Ben-Gvir’s racist comments are no different from those of Israel’s founders

Joseph Massad

Middle East Eye  /  August 31, 2023

The superiority of Jewish colonial rights over the rights of the indigenous Palestinians has always been the hallmark of the Zionist movement.

Last week, the US State Department and a number of Jewish and Israeli groups condemned comments by Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir justifying restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement.

“My right, my wife’s right, my kids’ right to move around freely on the roads of Judea and Samaria is more important than the right of movement of Arabs. Sorry, Muhammad, but this is the reality,” he declared.

The Americans likened his “inflammatory” rhetoric to racist statements. Lobby groups, including the Democratic Majority for Israel and the Israel Policy Forum, also condemned Ben-Gvir’s statements as “hateful” and harmful to Israel’s image abroad. Anti-occupation groups in Israel also joined in the condemnation.

Such condemnations from liberal Zionists and pro-Israeli western governments have become de rigueur since the Israeli parliament’s passing of the Nation-State Law in 2018, which declared that “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”

But are these new laws and declarations any more racist than those of any Israeli government since 1948, or even of the Zionist movement since its inception in the late 1890s?

Zionist superiority

Right-wing Jewish settlers know Zionist and Israeli history very well. A group of settler leaders protested last week the right-wing Israeli government’s alleged mild military actions against the colonized Palestinians, demanding a tougher approach.

One of the settler leaders, Yossi Dagan, was more explicit: “I call on the right-wing government to learn from the governments of Mapai how to fight terror.” The Times of Israel explained that Dagan was “referencing the predecessor to the present-day centre-left Labor party, which governed the country during its early years and oversaw deadly reprisal operations in response to cross-border attacks.”

Dagan is correct of course. Indeed, the founder of Zionism himself, Theodor Herzl, had already confided to his diary in 1895 that the Jewish colonists should “gently” expropriate the natives’ property and “try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries while denying it any employment in our own country.

“The property owners will come over to our side,” Herzl added. “Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.”

The superiority of Jewish colonial rights over the rights of the indigenous Palestinians has always been the hallmark of the Zionist movement.

As the most sober analyst of the Palestinian people’s resistance to Zionism, the Ukrainian leader of the right-wing Revisionist Zionists, Vladimir Jabotinsky, likened the Palestinians to all people whose lands were being colonized by foreigners. Jabotinsky insisted that the Zionist project is clear: “We are seeking to colonize a country against the wishes of its population, in other words, by force.”

Arguing against those who believe that Zionism is immoral for colonising the land of the Palestinians, Jabotinsky affirmed that “either Zionism is moral and just or it is immoral and unjust. But that is a question that we should have settled before we became Zionists. Actually, we have settled that question, and in the affirmative.” He concluded: “Zionism is moral and just.”

Jabotinsky further explained, in line with the racist philosophy of the English political theorist John Locke, who legitimized the theft of lands of Native Americans, that justice for Jews overrides the right of the Palestinians to their homeland: “The soil does not belong to those who possess land in excess but to those who do not possess any. It is an act of simple justice to alienate part of their land from those nations who are numbered among the great landowners of the world, in order to provide a place of refuge for a homeless, wandering people. And if such a big landowning nation resists, which is perfectly natural, it must be made to comply by compulsion.” 

 Colonial justifications and denials

The same Lockean principle guided the Polish leader of the Zionist movement in Palestine, David Ben Gurion. For him, as modern Europeans, colonizing Jews were developing the land of Palestine, which allegedly lay fallow in the hands of the natives.

In 1924, Ben Gurion explicitly stated: “The national autonomy which we demand for ourselves we demand for the Arabs as well. But we do not admit their right to rule over the country to the extent that the country is not built up by them and still awaits those who will work it,” meaning, European Jewish colonists.

Similarly, the Belorussian head of the Zionist Organization, Chaim Weizmann, invoked his opposition to Palestinian self-determination in 1930 while supporting it for world Jewry, affirming that the “rights that the Jewish people has been adjudged in Palestine [by the League of Nations Mandate] do not depend on the consent, and cannot be subject to the will, of the majority of its present inhabitants.”

Weizmann was clear that when the British promised the Zionists a national home in Palestine “the agreement of the Palestinian Arabs was not asked.” The reason that Palestinian consent was of no import, he added, was on account of the “unique” nature of the Jewish “connection” to Palestine.

As for the Palestinians themselves, they could not “be considered as owning the country in the sense in which the inhabitants of Iraq or of Egypt possess their respective countries”. To grant them self-determination or self-government or a “legislative assembly…would be to assign the country to its present inhabitants.”

Despite their acknowledgements of the exact nature of Zionism as a European settler-colonial project and of the legitimacy of Palestinian resistance – even if they believed they had the moral and superior right to suppress it – Jewish colonizers understood that this would be seen as too dangerous in the context of the anti-colonial discourse of the 1960s and could alienate Israel’s white liberal western supporters.

As a result, a new policy of outright denials of what Zionism entailed for the Palestinians became necessary. It was then that the Ukrainian-born Golda Meir, as prime minister in 1969, denied the very existence of the Palestinian people on the occasion of the second anniversary of the June 1967 conquest of the remainder of Palestine.

Then and now, Meir has been hailed internationally as an enlightened western stateswoman. Her hateful speech filled with lies such as “It was not as though there was a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country from them. They did not exist,” has not diminished her stature in the eyes of western pro-Zionist liberals.

Same racism

Still, the superiority of Jewish rights over those of the Palestinians was not only expressed by the entire panoply of Zionism’s founders, but also by Israel’s liberal politicians, who insisted on the superiority of Jewish over Palestinian rights without any sense of embarrassment. The liberal South African-born Israeli foreign minister, Abba Eban, affirmed in 1972 that “Israeli self-determination should take moral and historical precedence over Palestinian self-determination, though it does not rule it out entirely.”

It should be noted here that the rights Zionism accorded colonizing Jews were not only superior to the rights of the Palestinian people but also to the rights of diaspora Jews. A horrifying illustration of this logic was in David Ben Gurion’s response to a British offer, in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, to take thousands of Jewish children from Germany directly to Britain: “If I knew it would be possible to save all the children in Germany by bringing them to England, and only half of them by transporting them to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), then I would opt for the second alternative, for we must weigh not only the life of these children but also the history of the people of Israel.”

There are myriad examples of such assertions throughout Zionist and Israeli history, not to mention the dozens of Israeli discriminatory laws that grant Jews differential and superior rights over the Palestinians, none of which seems to offend the sensibilities of the many western pro-Israel liberals and many liberal Zionist Jewish organizations.

Why, then, is it that many among them seem to experience a grave sense of offence by Israel’s Nation-State Law, Ben-Gvir, and the declarations of other Jewish settlers?

The answer is simple: What the right-wing leaders of Israel and its Jewish settlers say and do with outright honesty is exposing the entire history of Zionism and Israel as one and the same with its racist present.

It is the liberal pro-Israel imperative to conceal the colonial and racist history of Zionism that is violated when the right-wing Israeli government, Ben-Gvir and the settlers do so.

It must be remembered that all US presidents have avowed their support for Zionism, including Joe Biden who declared himself a “Zionist”. And it was none other than Barack Obama who chastised the Palestinians in his infamous Cairo speech in 2010 for resisting Israel and urged them to recognize its alleged “right to exist” as a Jewish state and “to recognize Israel’s legitimacy”.

He further accused Palestinians who challenge Israel’s racist structure and laws of threatening Israel’s “destruction” and demanded that “Palestinians”, but not Israelis, “must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed.”

What threatens such liberal and imperial pro-Israel paeans is the refreshing honesty of Israel’s right-wing government and that of Ben-Gvir and the other Jewish settlers. It is this honesty that seems to cause the offence, not anti-Palestinian racism or Jewish supremacy.

Indeed, the insistence on the superiority of the rights of colonizing Jews over the rights of indigenous Palestinians is what the liberal pro-Zionist chorus, including the Americans who have supported and sponsored Jewish settler-colonization since 1948, has always accepted and defended unreservedly.

Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York; he is the author of Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism