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Israel-Palestine war: How Israel and the West smear the Palestinians as antisemitic

Western horror at the slogan 'from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free' is wilfully misreading a call to end apartheid and Jewish supremacy across all of historic Palestine
Protesters march in solidarity with the Palestinian cause and for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza in Paris, France, on 11 November 2023 (Reuters)
Protesters march in solidarity with the Palestinian cause and for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza in Paris, France, on 11 November 2023 (Reuters)

Since 7 October, Israel has proven that its struggle to uphold a Jewish supremacist state still requires it to murder tens of thousands of Palestinians.

Nearly a century and a half after European Zionists settled in Palestine and 75 years after they violently established their settler colonial rule, the Palestinian people have refused to surrender and continue to resist with all their might. This has made them fair game in the eyes of Israel and its western allies for Israel’s genocidal killing machine.

To justify their brutal actions, Zionist leaders have often relied on racist aphorisms with which to describe the Palestinians. Unable to sufficiently dehumanise their victims in a non-western world that has grown increasingly weary of Israeli crimes, current leaders have reverted to the same old tired ones used by the earlier generation of Zionist conquerors. Such statements have always proven effective in western countries, which never tire of Israel’s crimes.

Benjamin Netanyahu recently declared Israel’s ongoing war of annihilation against the Palestinians as a Manichaean “war between forces of light and forces of darkness, between humanity and animalism”.

But as with all his previous racist gimmicks, the prime minister lacks originality.

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Racist aphorisms

It was Theodor Herzl, the Austro-Hungarian founder of the Zionist movement, who first described the future Jewish settler colony in 1896 as “the portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism”.

For his part, the Belorussian head of the Zionist Organisation, Chaim Weizmann, described the Palestinians in 1936 as “the forces of destruction, the forces of the desert” and the Jewish colonists as the “forces of civilisation and building”. Weizmann, who later became the first president of Israel, further described the Zionist conquest of Palestine as “the old war of the desert against civilisation, but we will not be stopped.”

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Such genocidal and racist rhetoric is hardly exclusive to Zionism and is in fact typical of all colonisers. When the French conquered New Caledonia, they put the indigenous Kanak people who survived the killings in reservations after stealing their lands. They described Kanak resistance to France’s genocidal policies in 1878 as a war of “savagery against civilisation”.

When Britain invaded and occupied Egypt in 1882, it called its war “a struggle between civilisation and barbarism”. Examples from the colonial archive abound with similar descriptions.

Netanyahu, who is of Polish origins, is not alone in his racist fulminations among contemporary Israeli leaders. On the third day of the current Palestinian-Israeli war, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, also of Polish origins, described the Palestinians as "human animals". In the same vein, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who is of Lithuanian origins, has referred to Israel as “a villa in the jungle”.

Palestinians continue to resist Israel on account of its racial supremacy and settler colonialism, not its Jewishness

The religious rhetoric that “secular” Zionists have always used to justify their conquest of Palestine is never far from Israel’s official line. Ahead of Israel’s latest ground invasion of Gaza, Netanyahu enjoined his colonial troops to “remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. And we do remember.”

The Jewish god had commanded his people to “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” As military forces prepared for their mission of annihilation, Netanyahu appeared to be applying this commandment to the Palestinian people.

Netanyahu’s religious invocations are part of the Zionist mythical linking of colonising European Jews to the ancient Hebrews in order to indigenise them in Palestine.

Such Zionist mythologies, however, contradict the very biblical narrative on which they rely, and include the primary assertion that “the Jewish people” lived in Palestine two millennia ago and were its sole occupants. The fantastical fiction that persists is that modern Jews are the direct and only descendants of the ancient Hebrews. Indeed, in response to the Zionist claim that they had always been indigenous to Palestine, which contradicts the biblical narrative that presents the ancient Hebrews as conquerors of the Land of Canaan, Edward W Said insisted on a “A Canaanite Reading” of these bogus claims.

'Antisemitism' smears

To further conceal the nature of the Zionist conquest and its bloody history in Palestine, Israel and its western media collaborators have regaled us with the abhorrent claim that the Hamas offensive last month was the deadliest attack on Jews “since the Holocaust”.

The active Israeli and Zionist attempt to portray Palestinians as antisemites and Nazis goes back to the 1920s and 1930s, respectively. The purpose of this current despicable propaganda is to transform the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle into an antisemitic one to elicit western sympathy for Israel.

Framing the Israeli soldiers and civilians who died on 7 October as victims of antisemitism has the explicit aim of hiding the fact that Palestinians who attack Israel and Israeli Jews attack them as colonisers, not as Jews.

The attempt to equate Israel and Israeli Jewish settlers with European Jews who were solely targeted by antisemites because they were Jews is not only itself antisemitic, but also tars the memory of the fallen Jews during the Second World War by falsely linking them to the Jewish supremacist settler colony of Israel

Palestinians continue to resist Israel on account of its racial supremacy and settler colonialism, not its Jewishness. The imputation that the Palestinians would not have resisted their colonisers had they been Christian or Muslim or Hindu, or that they only resist them because they are Jews, risks absurdity.

'From the river to the sea'

The smearing of Palestinian resistance to the destruction of their land, livelihoods and lives as antisemitism informs the recent imperialist and racist western horror at the popular pro-Palestinian protest chant, “From the river to the sea.” To distract from the slaughter in Gaza, Zionists waged a campaign to tar the slogan with the brush of antisemitism.

“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” means that all of historic Palestine should be freed from Jewish-supremacist colonial and racial privileges and that all the Israeli racist institutions and laws should be abrogated from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea so that all Palestinians will be free.

That even the softer Israeli apartheid system operating inside Israel against its Palestinian citizens has become in the last month more akin in its draconian repressive measures to the one in the West Bank, where pogroms against Palestinians by settlers and the Israeli army are ongoing, seems irrelevant to those who malign the slogan.

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Critics of the chant, especially those who claim to support a two-state solution, insist that they oppose the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza yet strenuously object to the overthrow of Jewish supremacy in Israel itself.

At the core of these Zionist arguments is the claim that Jewish identity today is contingent on instituting Jewish supremacy over non-Jews and colonising other people’s lands, and that anyone who opposes either of these is an antisemite. What is actually antisemitic, however, is the Zionist and Israeli projection onto Jews and Jewishness of a settler-colonial and Jewish supremacist ideology, which is the core of Zionism (but not of Jewishness nor of Judaism).

The western government and media consensus in defence of Israel today, while surprising to some, is no different from the western consensus in support of European colonists and against colonised indigenous people since the beginning of European colonialism.

The beloved 19th-century French democrat Alexis de Tocqueville had the following to say on French colonialism in Algeria: "I have often heard men whom I respect, but with whom I do not agree, find it wrong that we burn harvests, that we empty silos, and finally that we seize unarmed men, women, and children. These, in my view, are regrettable necessities, but ones to which any people who want to wage war on the Arabs are obliged to submit.”

The liberal icon John Stuart Mill was explicit that “despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians”.

During the German genocide of the Herero people of Namibia, the German Social Democrats, led by August Bebel in parliament, were just as racist as their conservative and liberal counterparts. In response to the dehumanisation of the Hereros as inhuman “beasts” by conservative and liberal parliamentarians alike, Bebel expressed sympathy for the struggle of the Herero people but agreed that they were not civilised: “I have repeatedly emphasised that they are a wild people, very low in culture.”

Even the French communards, who were exiled to New Caledonia to reform them after their 1871 Paris Commune uprising was put down by the French state, actively participated in the genocide of the indigenous Kanak people.

Western indifference

Following the 7 October attack, many social media commentators wondered how some Israeli Jews could stage a music festival three miles from the Gaza concentration camp. Others explained that “outdoor ‘nature parties’, or music festivals in Israel’s wooded valleys and southern deserts, are a popular pastime among young Israelis”.

The continued reliance on discredited Orientalists shows the adamant commitment of western political power to white supremacy

The question of proximate partying is hardly unique to Israelis. A South African attorney-general in the then South African-occupied settler colony of Namibia stated in 1983 that the white “public haven't the foggiest idea what's going on in the operational area”, where black resistance was active. “Whites in the south,” he said, “continue to have parties.”

Historians of the Namibian struggle explained that due to being “used to turning a blind eye to rebellion in black suburbs five miles from their homes, it was small wonder the whites of the region” ignored “the havoc” nearby.  

The remarkable thing about the contemptible western anti-Palestinian consensus today is the fact that the western academy, which had previously been a mainstay of pro-Israeli advocacy, has in the last 40 years debunked all of Israel’s central Zionist claims - beginning with its claims to the land of the Palestinians, to its claims that its master-race “democracy” applies to all. But none of this has had any effect on western governments or mainstream media representations of Israel or the Palestinians.

The continued reliance on discredited Orientalists, not to mention fanatical pro-Israel Zionists, as experts and advisors to governments and media, including the likes of Bernard Lewis and others after 9/11, whose views had been discredited since the 1970s, shows the adamant commitment of western political power to white supremacy. It insists that only Orientalist Zionism and anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism will be sought out to help imperial ventures.

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What this commitment demonstrates clearly is that only western academic knowledge that furthers empire and white supremacy is recruited to support imperial ventures, while anything that could distract from imperial goals is unsurprisingly deemed irrelevant or aggressively rejected and censored.

Our world is divided more than ever between the forces of white supremacy, led by the US and Western Europe, and their non-white victims. Israel’s ongoing genocidal war crimes in Gaza are only the latest in a long history of colonial atrocities to safeguard white European supremacy in the last settler colony in Asia.

But what the white supremacists refuse to concede is that the Palestinian people will not stop resisting Israel until its apartheid and Jewish supremacist regime is defeated, from the river to the sea.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York. He is the author of many books and academic and journalistic articles. His books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism. His books and articles have been translated into a dozen languages.
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