Nearly a century after Balfour, the conflict with Israel is still all about race

Published November 3rd, 2015 - 03:29 GMT
Israeli Arabs march during a demonstration to protest against the demolition of houses by Israeli authorities on June 15, 2015, in the town of Kfar Kana in northern Israel. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)
Israeli Arabs march during a demonstration to protest against the demolition of houses by Israeli authorities on June 15, 2015, in the town of Kfar Kana in northern Israel. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

From the outside looking in, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is characterized by two-state solutions, military imperialism, and boycott movements. We have the luxury of considering UN resolutions, of weighing the legitimacy of one side's claim against the other's. But for the people who are confronted with the everyday realities of these often abstracted arguments, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes simple: It's about race.

In 1901, then-Zionist author Israel Zangwill wrote that Palestine was “a country without a people; the Jews are a people without a country.” His rhetoric enforced the underlying belief that Arabs were somehow less than human. In the words of Brown University’s Middle East Studies Director Beshara Doumani, "Arabs were a part of nature. There’s a tree, a rock, a sheep, and a person, but they’re indistinguishable from each other.”

Fast-forward to 1969, when Israel's prime minister Golda Meir astonished the world with the now infamous words, "It was not as if there was a Palestinian people in Palestine and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them," she said. "They did not exist."

Decades later, those sentiments haven't changed.

The term "Arab Israeli" is already somewhat of a misnomer. By some counts, 60 percent of Jews living in Israel are Mizrahim, descendants from Jewish communities in Muslim-majority countries like Yemen, Iraq, and yes, even Iran. Mizrahim are ethnically similar to Palestinians, have just as many generational ties to the Middle East, and spoke Arabic prior to their expulsion from Arab countries in 1948.

Despite their cultural and genealogical history, Mizrahim are never described as Arab. Terms like “Arab Israeli” exist only to remind us that Arabs living in Israel will always be on the margins of society. They will never be true Israelis.

Racist sentiments are dangerous not just for Arabs or dark-skinned Jews, but for all people of color in Israel. On Oct. 18, a gunman opened fire at a bus station in Beersheeva, killing one Israeli soldier and wounding nine bystanders. Somewhere among the chaos, an Eritrean man was mistaken as an accomplice and shot by Israeli police.

The world reacted with outrage as videos circulated the Internet showing bystanders kicking, punching and throwing benches on the innocent man as he bled out on the station platform — for doing nothing more than trying to live as a person of color in Israel.

On October 21, an Israeli Jewish man entered into a confrontation with Israeli police officers who requested to see his ID. During the scuffle, the man reportedly tried to steal a gun from one of the officers, screaming, “I am ISIS!” before he was shot by Israeli officers. He later died of his wounds.

A ZAKA member, part of a volunteer group who assists Israeli medics in emergencies, gave this account of the incident: “I wanted to cover the body in a black bag [reserved for terrorists]. After I was asked to take care of the body I saw that he was a Jew, and that it was mistake to speak of a terrorist.”

Anywhere outside of Israel, a man claiming to be from a notorious Islamist militant group reaching for the gun of an officer would have been declared a terrorist. Inside Israel, however, he is granted immunity based on his ethnicity. Israeli Arabs receive no such protection. As an Arab Israeli, you can be labeled a terrorist just for wearing a niqab and coming within a few meters of an IDF soldier.

The conflict is dangerously and rapidly disintegrating from one of occupation, of religious differences and land disputes, into a struggle between races, lending more credence to the apartheid analogies drawn by UN observers and human rights groups.

With each passing day, Israel's claim — that its right to the region supersedes that of Palestine's — looks less like a historic or religious one, and more like one that is informed by a century of racist imperialist thought. Until those sentiments are understood, reporting on the conflict will never tell the full story, UN-brokered negotiations will continue to fail, and peace for the region will remain an impossible dream.

By Owen Prout

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