Up until quite recently, colonialism was not seen as a bad thing. For at least a few hundred years, colonialism was assumed to benefit native and indigenous peoples. Predominately European colonizers viewed other people as “uncivilized,” and often rationalized colonialism with the idea that they were bestowing civilization upon savages.
It’s through this lens that Americans have celebrated Columbus Day since the 1930s. But with the realization that the Native American people may not have appreciated acts of genocide or ethnic cleansing, Columbus Day is now increasingly being shunned for Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
But the struggle of indigenous activists isn’t limited to the Americas. Much as the Native Americans view Columbus Day, the Palestinian people view the creation of the state of Israel, a day they commemorate on May 15 each year as youm al-Nakba, which means “day of catastrophe” in Arabic.
On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared Israel a state. “We hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine, to be called Israel,” he said at a reception at the time.
While there has long been a Jewish presence in the area, the origins of modern-day Israel — and Ben-Gurion’s declaration — date back to the Zionist movement established in the late 19th century by persecuted European Jews. In 1896, in response to increasing anti-Semitism and nationalist movements in Europe, Austrian journalist Theodore Herzl wrote a pamphlet arguing that Jews could only avoid anti-Semitism by declaring a Jewish state. Herzl led the first Zionist Congress in Switzerland in 1897, and after briefly considering other areas, the group decided Palestine would be the ideal land for a Jewish state, due to religious ties to the land.
In the late 19th century, many European Jews began immigrating to Palestine, which was first under Ottoman rule and after World War I, under the British Mandate. The 1917 Balfour Declaration announced an intent to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, but indigenous Palestinians largely opposed this establishment. Thus, in an attempt to appease the locals, the British maintained rule over the land and tried to impose limits on immigration from Europe. But facing persecution, and especially during the dark days of the Holocaust, many European Jews continued to arrive in Palestine throughout the mid 20th century.
From December 1947 through 1948, Zionist militias destroyed over 530 Palestinian towns and villages. Estimates put the number of Palestinians who had to flee their homes at 750,000, and their empty homes were often inhabited by Jewish immigrants who fled or survived the Holocaust.
“There is a kind of historic dubious counter-narrative where there is this idea that there was no such thing as the Palestinian people.”
Since the establishment of Israel, there has been an effort to rebrand Palestinians as a created people.
“Clearly, the Arab Palestinians were there for centuries,” Matt Duss, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, told ThinkProgress. “There is an historically dubious counter-narrative that claims either that there was no such thing as a Palestinian people, or that they simply came into being in the mid-20th century in response to Zionism. While it is quite true that Palestinian culture was impacted by the conflict and tension with Zionism, I’d say it is true in the other direction as well. Zionist identity and Israeli identity, [has been influenced] by Palestinian culture and nationalism.”
Today, Israeli leaders — often Ashkenazi Jews — attempt to portray themselves as the original inhabitants of Palestine.
“We’re not the British in India. We’re not the Belgians in the Congo,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Congress in 2011. “This is the land of our forefathers, the land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one God, where David set out to confront Goliath, and where Isaiah saw a vision of eternal peace.”
Netanyahu isn’t incorrect that Judaism has a long history in Palestine. “A lot [of the region’s history] is shared Jewish, Muslim, and Christian history,” said Duss. “Abraham and the patriarchs of the Bible are a great importance to all three monotheistic faiths. Jews lived and developed culture and history in these lands for millenia.”
But Netanyahu’s comments don’t change the fact that indigenous Jews continue to suffer today, even within the borders of Israel. Mizrahi Jews (Jews of Middle Eastern descent) often face strong counts of racism from Ashkenazi Jews (descendants of European Jews).
Equally important, Netanyahu’s comments reveal the evolution of political rhetoric used by Israeli leaders to justify the establishment of a state where an indigenous people have lived for centuries.
“If you look at writings of early Zionists, they have a very different perspective and used colonialism, embraced it, and referred to Palestinians as the native people and indigenous people of the land,” Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, told ThinkProgress. “That was at a time when it wasn’t a dirty word. When it became a dirty word in modern discourse is when they backed away and pretended it wasn’t that.”
Today, Palestinians do not have equal rights to Israelis — whether in Gaza, the Occupied West Bank, or within the borders of modern-day Israel.
“Israel continued in 2015 to enforce severe and discriminatory restrictions on Palestinians’ human rights, and to build unlawful settlements in and facilitate the transfer of Israeli civilians to the occupied West Bank,” Human Rights Watch wrote in its 2016 World Report.
And even the indigenous people who are now citizens of Israel are considered by many to be a threat. When Netanyahu ran for reelection last year, he riled up support by warning about the “droves” of Arabs voting in elections.
“It’s hard not to think about the experience of Native Americans and Palestinians as a similar and shared experience given the histories.”
The biggest issue is arguably the distorted power balance that rests heavily with the Israelis over the indigenous Palestinians. “Right now you have a situation where one side has overwhelmingly superior power,” Duss said. “They can change facts on the ground with the building of settlements, expropriation of land, and expulsion of families from homes.”
The settlements are a legacy of the colonialism that still exists in Palestine, and that leaves the indigenous Palestinian people as a subjugated group — whether or not they are within the borders of modern-day Israel.
The United States criticized Israel last week for approving plans for a new settlement in the West Bank. The State Department “strongly condemned” the plan and said it violates Israel’s vow to not build more settlements due to the negative impact such a move has on the peace process.
Though the struggle of the indigenous people of the American continent has lasted centuries longer than that of the Palestinians, some of the parallels are still instructive.
“I think those parallels are real, including this connection of people to the land in a very unique way that differs from colonists,” Munayyer said. “It’s hard not to think about the experience of Native Americans and Palestinians as a similar and shared experience given the histories.”