Justice for Palestine Should Be Independent of Religious Opinions

Israel, so it’s said, was established on a land without people for a people without a land. Except, the land was not without people. Palestinians have long suffered apartheid at the hands of the Israeli state. Their status as second-class citizens within Israel’s borders, as well as their daily reality of occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, are a testament to that fact.

A Jewish person born anywhere on Earth has the right to settle in Israel. By contrast, Palestinian refugees and their children do not have the right to return to their homes, which they inhabited mere decades ago. Small communities within Israel have full legal rights to exclude Palestinians from living within their borders on the basis that they would not fit into the “social-cultural fabric” of the towns. As proclaimed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, not of all its citizens, one-fifth of whom are Palestinian. It is not a beacon of democracy and equality in the Middle East but an overtly racist and exclusionary settler colonial state. I recommend those who are unfamiliar with the facts I’ve presented here to study the Human Rights Watch’s report, which accuses Israel of the crimes of apartheid and persecution.

American liberals are an outspoken group regarding social and political injustice across the globe. They rightfully criticize countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran for their human rights violations and strict conservative policies. Yet when Israel enters the conversation, many liberal voices fall silent. Suddenly, there is not enough information available for people to take a definitive stance. Suddenly, the issue is complex and nuanced, and more research needs to be done to resolve the conflict. Suddenly, the voices of the powerful and the powerless are of equal importance. This response, frankly, is cowardly and based on the assertion that denouncing Israel’s crimes against humanity is antisemitic. The general rebuttal to any Palestinian resistance is a proclamation that said resistance is rooted in a hatred of Jews and is fundamentally incompatible with a modern liberal view of the world.

However, Israel is a state with a long track record of human rights abuses and international crimes, including assassinating journalists, establishing illegal settlements on Palestinian land, and impeding medical assistance in Gaza via deliberate killings of health workers. Opposition to Israel’s years of forced displacement, preferential settlement, and widespread apartheid, should not be a controversial stance. But, of course, it is controversial.

The conflict is, rightfully, framed through differentials of power. Many pro-Israel thinkers argue that the Israel-Palestine divide is a question of religion, of Judaism versus Islam. This depiction is helpful in framing Israel in a positive light; certainly, Muslims across the globe hold much more power than Jews. The world’s Muslim population is approximately 1.8 billion, while there are around 14 million Jews worldwide. And, certainly, Jews have been oppressed by the Muslim world throughout history. So, denying Israel its right to “self- defense” and expansion is seen as denying Jews their right to exist in peace.

The power differential truly at play here, however, is entirely different. It is not a divide along religious lines, but instead along ethnic ones. It is a tale of Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. When we shift the reference frame, the power difference also shifts significantly. Israel has a U.S.-backed military, a strong economy, and high standards of living, and it imposes its will — and its bullets — upon the Palestinian people. Israel was also carved out of Palestinian land, taken by money or, for the most part, by force, and its establishment sent hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into statelessness. Most crucially, the State of Israel gives Jews preference over Palestinians in all matters.

I am, like many other progressives, inclined toward pacifism. I want to see a peaceful resolution to the problem plaguing Palestine as much as anyone, but it is unhelpful to maintain the current centrism that decries both sides as equally responsible. Those who value human rights must support the Palestinian people and work toward breaking down the meritless argument that opposing Israel is antisemitic. 

Such an assertion is based on an assumption that Israel and Judaism are one and the same, or, barring that, that all those who oppose Israel harbor a hatred of the Jewish people which their  anti-Zionist sentiment stems from. Hatred of Jews is a widespread and dangerous poison, but anti-Zionism is, at its core, a form of anticolonialism, not antisemitism.

Denying the Palestinian people the right to exist or supporting those actively working to erase Palestinian existence is nothing more than complacency with a racist settler-colonial regime. If progressives are true to their word, then support for both Jewish and Palestinian people’s rights should be widespread. Jews and Palestinians are not diametrically opposed, and support for one is not mutually exclusive with support for the other. But, to claim to care about justice and equality while supporting Israel’s occupation is entirely hypocritical.

We, Palestinians are humans, not cockroaches to be crushed by settlers who want nothing more than for us to cease to exist. Progressives, Jews, Muslims, Christians, agnostics, atheists, and everyone in between must find within themselves the courage to speak out about and condemn the crimes Israel has committed and continuously upholds. No good can come of a world that does not maintain, at the very least, that human beings deserve to live in peace and security regardless of where or to whom they are born.