Photo: Israel Government Press Office/Wikimedia Commons
Noura Erakat, assistant professor at George Mason University, claims in her new book “Justice for Some: The Question of Palestine,” that international law operates under the settler-colonial framework, and as a result has historically favored the State of Israel. According to Erakat:
International law can be accurately and fairly described as a derivative of a colonial order, and therefore structurally detrimental to former colonies, peoples still under colonial domination, and individuals who lack nationality or who, like refugees, have been forcibly removed from their state and can no longer invoke its protection. (p. 7)
Erakat’s framing of international law as a settler-colonial endeavor, and her revisionist and inaccurate analysis of the Middle East, is clearly intended to steer readers to her stated conclusion:
This book will demonstrate how these alternative models have permitted the ongoing settler-colonial elimination of Palestinians through removal, dispossession, assimilation, and containment, within Israel as well as the territories, by making them nonexistent in the language of the law. (p. 17)
Do Erakat’s claims have any weight? Is she correct that international law is biased in favor of Israel and that it should not protect the Jewish right to self-determination? Facts and history argue no on all counts, as outlined below:
Claim: Jews are colonialists
At the start of her book, Erekat proposes the question: “Do Jews have a right to self-determination in a land in which they did not reside in but settle?”
But, of course, Jews did reside, and contrary to Erekat it was the Muslims who invaded and settled. With the expulsion of Jews by the Roman Empire in the year 70 AD, the native population was forced to endure a known Roman tactic, dispersion. Nonetheless, many Jews remained on their homeland. It was this population that participated in the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-136 AD), the third and final war between the Jewish people and the Roman Empire.
In 638, Caliph Omar conquered Jerusalem from the Byzantines, launching Muslim rule over the territory. As stated above, it was the Muslims who came as settler-colonialists, not the Jews. While Jews and Christians were considered second class citizens under Muslim rule, the amount of direct persecution decreased substantially. During this time, a large and prominent rabbinic academy was formed in Tiberius (and later moved to Ramle).
On June 7th, 1099 the Crusades reached Jerusalem. History provides detailed accounts of Jewish and Muslim residents of the city fighting together before seeking refuge in Jerusalem’s synagogues. While the First Crusade greatly diminished the Jewish centers of life in Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Ramleh, Jewish communities in the Galilee went unscathed.
In 1187, Saladin marched against the Crusaders and recaptured Jerusalem. Under Saladin’s rule, the Jewish community experienced considerable growth, and the revival of Jerusalem’s Jewish community led to an increase in Jewish immigration and religious pilgrimages. In 1211, over 300 prominent rabbis are reported to have moved from England and France to Jerusalem and were received by Saladin’s brother. These rabbis would be allowed to build synagogues and colleges with the intent of starting a wave of Jewish immigration back to Palestine.
The origin of the name Palestine should also be noted here, because it further illustrates the falsehoods embedded in Erakat’s deceptive history. The word Palestine refers to the Philistines, the ancient enemy of the Jews who had long disappeared from history, and the Romans renamed the country after the Philistines in retaliation for the Jewish revolts.
In 1250, the Mamluk Era began in Palestine. Extensive records indicate a series of discriminatory attacks against the Jewish communities in Jerusalem. For example, in 1428 a massive tax was imposed solely on the Jewish community in Jerusalem and in 1474, Muslims destroyed an old synagogue in Jerusalem and demanded bribes from Jewish residents and business in the city.
As the Ottoman Empire took control of the land in 1517, records indicate that there were nearly 10,000 Jews living in the city of Tzfat. By 1549, there were at least a dozen Jewish communities in the Galilee, and by the early 1800’s two-thirds of Tiberias’ population was Jewish. By the latter part of the 17th century, Jerusalem’s Jewish population reached an astounding 10,000.
Contrary to Erakat’s claims, then, a significant number of Jewish communities resided in the land centuries before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
Claim: The Palestinian leadership rejected partition in 1937 because the Peel Commission designated Transjordan as the proposed Arab state.
In her book, Ms. Erakat states:
Zionists rejected the Peel Commission’s proposal for partition but not the concept of partition itself. Palestinians unequivocally rejected partition, not least because its designated Transjordan as the sovereign of the proposed Arab state, and demanded full independence. (p. 25)
The Peel Commission of 1937 was initiated as a response to the so-called Great Arab Revolt (1936-1939). The Revolt, orchestrated by the Grand Mufti Hajj Amin Al-Husseini, was used to pursue the grand strategy of the newly formed Palestinian national movement, which sought to restrict Jewish immigration to the British Mandate of Palestine. As a response, Britain decided to create the Peel Commission for the purposes of finding a political alternative to the violent status-quo.
After a demographic and political analysis, the Peel Commission recommended partition of the land. It gave the Jewish population a significantly smaller portion of the territory compared to the prospective Palestinian State. While there are recorded disagreements within the Jewish leadership as to how to respond to the Peel Commission, it ultimately agreed on the concept of partition. The Palestinian leadership, almost unanimously, rejected the Peel Commission’s recommendation as well as the concept of partition. While it is possible that one of the motives behind the Palestinian leadership’s rejection could be attributed to the plan’s call for Transjordan to become the sovereign, proposed Arab state, Erakat conveniently omits the guiding factor: opposition to the re-establishment of a Jewish state.
From the Mufti’s protests against the Balfour Declaration in 1937 to his pleading with German Nazi officials to reduce Jewish immigration to the Mandate of Palestine, Haj Amin Al-Husseini built his political influence in the Arab world based on his calls for violence against Jews. In addition, to the Great Arab Revolt, Husseini was also responsible for preventing the escape of thousands of Romanian, Bulgarian, and Hungarian Jews from Hitler’s Europe.
As the father of Palestinian nationalism and as one of the leading political figures in the region, Haj Amin Al-Husseini has a long record of preaching ethnic cleansing of and murder of the Jews: “Arise, o sons of Arabia. Fight for your sacred rights. Slaughter Jews wherever you find them. Their spilled blood pleases Allah, our history and religion. That will save our honor.”
The Mufti’s alliance with the Nazis, his presence in Germany throughout the war, and his fierce opposition to any Jewish presence in the Mandate of Palestine is conveniently omitted by Erakat. Her attempt to whitewash the history of Palestinian rejectionist attitudes towards peace with a Jewish state, and the shared responsibility of the Palestinian movement for the Holocaust speaks volumes about her unreliability as a scholar.
Claim: Zionist Jews perpetuated antisemitism in Europe
In her book, Ms. Erakat claims:
Rather than challenge the disfiguring tropes that excluded Jews in Europe, political Zionism – the movement whose genesis Herzl oversaw – internalized and reproduced them. Herzl came to believe that only the establishment of a Jewish state would transform the exilic Jew and render him eligible for acceptance within Europe. (p. 27)
For the purposes of clarity, let’s break this down into three inaccurate and antisemitic accusations.
- The first accusation is that Herzl and the Zionist movement did not try or try hard enough to defeat antisemitism in Europe.
The ridiculous suggestion that Jews had the possibility or even the responsibility of redressing Europe’s antisemitism and begging for acceptance is nothing more than victim-blaming and is, in and of itself, antisemitic.
- The second accusation is that Herzl shaped Zionism with the same discriminatory beliefs held by the religious and political institutions in Europe towards Jews.
Why is this absurd? Because if Zionism is nothing more than the Jewish right to self-determination in their native homeland, then Ms. Erakat is proposing that the simple notion of self-determination for Jews is discriminatory against Jews. Is it discriminatory for Egyptians to have pursued self-determination? How about Mexicans who fought for their right to self-determination? Are these nationalistic movements self-discriminatory by their very nature? Jewish people being held to a different standard on such a matter – that is a clear practice of antisemitism.
- The last accusation is based on the false suggestion that the guiding motivation behind the establishment of a Jewish state was to render Jews eligible for acceptance in Europe.
To suggest that the Zionist movement’s motivation was based on seeking acceptance into European affairs is inaccurate and subtly suggests that Jewish connection to the land was an irrelevant factor in the decision to build a Jewish state in the Holy Land. This is not a coincidence; Erakat seeks to diminish or remain quiet on the issue of Jewish nativity and the historical bond of the Jewish people to the land.
