Volume 5, No. 9, September 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The State of Israel makes several different claims for its legitimacy and foundational right. The first is a moral claim, that due to the horrific violence committed against the Jewish people culminating with the Shoah (Holocaust), the west owes the Jewish people a homeland where they can finally be safe. This was the fundamental premise behind the Zionist ideology, both in its left- and right-wing expressions. Not only that, the west must also fully justify all Israel’s policies and practices, however wrong, in the international arena – particularly those against the Palestinians. The second is a legal claim, i.e., that the state was created legitimately under international law by the UN, and hence deserves the respect and backing of all member nation-states today. Israel itself, however, does not feel the need to listen to or follow the UN’s mandates, regimes, and laws – it is above these laws as its moral right. The third is a purely pragmatic/political claim, that since Israel is an extension of the European Enlightenment and its scientific and colonial heritage, and is the “only democratic and modern state in the region”, hence it deserves uncritical support from the west. Israel will supposedly develop democratic regimes that will help the rest of the region, which in the end benefits the whole world. And the fourth is a mythological theological foundational claim, that Palestine is their biblical homeland promised to them by God and that is an eternal claim not bound by human history, politics, ethics or temporality.
In this paper I critically examine all these claims from within their respective scope. As a Christian theologian and ethicist deeply committed to justice for all peoples as creations of God and recipients of the universal grace of the Cross, I am compelled to undertake this examination due to the ever-growing gross human rights violations and increasing violence against the Palestinians in the State of Israel. Currently, the critical voices in the territory that has historically been called Palestine, as well as all those internationally who challenge the State of Israel for all these violations, are invariably silenced by a highly blackmailing epithet of ‘antisemitism’. This almost ubiquitous strategy distorts history, belies truths, allows injustice to continue unchecked and to grow in monstrous apartheid proportions and in the end undermines the very legitimacy of the State of Israel. As a Christian I believe and claim that we shall know the truth and the truth will indeed set us free, and further, with Paul, emphatically assert, that “it is for freedom Christ has set us free and we should let no one take this freedom away from us” (cf. Gal. 5:1) and this applies to all, demanding that we should fight for others’ freedom also.
As I write this paper, the State of Israel is celebrating the 75th anniversary of its founding under the UN mandate. Officially, however, the day is called Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day), the day when members of the ‘provisional government’ signed a ‘Declaration of Independence’ in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948. The deeply Jewish nationalists and ultranationalists celebrating the ‘independence’ of Israel have very contrivedly yoked it with the ‘liberation’ of (East) Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War (June 5-10, 1967). Israel captured East Jerusalem during this war, and effectively annexed it into Jerusalem, together with additional surrounding territory. Israel’s Jerusalem Law – or more fully, “The Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel” – of July 30, 1980, refers to Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital. The international community generally, and the UN particularly, however, continue to reject this Israeli claim and the annexation itself, classifying this occupation by Israel as illegitimate and illegal, and regarding East Jerusalem as fully a part of Palestinian territory. This position however has been shamefully undermined very significantly by President Donald Trump on December 7, 2020, when the US officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
The flip side of these celebrations is therefore obviously the fact that it is also, of course, the 75th anniversary of the Nakba. Nakba is a critical Arabic word for the Palestinian citizens, which means ‘catastrophe’, and refers to Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine, its exiling of Palestinians and making them into refugees, its dispossession of Palestinian property, its destruction of Palestinian cities, towns and villages, and its attempt to erase the very existence of the Palestinians from Palestine that has continued unabated over this 75-year period.
Throughout this period, few western states have raised concerns at these gross violations, despite the ever-increasing brutality of the State of Israel. Professor Nathaniel Berman of Brown University Department of Religious Studies, writing recently in Haaretz, profoundly said: “Ever since 1967, Israeli governments have effectively admitted that violating international law is essential to maintaining the occupation and violating Palestinians’ human rights. And they try and silence criticism by using a kind of very effective intellectual blackmail [of antisemitism].”
The UN estimated that more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from Palestine, and many fled from advancing Israeli forces during the 1948 conflict. Those expelled from Palestine have absolutely no right to return, even if they have close direct family still there. Further, even the much reduced number of Palestinians who remained in Palestine also have absolutely no possibility of return if they were to ever leave for whatever reason. By contrast, any Jew from wherever, even if they have never had any connection to Palestine or have any family there, has an automatic ‘right to return’. This led to a massive influx of Jews to Israel, particularly Holocaust survivors and Jews from Arab and Muslim countries. During the first three years alone the number of Jews increased from 700,000 to 1,400,000. By 1958, the population of Israel rose to two million, and between 1948 and 1970, approximately 1,150,000 Jewish refugees relocated to Israel. Jews of European background were treated much more favourably than Jews coming from Middle Eastern and North African countries (just a touch of racism, in spite of a common Jewish faith). The need to solve the crises that resulted from this rapid massive expansion led the first Prime Minister (PM), David Ben-Gurion, to sign a reparations agreement with West Germany. This triggered mass protests by Jews angered at the idea that Israel could accept what was clearly monetary compensation (or blood money) for the Holocaust, thus besmirching the calamitous proportion of the tragedy itself.
Added to the present joint ‘Independence Day’ celebrations, Israeli flag-toting marchers have taken every opportunity to be blatantly provocative and humiliating, chanting highly racist anti-Muslim and anti-Arab slogans, and making clear attempts to destroy whatever little holdings the Palestinians have left in eastern Jerusalem. The current independence marches have sparked much wider violence against the Palestinians. The security forces have more or less turned a blind eye to these blatant violations against the Palestinians and taken the most minimal steps to protect their lives, rights and properties. The daily lives of the Palestinians have been completely disrupted. These crowds and security forces not only entered the al-Aqsa Mosque (the third holiest site in Islam) during prayer times, they harassed and even physically terrorised the Palestinians during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The Jewish crowd entered claiming that it was their holy day of Passover, and they wished to worship there, violating all the long-established normatives set in place since the early 20th century. There were a series of clashes and the police completely sided with the Jewish interlopers, claiming the Muslim worshippers were armed.
During these continuing high celebrations of the establishment of the State of Israel, there will be few, if any, official sympathetic discussions of the Palestinians’ ongoing state of catastrophe and ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Israeli state. There have been many different delegations and individuals from the US visiting Israel, reflecting Washington’s ongoing commitment to the ‘special relationship’ between the US and Israel. Given the highly divisive political environment in the US, these visits display an uncharacteristically bipartisan solidarity across the US political spectrum with unconditional support for Israel’s apartheid regime (with the corollary that the western delegations are all highly anti-Palestinian also). There have been a few decorative mild rebukes from the Biden administration of the State of Israel, but no one has mentioned the abject condition, distressing economic and political life and deep socio-cultural humiliation of the Palestinian people. This utter disregard for the democratic norms, international agreements, law and regimes that are in place and the escalation in these violations is an indictment of the international regimes and their efficacy.
One of the reasons so many US politicians from both parties maintain their staunch support of Israel is the undue, widespread and pervasive influence of powerful lobbies like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other pro-Israeli lobby groups that work hard to silence any criticism of the State of Israel and its policies. The American academy is also not free of their pressures. One (of many) notable examples of this was when Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu was invited to give the keynote address to a peace gathering in St. Paul, Minnesota, hosted by the Peace and Justice Program at the University of St. Thomas in 2007. Before the event was even fully finalised, Jewish lobby groups found out about it and successfully pressured the university into withdrawing the invitation, on the grounds that Archbishop Tutu had previously equated the treatment of the Palestinians by the State of Israel with South African apartheid and was therefore antisemitic and highly offensive to the Jewish community. The director of the Program, Dr Cris E Toffolo, who had invited the Archbishop, was removed from the directorship, although she could not be fired from the University faculty outright as she was fully tenured.
 Israel has, of course, long disputed the Palestinian account of the Nakba. “In a statement, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said, ‘We will fight the ‘Nakba’ lie with full strength and we won’t allow the Palestinians to continue to spread lies and distort history.’” See Rob Garver: “UN Recognition of Palestinian Displacement Angers Israel”, Voice of America, May 15, 2023, available at https://www.voanews.com/a/un-recognition-of-palestinian-displacement-angers-israel/7095028.html.
 Nathaniel Berman: “This is How Israel Really Silences Palestinian Human Rights Advocates”, Haaretz.com May 21, 2023, available at https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/2023-05-21/ty-article-opinion/.premium/this-is-how-israel-really silences-palestinian-human-rights-advocates/00000188-3e0a-d805-a7c9-ffcb7f1b0000.
 See, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israel.
 For a comprehensive examination of the issue see especially Salma Abdelaziz and Abeer Salman: “Inside Al-Aqsa, Muslims say they’re losing control of the holy site”, CNN.com, April 12, 2023, available at https://www.cnn.com/2023/04/12/middleeast/inside-al-aqsa-mosque-status-quo-mime-intl/index.html.
For details mentioned above, see also Nir Hasson, Deiaa Haj Yahia, Josh Breiner, Fedi Amun and Ben Samuels: “Jewish Worshippers Ascend Temple Mount as Palestinian Worshippers Remain Barricaded in Al-Aqsa Mosque”, Haaretz, April 9, 2023, available at https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2023-04-09/ty-article/.premium/jews-worshippers-ascend-temple-mount-as-palestinian-worshippers-barricade-al-aqsa/00000187-646d-dde0-afb7-7e7f6dc70000; and Nir Hasson: “Jewish Activists Fueled the Flames, but Israel Police Sparked the Temple Mount Fire”, Haaretz, April 5, 2023, available at https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2023-04-05/ty-article/.premium/jewish-activists-fueled-the-flames-but-israel-police-sparked-the-temple-mount-fire/00000187-514e-dde0-afb7-7f5f92950000.
 There are a few other dominant pro-Israel groups in the US, like the American Zionist Movement (AZM), an umbrella organization for 21 American Zionist organizations and agencies; and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith (ADL) which fights threats to Jewish security coming from antisemitism in the US as well as anti-Israel activity and radicalism of the right and left. The ADL says it supports Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
On the other side there are at least two organisations ethically involved in challenging the State of Israel vis-a-vis its dealings with the Palestinians: Americans for Peace Now (APN) is a nonpartisan, non-profit, pro-Israel, pro-peace organisation that believes that peace alone will ensure Israel’s security. The Jewish lobby that is the most justice oriented is the Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), which is an openly left-wing Jewish activist organisation opposing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and broadly criticising the “severe human rights violations that Israel engages in every day against the Palestinians.” JVP also openly supports the Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel.
 See Art Hughes: “St Thomas reverses ban on Tutu”, MPR News, October 10, 2007, available at https://www.mprnews.org/story/2007/10/10/tutu; etc.
(To be continued)
The writer is the Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Justice and Christian Community (Emeritus), Director of Islamic Studies (Emeritus), Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota, US, and the Desmond Tutu Professor of Ecumenical Theology and Social Transformation in Africa (Emeritus), University of Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa.