On Monday afternoon, Professor Ali Abunimah of the University of Chicago delivered a lecture on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, arguing that Israel has enacted ethnic cleansing and a system of apartheid against Palestinians. Sponsored by Students Against the Occupation and Speak for Peace, Abunimah proposed a one-state solution to the conflict.
Abunimah began the lecture by stating that it was more important to begin with the basic facts of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, instead of unwinding hundreds of years of “Who came first, who deserves it more.”
Abunimah discussed the immense diversity that existed among Jewish, Muslim, and Christian populations living in Israel. Though the map of Israel is divided into three even sections- Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip- these divisions don’t reflect the reality of the situation. “All of our identities are constructed from different strands.” he said. In Israel, there are Arab Jews and Jews from Ethiopia, as well as Israeli Arabs. “We tend to think of Jews in Israel as European Jews because they are the ruling class, but there is tremendous diversity across ethnic groups, classes, regions, and villages.” Abunimah does not believe in a two-state solution because it requires one to divide the population in Israel into two neat categories that are not reflective of reality.
According to Abunimah, the the problem of the Israeli Zionist movement was that the movement sought to take a country where the vast majority of the population is not Jewish, and transform it into an enclave for Jews. “The result has been pretty much catastrophic.” he said. Abunimah claimed Abunimah says that the Israelis refer to the Palestinians as a demographic threat, and has been able to maintain a Jewish majority by engaging in “ethnic cleansing, by not allowing Palestinians to return to their homeland, by creating conditions which require Palestinians to leave, and bringing Jewish people from around the world to forestall the day when Palestinians become a majority again.”
Abunimah likened the situation to far-right fringes in states like California and Texas who feel that the growing Latino population is a demographic threat. “If Texas decided that it had the right to be a ‘white’ state, what measures would we accept for them to maintain that status? Expulsion? Selective birth control? Imposing economic sanctions on non-whites so that it is too difficult to live in Texas? Prohibit non-Whites who’ve left Texas from coming back?” he asked. Abunimah said that it was very difficult to imagine those things happening in the 21st century “Yet everything I have said is absolutely true about the state of Israel. Israel does not exist for its citizens, but for only one ethnic group.”
Abunimah termed the military rule in Gaza and the West Bank as apartheid, which he defined in the Q+A as “having different laws for different people in the same state.” He acknowledged that Israel allows its Palestinian citizens to vote, but said that this right is meaningless. “Israeli politicians boast that Palestinians can vote, but the act of voting doesn’t mean that it will count, or that it will result in political power.” He pointed to the fact that, though Israel has been in existence for 60 years, the only non-Jewish Palestinian to be put into office is a cabinet minister appointed this year. Abunimah says that there is disparity on every level- funding, education, health, public facilities, development projects. “A whole series of laws exist which are designed to discriminate between citizens who have ‘special and better rights’ and those who do not.” He made reference to the Israel law of entry which will allow any person identifying as Jewish – “including a tribesman from the Andes in Peru” – to settle in Israel and be given housing, whereas a person born in the country – “such as my mother” forced out in 1948 – is not allowed to return to visit, let alone live there. Abunimah claimed that if this was an issue of race, black or white, there would be no debate; it would immediately be termed apartheid. But once it’s framed as “one group of people have special rights because of religion, people back away from calling it by its name.”
However, Abunimah does not believe the situation is unique or without hope. ” This squalid conflict of land and power and who has rights is analogous to other colonial situations around the world, there is nothing special or different about it in that sense.” He believed the closest analogies come from South Africa and Northern Ireland. Both are historically similar- a settler community who have colonized a land, and have claimed themselves as indigenous people with a God-given right to be there. He believes that Zionists see themselves very much in the same way as the Afrikaans saw themselves in South Africa, as a special chosen, put-upon people who had found their corner of safety. “There is the same kind of dynamic- settler v. native discourse, Protestant v. Catholic conflict, which is much more bitter in Ireland, than anything in terms of Muslims and Jews in Palestine.”
But despite the bitter resentment among Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Abunimah sees hope in the fact that the two groups have began to make efforts to form some kind of coalition government. “They aren’t doing it out of love. They did it after trying everything else. Fighting, denying the rights and presence of others, a 30 year long war– only after trying everything else did they realize that the only way to have a decent, dignified life is to think of all people, not just ‘my tribe, my group.'” Abunimah believes the same thing had to happen in South Africa. He allowed that the transformation wasn’t not easy, nor perfect, nor complete. “Declaring an end to political conflict does not mean you have arrived. It means the beginning of a new struggle.”
Abunimah explained in the Q+A why he believed the two state solution could not work. “I think the two state solution is based on a fantasy of hermetic separation. That human beings can be categories, that everyone is only one thing, either Israeli or Palestinian. Once you can organize them neatly you can separate them.” However, these neat categories do not reflect the true complexities of national identity. Abunimah also said that there is no evidence that the country is partitionable. “Everyone says 60-70% of Israelis favor withdrawal. But no one can get a majority to agree on what those borders can be.”
Ultimately, Abunimah concluded by saying “There isn’t going to be a Palestinian state, and there isn’t going to be a Jewish state with this ethnic cleansing and apartheid. We need to think of a new solution, that accounts for all people, whether native or settlers or immigrants, can have a dignified and peaceful life.”