As Herzl famously wrote:
“Some may say we ought not to bring up new differences between people; we ought not to raise new borders, we should rather make the old ones disappear. But men who think in this way are endearing dreamers; and the idea of a native land will still flourish when the dust of their bones will have vanished tracelessly in the winds.”- Der Judenstaat [The Jewish State], 1896
Claim: Zionism is colonialism
Erakat also claims in her book that:
For Herzl and other European Zionists this necessity was not controversial nor particularly cruel, as colonialism had yet to be discredited as an oppressive and immoral system of governance. The modus operandi of the time, whereby Europeans subjugated non-Europeans, was fundamental in shaping Zionist ambitions. (p. 28)
The most effective way of disproving this antisemitic trope is by looking at the simple definition of colonialism, put forth by the Collins English Dictionary:
Colonialism is the practice by which a powerful country directly controls less powerful countries and uses their resources to increase its own power and wealth.
Let’s take a closer look and see if the Zionist movement fulfilled this definition.
The Zionist movement did not acquire control over another country. Three decades prior to World War I, when the land was held by the Ottoman Empire, Jewish immigration was legal and welcomed. In 1917, when the British won a decisive victory against the Ottoman Empire, British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour in the name of the British government published the Balfour Declaration:
His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
Following the Ottoman Empire’s fall at the conclusion of WWI, the San Remo Conference of April 24, 1920, assigned administrative responsibility of Palestine to Great Britain. At San Remo, Britain’s commitment to the Balfour Declaration was reaffirmed with the condition that:
…nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country…
The agreements reached during the San Remo Conference would be later adopted and confirmed by the Council of the League of Nations on July 24, 1922.
In 1948, the State of Israel came into being in accordance with international law. Neighboring Arab states including Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq also came about through the same Mandate process. But according to Erekat they must also be colonial settler states.
Furthermore, there is no historical basis for Erakat’s implicit accusation of Jewish immigrants’ subjugation of the non-Jewish population in the Mandate of Palestine. In fact, from 1922-1940, the Arab population in the Mandate of Palestine rose by nearly 120%. This growth was attributed to different factors. According to a 1937 report by the British Peel Commission:
During 1922 through 1931, the increase of Arab population in the mixed-towns (including many Arab immigrants) of Haifa, Jaffa and Jerusalem was 86%, 62% and 37% respectively, while in purely Arab towns (very few Arab migrants) such as Nablus and Hebron it was only 7% and a decrease of 2 percent in Gaza.
This could be credited to the higher standards of living that Jewish immigrants had made possible. Jews living in the Mandate of Palestine had been able to drain malarial swamps and brought improved sanitation and health care to the region. The Muslim infant mortality rate fell from 201 per thousand in 1925 to 94 per thousand in 1945. Life expectancy rose from 37 years in 1926 to 49 by 1943 (Avineri p. 264).
Jewish immigration cultivated and developed the land. Zionism, indisputably, raised the standards of living offered in the Mandate of Palestine for both Jews and non-Jews alike.
This renders Erakat’s implicit accusation of Zionism being a “colonialist power,” as baseless.
Israel’s claim that the preemptive attack in the Six-Day War was defensive is up for debate.
In her book, Ms. Erakat attempts to question Israel’s motive for preemptively striking the Egyptian air force on June 5th, 1967 by claiming:
…whether the attack was preemptively defensive, or an act of aggression can be debated… (p. 67)
While the Egypt’s President Nasser continued to make speeches threatening war and the elimination of the Jewish State, Arab terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians continued to grow. In 1965 alone 35 raids were carried out against Israel and in 1966 the number increased to 41. On May 15, 1967, Egyptian troops expelled the UN Emergency Force that was stationed in the Sinai in 1956 and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships – blockading an international waterway is a casus belli, and act of war, and was considered so at the time. Thus, Egypt had already started the war, even before a shot was fired.
Two days after the UN peacekeepers were dismissed, the Voice of Arabs [Egyptian state radio] proclaimed:
As of today, there no longer exists an international emergency force to protect Israel. We shall exercise patience no more. We shall not complain any more to the UN about Israel. The sole method we shall apply against Israel is total war, which will result in the extermination of Zionist existence.
