The Sham Postcolonial Argument against Israel

In my last commentary, I focused on the role of third, outside parties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of the conditions that muddies consideration of the conflict and now raises profound obstacles to its settlement, is the purposeful, strategic masking of hostile intent among outside parties – in attitudes unsympathetic to Israel’s founding and to its historical conditions of conflict, and that are actually directed at the state’s dissolution – under the guise of peace and justice politics. Of contemporary political charlatanry there is no greater representation. This simple bad faith, successfully enacted over nearly two decades of the Oslo process and its aftermath, now conditions any resolution of the conflict.

One of the first signs – a blaring announcement – of a third party’s interest not in resolving conflict, but of effectively promoting it, in advocacy of one of the conflicting party’s interests, is perpetuation of the historical argument. We know the path to resolution of international disputes is not found in reaching agreement, or winning the argument, on the historical origins of the disagreement. Successful negotiations will require that “differences in standpoints are acknowledged as legitimate” in the eyes of the other party to the conflict – testing how much that standpoint can be accommodated in resolution – but any party’s attempting actually to win the argument on a point is a path to nowhere, a road only to further conflict. That is the only promise of continued focus on original claims and offenses in history. Nonetheless, continued disputation over historical origins forms the foundation of postcolonial anti-Israel rhetoric, and thereby the sham mischaracterizations of contemporary conditions.

The postcolonial prism perversely distorts the creation of Israel – the return of political and national autonomy to the oldest continually oppressed and persecuted minority in the world – as a Western colonial enterprise. In order to make this claim, however, it is necessary to deny the Jewish historical connection to the land that became the state of Israel. But while the consequent fraudulent claims about Jews, so common to Jewish history, are many – such as that Ashkenazi Jews are really the descendents of the Khazars and not the Jews of ancient Israel at all – the contrasting historical evidence of Jewish origins, as well as multiple genetic studies, is overwhelming. Still the denial of Jewish origins is common, though as a direct lie, more common among Palestinians and other Arabs. The Western left representation is more rhetorical, more of a piece with a broader ideological scheme, and more devious. Increasingly, left anti-Israel activists frame their postcolonial argument against Israel in terms only of the limiting and modern historical phenomenon of Ashkenazi Jews retuning to Israel from Europe. Thus, in the most superficial and historically ignorant manner possible, Jews in Israel are characterizable as outsiders – even European! – and colonizers. In a companion and extraordinarily exploitative move, the Palestinian population is increasingly labeled, in contrast, as indigenous.

In international policy, the definition of an indigenous people is so controversial that the United Nations will not label as an actual definition those identifying characteristics that its Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has established as explanatory of the concept of indigenous people – even though the establishment of a class and the identification of distinguishing characteristics for a subset of that class is the functional practice of developing a definition. The third and fourth characteristics of indigenous peoples identified by the Permanent Forum note the following:

Indigenous peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.

Manjusha S. Nair has observed that,

territoriality is premised on originality, since original inhabitants have more claims on a territorial space… Hence, indigeneity becomes a field of contestation. Some are born with it; others imagine it as an ethnic belonging. Empirically, the claim of indigeneity is always contested since few human groups inhabit a space from the beginning. The groups that claim indigeneity associate themselves with the original inhabitants in quite imaginative ways though they exist many generations later. [Emphasis added]

Obviously, by these parameters, both Jews and Palestinian Arabs have indigenous claims to make. European, Ottoman and other empires traded colonial rule of the Middle East for two millennia while Jews and Arabs throughout, like all subjects of imperial conquest, suffered under the rule of others. Surely, there is no active contestation of indigeneity that reaches farther back in time than the one in which these two groups now engage. Surely, too, however one may reasonably characterize an ongoing effort to deny the claim of either, it cannot be as one directed at conflict resolution and peace. Yet beyond the unsurprising, belligerent claims of some Jews and many more Palestinians that the claim of the other is false, we have the like claim by increasing numbers on the far left. Dressed in the postcolonial vocabulary of corrective justice, it is as ideologically-driven an intellectual fraud as has been foisted on the field of human rights since U.N. Resolution 3379 and the later collapse of the communist world. Further, it is just one more political and  exploitative abuse of the very conquered and marginalized populations Postcolonial theorizing purports to champion.

It is an unfortunate truth that many indigenous peoples around the world were fooled for that second time, or saw history offer its second, hardly farcical repetition, as long ago, let’s say, as when the Spanish ordered in 1599 that every surviving male of the Acoma Pueblo who was over twenty-five be punished for his resistance by the loss of his right foot. The iterations of deception and brutality over the centuries since represent nothing less than the nightmare of history. There is no degree of distrust, no contempt for Western acculturation that might be begrudged any indigenous people conquered in, but still surviving the colonial onslaught. This is the fundamental historical precondition from which to draw a postcolonial theory.

It takes little imagination, then, to appreciate how such theorizing would attract politicized indigenous men and women to the full range of far left, postcolonial conceptualizing, including – professed and politicized as it now manipulatively is in the rhetoric of colonial dispossession and difference – conceptualizing about Israel-Palestine. The crueler truth is that the whole maneuver stands this time for a different exploitation, the political colonizing by Western ideologues, for their own entirely different propaganda purposes against Israel, of the true politics of indigeneity, which are pursued on behalf of peoples who do not already have 21 states of their own.

So manipulative, confused, and incoherent is the appropriation of the language of postcolonialism and indigeneity to the propaganda war against Israel that its perpetrators fail to recognize the inner contradictions of their own arguments. They focus almost exclusively in their manufactured colonial construct on the Ashkenazi returnees to Israel from Europe, ignoring the land’s persistent Jewish population and that from surrounding Arab territories and nations. The long Diaspora is used, practically and conceptually, to alienate Jews from their own territorial origin, their own indigeneity. See, for instance, the ignorant example, easily repeatable, of Helen Thomas calling for Jews to “return” to Poland. In the historical imagination of the anti-Israeli and the frequently anti-Jewish, the long sojourn from home for the Jews has entailed the loss of their claim to that home. Note, then, below, in that context, the exceptional identification by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, of who exactly constitutes a Palestinian refugee.

The operational definition of a Palestine refugee is any person whose “normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”

Palestine refugees are persons who fulfil the above definition and descendants of fathers fulfilling the definition.

Recall from the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues above the identifying focus on “ancestral territories” and the preservation of “ethnic identity.” Consider how Nair referred to the common practice for peoples claiming indigeneity to claim it even though “they exist many generations later.”

The Palestinians claim a right of return even for descendents who never lived on the land. Why, then, should it be different for Jews? How many generations would need to pass before Palestinian Arabs would relinquish their identification with the land, their claim of an ancestral home, and a right of return? If the conditions of this present conflict exiled Palestinians from the land and their autonomy for a thousand years, for two thousand, as history so long exiled Jews from theirs, would they accept their claims as forfeited?

Why should it be any different for Jews?

One may call those falsifiers of Jewish historical identity and claims many things – those propagandists of postcolonial rhetoric and exploiters of the true history of indigenous colonization – but one may not call them honest. And they are not proponents of peace and justice.

About the Author
A. Jay Adler did his graduate studies at Columbia University and is Professor of English at Los Angeles Southwest College. He is a contributing poetry editor at West magazine. Adler writes in all genres, including poetry, drama, screenwriting, fiction, and essay. His journalism has appeared in DoubleTake and Tikkun, his film criticism in Bright Lights Film Journal, and his writing on Native America has been anthologized in Global Viewpoints: Indigenous Peoples. Adler blogs on politics, ideas, and culture at the sad red earth.