Settler colonialism, white supremacy, and the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel
February 24, 2015 talk by JVP Deputy Director Cecilie Surasky at Portland State University from Environmental Destruction and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement: a panel on international resistance.
Panelist pictured above, from left: Dr. Michael Yellow Bird, Kanahus Manuel, Cecilie Surasky and Omar Barghouti.
Tonight I want to make the case that:
1. The ‘special relationship’ between Israel and the United States is rooted in our common national narratives and founding mythology.
2. Settler colonialism and white supremacy is the right, holistic frame with which to understand Israel and Palestine, as well as the U.S.— it helps us understand what we’re really struggling against, and holds us accountable to ways we may inadvertently be serving the status quo.
3. If the basis of the special relationship is a common narrative of ‘manifest destiny’, and the feelings of superiority over others that it engenders, then to resist we must counter that narrative.
One question we often ask ourselves is why Americans so easily accept the dominant Israeli narrative without question, and I think the answer is obvious. We have literally been primed, for generations, by our own national narrative of manifest destiny, white supremacy and exceptionalism.
We all are well versed with language about the “special relationship” between Israel and the United States. And in fact, it is real. Over time, no other country in the world has been the recipient of more economic and military aid from the U.S., or from any other country for that matter.
Furthermore, many of us hold a power analysis which says that the key to ending Israel’s ongoing occupation and oppression of Palestinians is ending that unconditional special relationship — so understanding the roots of this relationship is not idle curiosity. It’s essential if we are to ever achieve a just and durable peace, for both peoples.
There are many reasons for this so-called special relationship, and it has evolved over time, but I think the foundational aspects of it relate to remarkably similar national narratives which shape, in an ongoing way, how we see and understand ourselves and our actions as representatives of a collective national identity— how we justify killing, extraction, land theft, and so on, in transcendent moral terms.
We have mythical national narratives of two settler colonial peoples, who both believe that we have a divine mandate, to settle a so-called empty or savage land, and make it into a kind of heaven on earth. Ethnic cleansing, even genocide—these are all divinely justified. Israel is to be a light unto nations. What would become the United States, a kind of heaven on earth. Both peoples believe ourselves to be somehow specially chosen by God.
As Donald E. Pease, Dartmouth literary critic wrote about this land, in The New American Exceptionalism:
“Virgin Land” depopulated the landscape in the imaginary register so that it might be perceived as unoccupied territory in actuality. The metaphor turned the landscape into a blank page, understood to be the ideal surface onto which to inscribe the history of the nation’s Manifest Destiny”.
“Virgin Land narratives placed the movement of the national people across the continent in opposition to the savagery attributed to the wilderness as well as the native peoples who figured as indistinguishable from the wilderness, and, later, it fostered an understanding of the campaign of Indian removal as nature’s beneficent choice of the Anglo-American settlers over the native inhabitants for its cultivation…”
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? The Zionist version is the famous slogan— a Land with No People for a People with No Land. And Israel’s “miraculous” military victories have always been seen as signs of God the adjudicator’s hand.
Of course, that notion of heaven on earth, or A Light Unto Nations, is predicated on a system of racial and ethnic superiority—who gets to be human and “civilized”, and who is subhuman. Who exists, and who is invisible or must be disappeared. Who can claim the land, and who has no rights to it.
And the fundamental root of all that we like to call the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is this essential fact—it was a land with people. And specifically, the wrong people who by definition could not be part of an ethnic exclusivist state.
Remember that the original violence of the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of the land of Palestinians, continues on a daily basis to this day. The process of colonization never stopped. Although today we call them ”facts on the ground”, and Palestinians are talked about, not as equal human beings with the same hopes aspirations and rights to freedom, but rather as a “demographic threat.”
European Colonialism and White Supremacy
What makes this issue so complex and deeply challenging is that early European Zionists, who first started coming to Palestine in the late 1800s, had themselves suffered from a profoundly long history of fierce Christian European anti-Jewish oppression— forced conversions, ghettoes, pogroms, institutional repression and discrimination and so on, which as we know, culminated in the horrific genocide during World War II, the Holocaust or Shoah. They believed the only solution to this history was for Jews to have a state of their own.
But while all genocides and acts of violence have their unique features, and they must be studied and understood, I believe it is critical to situate the genocide of Jews, in a broader context—and not as an exceptional, metaphysically unique event.
Some 6 million Jews died, but another 5 million people were also targeted for annihilation because they were considered less than human, including the Roma people, gays, Poles, Ukrainians and so on, totaling 11 million. In Poland alone, Nazis murdered 3 million ethnic Poles and 3 million Polish Jews. Had they not been stopped, those numbers would have been infinitely higher in their march to the East.
Further, to state the obvious, the Holocaust did not mark the sudden and inexplicable birth of the white European capacity to commit genocide.
No one knows this better than the indigenous people of this continent, or the descendants of enslaved Africans.
Or the people of the Congo, where 10 million died under the rule of King Leopold of Belgium.
I could go on. I could also go on about U.S. Empire.
In Europe, while the specifics looked different, one could be Jewish or a colonized subject and be called an insect, vermin, an animal— subhuman.
In other words, it is important that we situate what is happening in Israel and Palestine today, and the work we must do in the US for justice, as part of a lengthy historical cascade of impacts rooted in European colonialism, white racism, US Empire, anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish oppression, corporate greed and so on.
I’m underscoring this because similarly, even though we understand that historic Palestine was colonized by the British, there is a tendency to also remove the story of Israel and Palestine from broader historical contexts and the sweep of history and to see it as somehow utterly unique, beyond time, and as saying something essential about Jews and the Arab world especially.
The extreme and bigoted versions of this essentializing view is:
—you either believe that the only story that matters is that the world and especially Muslims hate Jews and always will, that the hatred of Jews is an essential part of humanity
—or you believe that Jews are exceptionally powerful and devious, and have managed to manipulate an otherwise beneficent and inherently just and reasonable U.S. foreign policy establishment into doing wrong by the Palestinians.
Talk about divide and conquer.
If we believe either of these stories, all of us who are natural allies in the struggle against corporate greed, the destruction of our world, systemic racism and settler colonialism and so on—we remain divided from each other.
We literally can’t build a unified and strong movement. We create a circular firing range, and we unwittingly become the agents of that which we should be fighting against. Which is why understanding our struggles as connected—which is what’s happening on campuses throughout the U.S. and world today— is so unbelievably powerful, and threatening.
I have seen these views manifest in the movement for Palestinian liberation: sometimes people chant “2-4-6-8 Israel is a racist state”, or decry the disappearance 400 Palestinian villages when Israel was created, without even a hint of irony or self-reflection that one is literally standing on land built on slavery and the (still happening) genocide of indigenous peoples. In some cases, we have seen Israeli human rights advocates try to emphasize the growth of Israeli racism by comparing it unfavorably to racism here, where presumably, they suggest we have mostly won the battle.
All of that said, what is also absolutely clear is that Early Zionist leaders were simultaneously both the victims of, and willing agents of white supremacist colonialism. In fact, they made their case quite explicitly to British colonizers who they knew did not want Jews at home but who did want to maintain colonial designs on the Middle East.
As the Israeli analyst Tom Segev reports in One Palestine Complete:
“The Jewish state in Palestine, Theodor Herzl wrote, would be Europe’s bulwark against Asia. “We can be the vanguard of culture against barbarianism.”
And about early Zionist leader and writer Max Nordau:
“..Max Nordau believed the Jews would not lose their European culture in Palestine and adopt Asia’s inferior culture, just as the British had not become Indians in America, Hottentots in Africa, or Papuans in Australia. “We will endeavor to do in the Near East what the English did in India. It is our intention to come to Palestine as the representatives of culture and to take the moral borders of Europe to the Euphrates River.”
Early Zionist leaders actually appealed to the anti-Jewish hatred of European colonizers, making the case that helping to create a Jewish state elsewhere was a win-win because it would help them get rid of the Jews. Theodore Herzl wrote, “the anti-Semites will become our most dependable friends, the anti-Semitic countries our allies”
And they internalized the same white supremacist hierarchy which had been used against them. The “new Jew” was blond, blue eyed, healthy and muscular, vs. the shtetl Jew who was small, dark, hunched over, religious, an embarrassment.