The Syrian government did not hesitate to follow Egypt’s lead and Defense Minister Hafez Assad declared:
Our forces are now entirely ready not only to repulse the aggression but to initiate the act of liberation itself, and to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland. The Syrian army, with its finger on the trigger, is united…I, as a military man, believe that the time has come to enter into the battle of annihilation.
Egypt’s initiation of hostilities and violation of international law forced Israel to preemptively strike Egypt’s air force. After Israel lost 1% of its entire population in the 1948 Independence War while repelling Arab invaders, the consequences of an all-out war with her Arab neighbors were well understood. Israel’s decision to preemptively strike the Egyptian air force was a strategic and defensive maneuver against the growing Arab threat of invasion.
Israel was responsible for the First Intifada in 1987.
In her book, Erakat claims:
These lethal confrontations unfolded in the twentieth year of Israel’s military occupation and in the context of mounting confrontations between Palestinians and the Israeli army across the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Israel’s attempts to forcefully quell the protests backfired. The clashes across both territories escalated, culminating in a sustained grassroots uprising, known as the intifada. (p. 135)
In order to establish the paradigm that the Palestinian people were subjected to Israeli violence, Erakat, again, chooses to revise history. The Palestinian leadership’s false charges of Israeli atrocities helped instigate the intifada. On December 6, 1987, an Israeli was stabbed to death while shopping in Gaza. One day later, four residents of the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza were killed in a traffic accident. Rumors that the four had been killed by Israelis as a deliberate act of revenge began to spread among the Palestinians. Mass rioting broke out in Jabalya on the morning of December 9, in which a 17-year-old youth was killed by an Israeli soldier after throwing a Molotov cocktail at an army patrol. This soon sparked a wave of unrest that engulfed the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem.
The intifada was violent from the start. During the first four years of the uprising, more than 3,600 Molotov cocktail attacks, 100 hand grenade attacks and 600 assaults with guns or explosives were reported by the Israel Defense Forces. The violence was directed at soldiers and civilians alike. During this period, 16 Israeli civilians and 11 soldiers were killed by Palestinians in the territories, and more than 1,400 Israeli civilians and 1,700 Israeli soldiers were injured. Approximately 1,100 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops.
Throughout the intifada, the PLO played a lead role in orchestrating the violence, and Jews were not the only victims. In fact, as the intifada waned around the time of the Gulf War in 1991, the number of Arabs killed for political and other reasons by Palestinian death squads exceeded the number killed in clashes with Israeli troops.
PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat defended the killing of Arabs deemed to be “collaborating with Israel.” He delegated the authority to carry out executions to the intifada leadership. After the murders, the local PLO death squad would send the file on the case to the PLO.
Palestinian victims of these death squads were stabbed, hacked with axes, shot, clubbed and burned with acid. The justifications offered for the killings varied. In some instances, being employed by Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank and Gaza was reason enough; in others, contact with Jews warranted a death sentence. Accusations of “collaboration” with Israel were sometimes used as a pretext for acts of personal vengeance. Women deemed to have behaved “immorally” were also among the victims.
Throughout Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine, Noura Erakat argues that law is politics, and its meaning and application depend on the political intervention of states and people alike. Within the law, change is possible. However, whatever change of law is sought should be done through an objective analysis of historical truths. Erakat’s attempts to challenge the legal status-quo of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are based on her replacement of historical facts with her own creative fictions. Unfortunately, Erakat’s book will likely find its way to many classrooms and will often be unaccompanied by the challenge of objective accounts. The colonialist narrative that she champions is a gross misrepresentation of the historical record and falls apart under serious inquiry.
Contributed by CAMERA’s campus advisor and strategic planner Yoni Michanie.
Verlin, Jerome. Israel 3000 Years: the Saga of the Jew’s Three Millennia Palestine Presence. Pavilion Press, 2010.
Bard, Mitchell Geoffrey. Myths and Facts: a Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict. American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2017.
“Jewish Virtual Library.” Jewish Virtual Library, www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/.
Erakat, Noura. Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine. Stanford University Press., 2019