The myth of the ‘Arabs versus Jews’ narrative

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The transformation of Zionism as a political ideology to Zionism as a religious ideology begins, in part, with Theodor Herzl’s "infatuation with British imperialism," as noted by literary scholar and cultural historian Eitan Bar-Yosef in his book A Villa In The Jungle: Herzl, Zionist Culture, And The Great African Adventure. “Herzl’s phrase – a ‘miniature England in reverse’ – preserves the imperfect colonial mimicry that stood at the heart of Herzl’s Zionist project, and which was exposed so his decision to align himself with the British Empire.” Herzl would form the Zionist Organization (now The World Zionist Congress) in 1897 and promote the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, while continuing to identify with British colonialism and those who facilitated colonialism – the colonialists themselves. While Herzl, in his book The Jewish State, published in 1895, argued that the ‘Jewish question’ was not social or religious but political, the historical account of the rise of religious Zionism shows that it began to take hold not long before the passing of Herzl in 1904.

In 1902 the Mizrachi organization was founded by Yitzchak Yaacov Reines, an Orthodox Rabbi; the formation of this movement would mark the systematized appearance of religious Zionism. The Mizrachi organization would go on to found a number of religious settlements in Palestine, under the Mizrachi Labor party, using Zionism’s primary call for the occupation of territory to then colonize said territory with a strategic religious backdrop. This would later lead to nationalist and religious claims to Palestinian territory unifying and changing Israeli politics in the process. In Indivisible Territory and the Politics of Legitimacy Stacie E. Goddard expounds on this merger, noting that "under [Menachem] Begin, religious Zionism became the dominant language of territorial claims, so much so that the aims of Gush Emunim and Likud are often now considered inseparable." “[The] Likud's dependence gave the Religious Zionists unparalleled access to the Israeli government."

The framing of the colonization of Palestine as being a religious conflict is a tremendous distortion – it is a myth which has advanced the occupation under the guise of “dialogue” and by way of the so-called “peace process” which asks of indigenous Palestinians to settle the “conflict” by relinquishing their autonomy, their right to self-determination and their homeland.

The tired binary of “Jew vs. Arab” takes the place of instructive awareness and constructive inquiry based on a historical context that precedes even the establishment of the State of Israel, working instead to attenuate the influence of history concerning the occupation of Palestine by manipulating the discourse. Not only does such a categorization dilute the tremendous impact that colonialism continues to have upon the people of Palestine, it does so for the sake of fruitless back and forth counseling sessions where the colonized are likened to the colonizers and are asked to solve an occupation spanning decades with interpersonal exchanges. Social get-togethers, regardless of how well-intentioned they may be, will not resolve the occupation, nor are such exchanges capable of addressing its root causes. Only resistance can straightforwardly confront the structural and systematic violence against the indigenous peoples of Palestine.

A social media campaign using the hashtag #JewsAndArabsRefuseToBeEnemies is one such manipulation, where photographs of Jewish and Arab couples sharing intimate moments and Jewish and Arab children holding hands are shared with comforting messages of peace. These images, though heartwarming, work to exploit emotions and steer the focus away from the occupation, its continuing and extensive consequences and the victims of Zionism, which include Palestine’s Jewish populace whose histories these campaigns unequivocally ignore.

In The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction independent scholar Gregory Harms notes that before 1880 there was already a Jewish population in Palestine “some of who had been there as long as any of the native Arabs,” and that of this Jewish populace were the Sephardim. From the essay Colonialism and Imperialism: Zionism by Israeli anthropologist and activist Smadar Lavie, found in volume 6 of the Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures, published in 2007 by the University of California’s department of Anthropology:

The Sephardim were descendants of the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492, and arrived in Palestine from then on, through the Mediterranean countries… Before 1948, about 450,000 Jews from Yiddish-speaking countries, mainly in Central and Eastern Europe, immigrated to Palestine. Most of them were Zionists, and many arrived as refugees who had survived the Holocaust. The rest, about 150,000 Jews, consisted of the few families who had always lived in Palestine, and the majority of the immigrants who arrived in Palestine during the Yishuv era from the Balkans or from Muslim countries. About 40,000 of them immigrated to Palestine from Yemen.

Presenting the colonization of Palestine as being a religious rivalry, or nothing more than a primordial spat ‘between cousins,’ wipes away the existence of these multidimensional histories as well as their relevant influence on elements of Palestinian society, including the cultural and intellectual dimensions, which coloured life for all those in Palestine. In Sephardim in Israel: Zionism From The Standpoint of Its Jewish Victims Ella Shohat, a self-identified Arab-Jew and Professor of Cultural Studies at New York University, argues that the consequences of Zionism not only extend to the Palestinians but to the Sephardim, who she refers to as Oriental Jews, whose voices have been silenced by Zionism. In the 1988 edition of the academic journal Social Text, published by Duke University Press, Shohat describes that even at the earliest stages of the Arab protest of Zionism there were clear distinctions made by Arabs between Zionists and Jews. An example of this Shohat provides was from the manifesto of the first Palestinian convention of February 1919 and “a Nazareth area petition” distributed during massive protests in 1920 which went on to denounce the Balfour Declaration, stating in part that "the Jews are people of our country who lived with us before the occupation, they are our brothers, people of our country and all the Jews of the world are our brothers."

Shohat notes that not only did Zionism aim to uproot Arab-Jewish communities in Palestine but that the Sephardim were made to choose between what she called an “anti-Zionist "Arabness" and a pro-Zionist "Jewishness", and so “for the first time in Sephardi history”, she writes, "Arabness and Jewishness were posed as antonym”:

An essential feature of colonialism is the distortion and even the denial of the history of the colonized...The Zionist master-narrative has little place for either Palestinians or Sephardim, but while Palestinians possess a clear counter narrative, the Sephardi story is a fractured one embedded in the history of both groups. Distinguishing the "evil" East (the Mosel Arab) from the "good" East (the Jewish Arab), Israel has taken upon itself to cleanse the Sephardim of their Arabness and redeem them from their "primal sin" of belonging to the Orient. Israeli historiography absorbs the Jews of Asia and Africa into the monolithic official memory European Jews...From the perspective of official Zionism, Jews from Arab and Moslem countries appear on the world stage only when they are seen on the map of the Hebrew state, just as the modern history of Palestine is seen as beginning with the Zionist renewal of the Biblical mandate.

Shohat writes that while Israel was expelling the indigenous Palestinians from their homeland the Sephardim were made to undergo “a complimentary trauma, a kind of image in negative, as it were, of the Palestinian experience” where their cultural heritage was erased and they were made to feel ashamed of their Arab identities – from their music, to their Arab countries of origin and even their dark skin tones. “Oriental Jews had to be taught to see the Arabs, and themselves, as Other.”

The struggle in Palestine has long been framed as though it is rooted in a religious discord, or long-held enmity between two peoples, and not only does this erase interconnected histories but it does so at the expense of justice for all victims of Zionism. This justice, and what Shohat describes as being “linked analogies between oppressions,” is what continues to plague Israel – and so, she writes, "the Zionist establishment in Israel has done everything in its power: the fomenting of war and the cult of "national security," the simplistic portrayal of Palestinian resistance as "terrorism;"...the promotion, through the educational system and the media, of "Arab-hatred"...” so as to prevent its victims from perceiving these parallels.

Roqayah Chamseddine is a Sydney based Lebanese-American journalist and commentator. She tweets @roqchams and writes 'Letters From the Underground.'


Excellent article, I wish a western newspaper would publish this, but then again they perpetuate the occupation being solely religious more than anyone else.

great article

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