My mother once told me that a book she’d found on my desk had radically altered her politics. Before Their Diaspora, by the great Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi, features photographs of Palestinian life – bustling and serene, urban and rural – before 1948. As a teenager in Habonim, the “socialist Zionist” movement, and later as a volunteer on a kibbutz, my mother had been taught that these people did not exist; that Palestine was empty land when Jews arrived to colonise it, the terra nullius fabled by colonisers from Australasia to the Americas. If there were any Palestinians, my mother remembers being told, they were a tiny band of savages. It is eerie to know that atop the ruins of the homes and schools captured in these pages, different homes and schools now stand, while exiled former residents dream of return.
There is a tension in the colonial project. On the one hand, indigenous populations must be sufficiently subhuman to justify their destruction: “It is natural for a superior race to dominate an inferior one,” as Winston Churchill said. Palestinians were clearly one such “inferior” race: Churchill described them as a “dog in the manger”, and in 1944, the Labour party called euphemistically for the “transfer” of Palestinians from their land. On the other hand, indigenous populations are sufficiently human that their cleansing conjures shame. It is a memory that must be repressed. Israel’s current ambassador to Britain calls the Naqba an “Arab lie”. Harold Wilson claimed that Israel’s ethnic cleansers “made the desert flower”. There was barely anyone here before, just sand. Civilisation came to the wilderness.
This week, at a lunch organised by Labour Friends of Israel, Keir Starmer quoted Wilson’s chilling rendition of the old colonial cliché without embarrassment. He also called former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres a “comrade in the international struggle for equality, peace and freedom”. That same Shimon Peres said “I am at peace” after his army killed 106 civilians sheltering in a UN compound in Lebanon in 1996. He signed a secret nuclear deal with Apartheid South Africa. He celebrated the imposition of military law over Palestinians after 1948, stressing that the freedom to seize their land and homes would aid “Jewish settlement and Jewish immigration”, and called for “settlements everywhere” after 1967. He blamed Palestinians when Israeli forces gunned down their children on a beach in 2014. That Starmer called him a comrade in a speech ostensibly about anti-racism only highlights the colonial predicament. To coin a phrase, some people don’t count.
To most Israelis, let alone Palestinians, Starmer’s speech would have sounded bizarre. Israel is constructed by Starmer – much as the European Union often was by its British admirers in the Brexit debate – through a set of projections that fix an imaginary country with little relation to reality. He extolled Amos Oz, Yitchak Rabin and the Oslo process in front of an applauding ambassador who regards all three as dead. Starmer clung to old hymns about the two-state solution while praising Trump’s Abraham Accords (designed singly to exclude the Palestinians and normalise the status quo of occupation) and the current Israeli government, whose prime minister has repeatedly insisted that there will never be a Palestinian state. Its ambassador to Britain, speaking alongside Starmer, has previously attacked the Board of Deputies of British Jews for talking of two states. She openly yearns to see the Israeli flag flying over Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Consider the contrasts. Starmer spoke of Israel’s “lively tradition of debate, dissent, and disagreement,” and said the current Israeli government “is showing the difference progressive politics can make in power.” That government has labelled Israel’s six leading human rights organisations terrorist groups. It plans to demolish an EU-funded school for Palestinians in the West Bank, bulldozing 16 other schools too, while approving 3,000 new homes for Jewish settlers. For Starmer to single out the government that blockades Gaza, starving its people of electricity and basic essentials, as offering “humanitarian” assistance to the strip reads like a cruel and contemptuous joke. Palestinians are at best objects of thin pity (Starmer wants a two-state solution for them, after all). They are not human beings with voices: when virtually the whole of Palestinian civil society calls for boycotts of the state that dispossesses them, they’re castigated and dismissed. Colonial thinking works like class society, by coding people differently along a hierarchy of rights. It would not be acceptable for Britons to be treated like this; Palestinians, though, are playthings for other people’s political wrangles.
We live in an era of anti-racist racism. Racism today does not generally come cloaked in the language of the subhuman, but in the language of equality. No wonder such an age feels it urgent to attack Critical Race Theory, which claims that racism describes a social structure and not only individual bigoted speech acts. Black Lives Matter: we must kneel to say it, then defend the police forces that kill Black people. Texan rangers are probably invited to unconscious bias training before whipping Haitian refugees. The defenders of Enlightened Europe condemn xenophobic nativism while guarding Poland’s barbed-wire borders against freezing migrants. After the Holocaust, the anti-colonial revolutions and civil rights struggles of the twentieth century, we feel no awkwardness at rhetorically insisting, as Starmer does, on human equality while permitting and even perpetuating the facts of dispossession and humiliation that define a racist world order.
Grasping this post-1945, post-1968 novelty is important. Discourses of antisemitism are transformed by it, since embracing an antisemitic image of Jews as simultaneously outsiders and the apex of whiteness can now aid the defenders of a white world order to portray its war on the savages as an anti-racist crusade.
This is the precise racism at work in Starmer’s text, the racism that mocks with its talk of equality amid the endurance of racist violence. In refugee camps and emaciated bantustans, Palestinians are punished so that Europe can feel better about its centuries of antisemitism. An ounce of Europe’s guilt is expunged with each new weapon sent to disappear the Palestinian people. Every document of civilisation remains a document of barbarism.
Barnaby Raine is a doctoral student at Columbia University and a faculty member of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.