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Nakba: Zionism and the Plight of Palestinians

Posted on May 15th, 2020 in Foreign Policy by Tariq Shehadeh

While the argument in favor of the existence of the Zionist State largely stems from the horrific events of the Holocaust, which saw the systematic genocide of around 6 million Jews and 5 million others at the hands of Hitler's fascist ethnostate, there is no doubt that the Israeli state has itself committed many atrocities against the Palestinians. For this reason, any analysis of Zionism or the 'legitimacy' of the state of Israel must recognize both the horrific events of the Holocaust and the crimes of the Israeli state: violations of human rights, war crimes, and failure to comply with multiple United Nations Resolution.

A History of Palestine and Israel

In the 1880s, Jews started a migration to Palestine. Many of the migrants would come into groups, including the "Chibbat––or Chovenei-Zion (Lovers of Zion)––numbering fourteen and including one woman, [who] landed at Jaffa on July 7, 1882." These migrants came in the name of Zionism, all proto-followers of the Zionist philosophy. While initially few in number, the growing population of Jewish migrants would ultimately set the stage for their lasting conflict with the local Arab populations.

Photograph of Theodor Herzl in 1901Courtesy: NYTimes

In 1896 Theodor Herzl, appropriately nicknamed "Chozeh HaMedinah" or "Visionary of the State," wrote Der Judenstaat, which translates as The Jewish State. Herzl's work effectively marks the founding of Zionism. Zionism is the philosophy that advocates for a state only for individuals of Jewish origin. Herzl organized the First Zionist Congress in Basel, after failing to do so in London. Hundreds of delegates were in attendance when Herzl spoke in front of the Congress and stated, "for the house which will become the refuge of the Jewish nation. Zionism is the return to Judaism even before the return to the land of Israel." Herzl's speech clearly emphasized his longing for a purely Jewish state and, while one might argue that this was merely a failure to mention Arabs or the Druze, Herzl's writings and philosophy leave little doubt of his desire to establish a Jewish ethnostate.

From 1932 until 1945, approximately 6 million Jewish individuals were murdered under the direction of Hitler. Hitler used the Jewish people as a scapegoat, using Joseph Goebbel's anti-semitic propaganda machine to blame the Jewish peoples as the cause of Germany's problems and the anger of its nationalist, right-wing populace. Following the genocide, the United Nations drafted a partition plan––without Palestinians present––to split Palestine in two, which designated one large part for a Jewish state and a much smaller part for the indigenous Palestinians. On May 15, 1948, the Israeli State was formed.

Upon the foundation of Israel, the Palestinians were furious and they, alongside almost every other Arab nation, declared war on the new Israeli State. This war came to be known as the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, which saw Arabs retaliate against the newly founded state of Israel and the Jewish migrants who'd forced Palestinians to abandon entire villages so that they might colonize the region. The Israelis won and "By early 1949 the Israelis had managed to occupy all of the Negev up to the former Egypt-Palestine frontier, except for the Gaza Strip." In total, approximately 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were displaced from their lands and forced to bear witness to the destruction of their cities, towns, and villages; thus, the Arab-Israeli War would come to be known by Palestinians and supporters of Palestine as "Nakba" or "Catastrophe" in Arabic.

Israeli soldiers guard captured Egyptians and Palestinians captured in the Gaza Strip during the Six Days War.Israeli soldiers guard Arabs captured in
the Gaza Strip during the Six Days War.
Courtesy: Al Jazeera

In 1967, Israel killed approximately 20,000 soldiers, forced 300,000 Palestinians to flee the West Bank, and forced 100,000 Syrians to flee the Golan Heights in order to escape approaching Israeli forces during the Six Days War. The war saw the Israeli state lay claim to both the West Bank and Golan Heights, which both remain occupied by the Israeli government at the present. Under Gamel Abdel Nasser, Egypt lost the Sinai Peninsula, which was only returned to Egypt in 1982. The Six Day War proved to be a decisive victory for the newfound state of Israel, reinforcing their position as a hegemonic and colonial power in the region.

