February 7, 2024
This piece originally appeared in The Orange County Register
Even as the atrocities committed by Hamas continued to be revealed in the days after its massacre of 1,200 people on October 7, too many in the media and on college campuses were eager to paint Israel as the aggressor and whitewash Hamas’ terrorist acts.
Today, more than 100 days later, the discourse remains dangerously lopsided.
This false victim-aggressor dichotomy frames Israel as a colonial oppressor, a gross distortion that not only undermines the truth but also emboldens terrorists like Hamas and their allies and is an affront to the historical legitimacy of Israel and the Jewish people’s right to exist.
The argument that Israel is a colonial entity completely disregards the millennia-old, deep-rooted connection between the Jewish people and their ancestral land and trivializes the Jewish struggle for a homeland.
In fact, the current state of Israel is not actually the first state of Israel –– there have been at least two previous kingdoms of Israel and an unbroken Jewish presence until the present day, facts decolonization rhetoric conveniently ignores or distorts.
The chant “from the river to the sea” has been a staple of virtually every anti-Israel protest. Some, like Rep. Rashida Tlaib, have called it an “aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate.”
Suffice to say, that is a minority viewpoint, especially when you consider the full phrase, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” As in, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, there will be a Palestinian state. Meaning no Israel. So, it’s not exactly peaceful coexistence when you effectively advocate for the annihilation of an entire nation and its people.
What anti-Zionists refuse to admit is that Israel is a nation borne out of history and the indomitable spirit of the Jewish people and upheld by international law and global support. Critics that dismiss Israel as an “illegitimate freak state” blatantly ignore the fact this land has always been the cradle of Jewish civilization. Jews originate from the land, derive their religion and practices from it, and despite centuries of exile and displacement, have always kept an unbroken presence there.
I empathize with younger generations in Western societies who feel a responsibility to make right the evils of systemic racism, colonialism, and white supremacy. However, Israel’s story is distinct, diverging significantly from these Western constructs, and it’s a profound misstep to apply them to the complex, multifaceted nature of Jewish identity and survival.
Significantly, a considerable portion of Israel’s Jewish population descends not from so-called European colonizers but from Jewish refugees expelled from Arab and Muslim countries and Holocaust survivors. Far from the prevalent misconception of a dominantly “white” or Ashkenazi Jewish state, nearly half the Jewish population of Israel is in fact Middle Eastern.
These individuals sought a safe haven in their ancestral land, not as conquerors, but as displaced people. The establishment of Israel was the fulfillment of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, a beacon of hope and resilience against the backdrop of centuries of persecution.
And if Israel was truly a settler-colonialist state dominated by white Europeans, that would make it hard to explain how 21% of Israelis are Palestinian Arabs, who have the same rights and responsibilities as Jewish Israelis. That includes serving in the military, the Knesset, and Israel’s Supreme Court. But that is yet another inconvenient truth for those who hated Israel even before Hamas went on its spree of murder, rape and kidnapping.
Words matter profoundly in the discourse surrounding the Israel-Hamas war. They matter when Columbia Law School professor Katherine Franke marshals students and faculty to sign a letter calling the Hamas massacre a “military action” that was a “legitimate form of resistance.”
Words matter when Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan calls Hamas a “liberation group” that was not a “terrorist organization.”
It must be said unequivocally, like it has been said repeatedly since the world’s only Jewish state was re-established in 1948: Israel’s right to exist is non-negotiable.
October 7 was not a random act of violence; it was a calculated assault by a terrorist group that has repeatedly declared its intent to destroy Israel and Jewish people. Hamas, with its terrorist army numbering as many as 40,000 and funded by billions of dollars from countries hostile to Israel, has made its mission clear.
Only with this clarity can we find a path toward a peaceful resolution that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.
Russell Schwartz is president of the American Jewish Committee’s Los Angeles Regional Board