Israel’s Inverse Exceptionalism
by M. Shahid Alam
Critics of Zionism and Israel – including a few Israelis – have charted an inverse exceptionalism, which describes an Israel that is aberrant, violates international norms with near impunity, engages in systematic abuse of human rights, wages wars at will, and has expanded its territories through conquest. This is not the place to offer an exhaustive list of these negative Israeli exceptionalisms, but we will list a few that are more egregious.
As an exclusionary settler-colony, Israel does not stand alone in the history of European expansion overseas: but it is the only one of its kind in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Since the sixteenth century Europeans have established exclusionary settler-colonies in the Americas, Australia and New Zealand – among other places – whose white colons displaced or nearly exterminated the indigenous population to recreate societies in the image of those they had left behind. By the late nineteenth century, however, this genocidal European expansion was running out of steam, in large part, because there remained few surviving Neolithic societies that white colons could exterminate with ease; in tropical Africa and Asia, the climate and the pathogens were not particularly kind to European settlers.
The Zionist decision in 1897 to establish an exclusionary colonial-settler state in Palestine marked a departure from this trend. In 1948, some fifty years later, the Jewish colons from the West would create the only state in the twentieth century founded on conquest and ethnic cleansing. Israel is also the only exclusionary colonial-settler state established by the modern Europeans anywhere in the Old World.
In Israel, moreover, settler-colonialism is not something that belongs to its past. After their victory in the June war of 1967, the Israelis decided to extend their colonial-settler project to the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights. In recent decades, the demand for another massive round of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the ‘Occupied Territories’ – and even inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders – has moved from the extremist fringes of the Israeli Right to the mainstream of Israeli politics.
Israel is most likely the only country in the world that insists on defining citizenship independently of geography. On the one hand, it has continued to deny the right of return – and, hence, rights of citizenship – to millions of Palestinians who or whose parents and grandparents were expelled from Palestine in two massive rounds of ethnic cleansing since 1948. At the same time, under it Law of Return, Israel, automatically and instantly, grants citizenship to applicants who are Jews, persons of Jewish parentage, or Jewish converts. Under this law, as Mazin Qumsiyeh puts it succinctly, “no Jew emigrates to Israel; Jews (including converts) ‘return’ (hence the name of the law).” In addition, the Jewish immigrants receive generous support from the state upon their arrival in Israel. In other words, Israel turns internationally recognized rights of residence and citizenship on their head, denying these rights to those who have earned them by birth, while granting them freely to those who claim them because of ancient religious myths.
In recent years, critics have increasingly charged Israel with practicing legal discrimination against Palestinians. Such discrimination is massive and blatant in the ‘Occupied Territories’ where Israel has established Jewish-only settlements, connected to pre-1967 Israel by Jewish-only roads. Since June 1967, the Palestinians in these territories have suffered under a system of military occupation, which shows even less regard for their human rights than South Africa’s apartheid. A former US President, Jimmy Carter, has recently dared to acknowledge the existence of apartheid in the ‘Occupied Territories’ in the title of his new book, Palestine: Peace not apartheid. Instantly, America’s mainstream media – led by Zionist censors – began savagely attacking President Carter for mentioning the unmentionable. Not a few political and academic careers in the United States have met a premature end for lesser offenses. Jimmy Carter, the octogenarian former President, had little to lose.
Inside its pre-1967 borders too, Israel has allocated rights based on ethnicity. Until 1966, Palestinians in Israel were governed under martial law, which severely restricted their civil and political rights, including their right to free movement, to establish their own media, and to protest or form political parties. Since its founding, Israel has openly tied its immigration policy to Jewish ethnicity. Israeli law defines land to be a property of the Jewish people, owned on their behalf by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), a quasi-governmental organization. Israel nationalized all the lands belonging to the Palestinians it expelled in 1948, and it has continued to expropriate Palestinian lands under a variety of arbitrary measures. As a result, the JNF today owns 93 percent of all the lands in pre-1967 Israel. Yet, even in his moment of daring, President Carter shrank from addressing the presence of apartheid inside pre-1967 Israel.
Israel is the only country in the world that refuses to define its borders. Its de facto borders have shifted with impressive frequency. At first, the armistice line of 1948 served as Israel’s borders; but they expanded outwards in 1956, 1967 and 1982, because of wars and conquests. On a few occasions, Israel had to retract from the territories it had conquered: from the Sinai in 1957, from the Sinai again in 1978, from Southern Lebanon in May 2000, and from Southern Lebanon again in August 2006. In addition, since the Oslo Accord of 1993, Israel has defined a new set of internal ‘borders’ inside the West Bank to contain and neutralize the Palestinian resistance in a set of regulated Bantustans.
If Israel has not yet reached or exceeded the borders of the mythic David’s Kingdom, it is not because of any lack of ambition. The constraint is demographic. In order to expand beyond its present borders, Israel would need a more ample supply of Jewish colons willing to assume the risks of colonization. Fortunately, for the Arabs, these colons are in short supply, as they were before the rise of the Nazis in Germany. Had Israel succeeded in attracting five million Jewish colons after 1967, the Sinai would still be under Israeli occupation, and its borders in the north would extend to the Litani River and across the Jordan River in the east. Luckily, for the Arabs, Israeli expansionism has been stalled by the poverty of Jewish demography. That could change very quickly, however, if Israel decides to soften the requirements for conversion to Judaism. Millions of Jewish converts from the poorest countries in the world, attracted by the promise of a ‘better life,’ could start pouring into Israel under its Law of Return.