The silencing of the Palestinian story is nothing new. In 1950s Britain, a few years after Israel was established, even the name Palestine went out of use. When asked as a child where I came from, people would think I’d said Pakistan.
I remember how frustrating it was that no one wanted to hear our story, as if we had invented it. “It’s the land of the Jews,” I was repeatedly told. “The Arabs are only squatters on it.” Israel’s stunning victory in the 1967 war compounded these attitudes, and the Zionist narrative of Israel’s moral right to exist in the Jewish people’s “ancestral land” became supreme. Constantly made to understand we were second-class human beings with no valid right to “someone else’s country” was demoralising and intimidating.
It took me years to understand these distortions of history as expressions of a deep, unspoken anti-Palestinian racism. Its underlying premise is that where Palestine is concerned, the rights of Palestinians are always inferior to those of Jewish people. Such racist views long predated the creation of Israel and were based on a denial of Palestinian existence in the country. As soon as the Zionists chose Palestine to be the Jewish state, at the end of the 19th century, organised attempts were made to write its Arab inhabitants out of history.
Twenty years before that, the English were already peddling the myth of an empty Palestine. In 1875 Lord Shaftesbury, a committed, well-connected Christian Zionist, saw Greater Syria, of which Palestine formed part, as a “country without a nation”. This description set the scene for the early Zionist narrative of Palestine as “a land without people for a people without land”, a homeland waiting to be “redeemed” by the Jews in exile. Zionist maps of the time depict the same thing, and the idea of an empty land gained wide currency. The aim then, as now, was to disappear the indigenous Palestinians from the landscape, and deny them their rights to the land.
This pernicious narrative was not so much a matter of demography, since any visitor to Palestine could easily disprove it, but of politics. At the time of Britain’s conquest of Palestine, the native population was viewed not as absent but as of no account. The 1917 Balfour declaration, which acknowledged Zionism’s claim to establish a “Jewish national home” in Palestine, was drawn up with that assumption.
As Arthur Balfour said in 1919: “In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country”, because Zionism had a claim “of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land”.
This colonial disdain of “natives” was commonplace at the time. As colonies gained their freedom, it began to recede, but not in the case of Palestine. Ignoring the Palestinian voice and presence, as Balfour had done, became the norm. I know first-hand the truth of that in my lifelong struggle to prove the validity of my history, and to counter the racist delegitimisation of Palestinian victimhood and suffering. Such issues became the stuff of the many recent Palestinian memoirs written for western audiences.
Things began to improve in the 1980s and 90s, when Palestinians acquired a media presence, and their writings increasingly appeared in print. Today, the situation is vastly different. The establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1964, and the intifadas of 1987 and 2000, were events that returned Palestine to the international stage. The 1993 Oslo agreement, despite its many flaws, gave the Palestine cause diplomatic weight. Solidarity movements have sprung up in many western countries, and a strengthening boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign (BDS) has focused attention on Israel’s maltreatment of Palestinians.
Yet the racism has not gone. The recent row over antisemitism in the Labour party, and the departure of its humiliated previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn, should be seen in that light. His political destruction by what, in my view, was a cynical campaign designed to bring him down, has forced us yet again to subscribe to a damaging hierarchy of suffering. It has also obscured the racism practised against Palestinians for more than a century.
Without it, Israel would never have existed or thrived. It is that which makes possible the west’s unabashed support for what is an apartheid state, with no respect for international law, and that shields it from sanction for its crimes.
What else but anti-Palestinian racism explains western inaction in the face of the human rights abuses meted out daily to Palestinians under Israel’s rule: the lethal siege of Gaza, which has been brutally bombarded – again – in front of the eyes of the world; the blatant land theft since 1967 of 60% of the occupied West Bank for its 600,000 settlers; the army’s relentless assaults on and imprisonment of Palestinians and their children throughout the occupied territories.
Racism is a well-documented feature of Israel’s conduct towards its Arab citizens. It permeates every level of Israeli society: housing, social life, education, immigration rights, the legal system and more. Anti-Arab, even anti-Mizrahi (Jews of Middle-Eastern origin) discrimination was so widespread in 2014 that the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, was moved to declare: “Israeli society is sick. It is our duty to treat this disease.”
In Britain the space that had briefly opened for the Palestinian narrative is shrinking. New attempts at deliberately silencing the Palestinian voice are in train, using the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The UK government and 28 other countries have adopted the IHRA definition, and the US may incorporate it into federal law. Its coercive adoption by British universities, although a survey conducted last September suggested that only 29 out of 133 had adopted it, has already had a chilling effect on free speech about the Palestinian issue.
If the seemingly benign two-state solution to the conflict, so beloved by western governments, had succeeded it would have been the subtlest expression of this lingering racism. Its proposal is for an independent Palestinian state on the post-1967 territories; that would, at best, apportion Palestine’s native people 22% of their original homeland, leaving the other 78% to Israel.
Irrespective of whether this is even feasible today, with more than 200 Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem breaking up the land’s contiguity, the formulation is clearly unequal. Only the insignificant “natives” of Balfour’s worldview could have been expected to accept this downgrading of their rights. That many Palestinians have done so is based not on the justice of the proposal, but on pragmatism: the power imbalance between the two sides is such that a small state is the most Palestinians are likely to get.
It is no way to solve the conflict. A lasting resolution must be based on justice and can only come from a negotiation between genuine equals. And that cannot happen unless the racism that has blighted Palestinian lives, and protected Israel and its supporters from retribution, is exposed and tackled head on.
Ghada Karmi is a Palestinian writer. She has published two memoirs of Palestine