Volume 6, No. 2, February 2024
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Over the last 30 plus years, criticism of the State of Israel has correctly morphed into seeing its continuous massive derogation of the rights of the Palestinian people as analogous to South Africa’s pre-1994 abhorrent apartheid system. Apartheid is clearly a very appropriate analogy for the State of Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinian people and is now openly applied by those who are critiquing the ubiquitous violation of rights and the jeopardising of the democratic dispensation and nomenclature of the Israeli state. This is also the case with the global international organisations. This critique however is decried as yet another ‘anti-semitic’ marker according to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), despite its obvious applicability and clear appropriateness.
This application of the label of ‘apartheid’, both in its social and legal sense, is an evolution in the assessment of the State of Israel by people both inside and outside of Israel as they witness:
All of these create a network of systems in place for Palestinians’ ignominy and control of their movement.
Very obviously, all these acts are highly violative of international ethical norms and laws and mirror the very foulest of South African apartheid policies. Following the Group Areas Act of 1950, South Africa created Pass Laws by 1952, requiring people of colour to carry Pass Books, later called Reference Books. All people of colour in South Africa were subjected to the Pass Laws and they were required to carry passes and coordination documents at all times. Overall, South Africa identified four groups, in hierarchical order: 1) White, 2) Coloured, 3) Bantu (Black) and 4) Others. Officially however, with the creation of Bantustans (or ‘homelands’) in 1951, Blacks were no longer considered true citizens of the Republic of South Africa, so that category was withdrawn and the remaining citizens of South Africa were reclassified and segregated further into: 1) White, 2) Cape Coloured, 3) Malay, 4) Griqua, 5) Chinese, 6) Indians, 7) Other Asians and 8) Other Coloureds. The South African identity number/card reflected all of these eight categories. Through the exclusion of Blacks and the new differentiated classification of other coloured groups, white South Africa was hoping to raise the numerical and percentage number of whites (regardless of origin) versus the various coloured groups.
It has been estimated that 3.5 million people suffered in a massive programme of forced relocation from their homes to Bantustans from the 1960s through the 1980s. The idea was, as stated at the House of Assembly on February 7, 1978:
If our policy is taken to its logical conclusion as far as the black people are concerned, there will be not one black man with South African citizenship…Every black man in South Africa will eventually be accommodated in some independent new state in this honourable way and there will no longer be an obligation on this Parliament to accommodate these [black] people politically.
Starting with the Natives Land Act of 1913, the white minority rule in South Africa established reserves for the Black population in order to segregate them from the white population and take them out of any potential rights in the ‘white South Africa’. This was following the pattern comprehensively established by the US in dealing with the Native Americans. They moved the indigenous population from their original habitations and settled them in reservations hundreds of miles away (cf. among many, the Choctaw removal between 1831-1833 from southeastern US – Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas, to the ‘Indian Territory’ in the Midwest – now called Oklahoma). This was part of the infamous ‘Trail of Tears’ between 1830-1850, moving approximately 60,000 people across thousands of miles to what came to be called the reservations, and when such reservations were later deemed desirable by the whites, arbitrarily moving them again and again to newer and ever more desolate reservations.
Subsequent to the launch of the South African National Party in 1948, whose main goal was an exclusively white South Africa, H F Verwoerd launched the Group Areas Act of 1950 and the Native’s Resettlement Act of 1954, with the clear goal of making the whites the majority in South Africa and thus granting them permanent control of the country. The Bantu Authorities Act of 1951 ‘generously’ gave the Blacks seven percent of the overall land, with the remainder reserved for the white population. Given that the actual estimate of the Black population was well over 75 percent, and whites were barely 7-9 percent, the rest being Coloured and Indians, this ‘generosity’ was a clear mockery and humiliation of the Black people. The government of South Africa then created four ‘Bantustans’: Transkei (1956), Bophuthatswana (1961), Ciskei (1961) and Venda (1962), as ‘independent’ nations. The political role was expanded through the Bantu Self-Government Act of 1959. This was then named ‘Separate Development’ and the infamous ‘Equal but Separate’ or ‘Separate but Equal’, which of course, never accepted any equality whatsoever of the Black people, but insisted viciously on the separate development. South Africa again openly borrowed this policy and practice from the race structures of the US during its vilest expression in the Jim Crow period in the postbellum South of the US.
Why these details are essential is because these are almost exactly the same as the contemporary tactics and policies that are exercised by Israel against the Palestinian people at all levels. In all this, all one has to do is to replace the references to Blacks with Palestinians and one sees the deep similarities and parallels between the two (or even three) systems. As there is no just way to defend such a system, there is therefore a growth in the ubiquitous usage and clamorous vehemence of the anti-semitism charge against anybody who says anything negative, however deeply truthful, about the State of Israel. The state propaganda is provided pseudo-intellectual heft through fantasised historical distortions. These falsehoods become the intellectual justification for the foundation and the current practices of the State of Israel, and they serve to remind Europe of its great historical anti-Jewish history, sins and guilt. The latter is a way to emotionally manipulate the west into supporting non-democratic practices when it comes to the rights of the Palestinian people. The west’s anti-Islamic proclivity is also satiated in this anti-Palestinian international policy making.
The confining of Palestinians to piecemeal patches of territory is clearly reminiscent of the Bantustans in South Africa, which evoked Archbishop Desmond Tutu to name all this as apartheid over two decades ago, where he famously applied this designation to Israel in his academic speech in Boston in 2002, having just returned from Palestine/Israel: “I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.” A few years later he was even more direct: “I know first-hand that Israel has created an apartheid reality within its borders and through its occupation. The parallels to my own beloved South Africa are painfully stark indeed,” he wrote in 2014 in a call for the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly in the US to back sanctions against Israel. He thus challenged the Israeli state’s long-standing narrative of portraying itself as the victim of Arab terrorism while ignoring and indeed denying any moral responsibility for the occupation of Palestinian property and illegally expanding Jewish settlements. Indeed, the Israeli leadership has blatantly stated that their “formula for the parameters of a unilateral solution are: To maximise the number of Jews; to minimise the number of Palestinians” as Ehud Olmert, then a cabinet minister and later Prime Minister (PM), stated in an interview as early as 2003.
Despite the charges of anti-semitism to stifle all criticisms of Israeli state policies, the application of the term ‘apartheid’ to the Israeli state has become almost mainstream. Jimmy Carter entitled his seminal 2006 work Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid and it has even been used by two former Israeli PMs, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert in 2010. The Israeli policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians are now broadly recognised as being blatantly violative of most international law and human rights regimes. This is being articulated in many international human rights reports (cf. B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, etc). This is a major moral shift against the existing status quo ante of the State of Israel. Nevertheless, the political landscape has yet to change, for to date it is still egregiously backed by almost all its European and US allies because of their historical guilt over the treatment of the Jews in Europe for almost 1800 years. The truth, fully acknowledged, is still stigmatised as anti-semitism.
Most poignant in the moral shift that is occurring is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which is organised and coordinated by the Palestinian BDS National Committee. The BDS movement is clearly modelled after the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and has its roots around the NGO Forum at the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, where this apartheid character of Israel was clearly implied. Resultantly, the BDS movement, particularly in the US, has been heavily disparaged and reviled as the most blatant anti-semitic movement, under the cover of academia.
This moral shift has also begun to occur in some Christian circles as well. In December 2009, a number of prominent Palestinian Christian activists, both clergy and lay people, released the Kairos Palestine document, A Moment of Truth. Kairos Palestine was set up as an independent coalition of Christian organisations to help communicate to the Christian world what is happening in Palestine. The document declares the Israeli occupation of Palestine a “sin against God” and against humanity. It calls on churches and Christians all over the world to demand the boycott of Israel. Like the BDS movement, Section seven of this document calls for “the beginning of a system of economic sanctions and boycott to be applied against Israel.” It states that the isolation of Israel will cause pressure on it to abolish what it labels as “apartheid laws” that discriminate against Palestinians and non-Jews. Here also Kairos Palestine follows the theological shift and inspiration of the 1985 South African Kairos Document, a theological statement by mostly Black South African Theologians against the vicious policies of the apartheid regime of South Africa, especially after the State of Emergency was declared on July 21, 1985.
Historically, it must be remembered that in 1516, the Ottoman Turks, under Sultan Selim I, defeated the Mamluks (1250-1517) in Egypt and Syria and occupied Palestine. They then established the Ottoman Caliphate there in 1517. Ruling from Constantinople (renamed Istanbul), the Ottomans were the successors to the Byzantine empire that they had defeated in 1453 at the Fall of Constantinople. Their occupation of Palestine lasted for 402 years (1516-1918). Under Selim I’s son, Süleiman I, the empire achieved its greatest expansion. The Ottoman Empire established one of the most advanced administrations of its time. Under these Turkish rulers, Jerusalem experienced a four-hundred-year long period of relative calm, which it had never experienced before and certainly has not experienced since the formation of the State of Israel in 1948.
Given the Jewish persecutions and rising anti-semitism in Europe in the latter part of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, European Jewry began to lobby hard for a homeland in Palestine. Because of the Turkish rule in the area, however, this was impossible. So a number of locations and solutions for a Jewish homeland were considered outside of Palestine. Such solutions were always with the collusion of the British Imperial colonial structures. Cyprus, El Arish in the Sinai Peninsula and Egypt, Uganda and the larger East African portion of British East Africa, and even Argentina were suggested as a possible location. These locations, however viable with British aid, were all challenged by the larger Jewry because they undermined the ontological claim to Palestine as part of God’s promise and Jerusalem as being central to it both in terms of the Passover Seder liturgical claim of ‘next year in Jerusalem’ and Psalm 137, especially vv. 1-6. After the establishment of the State of Israel as a state in 1948, and most specifically after the capture of Jerusalem in 1967, within Israel itself many Jews have changed this liturgical eschatological hope from ‘next year in Jerusalem’ to ‘next year in Jerusalem, the rebuilt’ — referring to the rebuilding of the ancient Jewish Temple. This demands a continuing dislocation of the Palestinians from East Jerusalem.
After the collapse of the Ottoman Turkish Empire at the end of World War I, the victorious Allied Powers apportioned the administration of Palestine to Britain – ‘Mandatory Palestine’. The terms of this mandate stipulated that Britain establish in Palestine “a national home for the Jewish people” but critically, on the condition that it did not prejudice the civil and religious rights of the resident non-Jewish communities already living there. This was a strong mandate, as the Jewish population in Palestine grew rapidly, especially after the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. Of course, this led to the escalation of Jewish-Arab violence in Palestine, and as the British were apparently ‘unused to colonial conflict and exercise of power’, they quickly handed over the problem to the UN. However, considering that the British had, in fact, very recently dealt with a similar problem but with much higher numbers in their own long-term colonial rule of the Subcontinent between the Hindus and the Muslims, this reluctance is therefore truly ironic. Shamefully, it is seldom noted.
Ostensibly, the UN proposed the partitioning of Palestine into two states: one Arab and one Jewish, with the Jerusalem-Bethlehem area to become an ‘international city’ (whatever that meant). Though the plan was accepted by the Jewish leadership who would gain land and indeed a country, it was rejected outright by the Arab leaders who would lose land and sovereignty in Palestine. History and subsequent events have proved the latter’s assessment to be totally correct. The Jewish leadership then declared the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, the moment the British mandate concluded. But no borders had been officially assigned or announced at that time for the new state, so Israel surreptitiously usurped even some of the territories demarcated for the Palestinians. On May 15, 1948, Israel was invaded by five neighbouring states, starting what is today called ‘Israel’s War of Independence’ for whatever reason. Though the fighting ended in 1949 with a series of ceasefires and the production of an Armistice Line along Israel’s frontiers with the neighbouring states, the latter refused to recognise Israel and therefore its borders remained unsettled. The actual consolidation of Israel’s frontier/borders came about some 20 years later after the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and most of the Syrian Golan Heights. This occupation was deeply disputed not only by the neighbouring states but also by the UN, as this effectively tripled the size of Israel’s territory from the one the UN had originally designated as Israel in 1947. Israel’s subsequent territorial moves were and continue to be totally negated by the international community, especially its occupation of the whole of East Jerusalem as its capital. All this changed in 2019 when the US acknowledged the right of Israel to all occupied land, including East Jerusalem. This happened when the US administration under Donald Trump announced that it would move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as the new capital of Israel. Almost all other international opinion continues to consider Jerusalem as the ‘international city’ and part of Palestinian lands, and the Golan Heights as Occupied Territories.
Israel’s border was actually finalised in 1979, when Egypt recognized the Jewish state. Israel withdrew its troops from the Sinai, a process completed in 1982. Israel was now left illegally occupying the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights as officially its frontiers were still delineated by the 1949 Armistice line. So there has been a massive growth of Israeli territorial usurpation through wars, and most importantly through the US’s backing, in spite of all the gross violations of the UN mandates that Israel has committed over many decades. Because of the unquestioned US backing, Israel has increased its population, heavily multiplied its landholdings, and doubled down on its bullying and harassment of the Palestinians.
The recent manifestation of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right wing government’s legislative and political decisions is paradigmatic proof of both the initial intention as well as the contemporary politics in the State of Israel. There are currently large domestic agitations by left-wing political groups protesting against Netanyahu and his conservative government’s decision to overhaul the judiciary in order to undermine its independence. This is obviously deviant given that Netanyahu is facing multiple corruption charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and will be judged by these courts. This activism, however, is clearly not genuinely interested in the creation of a just, peaceful, democratic and fully participatory Israel, because it shows no concern for its Palestinian citizens who continue to live with the sword of Damocles perpetually hanging over their heads.
This struggle reminds me of the praiseworthy critical resistance to Hitler by the independent Protestant Confessing Church (Bekennende Kirche) against the German Christians (Deutsche Christen) who promoted the creation of a pro-Nazi ‘Reich Church’. The former correctly fought for ecclesial autonomy but they overlooked or ignored the highly catastrophic Jewish genocide taking place in Germany and Europe and most critically in their respective neighbourhoods. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the few Christian leaders in the Confessing Church who openly advocated fighting against anti-Jewish Nazi practices. Besides other discussions, his approach to this issue was addressed in his 1933 essay, The Church and the Jewish Question. Bonhoeffer argued that National Socialism was an illegitimate form of government and hence had to be opposed on Christian grounds. He outlined three stages of this opposition. First, the church was called to question state injustice. Secondly, it had an obligation to help all victims of injustice, whether they were Christian or not. Finally, the church might be called to ‘put a spoke in the wheel’ to bring the machinery of injustice to a halt. This challenge from Bonhoeffer is clearly applicable to us now. I hope we make the decision that he made, whatever the consequences.
In the context of Israel’s territoriality, it is very interesting to note that whereas Israeli propaganda overemphasised, to the point of hyperbole, the pattern of land ownership by Jews in Palestine prior to 1948, when it comes to dealing with the Palestinian land holding patterns at the time, Israel resorts to two simultaneous sleights of hand:
First, it defines all non-Jews dwelling in Palestine simply as Arab, and therefore part of the larger overall Arab world, especially the neighbouring countries of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, etc., but not specifically as Palestinian. This, of course, is an effort to make Palestinians invisible, and implies, not too subtly, that Palestine as such is meant exclusively for the Jews and Arabs should leave. Second, they do not make any distinction between Christian and Muslim Palestinians, for after all, they are all just Arabs. This lack of differentiation is meant to obfuscate and de-historicise the fact that Muslims have been in Palestine for well over 1400 years, since almost the inception of Islam itself. They have occupied this region from as early as 637 AD. Christians have lived in the area since the beginning of Christianity itself, and so have a much longer history in Palestine. More specifically, they controlled the region after the Roman conversion into a Christian empire with its location in Byzantium (i.e., after the ‘conversion of Constantine’ in 337 AD). The Christians were later themselves an occupied people who made a treaty around 638 AD with the invading Muslim army under the second Caliph, Umar (reigned 634-644 AD). Both the Christian and Muslim occupations developed their own patterns of property and land ownerships, and around 1947, the Christians were proportionally bigger land holders than Muslims, despite long term Muslim rule of the region and being part of the Ottoman millet system.
An agreement known as the Umari Treaty was signed in Jerusalem between the second Rightly Guided Caliph, Umar, and the Christian Patriarch of Jerusalem, Sophronius (560-638). This agreement was signed at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the time of the Zuhr prayers (around noon), and so Sophronius invited Umar to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but Umar declined, fearing that accepting such an invitation might endanger the church’s status as a place of Christian worship, and that Muslims might break the treaty and turn the church into a mosque. Most critically it should be remembered that Umar allowed the Jews to return to and reside within Palestine, and most specifically, within the city of Jerusalem itself, thus ending the nearly 500 years of Roman rule and oppression starting with Hadrian’s expulsion. For most of this entire period, Jews were simply banned from entering Jerusalem. This was the case until the Muslims took over this region and allowed them to return.
So, in fact, Islam undid the prolonged punishment meted out to the Jews by Emperor Hadrian at the end of the Bar Kochba Revolt in 136 AD. This ban was fully maintained, at times with great oppression by Christian emperors after Constantine. This alone places the Muslim rule in Palestine on a higher moral status than is usually acknowledged or admitted and provides critical insights into the issue of the status of Palestinian Muslims in the Holy Land.
The story of the State of Israel is therefore more complex and multivalent than the shell games that Israel and its various lobbyists play with historical facts. The primary purpose of these tricks is to correctly point to Europe’s long and obscene history vis-a-vis Jews, culminating in the Shoah, and the guilt deservedly associated with this history. Added to this is the fact that by naming the Palestinians as Arabs, the assumption is that they are all Muslim, so the guilt is now coupled with an age-old anti-Islamic historic prejudice within the west. Briefly, European prejudice against Islam was rooted in the following series of historical events:
This combination of guilt and Islamophobia fans prejudices and dislocates the Christian population and their land ownership patterns. Importantly, it establishes the Jewish immigrants as the European representatives in the region, bringing ‘civilisation and modernisation’ to the area, hence the emphasis on Zionism and the special status of the Ashkenazi Jews. It also minimises the fact that the expulsion of Jews from Palestine was done neither by Arabs nor Muslims, but rather by the European pagan Roman Empire and maintained by the subsequent Christian empire.
This unwillingness to locate the Palestinians though a deft sleight of hand allows one to politically overlook the fact that most of the Jews come from highly multinational migratory origins, mostly from Europe, with settler-colonial patterns, but they are recognised simply as Jews purely on religious grounds, thus as local Israelis. This justifies or enables the propaganda of the ‘original occupation’ of Palestine as God’s biblically asserted promise.
According to the biblical narrative, Abraham is promised a land (Gen 12:1 ff), but when he got there, it was in the midst of a famine (Gen 12:10). So, he immediately moved to Egypt and spent several years there amassing a fortune. Critically, upon Sarah’s death some years after their return from Egypt to the ‘promised land’, Abraham negotiates with the “Hittites, the people of the land”, for a burial-place for Sarah (Gen 23:1ff). Despite the Hittites’ repeated generous exhortations to give him the land for free, Abraham insists on buying the burial plot, settling on a price of 400 silver shekels (Gen 23:16):
So the field of Ephron in Machpelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it and all the trees that were in the field, throughout its whole area, passed to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, in the presence of all who went in at the gate of his city. After this, Abraham buried Sarah, his wife, in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre (Hebron) in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave that is in it passed from the Hittites into Abraham’s possession as a burying place (Gen 23:17-20).
This rather strongly implies that the only piece of land that Abraham actually acquired or owned in Canaan is the field in which his wife is buried. No mention is made of any other land being his possession. Thus the question is whether that is the promised land, or is it Egypt where he earned all his wealth? Just three generations later, Abraham’s descendants end up again in Egypt after yet another famine in ‘the promised land’. They settle down there, and their descendants are in Egypt for about 400 or 430 years, depending on where in the Bible one looks, with an additional 40 years of wandering in the desert, before they are ‘re-established’ again in the ‘promised land’. Moses, the one who led them from slavery, dies before he and the community that followed him ever enter this promised land.
There has been a lot of debate inside Jewish scholarship as to how to reconcile these years. The claim to the land is now mostly dated to the post-Exodus return from Egyptian slavery rather than simply from the promise made to Abraham, and is now based on Joshua and his conquest of Canaan.
After the death of Moses…the LORD spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, “My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them” (Joshua 1: 1-2).
The book of Joshua describes the seven years of conquest in detail, the wars, the massive ruthless killings and destruction of the local people. The boundaries of this acquired land are also laid out. When the land is conquered it is divided into 12 separate tribal portions, the 12 tribes are emphasised numerous times through different symbols. It is assumed that the book describes the seven years of conquest and seven years of settlement of the Land of Israel. The text says: “Joshua made war a long time with all those kings” (11:18), and that “Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the LORD had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war” (11:23). There is a different temporality of these events referred to in Judges 3:1-6, Deuteronomy 7:22, and Exodus 23:29-30.
There are, however, some interesting facts in this narrative that need to be pointed out. First, of the original group of people who left Egypt with Moses on this exodus journey, only Joshua and Caleb, who fought with Joshua for five years, went into this promised land. The rest passed away with Moses during the 40 years of the desert journey and it is their descendants who enter the land. Second, when they entered the promised land, they had to undergo circumcision, thus establishing their own Jewish credentials:
“So Joshua made flint knives, and circumcised the Israelites at Gibeath-haaraloth…Although all the people who came out [of Egypt] had been circumcised, yet all the people born on the journey through the wilderness after they had come out of Egypt had not been circumcised. For the Israelites travelled for forty years in the wilderness, until all the nation, the warriors who came out of Egypt, perished, not having listened to the voice of the LORD. To them the LORD swore that he would not let them see the land that he had sworn to their ancestors to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey. So it was their children, whom he raised up in their place, that Joshua circumcised; for they were uncircumcised, because they had not been circumcised on the way” (Joshua 5:3-7).
This is followed by 410 years of rule by the Judges, according to the Book of Judges. This number is, however, not an exact number, for 1 Kings 6:1 states: “In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel…he began to build the house of the LORD,” i.e. about 70 years longer.
Surprisingly, however, some 400+ years later, a monarchy was established despite God’s deep reluctance to do so (1 Sam. 8). A short single monarchical line consisting of only three kings over roughly 100 years, viz. Saul, David and Solomon, ruled over the Kingdom of Israel. After which this kingdom itself is divided into Judah and Israel. Israel is later crushed by Assyria and its 10 tribes are exiled and are lost from history, hence ‘The Lost Tribes’ of Israel. Two hundred years after that, Judah is also conquered, this time by the Babylonian empire. The First Temple is destroyed and the Jews of Judah are also exiled. So now all 12 tribes are in some form of exilic status and not in the promised land.
Then, through ‘God’s direct intervention and guidance’, a Zoroastrian king (note, not a Jewish king), Cyrus the Great, magnanimously allowed the return of the Judean Jews to build a new Temple in Jerusalem with Cyrus’ complete material and financial support and the return of the sacred Jewish vessels of the First Temple, which had been stolen by Nebuchadnezzar. Cyrus was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, the first Persian empire, and was clearly not Jewish. Without Cyrus as God’s vehicle, this Jewish return and the construction of the second Temple in Jerusalem would not have been possible. Cyrus’ descendants Artaxerxes and Darius, also both Zoroastrians, though initially reluctant, become willing participants in the construction project of the Second Temple having been convinced by the archived decrees of Cyrus. They then also follow Cyrus in supplying materials and political support. So, three Zoroastrian kings are essential for the construction of the Second Temple, which would not have been possible without this gentile direct input and intervention. That is to say, the biblical narrative affirms people of other faiths directly receiving revelatory visions from God and helping in the construction of the Second Temple of Yahweh and God’s design in history.
General Ptolemy conquered this land in the name of Alexander the Great in 305 BC, and then controlled the region from 323 BC, and thus Judea came under Hellenic-Pharaonic control. The Roman General Pompei captured Judea in 63 BC. Thus began Roman rule of the region, which lasted until the Muslims took over the region around 648 AD. The Bar Kochba uprising against Rome in 132-135 AD was brutally put down under Emperor Hadrian and resulted in the complete expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem, and for most, also from Palestine, with no right to return. This is the third ‘Diaspora’ for the Jews, successive waves of whom had been exiled by the Assyrians (740 and 722 BC), the Babylonians (587 BC) and by the Roman Empire (70 AD).
Even after the Roman Empire itself underwent radical changes with Christianisation, following the ‘conversion’ of Constantine (baptised in 337 AD), there was no drastic change in policy towards Jews in Palestine. At times this repression was even more devastating for the Jews because of the added stigma of being the ‘Christ-killers’.
Muslim Arab rule in the area began in 636 and lasted until 1917. The notable exception was the Crusader control of the ‘Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem’ (1099-1291). In 1095 Pope Urban II called for a crusade at the Council of Clermont as a solution to deal with the internal strife between the local European Christian nobility and aristocracy. The battle cries of the First Crusade – “God wills it” and “To free the Holy Land of the Infidels” – became the overt raison d’etre for the first and all subsequent crusades. The first crusade was successful and Jerusalem was taken over in 1099, establishing the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Both Jews and Orthodox Christians suffered greatly for their faith in this Kingdom. Note that this Christian kingdom was only around Jerusalem, not the rest of Palestine.
Certain claims of continuity of Jewish residence in Palestine, which have dominated the discourse with the emergence of the State of Israel, fail to acknowledge this concise history we have laid out. Other religious communities (especially Muslims and Christians) have suffered the consequences of these recent polemics and calumnies against them, which distort this complex history, especially when the Jews are seen or stated both as a people of one religion and having one ethnicity. This unified Jewish identity is hyperbolised to the point of convenient distortions. The other divergent religious communities in Palestine are also conveniently ethnically homogenised in order to pose a binary opposition between this homogenised religious identity, i.e. Jews, over against the generated homogenised ethnic community, i.e. Arabs. As stated earlier, this takes away the particularity of Palestinian identities of those living in that land and makes them indistinct from the other Arab Muslim nations around Palestine, namely Jordan, Syria, Iraq, etc. This shift allows the claim that Palestine is for Jews, and Arabs should go to these surrounding nations to be part of those Arab nations.
We see this argument fully articulated as early as 1947 by David Ben-Gurion, the pre-eminent Zionist Jewish leader in British-ruled Mandatory Palestine from 1935 until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. As the head of the Jewish Agency, he gave a long and detailed testimony for the necessity of the creation of a State of Israel at the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) in Jerusalem on July 4, 1947. He said:
“There are some 600,000 Jews in Palestine and some 1,100,000 Arabs. There are no reliable figures in this respect. There is an even greater disparity than that. The Arabs own 94 percent of the land, the Jews only six percent. The Arabs have seven States, the Jews none. The Arabs have vast underdeveloped territories. Iraq alone is three times as large as England with less than four million people. The Jews have only a tiny beginning of a national home and even that is begrudged them by the Palestine Administration [the British]. The most glaring disparity perhaps is that the Arabs have no problem of homelessness and immigration, while for the Jews homelessness is the root cause of all their sufferings for centuries past.
…one may rightly ask: Why is it that a million Arabs can be safely left in a Jewish State and why should not a million Jews be left in an Arab State? If the Jews and the Arabs who are in Palestine were all the Jews and all the Arabs that exist in the world, this would be a very logical and conclusive argument. There would then be no reason whatsoever why one should prefer an Arab to a Jew or a Jew to an Arab, and only numbers would count. But one cannot ignore the fact that both communities living in Palestine are merely fragments of larger communities living outside, and both of them belong to these larger units and their fates are inextricably bound up with the larger units. By depriving the Jews in Palestine of a national home, by preventing them from becoming a majority and attaining statehood, you are depriving not only 600,000 Jews who are here, but also the millions of Jews who are still left in the world, of independence and statehood. In no other place can they have the desire or the prospect of attaining statehood.
In depriving the million Arabs of the same prospect, you do not affect the status of the Arab race at all. An Arab minority in a Jewish State would mean that only a certain number of individual Arabs would not enjoy the privilege of Arab statehood, but it would in no way diminish the independence and position of the free Arab race. The Arab minority in Palestine, being surrounded by Arab States, would remain safe in national association with their race. But a Jewish minority in an Arab State, even with the most ideal paper guarantee, would mean the final extinction of Jewish hope not in Palestine alone, but for the entire Jewish people, for national equality and independence, with all the disastrous consequences so familiar in Jewish history.”
Ben-Gurion and the UNSCOP members then make a convenient assumptive shift that all Arabs are Muslim and of course all Jews are Jews. A tautological inanity that we encounter in the Israeli arguments over and over again, and worse in their western allies, suspending all rationality in support of Israel and promoting this kind of undifferentiated nonsense. When challenged, the immediate knee-jerk reaction to recalling these historical facts and any subsequent critique is to be categorised simply as of course being ‘anti-semitic’.
In supporting the State of Israel, the west is not acting primarily out of due contrition for the long held horrendous prejudices and historical horrors, including genocides, against the Jews. This is now conjoined with another long-standing prejudice against Muslims, surfacing again after the success of the Iranian revolution in 1979, and especially escalating after September 11, 2001. This results in an unresolvable binary for western consumption and as a spin justifying all violations of Palestinian rights by the State of Israel. This blinkers any awareness of veracity in history and in contemporary contexts vis-a-vis the unbearable oppression of the Palestinians. Perhaps the European (especially the British) support of Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel was motivated by the desire to get rid of as many Jews from their respective countries as possible. The inability to see the suffering of the Palestinian people continues to display the highly prejudicial and non-contrite European colonial and post-colonial existence. Similar hypocrisy is enacted when dealing with the long history of Jews living under Muslim rule. This Jewish failure to recognise the general congeniality, both religious and in historical treatment of the Jews within Muslim statecraft is, as the old cliche goes, an unforgivable ingratitude, reflecting great historical vice. The Muslims, under Caliph Umar, were the first to allow the Jews to return to Palestine and Jerusalem after Hadrian’s expulsion 500 years earlier. Critically, under the Muslim rule of the Iberian peninsula for around 800 years, they lived in a period known as the Convivencia with its deep and lasting impact to produce people like Moshe ben Maimon, or Maimonides as we know him, and even Servitus of the Reformation (Calvin) fame.
So when one goes looking for the changes in the land ownership in Palestine over the decades, one gets great details of how the land was dispossessed by various Muslim feudal and occupying ruling structures. The use of the 1905 population of Jerusalem specifically as paradigmatic of the Jewish presence and land ownership pattern in Palestine as a whole negates the whole history of both the establishment and the land allocation of the UN mandate in 1948, as well as the unwillingness to follow the very mandate that they use for justification and which had a very clear clause about the establishment of the State of Israel, forgetting that the same mandate had the establishment of a Palestinian homeland and the rights of the people who are there irrespective of religiously defined ethnicity. Thus the formation and the occupation of Israel that is now in its 75th year is proportionately equal to the displacement and incredible villainy vis-a-vis what the Palestinians rightly called the catastrophe or Nakba and the concomitant ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from their ancestral homelands that has gone on with every expansion in Jewish land acquisition in Palestine. The Palestinians suffer a continuous Nakba, which is expressed again in the recent violence and assassination campaigns against the Palestinian resistance groups.
That this is indeed apartheid is clearly visible when one compares the historical roots and political practices of South Africa and Israel and their respective systems.
Israel is pursuing and following South African policies and practices vis-a-vis the Palestinian people and creating new Bantustans for them. First by taking over an already occupied land as settler colonialists, and thus dislocating the local population – the local Bantus if you will, and replacing them with white settler colonialists, largely from Europe. Second, by denying the local people the right to that land and claiming a divine destiny for white settler colonialists. Thirdly, by trying to look for a place for the Palestinian Arabs to occupy as their new states while being kicked out of their homeland. This is indeed the creation of new Bantustans wherever the local Bantus will go. Once Lebanon or Jordan did not work out as a possible Bantustan, the State of Israel created two distinct state structures: the Gaza Strip and West Bank including East Jerusalem, which is now under the threat of depopulating Palestinians and occupation by Israeli Jews as part of this divine destiny.
What I find particularly ironic as a Pakistani is the fact that the term ‘Bantustan’ is a composite – of ‘Bantu’ meaning ‘people’ in some African languages, and ‘-stan’, a Persian suffix meaning ‘land’ – thus ‘Black people’s homeland’. This nomenclature was cynically inspired by the then very recent creation of the new post-colonial independent States of Pakistan and Hindustan/India in 1947 on August 14 and 15, respectively. This link and roots showing this connection were pointed out by Nelson Mandela himself as early as 1959, albeit with somewhat rose-coloured glasses vis-a-vis the status of minorities in these two states:
“The newspapers have christened the Nationalists’ plan as one for ‘Bantustans’. The hybrid word is, in many ways, extremely misleading. It derives from the partitioning of India, after the reluctant departure of the British, and as a condition thereof, into two separate States, Hindustan and Pakistan. There is no real parallel with the Nationalists’ proposals, for:
The Government’s plans do not envisage the partitioning of this country into separate, self-governing States. They do not envisage equal rights, or any rights at all, for Africans outside the reserves. Partition has never been approved of by Africans and never will be. For that matter it has never been really submitted to or approved of by the Whites. The term ‘Bantustan’ is therefore a complete misnomer, and merely tends to help the Nationalists perpetrate a fraud.”
As a Pakistani, it is also critical for me to point out that historically Pakistan was the first post-colonial nation-state, and the first modern nation-state formed with a clear religious identity, and Israel is the second such state formed with a clear religious identity. The former is an Islamic state and the latter Jewish. The creation of modern nation states with clear religious identities poses a serious challenge to the western, and by extension, the so-called ‘universal’ epistemic structure of modern nation state formation. It is well established that the foundation of the modern nation state system is located in the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, itself a complete by-product of the Reformation. Philosophically, theologically and politically, it has been mostly taken for granted that the modern nation state is largely a secular state with a hard separation of ‘church and state’ and ‘religion and politics’. Thus the formation of a modern nation state on the basis of religious identities poses a real challenge to our understanding of how politics and religion work together in the state structures.
It is usually presumed that the Treaty of Westphalia submerged the role of religion in the political order and highlighted secularity as its fundamental raison d’etre. However, this approach conveniently overlooks a critical clause in the Treaty, namely cuius regio, eius religio, literally ‘whose realm, their religion’, which seems to place religion at the centre of the political process. On the basis of this clause many monarchies in Europe had such titles as “Defensor Fidei” (or Obrońca Wiary, Defendor of the Faith, Poland), “Defensor Ecclesiae” (Protector of the Church, Germany), Christianissimus (‘most Christian’ France), and “Defender of the Faith” (Britain), for whatever it is worth now. Faith in these titles did not refer simply to Christianity, but to a particular denominational extraction of it, such as Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism or Calvinism. So what does it mean for people of other faiths who now dwell inside these different nation states with their respective monarchies? Further, the four salient elements of the Treaty of Westphalia were:
All these criteria were violated in settler colonial states such as the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc., and then in the post-colonial states that followed the demarcation of the colonial patterns. The multi-ethnic base of the Pakistani nation state (ethnos-state) was overcome through a transcendent homogeneous religious (ethos) state. The difficulty with this move is that it became increasingly difficult to maintain over time, and thus it erupted finally some 24 years later in the secession, and dare I say independence, of Bangladesh in 1971. Both Pakistan and Bangladesh are nations with dominant Muslim populations (96.5 percent and 91.1 percent, respectively), but found that a transcendent identity was not sufficient to maintain a common state despite huge ideological and political machinations.
Israel was the second state formed with a religious identity, created on May 14, 1948, i.e. just nine months later, with a similar causality of a persecuted minority, this time in Europe. In this sense both Pakistan and Israel are a product of the emerging human rights regimes being set into place after the European (German) war crimes of World War II vis-a-vis the minorities. Pakistan was created for the Muslim minority of India, threatened by the Hindu majority, and Israel was created for the historically persecuted Jewish minority in the European context. They were thus created with a clear mandate for a human rights order not based simply on the majority principle, but now with an emphasis on minority rights, thus expanding the notion of democracy itself. That was at least the ideal at the time. But both nations have been unable to deal with equity with their respective minorities and have continuously violated all the critical rights regimes and democratic expansion behind the formation of these states. Ethnic, denominational/sects and religious minorities have all been very poorly treated by the state. As a Pakistani minority, with all the serious difficulties that minorities have suffered in Pakistan ever since 1947, I want to emphasise these rights of the minorities, be they ethnic, religious, or most critically, with little or no political rights.
Israel has violated over 3,000 resolutions of the UN dealing with issues such as land requisitions and has been incredibly malfeasant in its treatment of the Palestinian citizens dwelling there. Even the US Department of State reports:
“There were reports that members of the security forces committed abuses. Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings; arbitrary or unjust detention, including of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories; restrictions on Palestinians residing in Jerusalem including arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, and home; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and association; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; punishment of family members for alleged offenses by a relative; restrictions on freedom of expression and media including censorship; harassment of nongovernmental organizations; violence against asylum seekers and migrants; violence or threats of violence against Palestinians and members of national, racial, or ethnic minority groups; and labour rights abuses against foreign workers and Palestinian workers. The Israeli military and civilian justice systems have rarely found members of the security forces to have committed abuses.”
Palestinians are not given equal treatment in life or in death. The average ratio of Jews versus Palestinians living in Israel’s political chaos and oppression is roughly nine to one, while the death toll of all the conflicts, intifadas, etc., is at least 1:16. Each Jewish life taken in these clashes is vociferously claimed to be a tragedy and a gross violation of the sacrosanct rights of the Jews in Israel, while the deaths of Palestinians are immediately hailed as just killings, and thus the right and moral response and fully deserved. Given the huge disparity in the death tolls, it is highly offensive and repugnant to see the ceaseless propaganda of the Jewish Israelis as the exclusive victims of continuous violence and terrorism.
This propaganda is reflected in all aspects of life in the State of Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians: from political agitations, the ongoing violative constructions of settler communities, the flouting of international laws vis a-vis occupied land after the wars of 1967 and 1973, to the impunity with which Israel can attack anybody who says anything against the state, from individuals to countries, whether it be Iran, Syria, and in the old days, Iraq. We are no longer seeing similar attacks on Egypt, because it is now seen as a partner for controlling the movement of Palestinians across the Sinai Peninsula and into Egypt. What is very unfortunate is the total moral silence behind the wall of the suffering that Jews endured in Europe, in which the US was equally culpable and the US’s foreign policy, which will always support Israel, irrespective of the gross violation of law and established international treaties, et al. The US is complicit directly and unequivocally in the apartheid and genocide that is currently taking place in Palestine/Israel. It is not possible for Israel to take the steps it does in global politics without the direct aid and abetting of the US, which feeds the internal politics of Israel in its dealings with its Palestinian citizens.
In all this there is a direct role, albeit theologically highly dubious, of American Evangelical Christianity – especially those who have been calendarising ad nauseam and/or ad infinitum the apocalyptic eschatological material in the bible, whether it be the book of Daniel, the book of Revelation, or Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, etc. They are supporting the Jews and the State of Israel not because they like Jews as such, but to hasten the process of ‘our Lord Jesus’s Second Coming’. As if Jesus needs them to hasten this process! The sheer arrogance of the position always gets me. These people are influencing the political process in the US, especially conservative politics, because the conservative politicians are dependent upon their support. Seventy-two percent of all Evangelicals voted for Trump in spite of his obvious, and in many cases admitted, moral, economic, political and cultural immoralities. And of course, where the US leads, eventually the rest of the western world tends to follow blindly.
Conclusion: Telling the Truth, a Revolutionary Act
The quest after and the unveiling of these truths are essential for a theological, ethical and moral faithfulness in our time, for the truth will indeed set us free. To quote a very favourite and famous saying, wrongly attributed to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” As Jan Hus (1370-1415), the Czech reformer, theologian and philosopher said: “Seek the truth, hear the truth, learn the truth, love the truth, speak the truth, hold the truth and defend the truth until death.” Any threat or blackmailing of being labelled anti-semitic should neither frighten us from maintaining the quest for such truths or ever keep us away from our vocation of justice and truth-telling, fighting for democracy and rights for the oppressed Palestinians. We must never forget that if we have not done this for the least of our fellow humans, we have denied God’s presence with them and therefore not done it for our Lord who was after all a victim of such colonial oppression. It is therefore a profound Christian doctrine to see that the vox victimarum is indeed the vox dei – the voice of the victims is the voice of God (Matt. 25). In the context of Palestine and Israel, I am also always reminded of what Desmond Tutu, in a long tradition of saints and moral evocators, said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Or as John F Kennedy put it: “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in times of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.” And indeed, we must remember what St Thomas Aquinas said:
“He who is not angry when there is just cause for anger is immoral. Why? Because anger looks to the good of justice. And if you can live amid injustice without anger, you are immoral as well as unjust.”
The writer is the Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Justice and Christian Community (Emeritus), Director of Islamic Studies (Emeritus), Luther Seminary, St Paul, MN 55108 and the Desmond Tutu Professor of Ecumenical Theology and Social Transformation in Africa (Emeritus), University of Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa.