Fading Jewish Nationalism in the Diaspora by Jordan Alejandro Rosenberg Cobos

Photo from Jewish Voices for Peace

In the East Jerusalem Sheik Jarrah neighborhood, Palestinian Muna al-Kurd shouted, “You are stealing my house!” A Jewish settler agreed, saying “If I don’t steal it, someone else will.” She and her brother Mohammed al-Kurd launched the #SaveSheikJarrah campaign opposing the impending ethnic cleansing of six Palestinian families from their homes. With support from the Arab diaspora and the Black Lives Matter movement, Palestinians were finally able to define themselves on their terms. Mohammed told The New York Times, “Because we were able to escape the gatekeepers of mass media, because we were able to escape the likes of The New York Times, we were able to reach the world.” My Mexican American mother, who grew up vaguely sympathetic to Israel not because of her Sephardic Jewish roots but thanks to the U.S media, was shocked when I told her most Palestinians under Israeli occupation cannot vote. “So it’s not even a democracy!” My father was equally outraged, although the information was not news to him. The nature of Israeli apartheid is increasingly obvious to international observers, including the Jewish diaspora.

My parents raised me in Los Angeles until I moved to Orange County for schooling. While we faced some degree of systemic antisemitism in Orange County, it took me many years to realize because the anti-Mexican racism was much more overt. This is no surprise given the history of the Southwest. Mexican Americans originated as a conquered people following the 1840s Mexican American War – as the saying goes, “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” The new Anglo-American order denied equal rights to Mexican Americans – who were legally counted as white but socially defined in opposition to it. Despite promises in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo to the contrary, the U.S government and Anglo-American colonists took land and property from former Mexican citizens just as the Spanish colonists had from the Indigenous peoples centuries earlier. My abuela’s family was a mix of those groups in New Mexico: those who had been in Picuris and Taos Pueblos since prehistoric times and a more recent group of Sephardic Crypto-Jews laying low during the Spanish Inquisition. Her husband would catalogue how New Mexican Spanish is a unique dialect dating from the 1590s, surviving in a country whose borders were created by those who dehumanize anyone who was not a white, Protestant Anglophone. While New Mexico fulfilled the population requirements for statehood immediately after conquest, it was not granted statehood until there was a white, Anglo majority.

This is like the ongoing colonization of Palestine by Israeli Jewish settlers. Apart from the settlers being Jewish instead of Britons, Israel is a typical British Empire settler-colonial state like the U.S, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and of course, South Africa. Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was open about the key role of ethnic cleansing (then called population transfers) when he spoke to the the 20th Zionist Congress in 1937: “Transfer is what will make possible a comprehensive settlement program. Thankfully, the Arab people have vast empty areas. Jewish power, which grows steadily, will also increase our possibilities to carry out the transfer on a large scale.” Historian Benny Morris noted in Righteous Victims how the official transcript was edited to remove references to population transfers. Israel expelled 75% of Palestinians from their homes in the 1948 war in several acts of ethnic cleansing. The remaining 25% of Palestinians became citizens of Israel but were under military rule until 1966. A year later, Israeli conquests in the Six-Day War brought Israeli military rule to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Syrians in the Golan Heights, and Egyptians in the Sinai Peninsula.

Former Israeli ambassadors to South Africa even call the system apartheid, noting since 1967, “Israel has ruled over the occupied Palestinian territories with a two-tiered legal system, in which, within the same tract of land in the West Bank, Israeli settlers live under Israeli civil law while Palestinians live under military law. The system is one of inherent inequality.” This leaves less than a full year between 1966 and 1967 where Israel let civil law govern Jews and Palestinians equally. Even as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to lose power, his policies of inequality will stay in place. His Likud party’s longtime goal of preventing a two-state solution is now the Israeli mainstream. No left-wing party has governed Israel since the turn of the century, and even when he loses power Netanyahu’s goal of preventing a left-wing Prime Minister will be achieved. Netanyahu is set to be replaced by Naftali Bennet, one of his former proteges on the far right.

