If you care about Palestine, what are the limits of that care? Does working with sympathetic Zionists who support some but not all Palestinian rights fall within those limits, or should collaboration with Zionism, however soft it might seem, be 100% taboo? I suspect this question doesn’t often occur to Palestinians and their supporters – but it was a question forced on me earlier this month.
On 11 May, I was due to talk about my new book, One State: The Only Democratic Future for Palestine-Israel, at a webinar organised by the Balfour Project. I would be in conversation with the British-Iraqi rapper, Lowkey.
The Balfour Project is a British charity which promotes “lasting peace with justice, and equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis alike”. Its website says that, just as in 1950 Britain recognised the state of Israel, it should now recognise the state of Palestine. In its work, the project collaborates with a variety of individuals and groups, including Zionists. One such group is the liberal Zionist organisation Yachad.
Yachad is another British charity and member of the pro-Israel Board of Deputies of British Jews; the group describes itself as “a uniquely Jewish pro-Israel voice”, though insists that “we stand in support of Palestinian voices too”. Yachad claims to support a political resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and aims to do so by helping Israel to “thrive” alongside a “viable and independent Palestinian state”. It works with both sides of the conflict and sees itself as progressive.
But on the evening before my webinar with Lowkey, Yachad complained to the Balfour Project’s board of trustees about Lowkey’s participation in the event and allegedly threatened to withdraw its collaboration with the project if he was allowed to speak, presumably based on spurious charges of antisemitism against Lowkey by pro-Israel groups (in a statement, Yachad said: “We didn’t ask them to [the] cancel event, neither did we make any threats or comments related to our engagement with the Balfour Project […]. What we did do, was flag to members of the Balfour Project that there are significant concerns about Lowkey from within the Jewish community”). Rather than querying the grounds of Yachad’s complaint, the Balfour Project abruptly informed me that the webinar had been cancelled; the subsequent announcement cited “circumstances beyond our control”.
I was insulted and angry that the Palestinian perspective – indeed my own perspective, as a victim of the Nakba – could be shut down so easily to spare the feelings of a Zionist group. Yet, it was important that the incident happened, because it led me to ask larger questions about what it actually means to support Palestinians.
In deciding whether or not to proceed with my webinar with Lowkey, the Balfour Project had been faced with a choice between backing the Palestinian cause and maintaining friendly relations with Zionist groups. They did not hesitate to choose the latter. The same is true of many western individuals, organisations and states that claim to back the Palestinians and also to be friends of Israel. Yet when push comes to shove, they’ll always side with Zionists.
Ultimately, the “pro-Palestine, pro-Israel” position such as that taken by Yachad and the Balfour Project is tenable only if one is ignorant of, or actively ignores, what Zionism is and has done to the Palestinians. The official ideology of the state of Israel, Zionism, was developed in the nineteenth century by a small group of European Jews. At the time the population of Palestine was overwhelmingly Arab. The only way a Jewish state could be created there, as the Zionists intended, was by emptying the land of its majority Arab inhabitants. And so they did.
The Zionists’ aim was largely achieved during Israel’s establishment in 1948, when most of Palestine’s population, including my own family, was violently expelled to make room for foreign Jews. We have never been allowed back, and have been refugees ever since. Zionism will make sure we never return home.
The story does not end there. Parts of original Palestine, the so-called Occupied Territories, were not ethnically cleansed in 1948 with the rest, a matter of regret for Zionists, and are inhabited by 4.5 million Palestinians today. Zionism’s mission remains to complete the job started in 1948 and take those lands, without the natives. Hence the increasing number of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (144 in 2023); the 700,000 Jewish settlers purposefully moved there; the ongoing brutal treatment of Palestinians, forcing many to flee the country; and Palestinians’ slow but direct expulsion.
Israel’s ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious government, elected in December, has laid bare the brutality of Palestinians’ abuse, which had in any case operated beneath the surface since 1948. But for liberal Zionists, these recent excesses have offered an excuse to distance themselves from current Zionism’s ugly face. If a more liberal Israeli government were elected tomorrow, they’d be back with full strength.
At this moment of maximum oppression by Israel’s extremist government, with over 130 Palestinians already killed since January, self-proclaimed progressive friends of Israel need to wake up to a fundamental truth: Zionism, even in its “liberal” incarnation, is incompatible with Palestinian freedom. Those who comfort themselves by embodying the friendly face of Zionism in order to spare themselves the challenge of facing its true reality are no friends to Palestinians.
Ghada Karmi is a Palestinian physician, academic and writer.