Israel/Palestine: Challenging Narratives

This article is the third of five pieces from our summer series for 2020. The theme this summer is “Challenging Narratives.” In the coming days and weeks, The Generation will publish more articles where our writers challenge various notions to provide new and different perspectives on the debates and events shaping your world.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unparalleled in global notoriety for its controversiality, complexity, and seeming intractability. Even the term “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” itself is contested: some advocates of the Palestinian cause prefer that “Palestine/ian” come first or dispute the use of the term “conflict,” which implies a generally equal balance of power, preferring instead to focus on the word “occupation.” The geopolitics of Israel and Palestine are probably unique in the sense that they provoke unparalleled intensity of rhetoric and emotion from Western observers, including those who identify as Jewish/Israeli or Arab/Palestinian, and those with no clear personal stake in the conflict’s outcome. 

In light of this, it goes without saying that that this essay is in no way intended as an all-encompassing or definitive statement on the conflict, the content or validity of competing Israeli and Palestinian narratives, or an ideal resolution. Instead, it is a response to the proliferation of simplistic, one-sided, and often factually misguided opinions. In that spirit, let’s challenge some narratives.

Broadly speaking, two historic and political narratives — Palestinian and Zionist — have solidified in opposition to each other, and the gulf of understanding between these two narratives presents a serious obstacle both to the chances of Israeli-Palestinian peace and to the complete understanding of the dispute by international observers. I will present each narrative on the conflict, discuss important weaknesses of both, and provide a synthesis.

The Palestinian Narrative

What I will, for the sake of argument, refer to as the “Palestinian narrative,” is as follows: Zionism, the ideology which advocated pre-1948 for the establishment of a Jewish state in the Palestine region and post-1948 for the maintenance and support of the existing Jewish state of Israel, was not a national liberation movement but a settler-colonial movement. This narrative, drawing heavily on the academic tradition of anti/post-colonialism, argues that because Zionism was advocated primarily by European Jewish intellectuals whose families had not lived in the Middle East for centuries and was effectuated by the mass migration of largely European Jews to the Palestine region, the dynamic was one of European colonialism. 

Also important to advocates of this theory was the support of Western countries in the establishment and defense of Israel following the Second World War, which is used as evidence of Western imperialist collaboration, the colonialist views of prominent Zionist thinkers, and the fact that many of these prominent Zionists explicitly conceived of their state building project as a colonial one. 

Because the final goal of settler colonialism is total territorial domination and the complete replacement of the indigenous people, critics argue that Israel is an inherently expansionist and genocidal entity whose telos is the utter destruction of native Palestinians. Accordingly, the state of Israel in its current form — as an explicitly Jewish state in Palestine — is considered to be racist, colonialist, and illegitimate.

Article 22 of the Palestinian National Charter, adopted by the Palestine National Council in July 1968, reads: ‘Zionism is a political movement organically associated with international imperialism and antagonistic to all action for liberation and to progressive movements in the world. It is racist and fanatic in its nature, aggressive, expansionist, and colonial in its aims, and fascist in its methods. Israel is the instrument of the Zionist movement, and geographical base for world imperialism placed strategically in the midst of the Arab homeland to combat the hopes of the Arab nation for liberation, unity, and progress.”

The Zionist Narrative

The “Zionist narrative” provides a different account of history. Zionists (including the vast majority of Jews today) argue that the Jewish people are not European interlopers but in fact a diasporic indigenous ethno-religious group derived from ancient Judeans who lived and worshipped in Judea, modern-day Palestine, before forced expulsions by the Assyrian, Babylonian, Hellenic, and Roman Empires. Zionists point to the central role of Jerusalem and Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, in Jewish culture and theology before and after expulsions in antiquity.

Although Ashkenazi Jews, those of Central and Eastern European diasporic descent, were the primary architects of Zionism, modern day Zionists point out that not all Jews have this European background. For example, Mizrahi Jews, those whose families remained in the Middle East after the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE and many of whose families were expelled during expulsions and evacuations from Arab-majority countries after 1948, today constitute slightly over half of Israel’s population. 

