Is the Arab-Israeli conflict about settler colonialism and apartheid?

A few students who protested an event at the CUNY Graduate Center seem to think so. 

On Dec. 8, the students, affiliated with CUNY4Palestine and Not in Our Name CUNY, two student organizations in the City University of New York (CUNY) system, disrupted an event entitled “A Conversation on the Language of the Israeli-Palestine Conflict,” chanting that the Arab-Israeli conflict is about “settler colonialism” and “apartheid.”

Do these claims hold out?

The first claim, that the conflict is about settler colonialism, is not rooted in fact. Jews have continuously inhabited the land west of the Jordan for over 3,000 thousand years, and Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, exiled from the land by invaders, all share common Levantine ancestry — as evidenced by modern genetics — dating back thousands of years.

Additionally, the archaeological record of Jewish settlement west of the Jordan dates back to the 13th century BCE and is subsequently supported by additional archaeological evidence from the ancient and Byzantine periods, from literary sources from the classical era through more recent times, and in Jewish texts like Tanach, the Mishnah and Talmud Yerushalmi

Claiming that Israelis are settler colonialists disregards historical and scientific evidence and is false. Furthermore, that very charge – that Israel is a racist endeavor and Israelis are settler colonialists, is considered antisemitic by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which is adopted by 39 countries, including the United States. (For the record, the groups that took credit for the disruptions oppose IHRA, likely to avoid implicating themselves)

As for the apartheid claim against Israel – there is a definition for apartheid: systemic segregation and discrimination based on race, as practiced in 20th-century South Africa.

There is no race-based systemic discrimination in Israel. Neither is their systemic anti-Arab discrimination. Muslim Arabs serve on the Supreme Court and in the Knesset. Ethiopian Jews also serve in the Knesset, as well as in the IDF. Druze – a minority group mostly based in Israel, Lebanon and Syria – hold positions in the political, public and military spheres.

That’s not to say Israel is a perfect country immune from criticism; the country, like many others, has plenty of issues remaining to be solved. But apartheid is not one of them. Calling the only country in the Middle East and North Africa and one of three countries in continental Asia (joining South Korea and Mongolia) termed as “free” by Freedom House an apartheid state is detrimental to the global state of democracy, which is backsliding in the face of rising authoritarianism.

The groups that took credit for the disruptions, CUNY4Palestine and Not in Our Name CUNY have a history of extremism. They oppose IHRA, accuse Israel of genocide, have lauded the work of the antisemitic mapping project, oppose “dialogue” and want to rid CUNY of Zionism.

Although Not in Our Name CUNY asserts itself to be Jewish, it has a history of extremist rhetoric that appears to be even more egregious than CUNY4Palestine. The group calls for the effective end of the “illegitimate” state of Israel by demanding Israel “return of all land prior to 1948,” accuses Israel of funding international Nazi groups, opposes Jewish groups like Hillel and wants to make Jewish students “unlearn Zionism,” which it defines as a 150-year-old ideology inspired by white supremacy, colonialism and ethnic nationalism.

Besides feeding the “big lie” of antisemitism, the group has a fundamental lack of understanding of Zionism and Judaism’s relationship with the holy land. The core tenets of Zionism, even if one disagrees with more modern social movements that manifest Zionism, are present in the Torah. This is something Rav Hershel Schachter, Rosh Yeshiva of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (REITS) here at YU, has discussed.

Additionally, of all the mitzvot in the Torah that can be fulfilled today, 37 can only be fulfilled in the biblical land of Israel, including agricultural mitzvot like Shmita and Orlah and the mitzvah of yishuv b’eretz yisrael, living in the biblical land of Israel (which I’m sure this group would be shocked to hear exists).

Not in Our Name CUNY’s status as being Jewish does not excuse their calls for the destruction of the Third Jewish Commonwealth, just as Jewish heritage did not excuse Assyrian officer Ravshakeh’s call for the destruction of the First Jewish Commonwealth in 701 BCE, and just as it didn’t excuse Roman General Tiberius Julius Alexander’s role in the destruction of the Second Jewish Commonwealth in 70 CE.

Being born Jewish does not give one the right to justify antisemitism, especially when they lack a basic understanding of Judaism or Jewish history, and instead engage in activity that is Judeophobic.

CUNY4Palestine and Not In Our Name CUNY’s views, which include kicking off-campus students and university presidents who don’t espouse their extremist rhetoric, are antisemitic and unacceptable, especially in an era of rising antisemitism. Such views, as Mayor Adams and President Biden have made clear, are not tolerated in this city and have no place in this country; likewise, it has no place in CUNY.

A slightly edited version of this article was first published in the YU Commentator.

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