By Abdullah Qaiser, a first year History student
Within the recent weeks, there has been much debate on the ambiguous line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Much of the discussion was fuelled by the election of Malia Bouattia as the new NUS President. Her comments on Birmingham University as a ‘Zionist outpost’ has left much to the imagination to whether she was referring to ‘Zionists’ or Jewish students themselves. Some would go as far to say that a stance of ‘anti-Zionism’ is inherently anti-Semitic. A Varsity article claims that ‘to be an anti-Zionist is to deny the existence of the state of Israel, and to deny the Jewish national race their right to self-determination.’ There is an element of truth in this account as anti-Zionism does have the potential to be vehicle for anti-Semitism. Indeed, the outrage over Israel’s excess action upon the Palestinians during the summer of 2014 did spill over on to British Jews, showing that anti-Zionism can turn into anti-Semitism. But it is not inherently so. Because many who oppose Zionism, such as Malia in this case, are not against the idea of Jewish nationhood. Rather, they are against the creation of a Jewish nation at the expense of the indigenous Palestinian population, who hold as much claim to the land as its Israeli residents.
Zionism, since its inception, has always been in tension with the presence of Arabs within the Holy Land. A delegation was sent to Palestine in 1897 to find a suitable Jewish homeland for the First Zionist Conference in the same year. However, its report failed to notice the large presence of Arabs within the territory and their ties to the land. A perceived lack of Palestinian identity was one reason, among many others, why it was seen as the site for a Jewish Homeland. It was for this reason that one of the slogans for Zionists during the 19th and 20th century was ‘A land without a people for a people without a land’. The latter end of the phrase embodied the perception that local Arabs had no entitlement. But beyond semantics, there was a forceful cleansing of Arab areas to annex more land for Israel. The Israeli army attacked towns, such as Lydda in 1948. The President, Ben-Gurion, gave orders to evict the Arabs within these villages. There were schemes that lawfully sought to buy land from the Arabs by large fund such as the Jewish National Fund. This saw the percentage of land owned by the Jews in 1922, which was 3%, grow to 7% by 1947. However, this was still miniscule compared to land that was attained through conquest. From 1949 to 1956 there were tens of thousands of Palestinians that were forced to leave within Ashkelon and Bedouin. Furthermore, the land purchase was not entirely problem-free as it did create a barrier for Palestinian Arabs and did leave a number of Arabs landless.
Even today, this attitude of territorial exclusivity still persists among Zionists. The military occupation of the West Bank and the frequent bombardment of Gaza are both driven by the desire to contain Arab presence within the area. Of course, some might argue that these are the actions of the state of Israel which should not be confused with Zionism. Hence, it has been suggested that the phrase anti-Israeli be used instead of anti-Zionism. However, these acts of seclusion are not just privy to the state of Israel. The pursuit of illegal settlements is such an example of Zionism carried out by non-state ideologies. Israeli civilian settlements were built illegally past Israel’s borders, onto areas such as in the West Bank and in the Gaza strip. Additionally, not all of these settlements aim to displace Palestinian outside of Israel: some do it within it. Although the construction of these settlements was state-backed, the civilians who took residence in these areas were very much invested in the Zionist project. They have acted as vigilantes in destroying Palestinian symbols, such as the Olive tree, in these areas. Even with East Jerusalem, Palestinian residents are being removed to make way for new Jewish residents. Around a half of million Jewish Israelis live in more than 150 Jewish-only settlements across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They were aware that these settlements contravened international law. They were also involved alongside the state of Israel in the construction of the Jewish nation.
It would be false to label Zionism as de-facto anti-Palestinian. Zionism is an ideology and all ideologies have their spectrum. But in light of events referred to above, it would also be false to label Zionism as completely detached from the suppression of Palestinian nationhood. Ari Shavit, a ‘liberal Zionist’ and author of My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, would admit that ‘The partial dispossession of another people is at the core of the Zionist enterprise.’ It was an intellectual product that originated from the Eastern European and German lands, in which nations were going through their own exclusivist form of nationalism. It is not that surprising that within Israel there is ethnic discrimination. What is surprising is that it extends beyond the Arab residents, who make up more than 20% of Israel’s population. Ethiopian Jews are twice as likely to get arrested by the Israeli police and have had to prove their Jewish origins many times. But it also extends to the Middle-Eastern Jews who have been forced to assimilate into the cultural norms of Ashkenazi Jewish culture. In this sense, Zionism has aimed for the physical and cultural displacement of all that came before it.
Being against Zionism does not inherently mean being against the idea of Jewish nationhood, in the same sense that being against Islam, or against the creation of an Islamic Caliphate, does not mean being inherently Islamophobic. The opposition to Zionism is based more on political realities than on racist conceptions of Jews. But once anti-Zionism is equated with anti-Semitism, it threatens to censor the debate on the Israel-Palestine crisis. It omits the political cost at which Zionism was pursued and Israel was created. But more importantly, it erases the origin of the Palestinian struggle. Palestinian nationhood has been shaped by the forceful rejection of Arabs from the Zionist project. Thus, to legitimize Zionism without scrutiny is to leave a gaping hole within the history of a very complex and sensitive crisis.