The Zionist narrative rejects the notion that Zionism and Israel are colonial in nature, arguing that Israeli Jews are equally indigenous to the region, that Zionism is a national liberation movement pursuing justified self-determination, and that Israel is a pluralistic, liberal democracy whose 20% minority of Arab citizens enjoy full political and legal rights.

The Israeli Proclamation of Independence justifies the establishment of Israel by specific appeal to asserted Jewish indigeneity, beginning, “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books. After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.”

Key issues of dispute

There are many points of tension between the Palestinian and Zionist narratives of the conflict, but here are two important questions for which different sides present different answers. 

First, are the Jews indigenous to the Palestine region, and if so, does that indigeneity create a right to a Jewish state in Palestine? And second, is it true that the Zionist project was and/or is colonial in nature, and what are the consequences of either determination?

While both of these questions may seem highly abstract and retrospective, their repercussions on the conflict are profound. As long as the parties in the Israel-Palestine conflict hold firmly to drastically different accounts of history, they cannot easily reach consensus on what constitutes present reality. And with that kind of epistemic gap, a lasting peace settlement is essentially impossible.

The Indigeneity Question

The question of Jewish indigeneity is, like all of the fundamental questions underlying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, deeply contested. The status of indigenity is generally understood to apply to people who self-identify as members of groups which can claim historical continuity with a given territory prior to colonial or settler contact, who can be classified as having distinct religious, cultural, social, and linguistic practices, and who self-identify as indigenous. 

In many ways, this definition fits the Jewish people, who, despite enforced diaspora, claim religious, linguistic, ancestral, and genetic ties to the land of Israel and have a distinct culture. Indeed, an argument can be made that Jews, having lived outside of Judea as persecuted minorities in European, Middle Eastern, African, and Asian nations for centuries, can lay claim to the term indigenous. And, the imperial domination of the Levant by Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome, Arab Caliphs, Crusaders (briefly), Ottoman Turks, and the British Mandate for Palestine parallels the imperial and colonial oppression of other, unambiguously indigenous peoples.

However, the issue is more complex. Converts to the Jewish faith are considered full members of the Jewish people, and qualifying converts to Judaism can also claim Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return and emigrate, even if they have no Jewish ancestry at all, a fact which complicates the traditional indigenity paradigm. Moreover, a majority of Jews in late 19th and early 20th centuries were not living in modern-day Israel, but mostly scattered across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Most of their ancestors had not set foot in the Levant for over two thousand years. Can indigenity expire over the centuries? Certainly, when European Jews emigrated en masse in the 20th century, many Palestinians interpreted the new arrivals not as long-estranged neighbors but as Western interlopers. This raises the question: is indigenity required for a state to be legitimate? Can a state founded on colonialism — as some consider Israel to be — ever be considered as legitimate and recognized as having authentic ties and rights to its land?  

If, however, we accept the argument that Jews are indigenous to Judea, then does this suggest a right to self-determination, and thus to a Jewish state? Article III of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples reads, “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” Self-determination, being the capacity and right of a group of people to exercise independent sovereignty and political decision-making, would suggest a right to a state.

The Colonialism Question

Early intellectuals of the Zionist movement were open about their vision for a colonial project in Palestine. Theodore Herzl, founder of modern Zionism and the Zionist Organization in the late 19th century, corresponded with English colonialist Cecil Rhodes, inviting him to partake in the colonial establishment of a Jewish state. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, theorist of Revisionist Zionism, argued that the Jewish state should come about not through the carefully-courted endorsements of European powers, but by mass immigration of Jews to Palestine to establish a power base and force the issue. Jabotinsky wrote in 1923, “Zionist colonisation must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population. Which means that it can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population – behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach.”

