Readers might be interested in my portions of an exchange with pro-Israel members of my local Jewish community. Below, I share three social media posts from the last couple of weeks. The first discusses a Human Rights Watch report finding that Israeli land policy, within the 1948 borders, “discriminates against Palestinian citizens.” The second post responds to a host of Zionist claims having to do with topics of apartheid, war, BDS, the right of return, and Jewish interests. The final post accepts a challenge to hear out Israeli sides of the story.
On May 13, I posted the following commentary along with a link to Human Rights Watch’s report, published the prior day, on “Israel: Discriminatory Land Policies Hem in Palestinians.”
The official position of my shul, and the opinion of many family members and friends currently reading this post, is that Israel would be an unimpeachable democracy if it were to merely withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip (and perhaps also revoke 2018’s nation-state law). A new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) illustrates why they’re wrong.
The report covers land policy *within the 1948 borders.* It finds extensive evidence that Israel “discriminates against Palestinian citizens” and lets Jewish towns grow while squeezing Palestinians of land necessary for housing. Although HRW stops short of explicitly calling Israel an apartheid state, it comes close.
Here is a story that really got to me. It’s from Qalansawa:
“Abu Ameed Makhlouf, a 60-year-old father of 9, said that in 2017, authorities demolished 2 homes he built for his sons on the grounds that he lacked a permit, and that another son pays 2,000 NIS ($583) in monthly fines and must obtain a permit within 2 years to avoid the same outcome. He said he built without permits because ‘[he] didn’t have an alternative,’ that the family lives ‘under constant stress and fear,’ and that the demolitions ‘ruined their lives.'”
There’s an embedded link to a video where you can watch the demolitions. HRW clarifies that this horrendous treatment of Palestinians isn’t unique to the right-wing governments of recent years. More than half of Qalansawa was taken from Palestinians between 1948 and 1966, when the Labour Party’s predecessor Mapai was dominant.
I urge you to print out this study, or put it on your Kindle or Ipad, and read it all the way through. It will make you deeply uncomfortable, and it will get you thinking. You’ll read that, as of July 2015, some 97% of Israel’s juridical demolition orders in force were directed against Palestinians’ buildings. You’ll read that Palestinians, despite being 21% of the population, control less than 3% of the land. You’ll read that Israel since 1948 has authorized 900 new Jewish localities but only a handful of Palestinian ones.
At a time when 79% of Israeli Jews support discrimination against Arabs and 48% support expelling them from Israel, you are kidding yourself if you think Zionism can be reformed. So you’ll need to come to terms with this: To support Israel is to support perpetuating a decades-long dispossession and oppression of the Palestinian people. Maybe that’s what you support. But please don’t call it democratic and don’t call it Jewish.
In the comments section, I shared various resources that further substantiate that Israel is an apartheid state: “Apartheid / Apartheid/ [ ]” by Saree Makdisi; “The Discriminatory Laws Database” by Adalah; “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid” by the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia; Itisapartheid.org.
On May 21, I published the following response to hundreds of comments I had received on my earlier post. For ease of reading and of checking my facts, I have embedded the links that were originally listed out as URLs at the end of each section.
Throughout their comments on my post last week, my pro-Israel interlocutors made claims that are false, misleading, or at least at odds with the mainstream findings of independent experts. Michael, who alone posted over 200 comments, repeatedly refused to indicate that he had actually read the 21-page Human Rights Watch report on which my post was based.
During that exchange, Michael also intentionally distorted and smeared my beliefs. Michael knows well from months’ worth of prior conversations that I oppose all terrorism by any state or non-state party, and I even clarified (yet again!) in the comments that I “opposed all attacks on civilian populations, including in Gaza.” That didn’t stop Michael from writing just a few comments later: “you sound like a person who would justify bus bombings stoning stabbing snipping mortar barrages and the kidnapping rocketing of Israeli civilians.” Michael also knows that I support a secular democracy with equal rights for all Palestinians and Israeli Jews alike, but that didn’t stop him from accusing me of “wanting to drive Jews into the sea” and supporting an “apartheid Palestinian state.” These are of course outright lies.
Michael also said, “you have zero empathy for Israeli civilians,” which is absurd. In fact, one of the reasons I oppose political Zionism (the belief that there should be a Jewish state) is that I consider it to be highly detrimental to the safety of Jews, and of course, non-Jews, living in historic Palestine. Martin Buber warned in 1948 that political Zionism meant declaring “war—real war—with our neighbors and also with the whole Arab nation.” Hannah Arendt warned the same year, “Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded inside ever-threatened borders.” What Buber and Arendt both understood was that Jews, while having every right to live in Palestine, would never be at peace as long as they sought to conquer and rule over the land, or to form an artificial majority thereby expelling Palestinian inhabitants.
Speaking personally, I learned in my Jewish upbringing the importance of seeking truth and justice and have devoted significant parts of life to this pursuit, and it was only a matter of time before I began to apply those principles and scrutinize the pro-Israel positions I’d been taught growing up. A Hebrew school textbook, Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel, claimed that Zionists’ 1948 Deir Yassin massacre was “out of character.” I investigated and found that Deir Yassin, far from being out of character during the 1948 war, was one of many massacres: there were “several clusters of massacres” according to Israeli historian Benny Morris, and there were at least 68 by the count of Palestinian scholar Saleh Abdel Jawad. The more I read, the more I realized that virtually the entire Zionist narrative I’d been taught was grounded in distortions of the actual history.
Although I support the peaceful Boycott Divest Sanctions movement, I do so critically and I have lost friends for criticizing BDS internally. I am proud that the British anti-Zionist Tony Greenstein called me “extremely disruptive” when I argued that Jewish BDS supporters should not work with leading Assadist propagandists and should take a stance against Assad’s massacre of thousands of Palestinians (among hundreds of thousands of others). I am grateful that the BDS movement has taken a clear stance against very obvious anti-Semites like Gilad Atzmon and Alison Weir, but I wish they would also distance themselves from hypocrites like Alice Walker and Roger Waters (Walker subscribes to David Icke’s anti-Semitic conspiracies and Waters singles out Israel while whitewashing Assad’s even worse war crimes).
I do not have all the answers, and I am not afraid to admit that I have been wrong on many things over the years. For example, in my post I accidentally wrote 49% for a statistic that should have been 48% (I edited to fix the figure). But unlike the Israeli government and some of its defenders whom I know and generally respect and even love, I’m not afraid to admit my mistakes or to seek the truth even when it’s painful.
I. Discrimination and Apartheid
- On Pervasive Anti-Arab Racism in Israeli Jewish Society
Chen said: “I don’t know where you [got] these crazy number[s that] 79% [of Israeli Jews] support discrimination against Arabs, and 49% support for expelling, the numbers are obviously ridiculous.”
Chen’s claim, that these numbers are “obviously ridiculous,” is false. The numbers are from a Pew poll as summarized in a 2016 Times of Israel article, “Nearly half of Jewish Israelis want to expel Arabs, survey shows.” Pew is a reputable polling agency, and the sample size was some 5,601 adults.
More recent polls have corroborated widespread anti-Arab racism among Israeli Jews. A 2018 poll found that 90% of Israeli Jews would be disturbed if their child befriended an Arab child of the opposite sex, and 52% of Israeli Jews thought the following bigoted claim was either “totally” or “pretty” true: “Most Jews are better than non-Jews because they were born Jews.”
A 2019 poll asked “Are there both Jewish and Palestinian peoples, or only a Jewish people?” 48% of Israeli Jews responded, “Only the Jewish people.” By contrast, 94% of Palestinians in Israel recognized both peoples.
- On Israel’s Discriminatory Laws
Michael implied that numerous discriminatory laws don’t exist in Israel. After I sent him Adalah’s list of 65 discriminatory laws in Israel, Michael replied, “Adalah is hardly a objective source of info” and then proceeded to dismiss the database as “controversial.”
Israel’s systematic discrimination is widely recognized even by liberal Zionists. According Peter Beinart, for example, Zionism is incompatible with equal citizenship: “I’m not even asking [Israel] to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state. I’m actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel’s security and for its status as a Jewish state.” The Human Rights Watch report I posted, whose contents Michael and Chen never even attempted to refute, finds that Israeli land policy “discriminates against Palestinian citizens” and lets Jewish towns grow while squeezing Palestinians of land necessary for housing.
Adalah’s database lists laws that can easily be verified and many of them can be classified rather easily as discriminatory. 1950’s Law of Return allowed the “return” of Jews whose families haven’t lived on that land for thousands of years if ever, but didn’t allow the return of Palestinians dispossessed just 1 to 2 years earlier. 1953’s State Education Law established separate schools for Jews and Arabs, and the schools are still highly unequal with each Jewish student getting 5 times more funding than each Arab student as recently as 2005 and at least 1.5 times more funding in 2019. 1958’s “Basic Law: The Knesset” banned political parties (clearly targeting Arabs) from advocating that Israel stop being an exclusively Jewish state. 1960’s Israeli Land Administration Law gave the Jewish National Fund half of the seats, and Arab organizations zero seats, in the council administering 93% of the country’s land. A 2011 anti-boycott law banned people (in practice, mainly Palestinians) from boycotting Israel but permits others (mainly Israeli Jews) to boycott Arab states. All of these discriminatory laws, among others, are still in effect.
- On the Policy of Home Demolitions
Michael wrote, “I don’t deny Israel demolished some houses”
This is such an understatement that it’s not even a half-truth, or a quarter-truth, or an eighth-truth. According to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions the total number of home demolitions since the 1948 war is over 100,000. The Association of Civil Rights in Israel finds that as of 2015, 97 percent of Israel’s 1,348 judicial demolition orders in force, inside the 1948 borders, were for structures located in Arab towns. While Michael isn’t technically lying, “many” would have been far more appropriate than “some.”
- On Apartheid
Michael said, “if you understand what apartheid South Africa was and what Israel really is you would not use that analogy because the two are light years apart in fact you hurt the legacy of Nelson Mandela by making it.” He followed up that the UN’s definition doesn’t apply because Jews and Palestinians aren’t racial groups.
The claim that my post hurt Mandela’s legacy is kind of ridiculous given that Mandela supported Palestinian liberation as have most of Mandela’s actual descendants and supporters. For example, the ANC and at least two of Mandela’s grandchildren have called Israel an apartheid state and Mandela’s church supports BDS. Of course, I never claimed that this position, of Israel being an apartheid state, is uncontroversial or that it is any sort of consensus opinion, although it is the finding of a report commissioned by a UN body (Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia) and of many people who survived and resisted South Africa’s apartheid.
Moreover, Michael’s claim here is false on at least three counts.
First, he claimed that the term “apartheid” can’t be applied to Israel because it describes a unique South African policy. But in fact, apartheid is a term under international law that is broader than the specific South African example. The 2002 Rome Statute defines apartheid as “inhumane acts… committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”
Second, Michael said this definition can’t apply because Jews and Palestinians aren’t “racial groups.” Of course, that is a legalistic rather than moral argument since discrimination based on ethnicity or nationality isn’t morally any better than discrimination based on race. But Michael also happens to be factually wrong, because the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination defines racial discrimination broadly as encompassing discrimination based on “race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin.” So that includes the sorts of discrimination, based on descent, nationality, and ethnicity, discussed in the Human Rights Watch report. Moreover, Israel treats Jews and Palestinians as racial groups, for example by letting 93% of the land be effectively controlled by the Jewish National Fund which seeks “to benefit, directly or indirectly, those of Jewish race or descent.” Zionism’s leading figures have also spoken commonly in racial terms. Herzl referred to Jews as a race, and Chaim Weitzman described Palestinians as “negroes.”
Third, while Michael claims the systems in Israel and apartheid South Africa are “light-years apart,” the truth is that Israel held close military and economic ties with South Africa’s apartheid government and in central ways resembles it.
As documented in The Israeli Connection: Who Israel Arms and Why (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987), a book by Israeli professor Benjamin Beit Hallami, Israel sold Uzis, tanks, missile boats, and other weapons to apartheid South Africa and South Africa was Israel’s top arms recipient in 1984. In 1981, Ariel Sharon visited South African troops for ten days, leading the New York Times to report “The military relationship between South Africa and Israel…has assumed a new significance.” The Nation reported in 1986: “Functionally and visibly, Israel is South Africa’s only important ally in the world, providing Pretoria with the material, training, technical advice and logistical support that other Western nations have felt obliged to withhold.” Declassified documents demonstrate, according to senior Foreign Affairs editor Sasha Polakow-Suransky, that Israel offered to sell South Africa nuclear weapons in the 1970s and in the 70s and 80s the two countries cooperated “on building missile technology that the South Africans intended to use for a second generation of their nuclear weapons.” According to Polakow-Suransky, Israel’s alliance “prolonged the life of the apartheid regime in South Africa. It was a vital link.”
Moreover, despite important differences (South Africa relied much more on Black labor than Israel relies on Palestinian labor), Israel has an equivalent to several of the major components of South Africa’s apartheid system. The discriminatory land policies described in Human Rights Watch’s report can be seen as Israel’s equivalent of South Africa’s Group Areas Act. Israel’s separate and unequal education systems can be seen as an equivalent of South Africa’s Bantu Education Act. South Africa’s Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act would see its Israeli equivalent in a two-state solution that, according to Israeli human rights campaigner Jeff Halper in Haaretz, would mean “a big Israel ruling over a Palestinian bantustan.”
II. Gaza’s Blockade and Massacres
- On the Blockade
Chen put “blockade” in scare quotes and said, “some may say it was a ‘blockade’, some may say that unlike Egypt and Jordan, we were the only country in the area who agreed to take care of the Gaza Strip citizens by giving them food, electricity, and water.”
Contrary to Chen’s characterization, the UN and human rights groups very widely consider the blockade to be real, illegal, and highly inhumane, and the Israeli government itself has referred to the policies as comprising “economic warfare” (i.e. collective punishment) and has said the aim is to keep Gaza’s economy “on the brink of collapse.” According to a report approved by the UN’s Human Rights Council, the blockade has inflicted “disproportionate damage upon the civilian population in the Gaza strip” and “has to be considered illegal.” The report found, “one of the principal motives behind the imposition of the blockade was a desire to punish the people of the Gaza Strip…The combination of this motive and the effect of the restrictions on the Gaza Strip leave no doubt that Israel’s actions and policies amount to collective punishment as defined by international law.”
The effects of the blockade have been devastating. A study in Lancet found that “occupation and siege are the primary impediments to the successful promotion of public health in the Gaza Strip.” Two-thirds of Gaza’s households are food insecure, half of adults are unemployed, and 97% of the drinking water is unsafe.
- On the IDF’s Alleged Respect for Civilians’ Lives
Chen wrote that the IDF has high respect for human life and tries to minimize civilian casualties: “Israelis have a high respect for life, all Israelis are sad for every soldier or a citizen who get killed in the war. Unlike Hamas who uses their people as a human shield. Every IDF soldier gets this small booklet called The Spirit Of The IDf which is a list of the our most important values. This booklet we need to memorize during our basic training. There are a few soldiers who don’t listen to the rules during wars or operations, but most of them will get punished. You can’t compare the IDF’s constant effort not to kill the innocent people to the Hamas’s constant effort to kill the Israeli citizens.”
It is very widely documented that Israel has used very disproportionate force in recent wars, and statements by high-ranking and low-ranking IDF members reveal a systematic disregard for Palestinian life. We can almost just let the numbers speak for themselves. 2014’s war, that Israel launched in Gaza, killed (by a reputable Israeli estimate) some 543 Palestinian children and 1 Israeli child. It killed 1,391 Palestinian civilians and 6 Israeli civilians. To still defend that war, as Michael does and as Chen apparently does (since she refused my invitation to criticize it), is to believe that one Israeli life should be valued more than 232 Palestinian lives and that one Israeli child’s life should be valued more than 543 Palestinians’ children.
Far from having acted to respect Palestinian life, many Israeli soldiers have testified that in 2014 their rules of engagement were to shoot at virtually “anything that moves.” Here are pretty standard quotes from a book of soldiers’ testimonies compiled by the organization Breaking the Silence:
“The rules of engagement are pretty identical: Anything inside [the Gaza Strip] is a threat, the area has to be ‘sterilized,’ empty of people–and if we don’t see someone waving a white flag, screaming, ‘I give up’ or something–then he’s a threat and there’s authorization to open fire.” “[I]t was obvious that if it wasn’t our forces there, we needed to shoot.” “The only emphasis regarding rules of engagement was to make sure you weren’t firing at IDF forces, but other than that, ‘Any person you see.’ From the very start they told us, ‘Shoot to kill.’ As far as the IDF was concerned, there wasn’t supposed to be any civilian population there.” “I was a bit bothered, but after three weeks in Gaza, during which you’re shooting at anything that moves – and also at what isn’t moving, crazy amounts – you aren’t anymore really… The good and the bad get a bit mixed up, and your morals get a bit lost and you sort of lose it, and it also becomes a bit like a computer game, totally cool and real.”
And here are the words of upper-level Israeli officials and advisers. Benny Ganz, who was the army chief in 2014, bragged about having sent “parts of Gaza back to the Stone Age.” Arnon Soffer, a top-level Israeli adviser predicted in 2004 that, after disengaging from Gaza, Israeli forces will “have to kill and kill. All day, every day.” The Dahiya Doctrine, an Israeli policy summarized by Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, is described in a leaked US cable: “Israel will use disproportionate force upon any village that fires upon Israel, ‘causing great damage and destruction.’ Eisenkot made very clear: this is not a recommendation, but an already approved plan — from the Israeli perspective, these are ‘not civilian villages, they are military bases.'” Although the doctrine initially referred to Israeli actions in Lebanon, the UN and others have found that it’s clear Israel applied it in Gaza. An influential Israeli lawmaker during the 2014 war referred to all of Gaza’s Palestinian babies as “little snakes” and said of Gaza’s population, “They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads.”
Let me close with an incident that really shook me at the time, involving Israel’s targeting of four children in 2014 and subsequent exoneration of the killers. Four children were playing hide and seek on a Gaza beach, and there was no fighting going on in the area. Many journalists witnessed what happened next. NYT photographer Tyler Hicks watched and photographed it from his hotel room overlooking the beach. According to Hicks, it was unmistakable that Israel intentionally targeted these four children: “I mean, they have a very sophisticated military, and they can see what’s going on, whether it’s from a drone, from a ship. I mean, they know what they’re hitting. And it’s pretty hard—in my opinion, would be—to mistake grown men and, you know, Hamas militants, at that, for children no more than four feet high wearing beach clothes, scattering from this initial explosion. I mean, in my opinion, it would be pretty obvious, especially given the 30-second window between the first explosion and the second that killed three of the four. One was actually killed by that first bomb. But that 30 seconds should be enough to assess whether or not those are children or civilians or actual Hamas militants.” Contrary to Chen’s claim that Israel routinely punishes its soldiers for atrocities, Israel exonerated the soldiers involved in the murder of these four children. The Guardian reports that Israel’s so-called findings were “contradictory to journalists’ reports from [the] scene” and that “The hut, however, was in plain sight of nearby hotels housing international journalists, none of whom described seeing militants in the area at the time of the attack.”
Chen’s claim about Hamas using “human shields” will be addressed below.
- On Human Shields
Chen’s claim that Hamas “uses their people as a human shield” is highly disputable, ignores that Israel has used human shields, and in any case would not excuse the IDF’s carnage described above since it is still illegal to kill human shields. Yes, given that Hamas was fighting a (defensive) guerilla war in a very densely populated strip of land, it was unavoidable that there would be proximity between military and civilian infrastructure. But international law has a pretty specific definition of human shields, involving “an intentional co-location of military objectives and civilians or persons hors de combat with the specific intent of trying to prevent the targeting of those military objectives.”
Human rights groups have repeatedly found no verification of Hamas using human shields, as defined by international law, but plenty of examples of Israel using human shields. After Cast Lead: “Amnesty International, for its part, did not find evidence that Hamas or other Palestinian groups violated the laws of war to the extent repeatedly alleged by Israel. In particular, it found no evidence that Hamas or other fighters directed the movement of civilians to shield military objectives from attacks. By contrast, Amnesty International did find that Israeli forces on several occasions during Operation ‘Cast Lead’ forced Palestinian civilians to serve as ‘human shields’.”
A UN investigation found no evidence that Hamas used human shields during Cast Lead but found “credible” evidence that “Israeli troops used Palestinian men as human shields whilst conducting house searches” in Gaza.
After the 2014 war: “Amnesty International has not been able to corroborate the facts in any of these cases” in which Israel alleged Hamas used human shields.
- On Israel as the aggressor
Michael wrote, “some of the things you say are true but then give no context as to why Israel would want to bomb Hamas,” “i would agree without understanding the nature of violence against Israeli civilians Israel would seem very cruel,” and “Israel has every right to halt rocket attacks against civilians full stop.” The idea that Hamas was the aggressor is perhaps implied in Chen’s claims that “Israelis have a high respect for human life.”
In truth, Israel was the aggressor in these wars and repeatedly violated ceasefires and rejected offers for an end to the rocket fire.
Leading up to Operation Cast Lead, it was Israel that violated the cease-fire, by raiding Gaza and killing 6 Hamas militants on 5 November.
Israel was again the aggressor in 2014. Hamas hadn’t fired a single rocket since 2012, when Israel launched an attack on June 29th. According to an investigation in The Forward, Israel launched its attack based on “lies.” While Israel claimed it was responding to abductions by Hamas, “It was clear from the beginning that the kidnappers weren’t acting on orders from Hamas leadership.”
On 16 July 2014, in the middle of the war, Hamas offered a 10-year truce on the condition that Israel end its illegal blockade and otherwise respects basic rights. Rather than try out this truce, Israel continued the war which ultimately killed more than 500 children.
A study by Visualizing Palestine found that, while both Israelis and Palestinians have broken ceasefires, Israel’s violations are 2.5 times more frequent and are far more lethal than Palestinians’.
- On the ongoing occupation of Gaza
Chen wrote, “And another truth is that Israel actually withdr[ew] from the Gaza Strip in summer 2005, the only thing we got from this move was that Hamas, a terror organization, took over Gaza and we have continuous rocket attack on Israel’s southern border for the last 15 years.”
While Israel did withdraw settlers and ground troops (except that the ground troops have repeatedly returned to commit massacres), that has not ended Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip. Israel continues to impose effective control over Gaza, and thus Gaza is still “occupied” according to the UN, Amnesty, and B’Tselem. Human Rights Watch wrote after Israel’s 2005 withdrawal of settlers and ground troops: “Gaza remains occupied…Israel maintains effective control over Gaza by regulating movement in and out of the Strip as well as the airspace, sea space, public utilities and population registry.”
Chen’s description of the rise of Hamas also ignores important context which is that Israel enabled Hamas’s rise to prominence. “Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel’s creation,” retired Israeli official Avner Cohen told the Wall Street Journal. “Instead of trying to curb Gaza’s Islamists from the outset, says Mr. Cohen, Israel for years tolerated and, in some cases, encouraged them as a counterweight to the secular nationalists.”
III. 1948 War and Refugees
- On Zionist Violence During the 1948 war
Michael said, “if the Arab league did not choose to react with overwhelming violence and militancy to the idea of autonomy you would have no violence from the Israeli side.”
The truth is that by the time Arab countries got militarily involved in mid-May 1948, the Zionist armies had already been conducting massacres and had expelled or provoked the flight of an estimated 200,000 to 350,000 Palestinians. For example, on 18 December 1947 the Haganah killed about 15 villagers who had not fired a single shot, including 5 children. On 31 December, they killed 60 villagers in Balad al-Shaykh, based on orders to “kill as many men as possible.” On 9 April, the famous massacre at Deir Yassin killed about 90 civilians including 30 babies. Zionist troops launched mass indiscriminate killings of Haifa and Jaffa in late April and early May.
Plan Dalet, implemented in March 1948, well before the Arab countries militarily intervened, aimed (according to Benny Morris) at “clearing of hostile and potentially hostile forces out of the interior of the prospective territory of the Jewish State…the Haganah regarded most of the villages as actively or potentially hostile.” Palestinians and some historians consider this clearing to be ethnic cleansing, and Morris himself has once infamously referred to Zionists’ actions as ethnic cleansing while defending it: “There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing.”
I don’t deny or excuse that Palestinians were also committing massacres, but that doesn’t excuse what the Zionists did especially since they performed these atrocities in a context of usurping 80% of Palestine despite Jews being less than 40% of the population in 1947.
See scholarship by Walid Khalidi, Saleh Abdel Jawad, Ilan Pappe, Benny Morris, and Martin Shaw among others.
- On the Number of Refugees
In addition to falsely accusing my friend Nazanin of saying Israel displaced millions of people, Michael claimed that “at most 700,000 Palestinians” left in 1948 and 1967: “when did Israel displace millions? Not in 48 and in 67 at most 700,000 Palestinians left out of how many were forcibly evicted is smaller in 1948 the millions you are claiming is simply false.”
But at least 700,000 Palestinians were displaced in the 1948 war alone and in 1967, another 300,000 or so Palestinians fled or were expelled. Even if Michael had been referring only to the 1948 war, then he’d still be wrong about 700,000 being a maximal figure. An Israeli historian has estimated that 750,000 fled or were expelled, and some Palestinian and Arab scholars estimate the figure is about 800,000 or 900,000.
Rather than claiming that Israel displaced millions, what Nazanin actually said was, quite clearly, that nationalism displaced millions of people around the world in the 20th century. After I corrected Michael, he still insisted, “the millions you are claiming is simply false.” Then I corrected Michael again, and he responded, “the claim was made for millions [from Israel].” I can only conclude that Michael was deliberately misreading Nazanin’s very clear critique of nationalism per se: “The nationalist movements of this past century have displaced millions and we have to start undoing the damage.”
- On the definition of refugees
Michael argued that the descendants of the 1948 refugees aren’t legally entitled to return: “a refugee is a person who actually fled in 48.”
But UNRWA’s classification of the descendants as refugees is based in international law and uses the same standard as is used in other refugee situations:
“Under international law and the principle of family unity, the children of refugees and their descendants are also considered refugees until a durable solution is found. As stated by the United Nations, this principle applies to all refugees and both UNRWA and UNHCR have recognized descendants as refugees on this basis.
In line with this, the UN General Assembly annual resolutions on UNRWA operations continue since the 1950s to require the Agency to deliver its services for the protection and assistance of Palestine refugees, including descendants…
Palestine refugees are not distinct from other refugees in protracted refugee situations such as those from Afghanistan or Somalia, where there are multiple generations of refugees, registered by UNHCR as refugees and supported as such. Protracted refugee situations are the result of the failure to find political solutions to their underlying political crises.”
- On Justly Implementing the Right of Return
Michael, doubling down on his false claim that implementing a right of return would require mass dispossession of Israeli Jews, rejected my sources with the following excuse: “i don’t listen to pr put out by the Palestinian authority.”
But the sources I had supplied him, Palestine-Israel Journal and Badil, are independent of the Palestinian Authority.
Michael is also wrong about the effects of implementing the right, because, as the Human Rights Watch report shows, the issue is not so much a lack of land but rather Israeli policy that systematically prevents Palestinians from building necessary homes on available land. The geographer Salman Abu-Sitta has found that “well over 90% of the refugees could return to empty sites” and that some 77% of Israeli Jews live on just 15% of the country’s land. Abu-Sitta proposes that in those relatively few situations where a Palestinian’s former home is now occupied by an Israeli Jew, the returning refugee “could retain the property rights and grant a 49-year lease to existing occupants…Meanwhile, they could rent or build housing for themselves in the vicinity.” The Palestinian organization Badil concurs, “the return of Palestinian refugees would not result in the displacement of the existing Jewish population from their homes and communities. International law and best practice provide creative solutions enabling refugees to return while maintaining and even developing the existing infrastructure.” Meanwhile, the 2-state solution, which Michael proposes, would require imminently dispossessing about 400,000 Jewish settlers, which wouldn’t be required in the secular democratic outcome I’m proposing.
IV. Judaism and Jewish Interests
- On Zionism as expressing will of the Jewish people
Chen said, “Zionism is the national movement of the Jewish people.”
It is a nationalist movement of *some* Jewish people, but Zionism was once opposed by the vast majority of religious and secular Jews alike and Zionism is today contested by a very significant minority of Jews.
Jewish anti-Zionists and non-Zionists are organized into a variety of secular and religious groups including Jewish Voice for Peace, If Not Now, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, Tzedek Chicago, United Federation of Jews for Peace (France), Independent Jewish Voices (Canada), Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, Anarchists Against the Wall, Boycott from Within, Jewish People’s Liberation Organization, Neturei Karta, Satmar, and many more.
- On Anti-Zionist Jewish Resistance
Michael claimed of the Jewish Combat Organization that led the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, was completely Zionist-led and that most anti-Nazi uprisings were led by Zionists: “all of its leaders were zionist as was its ideology it was a group of Zionist youth leaders” and “the bundist (sic) did not lead most of the uprisings Zionists did.”
Michael’s first claim is false. The Jewish Combat Organization in fact included both Zionist and anti-Zionist leaders and members. One of the leaders was Marek Edelman of the anti-Zionist Bund movement. After I pointed this out to Michael, he didn’t concede the point but instead said “it was mordchai who formed it not marek.” But I had never claimed Marek Edelman founded the organization!
Here is what Shmuel Merlin, a Warsaw-based Revisionist Zionist newspaper editor had to say in retrospect: “It is absolutely correct to say that only the Bund waged an organized fight against the anti-Semites.”
Despite Michael’s protest, I never said the Bund “led most of the uprisings.”
But I believe Michael’s claim, that Zionists led most of the uprisings, is factually inaccurate. In books such as Yehuda Bauer’s They Chose Life (American Jewish Committee, 1973), I have read of a variety of leaders who were unaffiliated, Communist, Bundist, and, yes, Zionist. Sometimes these groups worked together, and sometimes they worked separately. But I haven’t seen the scholarship conclude that Zionists comprised a clear majority among leadership of Europe’s Jewish uprisings.
In 1939, among those defending Warsaw from Nazi invasions, “half of the Jewish battalions were organized by the [anti-Zionist] Bund” according to Molly Crabapple in the New York Review of Books.
The Minsk Ghetto uprising, that allowed thousands of Jews to escape and join resistance groups in surrounding forests, was led by Communists, not Zionists.
1942’s Vilna ghetto uprising had both Zionist and Communist leadership.
The 1943 Sobibor uprising, that allowed 400 inmates to escape and that effectively forced Himmler to close down the camp, was led by Alexander Pechersky. Nothing on Pechersky’s Wikipedia page indicates that he had Zionist affiliations.
The 1943 Treblinka uprising, which enabled 300 inmates to escape, was led by Julian Chor??ycki, Rudolf Masaryk, and Berek Lajcher among others. Their Wikipedia pages do not mention them having Zionist affiliations.
While there’s no question that many rank-and-file Zionists participated, alongside Bundists, Communists, and others, in heroic uprisings, the worldwide Zionist movement’s leadership has a far more shameful record as I’ll discuss next.
- On Zionist Betrayals of Jews
Due to my opposition to Zionism, Michael accused me of “othering of your own people” and “supporting people who want to both physically and financially harm Jews” (despite the fact that I quite vehemently oppose the groups he repeatedly says I support).
Michael’s argument, that anti-Zionism is anti-Jewish, overlooks, among other things, the long and shameful record of Zionist betrayals of Jews.
In 1933, as Jews and others around the world were boycotting Nazi Germany, the World Zionist Organization scabbed on the boycott in the Haavara agreement. The Zionist Federation of Germany made despicable overtures to the Nazi Party: “[W]e, too, are against mixed marriage and for maintaining the purity of the Jewish group…For its practical aims, Zionism hopes to be able to win the collaboration even of a government fundamentally hostile to Jews.” One of the editors of this group’s newspaper later acknowledged the paper “sometimes went too far in its approval of the Nationalist State.” The ultra-Zionist Stern Gang in Palestine went even further and twice offered in 1941 to fight on Hitler’s side in the second world war. In Elie Wiesel’s approving summary of Tom Segev’s book The Seventh Million, “the Jewish leaders of Palestine never made the rescue of European Jews into an overwhelming priority,” and David Ben-Gurion himself said, “If I knew that it was possible to save all the children in Germany by transporting them to England, or only half by transporting them to Palestine I would choose the second.” According to a draft report by the American Jewish Commission, the USA’s “Jewish leadership at no stage decided to proclaim total mobilization for rescue” and Zionists’ “exclusive concentration on Palestine as a solution” made them unable to focus on rescue.”
Zionism’s betrayal of Jews continued through subsequent decades, for example with Israel arming an anti-Semitic Argentinian junta in the 1970s and today with Israel’s prime minister supporting the United States’ anti-Semitic president Trump. For references and further information on how Zionist leadership repeatedly betrayed Jews, see Lenni Brenner’s Zionism in the Age of the Dictators (AOOA, 2014, freely available online) and Stanley Heller’s Zionist Betrayal of the Jews (SH Books, 2019, a copy of which I am prepared to donate to the synagogue library should Rabbi Friedland allow it).
- On Poll Accuracy and Widespread BDS Support
In rejecting a poll I’d cited showing that 86% of Palestinians in the occupied territories support BDS, Michael said: “based on whose polling data? A democracy with a free press? I think not.”
However, the polling agency, the Palestinian Center for Political and Survey Research, is a reputable agency whose results have been cited in the New York Times and whose founder has been praised in The New Yorker: “For the past twenty-five years, the Palestinian political scientist Khalil Shikaki has been his own best evidence for the promise of civil society in a Palestinian state. In 1993, he founded the nonprofit Center for Palestine Research and Studies, in Nablus—which, in 2000, became the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research—with funding mainly from the Ford Foundation and the European Union.”
My claim that BDS has the support of the vast majority of Palestinians can also be demonstrated with the very long list of Palestinian civil society organizations that endorsed the 2005 BDS call and the very broad coalition of groups currently comprising the Palestinian BDS National Committee representing a “broad consensus among Palestinian civil society.”
- On Boycotting Institutions Versus Individuals
Michael described BDS as “boycotting your own people” and then said “individuals have ended up being boycotted even non-Israelis such as Matisyahu because he refused to trash Israel”
Michael’s claims are false. The official BDS position is to boycott Israeli institutions and not Israeli individuals, let alone Jewish individuals. The official website says, “BDS does not call for a boycott of individuals because she or he happens to be Israeli or because they express certain views.”
When some pro-BDS activists boycotted Matisyahu, they made clear that their “efforts are outside the remit of the cultural boycott of Israel…the Palestinian-led BDS movement does not call for boycotting individual artists, academics, etc.”
The reason these activists boycotted Matisyahu was not that the singer “refused to trash Israel,” as Michael falsely claimed, but rather that the singer had a record of actively advocating and fundraising for the Israeli military and that his lyricist was a West Bank settler, among other stances deeply oppressive to Palestinians. Boycotting Matisyahu for his anti-Palestinian record is no different morally from boycotting a singer who foments violence and oppression against Jews. In any case, the boycott was not part of BDS so Michael was wrong to say it’s an instance of BDS boycotting individuals.
- On BDS Being an Extension of Fatah, Hamas, PLO
Michael claimed that BDS is synonymous with or a front for various Palestinian entities: “BDS is Fatah and Fatah is BDS,” “bds is not a separate body from Hamas or the PLO,” “who is the Palestinian civil society? Let me drop a hint to you its the same leaders of Fatah you say you can’t stand in Ramallah.”
Michael’s claims are false and contradictory. The Palestinian BDS National Committee includes many independent groups that don’t align with the goals of either Fatah’s or Hamas’s. BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti supports a democratic secular one-state solution that is not advocated by either Fatah or Hamas. Fatah and Hamas are famously bitter rivals, whose fighting has caused many Palestinian deaths, so it’s absurd to say BDS is a front for both of them at the same time.
The PLO did not support BDS until 2018. Fatah’s leader Mahmoud Abbas expressed opposition to BDS in 2013. If Hamas as an organization has clearly supported BDS, I don’t see it in an online search. I have no doubt that members of these organizations, as individuals, have long been active in the BDS movement. I think that’s a good thing since there are far worse forms of resistance than participating in a peaceful boycott seeking human rights.
- On the Impact of BDS
Michael said, “unless you count banning Sabra hummus from the cafeteria at Earlham College BDS has pretty been a flop.”
That is not the opinion of the Israeli government and major pro-Israel organizations.
Israeli minister Yisrael Katz feels Israel is so threatened by BDS that it should carry out “targeted civil eliminations,” a reference to targeted assassinations, against BDS leaders. From 2015 to 2019, the Israeli government spent at least $15 million on combating BDS. The Reut Institute calls BDS “a strategic threat with potentially existential implications.”
- On Israel’s Sincerity about Peace
Chen said, “Palestinians constantly missed Israel’s ‘lands for peace’ offers (four times in only 72 years). We were willing to have peace with them many times and they were never smart enough to take it.”
Israel’s sincerity about a two-state solution has been highly dubious, as evident by the country’s ongoing expansion of West Bank settlements. Even before Israel was established, the Zionist movement was clear about its goal of conquering all of historic Palestine. 1942’s Biltmore Conference, for example, sought to turn all of Palestine into a Jewish state rather than accept a partition. Since the UN’s Resolution 242 required Israel to fully withdraw from the occupied territories, in November 1967, Israel has not offered to do so.
Even if Israel did offer this, Palestinians would not be under any moral obligation to cede 80% of their territory to a settler colony. But Israel hasn’t even agreed to let Palestinians have that 20% that Resolution 242 assigns them, and Israel’s expansion of settlements has been a very clear indication that the country is not serious about pursuing this solution.
- On Michael’s claims about Jews in Iran
Michael said, “Iran’s government forces Jewish kids to learn Koran all day and then trot them out as tokens to prove Iran’s tolerance” and “this is how Iran treats its Jews by erasing Jewish history shame on Iran,” and posted a Daily Mail article headlined “Important holy Jewish site in Iran is desecrated in ‘premeditated’ arson attack.”
I have no interest in defending Iran’s far-right, totalitarian government. Michael used these questionable claims, though, as bad-faith attacks on Nazanin after she, an Iranian-American leftist, had already expressed her very strong opposition toward Iran’s government.
Many Iranian Jews, far from being puppets of the Iranian government, have said they genuinely feel “safe and respected” in Iran while still of course being critical of the regime (see the PBS report below).
Details of the fire, which the Jewish Telegraphic Agency still describes as “alleged,” are unclear, and it was irresponsible of Michael to post an article from a source that has been banned as “unreliable” by Wikipedia.
In any case, it was highly inappropriate of Michael to make Nazanin respond to these actions that she of course didn’t support.
- Michael said, “[A]s a anarchist how do you support replacing one state with another state? I thought anarchists opposed all states equally.”
Michael is mistaken on two counts. Firstly, I don’t support replacing one state with another state, and secondly, Anarchists don’t oppose “all states equally.”
For a range of consistent Anarchist positions on Palestine solidarity, see the following articles by Wayne Price, Budour Hassan, and Bill Templer. Despite disagreements, they all envision a stateless democratic federation while, practically, respecting Palestinians’ self-determination by supporting Palestinians’ self-led struggles.
While Anarchists indeed oppose all states, it is not true that they oppose all states equally. The following is from Daniel Guerin’s Anarchism: From Theory to Practice (Monthly Review Press, 1970): “It should be noted that in spite of their savage attacks on bourgeois democracy, the anarchists admitted that it is relatively progressive. Even Stirner, the most intransigent, occasionally let slip the word ‘progress.’ Proudhon conceded: ‘When a people passes from the monarchical to the democratic State, some progress is made.’ And Bakunin said: ‘It should not be thought that we want… to criticize the bourgeois government in favor of monarchy… The most imperfect republic is a thousand times better than the most enlightened monarchy… The democratic system gradually educates the masses to public life.’ This disproves Lenin’s view that ‘some anarchists’ proclaim ‘that the form of oppression is a matter of indifference to the proletariat.’ This also dispels the fear expressed by Henri Arvon in his little book L’Anarchisme that anarchist opposition to democracy could be confused with counter-revolutionary opposition.”
On May 24, I wrote this short post with a link to +972 Magazine’s article “For a new political imagination, Israeli Jews must unlearn Zionism.”
My pro-Israel friends recently challenged me to listen more to Israelis and “hear other sides of the story.” It was good advice, and it’s in their honor that I’ve read and now share this beautiful article by the Israeli researcher and peace activist Norma Musih.
“Usually, when the notion of ‘return’ is raised in Hebrew discussions, it effectively closes the conversation. The very idea of it evokes a deep political fear, demonstrating the limits of the Israeli Jewish imagination.
Israel’s denial of the Palestinian right of return since 1948 has been articulated in Israeli public discourse as a demographic threat that will lead to a second exile, or even a second Holocaust, of the Jewish people. This notion finds its expression in the popular Israeli warning that ‘the Arabs will throw us [the Jews] into the sea.’
These political fears manifest themselves through a myriad of ways – from the contours of Israeli academic debates, to its legal system, to government policies and legislation. This fear is actively mobilized to justify and continue the negation of the right of return, as well as the banality of everyday evils committed by Israelis against Palestinians.
This collective fear, however, could be mitigated if Jewish Israelis think together with Palestinians about how the return of Palestinian refugees could be implemented in practical terms; that is, to plan for the ‘day after’ from early on. This includes retracing maps of pre-1948 Palestine, planning for the construction of new homes, villages and cities, integrating the Arabic and Hebrew languages into public life, redesigning the education systems, and creating new work opportunities.”
This is the sort of radically decolonial thinking that is needed to undo entrenched settler colonial structures, whether in Israel or here in the United States. It requires exercising an often underused or latent muscle, the imagination. As Musih writes, “Arendt teaches us that the imagination is not something that ‘appears’ as a muse to an artist or as a quality we are born with. Rather, it is a capacity that we must train. The imagination is like a muscle in the body or the ability to write or think — an ongoing process that requires practice. Through this notion, Arendt suggests developing the imagination as a tool to overcome ‘dark times’ and generate political change.”