Maureen Clare Murphy
The Electronic Intifada / April 28, 2023
A brief video from the president of the European Union’s executive congratulating Israel on its so-called Independence Day provoked both the scorn of Twitter users around the globe and a diplomatic row between the Palestinian Authority and its main donor.
VIDEO : EU in Israel 🇪🇺🇮🇱 op Twitter: “Today we celebrate 75 years of Israel’s independence and friendship with Europe. A special message from President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen: https://t.co/TCi7GpfQWm” / Twitter
The Palestinian Authority’s foreign ministry blasted Ursula von der Leyen’s comments on Twitter on Wednesday, describing them as “propagandist discourse” that “dehumanizes and erases the Palestinian people.”
The foreign ministry added that the video “perpetuates the continued and racist denial of the Nakba” – the ongoing dispossession of Palestinians from their homeland – “and whitewashes Israel’s illegal occupation and apartheid regime.”
The Palestinian Authority called on von der Leyen to apologize for her video, which undermines “the European Union’s standing and casts serious doubts on its declared commitment to international law and human rights.”
Rather than apologize, a spokesperson for the EU’s executive told the BBC that it was “unpleasantly surprised by the inappropriate statement of the Palestinian foreign ministry accusing the president of the European Commission of racism.”
EU’s anti-Palestinian bias
The episode highlights the EU’s anti-Palestinian and pro-Israel bias, particularly among its unelected executive.
In her video address, lasting around a minute and a half long, Ursula von der Leyen trotted out one foundational myth after another concerning the “dream” that was realized 75 years ago with the creation of Israel.
At no point did she mention Palestinians, the people indigenous to the land on which Israel was created, or that the founding of the state necessitated their ongoing, violent dispossession.
As the title of a new article by the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy states, “there is no Israeli Independence Day without the Palestinian Nakba” or catastrophe.
Von der Leyen whitewashed this genocidal violence in her video, stating that “75 years ago, a dream was realized with Israel’s Independence Day.”
“After the greatest tragedy in human history,” she added, obliquely referring to the Holocaust, “the Jewish people could finally build a home in the promised land.”
It is grotesque and inappropriate of von der Leyen to rank atrocities, of which there are an unfortunate many on the scale of Nazi-perpetrated genocide of Jews and other peoples in Europe. But by doing so, she reveals that according to her perspective, some victims’ lives hold more value than others.
What else but a supremacist, racialized worldview, not unlike the one that fueled the Holocaust, could explain von der Leyen’s apparent dismissal of other abominations that claimed millions of lives, such as her birthplace of Belgium’s genocide in the Congo, the eliminationist colonization of the Americas, the Euro-American slave trade and British colonialism in India, among other horrors?
In a 2013 piece, scholar Joseph Massad, referencing Aimé Césaire’s famous speech on colonialism, writes that “the Nazi wars and Holocaust were European colonialism turned inward.”
After World War II, in the US and Europe, the Jewish victims of the Holocaust were “integrated posthumously into white Europeanness,” Massad adds.
“Hence, the post-Holocaust European Christian horror at the genocide of European Jews was not based on the horror of slaughtering people in the millions who were different from European Christians, but rather a horror at the murder of millions of people who were the same as European Christians” (emphasis in the original).
As Massad observes, “since the rehabilitation of Nazism’s victims as white people, Europe and its American accomplice would continue their Nazi policy of visiting horrors on non-white people around the world, on Korea, on Vietnam and Indochina, on Algeria, on Indonesia, on Central and South America, on Central and Southern Africa, on Palestine, on Iran, and on Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Von der Leyen – who has represented Germany, which bears direct responsibility for the Nazi regime’s crimes – whitewashes these imperialist barbarities and casts the Holocaust as an exceptional event in order to justify a century of wholesale brutality in Palestine.
Palestinians, of course, had nothing to do with the Holocaust in Europe. Suggesting that the colonization of their homeland is some kind of redemption for European crimes is, to say the least, a repulsive and cynical abuse of the memory of the Nazi regime’s millions of victims.
‘Made the desert bloom’
Von der Leyen meanwhile extolled what she calls “Israel’s vibrant democracy in the heart of the Middle East. Seventy-five years of dynamism, ingenuity and groundbreaking innovations.”
The consensus among human rights organizations is that Israel imposes a regime of apartheid on Palestinians, who do not enjoy the same rights as Jewish colonists in their homeland.
Israel’s decades of innovating new ways to oppress Palestinians and suppress their movement for national liberation is not something to celebrate.
But the EU, eager to turn away people seeking asylum on its shores to protect the European “way of life,” is keen to invest in Israeli repression technologies and practices that it can in turn use in Europe.
Accordingly, von der Leyen views Palestine through the sepia-tinted lenses of a 19th-century colonizer.
Perhaps the most roundly criticized aspect of her video address, von der Leyen gushed that “you have literally made the desert bloom, as I could see during my visit to the Negev last year.”
According to this Orientalist and ahistorical trope, as explained on the DecolonizePalestine website, “Palestine was a neglected bleak desert, and that only after the arrival of the Zionist colonists with their ingenuity was it ‘redeemed’ and made prosperous and blooming with life.”
In reality, Israel has systematically targeted the productivity of Palestine’s largest economic sector, agriculture, which is also central to Palestinian identity and culture.
More than 800,000 olive trees have been destroyed in the West Bank since Israel occupied the territory in 1967.
In the Naqab or Negev desert, Israel is forcibly transferring Bedouins from their lands and denying them their way of life by attempting to resettle them into townships.
The Jewish National Fund is a parastatal organization that has played a key role in the Zionist colonization of Palestine. Along with the Israel Lands Authority, the JNF is planting forests in the Naqab “to displace Bedouins, viewed as ‘trespassers,’ from their lands,” as described by Adalah, a group that advocates for the rights of Palestinians in Israel.
Last year, Israel used drones that dropped tear gas against citizens of the state for the first time during protests against afforestation in the Naqab.
Rather than making the “desert bloom,” the JNF’s tree-planting scheme harms indigenous habitats by replacing them with predominantly European conifer trees that have fueled forest fires exacerbated by climate change.
All of this is part of Israel’s demographic engineering efforts to “Judaize” the Naqab and other areas of historic Palestine and break Palestinians’ relationship with their land.
Amid all the mythology and racist tropes, von der Leyen did make an entirely accurate statement during her address.
Celebrating the close ties between Israel and Europe, von der Leyen said that “we have more in common than geography would suggest,” pointing to “our shared culture, our values.”
As Joseph Massad states, Israel is “the last European settler colony in the Arab world.”
Von der Leyen’s affinity for Israel may be explained in part by the history of her aristocratic family, whose wealth was extracted through exploitation.
Peter Kuras, writing for Foreign Policy, points out that “von der Leyen’s family tree traces a legacy of power and brutality, incorporating not only some of Germany’s most significant Nazis but also some of Britain’s largest slave traders and, through marriage, some of the United States’ largest slave owners.”
Kuras notes that von der Leyen has invoked her ancestors unapologetically, including James Ladson, “who owned more than 200 slaves when the Civil War broke out.”
Von der Leyen adopted Ladson’s name while enrolled at the London School of Economics, a choice that betrays “her comfort with unchallenged and inherited privilege,” according to Kuras.
A former German defense minister, von der Leyen has championed the interests of the weapons industry and NATO.
In a joint statement made with Joe Biden, the US president, last month, von der Leyen boasted about the “swift and sweeping sanctions” imposed on Russia following its “illegal, unjustifiable, and unprovoked war against Ukraine.”
Biden and von der Leyen describe their cooperation “to supply the Ukrainian Armed Forces with the military equipment and training it needs to defend itself from Russian aggression.”
It would seem that for von der Leyen, the Palestinians, who have lived under the boot of a foreign military for three quarters of a century, are somehow less deserving of support than people in Ukraine.
While von der Leyen may have sought to pay tribute to Israel on its “birthday,” the widespread condemnation of her remarks instead shows that a settler state in the heart of the Middle East is a vestige of European colonization rejected throughout the world.
And von der Leyen’s remarks leave little doubt regarding the racial hierarchies with which the European Commission operates.
Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada