Rafah, October 12, 2023: Palestinian homes after an Israeli air strike . Image credit: Anas-Mohammed / Shutterstock
It should come as no surprise to American Jews that Israel is currently engaged in a genocidal campaign against Palestinians today. Genocidal discourse has been the norm for a very long time within our community. It may not be prevalent among the non-practicing, Reform, liberal-minded, Democratic Party–voting majority of Jewish Americans. Yet among ideologically motivated pro-Israeli Jews, whose voices tend to be loudest and who are most politically active and organized, rejection of Palestinians’ right to exist has predominated for decades. Alongside the Israeli religious Right movements that have increasingly captured the Israeli state and pushed it to define itself in exclusively sectarian Jewish terms, dismissal of Palestinians’ right to exist in the land where generations of their families have lived has become almost an article of faith for ideologically pro-Israeli Jews. It has been particularly common to encounter the denial of Palestinians’ identity as a people, characterizations of Palestinians as subhuman, and outrageously violent genocidal statements whenever any critique is directed at Israel’s colonial expansion within the West Bank.
In 2002, during the second Intifada, while the Israeli military was starting to reoccupy areas of the West Bank briefly controlled by the Palestinian Authority after the Oslo agreement, I spent a few weeks reporting in the Palestinian occupied territories. After the World Trade Center attacks, media commentators had conflated the Palestinian struggle with the terrorists of 9/11 in a way that misrepresented the nature of the conflict. For that reason, it made sense to me to explore the territorial aspects of Palestinian space as they appeared during a time when a separate state was still being seriously planned. Israel controlled the borders, the airspace, the ground below, and most of the hilltops, where the government had placed Israeli “settlements”—colonial outposts that began as informal groups of trailers overlooking valleys inhabited by Arab villagers and eventually grew into extensive suburban developments connected by serene highways to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The most extensive documentation of this situation was done by the Israeli human rights group B’tselem in collaboration with Israeli architect Eyal Weizman, whose doctoral research examined how these colonial settlements deployed architecture and planning to fulfill military objectives. By relocating Israelis to land outside its legally recognized borders, using inexpensive real estate and low-interest mortgages as incentives, the Israeli government was intentionally displacing Arabs and making a Palestinian state, economy, and life unsustainable. According to Weizman and other analysts, these settlements constituted a violation of the Geneva Conventions and a crime against humanity.
The last 20 years have witnessed the continuous extension of Israeli colonial settlements into Palestinian territories, the regular expulsion of Arabs from their homes, and the further deterioration of conditions for Palestinian people.
From Israel’s defenders, we heard simultaneously that Israel was threatened on all sides by hostile powers calling for its destruction (which hasn’t been true of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, or Qatar for quite a long time) and that if the Palestinians didn’t like it, they were free to leave and go to Arab countries anywhere else in the region. Echoes of such proto-genocidal arguments have rapidly circulated on social media in recent weeks, as Jewish Americans defended Israel’s total destruction of life in Gaza. One particularly repugnant meme called into question whether a genocide could be happening given that population statistics indicate a substantial growth in the Palestinian population during the last 50 years, implicitly questioning the Palestinians’ right to live at all.
Meanwhile, among pro-Israeli Jews and the U.S. mainstream media, it continues to be stated as an unquestioned fact that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. As Omri Boehm pointed out almost exactly a year ago in Time, no one has adequately explained how a country can be called democratic when the majority of the population within the territory it controls has no civil rights, no right to vote, and barely a claim to basic human rights. Yet it’s true that the 20 percent minority of Arabs who are Israeli citizens do have certain rights within Israel. Why does the Israeli state intentionally limit enfranchisement of Palestinians in the rest of the territory it claims as its rightful, God-given land?
Let’s think through the conventional explanation for the exclusion of a majority of Palestinians from citizenship: it’s supposed to protect Israelis against the danger of a takeover by a Palestinian government. Given that balancing minority rights is one of the most basic principles in the formation of any democracy and the original Zionists conceived of Israel as a multiethnic federation, this comes off as rather preposterous. Multiethnic states throughout the world have established frameworks to protect the rights of minorities. Indeed, the United States has the second largest Jewish population in the world, almost as large as Israel itself, yet, despite outrageously exaggerated fears broadcast by groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, with rare exceptions, Jewish people in the United States today rarely experience anything worse than impotent, politically disfavored talk behind our backs. Among the Israeli diaspora, countless Israeli-born Jews have left Israel permanently and migrated to the United States, with no hope or desire to return to a nation in which they cannot imagine a just and peaceful future, and whose ethno-nationalist reality they completely repudiate.
One might have hoped that extensive documentation of conditions and fairly regular reporting in U.S. newspapers would have influenced U.S. policy to put effective pressure on Israel—or made any difference whatsoever. It clearly did not. Thus it came as no surprise when a new uprising led to a new level of bloodshed and brutality.
And anyway, does U.S. policy influence Israeli behavior? We often read reports of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, like countless diplomats before him, issuing words of caution. President Obama expressed explicit criticisms of Israeli policy, for which he was slandered and condemned by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Currently, the Israeli retaliation against Hamas is entering its fifth month of flagrantly violating international human rights conventions and laws of war. The Israeli government has only moved further and further to the extreme Right.
Neither a clearly accelerating genocidal campaign in Gaza nor Netanyahu’s intractability has led to any change in the U.S. policy of arming and funding the Israeli government and military. The United States continues to throw money at both, while at the same time pretending its cautionary diplomatic statements will have an impact. If U.S. policy doesn’t influence Israeli behavior, will Israeli behavior influence U.S. policy? What is the limit of our support? Whether or not it sways Netanyahu, we should certainly withhold military funding now and make our support contingent on clearly stated humanitarian objectives and an ultimate governing framework that conforms to our ideas of justice. If Israel chooses to continue its current course, it should do it alone, without our support.
What kind of policy should we support? It’s worth pointing out that both the United States and Israel are prototypical “settler colonist” states, a term recently embraced by leftist movement activists. The term is helpful in correcting a widespread self-misunderstanding of Americans in relation to our own colonial history: we usually forget that in contrast to most parts of the world—all of Africa, Asia, and most of the Middle East—there has never been an anti-colonial revolution returning the indigenous people to power in this country.
Yet the term has a limited usefulness in helping us to think through how unceded land should be governed now and in the future. As one activist friend made clear, accusing me of adopting a white supremacist ideology in calling for a multiethnic state in Israel and Palestine, the term “settler-colonist” implies that the pre-colonial indigenous people of a territory are the sole inhabitants entitled to self-determination. This would exclude not only the descendants of the original colonial settlers but also, for instance, African Americans whose ancestors were brought to the Americas against their will, and political refugees and asylum seekers from every part of the globe, who have migrated to the United States seeking freedom of conscience and freedom from oppression.
Here, alongside the principles of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the principles set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be our guide. Adopted in 1948 almost simultaneously with the formation of the state of Israel, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been embraced by nearly every nation in the world. It guarantees the inalienable rights of all people within a territory to legal and political recognition. Among these rights are the right to liberty; freedom from torture and cruel and inhuman treatment; equality before the law; equal protection against discrimination, arbitrary imprisonment, and exile; freedom of movement; and the right to nationality “without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” In short, the United States should stand behind a policy in Israel consistent with its own governing principles: support only a multiethnic, nonsectarian state within which all inhabitants and all those living within the territory it controls are legally guaranteed civil rights.
Stephen Zacks is an advocacy journalist, architecture critic, urbanist, and project organizer based in New York City.