Bennett is even more right-wing than Netanyahu; the former settler leader allegedly said, “I already killed lots of Arabs in my life, and there is absolutely no problem with that” during a Cabinet Meeting. He seeks to annex the occupied West Bank – although de facto Netanyahu and his predecessor Ariel Sharon assured it was de facto part of Israel. Sharon explicitly called the pockets of Palestinian autonomy bantustans, a clear imitation of South African apartheid. Israeli maps, including the weather, act as if it is already their land and Israelis see the question as settled, the conflict largely managed by their military hegemony. But “even sustaining the “status quo” vis-à-vis Palestinians still means perpetuating an oppressive apparatus that has been carefully constructed over decades. … Bennett is now seen by most of the right as a traitor for ‘allying with leftists and Palestinians’ and ‘betraying’ Netanyahu’s camp … To save his political future from disaster, Bennett will likely try to prove he can promote policies even further to the right than those of Netanyahu.” 

Some observers note the rest of the government is more left-wing than the current Netanyahu government, but fail to note 104 MKs espouse Jewish supremacy across the left-right spectrum. “The Jewish supremacism shared by most Jewish voters… continues to shift the goalposts to the right.” 101 of 120 seats in the Knesset are filled by right-wing parties. Interestingly, for the first time a Palestinian party is going to sit in the government, although it the conservative Islamist United Arab List, or Ra’am, will have no government ministers. Everything else about the coalition formation is evidence of the apartheid system intensifying over time, not abating. 

Unlike many in the Jewish diaspora, I did not grow up with any family ties to Israel. But I could seek Israeli citizenship based on the Jewish nationalist Law of Return. That I would get this privilege is ridiculous – my family lived in Jerusalem a thousand years ago but Palestinians families who were ethnically cleansed a mere 73 years ago are denied their Right of Return by Israel in violation of international law, specifically United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194. It states “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date” – but was adopted long ago on December 11, 1948. I only visited Israel once: on a Birthright tour borne not out of a desire to see a Jewish state, but to see a piece of occupied Syria: the Golan Heights. 

You see, my father’s family is Arab American. My 103-year old grandmother was the daughter of immigrants leaving the Ottoman Empire from what is now Syria and Lebanon. She would marry an Ashkenazi Jewish man, the son of immigrants from the German and Russian Empires. As the matriarch of the family, my grandma raised the Rosenberg children with a hostility towards Jewish nationalism. But because last names are patriarchal, no one on my Birthright suspected I was an Arab. Due to my opposition to the genocidal Assad regime, I knew it would probably be my only chance of visiting Syrian soil for a very long time. I did not tell them until the end of the trip, wanting to hear how Arabs are spoken of in Jewish spaces in Israel. While racist sentiment towards Palestinians was largely acceptable in American Jewish spaces, nothing could prepare me for the shock and all-encompassing nature of Israeli Jewish racism towards Arabs, Muslims, and Palestinians. Many Israelis were convinced President Obama was untrustworthy because of his “Muslim blood,” an ironic reflection of how the Spanish Inquisition persecuted Jews even after conversion. (Which is why my abuela’s family moved to the outskirts of New Mexico: to get as far away from Madrid as possible.) I resolved to come out as a Lebanese and Syrian American at the end of the trip. 

Before that, it was quite amazing to me how fun life in Israel was – if you were Jewish. I would say on balance the country is far more fun to live in than the United States. While Russia rightfully faces U.S sanctions for the annexation of Crimea, the U.S sanctions Israel to gobble up Palestine with rewards rather than punishment. By contrast the West Bank is a sea of military oppression, with countless checkpoints. Palestinians are frequently stopped at them for hours, but for Jewish settlers it is immediately “opened for them. Only for them. Lords of the land and the neighborhood.” It is against Israeli election law for citizens abroad to vote. But Israeli Jews in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are free to vote while Palestinians are not. Due to Ariel Sharon building a separation wall between Palestinian bantustans and territory recognized internationally as Israel proper, Israeli and Palestinian Millennials and Zoomers did not grow up with much interaction. So not surprisingly the younger an Israeli Jewish person is, the more right-wing they are. The incredible amount of racism towards the Palestinians I encountered was the justification for their subordination. When I came out as Arab American, I was terrified that I would be physically hurt. More than at any other point in my life. But I did it. I hope this nudged some in the group towards more sympathy of the Palestinian cause. But in truth there was not much sympathy or even awareness of Palestinian conditions in U.S Jewish communities until recently. I came away from the trip feeling more alienated from my Jewish heritage than before. I did not feel Jewish again until Trump won the 2016 election, when I felt alone in a country where an empowered minority decided my family didn’t belong. Family members who were not lucky enough to immigrate to the United States suffered genocide by the Young Turk and Nazi regimes, but suddenly the United States seemed unsafe.

