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No Strangers to the Homeland: Why It’s Wrong to Label Israeli Jews Colonizers

By Henry N. Brooks

There is an important —and increasingly urgent—question surrounding Arab-Israeli dialogue: Who can claim “indigenous” status in the Levantine region?

Opinion pieces, including two in these pages this summer, have made important contributions to both sides of the debate. Both those who would indict the apartheid regime and those who would caution against hastily assessing Israeli self-defense tactics, which help to thwart Hamas, are deeply relevant. Yet nevertheless, the issue of “indigenous” status remains.

To many spectators (particularly on the far left), the question is a settled one. In a recent op-ed for Al Jazeera, one commentator referred to the Jews who fled Europe for Israel after the Holocaust as “colonizers and conquerors,” contrasting Arab indigeneity with Jewish foreignness. The same piece charged “Wonder Woman” lead actress Gal Gadot with faking Jewish identity after her parents made aliyah: “Like most Zionists, her parents changed their names from Greenstein to ‘indigenize’ themselves, but that does not change who they are.” To this author, Gadot and her cohort of Israeli Jews are no different from white European imperialists, overseeing the “destruction of the indigenous society.”

Other voices have started to echo this position. This month, the Democratic Socialists of America voted to boycott Israel over “apartheid, colonialism [and] military occupation.” Beneath the doctrinal language lies the same colonial charge: Israeli Jews are the new conquistadores. And this sentiment is far from isolated.

Certain things ought to go without saying. Current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a war hawk on the settlements issue. He has been a consistent proponent of settlement construction in the West Bank and has occasionally dismissed the possibility of a Palestinian state. Israel’s large military presence in the West Bank is also troubling, as it occasionally enables abusive force. Few political moderates would defend these incursions. For its part, the United States—generally regarded as Israel’s closest ally—has expressed its concerns. But it does not follow from either Netanyahu’s politics or his aggressive interpretation of borders that Israel is inherently colonial.

Sociological and genetic research has long shown that a recognizable Jewish nation first emerged in the Levantine region some 4,000 years ago. This population cultivated the area of Canaan—modern-day Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon—eventually organizing into the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Yihudah (Judah) in the south.

After a colonization campaign by the Romans, this region was reorganized into the province of Judea, where the Hebrews suffered ethnoreligious persecution. Eventually, the empire stripped the region of this name—which at least acknowledged the thousands-year-old subordinate culture—and assigned it a new colonial one: Syria Palaestina. The new name “Palestine,” according to former Harvard Professor H. H. Ben-Sasson, was an attempt to destroy the connection between the Jews and their homeland.

Modern opponents of Israel echo this tactic through the familiar apartheid analogy, which delegitimizes the Jewish presence in the Levant by likening it to the Anglo-Dutch presence in South Africa. This narrative tries to render Jewishness inseparable from the logic of the settlements. Again, these efforts belie history.

When the Dutch and English empires arrived in South Africa, they set foot on a continent that their ancestors had abandoned shortly after the dawn of humanity. In planting the seeds of a new society, they displaced the region’s historical inhabitants. The settlers had no grounds for settlement, no cause for war, and no knowledge of or affinity for the territory. They arrived, to borrow a phrase, as “colonizers and conquerors,” establishing a government permissive of discrimination and, on certain occasions, eugenic social engineering.

The Jewish arrival in Palestine, meanwhile, was an act of return. Decades before the Balfour Declaration signaled the prospect of a Jewish state, Jews tired of systematic persecution in Europe and the Arabian Peninsula began to migrate back to the Levant. None who made the first aliyah intended to remove the region’s new inhabitants. Local residential evictions only began after a series of violent protests across the Middle East signaled sectarian discomfort with the growing Jewish population (including the Farhud, the 1936 Arab Revolt, and the Libyan Riots).

The global historical circumstances of the period shed further light on the early aliyahs. In 1924, the United States adopted the Immigration Act—known commonly as the Asian Exclusion Act. Contrary to popular understanding, though, the act also curtailed Jewish immigration, leaving Europe’s Ashkenazim with few immigration options besides Palestine. Meanwhile, persecution outside Europe—most notably in Yemen—prompted Mizrahi (Middle Eastern Jews) to flow to Palestine as well.

A more detailed history of the Jewish diaspora is too long to provide here, but the point is short: Jews have as much claim to the Levantine region as Arabs. To speak of the Jewish diaspora as though those people have always been splattered across the Earth is to deny their cohesive origin and the violent act through which they were divided. It also ignores the precarious position in which the diaspora finds itself currently, with anti-Semitism rising in Europe and the Middle East and with neo-Nazis marching at the University of Virginia.

It is necessary in a healthy democratic culture to disagree over politics, but someone’s history and humanity are quite another matter. To equate Israel with its settlements is not only lackadaisical, historically speaking; it is revisionist. The Jewish ethnic identity was forged by thousands of years of cultural self-defense deeply bound up with the territory of modern-day Israel, and any resolution—by the DSA, the City University of New York, or others—that negates that bond is either misinformed or willfully forgetful.

In short, either the Levant belongs to both parties—Jewish and Arab—or it belongs to neither.

Henry N. Brooks ’19 is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House.

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