Our Plea to Jonathan Freedland: Treat Israel As You Would Any Other Colonial State

In Jonathan Freedland’s opinion piece for the Guardian, ‘My plea to the left: treat Jews the same way you’d treat any other minority’, he argues that in its opposition to Israel the left breaks its normal anti-racist rules. Just as the misogynist ‘mainsplains’, anti-Zionists lecture about a distinction between Zionism and anti-Semitism that feels immaterial to the Jewish diaspora – criticism of Israel acquires an existential tone that it doesn’t deserve. The foundation of Freedland’s argument for double standards is a thought experiment in which he hypothesises a ‘faraway country’ that ‘was the only place in the world where the majority of the population, and most of the government, were black’ – to which a ‘small but vocal section of the left’ were violently opposed.

If a hypothetical ‘black’ state began a settler-colonial project in which it expelled the indigenous population, held those remaining under a military occupation or under siege, denied refugees the right of return and operated a complex system of apartheid to maintain its black character, the left would not defend it because it is ‘black’. That would be stupid. That would be racist.

But somehow Freedland does not come close to this conclusion. He admits his black state would need to have been ‘founded on…forced dispossession’ and guilty of ‘built-in discrimination against a non-black minority’ for it to be comparable with Israel. He then says: ‘[a]ll but the most blind supporters of Israel will acknowledge the country’s discrimination against its Arab minority: indeed, among the most effective, practical campaigners against it are pro-Israel groups such as the New Israel Fund. The same goes for the post-1967 occupation of Palestinian territory.’

So despite admitting those on-going injustices, he seems to believe that because a liberal group like the New Israel Fund campaigns against racial discrimination, he doesn’t need to address them. For Freedland, the Palestinians themselves don’t figure in any framework to campaign against their own mistreatment, resist occupation or make claims to return home. Of course, he can’t really mention the Palestinians at all in his analogy of reified identities because as they fuck it up: Palestinians are politically black.

He goes on:

‘[None] of these problems are rendered logically inevitable by Israel’s existence. Israel could define itself as a Jewish country and still be inclusive towards its non-Jewish minorities, just as Britain is still shaped as a Christian country – with a Christian calendar, an established church and with the cross at the centre of its national flag – and yet has managed to become, after centuries of struggle, an equal home for non-Christians too.’

Ignoring the ahistorical comparison of the centuries-long formation of the British state with the sudden formation of Israel in 1948 under the auspices of British colonialism, this leaves Freedland with two options. Either he is arguing for centuries of violent struggle by said state (with quiet acquiescence from the left), or he’s just ignoring the fact that the non-Jewish population of historic Palestine (Israel, the West Bank, Gaza) is roughly the same as the Jewish population (that’s without taking into account the millions of Palestinian refugees). The Palestinians are not a minority. So the strong Zionist project of creating a ‘Jewish country’ can only work by being exclusive to its non-Jewish population. This is why somebody born in Milton Keynes can get Israeli citizenship and buy the land once owned by a Palestinian who is now living in a refugee camp.

But Freedland keeps going:

‘As for the notion that Israel’s right to exist is voided by the fact that it was born in what Palestinians mourn as the Naqba – their dispossession in 1948 – one does not have to be in denial of that fact to point out that the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile and countless others were hardly born through acts of immaculate conception. Those nations were forged in great bloodshed. Yet Israel alone is deemed to have its right to exist nullified by the circumstances of its birth.’

This statement beggars belief – if Ken Livingstone’s inopportune and offensive remarks make him a Nazi apologist then Freedland is an apologist for on-going ethnic cleansing. The Palestinians are not a decimated minority, or voiceless victims of by-gone history. As Freedland is so fond of making comparisons, the real comparison would be if the Māori, Aborigines, Native Americans etc. lived under apartheid, military occupation, siege, in refugee camps in neighbouring countries or expelled in the global diaspora, and were all calling for their right of return enshrined under international law to be upheld. Would the left remain quiet? Would the left recognise this as just a project of nationhood ‘forged in great bloodshed’? We were not around during these periods of genocidal colonialism to voice our opposition; we are around to oppose Zionism as it manifests itself today.

‘The question to Livingstone and all the other anti-Zionists is this. Given their belief that Israel’s creation in 1948 was a mistake (or a “travesty” in Livingstone’s words), do they believe it would have been a mistake for Israel to have been established in the 1930s, when the world’s nations had made it clear they had no intention of taking in the Jews? If the answer to that question is yes, that Israel should never have been created, then Livingstone and those like him are saying they would have denied those 6 million the one lifeline that might have saved them.’

This is the height of Freedland’s perverse ahistoricism. And the definition of a loaded question. He is manufacturing a counterfactual through which if you don’t support Israel you support the Holocaust. But, in fact, to unpick this is to illustrate Europe’s culpability – ‘the world’s nations had made it clear they had no intention of taking in the Jews’. So why did this moral duty fall on the indigenous population of Palestine? In Freedland’s metaphor of blackness and the left, then reparations should fall on the shoulders of Germany, not on the expulsion and sacrifice of the Palestinians.

And this is the crux of Freedland’s argument, and most liberal Zionist arguments, that the injustice the Palestinians face is necessary to right the injustice of the stateless Jewish people. In order to hold this position you have to think that Israeli national life is more valuable than Palestinian national life. This could be because of the history of persecution or the Holocaust or explicitly religious reasons, but the prioritisation is the lynchpin. Zionism has to excuse or ignore the suffering of the Palestinians because it cannot exist without their dispossession. This is why anybody of the left should be against it. Such chauvinism goes against the core foundations of justice and equality. This is why Zionism is racist, and should be called out as such.

Freedland’s intervention is dangerous because it furthers the idea that to be against Zionism is to be anti-Semitic. By bringing the Holocaust into the present, he implies that in opposing Zionism we are proposing something comparable to the events of the 1930s and 1940s. It is these ideas that lend an ‘existential tone’ to discussions of Israel, seemingly rendering moot the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. And it is, therefore, here that we must make a stand. The distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is a crucial one. To collapse this distinction is to further the conflation of Zionism and Jewishness that is behind many instances of anti-Semitism on the left. It is to accuse Jewish people who campaign against Zionism of being a racist caricature, the ‘self-hating Jew’. It is to say that lifting military rule in the occupied territories and allowing all the populations of historic Palestine a democratic say in how to run the region would be anti-Semitic. There are practical issues around reparations and what to do about land taken by violence in 1948, but there is nothing anti-Semitic about seeking to resolve them justly. In fact, standing against discrimination and racism demands that we do so.

To stand against anti-Semitism is to stand against Zionism; to hold anti-racist principles means there is no other position one can take.

—The Editors

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