Ilan Pappe: Israel Is the Last Remaining, Active Settler-Colonialist Project

Ilan Pappe discusses Noam Chomsky, Bernie Sanders and the post-Zionist movement.

Eli Massey

An Israeli Defense Forces soldier at Masada in February 2015. (Israel Defense Forces / Evan Lang & Adi James Brown / Flickr)

In the 1990s, a movement was growing in Israel that questioned the country’s foundational myths. Among those leading the charge of what was later dubbed the post-Zionist” movement were the Israeli New Historians” who acknowledged the existence of Palestinians and readily admitted mass atrocities were committed in establishing a Jewish state. Like the post-Zionist movement itself, the Israeli New Historians reflected a broad spectrum of ideological thought ranging from so-called liberal Zionists like Benny Morris to anti-Zionists like Ilan Pappe.

Take the collective image that Israel constructs about the Palestinian and ask yourself if that is not actually a very good description of Zionism itself.

Pappe is most well-known for The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, which garnered him notoriety, but also convincingly argued the Jewish state was established through the concerted ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population, the Palestinians. In 2007 Pappe relocated to the UK, where he currently teaches at the University of Exeter, after receiving death threats for his outspoken Palestinian solidarity work and his endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement.

One of Pappe’s latest books, now out in paperback, The Idea of Israel, is a remarkable historiographical account of modern Zionism. Pappe tackles the foundational myths of Israel, the post-Zionist movement and the neo-Zionist” backlash, all while offering commentary and history on trailblazing anti-Zionist figures, Israel’s representation of Palestinians and Mizrahi, or Arab, Jews. As the subtitle suggests (A History of Power and Knowledge), Pappe uses the methods propounded in Edward Said’s Orientalism to examine Zionism, the Jewish state’s raison d’être, dissecting the ideology and inspecting each element for what they reveal about Israel.

Pappe and I talked about the post-Zionist movement, Noam Chomsky and Bernie Sanders’s politics, and trailblazing anti-Zionists.

What factors coalesced and led to the post-Zionist movement? 

After 1973, critical elements in the society and members of more marginalized and repressed groups such as the Mizrahi Jews and women began asking more serious questions about the state, the nation, the meta-ideology that supposedly connected them together. Since 1973 Israel did not fight a major war. It had military clashes in Lebanon with the PLO and Hezbollah and ever since then with Hamas in Gaza, but these are not wars that engulf the whole society as did the 48, 67, 1973 war.

It’s relative calm in Israel. In a relative calm you cannot, for instance, tell Jews who came from North Africa and lived in impoverished neighborhoods that they have to be there because security takes precedence. Security did not take precedence in 74, 75 and that’s when you had the emergence of protest movements among North African Jews,. This was also a good time for socialists and communists to ponder the reality in which they lived. This relative calm was one factor.

Second, it was in 1982, the aggressive war in Lebanon. There was a military operation in Lebanon and this sense that maybe there’s something wrong in the way we were told as Israelis about reasons for wars. This sense was accentuated by the First Intifada when you saw unarmed Palestinians resisting occupation. You couldn’t easily buy into the Israeli propaganda that this was terrorism, anti-Semitism, whatever they were using in order to explain why there is violence against the state of Israel.

Also the peace initiative by the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 77 to 79 was breaking the myth that there was no one there to talk to in the Arab world. Suddenly the leader of the biggest Arab state is willing to extend his hand for peace. That also challenged the basic foundation or mythology.

What led to the very reactionary neo-Zionist response? Surely the Second Intifada played a major role. 

There’s one version that says the Second Intifada showed to some of these critical voices that they were premature and that there’s no one there to talk to on the Palestinian side and that the Second Intifada showed the real face of most Palestinian and Arab intransigence against Israel, which I don’t buy into. But that’s the kind of explanation you will hear from Benny Morris, for instance.

This was a pretext. Most of those — not everyone — felt they went too far. Also they didn’t like the price they paid because they were treated a bit like traitors. It’s not a nice feeling. They were looking for an excuse to retract.

That’s why we had all these mea culpas after 2000. Using the Second Intifada as an excuse for saying that we were wrong. Several famous articles by people were regarded as part of the post-Zionist or even anti-Zionist critique who after 2000 did not only say we were wrong,” they adopted what I call neo-Zionism. Namely, they adopted harsher interpretations and versions of Zionism than the classical ones before the critique emerged.

You mentioned Benny Morris, the Israeli New Historian and a so-called liberal Zionist. He’s parted ways with many of the other New Historians arguing for instance that there are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing” and that it was necessary to uproot [the Palestinians]” to create a Jewish state. What has led him to such different conclusions than yourself despite working from similar historical material?

He’s part of a phenomenon, but he’s more known than the others. It’s a typical liberal Zionist position. They hope that if you cry after you shoot, if you say, yes, I was partially wrong. There are certain things I shouldn’t have done,” the other side would say, You’re so generous. From now on we’re willing to accept your guidance of how best to build a new life,” which is what the Israelis expected would happen in Oslo.

It didn’t work that way. The fact that you admitted that there were massacres and especially expulsions in 1948 for the Palestinians meant you have to move to the second stage which is accountability. You have to respect the right of return.

That is something Morris was not willing to do. That’s where the clash began, between his interpretation of what he has found and the Palestinian interpretation of what he has found. But it was not only him. What we exposed as critical Israeli Jews should’ve, to my mind and to the mind of most Palestinians, led us to become anti-Zionists and object to the very idea of Zionism and the Jewish state. The other group thought what we found showed us we are exceptionally moral and righteous. You can see it in Ari Shavit’s new book. It’s the same idea. This critical journey to the past re-affirms our right to stay within the ideological framework of a Jewish state forever.

These are two diametrically opposed conclusions from the critical journey.

You described Morris as a liberal Zionist. Can one be liberal and Zionist or is this a contradiction in terms?

Yes, of course it is. It’s like Jewish democracy. They are oxymorons.

Zionism is the last remaining active settler-colonialist movement or project. Settler colonialism is, in a nutshell, a project of replacement and displacement, settlement and expulsion. Since this is the project, that you take over someone’s homeland and you’re not satisfied until you feel you’ve taken enough of the land and you’ve gotten rid of enough of the native people, as long as you feel that this is an incomplete project, you will continue with the project.

Therefore such a project is based on dehumanization and elimination. It cannot be liberal. It cannot be socialist. It cannot be anything universal because it is an ideology that wants to help one group of people to get rid of another group of people. In most of the universal values, we’re trying to offer guidance of how human beings should live together rather than instead of each other.

The book begins with a quote from Yosef Gorny, a professor who studies Zionism, who says A sober and objective consideration of the facts indicates that Zionism … has succeeded in realizing most of its objectives.” It’s true to an extent. A Jewish state has been established. Nonetheless, this ideology also requires immense repression, violent control and constant maintenance. Why has Zionism succeeded, and how and why has it failed?

It’s important to see how Gorny defines the success of Zionism. He says that Zionism is the only successful project of modernization outside of Europe. For him it should be judged as success not just by providing a place for Jews or creating a Jewish state, but at the same time it is a success because it would be a paragon of all those ideals that Europe believed in or the West believed in. So it has to be a paragon Western society, and I think that’s Israel’s biggest failure.

Yes, of course it succeeded in defeating the weak Palestinians. They manipulated the Holocaust’s memory very well in order to get international support for a settler-colonialist project at a time when colonialism was already losing positive public relations, and they find themselves a location in the Arab world which was divided, factionalized, fragmented in a way that ensured there will not be a genuine pan-Arab effort to confront this colonialist project.

But success as a legitimate project in the eyes of the world? It’s still questionable. The jury is out. Yes, in certain aspects it’s a success, especially for the Jews in Israel so far. It’s a total disaster for the Palestinians and the question is can you maintain a success if you created on the other side of the equation a disaster. My sense is that historically it doesn’t work, but it can be maintained for a while.

Couldn’t you argue that Israel has failed like all other Western states in attaining this unattainable modernizing ideal?

No, the difference is at least the ethical side of these states is very different from that of Israel. I’ll give you an example. In the United States you cannot claim that Manhattan is only open for Christians. In Israel you can. You can easily say Nazareth is only open for Jews. That’s a big difference.

In the United States, at least in principle, you can demonstrate against a war in Vietnam and actually cause the government to change its imperial policies by the power of the protest movement. No protest movement in Israel would ever succeed in changing Israeli military plans. There is something far more morally rotten and unacceptable at the heart of the Zionist project than there is in the project of European nation states or in the United States.

You said that you don’t think a protest movement in Israel would be effective in changing Israeli military policy. Is it therefore pointless for Israelis to organize and protest their government’s actions? 

Until today it hasn’t worked. I do hope that the next generation of activists will be inventive and energetic enough to succeed where we all failed. We always have to be hopeful. We also have something new now that might change this picture. This is the movement of pressure from the outside, the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanction]. It enhances the chances for change from within by empowering the very few who dare to challenge the basic moral policies and identity of Israel. So that might change.

But changing within here depends on two factors which have not transpired yet. One is far more effective movement of pressure from the outside, not a civilian boycott, but governmental sanctions, which I can’t see happening in the near future. But it could happen. They’re beginning. You can see in the EU policy a certain trend in this direction. It may strengthen and one should optimistic about that.

The second thing that has to happen is the Palestinians have to get their act together. They have to redefine their project of liberation, to explain exactly how they view the Jewish community that lives today in Israel and in the occupied territories in the future. We don’t have a clear Palestinian strategy. We don’t have a united Palestinian front. We don’t have an authentic representation of the Palestinian people. Without that it would be very difficult to push forward the project of liberation for all of us. These things are also contributing to my lack of belief that change will come from within Israel. This change is dialectically connected to what’s happening in the world and the Palestinian side. It doesn’t work by itself.

Many people will be surprised to read in the book that anti-Zionist Jews have been around since the founding of the state of Israel, some even before. Do you have any stories about Maxim Ghilan, Israel Shahak, Boaz Evron, Yitzhak Laor, Ilan Halevi, Uri Davis?

Those of us who became more critical of Zionism are standing on their shoulders. They were there if not from the very beginning of Zionism, they were definitely there from the very beginning of the state.

Maxim Ghilan is someone who went through the Holocaust. I brought him as an example because he belonged to that generation of Israelis in the 60s who could mainly be found in the group Matzpen, in the 1960s and also after 1967, who succeeded in producing a wholesale counter-dogma to the Zionist dogma. There were some who were definitely more interesting intellectually and ideologically than Ghilan was, but his colorful life is more interesting than the others.

He also unlike some of these people had a sense of humor. I helped Ghilan to publish a journal after he came back from self-exile in Paris. It was very costly production for a journal for which I think we were not only the only writers but also the only readers. Since he had no money, all the costs fell on me.

I was trying to convince him to produce the journal on a less quality paper to cut down the expenses and then he said to me, You don’t understand. Israel will be destroyed in the near future and in the ruins the only paper that will survive will be high quality paper. So we’re not writing for the present generation, we’re writing for the future generations.”

But they were all colorful in a way, very brave, very isolated. But they left us an important intellectual legacy.

One of the things Edward Said argues in Orientalism is that the West’s representation of the Orient says more about the West than it does the Orient. What does Israel’s representation of Palestinians as terrorists say about Israel and Zionism?

In essence it’s inversion. The way you demonize the other” is usually a reflection of the attributes that you yourself possess and are uneasy with. For instance, if Palestinians are blamed for understanding only the language of force, it actually means that Zionists only understand the language of force. If Palestinians are described as people who would resort to violence in order to determine facts on the ground, actually history shows it was Zionism that believed you can change reality on the ground by force.

There is this process by which you can take the collective image that Israel constructs about the Palestinian and ask yourself if that is not actually a very good description of Zionism itself. Zionism does not describe aliens to the land as motivated by violence for the sake of violence. All of these features can be very easily attributed to Zionism itself.

Do you have a general assessment of Bernie Sanders and his stance on the Israel/​Palestine conflict? Would things change under a Sanders presidency?

Bernie Sanders is a bit like the others we call PEOPs, Progressive Except On Palestine.” That’s a very common American liberal phenomenon. I would have a tough time if I were an American citizen who believes in other issues than Palestine not to support him because on some many issues he sounds like the kind of person I would have liked to be in the White House. As Barack Obama before him I will have to resign to the fact that there’s no chance in the world that he would change anything fundamentally in American policy towards Palestine.

Do you try to work with these people? Because apparently anyone who gets to even the potentially powerful position is afraid, is intimidated. I don’t believe this is his real position. But he’s intimidated enough even in 2016 not to go very far when it comes to Israel.

For me it means there’s still a little bit of groundwork to be done in America. The likelihood of an American presidential candidate that would begin to sound reasonable on Palestine in the near future is very slim. But that should not despair us. It’s a long journey and we’re covering far more mileage than before.

In the United States look at the college campuses and so on. We have to be patient. I wouldn’t bother too much with Bernie Sanders’ position. I wouldn’t be very hopeful of changing them. I would continue with the grassroots work from below and hope that the dividends will be reaped later on.

You and Noam Chomsky worked together on two books, and in an interview you expressed disappointment about some of his views on the conflict. What explains Chomsky’s cultural Zionism, clearly expressed in his opposition to the BDS movement and the one-state solution? 

It’s a legitimate debate, but I can try and explain his position, which I disagree with. I have a lot of respect for him and in many ways he also influenced my thinking. But he’s in a moral cul-de-sac when it comes to Palestine.

One can understand there are some humanist aspects to the Zionist project. For instance, it was necessary to save Jews from European Nazism. It’s not wrong for Jews to think of themselves as a national movement because so many other people think of themselves in this way. And Israel is not the worst state in the world. In fact, Chomsky thinks he lives in a far worse state. He believes you have to be very careful when you single out Israel, which he thinks the BDS movement is doing.

I disagree with him. First of all, cultural Zionism, which he thinks is a more legitimate form of Zionism, is an oxymoron very much like liberal Zionism. He refuses to accept that Zionism is a pure settler-colonialist project that transcends into the 21st century.

The two-state solution is based on the idea that there is a certain aspect of the Zionist community or history or ideology that is reasonable enough to enable normal life with the Palestinians. I don’t agree. You have to de-Zionize Israel to enable normal life for the Palestinians. Maybe this is because he spent some time as a Zionist in a kibbutz and then developed more critical views. Is it because he feels we are singling out Israel whereas his major struggle is against American imperialism? And thirdly, people can become captivated by formulas such as the two-state solution if they devote so much of their life to defending it. It’s very hard to put that aside suddenly and adopt new ideas.

These are all guesses that are not worth much. I enjoyed the dialogue with him because he’s such an amazing intellectual. If we can convince him the BDS movement and the right of return and the one-state solution we’ll have a very powerful voice on our side. And who knows, maybe after a third book together we will come closer to convincing him. 

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Eli Massey is an independent journalist, editor, and researcher. His work has has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Current Affairs, Jacobin, Mondoweiss, and elsewhere. He previously was an intern at the Institute for Policy Studies where he worked on Middle East politics and an editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him at @EliJMassey
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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