Political Zionism and the Roots of Palestinian Dispossession

Video & Transcript
James Zogby
Transcript No. 501 (May 22, 2018)

Mohamed K. Mohamed:
Hello everybody. Thanks again for joining us here at the Jerusalem Fund. My name is Mohamed Mohamed. I am the executive director here at the Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center and on behalf of our board of directors and staff, it is a pleasure to have you here and it’s always a pleasure to have everybody online, so thank you all for joining us. It is also a great honor to introduce and welcome back our distinguished speaker today Dr. James Zogby who will be speaking about political Zionism and the root of Palestinian dispossession. As most of you know this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of Palestinians being forced to become stateless refugees, including my own grandparents. They became refugees in exile waiting to return home, while many others were reduced to aliens in their own country living under Israeli military rule. Although the Nakba produced a nightmare for the Palestinian people, it has largely been ignored in the West. Palestinians have been victims, but in the U.S. they have been invisible victims. When Palestinians are considered at all, they are referred to as the “Palestinian Problem” confronting Israel, and the problem that must somehow be resolved so that Israelis can have peace.

In this talk, Dr. Zogby will review the ideology and practice of the movement of political Zionism and it’s patron, British imperialism, that together were responsible for the denial of Palestinian rights and the subsequent campaigns of disinformation and repression against the Palestinian people. His updated book, I believe he wrote this book many years ago, but he has an updated version that is called Palestinians: Invisible Victims will also be made available after the event free of charge, so please grab a copy on your way out.

A little for those of you who do not know, Dr. James Zogby co-founded the Arab American Institute in 1985 and continues to serve as its president. He is director of Zogby Research Services which is a firm that has conducted groundbreaking surveys across the Middle East. For the past three decades he has served in leadership roles in the Democratic National Committee and served two terms as a President Obama appointee to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. He writes a weekly column published in twelve countries. He is featured frequently on national and international media as an expert on Middle East affairs. In 2010, Zogby published the highly acclaimed book Arab Voices. His [2013] e-books Looking at Iran: the Rise and Fall of Iran in Arab Public Opinion, and Twenty Years After Oslo, are drawn from his extensive polling across the Middle East with Zogby Research Services. Dr. Zogby will speak for 30-45 minutes, after which we will have a Q and A session. Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to Dr. James Zogby.

Dr. James Zogby:
Thank you. I wanted to begin with a little bit on the history of this book. I first wrote it in 1976. I was speaking at NYU on the issue of Zionism and human rights and I took the paper that I gave to that gathering and I published it in a book. The AAUG at the time, the Association of Arab American University Graduates, published it under the title Zionism and the Problem of Palestinian Human Rights. In 1980 I was invited to the first of the UN Special Unit on Palestine International Seminars on the Question of Palestine to the Vienna Conference and I enlarged the paper and presented it there. Then in 1981, the ADC, I was co-founder and director there, we published it in a book called Palestinians: the Invisible Victims. There were about three left copies in print, I owned them all, and it just sat there on my shelf for years. About a half year ago I just took it out and read it and I said, “Damn, this is pretty good. This says some stuff that people ought to know.”

I guess what bothered me about it was the following: When it first came out, I made the ADL and AJC hitlist. You know, I was an anti-Semite because I said these things about Zionism and I said these things about Israel and how dare I accuse the Jewish state of deliberately expelling Palestinians, et cetera, et cetera. And you know, you weather those storms. Somebody asked me recently did that altered my career, and it didn’t, actually. It just reinforced my career. That’s what I was going to be. I never wanted to be a podiatrist, that wasn’t who I was. I was going to be an activist on this issue and that is the price you pay for doing it. Then, I started over the last couple of years actually, I mean, Benny Morris came out with his book, but over the last couple of years if you follow the press in Israel, or here, The Forward, or some of the stuff that Jewish Voices for Peace or other groups are talking about… A lot of this is there.

I remember reading right before the Trump visit, on Haaretz about the Maghrebi quarter where the Wailing Wall was, a very poignant story about how one night during the ‘67 war they just sent in guys with bulldozers and sledgehammers and just destroyed an entire neighborhood, reduced it to rubble, in order to create the plaza. And I thought, “God, they’re going there to pray at this plaza over the ruins of the homes of a thousand people.” That was in Haaretz. There will be other stories that you will see in Haaretz about some of the things that Moshe Sharett had said in his fight with David Ben-Gurion over how the Jewish state should deal with the Arab population. And I got mad a little bit. I said those things 40 years ago and got beaten up for it. Now it’s there, but an entire generation of people don’t know it. So we decided to take the book and reissue it. You have an earlier version of the reissuing, it’s coming out again, with Mondoweiss, the website that I just love for its content. They are co-producing it with us with an introduction by Philip Weiss.

In a conversation I had with them, they asked me, “You said all this stuff 40 years ago, do you feel like you were clairvoyant?” I said, “No, not at all,” because, I mean where did I get a lot of this from? I got it from Edward Said, I got it from Walid Khalidi, I got it from Ibrahim al Abed at the Palestine Research Center. This stuff, we knew this stuff, you just couldn’t say it. You could say it among ourselves, we said it at AAUG conferences, but you couldn’t say it in an American audience or else you got blasted for it. But the time is now where you can say it. And you need to say it. So we came out with the book and in the first week on Amazon it was the number one new read. Our tweets have borne some fruit. What is the book about? What does it do? What it does is it it attempts to explain why Palestinians are invisible victims. In the introduction, part of my introduction was read to you, the issue that confounded me then in 1976 when I was speaking at NYU for the first time giving this paper, I had founded the Palestine Human Rights campaign. Why did we do it? What was it about? It was about trying to put a face on Palestinian victims. They were not known. Just think about it, we had a situation in Gaza, a massacre, 63 people. Not a single face. Not a single name. Not a single human story. If one Israeli soldier had been killed, we’d know the name, we’d see the face, we’d hear the family.

I remember a situation in 1981 where, you might remember the bombing of the Fakhani neighborhood in Beirut. There’d been a clash across the border in Lebanon between the PLO and Israelis and that first night one Israeli had died and two were wounded. I turned on CBS news that night and you had ambulances and flashing lights and the cameramen there catching all of this drama and the interviewed the people in this Israeli settlement about the trauma of these people killed in this clash. In retaliation, they called it, the Israelis bombed the Fakhani neighborhood in Beirut where the PLO offices were. And I think it was 283 people were killed in an apartment building that was devastated. I turned on CBS news the next night, and the announcer was there in Israel saying, “We bombed, the Israelis bombed…” The third day, the story came from Lebanon and it was the guy stationed in Lebanon standing in front of an empty street of bombed out buildings saying “Behind me are the buildings that Israel bombed and killed this many people.” When I challenged them about it, the guy, the newsman from Beirut, came back with the explanation that they had gotten there that night but he said it was too dusty and it was too crowded and too congested and you couldn’t get a picture of what was going on and so they decided to wait for the next day to show the devastation. The point, in other words, was for CBS News back then, the Israeli who had died was worth the story of the the ambulances and the turmoil and the people to be interviewed about how shocking and traumatic the event was. But in Lebanon the story was the empty buildings that got destroyed.

