online means of expression.
Some Israelis are openly thrilled that Gaza is being leveled. A Danish reporter came upon a cheery group of people who gathered outdoors in the southern Israeli town of Sderot with folding chairs and popcorn to watch the air war, clapping each time a bomb dropped on Gaza. Other Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv to celebrate the killing of Gaza’s children. They were videotaped singing a song whose words included, “In Gaza there’s no studying; No children are left there,” and calling for violence against two of the Israeli Knesset’s Arab members.
The verbal vitriol is also flowing strongly. Early on in Israel’s operation, writer David Sheen compiled a list of what he called “Terrifying Tweets of Pre-Army Israeli Teens,” which included such gems as “Death to these fucking Arabs” and “We wage war so this will be our land without any Arabs.”
But the racism has gone beyond mere celebrations of war and death. While the horrific revenge killing of 15-year-old Mohammad Abu Khdeir is being dismissed as an extremist act, and the police beating of his cousin Tariq Abu Khdeir is being “investigated,” more attacks have followed with little U.S. media attention. For example, Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz noted that “two Palestinian youths were reportedly assaulted by a Jewish mob in Jerusalem.”
Professor David Shulman, who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, went further, writing in a July 12 column that “Israel has witnessed a wave of racist hatred on a scale perhaps not known before.” Shulman also cited the advent of “Israeli lynch gangs prowling the streets of downtown Jerusalem … and organized Fascist groups attacking any Palestinians unlucky enough to be going home late at night, after work.”
According to reports, a former soldier posted on Facebook that he was told that Israeli troops have been encouraged to gun down unarmed Palestinians in Gaza to satisfy their thirst for revenge. The former soldier reportedly says he was told “the unofficial reason was to enable the soldiers to take out their frustrations and pain at losing their fellow soldiers.”
But it’s not just certain soldiers and citizens who are reportedly embracing a lynch-mob culture. Some Israeli politicians have also made clear declarations of Jewish superiority, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this May pushing for Israel to be formally defined as for Jews only. Israel has long distinguished itself from Muslim monarchies, saying it is a democracy where Arab Israelis have equal rights. Now that facade seems to be crumbling with Netanyahu declaring that Israel ought to be “the nation state of one people only — the Jewish people — and of no other people.” His logic is actually sound; those who refuse to accept a one-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians cannot concurrently maintain a nation of two people: Jews and Arabs. But Israel also cannot have it both ways, setting itself apart from Islamic totalitarian states such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain while claiming it is a Jewish-only nation.
Other politicians have gone even further. On July 1, Ayelet Shaked, a Knesset member from the far-right Jewish Home Party, one of Israel’s ruling coalition parties, posted what she said was a 12-year-old essay by right-wing politician and journalist Uri Elitzur that referred to Palestinians as “snakes” and essentially called for Palestinians and their mothers to be killed. After asserting that the entire Palestinian population is part of the enemy because “behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism,” the essay that Shaked posted went on to call for what sounds disturbingly like genocide: “They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.”
Another far right-wing Israeli politician, Moshe Feiglin, wrote an editorial in an online newspaper outlining a seven-step “solution” for Gaza. The head of a faction in the Likud Party and also a member of the Israeli Knesset, Feiglin called for attacking “all military and infrastructural targets” in Gaza “with no consideration for ‘human shields’ or ‘environmental damage,’ ” and “using all the means necessary to minimize any harm to our soldiers, with no other considerations.”
Benevolently, he supported letting anyone who wants to leave Gaza do so unharmed presumably because an expulsion of the Palestinian territories would complete the project of occupation that hundreds of illegal Israeli settlements has already begun. In case there was any doubt about his intentions, Feiglin spelled it out, saying, “Gaza is part of our Land and we will remain there forever. Liberation of parts of our land forever is the only thing that justifies endangering our soldiers in battle to capture land. Subsequent to the elimination of terror from Gaza, it will become part of sovereign Israel and will be populated by Jews.” He even made a few practical long-term suggestions that emptying Gaza of its Arabs would “also serve to ease the housing crisis in Israel,” and then, “The coastal train line will be extended, as soon as possible, to reach the entire length of Gaza.”
Perhaps the clearest expression of the Jewish-only theme was by Upper Nazareth Mayor Shimon Gapso, whose re-election campaign platform last year was for his city to be “Jewish Forever.” Gapso, spelling out his logic in a 2013 Ha’aretz commentary, said, “If you think I’m a racist, then Israel is a racist state.” He detailed his position by citing a number of passages of Scripture saying, “I’m a proud offshoot of a glorious dynasty of ‘racists’ that started with the ‘Covenant of the Pieces’ [that God made with Abraham, recounted in Genesis 15:1–15] and the explicitly racist promise: ‘To your seed I have given this land. [Genesis 15:38].’ “
Making the assertion that Jews have to be racist against Arabs in order to live, Gapso justified how “racially pure kibbutzim without a single Arab member and an army that protects a certain racial strain have been established, as have political parties that proudly bear racist names such as ‘Habayit Hayehudi’ — ‘the Jewish home.’ Even our racist national anthem ignores the existence of the Arab minority — in other words, the people Ben-Gurion did not manage to expel in the 1948 war. If not for all that ‘racism,’ it’s doubtful we could live here, and doubtful that we could live at all.”
But this logic is hardly unique to Israel. Indeed, the project of American settler colonialism is strikingly similar in logic and rhetoric to the Zionist narrative. Just as many Israelis maintain that Palestinians as a distinct people with a history and culture did not exist before 1948, so too were the indigenous people of the United States stripped of their distinct cultural identities to justify westward expansion. Just as Zionism is based on the belief that God granted Jews the land that Palestinians were living on, white settlers in the United States believed they had a God-given right to the land they were settling — a Manifest Destiny.
Today the modern American state, built on the genocide of Native Americans (and the slavery of Africans), is the strongest and most loyal benefactor of Israel. The Obama administration’s national security adviser, Susan Rice reiterated the U.S.’ unconditional support for Israel just this week saying, “Here’s one thing you never have to worry about: America’s support for the State of Israel.”
But even if the U.S. and Israel are determined that the death and destruction in Gaza is a price they are willing to pay, the massacres have not gone unnoticed elsewhere. In addition to governments such as Brazil and Japan condemning the attacks, and Bolivia’s president this week declaring Israel a “terrorist state,” United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has accused Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes. Thousands of people worldwide, including here in the U.S., have demonstrated against the war.
Most hopefully, alongside the activism of Muslims and Arabs, Israeli dissidents and American Jews are some of the most vocal critics of Israel. Historian Ilan Pappe has called the operation in Gaza “incremental genocide.” Journalist Max Blumenthal has continued speaking out after the release of his groundbreaking book, “Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.” Academic Norman Finkelstein made a call for civil disobedience in front of the Israeli Consulate in New York City on Tuesday, and together with several others, got arrested for blocking traffic. A man who later gave his name as Tighe Barry of the activist group Jewish Voice for Peace and said he had flown from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to interrupt Rice’s speech to the National Leadership Assembly for Israel on Monday, shouted, “The truth is, Israel is killing innocent people in Gaza.”
Indeed, the truth is often elusive in the thick of oppression. American settler colonialism was not considered racist and condemned accordingly until after Native Americans were subjugated. But today our collective conscience understands much better what racism is as a concept and universally denounces it. Today we can share those denunciations instantly across the globe. So perhaps the global acceptance of Israeli atrocities as racist may not have to wait until after Gaza has been emptied of Arabs.