Debunking Anti-Palestinian Clichés

This week, a widely shared Facebook post by Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe has asked people thinking about joining one of the Palestine solidarity demonstrations occurring worldwide to reconsider. Jaffe’s post, with 656 shares at the time of writing, isn’t quite viral, but I would like to respond to it in detail for three reasons:

  1. It’s formatted as a list of questions, which seem to be intended as rhetorical or leading questions, but I would be happy to respond to them all in earnest.
  2. It contains several inaccurate claims that ought to be corrected.
  3. It conveniently assembles a list of hasbara clichés (hasbara means Israeli state propaganda) that are well-known to anyone already immersed in the Israel-Palestine issue, but might be new to the many people who are being exposed to the issue for the first time as a result of the threatened expulsions of Palestinians in Jerusalem, the Israeli police raid on the al-Aqsa mosque, and the devastating air war on Gaza (which, at the time of writing, thankfully seems to have come to a halt).

The uninitiated might feel an instinctual human connection to the Palestinian struggle for freedom, but not know how to respond to these well-worn rhetorical tricks. So, I will address them here, quoting Jaffe’s post in full and interspersing my commentary.

I want to emphasize, going in, that I do not speak for all supporters of the Palestine solidarity movement, and I certainly don’t speak for Palestinians. Joining protests always involves standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people who have differing views.

Palestine solidarity marchers in New York City [Kevin Hagen/AP Photo]

The majority of the time, demonstrators who chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” (this is the protest chant Jaffe was probably trying to refer to) are not calling for an ethnic cleansing—they are opposing ethnic cleansing. The slogan often means exactly what one would think it means—the entire population of historic Palestine (Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories) should live in freedom.

At various points in the Palestinian struggle, some militants have espoused the goal of recovering all of Palestine for the population that existed there prior to the onset of Zionist settlement in the late 19th century, which included a Jewish minority that lived alongside Muslims and Christians. A mass evacuation of a settler population is not unprecedented (it occurred when Algeria was liberated from France, for example), but as time went on it became increasingly clear that this is not a realistic solution for Israel-Palestine. In my view, it is also not one worth supporting on purely moral grounds — for most Israeli Jews, Israel-Palestine is the only country they have ever known, and they should be able to stay there under a regime of equality and democracy. And Jaffe is correct to suggest most don’t have somewhere else to go.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think I am obligated to “go back to Europe” even though I recognize that my country, the US, was also established through settler colonialism. I apply the same logic to Israeli Jews.

The most important leader in the history of the Palestinian national struggle, Yasser Arafat, said the following in a speech to the United Nations in 1974:

“When we speak of our common hopes for the Palestine of tomorrow, we include in our perspective all Jews now living in Palestine who choose to live with us there in peace and without discrimination.”

Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization later compromised their single-state vision down to the two-state solution endorsed by the international community and human rights organizations, which would give the Palestinians a state in 22% of their historic homeland. For reasons that will be returned to below, this solution is now seen by some as a rhetorical tool for Israel’s defenders to make its 54-year occupation seem like a temporary security measure rather than a permanent colonization.

So the “from the river to the sea” chant is associated with proponents of a one-state solution. Though of course, one could also accept a two-state solution and still say freedom should exist from the river to the sea.

Undoubtedly, many Palestinians would still prefer to have historic Palestine all to themselves. Some people who want Israelis to “go back to Europe” and don’t share the vision of a democratic binational state have used the “river to sea” slogan as well.

Although the notion of a democratic binational state has become popular in the Palestine solidarity movement, and Arafat did endorse it in the 1970s, neither major faction in contemporary Palestinian politics has embraced the vision and convincingly advocated for it yet. If Hamas could do whatever it wanted tomorrow, a mass expulsion of Jews would be a realistic fear. But the reality is that only one party actually can and does expel people from their homes as part of a gradual ethnic cleansing campaign: Israel.

