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We need to challenge Israeli exceptionalism

On 15 May millions of Palestinians will be commemorating 67 years of the Nakba, the episode in their history described as the "catastrophe", with the creation of the state of Israel on their land and subsequent ethnic cleansing.

To astute observers, the seven decades of continued violence against, and dispossession of, an entire people ought to clarify the source of such apparently permanent historical injustice. The majority of Palestinians today are still refugees.

The Nakba narrative is in every respect a simple story of Israeli colonialism and Palestinian dispossession, yet the world treats it as an extremely complex issue, an attitude which achieves nothing apart from confounding the choice of "solution". History is full of "nakbas", with European settlers going to foreign lands, settling there, and either committing genocide or expelling the indigenous population. Telling and re-telling the Palestinian story is important to set the historical record straight and, more significantly, because it informs our choice of solution which, above all, should be based on truth and justice.

It is the absence of this historical honesty that's resulted in innumerable failures to end this conflict. We need to move beyond a common paradox when discussing Israeli policies, which is the failure to link policy with ideology. There is no shortage of condemnation for Israel's many atrocities, criminal policies and routine violence and humiliation endured by Palestinians on a daily basis; all are the result of Israel's "permanent" occupation.

It's a common feature in the mainstream discourse illustrated perfectly by the demonstration last summer when Israel attacked the Gaza Strip. Thousands marched against Israel's aggression, but what about the ideology that produces violence on this scale and keeps millions of people in the "maximum security" prison of Gaza, or the "open prison" of the occupied West Bank?

This is a legitimate question. It was perfectly logical and the decent thing to do to question the supremacist ideology of Apartheid South Africa when it massacred the people of Sharpeville and Soweto. Thankfully, few thought it enough just to condemn the killings and government policies; millions across the world mobilised against the ideology behind them and the mindset it produced that could not only kill but also justify the killing on racial grounds.

Condemnation and outrage has become a ritual. Even Israel's ardent supporters feel the need to criticise Israel when it slaughters 1,400 men, women and children in the space of four weeks, or when the country's prime minister makes racist remarks intended to win him re-election. But what is the point of such superficial ritualism?

Israeli propaganda has been successful in erecting boundaries for "legitimate" criticism. This engenders a mentality of exceptionalism that needs to be challenged. There, is after all, a direct thread connecting Israel's past and present policies, as well as its past and present crimes: the state of Israel's unfailing commitment to its founding ideology, Zionism. This connects the Nakba of 1948 with the ongoing catastrophe today. It lies behind the recent judgement passed by Israel's Supreme Court to reject a petition by residents of two Palestinian villages – Atir, in the West Bank and Umm Al-Hiran in the Negev – against their forced displacement; it's yet another example of Israel's incremental ethnic cleansing and takeover of historic Palestine.

It's 1948 all over again for the Bedouin tribe who were first expelled from their land during the Nakba to make way for Jewish-only settlements and kibbutzim. The two Palestinian communities have been living in areas allotted to them by the Israeli state, but once again their homes are being demolished in order to make way for Jewish settlements.

Policies like this, which have the seal of approval from Israel's highest office, are even objectionable to many who are pro-Israel. They are an embarrassment to those faced with the impossible task of promoting Israel to the rest of world as a liberal, democratic state.

Uprooting one group of people from their land simply because they are the "wrong" ethnicity or religion in order to replace them with another group from the "right" ethnicity or religion harks back to discredited political projects thankfully now extinct in virtually every country in the world – except Israel.

Only in Israel do we find the requisite conditions for the flourishing of a political programme that has at its core the spirit of segregation, separation and discrimination. Political Zionism was born with this template and pragmatic leaders like David Ben-Gurion fulfilled the ideological need to take over Palestine inch by inch to satisfy the craving for more land with a Jewish majority.

The first systematic effort to address the demographic imbalance and create space for a Jewish majority began early in December 1947, before the creation of Israel and before the expiry of the British Mandate. Of the 750,000 Palestinians who were dispossessed – half the population of historic Palestine – an estimated 50 per cent had been "cleansed" from the land before Israel's 1948 "War of Independence" began. In a period of less than seven weeks leading up to Israel's creation and the formal military hostilities, 200 Palestinian villages were occupied by Jewish militias and their inhabitants were expelled. A further 300 villages were "cleansed" while the conflict was at its height.

With the help of Jewish terrorist groups like Irgun and the Stern Gang, the yishuv (Jewish residents of Palestine before Israel was created), used force to carve out exclusively-Jewish space as they sought to develop their vision of a Jewish democracy. It is remembered solemnly by Palestinians as the beginning of their exile; their fragmentation as a nation; and their degradation as a stateless and homeless people.

Israel is unique for its doctrinal adherence to a state ideology; another relic of the past, exhumed from the graveyard of political history. History is littered with examples of the horrors that follow when states become instruments for ideological advancement, especially one that is rooted in ethnicity and religion.

Modern nation states may be criticised for pushing neo-liberal capitalism, but no self-respecting liberal democracy ascribes to an ideology based on religious and ethnic supremacy. There is a very simple example, one that has profound consequences in the relationship between a state and its citizens, and that is the very idea of citizenship in Israel.

Unlike any other country, Israel makes a distinction between citizenship and nationality. There is no Israeli nationality and nobody can be an Israeli national. What you have in Israel are different categories of citizenship; it's an anomaly that does not exist anywhere else. Citizenship is the gold standard of recognition in all modern states where equal rights and equal privilege, at least in theory, are granted to every citizen.

Israel does not adhere to this basic principal; instead, it discriminates between "gold standard" citizenship available to Jews only and "bronze standard" citizenship offered to non-Jews. One could add that "silver standard" citizenship is granted to Ethiopian and other non-European Jews.

A widely accepted criticism of the "Jewish State" is that Israel is not a country for all its citizens; it is a country for some of its citizens. In practice this translates into discrimination between Jewish citizens and non-Jews. The former have full privileges, while the latter are denied many rights and privileges.

This discrimination is most clear in laws concerning land: as much as 92 per cent of the land in Israel is exclusive to "people of the Jewish race/religion and origin". Quasi-state institutions like the Jewish National Fund administer the use of land, setting up an array of bureaucratic structures to ensure that most of the country is free of non-Jews.

To grasp the extent of this inherent racism, imagine that over 90 per cent of land in the United Kingdom was administered by a quasi-state institution – let's call it the "English National Fund" or "Christian National Fund" – which administers the use of land across Britain to prevent non-English or non-Christian people from using it.

Such a description of Israel is probably unrecognisable to many in the West given its highly effective propaganda and lobby groups. It is, however, a defining feature of the country that has been camouflaged successfully under the veil of democracy, including elections, a free press and the rule of law. Symbols of democracy by themselves, though, are not clear reflections of a state's ability to uphold the spirit and essential principals of democracy.

Maintaining this facade in the face of ongoing ethnic cleansing; six decades of occupation; countless military offensives; and daily human rights abuses, is at the very least desperate. Israel did not enter a "post-Zionist" world following its creation in 1948, as claimed by some of its supporters. On the contrary, the maintenance of Zionism and achieving its primary objective of occupying as much of Palestine as possible with as few Palestinians therein as possible means that ethnic cleansing is in the DNA of Israeli society and politics.

The problem for Israel is that it's trying to maintain a political relic in a world in which settler-colonialist projects are no longer acceptable. The constant challenge for Israel is to balance its Zionist ideology with the superficial appearance of democracy; the two concepts couldn't be less analogous.

There is a saying in the Jewish tradition that you shouldn't look for the key where the light is but look for the key where you lost it. Peace was lost in Palestine because of Israel's dogmatic commitment to Zionism. It will not be found again until Israel is no longer committed to Zionism at all costs, but promotes democracy and human rights for all of its citizens and neighbours. We really do need to challenge Israeli exceptionalism.

IsraelMiddle EastNewsPalestine
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