Israel has been subject to some bad publicity recently. In 2008-09, it launched a brutal military campaign in the Gaza Strip that killed more than 400 Palestinian children. In May 2010, bumbling Israeli commandos murdered nine nonviolence activists on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla’s Mavi Marmara. It only got worse for Israel when it was revealed that soldiers stole and sold personal items such as laptops from the ship. Last week, former Israeli soldier Eden Abergil posted photos onto Facebook showing her preening in front of blindfolded and despondent Palestinian prisoners, in some instances mocking those prisoners with sexual undertones. The photos were part of an album entitled “IDF [Israeli army] — the best time of my life.”
While Abergil’s pictures may not seem as abhorrent as the Gaza and Mavi Marmara brutality — Abergil, for her part, described her behavior as nonviolent and free of contempt — all three actions are intimately connected. First of all, we must dispel the notion that Abergil’s photos are nonviolent. As with the Abu Ghraib debacle, a sexualized and coercive humiliation is being visited on the bodies of powerless, colonized and incarcerated subjects, which by any reasonable principle is a basal form of violence. There is also the obvious physical violence of Palestinians being bound and blindfolded, presumably in or on their way to prisons nobody will confuse with the Ritz Carlton.
More important, these recent episodes merely extend an age-old list of Israeli crimes and indignities that illuminate a depravity in the Zionist enterprise itself. What is noteworthy about Israel’s three recent escapades is that more and more people are starting to pay attention to its crimes and indignities. In so doing, more and more people are questioning the origin and meaning of Zionism — that is, the very idea of a legally ethnocentric Israel.
I would like to address this piece to those who have undertaken such questioning or to those who are prepared to initiate it. I would urge you not to limit your critique of Israel only to its errors of judgment or its perceived excesses; it is more productive to challenge the ideology and practice of Zionism itself. There is no noble origin or beautiful ideal to which the wayward Jewish state must return; such yearnings are often duplicitous mythmaking or romanticized nostalgia. Zionists always intended to ethnically cleanse Palestinians, a strategy they carried out and continue to pursue with horrifying efficiency.
Likewise, Zionism was always a colonialist movement, one that relied on the notions of divine entitlement and civilizational superiority that justified previous settlement projects in South Africa, Algeria and North America. Zionism, by virtue of its exclusionary outlook and ethnocentric model of citizenship, is on its own a purveyor of fundamental violence. The bad PR to which Israel sometimes is subject today is a reflection of changed media dynamics, not a worsening of Israel’s behavior.
The 2008-09 Gaza invasion, the attack on the Mavi Marmara and Abergil’s Facebook photos aren’t anomalous or extraordinary. They are the invariable result of a Zionist ideology that cannot help but view Palestinian Muslims and Christians as subhuman, no matter how ardently its liberal champions assert that Zionism is a liberation movement. Zionism has the unfortunate effect of proclaiming that one group of people should have access to certain rights from which another group of people is excluded. There is nothing defensible in this proposition.
Here, then, are four reasons why Americans (and all other humans regardless of race or religion) should oppose Zionism:
1. Zionism is unethical and immoral: Because Zionists claim access to land and legal rights that directly obviate the same access to an indigenous community, it operates from within an idea of belonging that is cruel and archaic. Israel bases its primary criterion for citizenship on religious identity. Imagine having your religion on your driver’s license. And imagine having limited access to freeways, farmland, family, education, employment and foreign travel because the religion by which the state has chosen to identify you is legally marginalized. Such is the daily reality of the Palestinian people.
2. Zionism is racist: This claim isn’t the same as saying that all Zionists are racist. I would make a distinction between the categories of “Zionist” and “Zionism.” However, inherent in the practice of Zionism is a reliance on racialist judgments about who can fully participate in the benefits and practices of a national community. Many Zionists view themselves merely as supporting freedom and safety for Jewish people. I would suggest that people who identify themselves as Zionist look more closely at the ideology they support. Such freedom and safety, both of which are in fact mythologies, come at the direct expense of people confined to Bantustans and refugee camps.
3. Zionism contravenes the geopolitical interests of the United States: Many Americans have heard former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert boast that he once pulled George W. Bush off the dais while Bush was giving a speech, or more recently current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announcing that “America is something that can be easily moved.” Israel costs the United States billions of dollars in direct aid and in bribe money to Jordan and Egypt for their docility. Israel also is the main reason for disgruntlement about American foreign policy in the Arab and Muslim Worlds. I raise this point with some hesitation because I believe all citizens of the United States should challenge and not celebrate American geopolitical interests. I would also point out that Zionism’s narrative of salvation and redemption resonates deeply among Americans because of the US’ origin and continued presence as a nation of settler colonists. In the end, America itself needs to be decolonized and the vast sums of money that support the imperial projects Israel so brazenly exemplifies need to be directed toward the well-being of those who pay the government its taxes.
4. Zionism is fundamentally incompatible with democracy: Israel, as a result, is undemocratic and will be as long as it uses religious identity as the operating criterion of citizenship. We hear much in the US about Islam being incompatible with democracy, a belief that is historically untrue and that elides the massive military and monetary support the US provides to the assortment of dictators and plutocrats that rule much of the Arab World. Neoconservative and mainstream commentators both evoke Israel in opposition to Islam as a symbol of democratic achievement. In reality Israel performs one of the most barbaric forms of oppression today in the West Bank and Gaza Strip while simultaneously discriminating against the Palestinian citizens of Israel who constitute approximately twenty percent of the citizenry.
The alternative media engendered by new technology have allowed more people to witness the unremitting violence that has been Israel’s stock in trade for decades. Many consumers of this information and these images believe that Israel is guilty of excess when a simpler explanation exists: Israel is acting out the requisites of an exclusionary and inherently violent ideology.
These days all it takes is a little braggadocio from an ex-soldier such as Eden Abergil to so perfectly symbolize the callousness of Zionist colonization. Ten years ago, the Israeli government’s lies about the killings aboard the Mavi Marmara would have been unchallenged by gruesome footage distributed through alternative news networks and social media. Nobody these days could have stopped the images of white phosphorous exploding and spreading over the Gaza Strip from being aired; Israelis themselves were foolish enough to capture Jewish children writing messages on soon-to-be-launched missiles.
Americans now have all the evidence they need for a reasonable and morally-sound conclusion, that Zionism produces a cruelty and truculence that they bankroll with their taxes and legitimize with either silence or consent. As a result, I am not arguing that Americans should reassess their level of support for Israel. I am arguing that Americans should oppose Zionism altogether. Perhaps in this way we might begin the long and difficult process of redeeming our own nation of its imperial sins.
Steven Salaita is author, most recently, of The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims, and the Poverty of Liberal Thought. A version of this essay was originally published by Foreign Policy Journal and is republished with the author’s permission.