Conception is powerful in political discourse. When an image about who a group of people are, what their history is and how they came to be where they are is created, it can take on powerful political implications. This is especially the case when this image fits a pre-defined narrative and it easily slots into an existing moral framework. The image can become too perfect to give up, even if the reality is a more complex beast.
In the discourse on Israel-Palestine, as it plays out on university campuses, on the choppy digital sea of social media and most importantly as lived reality on the ground, these conceptions are more than just idle thought experiments. Conception becomes weaponised, drawing easy narrative analogies of colonised and coloniser, or of nobility and savagery, or of rightful and illegitimate. The fundamental conception which underlies a majority of these narratives is that of who and what a Jewish Israeli is.
Who, then, is the Jewish Israeli? Many view the Jewish Israeli as in some core sense a Westerner, a European, somehow unlike and not “of” the place they now inhabit. This perception is fuelled by the fact that Israeli leadership, both historically and today, tends to be drawn from Ashkenazi Zionists, and that pro-Israel commentators and politicians regularly make claims that Israel is an extension of a collective Western “us”. This is evident in claims that Israel “shares our values” or is an “outpost of democracy”.
On the anti-Zionist left, this image of the Jewish Israeli is combined with a violent history between Jews and Palestinians to render the Jewish Israeli a colonialist of the European archetype. Israel is thus seen as a wholly imperialist imposition on the region, meaning Israel can be neatly slotted in with the broader anti-imperialist project of the global Left.
It is this basic idea (not, as is often claimed, anti-Semitism) which gives BDS-type activism such a sense of moral urgency and legitimacy. Apart from the oft-made comparisons to apartheid, it gives fuel to a claim that Israel is the last remaining colonialist project of the modern era. Israel is “singled-out” for its abuses because it is perceived as a European colonial project, something which other countries, despite their crimes, are not.
However, quite clearly, this conception of the Jewish Israeli does not hold up to proper intellectual scrutiny for at least two reasons.
Firstly, depending on how exactly calculations are performed, either a majority or just under half of the non-Arab population of Israel are not in any sense European. These are the Mizrahi and, to a lesser extent, Beta Israeli Jews who lived in the Middle East and Africa for generations until the former were mostly expelled in the aftermath of the 1948 War, and the latter were airlifted to Israel in Operation Moses and Operation Solomon.
On top of this is the fact that it is the Mizrachi vote that keeps Netanyahu in power. Likud’s greater Israel dream is seen as the logical extension of a European colonial project, but that European project is kept alive by Jews with no European origins. Netanyahu’s anti-Arab rhetoric is seen as symptomatic of a colonialist Orientalism, but as Aron Heller notes, Netanyahu’s “hard-line rhetoric taps into Mizrahi disdain for the Arabs who mistreated them in their countries of origin”.
What of the Ashkenazi Jews, who can reasonably be defined as “European” in lineage? An image of these Jews as marauding colonialists is completely at odds with the historical context in which these Jews emigrated to Palestine. Early Zionist settlement was spearheaded by Jews fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe, and two-thirds of Holocaust survivors moved to Israel in the aftermath of the WWII. An analytical framework which transforms a Holocaust refugee into Cecil Rhodes is incredibly divorced from reality. But, as mentioned before, the image is too perfect, and the synthesis into anti-colonialist politics too smooth, for the framework to be given up.
It is often said that Israeli society is increasingly evincing a “bunker mentality”, telling the rest of the world they don’t understand the nation’s plight and should bugger off. If this hardening of attitudes is taking place, and there is indeed substantial amount of evidence to suggest that it is, it is not hard to see why. Israel’s foundation is that of a number of groups of traumatized people looking for refuge from their various existential dooms.
None of the preceding should be understood as justifying Israeli actions or policies. A colonial analysis is not the only possible framework from which to criticise Israel, or to legitimate rhetoric against the two-state solution. As other articles on this website have explained, there is a world of difference between explaining mentalities and condoning them. It should also not be understood as denying the trauma of the Palestinian Nabka. Indeed, it is precisely that ignorance of historical trauma which contributes to a sense of undue demonisation and moral superiority on the pro-Israel right. It is merely the case that this ignorance finds its mirror image in many claims of the pro-BDS left, particularly on university campuses.
Left without a humanising understanding of the traumas of the other side, our narratives drift ever further apart and harden ever more. Against this must be an effort at genuine compassion, a real recognition of generational traumas and the hope that our narratives can at least begin to converge. In that convergence, then, we may begin to see a path forward to the shared solutions that today seem more distant than ever.