During its 400-year Ottoman era, Palestine was inhabited by its own people, Muslim Arabs predominantly but also with significant Christian Arab, Armenian, and Arab and Eastern Jewish populations. They coexisted under an Ottoman system that privileged Muslims legally and ideologically, but also provided Christians and Jews religious and cultural autonomy. Sovereignty was vested in the person of the sultan, not the people. Beginning in the 19th century and under European pressure, the Ottoman state committed itself to the principle of equal citizenship irrespective of religious affiliation, from which a new Ottoman age of cosmopolitanism and coexistence in the Levant emerged.
The impetus to create a modern Jewish state responded not to this dynamic Ottoman reality but to a European one. Zionism was forged in the cities and towns of Eastern and Central Europe, not in the Middle East. Its leaders were European, not Middle Eastern. They were inspired by and reacted to European currents of nationalism, antisemitism, and colonialism. This led them to call for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine under the slogan “land without a people for a people without a land.” The Zionists wanted to replace Ottoman pluralism with a modern ethnoreligious nationalist state. “We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism,” wrote the founding father of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, in 1896. Herzl even wanted the Ottoman sultan to authorize Palestine’s colonization, but the sultan refused.
When Britain occupied Palestine after World War I, it pledged to enable the creation of a “national home” for the Jewish people. Britain did not consult with the native Arabs of Palestine who were the vast majority of the population. It merely stated that their “civil and religious” rights would be protected in a British-occupied Palestine that politically privileged European Jewish Zionism. Britain forced Palestinian Arab natives to accept a massive influx of mostly European Jewish colonists and allowed these colonists to establish segregated Jewish-only educational, labor, paramilitary, and political institutions, thus laying the foundation for a future Jewish state.
Democracy was out of the question so long as the Palestinian Arabs constituted a majority, which they would until 1948. As the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann acknowledged in 1918, “the brutal numbers operate against us.” When Arabs protested peacefully against their colonial condition, they were ignored; when they protested violently, they were harshly suppressed. For the British, coexistence in Palestine meant allowing European Zionism to flourish so that the numbers of Jewish settlers steadily increased while also assuring the Arabs that Zionism did not threaten them despite increasing evidence to the contrary.
Predictably, this model of coexistence failed. After decades of Zionist colonization, and following the Holocaust in Europe, the United Nations partitioned Palestine into two states in November 1947, giving most of the land to the Jewish (and mostly European) minority. The Western-dominated UN rejected an alternative proposal of coexistence in a unitary federal state because this would have precluded the creation of an exclusively Jewish state. The UN understood full well that the Arab majority would pay the price for partition with their lands and villages to be handed over to the Jewish state.
Fighting commenced immediately thereafter in Palestine, leading to the Israeli state’s creation in most of Palestine in 1948. Israeli Jews call this their war of independence, but Palestinians refer to the war as the Nakba (catastrophe) that destroyed Arab Palestinian society. The nascent Israeli state expelled most of the Palestinians from their homes and has barred their return ever since. Palestinians became stateless refugees while European Jews — and other Jews from many parts of the world — were encouraged to become Israeli citizens. Israel occupied the rest of Palestine in 1967 and commenced its overt colonization and Judaization of East Jerusalem, including Sheikh Jarrah.
Colonial Zionism has consecrated itself across the Holy Land. Israel reluctantly granted citizenship to the Palestinian minority that remained on its land despite the Nakba, but it has actively discriminated against this minority in housing, education, employment, land access, and politics in favor of the Jewish majority. Meanwhile, it occupies and colonizes millions of other Palestinians who are not its citizens but whose land it covets. The Israeli state proclaims itself not to be the state of all its citizens and certainly not of its second-class Palestinian citizens, whom it refers to as “Israeli Arabs.” Instead, it describes itself as the state of the “Jewish people,” and in 2018 it openly affirmed that Jews alone have an “exclusive right to national self-determination.” Purely by virtue of their Jewishness, Americans with no connection to historic Palestine can emigrate to Israel and become Israeli citizens; Palestinian-born refugees or exiles with generations of direct connection to Palestine are barred from returning to their ancestral land. My mother, who was born in Jerusalem in 1940, is one of these Palestinians.
In other words, a racist web of unequal coexistence is enforced from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. As the preeminent Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem puts it, “one organizing principle lies at the base of a wide array of Israeli policies: advancing and perpetuating the supremacy of one group — Jews — over another — Palestinians.” The state privileges nearly 7,000,000 Jewish citizens. In addition to the roughly 1,900,000 second-class Palestinian citizens of Israel, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians reside in East Jerusalem, living in constant fear of having their residency permits revoked. Palestinians of East Jerusalem are rarely granted permits to build new housing, whereas Jewish Israelis are actively encouraged to colonize the city. The nearly 3,000,000 Palestinians in the West Bank suffer under direct or indirect Israeli military occupation. They are terrorized by Jewish settlers and denied the most basic rights, such as freedom of movement, the protections of citizenship, and the due process of equal law, as attested to by recent human rights reports and illustrated by the powerful recent short film The Present. Gaza is essentially an open-air prison in which 2,000,000 Palestinians — 42 percent of whom are under age 14 — are crammed together in inhumane conditions and under perpetual siege. Taken as a whole, this is an unsustainable form of coexistence that inevitably generates resistance; it is apartheid.
Coexistence is never a neutral term. For it to be recuperated as a term of humanity as opposed to propaganda, the reality on the ground in Palestine must change. This starts by acknowledging the ruinous nature of an exclusive ethnoreligious state and ends by recreating Israel and Palestine as a state for all its citizens and refugees.
Ussama Makdisi is a professor of history and the Arab-American Educational Foundation chair of Arab studies at Rice University and is the author of Age of Coexistence (2019).
Banner image: "Protest for palestine Tunis Kassba 17-05-2021 By Brahim Guedich-3667" by Brahim Guedich is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped.