By Blake Alcott
Arguing for all the rights of all the Palestinians with friends and newspaper editors in Western Europe, I’ve had some success by taking a radically Palestine-centered approach that disconnects the Palestine question from the Jewish question. What is this narrative and what are its advantages?
It’s About Palestine
It is easy to uphold the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. After Britain and France divided Greater Syria into northern and southern areas, with Britain taking over the southern part, the millennia-long indigenous inhabitants of Palestine were denied self-determination. Taking Palestine as a colony, disguised as a ‘mandate’, meant no normal sovereignty for the actual inhabitants – most of them Ottoman citizens, from now on other-determined.
In the logic of the matter, this loss of self-determination would have been the same had the ‘Mandatory’ been France, Italy, the US, Türkiye or anybody else. Like all other colonized and ‘mandated’ people, the Palestinians had a battle against colonization on their hands – whoever the military-colonial power was.
That Britain took over with the selfless goal of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine was a secondary fact facing the Palestinians as of 1917. Whatever the motives for denying independence and democracy in any particular case, the job was to get freedom – like Syrians, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and others all over the world.
This is to say that the Zionist project was not logically central to the Britain-Palestine colonial set-up. The U.K. could have done the deed on behalf of Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, or any other nation-seeking ethnic group, or on behalf of their own people, or maybe their own criminals, as had been the case in Australia.
And sure enough, the historical documents of the 30-year argument between the Palestinians and Colonial Britain show that the reaction of the Palestinians was always: ‘Jews? We’ve lived with Jews peaceably for millennia. It’s Britain (to be sure with its European-Zionist plan) whom we are fighting.’
In other words, Britain’s making itself the tool of a non-British nationalist settler movement altered the Palestinians’ problem only slightly. Their main demand stayed: for independence, from whomever, as their natural right – and by the way, as promised them by Britain and France during the years 1915-1918 and by the League of Nations Covenant in 1920. In line with the anti-colonial spirit of Wilsonian times, collective enslavement, as such, was their main beef. That it was their false friend Britain that was doing it, or that Britain was doing it for the sake of Zionism, were ancillary.
Thus Zionism (and ipso facto Jews and Judaism) – and even Britain – are just details of the story. They are ‘accidents’ in an Aristotelian sense, not the essence of the conflict. This means that the entire Palestinian case can be framed and argued without any mention whatsoever of Zionism, Jews, or Judaism, or even Britain and the League of Nations.
The Usual Conflation
Despite this general nature of the Palestinians’ independence-seeking program, starting around 1918, the present narrative around their plight is intimately connected with the specific colonist project called Zionism. After several years of Palestine solidarity activity, starting in 2009, I noticed that in most meetings and at most lectures the discussion very very quickly moved to Zionism, Jews, Judaism, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, Israel, or in general the aspirations, needs, and fears of Jews. At times Britain’s motives and its perfidy as Mandatory moved to the center of the talk. In either case, the Palestinians were suddenly all but erased from the discussion.
In fact, though, a different narrative is easily imaginable, namely a discussion that remains rooted in Palestine and keeps focus on a positive argument for self-determination. After the Ottomans were forced back into Turkey, whose turn was it to rule? It was the turn of the indigenous, plain and simple. At that time they saw themselves as Syrians or Southern Syrians, and from March through July 1920, Emir Faisal’s independent government was even on the verge of ruling the entirety of what became Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan. Later they were forced to focus only on Palestine
It so happened that for their own reasons Europeans, diplomatically backed by North Americans, had the power to stand in the Palestinians’ – and Syrians’ – way, and did so in the threadbare cloak of the Mandate system, claiming they were giving the infant peoples of the Near East only a little ‘tutelage’ on the short road to ‘standing on their own’. In the Hejaz, Jerusalem, Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad the Arabs answered by saying thanks for fighting the Turks, but they didn’t need any tutelage.
The specific Zionist baggage written into the ‘British Mandate for Palestine’ did make the Palestinian fight harder: His Majesty’s Government thereby left zero room for doubt that its goal was not ‘tutelage’ but indeed the political dispossession of the indigenous, and international Zionism provided sources of immigrants and finances to literally take over the ground. Not even a treaty like those between Britain and the Iraqis and Egyptians, respectively, was in the cards.
Over the years other Palestinian rights were reasonably asserted: the right to citizenship even under colonial rule, the right of the overwhelming majority to assemble, discuss and legislate, the right to determine immigration policy, the right to reject and even evict the colonist. But these were rights to be fought for by any oppressed people, oppressed by anyone – with or without Zionism.
The Narrative’s Advantages
Given that such a positive ‘Palestiniansim’ – freed of any logical need to deal with Britain’s specific neuroses and even less with Europe’s ‘Jewish problem’ – can take up the lion’s share of any narrative, should it? In my opinion, this would have several advantages:
- It is based on the historical fact that the ‘Jewish problem’ as framed by the Zionists was a European problem. It was not intrinsically connected to Palestine. Talking in the same breath of Jews’ predicament in Europe and the territory known as the Near East is simply a conflation. It never hurts to have such a historical fact on your side.
- The injustice of colonization – by whomever, for whatever reasons – is universally understood. Liberation is universally understood, and at least verbally supported. There is nothing complicated in the story of native inhabitants demanding sovereignty, and no need to mix the story up with narratives about oppressed people in Europe.
- That is, the blanks would already be filled in once one got across the message of anti-colonialism and specifically anti-Zionism and was faced with the question, ‘What then?’ The answer is, a polity with all approximately 13 million Palestinians included in its citizenry.
- In today’s battle of positions, anti-semitism dominates the mainstream narrative. A Palestine-centered narrative defuses that bomb. What is demanded is self-determination, Free Palestine. If this has consequences for the present avowedly Jewish state in Palestine, then so be it, but this is not the main thing, it’s only a side effect. In fact, while arguing for basic rights one is not saying anything about Jews, or their status as a ‘nation’, or their right to self-determination, or about a Jewish state somewhere on this earth. The beef with the Zionism which fixated on the Holy Land has always been not with a Jewish state per se but with where it was and whether anybody was ripped off in order to get it established. Deriving anti-semitism from opposition to the real-existing state of Israel is illogical anyway, but this narrative would enable us to go deeper: The issue of a Jewish state, yes or no, has nothing to do with the justice and correctness of the State of Palestine.
- The point is that neither Britain nor Jewish Zionists, nor Italians, Turks, Hindus or Martians have the right to make their own state on land already belonging to others, much less at the cost to those indigenous people of dispossession, ethnic cleansing, and death.
- As already alluded to, framing in this way the case for all the rights of all the Palestinians is positive. Advocates for Palestine need not primarily express themselves and their arguments as against something – anti-Zionist, anti-colonial, anti-Israel or anti-apartheid. These are negative, and they are not so much the other side of the coin of positive self-determination but rather accidental consequences of the primary argument for the right of the Palestinian people to set up their own government with their own laws and rules. There is nothing hard to understand.
Many if not most issues surrounding Palestinians’ dispossession and liberation can only, or at least best, be adumbrated by Palestinians themselves. But outsiders know colonialism – denial of self-determination – when they see it. Anyone can perceive that the problem of Jewish persecution and the Arab lands at the eastern end of the Mediterranean are two different things. Everyone can empathize with oppressed people, whatever the specifics of their oppression. These make up a conceptual situation making it easy to make the case for Palestinian freedom in the powerful ‘Western’ countries co-oppressing Palestinians today.
Of course, talking about Britain or Zionism is unavoidable, but it can be subsidiary. The whole struggle can be framed and talked about without leaving except only briefly and secondarily the Palestinian point-of-view. Who the jailer is is much less important than the imprisonment itself. The formulation can be one of all the rights of all the Palestinians, otherwise known as the case for Palestine. It seems to me that decoupling that case from anything to do specifically with Britain, Jews or Zionism would serve the needs of both logic and a political future.