Modern Oppression of Palestinians in Israel

Before continuing, it would be appropriate to define what precisely constitutes an ethnocracy. Derived from "ethno-," meaning race or culture, and "-cracy," which denotes a particular form of government, an ethnocracy is "a type of political structure in which the state apparatus is controlled by a dominant ethnic group to further its interests, power, and resources." Israel is thus, by definition, an ethnocracy for those of Jewish faith. David Ben-Gurion, the founding father of Israel argued that "There can be no stable and strong Jewish State so long as it has a Jewish majority of only 60 percent," which is particularly revealing in light of Israel's attempts to forcibly relocate individuals of Arabic descent from their native lands that Israel has laid claim to. For Zionists, it it their moral imperative to create a dominant Jewish majority, crushing the weak and oppressed Palestinian minority.

Israel hits Palestinian school with US supplied white-phosphorous munitions.Israel hits Palestinian school with US
supplied white-phosphorous munitions.
Courtesy: Foreign Policy Journal

This mindset of Zionism explains the continued practices of Israel in its occupation of Arab lands and oppression of non-Jewish people. In 2017, "Israeli authorities destroyed 381 homes and other property, forcibly displacing 588 people as of November 6, in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as part of discriminatory practices that reject almost all building permit applications submitted by Palestinians." Furthermore, these actions of the state of Israel are lauded by Israeli politicians who have gone so far as to publically brage about  the murder of Palestinians. The current Israeli defense minister, Naftali Bennet, once bragged about killing Arabs saying "I've killed lots of Arabs in my life – and there's no problem with that." Bennet and his other accomplices are war criminals and sit amongst the biggest violators of human rights in the world;  the crimes committed by Bennet and other Israeli ministers are particularly disturbing given Bennet's recognition of Israel's institutionalized racism against Arabs; Bennet once stated, "Let's be honest: discrimination against Arabs exists in Israel."(p. 97)

Israeli soldier detains Palestinian child.Israeli solider detains a
frightened Palestinian child.

While it's hard to draw comparisons to the actions of Hitler's Nazi Germany, the actions of the state of Israel against the Palestinians, and the region's Arab populace as a whole, certainly draw some parallels to the state sanctioned violence of the Third Reich. Just as the Nuremberg laws defined citizenship for Germans as being only those of German ethnicity, the 2018 Nation-State Law of Israel attempts to 'legitimize' Israel as a Jewish ethnostate:

"The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish People, in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination. (c) The exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People."

Just as Germany ostracized the Jewish population and sought to eliminate the assimilation of Jewish individuals with the 'true' German population,  many anti-assimilation groups have formed in Israel in recent years, aiming to ensure Jews don't marry or assimilate with Arabs. Lehava, which is an anti-assimilation group that strongly opposes marriages between Jewish individuals and Muslim individuals as well as Jewish individuals and Christian individuals. Ben-Zion Gopstein, leader of the far-right anto-assimilation group, Lehava, has inspired racist hate speech against Arabs; groups such as this promote ideas such as, "There is no coexistence with cancer," which have been used to vandalize Palestinian schools and in far-right rallies. Zionism has allowed for this hatred to become institutionalized, legitimizing the crimes of the state of Israel in the eyes of its followers.


Though Zionists mount a violent opposition to the rights of Palestinians and have morally ill stances on human rights, it is important to differentiate between Zionists and the Jewish population at large. Many Zionists subscribe to evangelical Christianity and hail from America; these Zionists tend to be more anti-Palestinian that most of Israel's Zionist groups. Palestinians and Arabs must remember that the Jewish community as a whole are not the enemy, but their closest allies having experienced the same systematic oppression that the Palestinians face on a daily basis. Conflating radical Zionists with the Jewish people as a whole is extremely anti-semitic; rather, the Palestinian and Arabic populace must focus on fighting the Zionists who enact state sanctioned violence against the marginalized in order to further their goal of becoming a Jewish ethnostate.

Palestinians march in protest of IsraelCourtesy: The Transnational Institute

There is little doubt that Israel is a Jewish ethnocracy, acting to institutionalize hatred and discrimination against Israel's non-Jewish population in its pursuit of becoming a Jewish  ethnostate. While not all Israeli's support the actions of the state against the Palestinians and Arabs, the are radical Zionist citizens, believing in the Jewish superiority,  and the government act to enforce apartheid-like laws (Hafrada) and the forced removal of Palestinians from their land. One cannot simultaneously condemn the genocide of Germany's Jewish population in the Holcaust, the erasure of Armenians in Turkey, or the apartheid in South Africa but in the same breath blindly defend the violence of Israel against the Palestinians. Israel must be held accountable for its crimes against the Palestinians and Arabs in the region.