Movements for Racial Justice in the State of Israel

Resistance Efforts for Racial Justice in the State of Israel in the Twentieth Century

The Israeli persecution and apartheid of indigenous Palestinian people and communities and Israel’s justification for their ongoing violence has become a visibly contested by activists, scholars, and politicians across the globe. Narratives of Palestinian oppression, genocide, and systemic racism from the incredibly conservative Israeli government are rampant across the media and activist circles alike. Comparatively, there is a U.S.-supported, Israeli narrative of Palestinian, Muslim, and Arab threats of violence and terrorism while pursuing a Zionist interpretation of Jewish Liberation with the establishment of a post-Holocaustal Jewish state.

This ongoing transnational debate can be exemplified through the U.S. centered racial justice movement,  The Movement for Black Lives, and their support for the BDS (Boycott Divestment, and Sanctions) movement. BDS is as a form of peaceful protest against the Israeli apartheid, and is highly contested all over the world as either “too extreme” or potentially anti-semitic due to the state of Israel being the campaign’s specific target.  Many Liberal Zionist Jews and Jewish organizations withdrew their support for Black Lives Matter because of the mentioning of Apartheid and Genocide of Palestinians in the State of Israel, and have reinforced their own understanding that the state of Israel’s occupation and destruction of Palestinian land is somewhat justified, and completely separate, from systemic racism in the United States. The justification for American Jewish institutions’ support of Israel is because the nation is inherently linked to Jewish safety and liberation. Without Israel, it is commonly understand that the Jews will never escape from the deathly perils of anti-semitism.

However, describing Israel as a Jewish State, or a safe-haven for Jews from all over the world, is a misnomer at best. Zionism as a philosophy was founded by Theodore Herzl, an Ashkenazi Jew, founded the European Political Zionist movement in the late nineteenth century as a method of obtaining safety from the violent ongoing persecution of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. Specifically, he believed that anti-semitism would never leave Europe. In 1895, he wrote in his diary in response to the anti-semitic persecution in France: “In Paris, as I have said, I achieved a freer attitude toward anti-semitism … Above all, I recognized the emptiness and futility of trying to ‘combat’ anti-semitism.”(1) Subsequently, he started pitching and envisioning the future of a Jewish state in the Jews’ “native” Palestine, which would free Europe’s Jews from persistent violence. His ideas spread rapidly and caught the eyes of Europe’s most prominent colonial powers, Great Britain in particular.

At the turn of the century, there was a mass movement of Jewish settlement in Palestine, which was organized by European Zionists as an attempt meant to secure the future of usually persecuted Jewish communities. This movement was highly political in nature, and it was also justified by the claimed Jewish significance of Jerusalem and other holy sites in Palestine. After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the British Empire’s acquisition of the Mandate of Palestine, Jewish Zionists began settling and purchasing land in Palestine until Israel was declared an official state in 1948, three years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust. The declaration of Israel as an official state is also referred to as al Nakba by Palestinians who experienced violence at the hands of the newly formed Israeli army. There were specific territories for Palestinian communities for relocation; the Gaza strip and the West Bank, which still exist today. These land allocations were controlled by both Jordan and Egypt respectively until the Six Day War in 1967, in which the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) claimed more eastern land in holier sites, which then pushed Palestinians further out of their land and allowed Israel to have control over both Gaza and the West Bank.(2) There are currently still contentious and violent tensions between Israel and Palestinian territories; Gaza has been under siege by the IDF since 2014, and IDF soldiers are moving eastward into the West Bank by establishing more Jewish-only settlements and further brutalizing Palestinians and Palestinian infrastructure. This has lead to an increased call for violent conflict, which has caused immense destruction to Palestine and for Israel’s perceived sense of security.

Although this subject is usually framed as a “conflict”,  I would like to oppose that categorization. Israel is, and was from its conception, a violent settler-colonial project justified by Jewish trauma and liberation. There is a white supremacist grab for colonial power, and a call to essentially eradicate Palestinian people and, as Herzl said, to make sure that “Jews would bring cleanliness, order, and the well-established customs of the Occident to this plague-ridden blighted corner of the Orient.” (3) Due to this blatant anti-Arab, orientalist racism, it is clear that Herzl’s vision for the The Zionist State was specifically for white Ashkenazi Jews and to further a white supremacist colonial agenda. Therefore when considering resistance movements organized by Palestinian and Mizrahi Jewish activists, we need to consider how structurally and ideologically oppressive Zionism and the state of Israel are, and how we can factor in the ideologies of resistance movements to inform us how peace is possible.

The first resistance movement I will highlight is the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). The PLO was founded in 1964 as an armed resistance movement and has historically been recognized as a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel. (4) However since 1993, PLO has recognized Israel as an official state and denounced its usage of violence, and in return Israel has recognized the organization as a legitimate representation of Palestinians. (5)

PLO has its ideological roots in anti-Zionism and restoring indigenous control over Palestine. They demanded that Palestinians in exile should have the ability to return to their homeland, and Jewish Zionists have no right to have a state on Palestinian land. As an organization, they stated their disregard for the Balfour Declaration and Mandate of Palestine because they had no agency in regard to these colonial decisions. (6) Unlike other radical resistance movements we have discussed in class, the PLO does not adhere to any specific religious ideology, rather it structurally upholds multiple secular ideologies of liberation and methods of Arab self-determination. PLO’s largest ideological goal at its very establishment was relentless pursuit of Palestinian independence. Therefore, the organization was radicalized and motivated by decolonized nationalism, sovereignty, and access to land and basic human rights without cooperation with Israeli forces. The Arab League has formerly recognized PLO as the official representation for Palestinian people, which helped its progression of being recognized as a terrorist organization to a legitimate form of political representation. Despite its pro-violence and anti-Zionist roots, the PLO was taken aback by the rise of the First Intifada in 1987.

The First Intifada was a result of an IDF vehicle colliding with a civilian’s car, which resulted in the death of four Palestinians in a large refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. (7)The intifada consisted of demonstrations and material strikes against the presence of the IDF, and those who participated specifically targeted Israeli institutions and presences of power. The Intifada lasted over five years and was met with intense backlash from Israeli forces; mass arrests of Palestinians, the IDF shutting down Palestinian-run institutions, curfews, siege of resources such as water and electricity, and environmental destruction. (8)There was also a movement to arrest prominent leaders of the intifada and Palestinian institutions so the protesters would be further stripped of their power, as well as consistent tear-gas bombing of the refugee camps. (9) The effects of this state violence was devastating for Palestinian activists and refugees residing in the West Bank.

If the concurrent violence from the IDF and Israeli government against Palestinians were so devastating, what is the point of Palestinian organizations supporting violent resistance? The intifada was not organized by a single person or organization, but it was rather multi-dimensional and supported by several different political perspectives and groups, including the PLO, the Palestine Communist Party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Democratic Front. The intifada was not associated with Islamic fundamentalist ideology such as the Hamas, and operated in direct opposition to their fundamentalist activism. (10)These organizations supported by community leaders who pushed for community sovereignty, especially in regards to accessible education and supportive infrastructures. The intifada specifically called for an end to Israel’s illegal occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and for a call for Palestinian Liberation.

Understanding the causes and importance of the First Intifada are essential for those who are advocating for peace in Palestine. The First Intifada occurred due to the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, the intensely violent and consistent presence of the IDF at checkpoints and the refugee camps, and the complete disregard or value of Palestinian self-determination and human rights. The First Intifada met violence with violence, and was punished for organizing for sovereignty from Israeli state forces. Unlike much of the rhetoric that is present in Western accounts of Palestinian activism, there was no Islamic fundamentalism motivating these supposed acts of terror; only Liberation. This confirms my understand that the “conflict” is not about religious control, but rather over land and violent systemic white supremacy. Both of these factors have contributed to what many now recognize as the Israeli Apartheid.

As I have repeatedly stated, forces and resistance against white supremacy is rampant in the state of Israel, even amongst Mizrahim and other Jews of Color who face state violence and persecution from the mostly Ashkenazi and white Israeli government. Many Middle Eastern and North African Jews migrated to Israel after its establishment in 1948. From the state’s beginnings to the early 1970s, hundreds of thousands of what are now recognized as Mizrahi Jews (literally Eastern Jews in Hebrew) immigrated to Israel due to persecution or expulsion from their native lands. (11) Promised a homeland, many Mizrahi families took aliyah and settled in Israel, However, it was evident due to massive amounts of state violence, segregation, and anti-Arab rhetoric that the state of Israel was a state established for Ashkenazi and white Jews, not for the liberation of Jews from other parts of the world.

Because of this persistent violence against Jews of Color, the Israeli Black Panthers were established in 1971. (12) The Panthers illegally protested in Jerusalem against racial discrimination and for a better future for Mizrahi Jews. Most of their demands were largely ignored by the Israeli government, until their protests escalated to large-scale militant protests. Thousands of protesters gathered in the Square of Zion in Jerusalem to call for racial justice, in which they were finally heard and their demands were considered until Israel began focusing on its development of their military and security institutions and away from pressing issues of their own people. The Black Panthers’ work and activism influenced the public discourse of Israeli politics, which also led to further representation of Mizrahi Jews in visible positions of power. Although Mizrahi Jews are able to live in the state of Israel outside of Apartheid, it is essential to understand that they have and continue to experience systemic racial discrimination through Israel’s adherence to white supremacy, and their political actions and criticisms of Israel are not motivated by religious fundamentalism or anti-semitism. It is, again, about acquiring justice within their own land.

1)Vital, ‘A People Apart,’ vol. 2, p. 439

2) Jillian Schwedler, “Religion and Politics,” in Politics & Society in the Contemporary Middle East, ed. Michele Penner Angrist, Second Edition, (London: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 2013), Pg. 127.

3)Mahallati Lecture, November 13, 2017.

4)Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)”. 1993-09-09. Retrieved 2017-03-08.

5) Kim Murphy. “Israel and PLO, in Historic Bid for Peace, Agree to Mutual Recognition,” Los Angeles Times, 10 September 1993.

6)The Palestinian National Charter: Resolutions of the Palestine National Council July 1-17, 1968

7)Michail Omer-Man The accident that sparked an Intifada, 12/04/2011

8)Pearlman, Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement, p. 115

9)Anita Vitullo,’Uprising in Gaza,’ in Lockman and Beinin 1989 pp. Pg 51-52

10) Lockman, Zachary; Beinin, Joel, eds. (1989). Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising Against Israeli Occupation. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.ISBN 978-0-89608-363-9. Pg 35

11)Hoge, Warren (5 November 2007). “Group seeks justice for ‘forgotten’ Jews”. The New York Times. Retrieved 3 December 2012.

12) Eric Herschthal (29 June 2010). “Israel’s Black Panthers Remembered”. The Jewish Week. Retrieved 12/13/2017