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It is not an easy life when it must be lived, defended, justified everyday, every hour-before the world and before the bar of one’s own conscience-with lies, cover-ups, deceptions and sophistry. But this has been the particular burden of Zionists as they conceived their plan for a colonial-settler state in Palestine, as they went about […]

A Colonizing Project Built on Lies

by M. Shahid Alam

It is not an easy life when it must be lived, defended, justified everyday, every hour-before the world and before the bar of one’s own conscience-with lies, cover-ups, deceptions and sophistry.

But this has been the particular burden of Zionists as they conceived their plan for a colonial-settler state in Palestine, as they went about executing this plan on the backs of imperialists powers-with wars, massacres and ethnic cleansing-and, later, as they have persisted in their plans to dispossess the Palestinians of the last fragments of their rights and legacy whose Canaanite roots were more ancient than Isaiah, Ezekiel, David and Moses.

In the epoch of colonialism, when Europeans were the master race, and by that unquestioned right colonized, enslaved, exploited and ‘improved’ all the lesser breeds of Asia and Africa, the Zionists had an easy time with their narrative of lies. The Zionist goal was to possess Palestine, where they could establish an exclusive state for European Jewry. In order to possess Palestine, they would have to dispossess the Palestinians.

At the time, this was not a hard sell. It is true that the Jews did not have membership in Europe’s master race, or if they did-through centuries of assimilation-this was not conceded by the Europeans. Still, they were a biblical people: it was from their chosen seed that Jesus had sprung. In Europe’s hierarchy of races and peoples, this placed the Jews well above the Arab inhabitants of Palestine. The Jews were Israelites, children of Jacob, ‘born of the spirit,’ while the Arabs were Ishmaelites, children of Hagar, an Egyptian slave. In the words of John, the Hagarites were inferior: they were ‘born of the flesh.’

This is what determined the Zionist sales pitch. They were a biblical people, an ancient people-the original and only inhabitants of Palestine-who had preserved their traditions and, more importantly, their racial purity through more than two thousand years of sojourn in Europe. But they are a people without a land: their sojourn in Europe was an exile from the land promised to them by the God of Jews and Christians. Their exile must now be ended by helping them to return to Palestine, a land once flowing with milk and honey, but which had declined since their departure into a wilderness-a desert now inhabited by wild Bedouin tribes, nondescript aborigines of no account.

All this was cleverly captured in the deceptive slogan, first coined by Israel Zangwill in 1897: "land without a people for a people without a land." This became the leading edge of Zionist propaganda. Unlike other colonialists, who justified their conquests with their intentions to improve the native population, the Zionist settlers would improve the land, since there were no people in Palestine to be improved. After the fact, Israel would justify itself with the claim that it had made the deserts bloom. And those blooms were planted where once Palestinian homes and villages had been.

When it was pointed out that Palestine was not empty, that it had close to a million inhabitants, the Zionists pressed two claims, one mythical and another secular, making sure they left no loose ends. Palestine had been promised to them by none other than their god. Since this god, later, also turned out to be the God of the Christians, this argument was guaranteed a favorable reception among those who still retained a strong belief in biblical stories. This had another advantage to the faithful. In the words of Henry Cabot Lodge, a senator from Massachusetts during the 1920s, Turkish control over the holy lands was "one of the great blots on the face of civilization, which ought to be erased."

A modified version of this narrative was offered to the secular-minded. The Jews had a historical right to Palestine: the adjective ‘historical’ carries nearly the same weight for the secular that ‘divine’ does for the faithful. The logic was quaint. No one would ever dream of pressing this claim in a court of law: that those who had once shared title to a piece of land-and that too more than two thousand years ago-have stronger claims over those who hold it now and continuously for thousands of years. But logic did not matter. In this case, those pressing the claims had an affinity with the Europeans, and the opposite party was a barbarous, savage race. Also, no one asked if those who wanted to ‘return’ were in fact the descendants of those who had left.

When these weighty arguments were added to their financial and political clout-and who can deny them credit for this clout-the Zionists won the simultaneous support of two imperialist powers. In 1917 Britain pledged to create a national home for the Jews in Palestine, a pledge that also had the blessings of United States. After this, the Palestinians did not have a chance. The Zionist project could only have failed if it did not find takers among the Jews. It appeared at first that the Palestinians were in luck. Most Jewish emigrants from Europe preferred greener pastures in the Americas over the first Zionist settlements in Palestine.

Hitler changed all that. Once the Nazis came to power, and they began their sweep across Europe, Jewish immigration into Palestine, which had been a trickle during the 1920s, turned into a flood during the 1930s. When the Palestinians resisted the colonization of their country, they were brutally suppressed, and soon large tracts of Palestine passed into the effective control of Jewish immigrants. In 1948, the United Nations-where American pressure was used to garner the votes-stepped in with a partition plan. It gave 55 percent of historic Palestine to Israel, including most of the coastline and best agricultural lands, though Jews made up only 31 percent of the population and owned less than 7 percent of the land.