When Baruch Goldstein massacred people in the mosque in Hebron, the Washington Post had two front page stories on why did the “good doctor went bad.” One was on the front page number one, the other was the front page of the Style section. Not a single about the Palestinian victims. Their names were never known, their stories were never told, their families were never interviewed. They didn’t count. It’s not a new problem, it’s an old problem. The question was, why did it happen? How did it occur? How did this people end up not being human at all? So that they became, as I like to say it, the Israeli people versus the Palestine problem, and you need to solve the problem so the people can have peace. That is all that matters. Even look at the Trump plan today where you see in the shell of it, the outline of it, it’s all like they’re chess pieces on a board to be moved around so that Israel will be secure. It’s not Israeli people versus Palestinian people, it’s Israeli people versus the problem. How do we solve the problem? That, I argue in the book, goes back to the very foundation of this dilemma. From the very beginning of this when the British and French plans became known, Woodrow Wilson intervened and he made his famous proclamation. There are a lot of problems with Woodrow Wilson, but he did make his proclamation about self determination. He said to the British and French, “I don’t agree, you can not just do this, you can’t just carve this all up among yourselves,” he said, “it really should depend on what the people want.” And so, being a pollster in the Middle East myself, I appreciate the fact that he commissioned the first poll of Arab public opinion with the King Crane Commission.

He sent over two…one American professor and one American businessman who interviewed a couple thousand different groups and people to come up with a comprehensive view of what the Arabs wanted in the post-war period, what they would accept. Well, we know the results that they overwhelmingly rejected the Mandate. They didn’t want anything to do with the British and French. Back then, they didn’t want the Americans involved. They wouldn’t today. And they overwhelmingly rejected the notion that there should be a separate Jewish state on their territory. What I found interesting was that, when told of this enterprise polling the opinion, the Declaration author, Lord Balfour, said, “In Palestine,” he said, “we do not propose to even go through the form of consulting its inhabitants as to their wishes. Zionism is of far greater importance than the desire and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who inhabit that ancient land.” Another Brit at the time said, “It’s a false view of democratic principles that hold because a race or nation happens to occupy a certain territory that that territory is its for all time nor has any race the absolute race to determine its own future at the expense of some other race which may have more to give to the world.” This was the foundation of this experience, this enterprise.

Max Nordau, one of Herzl’s colleagues, described the Jewish people as “a people more industrious and more able than even the average European, not to speak of the inert African.” The British saw Palestine as an important colonial outpost. And the way that they did it, the British and French had different ways of colonizing. What the British did was they sent companies to govern in their stead, so you had the India Company, you had African companies. The company that was gonna do it for the Brits was the Zionist movement. It was a perfect fit. It was like a marriage made in heaven. We need somebody to govern for us because it was the northern end of the Suez Canal. It was the eastern end of the Mediterranean. They needed somebody to operate in their stead. It was what Lebanon was gonna be. The French way of doing it was to pit one group of people against another and cultivate one…They cultivated the Maronites as their group that would provide the entrepot. Beirut was going to be the entry to their part of the Arab East. Palestine was to be the British entrypoint, and it was to be the Jewish people. This was Lord Shaftesbury: “Syria and Palestine will be before long become very important. The company needs capital and population. The Jews can give it both. And has not England a special interest in promoting such restoration? It would be a blow to England if either of her two rivals should get hold of Syria. Does not policy there exhort England to foster the nationality of the Jews and aid them to return to England and then naturally belongs the role of favoring the settlement of the Jews in Palestine?”

It was a strategic partnership that saw the native no differently than they saw the natives in any other place they colonized, as trees to be removed from the frontier to make way for progress, to make way for people who could give more to them and more to the world than the indigenous people of the land. And so, from the beginning, Palestinians were a problem or an obstacle to be removed, an invisible set of victims. Zionism, which grew up in Western Europe as an ideology…now, understand that it didn’t have to end up this way. There were multiple threads of Zionism: there was a religious Zionist movement; there was a cultural Zionism; there was a Martin Buber who taught and thought that a partnership and a relationship can be developed between peoples that would build a prosperous land for both. He would’ve been a “one-stater” these days, but the political Zionist movement which saw the displacement of the indigenous people and their replacement by them under the patronage of a colonial power then operating as a colonial power was what ultimately won the day. And, as I just hinted at before, there were disputes even within the political Zionist movement. I mean, Moshe Sharett, the first, you know, one of the early leaders of the state and a prime minister at one point, actually disputed Ben-Gurion’s whole approach. When the point was made that over partition, the concern that the Jewish side had was that the partition was going to…the UN partition was going to provide a bulk of land for the Jewish people and a bulk of land for the Arab people. The Jewish part was to include over 80 percent of all the Jews in Palestine, but it was still only 55 percent Jewish. 45 percent of it was Arab, and 34 percent of it was owned by Arabs, and only 9 percent was owned by Jews, and so it was not exactly their state. It was going to be…it had more land ownership on the Arab side, and 45 percent of the population was Arab. On the other hand, the Arab state was overwhelmingly Arab and included land only owned by Arabs in that part of the area. The plan was: what do you do with this? And that was when the plan was developed to make the state more Jewish and larger. Ben-Gurion called it at the end “a double miracle…we got more land and less Arabs.” It was, again, they were like trees on the frontier to be cleared. It wasn’t real people. What made the Nakba possible was that it was not just something that was desirable, but it was to be inevitable to fulfill the plan. Moshe Sharett didn’t support it, and so you’ll find in the writings here a dispute over “Is this the way? This isn’t who we are. This isn’t how we should behave.” He went along with it, but he still in his diaries wrote about his disapproval of it.

Unfortunately, today those voices have largely been silenced in Israel, and you have, in the governing coalition, people whose philosophy of how to deal with Arabs pretty much echoes some of these quotes from the turn of the last century…some of the same attitudes of being less than human, less desirable, and needing to be removed and dealt with, from [Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor] Lieberman to [Israeli Education Minister Naftali] Bennett and others. The dehumanization of Palestinians is quite disturbing. What is changing though is that, here in the States, you have, in reaction to that, you have kind of a split, not only in the public opinion as a whole but in the Jewish community in particular and some remarkable groups, echoing against some of the earlier alternatives to Zionism—you know the group […] that existed way back when. It was founded as a group that was an alternative to Zionism. Zionism had argued…political Zionism said there is no alternative but to do this. And […] said there is an alternative, so they called themselves […], which means “alternative.” There’s another way of being Jewish that doesn’t mean another people paying the price. […] was destroyed by the Jewish establishment, but other groups have now come today that are too strong to be destroyed, groups like Jewish Voice for Peace…are making real headway in terms of changing opinion among young Jews.

I would say what’s helping that is the marriage between Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump, which is really quite stunning. It’s difficult if you’re Jewish and you hate Donald Trump to find Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu actually agreeing on almost everything, and that creates an opening in consciousness that is changing the way people are seeing the conflict. And it’s happening in the broader public as well. What I wanted to do when we came out with the book was to say that’s good that this change is occurring, but I don’t want the change to occur just because people are angry with Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump. I want them to understand that there’s a history here that needs to be understood from the beginning, that an injustice was done to an entire people who need to have their faces written back into history. They need to not be invisible anymore. Doing what needs to be done is not something just because it’s anti-israel; it needs to be pro-Palestinian as well.

This equation of how to deal with the conflict can’t just be Israeli people and the Palestine problem so you solve the problem so the Israelis can be secure. It’s gotta be Israeli people and Palestinian people finding a future where both lives matter. And so I’m hoping that the book will maybe stir some debate…maybe inform some people…maybe create a sense of awareness about what Palestinians have endured. It tells the story not just of the pre-state period; it tells the story of what happened to the Palestinians who stayed behind from ‘48 to ‘67. It tells the story of what happened during the early years of the occupation. The book actually was written in 1981, but you already had a pretty horrible record of human rights violations at that point, and they’ve continued on and changed in scope. This is not the early years of the occupation we’re living through anymore; it’s a very different situation. But, nevertheless, it’s a story that needs to be told. And so, I thank you for coming; I thank you for getting the book. If you’re watching online, you can buy it on Amazon. It’s called Palestinians: The Invisible Victims. And I hope you will. Thank you…And I’ll take any questions.