March 13, 2017
For much of the rest of the spring, students affiliated with chapters of the rabidly anti-Israel Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) will stage events throughout the world marking “Israeli Apartheid Week.” The mission of these odious events, according to organizers, is “to raise awareness of Israel’s settler-colonial project and apartheid system over the Palestinian people and to build support for the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.” This year’s tagline: “100 Years of Settler-Colonialism. 100 Years of Popular Struggle for Justice.”
Has it really been 100 years since the Six-Day War, when Israel emerged from a conflict forced upon it by its Arab neighbors in control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip? No — that was in 1967.
100 years refers to something else.
In 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour issued the groundbreaking Balfour Declaration. This momentous document was just a single sentence long, but it shook the world:
“His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
For the first time in modern history, the long-denied right to self-determination of the Jewish people was validated. Imagine the suffering that could have been avoided and the millions of Jewish lives that could have been saved from slaughter had the Declaration been implemented upon its publication. Alas, it wasn’t.
So why is SJP counting backwards to 100? It can’t be a simple affinity for round numbers (the 1967 war took place an even 50 years ago, after all). It’s because only when looked at through the lens of the Balfour Declaration, with the appearance of a great power parceling out pieces of the world, does the Zionist project look anything like settler-colonialism.
What actually happened? When Britain failed to speedily implement the Balfour Declaration, the Zionist movement sprang to action. There had been a continuous Jewish presence in the Land of Israel for thousands of years; now, it began to grow. Jews living in the Diaspora flocked there, eager to take part in the Zionist project. Jewish individuals and organizations bought land there, draining swamps, tilling soil, and building homes. This wasn’t “settler-colonialism,” it was Jewish national rebirth.
Think of it another way: settler-colonialism is a system whereby a foreign power exploits a land and its resources. But Israel’s population is a census of the persecuted; on what country’s behalf would they be colonists? When Israel declared its independence in 1948, Arab countries across the Middle East expelled their Jews — 900,000 Jewish refugees. Israel absorbed two-thirds of those fleeing Arab repression. Today, fully half of Jewish Israelis are these Arab Jews, descended from this mass exodus. Surely no one would suggest that they’re exploiting Israel’s natural resources for the benefit of countries like Iran and Syria.
Most of the rest of Jewish Israelis are of European extraction, who themselves came—or descend from those who came—to Israel fleeing persecution. When Jews escaped Europe in the first half of the 20th century, they weren’t moving to the Land of Israel for the benefit of a colonialist birth country — they were running for their lives to their ancestral homeland.
By all means, mark 50 years since the Six-Day War this June — I certainly will. I’ll rejoice that Israel and its people avoided destruction and that Jews can once again worship at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. And, as a passionate proponent of the two-state solution, I’ll pray for a final-status agreement that enables Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank. Any reasonable person must agree that while Ramallah is occupied, Tel Aviv is most certainly not. But by citing “100 Years of Settler-Colonialism,” Israel’s detractors make clear that they’re not anti-occupation — they want Israel to cease to exist.
SJP and their ilk seek to frame Israeli Apartheid Week, as well as the BDS movement, as expressions of the “popular struggle for justice,” a part of the long, honorable continuum of social justice and human rights activism, rather than an expression of anti-Semitism. I disagree. The real mission of BDS lurks in the distressing words of its leaders. Take, for example, Omar Barghouti, the founder of BDS, who insists that “Definitely, most definitely we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. No Palestinian, rational Palestinian, not a sell-out Palestinian, will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.”
In other words, as far as the organizers of Israeli Apartheid Week are concerned, Palestinians have a right to self-determination in their historic homeland but Jews do not. For a group that purports to be passionate about equal rights for all, the rights of the Jewish people matter shockingly little.
Seffi Kogen is the American Jewish Committee’s) Assistant Director of Campus Affairs.
This article was originally published in Forward.
Photo By: Kate Ausburn