Two distinct concepts of indigeneity are at play in Israel-Palestine discourse. One says that Jews are indigenous because they are descended from people who lived in Palestine thousands of years ago, and the other says that Palestinian Arabs are indigenous because they lived there prior to Zionist settlement of the territory.

Using the first definition, it is correct to say that both Jews and Arabs are indigenous to Palestine; the DNA evidence seems to indicate most Jews have genetic links to the region. Furthermore, there has been a continuous Jewish presence in Palestine for centuries. A Jewish minority existed there before Zionism. This is widely accepted among Palestinians, who often like to emphasize that their grandparents and great-grandparents got along with Jews before the establishment of Israel.

In my view, it would be fine for a Jewish national community to exist in Palestine under a democratic regime even if Jews had no genetic lineage there. The claim that Israel is a settler-colonial state is purely based on its political character and the historical process through which it was established; it has nothing to do with genetics or religion. So Jaffe’s question about an Irish person living in Ireland is a false analogy.

Israel, and the mainstream of the Zionist movement before it, have in many ways followed a formula known as settler colonialism, in which settlers displace an existing indigenous population through a variety of means. This is why supporters of Palestinian rights often speak of Palestinians as being indigenous and Israeli Jews as being settlers.

In the United States, the primary means of settler-colonial conquest was a multi-century genocide that wiped out the vast majority of the indigenous population. In Palestine, Israel has used less severe but still brutal means to secure the maximum possible amount of land with the minimum possible number of Palestinians on it—expulsion, demolition of homes and villages, ghettoization, and military conquest.

A common objection to applying the settler-colonial framework to Zionism and Israel-Palestine is that Jews who came to Palestine between 1881 and 1948 (the period of pre-state Zionist settlement) were fleeing persecution in Europe and did not come at the behest of a colonial empire. This objection betrays a misunderstanding of settler colonialism; the history of settler colonialism is rife with people fleeing persecution and misery in Europe. On the second point, settler populations always had complex relationships with European empires, often acted independently from them, and often eventually fought them outright, as the Zionists did with the British.

Understanding Zionism as a settler-colonial project is not about demonizing all the individual Jews who came to Palestine as part of the Zionist project. Most were fleeing Christian anti-Semitism, including the horrors of Nazism. I might have done the same in their position. The leadership of the pre-state Zionist movement deserves blame for negating the rights of the indigenous Arabs, but that doesn’t contradict recognizing the predicament European Jews faced.

It is also worth noting that while Zionism started independently from any empire, it has relied on imperial powers for support since the British Empire’s Balfour Declaration in 1917. The Zionist-British relationship later soured as the British realized Zionism was disrupting its rule over the country and restricted Jewish immigration as a result. Zionists waged war to expel the British, but it wasn’t long before Israel and Britain buried the hatchet to collaborate with France in a straightforwardly imperialist war against Egypt in 1956. Israel received support primarily from France until 1967, and since then has been supported by the United States.

In 1967, Israel transformed from being a settler-colonial state into being a small-scale colonial power in the traditional sense. For 54 years, Israel has ruled over the occupied territories, controlling the lives and natural resources of a foreign population that lacks citizenship rights and democratic representation—this is literally, in every sense, colonialism. Over the same time period, Israel has expanded its settler-colonial project into the occupied territories by transferring settlers to East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Syrian Golan Heights, and formerly Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

For all these reasons, it is entirely reasonable to use the frameworks of colonialism and settler colonialism in criticizing Israel.

In my opinion, Palestine activists and Palestinians themselves often reach for the “genocide” accusation because it is one of the most emotionally powerful denunciations that exists. Genocide is probably a vague concept in the minds of most people, and a vague layman’s understanding (like “genocide is when people of a certain identity group are aggressively targeted with deadly violence”) could make it applicable it to the Palestinian context. Others hear “genocide” and think it can only occur when killing is as systematized as it was in Nazi death camps.

Genocide has a definition in international law. It’s not categorically ruled out by population growth or advance warning for airstrikes. But in practice, it’s not easily met, and it’s extremely politicized. I’m not qualified to generate original legal commentary on the applicability of genocide to this case, but I can say that it’s not the mainstream position in the scholarly and human rights literature to argue that Israel is committing genocide.

Turning from the legal understanding to the vaguer sociological understanding, in my view, Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people are of a different nature than most historical events commonly described as genocide. Rather than exterminating the Palestinian people outright, Israel’s project is to secure maximum land with minimum Palestinians. Israel constantly kills Palestinians in service of that goal, and genocides can occur in settler-colonial contexts, but mass killing and racist brutality are not always genocide.

I like to draw solidly defensible conclusions infomed by expert opinion and use precise language with definitions that I can point to as authoritative. So I steer clear of the genocide charge, even though I sympathize with the impulse to reach for the strongest language available in the face of the carnage Israel is inflicting on a trapped population of mostly refugees and children, not just through bombing of homes and civilian infrastructure, but through the blockade, the denial of safe drinking water, and more.

As far as I’m concerned, Jaffe and other defenders of Israel’s atrocities can proudly proclaim that they are not defending genocide—only apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes.

This is a rhetorical trick that’s becoming increasingly important to Israel’s defenders as its criminality becomes more obvious. Since the atrocities themselves are so hard to defend, the next line of defense is whataboutism.

It should be obvious that no one’s political concerns and activity are perfectly proportionate to the scale of all the world’s problems. I will also note that, in my experience, supporters of the Palestinian cause usually do care about other international issues besides Palestine, as I do. But there are also perfectly rational reasons why someone might be more active on this issue than another international problem.

Since Jaffe is based in the US, let’s consider the question from a US perspective, and pose some questions in return.

Does the U.S. give China or Myanmar $3.8 billion in military aid every year? Do multiple states require public sector workers and contractors to sign a pledge saying they won’t boycott China or Myanmar? Is the U.S. protecting China and Myanmar on the UN Security Council? Do American politicians regularly claim China and Myanmar are beacons of democracy and freedom?

Given the answers to the above questions, it’s obvious why Israel and other countries’ policies toward Israel should receive more criticism in the US than China or Myanmar. But they don’t—persecution of Uighurs and Rohingya Muslims is never defended in US mainstream media, while Israeli atrocities are defended constantly.

First of all, the same could clearly be said, much more convincingly, with respect to Black Lives Matter. Very few Americans openly espouse the view that black people’s lives are worthless, yet a majority of Americans recognize the utility of a movement to affirm the value of black lives. When people say “Palestinian Lives Matter,” they are not responding to those who openly state that they don’t. They are responding to people like Jaffe who believe themselves to be humanitarians, but make it their mission to defend an unequal system.

Another problem is that genuine “genocidal maniacs” have become disturbingly influential in Israel. Some are serving in its parliament. Are the hundreds of fascists who recently marched through Jerusalem chanting “Death to Arabs” distraught over deaths in Gaza? Those who chanted the same in Haifa and Tiberias? If every Israeli that Jaffe knows is weeping for Gaza, his friends and acquaintances might not represent the full spectrum of Israeli opinion.

I have never witnessed a case of Palestine solidarity protesters chanting about harming Jews wherever they may be found. Without question, if I did, my participation in that protest would be over in an instant. It is undeniable that some anti-Semites express their bigotry through criticism of Israel, and there have been a number of despicable incidents of anti-Semitism during this wave of solidarity protests. This phenomenon must be condemned unambiguously wherever it arises. The mainstream of the Palestine movement agrees on this—there have been numerous examples of activists being shut out of the movement over anti-Semitism.

Contrastingly, the pro-Israel movement (if it can be called that) doesn’t just tolerate anti-Palestinian racism—it specializes in it. Blatantly racist tropes like the Palestinian “demographic threat” to Israel and the idea that Palestinians have a “culture of death” are constantly repeated.

Anyone still repeating this line hasn’t read or is deliberately ignoring the arguments put forth by scholars and human rights organizations who accuse Israel of apartheid. The leading human rights organizations of Israel and the US, B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch, rightly consider Israel’s policies with respect to all the territories it rules over, not only the policies within its pre-1967 borders (though there are also massive inequities there). Recently, they both recognized what Palestinian human rights organizations have long pointed out: Israel is guilty of apartheid.

The crime of apartheid is defined in international law:

Those who argue for the apartheid charge look at how Israeli policies affect the Palestinian populations of Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, as well as Palestinian refugees and their descendants. All these subsets of the Palestinian people experience various abuses, and the sum total of the policies constitutes apartheid as defined above.

Human Rights Watch created the following infographics to illustrate how racial domination manifests for various subsets of the Palestinian people:

This isn’t a tricky puzzle to solve. Why do a majority of Palestinians in Israel not want to leave their lifelong homes for a hypothetical fledgling state in the West Bank and Gaza? Moving from a first world country to a third world country? I think the question answers itself.

Yes.

No.

As explained above, I believe everyone can stay where they are, living in equality.

It’s hard to believe Jaffe asked this question in earnest. Did it not occur to him that someone upset by the discrepancy between Palestinian and Israeli deaths might want fewer people to die, rather than more Israelis?

Where did pro-Palestinian activists decry the building of bomb shelters? It seems rather obvious, again, that the problem being pointed out is the mass killing of Palestinians—and the killing of a much smaller number of civilians in Israel, also resulting from the cycle of occupation and resistance—rather than an insufficient number of Israeli deaths.

The first thing to be noted here is that Palestine solidarity protests are not necessarily Hamas solidarity protests. One obviously does not have to agree with all of Hamas’s actions in order to decry the injustices it is fighting against.

But since these questions about Hamas often come up, I’d like to address them. I do not claim that Hamas governs Gaza wisely or fairly, although I think laying primary blame for Gaza’s suffering at the feet of Hamas is ridiculous.

Hamas spends money on armed struggle and defense because it sees it as necessary for Palestinian national liberation. The internal tunnels in Gaza are what allowed Hamas to surprise Israel with a degree of military prowess during the 2014 ground invasion. Israel lost 67 soldiers during that invasion—far higher than the 5 killed in the 2008–9 war, before the tunnel system had been built up. The prospect of military fatalities is, in my estimation, the main factor that has deterred Israel from launching a ground invasion since then. So at least some aspects of Hamas’s tunnel system deliver benefits for its population.

Those who pose this question never seem to ask the same question of Israel. Why does Israel spend money occupying and colonizing the Palestinian territories while it has one of the highest poverty rates in the developed world?

No. There also would need to be some solution for Palestinian refugees, and resolutions of international conflicts never involved all being forgiven right away. What they can do is initiate a movement toward peace and a gradual reconciliation.

Contrary to how the diplomatic record is commonly distorted in Western discourse, Israel’s peace offers never rose to the minimum terms for the solution prescribed by international law. When Palestinian negotiators declined Israeli offers in 2000 and 2008, they had every right to do so, because those offers did not afford Palestinians their minimum rights under international law. In fact, they didn’t even come that close. It’s an orthodoxy of liberal Zionist discourse that Yasser Arafat proved himself to be a “rejectionist” and the obstacle to peace by turning down Ehud Barak’s Camp David offer in 2000. President Clinton’s Special Assistant for Arab-Israeli Affairs Robert Malley, who participated in the negotiations, has called this idea “dangerous” and “remarkably shallow.”

The reality is that it is Israel which has always been the “rejectionist” party. Israel has never ceased its colonization of the West Bank and East Jerusalem with Jewish-only settlements, making the notion that it was ever committed to a two-state solution on the 1967 border patently absurd. Israel rejected and continues to reject the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 and the Geneva Accord of 2003, both of which spelled out the international consensus with significant concessions to Israel on the question of refugees, and allowed Israel to keep some West Bank settlements with land swaps. Both plans were generally endorsed by the PLO.

Hamas’s charter doesn’t recognize Israel for obvious reasons—Hamas argues the PLO made an undue concession that hasn’t paid off when it recognized Israel in 1988. The charter is a mess of contradictions, but it does show some openness to compromise, calling a state on the 1967 border “a framework for national consensus.”

Jaffe is also wrong to say Hamas’s charter calls for “attacks on Jews” in the abstract. The charter says:

“Hamas affirms that its conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion. Hamas does not wage a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish but wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine.”

Jaffe is probably referring to Hamas’s former charter, authored in 1988, which was drenched in anti-Semitic language. The organization has long since dropped such language and issued a new charter in 2017, but why concern ourselves with facts, reality, and other such trivialities? Better to keep repeating the same old lines.

The 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine was seen by Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, quite reasonably, as unjust. It divided Palestine in half, even though Jews were still only a third of the population and owned an even smaller share of the land. Under the plan, only 1% of those living in the proposed Arab state were Jewish, whereas 45% of those living in the proposed Jewish state were Arab. So, few Jews faced the choice of submitting to Arab rule or leaving their homes, while 400,000 Arabs would have had to live under Jewish rule or leave their homes. Arabs also saw it as unfair that the Zionist movement would get half the country when most of the Jewish population had been there for a generation or less and rapidly expanded their presence, with some British support, while most Arabs had been living there continuously for multiple generations.

The Palestinians went to war to prevent the partition. Even if it looks like the wrong decision in retrospect, this wasn’t an act of evil anti-Semitism; it was a rational pursuit of their national interest. A number of Arab states later intervened in that war on the side of the Palestinians, attempting to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state. It backfired, and Israel was established on all the territory afforded to it by the Partition Plan plus more. 750,000 Palestinian refugees were barred from returning to their homes.

The 1967 war was started by Israel. Israel claims it was a necessary act of preemptive self-defense. The record is too much to recount here, but here’s what Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin said in 1982:

“In June 1967, we again had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.”

In 1967, Egypt and Syria were not fighting a war of annihilation. They had been fearing (not unrealistically) an Israeli attack, and when it manifested, they tried and miserably failed to defend their own territories from Israeli conquest. Jordan joined the war in keeping with its defense pact with Egypt. But what does all this have to do with Palestine solidarity protests?

Yes.

I always make it a point to note Egypt’s complicity in the blockade. Something tells me, though, that Jonathan Jaffe wouldn’t be thrilled if Egypt opened the Gaza border.

Egypt’s participation in the blockade of Gaza is shameful and the Egyptian dictatorship deserves to be resoundingly criticized for it. However, it is also perfectly reasonable to say that Israel has primary responsibility, as it maintains the master list of which goods can enter Gaza, enacts the naval blockade, and remains the legal occupying power in Gaza.

The two-state solution did not become politically relevant until the early 1970s. Between 1948 and 1967, the Palestinian cause was based on the Palestinians’ loss of 78% of their homeland in the 1948 war and the desire of the 750,000 exiled Palestinians to return home.

Jordan probably did want to hold onto the West Bank for selfish reasons, but it doesn’t make sense to fault Jordan and Egypt for not declaring a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza then, because no such demand existed at the time. The Palestinian national movement was still focused on the struggle for return.

Israel is not the only state which has brought suffering upon Palestinians, but the reasons why its role is unique are beyond obvious and have been mentioned here.

The above question is a misrepresentation. Hamas does not approve all pictures and stories coming out of Gaza. Foreign reporters on the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza rejected Israel’s claims that they had been censored. Conversely, according to Israeli government figures, Israel’s military censors blocked the publication of 2,863 articles and redacted information from 21,683 articles in the years 2011–2019. Israel also flattened a 15-story building housing offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera last week, for what it’s worth.

Even if she is defending her person in that moment, the responsibility for the child’s death lies with the Israeli occupation.

Legally, assuming this attack occurs in the West Bank or East Jerusalem, the Israeli occupying soldiers are not engaging in legitimate national self-defense. Military occupation is only legal under international law as a temporary measure. Israel’s occupation, being manifestly intended as permanent, is illegal. No right can be derived from an illegal act, so the right to national self-defense does not apply to a military carrying out an illegal occupation.

The occupied population, however, has a right to resist. Palestinians therefore can legally use violence against occupying Israeli forces in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. So in the proposed scenario, even though the Israeli soldier is trying to avoid personal injury or death, her killing of the child does not fall under the rubric of national self-defense. The Palestinian teenager’s attempted stabbing is a legitimate—even if unwise—act of resistance.

Morally, it’s the state of Israel that would be responsible for the child’s death, and it’s the Israeli government that would be responsible for the soldier’s injury or death if the attack succeeded. The hypothetical attack is taking place in the context of an unjustified occupation, and the burden for stopping the cycle of occupation and resistance is wholly on the occupier. Israel is morally responsible for both Palestinian and Israeli conflict-related deaths in the occupied territories for the same reason the Soviet Union was morally responsible for both Soviet and Afghan deaths resulting from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

The appropriate way to end the rockets was always quite clear. Hamas laid out two conditions for a ceasefire:

  1. Commit that Israeli police will not enter al-Aqsa mosque again, and
  2. Allow the Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah threatened with expulsion to remain in their homes.

Both conditions were reasonable and would be the right to accept even if they wouldn’t stop the rocket fire. Israel instead chose to subject its own population to further risk by prolonging the war.

I am sure the US would do horrendous things if Mexico launched 2,000 rockets from Tijuana. Mexico isn’t doing that, because the US hasn’t inflicted on Mexicans the level of brutality that Israel has on the Palestinians.

Yes.

They advocate for Palestinians to have equal rights, in one state or two. Only in a racist worldview does that constitute “destruction.”

The Westboro Baptist Church’s membership is in two digits. Jewish Voice for Peace has 16,000 members, and there have always been large segments of the Jewish community that refuse to subscribe to Jaffe’s narrative.

As defenders of Israeli atrocities continue to lose ground in the battle for public opinion, they become increasingly reliant on the tactics employed here—mystification and condescension. It’s too difficult to explain why ethnic cleansing and bombing residential buildings are actually good things, so they pivot to the “complexity” narrative.

Don’t trust your moral instincts that tell you the side committing the vast majority of the atrocities is in the wrong, they counsel. If you don’t see why Palestinians need to be treated as subhuman, it’s because you don’t know enough about it.

Sometimes they even say you can’t have an opinion until you’ve gone there. Anyone who can’t take time off work and spend a couple thousand bucks on a trip to the Middle East is disqualified from voicing an opinion on whether their government should support apartheid—how convenient.

As someone who spent a summer in the West Bank, traveled throughout Israel-Palestine, and studied the region extensively, I think I’m qualified to tell you that you do not need to be an expert in order to take a stand.

Getting informed is great. You should do it. Follow the news. Read books. Talk to people who know about it. And definitely visit if you can. Don’t just base your opinions on memes and TikToks. But you do not need a PhD to condemn apartheid.

Of course the Israel-Palestine issue is “complicated” in the sense that there’s a lot to learn about it. You can study it for your whole life and you won’t run out of new things to learn. But that’s true of any century-long international phenomenon.

When Israel apologists say the situation is “complicated,” they’re suggesting it’s morally complicated—that “both sides” are approximately equally at fault. This is a fiction, and it was dispelled summarily by the late Michael Brooks last year when he was confronted with it:

Sounds pretty interesting to me. Where is she teaching it?

I have considered it carefully. Any protest that upholds the dignity of all people and advocates for liberation and equality is perfectly aligned with my values.

I’m a writer, musician, and theatre artist from the US, currently located in Norway.