I want to recognize there is sensitivity about even raising this issue- but this has nothing to do with Jews specifically and everything to do with human beings. Virtually every colonized or oppressed group internalizes the eyes, in some way, of their oppressors, as Frantz Fanon wrote about so eloquently. Women can be the agents of the patriarchy, blacks can internalize white supremacy, LGBT people can internalize transphobia and homo-phobia. In a sense, we’re all colonized in some way. This shouldn’t be a controversial observation, it’s just fact about what it means to be human.
The fact remains that many early European Zionist leaders’ disdain for the local Arab populations was only matched by their disdain for other Jews from the Middle East.
The founder of Zionist Revisionism, precursor to Likud, Zev Jabotinsky wrote:
“We Jews have nothing in common with what is called the ‘Orient,’ thank God. To the extent that our uneducated masses have ancient spiritual traditions and laws that call the Orient, they must be weaned away from them, and this is in fact what we are doing in every decent school, what life itself is doing with great success. We are going in Palestine, first for our national convenience, [second] to sweep out thoroughly all traces of the ‘Oriental soul.’ As for the [Palestinians] Arabs in Palestine, what they do is their business; but if we can do them a favor, it is to help them liberate themselves from the Orient.'” (One Palestine Complete, Tom Segev)
And the effort was “successful”. As Arab Jewish scholar Ella Shohat has written,
“in a generation or two, millennia of rooted Oriental civilization, unified even in its diversity,” had been wiped out. Jews from Arab countries were forced to choose between being either Arab or Jewish, but they could not be both. ( Ella Shohat, “Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims,” Social Text, No.19/20 (1988))
Of course those Jews who survived had the right to their homes after they were ripped from their homes, and their world literally obliterated— but it wasn’t Palestinians or the Arab world that owed them reparations or a homeland. It was Europe.
But thanks to settler colonialism, it has been Palestinians who have been forced to pay the price ever since.
The Manipulation of Jewish Trauma
I can’t underscore enough the extent to which the profound Jewish trauma over genocide and oppression has been manipulated and deliberately retriggered over and over by people and institutions who have instrumentalized Jewish suffering to justify Israeli expansionism and repression.
Everyone from Abraham Foxman and the Anti-Defamation League to the Simon Wiesenthal Center perform this role effectively through a steady-drip of “the world hates us” iconography, statements, and Boy-Cries-Wolf overwrought hysteria, which of course cheapens the charge of anti-Semitism.
I grew up with a tante who would literally shake with rage when she described her childhood in Poland. My father didn’t talk about his family story, so as kids we didn’t understand. But later we learned the horror stories, realized it was our own extended families in those pictures of pogroms and prisoner camps, and we internalized the sense of perpetual fear.
After the war, Jews did not talk about the Holocaust, there was much shame. But it eventually became our central access to our identity, thanks in no small part to efforts to give the young nation of Israel a perpetual free pass. And in the process, it was given a kind of mystical exceptionalism.
Rather than teaching us lessons about systems of oppression, it became the horror to end all horrors, which cast a shadow over history’s other horrors.
Many children would be taught to ask, not Why throughout history groups of people hated other groups? or Why do governments oppress people? We were taught to ask instead, “Why does everyone hate the Jews?
Further, from a U.S. Empire perspective, it makes sense that the Shoah is commemorated in a massive museum on the Mall in DC, while there is still no national slavery museum or indigenous genocide museum. Better to point the finger elsewhere, while shoring up our sense of collective superiority as heroic Americans.
To this day, Jews and our aspirations for freedom have been unwittingly made a tool of Empire- the struggle against anti-Jewish hatred has been coopted into the effort to demonize the Arab and Muslim world in order to justify US wars and intervention- for profit. And of course, to justify Israeli expansionism.
When Netanyahu encourages Danish or French Jews to mass migrate to Israel—he’s cynically exploiting real fear and trauma to push his expansionist agenda— new immigrants will be sent to settlements, not inside 67 borders.
Similarly, classic anti-Semitism itself is a tool of Empire– Jews are scapegoated as a ‘secret cabal’ that controls the world’s finances, conveniently distracting potential resistance movements from the actual corporate, government and military sources of global economic exploitation and control.
