“In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” So began the innocent nursery rhyme I and so many others learned in elementary school about how this land was “discovered,” conveniently leaving out the bit about the horrors Columbus inflicted on the indigenous peoples of this land.
Well, in 2020, Columbus made landfall again. This time, his head “discovered” the ground when protesters in Boston knocked it off his statue.
His was not the only statue to fall. Confederate monuments and symbols have been coming down as well. What’s more, this public redecorating has not been limited to the United States. Statues of slave traders and colonialist icons have been torn down in Europe as well. A moment of reckoning is upon us.
The murder of George Floyd was the spark for an American intifada built on 400 years of kindling laid by colonizers and slave traders. After countless episodes of police brutality against Black Americans, additional police reform was clearly not a sufficient answer. The problem was systemic. The system was built on history and a certain mythologized public telling of history. That history has to be investigated, challenged, and rewritten.
This awakening, this public reckoning with our history, which Cornel West referred to as a moment of “escalating consciousness,” is long overdue and has a long way to go still. And it fills this Palestinian American with both hope and a question: Can we also begin to apply this fierce critical introspection to American policy toward Israel and what our support for it has meant for the indigenous Palestinian population?
Many Zionist Israelis bristle at the notion that theirs is a colonial project. As Benjamin Netanyahu told Congress of Israelis several years ago, “We’re not the British in India…. We’re not the Belgians in the Congo.” And he is right. Both the British and the Belgians eventually left. The Zionist project, much more like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and, yes, the United States, is a settler colonial project of replacement, not simply exploitation.
This project was also founded on, and continues to be supported by, typical settler colonial myths. Instead of “settling the wilderness,” its adherents spoke of “making the desert bloom.” Instead of manifest destiny, they tout a biblical covenant. The indigenous population (to the extent that it is acknowledged) is shunted, again and again, across the ever-expanding frontier. If they resist, their resistance is used to further define them as barbarous savages who only understand force.
Now, Israel is preparing to take the next step in the long process of colonial expansion by formally annexing further Palestinian territory in the West Bank. While some have characterized this move as a step too far, for Palestinians it is but the latest step in a century of boots on our necks. Every generation of Palestinians for the last hundred years has seen this same story unfold. For my great-grandparents’ generation, the story took the form of British-facilitated Zionist land acquisition, which led to Palestinian Arab peasant landlessness. For my grandparents’ generation, it was the start of the Nakba—the depopulation of the vast majority of Palestine’s native inhabitants and denial of return. For my parents’ generation, it was the 1967 occupation that produced a refugee crisis of its own. And for my generation, it is continued settlement expansion under occupation and now further Israeli annexation. All the while, Israel has gobbled up more land, forcing Palestinians into ever-shrinking cantons.
Throughout this process, Americans have embraced a mythologized version of Israel, a projection that allows them to enable and support it. For conservatives, this version has little to do with reality and everything to do with religion. Cloaked in fundamentalism and dispensationalism, the conservative romance with Israel is steeped in ideas about end-times and, frankly, anti-Semitism, and even predates modern Zionism. But the secular liberal strain of such mythology is also dangerous. From Democrats and liberals, we hear repeatedly that the United States should support Israel because it is a democracy, even as Israel’s military rules over millions of people who have no right to vote. Or we hear that Israel is “a villa in the jungle,” or some similar version of this orientalist trope evoking the civilized/savage dichotomy that was echoed as recently as this past week by a so-called progressive Democrat, Ritchie Torres.
But other progressives are beginning to chart a different, albeit long overdue path. For some time, a growing corps of activists—Palestinian Americans, racial justice activists, left-wing Jews, people of conscience—have been engaged in a reckoning over US support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. And now, this reckoning has reached Congress. Last week, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spearheaded a letter that calls for cuts to US aid to Israel should Israel go through with its annexation plans, as well as settlement building and other rights abuses. The letter, which has been signed by 12 members of Congress, all Democrats, as well as Senator Bernie Sanders, sets down a marker for the direction that progressives will take on the US-Israel relationship moving forward.
It reads, in part:
Unilateral annexation in the West Bank is in direct opposition to the principles of democracy and human rights that the United States of America is supposed to stand for. At a time when the American people are taking to the streets to demand justice for all in our own country, there is no question but that such an action would alienate many US lawmakers and citizens. Members of Congress should not be expected to support an undemocratic system in which Israel would permanently rule over a Palestinian people denied self-determination or equal rights.
With international opposition mounting, it remains to be seen when and how Israel will go through with formal annexation—and, in some respects, it is not particularly relevant. The truth is, as the International Court of Justice recognized in its landmark decision a decade and a half ago, de facto annexation exists today. The current reality on the ground is one of apartheid, and we should not be waiting for any formal Israeli decisions to force us to open our eyes to it.
Still, the words of this congressional letter signal the dawn of an important moment that has been years in the making—that was catapulted into the present by many previous moments, including two significant ones in the summer of 2014. As Israeli bombs rained down on Gaza for two months, dominating US headlines, the police murdered a young Black man, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo. The rapid juxtaposition of these events, both featuring state violence against marginalized civilians, helped sharpen the analysis of justice advocates on both sides of the ocean, connecting the two struggles.
This summer triggers flashbacks of pain and hope. The very same week that Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, Israeli police killed Iyad Hallaq, a 32-year-old Palestinian man with autism, on the streets of Jerusalem. And now, global racial justice protests have emerged just as Israel mulls its latest major land grab. For indigenous people in Palestine and for Black Americans, who continue to suffer under systemic racism in this land, this historical awakening is a first and necessary step to fixing our unjust present. It is a beginning, an essential move toward challenging systems of injustice and replacing them with systems of freedom and equality for all.