BY Pankaj Mishra
Intensified persecution of Arabs at home and alliances with white supremacists abroad are risky investments in Israel’s future.
Israel, which elects a new government next week, has rarely enjoyed such economic and diplomatic success. The Trump administration continues to exceed all previous U.S. governments in its support for the country, recognizing last week Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, seized during the Six-Day War of 1967. Relations are flourishing with China, India and Russia — three major countries that in the past were strongly critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinian Arabs — and have even improved with Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
But things look less rosy when closely examined — and not only because Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister who takes credit for his nation’s enviable position, may be indicted for fraud and bribery. Israel’s traditional support base in the U.S. is showing signs of weakness as a more outspoken left seeks to reshape the country’s foreign policy and many more minorities — Hispanics, Asian Americans, Arab Americans — make their opinions count as well as heard.
A comprehensively reported piece by Nathan Thrall in the New York Times Magazine last week argued that tensions over Israel within the Democratic Party have never been higher because it’s being “pulled toward a more progressive base and a future when a majority of the party will most likely be people of color.”
This shift is happening globally, not just in the U.S., and is also driven by changing racial dynamics. As early as 1945, three years before the state of Israel came into being, George Orwell pointed out that “the Palestine issue is partly a color issue” — one in which “an Indian nationalist, for example, would probably side with the Arabs.”
Certainly, Indian nationalists unequivocally supported Palestinian Arabs against Zionist settlers. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, denounced the British imperialist promise of a “homeland” to European Jews: “Palestine was not a wilderness, or an empty, uninhabited place,” he wrote. “It was already somebody else's home.” Mahatma Gandhi believed that Jews could “settle in Palestine only by the goodwill of the Arabs.”
The color line was clearly drawn at the United Nations General Assembly in late 1947 as its 56 member states debated the partition of Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state. Even the Soviet Union supported the Zionists, while the new states of India and Pakistan, along with almost all Asian countries, voted against them.
As decolonization accelerated, most Asian and African countries followed India in refusing to establish diplomatic relations with the new Jewish state. Untouched by European guilt over the Holocaust, which in the West fueled support for a Jewish state, many people of color saw Israel as another white colonialist venture, brutally dispossessing the Arab population of Palestine.
Some of these supposed anti-colonialists and anti-racists were blinded by their hatred of Israel: They denied the moral case for a Jewish homeland even after the exposure of monstrous Nazi crimes, vindictively expelling Jewish communities from Middle East cities. Many others like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali saw Palestinians as kindred spirits, as a new book, “Black Power and Palestine: Transnational Countries of Color” by Michael R. Fischbach, describes.
At the same time, even such radical Third-Worldists in the West as Jean-Paul Sartre stood with Israel. It may be hard to believe, especially as Britain’s Labour Party struggles with allegations of institutional anti-Semitism, that British liberals and leftists in the 1950s and ’60s revered Israeli leaders such as David Ben-Gurion while almost entirely ignoring the plight of the Palestinians.
Today, however, the old Asian and African view of Israel as an anachronistic incarnation of racist colonialism has spread to the West as well.
Israel's actions — expansion of settlements in the West Bank, heavy-handed military operations in Gaza and discrimination against the country's own sizeable Arab minority — have surely done little to soften this prejudice.
Claiming that “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — and it alone,” Netanyahu entered into an alliance with Jewish Power, a xenophobic party that believes Arabs — about 20 percent of Israel’s population — should be deprived of their democratic rights and encouraged to leave the country. Netanyahu has also forged close links with such European ethno-nationalists as Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, despite the fact that the latter openly promotes anti-Semitic conspiracy theories against the American philanthropist George Soros.
Intensified persecution of Arabs at home and alliances with white supremacists abroad are risky investments in Israel’s future. For the central event of our times remains the overthrow of Western colonialism and the growing political and intellectual assertiveness of peoples long exploited, marginalized and silenced by racist regimes.
Many in the West, especially older white citizens, have endorsed Israel’s chosen identity as a country that redeems with its wealth and power the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. But a growing number of people in the West deny Israel any such moral status and, disturbingly, many men and women in Asia and Africa are barely aware of the enormity and horror of the Nazi massacre.
Israel is unlikely to enjoy its present eminence long after the far-right wave that Netanyahu has agilely surfed has receded. A new generation entering intellectual and political life across the world will likely judge Israel by its daily actions rather than its historical mission of redemption. And a settler-colonialist, ethno-nationalist state will be seen on the wrong side not only of history but also the increasingly important color line.
This op-ed does not necessarily reflect the views of Hamas