In the end, if we don’t fight this, we all lose. Rather than joining together to resist power, we instead end up fighting each other over manufactured hatreds and bigotries.
If the root of this special relationship is not as much AIPAC and money, as much as it is our national narrative and the feelings it engenders— and an unquestioning belief that Israel has an infinite right to expand onto other people’s land, then it is narrative that holds unconditional support in place, and our resistance must also be at the level of narrative.
So let’s start with ourselves.
All of us in this movement have to decolonize our minds—and it is a constant process, we stumble all the time—because we are fighting the very air we breathe.
But here is our work:
We must insist that Israel does not get a free pass, and nor do I as a white Jew, or anyone else, only because of a personal or collective history of oppression. We all have to be held accountable to the power we hold when we hold it, like anyone else, like any other country. Because it is not only possible but likely that many of us will hold multiple positions at one time- marginalized in some ways and possessing power and privilege in others.
We have to be mindful of Orientialism on the left: just as the left has projected on, fetishized, related transactionally to many native peoples, it happens in this movement.
, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are also sports fans, software developers, and capitalists. Freedom is freedom.
There is a tendency to want all Palestinians to either be helpless grandmothers waiting for a Great White Hope (heroic in the streets activists)—or Che Guevera. Well
The Palestinian struggle is not simply an excuse for us to reflect on how moral the Jewish or Christian or leftist or (fill in the blank) people are. It is not the surface on which we write our own story, or a mirror that interests us only because it shows us our own reflection. We have to simply be allies who love, yes love, our Palestinian friends and colleagues enough to simply say: Tell me how I can support you? Knowing, also, with humility, that in the past, present or future–we too need support in our struggles. And for those of us given a platform because we are “safe” because we are white or Jewish, for example, we have to know when to shut up, and cede the platform to our Palestinian friends.
Most important, rather than framing the story of Palestinian struggle for freedom and justice in a historical and political vacuum—as many do—and as a unique and exceptional story, for example, about a reasonable US foreign policy hijacked by an all-powerful Jewish lobby, we should understand it as part of a much longer unfolding of Christian European Colonialism, greed, and white supremacy—that continues to this day and operates everywhere.
Narrative’s power is not just about knowing facts, it is a means to exert psychological control, and to dampen the will to resist.
Palestinian American scholar Steven Salaita wrote in The Holy Land in Transit, Colonialism and the Quest for Canaan:
Ethnic cleansing is the removal of humans in order that narratives will disappear….a blinding of the national imagination so colonial history will be removed along with the dispossessed. It is only through ethnic cleansing that the average American can accept without nagging guilt the history of her nation, which is known to all but decontextualized from its present…”
The same is true for the Jewish settler, living in a home that once belonged to a Palestinian family. Salaita goes on:
“It is a mistake to conceptualize ethnic cleansing simply as a physical act. It’s importance lies in its psychological power.”
Which is why in the US, we are waging this struggle at the level of narrative. And why universities are on the very front line of this battle. As even Zev Jabotinsky wrote about years ago, this is war of attrition.
Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaigns create a moral crisis, and replace either a conspiracy of total silence, or the monologue of the Israeli narrative masquerading as a dialogue— and it places the Palestinian story right where it belongs—up front.
One of the beautiful elements of the BDS movement is the way that is has challenged the engineered invisibility of the Palestinian narrative and analysis—divestment and boycott votes demand real communication, revealing that what often passes for dialogue, is monologue.
We have to reprogram our neural pathways—through social media, through BDS campaigns, through reinterpreting, re-covering and re-writing our own religious and cultural language. Campuses are the front line, but so are artists and religious practitioners and community-builders.
And we must rewrite our own language.
We began with a slogan—a land with no people for a people with no land.
But now I’ll leave with a new slogan to help us tell a new story— a rewriting we have embraced in my community of Jews—all of us
unwavering in our belief that never again means never again for all people,
unwavering in our pursuit of justice and freedom
unwavering in our belief that Jewish liberation and Palestinian liberation are not opposed, but intertwined
That new slogan is:
All people are chosen, All land is holy.