This led to war-or what goes under that name. The Palestinian strength had already been crushed by the British during 1935-39, while the Arab armies that opposed the creation of Israel were poorly trained, poorly led, outnumbered-yes, they were outnumbered-and without a joint command. As a result, Israel came out of the war victorious, controlling 78 percent of historic Palestine, and having forced out 800,000 Palestinians from the areas they controlled. In the first Israeli-Arab war, the Zionists had nearly achieved their goal. The remainder of Palestine, consisting of the West Bank and Gaza-that had passed into the control of Jordan and Egypt-would be conquered in 1967.

Once Israel had become a fact, it had to be exonerated: it had to be distanced from the colonialist methods that had gone into its creation. The truth about its founding was cunningly inverted. A colonial settler-state that was established on the backs of imperial powers, and whose founding was premised on the dispossession of Palestinians, was now cast as a newly liberated country, in the same class as India and Indonesia, which had also won their independence from colonial occupation. The Zionist struggle was all the more heroic because, unlike India and Indonesia, they also had to fight off fanatical Arab neighbors, unwilling to accept the existence of Israel.

It was not too hard for Israel to achieve this makeover-from a belligerent to a victim-at least for Western audiences that had been complicit in the Zionist enterprise. This makeover was achieved and sustained through movies, media and manipulation. It was directed from the United States, where the Jewish community had grown to command considerable influence over the media, the Congress and the Presidency. Ironically, the Nazi terror had provided two vital inputs into the creation of Israel. By fuelling Jewish emigration from Europe, it gave Israel the population it needed to create an exclusive Jewish state. A similar and simultaneous flow westward strengthened the power of the Jewish community in United States-the new hegemon whose resources and power would become Israel’s most important assets in its colonizing project.

The Zionists would make capital out of the Holocaust in their campaign to shield Israel from critics. As never before, the Holocaust had created a fund of sympathy for the Jews, sympathy born of guilt. This Holocaust capital was not only conserved through endless commemoration-in movies, media, and museums-but, more importantly, it was deepened by the claim that its horrors were unique in history. Never before had a people been targeted for total extermination, and never before had they faced death through incineration. As the survivors of the greatest, most unique crime against humanity, the Jews and Israel could claim several advantages, all of which would be turned systematically against their victims: the Palestinians.

With predictable regularity, the Holocaust capital was used to stifle any talk of Israeli injustice towards Palestinians. The West had been complicit, directly and indirectly, in the Holocaust, this most unique of all crimes. And since their guilt and remorse over this crime was correspondingly deep, this could be exploited to Israel’s advantage. In the decades after the second world war, there were few Westerner who dared to see past their guilt; the movies and media made sure that time did not diminish these feelings of guilt. And those who did were quickly muzzled with charges of anti-Semitism.

The Holocaust capital was used to make the Palestinian claims of victimization untenable. This became a logical impossibility. The Jews-and, therefore, Israel-were the super victims, who completely overshadowed all other victims. How, then, could any people claim that they were the victims of the Jews? It became a logical contradiction to claim that you were the victims of the world’s super victims. The Palestinians did not have a prayer: their plaints would never be heard in the court of Western opinion.

It was not enough that the Palestinians should be denied victimhood: the power of the super victim was used to denounce them. The Palestinians could not assert any rights-to their land, their freedom, or dignity-if this went against the interests or needs of the super victims. The Palestinians had acted immorally in seeking to restrict the free immigration of Jews, who were fleeing persecution, and whose flight was their only alternative to Nazi death camps. By refusing to share their land with the Jews, the Palestinians had actually contributed to their extermination. In other words, the very existence of the Palestinians-at least during the 1930s and 1940s-invited charges of immorality.

When the occasion demanded, Israel’s victimhood would also be used to justify violence against the Palestinians. After all, the Israelis argued, we are victims of the greatest, most unique crime in history: nothing we can do could even begin to equal that. Among others, this logic was employed by Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, when protesting the West’s muted concerns over the plight of Palestinian refugees. The problem of Palestinian refugees, he argued, was nothing compared to the murder of six million Jews.

Once the Palestinians had been chosen to bear the burden of the Holocaust-they had contributed to it, and would pay for it-the case against them was closed: at least before the bar of Western reason, whose greatest thinkers have nearly always been happy to defend the greatest crimes of their societies. Western conquests, exterminations and enslavement of entire peoples, the bloody wars they imposed on distant peoples, the brutalization of entire continents: all were excused, whitewashed in the name of civilization, Christianity, modernity, and revolution. The Palestinians too had been chosen for extinction: they were to be voided to make room for a people pursuing higher goals, a chosen people, themselves the victims of other chosen races.

After this, the demonization of Palestinians was easy. The right of return of Palestinians was first demolished with a few bold hammer strokes. They had left because they had been ordered to, in order to allow the Arab armies to move swiftly against Jewish populated areas. Since they had left on their own-they had forfeited their right to return, or compensation for the property they had left behind. This concoction became folklore, not only in Israel and among Jews, but also in United States and much of Europe. No one asked if the Arab armies had ever ordered the Palestinians to flee: no one asked because such orders were never given. No one asked if any people would abandon their homes, villages, and towns, if they did not face terror. No one asked because that was the choice offered to them by the Haganah, the Irgun and Stern Gang.

The Arab rejection of the partition of Palestine was proof positive of their innate hostility towards Jews. The Arabs had attacked Israel because they were murderers and Muslim fanatics who hated Jews and Christians; they were feudalistic and felt threatened by a society based on modern foundations. It never occurred to anyone-in Israel, United States, or Britain-that the Arabs had done what any people faced with conquest have done-defend themselves. But this elemental right was not granted to a people so dehumanized as the Arabs.

The presence of Palestinian in refugee camps demonstrated Arab intransigence and, not to forget, perversity. Wars have always created refugees, but the refugees do not linger in refugee camps: they have been routinely absorbed by the host countries. If the Palestinians still live in refugee camps-in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Syria-that is because these Arab countries have used them as pawns in their campaign against Israel. The Palestinians too have cooperated in this dastardly game-by refusing to leave the camps.

The deception and irony in this argument was lost on Western audiences. A million Palestinians had been turned into refugees not because of wars: they were refugees because they had been forced out of their homes under a program of ethnic cleansing. No one was asking the Zionists if they had any responsibility in perpetuating the problem of Palestinian refugees-that they were rotting in refugee camps because they had been denied the right, guaranteed under international law, to return to their homes. The war that had caused them to flee their homes was now over: why couldn’t they return to their homes?

There was another, perhaps deeper irony. The Zionists demanded that the problem of Palestinian refugees should be solved by the Arab countries: they hosted them, so they should absorb them. And yet the Zionists had not demanded the same rights for European Jewry who had lived in Europe for two thousand years and perhaps longer, and who were mostly of European stock. Instead, they had argued that the Jewish communities-who had lived for hundreds of years in Britain, Russia, Ukraine, Spain, Greece and Bulgaria-were a distinct people who must have a separate homeland. And that homeland-for a European people-was not to be founded in Europe, but in Palestine.

When Arafat refused to accept the scraps he was offered at Camp David in July 2000, a new lie was born: the lie that Arafat had walked away from "an extremely generous offer" that gave the Palestinians 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza. The offer made at Camp David was indeed very generous. But it was generous to Israel, since Israel would retain control over the borders of West Bank and Gaza, their water resources, their air space, and nearly all of old Jerusalem. Israel would also keep most of the settlements, together with road links to Israel that Palestinians would need permits to cross. The Palestinians were being asked to legalize their dependency-their bondage to Israel-in a new system of apartheid sponsored and protected by United States.

And yet American commentators have gnashed their teeth at the stupidity that prompted Arafat to turn down this ‘very generous offer.’ It was indeed a generous offer-the most generous that Israel had ever made. And it was generous precisely because Israel had offered nothing to the Palestinians before: nothing other than occupation, violations of their rights, seizure of their lands, demolition of their homes, arrests, tortures and executions. This was not a lie. This was the most generous offer Israel had ever made.

Once the second Intifada started, and the Palestinians were back in the streets, throwing stones at Israeli armor, the Israelis Defense Forces responded predictably. Within the first week, they had killed more than a hundred Palestinians, many of them children. However, this was no problem for the Israelis. When the world took notice, this was expertly blamed on their parents. They were sacrificing their children to gain some cheap publicity. In no time, the American media too was parroting these heinous charges.

And so the lies, deceptions and sophistry employed to defeat the Palestinians have persisted. Indeed, they have multiplied and metamorphosed to suit the changing circumstances, the changing needs of an anachronistic colonizing project. As soon as these lies are announced-by Israeli officials or Israeli media-they are taken up by a thousand American experts, anchors, reporters and columnists, taken up and circulated verbatim. They rapidly enter into American public discourse, sanctified by op-ed writers, bandied at Congressional hearings, and trumpeted by Presidential hopefuls. The myths displace history.

Like the biblical narratives-of Cain’s murder, Ham’s curse, Hagar’s abandonment-that have supported generations of murderous ideologies, the myths created by Zionist colonizers has killed Arabs, Jews and a few Americans too. As long as these myths are nurtured and propagated, as long as they substitute for history, they will continue to kill. They may well end up killing our dearest hope-the hope of a better world, a single world, united, serving all humanity. These myths must be opposed before they destroy our humanity, house by house, camp by camp, city by city-as it does today, in Nablus, Tulkarm, Qalqiliya, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jenin.

M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University, Boston. His recent book, Poverty from the Wealth of Nations was published by Palgrave (2000). He can be reached at: m.alam@neu.edu

Copyright: M. Shahid Alam