All politics is local, and Netanyahu’s open disrespect towards U.S President Barack Obama and even firmer open embrace of Donald Trump brought a great reckoning in the American Jewish community. The whiplash of a Jewish nationalist embracing a Neo-Nazi sympathizer was shocking (but not unprecedented, though earlier instances of Jewish nationalist cooperation with Nazis like the Havaaraa Agreement and Stern Gang do not figure in the U.S Jewish community’s memory.) US Jewish spaces frequently conflate U.S and Israeli Jews, and Judaism with Jewish nationalism. This is a common anti-Semitic trope which was naturally embraced by Trump, the most anti-Semitic U.S President in history. But the staunch Israeli support for Trump – he was more popular than Netanyahu with Israeli Jews – made the ethnic supremacy of the Israeli state ever more obvious. Calling Zionism what it is – Jewish nationalism – should make it plain to American Jews that it is not an ideology which keeps us safe. The biggest problem in the global Jewish community is support for and danger from white supremacy. Israel’s alliance with other white supremacist governments, such as Orbán in Hungary and Bolsonaro in Brazil, marks it as a threat to the safety of Jews abroad. Anti-Semitism is one of the reasons for Christian Zionism: more Jews in Palestine meant less in New York. In fact a majority of Jews who went to Palestine prior to Israel’s establishment in 1948 wanted to go to the United States. But the increasingly right-wing Jewish nationalist voters in Israel are at odds with increasingly antinationalist Jews in the United States. Increasingly, young American Jews are realizing Jewish nationalism in Israel is white supremacy.

The reluctance of U.S Jews to openly criticize Israel in non-Jewish spaces ebbed with every war Netanyahu launched as the aging fascist, beset by war crimes and regular crimes, became more and more desperate to remain in power. Many U.S Jews were aghast after the passage of the 2018 Israeli 2018 Nation-State Law which declared “the right to exercise national self-determination” within Israel is “unique to the Jewish people,” and removed Arabic as an official language. The latest offensive against Gaza was another nail in the coffin for Jewish diaspora support for Israel. Even those raised as Jewish nationalists cannot explain away a war where over 350 Palestinians were killed, 53 schools and 17 clinics and hospitals – including the only Covid-19 testing site – damaged or destroyed. It is no wonder Palestinian popular resistance is gaining international attention, and US public opinion towards Palestinians is becoming more sympathetic. 55% of likely voters and 72% of Democrats support Congresswoman Betty McCollum’s bill to restrict Israel’s use of U.S military aid to detain Palestinian children, seize or destroy Palestinian homes and property, or support annexation of Palestinian land. 53% of Democrats support Senator Bernie Sanders’ bill to block the Biden Administration’s $735 million weapons sale to Israel.

Support for Palestine was the main reason I voted for Sanders in 2016 and 2020. During the pandemic I became more active in Palestinian American groups as well as the anti-occupation American Jewish group IfNotNow. For the first time, I discovered Jewish spaces without normalized racism towards Arabs and Muslims. I met young Jewish Americans who asserted Jewish safety can only be realized under pluralism, not nationalism. We will never be free until Palestine is free, only prisoners of our own power. Bipartisan support for Israeli apartheid gradually undermined U.S liberal democracy. The GOP now openly promotes a return to the herrenvolk democracy where only the majority ethnic or racial group matters. This characterized the U.S before 1965 and describes Israel today as long as Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are unable to vote in Israeli elections yet are governed by Israeli occupation and siege. Netanyahu succeeded in destroying a two-state solution for a one-state non-solution. But I am hopeful the future will change.

Due to Netanyahu’s short-sighted partisanship in favor of Republicans, it is fast becoming politically acceptable for U.S Democratic politicians to acknowledge Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people. Since three out of four American Jews are Democrats, their support for unchecked Israeli apartheid is also weakening. Palestinian society is changing also. Palestinian activists Muna and Mohammed al-Kurd galvanized social media with the #SaveSheikhJarrah campaign. The activist twins represent a new generation of Palestinians whose social media prowess supports the Palestinian cause internationally. Hopefully Israeli apartheid ends with a similar resolution as the 1960s United States and 1990s South Africa: one multiethnic state striving for equal treatment to all, regardless of their origin. There is even an alphabet which combines Hebrew and Arabic. But until apartheid falls, I will keep fighting for the Palestinian cause, until Palestine is free from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

Jordan Rosenberg Cobos is a member of the Communications team at IfNotNow. He is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins SAIS-Tsinghua University Dual Degree Masters Program, where he focused on clean energy and the Americas. He lives in the Los Angeles area.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: