Refugee Rights: Saying No Israeli Racism

(The text of a lecture by Professor Ilan Pappe at the Stuttgart Conference – November 2010 – entitled: Supporting the Refugees’ right of return is saying No to Israeli racism.)

By Ilan Pappe

I begin by thanking all the organizers; I know it took quite a lot of efforts to bring us all together. It is a great achievement, and as Mazin Qumsiyeh and Haidar Eid, mentioned, and Lubna Masarwa, yesterday, you also provided a great opportunity for us to meet and we are very grateful to you for this opportunity to meet you and to meet each other. It is easier because of the Israeli oppression to meet here than to meet in Palestine where we should meet and hopefully one day we will all be there without the need to go to the frozen hills of Stuttgart to create a joint life!

And I think that’s the gist of the Zionist story that it does not allow people to meet normal life and to be normal friends that they need to go through all that hardship in order to fulfill a very elementary human impulse to live together.

We live in very bizarre times. On the one hand, we could not have wished as activists for a better Israeli government. I think that this particular government makes any sophisticated analysis about what Zionism in Israel is all about quite redundant. It is very easy to expose not only the Israeli policies, but also the racist ideology behind them. On the other hand, Israel is the most successful economy in the West in the last three years; it has done much better than the Germany, much better than most of the economic powers of the West; its banking system is very stable, its currency is one of the strongest in the world and it doesn’t suffer at all from all the hardships that had affected the Western capitalist economies in the last three years.

The result is a very bewildering gap between what average and decent people in the West think about Israel and the way the Israelis, specially the Israeli Jews, think about themselves. They think that they live in a very successful society, they believe that the Arab-Israeli conflict is over, that the Palestinian question has ended, yes, you have a problem in Gaza, yes you have a problem with Hezbollah in Lebanon, but this is a global problem, this is not a particular Israeli problem; this is part of the so-called war against terror.

We also live in bizarre times because despite of the – and Mazin Qumsiyeh talked about it yesterday in very details way, so I don’t have to repeat it – , we also live in a time where particular and specific Israeli policies are severely criticized. People go and demonstrate against the massacre in Gaza, people go and demonstrate against the attack of the flotilla to Gaza, and yet, nobody dares to attack the ideology that is behind these policies. There is no demonstration against Zionism, because the European parliament even regards a demonstration against Zionism as anti-Semitism.

Imagine, in the days of apartheid in South Africa, if you were not allowed to demonstrate against the apartheid in South Africa, but only against the Soweto massacre… And this is still a great Israeli success. And Germany plays a very important role in this success, that the main problem and the main reason for the criminal policies is not analyzed, is not discussed, is not touched upon, only the symptoms. I am not a doctor, I am not a physician, but I know that if you deal with the symptoms and not with the cause of the illness, you don’t cure the patient.

So, I think that what we really need as activists, and it’s easier to talk to you than I think to people who know nothing about the conflict or are totally on the other side of the coin, that we have to change a little bit what we are doing. Not in terms of our very successful BDS campaign, or the kind of things that we do in Germany and elsewhere in solidarity with the Palestinian people. I think this is an impressive chapter in European civil society activity, nonetheless impressive as was pointed out yesterday than the chapter in the struggle against apartheid, but we are still most of us, are still not using the right language. We, most of us, are still not employing the kind of dictionary that we should employ in order to drive the message home of what are we dealing with.

Because one of the greatest paradoxes of what goes on in Israel and Palestine, is that on one hand it is not a complicated story – we have been there before, European settlers coming either genociding or kicking out the indigenous people. The Zionists have not invented anything new in this. And on the other hand, Israel succeeded with the help of its allies everywhere, including in this country, to build this complex explanation that is so complex that only they can understand it. And you are not allowed to interfere, especially if you are Germans, you are not allowed to interfere in this analysis, because it is very complex.

No, it is not, it is really not complex. And this is why history is so important. Understanding the not so complex history of what the Zionist movement was and is doing to the indigenous, native people of Palestine is what the story is all about. Yes, there are other stories connected to it, I agree, the fate of the Jews in Europe, the holocaust,… I don’t know, the relations between Christianity and Judaism over the last 2’000 years, but these are sidebars. These are not the main story, they belong to the story, but you don’t begin with these.

This is why in Israel, even unfortunately Palestinian students who are Israeli citizens, when they learn about the history of their own country, they begin in Odessa. I remember my Palestinian student in the university saying “can you explain to us why we were born in R…or S… or in the Negev, have to begin our history in Odessa?” They did not even know where Odessa was. And I said, that is because you are under occupation even inside Israel, not just in the West Bank, not just in the Gaza strip, Palestinians inside Israel are also under occupation, and are also under colonization, and if we don’t understand this, we will not break the deadlock.

Because what is called the “peace process” that began in 1967 is taking place on Mars, on the moon…This is the only peace process in history that I know of that had no relevance whatsoever with the problem it was supposed to solve. What they were talking about in Geneva in 1977, in Madrid in 1991, in Oslo in 1993, had very little to do with the essence of the problem. It dealt with the symptoms, I agree, but not with the essence.

And this is the second greatest Israeli success. That not only the public opinion does not deal with the essence, but also the peace process very successfully succeeds in avoiding it. So if you go back to history, and you are using today the right language, you are not anachronistic, as someone was trying to say this morning, you are not anachronistic, you are actually a very relevant updated person. I will explain what I mean.

If you say that Zionism is colonialism, you are the youngest and most updated student of history I have met. Anyone who would try to deter you by saying this is anachronism, this is not helpful, this is anti-Semitism… is anachronistic. And lives on the moon or in Mars, and can continue to talk about something which has nothing to do with what is going on the ground. Actually, if you know Hebrew, you know that the whole Hebrew language, from 1882 until today, which was constructed to describe what the Zionist movement is doing in Palestine, uses, again and again, the word “hityachwut, hituachahut”, and the only way of translating these words is TO COLONIZE. There is no other translation.

So, the Zionist movement in the late 19th century, when colonialism had very good public relations, was very gladly using the word to colonize. But then, they learnt that colonialism was not so popular, so they translated it differently, they found the word settlement, which means something else in English, and they found the word “yes, it is colonized, but it is not like “colonize”, it is a different kind. Again, it is complex, and only we, the Israeli Jews understand why Israeli colonization and why white colonialism in Africa is not the same.”

But if you are not an Israeli Jew, you cannot understand it, if you are not a Zionist Israeli Jew, of course you cannot understand it! And I think this is important to bring back in our teaching, in schools, in our approach to the public, in our negotiations with the political elite in this country, and in the West, to say to them: you are dealing with the last colonialist project and as bizarre as it sounds, even in the XXI century, this colonialist project employs the same tactics of colonialism in the XIX century.

And I think that every decent person in the West, like in the time of colonialism, will not stand on the side of colonialism. But you have to clean your language, you have to clean your mind and you have to think that it is totally irrelevant what people say about what you say. It does not matter what they say… they will regard you as anti-Semitic even if you support the two-state solution because it means you don’t support the two-state solution as they understand it. Because you don’t understand the problem, you think that the two-state solution is a sovereign, independent state over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, no, you don’t understand it.

The state for the Palestinians are two Bantustans, divided to twelve in the West Bank, contained like in a concentration camp in Gaza, has no connection between it, has a little municipality in Ramallah which will be called the government, this is a state. And if you don’t understand that this is a state, it shows that you still have to learn about the complexity of the conflict.

Now, colonialism is one message from the past that we should accept and we should deal with, and we should recruit the veterans as well as the younger cohorts of activists to work for something which universally should be very easy to recruit people for : the fight against colonialism, the fight against the idea that someone from the outside has the right to demolish the life of people in the inside. And they have done it in 1882, in 1948, and they have done it yesterday in the Negev, or in the West Bank and they are going to do it next week if we will continue to talk about peace negotiations, two-state solutions, all kind of irrelevant concepts that have nothing to do with the realities on the ground.

The second concept from the past which I think we should insist on conveying to people, whether we try to protest against something Israel is doing today or whether we will commemorate in January what Israeli had done in the Gaza Strip or when we commemorate in May the crime that Israel committed in 1948, and this is the ethnic cleansing.

It is a concept of course which was developed in the 1990s, clearly because of what happened in the Balkans wars, but even before that, this was regarded by the international community as an unacceptable ideology and policy. Only genocide is regarded by the international community as worst than ethnic cleansing. And quite often the two are interconnected, as we can see in other places, and as we can see in Israel and Palestine. When you are allowed to pursue a policy of ethnic cleansing, don’t be surprised if these perpetrators would one day move to genocide. Because in both cases you have to totally dehumanize the people you are expelling or massacring, even if they are children, they have to be totally dehumanized.

And anybody who lived in Israel long enough as I did, knows that the main corruption of people through military service is the total dehumanization of the Palestinians. That is why a soldier when he sees a Palestinian baby, he does not see a baby, he sees a potential enemy. The road from kicking out the baby from the house, or killing the baby, is not very long. And I think, the message of ethnic cleansing is the message of criminalizing, not the policies of the state of Israel, but criminalizing the state of Israel. And we should do this.

We should do this because only a fascist approach to life would say that in every historical condition a state and a country is the same thing. No, it is not. Sometimes the state is the worst thing that can happen to a country. And the worst thing that happened to Palestine is the state of Israel. If we want to make the country of Palestine a place where people could live as equals, in fact live in many ways better than in other parts of the Middle East, may be even better than in some parts of Europe, is to bring the country back at the expense of the state. I know this is not easy, and this is not about questioning the right of states to exist.

We are individuals, we are activists, we don’t have the power to challenge the right of a state to exist, we cannot eliminate states (Israel has the power to eliminate states, we don’t have the power to eliminate states), what we have is a moral power to say to the people that the kind of state you have founded, and that the kind of state that you are maintaining, is destructive to the country in which you exist. The creation of that state led in 1948 to the expulsion of half of the native population of Palestine. Show me any other situation in history where the international community, under the slogan of peace, would come and say: in order to make this country a peaceful place, I have to kick out half of the people who lived there.

Only in Israel and Palestine we have this bizarre historical moment where the United Nations, embodying the international community’s will, is telling the world that it allows Israel to kick out half of Palestine population in the name of peace. And once you start like this, the history of Israel, it is very difficult to retract; you have to explain that actually you have to study history, and go back to 1947 and 1948, and say that partition, or the idea of partition is an immoral idea. It’s not even a good real politic idea, but that of course you could not know in 1947. I can understand that in 1947-1948, you would have said “let’s see, if we divide the country into two” it might work. Who would have known?

But 60 years later, can you argue that dividing this baby, if you want, is different from the Salomon trial? It is not surprising, you know about the Salomon trial, right? You know about the baby and the two mothers, and that the real mother does not want the baby to be cut into two. We know who is the real mother in the case of Israel and Palestine, we know who is willing all the time, supposedly, to partition it. So I think that the whole idea of the ethnic cleansing is connected to the international support for it, not direct support for it. But the agreement, and the consent of the United Nations, and later on the European community, and later on the United States, to say that this is the way peace can only be possible in Palestine, that the Israelis kicked out enough Palestinians, and took over enough of Palestine to create the “only democracy in the Middle East”.

They corrupted every common sense languages that we had in the West in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with the Zionist project. That’s how you create a democracy? By kicking out the indigenous population, so that you can have a Jewish majority? But that’s what all the young Israelis believe. They learn in the political science departments that in order to build a democratic society, where the majority can decide what to do, you are entitled first to define who are the majority, even by means of killing the other side, so that you will be sure what would be the result of the democratic elections.

Israelis don’t find it at all bizarre that if you create a democracy, you can also perpetrate ethnic cleansing, and genocide, so that you get the right electorate for the future democracy. But a lot of people in the West will talk about Israel as a democratic state; because they would say the majority votes and decides what to do. The fact that the majority has to be kept all the time by ethnic cleansing people, by massacring them, by colonizing them, by putting them in great ghettos like in Gaza, is never discussed as part of the Israeli democracy.

And I think we should bring that to the fore. The only way to keep Israel as a democratic state, according to the Zionist ideology, is to continue to be a criminal state. It is almost like allowing people in the worst kind of prison, the worst kind of criminals to have a democratic system, by the force of the guns, by the force of the brutality, by the force of their sheer power.

Now the third and last concept I would like to talk about is, which comes out of colonialism and ethnic cleansing – which are the main driving ideologies behind the Jewish state -, ethnic cleansing and colonialism are the reasons that we have a Jewish state in Israel. This is not what we are taught of course, either as Israelis who were born there, or people who support Israel around the world, we are not told. We are told about two different ideologies : we are told about the need to find the Jews a safe place, and we know it’s not a very safe place for Jews, it’s the opposite (the only unsafe place for Jews is to be in Israel, that’s there most of the Jews have been dying in great numbers since 1948), and this is the place where Jews can recreate themselves as a national movement where they can exercise their rights for self-determination.

But we know that Israel is not interested in the right of self-determination for the Jews, this is why it brings hundreds and thousands of non-Jews from all other the world, to settle in Israel, because what is important for Israel is not self-determination for the Jewish people, what is important for Israel is not make sure that it is not an Arab state. And if you are a Baha’i, and you live on a mountain in the Himalaya, but you are definitely not an Arab, you will become an Israeli Jewish citizen in no time, if you are willing to come over. There is no problem. The rabbis will make sure that you are a Jew, and they may cause you to go through some painful operations – if you are a man -, but all in all, you are welcome because you are not an Arab. And if you are an Arab Jew, you will have to “dearabize” yourself, otherwise you will not be welcome in the Israeli Jewish society.

Now, the third and last concept, and I reach to the end in a few minutes, is the ethnic purity. The ethnic purity of the state and this is related to the right of return. Most of the people, and specially some of our best friends, and I mean it not ironically as I just published a book with Noam Chomsky, I am including him in this, some of our best friends are against the right of return. And their practical explanations, they would say it is unrealistic to tell the refugees that they should look forward for the possibility of returning, that they should be encouraged to think about a different kind of future, and I would say that the departure point for this analysis is not practicality, is not real politic. Because if their basis for analyzing, as Uri Avnery does, as Noam Chomsky does and all out very – and I am not cynically saying our good friends, they are my good friends – , but I totally disagree with them on this, if the basis for analyzing the situation is real politic, then it means that the balance of power determines your attitude.

Well, the balance of power, as we heard yesterday, between the largest and strongest army in the Middle East, and the weakest military powers in the world, right, if this balance of power determines our attitudes, we should not even meet here today. We should give in to the Israeli dictate. We know the Israelis are very clear to what they want, they want to have as much as Palestine as possible, with as few Palestinians as possible, they wanted in 1882 and they want it in 2010. This has not changed. The means have changed, the historical circumstances have changed, but the vision of what would be a thriving successful Israeli society is a society which has as few Arabs as possible, and as much of Palestine as possible. That has not changed. So if real politic determines our attitude, we should give in to this vision.

So in any case, we are not dealing with real politic when we are challenging what Israel wants. And the reason the Israelis refuse even to acknowledge the right of return, let alone practically implementing the right of return, is not because as some people would think because they have a very serious consciousness problem of admitting that they have kicked out and massacred people three years after the holocaust. I once thought that this was the main problem, I admit it. I once thought so, I was hopeful because I am an optimistic, I am not very tall, I would see the bottom half of the glass. So I thought the Israelis don’t want to talk about the right of return because people who were, like Uri Avnery for instance, involved in the ethnic cleansing itself, feel unhappy about it. And if you talk about the right of return, you bring back … this is kind of the panacea, the remedy for the illness.

No, I don’t think this has anything to do with it, unfortunately. It makes a lot of sense from the Zionist point of view, Arabs are not welcome. Whether these are Arabs we kicked out, whether these are Arabs we have never touched, whether these are Arab Jews who want to insist to remain Arabs even if they are Jews, they are not welcome because we want to be a democracy! And this people would want to come in. That’s the major thing, which is behind the Israeli refusal for the right of return.

So when you support the Palestinian, and with this I will end, when you support the Palestinians right of return, you are not only supporting, which I understand we all do, the right of the people who were kicked out to come back if they want to. You are not only acknowledging the crime of the ethnic cleansing in 1948, you are not only abiding by the United Nations resolutions that very clearly support the right of the people to return, and you are saying a very simple NO to racism. That’s what you are doing. You would just say NO to the only racist state we have in the Middle East.

We have not very nice regimes in the Middle East, I agree, the political regimes in the Middle East are nothing to write home about, I would not publicize them as recommendations for future societies to build their politics on this basis, but not one of them is racist. The only racist state is the Jewish state of Israel. One of the only ways of engaging with this racist state is to challenge it on the right of the refugees to return. Not because it is practical, or not practical, because it deals with the genetic code of the Jewish state. The idea that you can colonize is not new, but the idea in the XXI century that you can maintain this colonization by openly maintaining a racist state, should not be acceptable, especially not in this country.

Thank you.

(The text of this lecture has been established by Claudine Faehndrich on the basis of the video recording of the Stuttgart Conference, November 2010. The transcribed lecture was first published in

– Ilan Pappe, Israeli historian, Professor of History at the University of Exeter (UK), has written many books and works with local and international journals. He is the author of: “The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict” (London and New York 1992), “The Israel/Palestine Question” (London and New York 1999), “La storia della Palestina moderna” (Einaudi 2004), “The Modern Middle East” (London and New York 2005) and “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” (2006).

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
Our Vision For Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders & Intellectuals Speak Out