However, the question is more complicated than these quotes might suggest. For one, the paradigm of settler colonialism has traditionally been applied to European countries who exported their residents to other continents like Africa in the hope of enriching and strengthening the host colonial nation, establishing dominance over new territory, and displacing and replacing indigenous peoples. The Zionist project, while in some respects arguably colonial, was not an attempt by a foreign state to occupy and consume indigenous land, because there was no Jewish state at all prior to the establishment of Israel. In fact, the most consequential wave of Jewish emigration to Palestine immediately preceding Israeli statehood was that of European Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors, many of whom migrated from displaced persons camps. It is thus difficult to describe the immediate circumstances of Israel’s founding in 1948, as opposed to the political writings of Zionist leaders in prior decades, as some sort of pre-meditated Western endeavor. Indeed, the United Kingdom’s policy with respect to Jewish emigration and Zionism, as expressed in the 1939 White Paper issued by the Chamberlain Government at the urging of Arab Palestinian leaders and in fear of Arab revolts, had been to severely restrict Jewish emigration, condition future Jewish statehood on Arab approval, and tamp down on the purchase of Palestinian land by Jews. Unfortunately, while this policy may have preserved political stability in Palestine on the eve of World War II, it also had the side effect of denying Jews from escaping Europe in the 1940s a safe haven.

Further, depending on one’s views of the indigeneity of Jews to the Levant, the colonialism debate raises the question as to whether or not a group of people indigenous to a land can subsequently colonize it, or whether their return and reestablishment of sovereignty should instead be characterized as a national liberation movement. Critics of Israel might find a parallel example of indigenous repatriation as colonization in Liberia, which began as a settlement founded by the American Colonization Society (ACS). The ACS sought to voluntarily “repatriate” free African Americans to Africa in the first half of the 19th century and was successful in sending tens of thousands of freedmen to what is now the nation of Liberia. However, Liberia developed quickly into a very unequal society, in which Liberians of American descent, known as Americo-Liberians, ironically established a politically and economically dominant planter class and ruled over the “native” Liberians. This example differs from Israel, however, in that there has been a continuous Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael since the earliest days of Jewish people, and in that Jews have ties to that specific region, whereas ancestors of Americo-Liberian colonists were not from Liberia specifically but the African continent generally.

In recent decades, the military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and growth of Jewish settlements, both unauthorized and government subsidized, into the West Bank has been understandably interpreted as expansionist and even colonial in nature, bolstering the claims of those who characterize Israel in its entirety — both within and beyond its internationally-recognized borders — as a colonial entity. Recently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promised but not delivered de jure annexation of much of the West Bank was similarly described by critics as colonial Zionism’s inexorable next bite into Palestinian land.


So, the Palestinian narrative of Israel as a totally foreign settler colonial state is undermined by Jewish claims to indigeniety and mismatches between the settler colonial model and the facts of the conflict’s history. And, the Zionist narrative of Israel as an exceptionalist national liberation project is challenged by the unmistakably colonial elements of Zionism’s intellectual history as well as Israel’s prolonged occupation and creeping de facto annexation of land theoretically reserved for a future Palestinian state.

In early July, leading liberal Zionist Peter Beinart, a longtime defender of a two-state solution, declared that he no longer believed that two states were feasible, instead suggesting a single state or two-in-one federation to ensure full political equality for Palestinians. Others have rejected this suggestion, arguing that a single state governing two groups with incredibly deep historical grievances and, assuming that a single state would provide a full right-of-return for Jews and Palestinians alike, a substantial Palestinian majority and Jewish minority would lead only to worsened conflict.

Come August, however, Israel suspended plans for annexation of the West Bank in exchange for the normalization of diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, followed swiftly by normalization with Bahrain. Despite the objections of Palestinians, it appears that Arab states are abandoning the “Arab consensus” that resolution of the Palestinian question be a prerequesite for diplomatic ties with Israel. 

There is no panacea for the conflict, but whatever form peace takes when and if it finally arrives, it will depend on the ability of Israelis and Palestinians to appreciate the complexities of their own national narratives and consider the alternative narrative with empathy and respect. Unless each group can acknowledge the other’s national story and claim to the contested territory, there can be no peaceful resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

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