by Hamzah Raza
From March 4th to March 6th, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference convened in Washington DC. This gathering is the largest of the year for AIPAC, the main arm of the American pro-Israel lobby.
AIPAC represents one of the most powerful lobbies in the United States, having a clout similar to that of the NRA. Former President of AIPAC, Steven J Rosen, once told a journalist, “You see this napkin? In twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin.”
Yet in the past few years, AIPAC has lost support within the Democratic party. Due to the influence of centrist groups such as JStreet, a thriving divestment movement on college campuses, and Donald Trump’s unabashed praise for the Israeli government, AIPAC continues to lose influence among Democrats.
A 2018 Pew poll found that liberal Democrats sympathize more with Palestinians by a nearly two to one margin. The same poll found that Democrats overall are about as likely to sympathize with Palestinians than with Israelis.
This polling is vastly different from polls done on Democratic support for Israel in the past. In 2009, 42% of Democrats sympathized more with Israel more compared to just 27% of Democrats today. This had led Mondoweiss’s own Philip Weiss to refer to Israel as a “tanking stock” among Democrats.
In an attempt to salvage that stock, AIPAC made it a point of this year’s conference to reach out to progressives. In the same speech in which he praised Donald Trump to extended applause, AIPAC President, Mort Fridman, stated that “We need to embrace and involve many more Jewish Americans…The progressive case for Israel is just as compelling as the conservative one.”
Jennifer Granholm, former Democratic Governor of Michigan, pledged “to support AIPAC…[and] to make sure that Israel remains a bipartisan issue” and also stated that “There is a strong pro-Israel voice within the Democratic party.” Granholm also referred to Israel as a “progressive paradise” that is a “role model for other nations including America.”
Granhold’s Israel fable is contrary to realities on the ground. Progressives realizing the realities of the state of Israel are precisely why Democrats are continuing to sympathize more and more with Palestinians. I decided to compile a short list of nine reasons why Israel is not a “progressive paradise.”
1) The Blockade of Gaza
The situation in Gaza represents a humanitarian crisis. The Israeli army has imposed a land, sea, and air blockade that has prevented 1.6 million Palestinians from entering. Under the blockade, there have been restrictions and prohibitions from basic supplies from getting in such as pasta, cookies, powdered milk, soap, shampoo, textbooks, and writing paper.
Due to the blockade, basic necessities for living such as food and water remain difficult for Palestinians. As a result, 95% of Gazans are forced to drink contaminated water and 54% of the population does not know where their next meal is coming from. In an attempt to “dry up” funds to Hamas, the Israeli government has also cut electricity to Gaza. This means that the average Gazan gets four hours of electricity a day, posing a particular risk for individuals such as dialysis patients.
Noam Chomsky has described the conditions in Gaza as those of “an open-air prison.” In describing the rationale behind the blockade, Dov Weisglas, a former advisor to Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu said,”The idea is to put Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”
Following the Israeli government’s 2014 bombing of Gaza, the infrastructure of Gaza has also been utterly destroyed. At the rate that current supplies are coming in, it is estimated that it will take 100 years to rebuild Gaza.
13.2% of children in Gaza suffer from stunted growth due to malnutrition. The psychological toll on the children of Gaza has been just as bad as the physical toll. 70% of Gazan children suffer from nightmares and 75% suffer from bedwetting, due to the torturous living conditions they endure.
A group of 50 international aid organizations, including the World Health Organization and Oxfam, have called on an end to the blockade of Gaza, stating:
“For over five years in Gaza, more than 1.6 million people have been under blockade in violation of international law. More than half of these people are children. We the undersigned say with one voice: ‘end the blockade now.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross has also stated that
“The whole of Gaza’s civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility. The closure therefore constitutes a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law.”
2) Israel is a Settler-Colonialist State
Israel is a state founded European Jews who colonized the land and, in 1948, conducted a genocide and mass expulsion of the indigenous Palestinian population living there.
Senator Bernie Sanders has compared this act of settler-colonialism to the settler-colonialism of Europeans who came to the Americas.
Sanders stated in 2017 that “Like our own country, the founding of Israel involved the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people already living there, the Palestinian people. Over 700,000 people were made refugees. To acknowledge this painful historical fact does not delegitimize Israel, any more than acknowledging the Trail of Tears delegitimizes the United States of America.”
The creation of the state of Israel resulted in the creation of the largest refugee population in the world. While Israeli’s refer to the creation of Israel as “Israeli Independence Day”(although it is not clear who they got their independence from), Palestinians refer to this day as the “nakba” or the catastrophe.
It is estimated that about 40% of the world’s refugees are Palestinians who were expelled from their homes by the creation of the state of Israel. The United Nations regularly reiterates the right of Palestinians and their descendants to return to homes that they were expelled from, specifically through declarations such as United Nations Resolution 192 and the International Declaration of Human Rights. Still Israel continues to deny these refugees the right to return to their homes.
3) Israel practices apartheid
In the state of Israel, a person’s ethnic identity determines the rights that they receive. Subjecting different sets of people to different sets of laws literally constitutes the definition of apartheid.
While Palestinians living under Israeli control in the West Bank are subject to military law, Israeli settlers living in the West Bank are full and equal citizens of Israel subject to civil law. They can vote in elections while Palestinians living there are not even considered citizens. Non-Jewish citizens of Israel are subject to discriminatory laws that make them second-class citizens.
South Africans who lived under apartheid have described Israel as all-too familiar to the situation they faced under apartheid. The African National Congress, Nelson Mandela’s political party, which fought apartheid in South Africa has labeled Israel an apartheid state. The former chairperson of the ANC, Baleka Mbete, called Israel “far worse than apartheid South Africa.”
Desmond Tutu stated that “Israel is an apartheid state…I go and I visit the Holy Land and I see things that are a mirror image of the sort of things that I experienced under the apartheid.”
The apartheid South African government also released a report in 1978 in which it stated that “Israel and South Africa have one thing above all else in common: they are both situated in a predominantly hostile world inhabited by dark peoples.”
Apartheid South Africa’s military chief, Constand Viljeon, was an admirer of Israeli checkpoints in Occupied Palestine. Upon visiting, he stated that
“The thoroughness with which Israel conducts this examination is astonishing. At the quickest, it takes individual Arabs that come through there about one and a half hours. When traffic is heavy, it takes from four to five.”
4) Mass Incarceration of Palestinians
40% of the Palestinian male population has been incarcerated in Israeli military courts. These military courts have a 99.74% conviction rate for Palestinians.
One of the Palestinians incarcerated in these courts was Issa Amro, a man who many refer to as the “Palestinian Gandhi.” Amro engages in nonviolent action against Israel’s building of settlements in the Occupied West Bank that are illegal under international law. Amro faced jail time for 18 charges, ranging from “insulting a soldier” to “assault.” Amnesty International reported that “the deluge of charges against Issa Amro do not stand up to any scrutiny,” calling the charges “baseless and politically motivated.” Issa Amro is just one of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian men who are thrown in Israeli jails on baseless charges.
Palestinian women similarly are no exception to this system of incarceration. On December 18th, 2017, in the middle of the night the Israeli army burst into the Tamimi family home and arrested 16-year-old girl, Ahed Tamimi. They beat her father, mother, older and younger brothers and confiscated the families laptops, phones and cameras. Tamimi was charged with “slapping a soldier” and remains jailed to this day.
Human Rights Watch documented the Israeli military’s abuse of Palestinian children in a report titled “Children Behind Bars” that:
“Each year, Israel arrests, detains, and prosecutes in the military court system some 500 to 700 Palestinian children suspected of criminal offenses in the occupied West Bank, according to Defence for Children International/Palestine Section. Israel is the only country that automatically prosecutes children in military courts. In 2015, Human Rights Watch found that Israeli security forces used unnecessary force to arrest or detain Palestinian children as young as 11 in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and have choked, beaten, threatened, and interrogated children in custody without parents or lawyers present.”
Israel has been a state that has sought public support by painting itself as some sort of civilizational battle between “Islam and the West.” This is similar to the Islamophobia pushed by right-wing ideologues around the world including Donald Trump who famously stated that “Islam hates us” and pushed for a Muslim ban.
AIPAC has also pushed on this wave on Islamophobia. It was revealed last year that AIPAC donated to the “Center for Security Policy”(CSP), a hawkish far-right think tank headed by Frank Gaffney, which has been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The American Conservative Union and Anti-Defamation League have also denounced CSP as an organization that promotes hatred of Muslims through delusional conspiracy theories. Regarding Muslims, Frank Gaffney said that “They essentially, like termites, hollow out the structure of the civil society and other institutions, for the purpose of creating conditions under which the jihad will succeed.”
Gaffney also claimed that Republican strategist, Grover Norquist; current Congressman and Deputy Chair of the Democratic National Committee, Keith Ellison; and former President of the United States, Barack Obama are secret agents of the Muslim Brotherhood. He also accused Barack Obama of engaging in “the greatest bait and switch since Adolf Hitler.”
The Conservative Political Action Conference(CPAC) banned Gaffney as a result of his Islamophobic conspiracy theories, all while AIPAC provided him with financial support to peddle these conspiracy theories. Rhetoric like that of Gaffney, such as comparing Muslims to termites and suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood is seeking to control the US government, is similar to anti-Jewish rhetoric used both historically and contemporarily that “Jews control the government.”
6) Segregated Schools
Israel’s schools are both religiously and racially segregated. Jewish students attend a school based on their religious denomination while the Palestinians attend their own schools. Less than 1% of children attend the handful of integrated schools which Jewish Israelis and Palestinians with second-class citizenship are allowed to attend. Palestinian schools also receive less government funding per capita than Jewish schools, resulting in fewer students attending college than in Jewish schools.
The city of Tel Aviv has also built separate schools for the children of non-Jewish African immigrants seeking asylum. The Daily Beast detailed this in an article entitled “Israel’s Most Liberal City Introduces Racially Segregated Kindergartens” which stated that
“The city built the new preschools for black children after Jewish-Israeli residents of the inner city area threatened to keep their children at home rather than allow them to learn how to count, fingerpaint and play on the swings alongside their peers from Eritrea and Sudan.”
7) Mass Deportations
Many African refugees from countries such as Eritrea and Sudan have fleed to Israel after having faced war in their own countries. Expecting the liberal democracy that AIPAC surrogates speak about, the refugees instead faced massive resistance from Israelis who referred to them as “infiltrators.” Israel has asked the African refugees to choose between detention in an Israeli jail or deportation to a third African country.
Michael Ben Ari, a member of Israel’s Parliament, explained that this infiltration is simply the result of their existence as non-Jews within a Jewish state. Ben Ari stated that “Our country is different from other countries. Our country is a Jewish state…A Jewish and democratic state…In some cases, the two contradict each other. If you bring in a million Africans, it will no longer be Jewish.”
Current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, previously warned that if the non-Jewish population in Israel reached as high as 30%, it could pose a risk to the “Jewish character” of the state of Israel.
He has even announced a plan to expel 40,000 non-Jewish African migrants, branding the asylum seekers as “infiltrators” whose existence poses a threat to Israel’s “Jewish character.” Netanyahu’s plans come after years of anti-Black protests in Israel where Israeli politicians across the political spectrum have made statements referring to African immigrants as a “cancer” and “emitting a bad stench” and “likely to cause all kinds of diseases.”
8) Israel Admitted to Forcibly Sterilizing Ethiopian Jewish Women Against Their Will
Although the Ethiopian Jewish population lives under civil law, thus enjoying the benefits of citizenship, they still suffer much discrimination in Israel despite the fact that they are Jewish. There have been reports of police brutality in Israel against Ethiopian Jews, in addition to discrimination in jobs and public service. In 2013, the Israeli Red Cross was found to be throwing away the blood of Ethiopian Jews who donated it. When Pnina Tamano-Shata offered to donate blood as part of a campaign by the Israeli Red Cross, the Israeli Red Cross rejected her blood donation on the grounds that she was Ethiopian. That same year, the Israeli government admitted to injecting Ethiopian Jewish women with a birth control drug called Depo-Provera.
Gal Gabbay, an Israeli journalist, reported that many women were subjected to birth control shots while they were migrating from Ethiopia to Israel. Gabbay reports that:
“According to the program, while the women were still in transit camps in Ethiopia they were sometimes intimidated or threatened into taking the injection. “They told us they are inoculations,” said one of the women interviewed. “They told us people who frequently give birth suffer. We took it every three months. We said we didn’t want to.”
Forced sterilization fits the United Nations genocide definition of “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.” As a result of these forced sterilizations, the birth rate for Ethiopian Jews fell 50% between 2003 and 2013.
9) Israel Has Provided Arms to Genocidal Governments Around The World
Israel has been an exporter of arms to many repressive regimes around the world. Beyond just selling apartheid South Africa a nuclear weapon, Israel was the biggest arms supplier of apartheid South Africa. Israel has also provided arms to the Burmese government as they engage in a genocide of the Rohingya population. Israel also provided the Rwandan government with weapons as they engaged in a genocide of the Tutsi tribe, which is considered the fastest past of genocide in human history. Israel also provided the Serbian government with arms as they engaged in an ethnic cleansing of Bosnians.
Far from a “progressive paradise”, Israel is actually an ethnoreligious state that violates the human rights of Palestinians, other ethnic and religious minorities within its borders, while also aiding Islamophobia and genocide on a global scale. It is for this reason that a significant and growing portion of the Democratic Party is clamoring for justice in Palestine. For as long as Israel continues to oppress, support for Israel will continue to be a tanking stock within the Democratic Party. No former Democratic governor can change that through fallacious assertions.
Previously published on Mondoweiss and Common Dreams.
Hamzah Raza is a senior at Vanderbilt University. His writing has been published in the Huffington Post, Alternet, Raw Story, LeMuslim Post, and the Tennessean. Follow him on Twitter @Hr609