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The Niggerization of Palestine

From Black Agenda Report 

by Jonathan Scott

“What do you call a Black man with a PhD? Nigger.” - Malcolm X

The situation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza has become so bad that even the pro-Israeli New York Times is reporting on some of the more revolting developments.

For instance, on October 11 the Times ran an article titled “Israel Bars New Palestinian Students From Its Universities, Citing Concern Over Security,” and in September it had published a “human interest” piece profiling the long struggle of Palestinian community leader Sami Bahour to gain a residency permit in Ramallah, the place where he has lived and worked for the past 15 years (“Israeli Visa Policy Traps Thousands of Palestinians in a Legal Quandary,” 9/18/06). In the latter piece the Times reported that, “Over the past six years, more than 70,000 people, a vast majority of them of Palestinian descent, have applied without success to immigrate to the West Bank and Gaza.”

“Even the pro-Israeli New York Times is reporting on some of the more revolting developments.

In the former article the Times notes that the Israeli Army has just imposed an “outright ban” on all Palestinian students who wish to study at Israeli universities, even if the student has been already accepted into a doctoral program, which is the case of Sawsan Salameh, a Palestinian woman from the West Bank who recently earned a full scholarship from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to begin a doctorate in theoretical chemistry. Instead of beginning her PhD studies in this fall semester, she is tied up with lawyers who are preparing her case for the Israel Supreme Court.

The Times here has reached the farthest limits of permissible discourse on the Israeli military occupation of Palestine, the longest colonial occupation in modern history and one that is impossible without the $8 billion in unconditional U.S. aid that flows annually to Israel. The occupation costs Israel $12 billion per year and would become immediately insupportable were the massive U.S. aid package suspended for even a month or two (80 percent of all U.S. foreign aid goes to Israel). Thus it's unlikely that the Times will follow up these two stories with the real story behind them, namely why it is that there exists not a single PhD program in any of the eight major Palestinian universities, in spite of the fact that Palestinians are among the most well educated people on earth.  

The underlying issue, as is always the case with Palestine, is how Americans might respond politically if they came to know that a significant portion of their tax dollars is funding the most brutal system of racial oppression the world has seen since American Jim Crow and apartheid in South Africa. The thousands of dedicated Palestine solidarity activists across the U.S. work under the assumption that once the basic facts of Israeli racial oppression against the Palestinians are established, vividly and for the political education of the majority of Americans, organized opposition to the 60-year old U.S. pro-Israel policy will spring to life, leading finally to a just solution of what's called euphemistically in the West “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The Israel Lobby works with this same assumption, evidenced by their vicious attacks on anybody who dares call the Israeli occupation racist, or who merely points out the apartheid character of its new 700 kilometer segregation wall, whose “major aim,” as the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, B'Tselem, has put it, is “to build the Barrier east of as many settlements as possible, to make it easier to annex them into Israel.” As we know, merely naming properly the thousands of well paid pro-Israeli lawyers, academics, and media pundits and organized political lobbyists, whose sole objective is to suppress this kind of information in the West, will get you labeled “anti-Semitic,” as the liberal, establishment scholars Walt and Mearsheimer recently learned.

Yet, American dissent against the Israeli occupation has tended to avoid the obvious “niggerization” process in Palestine. In this way, what Edward Said referred to as “the last taboo in American politics,” that is, any discussion of Israel as an imperialist power in aggressive pursuit of regional military and economic domination, needs to be qualified, for in the aftermath of the Israeli Air Force's annihilation of Lebanon this kind of discussion is beginning to happen. What's not happening, though, is a discussion of the racial character of Israeli imperialism against the Arab nations, beginning of course with the Palestinian nation.

“American dissent against the Israeli occupation has tended to avoid the obvious 'niggerization' process in Palestine.”

The parallel between the nature of Israel's establishment in 1948 and the Anglo-American extermination of the indigenous population, the Native Americans, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is clear and many Palestinian scholars have always stressed it. In 1948 Israeli Zionists executed a genocidal war against the Palestinians, the style of which would have made Joseph Conrad nod in instant recognition. Recall his description in Heart of Darkness of the murderous British imperialism let loose in the Congo: “They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force - nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale.”

More than 800,000 Palestinians, or 80 percent of the indigenous population, were forcibly expelled from their land and the ripest parts of it, the beautiful and bustling port cities of Haifa, Jaffa, and Akka, immediately confiscated by Israeli Zionists and set aside for Jews only. Palestinians had fled in horror after having either witnessed first-hand the massacre of fellow townspeople and villagers or heard the stories of the hundreds of neighboring towns and villages razed to ground by Zionist militias, who murdered everyone refusing to abandon their homes.

Many works of Palestinian historiography are available that document these basic facts, and there are several classic works of Israeli historiography that do the same, which came out of the 1980s period in which a great deal of declassified material was released by Israel. See in particular Rosemary Sayigh's Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries and Nur Masalha's Expulsion of the Palestinians; for the Israeli accounts, see Benny Morris's The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem and Simha Flapan's The Birth of Israel. These Israeli scholars use the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe the establishment of Israel and its dispossession of the Palestinians. By the logic of the Israel Lobby, these Jewish scholars are guilty of “anti-Semitism” and worse are “self-hating Jews,” even though both scholars are actually staunch Zionists.  

In fact, the original Zionist idea was to reserve the land for European Jews only, modeled after the well established pattern of nineteenth-century European racialist colonialism in Asia and Africa, but this proved to be a very difficult task as the majority of European and Euro-American Jewry then preferred, and continues to prefer today, the life of a Manhattan or London Zionist to that of an actual Jewish colonial-settler on occupied Arab land. Consequently, the majority of Israeli society is comprised of Arab Jews, mainly from Iraq, and 20 percent is Palestinian. In Israeli public discourse, these facts are referred to openly as “the demographic problem.”

Any “demographic problem” is completely racial: it presupposes the existence of two distinct types of human being, one deserving full civil rights and social privileges and the other an aggravating nuisance that must be got rid of, because this type is merely pretending to be human no matter how much education, property, or eloquence the person possesses. This is the hallmark of the “niggerization” process.

“There is a startling abundance of empirical evidence documenting Israel's 'niggerization' process.”

There is a startling abundance of empirical evidence documenting Israel's “niggerization” of the Palestinians, from the various studies conducted by international human rights organizations to local Palestinian and Israeli monitoring groups, who document meticulously everything from daily torture in Israeli prisons, water theft and house demolitions, to racial profiling, harassment and physical assault at military checkpoints, collective punishment and the systematic use of “administrative detention” (imprisoning a person without charge or evidence) as a means of incarcerating a whole generation of rebellious Palestinian youth, in other words, those who have rejected the “niggerization” process.

For those interested, see B'Tselem's perspicaciously maintained web site, and also visit the excellent Electronic Intifada site, among many others. Yet I feel strongly that at this point the documentary record is simply overwhelming the crucial everyday life stories of Palestinians to the extent that more data and analysis will add nothing useful to the discussion. As Dr. King and the African American civil rights movement proved to the world, the moral critique of racial oppression is what changes people's perceptions, not more facts and expert commentary.

Every day I travel back and forth between West Bank and Jerusalem as part of my teaching responsibilities at Al-Quds University, for we have two main campuses. For Palestinians from West Bank, this kind of commute is impossible because Israel has banned all Palestinians from entering Jerusalem, their own capital, except for the few who have Jerusalem identity cards. Consequently, close to 90 percent of all Palestinian students and faculty at the university cannot use the Jerusalem campus, which means that there are many courses students cannot take to graduate because they cannot reach the Jerusalem campus to take them, and conversely many courses are cancelled because professors cannot get there to teach them. They are also cut off from essential library resources. Taking seven or eight years to graduate is becoming normal, and there are many unfortunate student dropouts as well as a gradual loss of faculty, since there is only so much a person can take. Many students require four hours to get to the West Bank campus, coming as they do from all over West Bank where Israel has in place around 800 military checkpoints altogether.    

Under American Jim Crow and South African apartheid, this was known as the illegalization of literacy, one of the basic elements of racial oppression. The other three elements - the declassing of property-holders, the deprivation of civil rights, and the destruction of the family - are also deployed in Israel's racist policy of excluding Palestinians from Jerusalem, which is very obvious and can be illustrated by a only few examples.

“Israel's racist policy of excluding Palestinians from Jerusalem is very obvious.”

In the Palestinian West Bank village where I live, there are many new shopkeepers selling cheap goods in direct competition with more established shops. At first I didn't understand why a person would attempt such an impossible business enterprise, especially during a time when Palestinians are suffering extreme cash-flow problems due to the ongoing U.S. economic blockade of the Hamas government. So I asked a few shopkeepers. One had his tour bus business ruined after Israel imposed its ban on Palestinians from West Bank entering Jerusalem, since this meant he could no longer drive his bus in and around Jerusalem, while several others were forced to abandon their wholesale produce businesses for the same reason: without access to Jerusalem restaurants and grocery stores, they lost their whole clientele.

This central aspect of the “niggerization” process in Palestine is not new; the fact is that it is now nearly complete. Palestinian political economist Adel Samara points out that it began within days of Israel's conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, when hundreds of new military orders were issued, half of which involved Israel's economic interests. “These interests include the employment of a cheap labor force,” says Samara. “Military orders cut the occupied territories off from the rest of the world, making Israel their main supplier (90 percent of the occupied territories' imports come from or through Israel). Thus the wages paid to the workers were returned to Israel as payments for Israeli consumer goods. By absorbing the labor force, while at the same time pursuing a policy of rejecting Palestinian applications for licenses to start productive projects, the Israelis were able to destroy the occupied territories' economic infrastructure, thus facilitating the integration of the latter's economy into that of Israel” (For a full analysis, see his book, The Political Economy of West Bank).

In terms of the deprivation of civil rights, being denied entry into Jerusalem means the denial of the right to pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, which are not only two of the holiest sites in Islam but also located in al-Haram al-Sharif, a 35-acre sacred area in the southeastern corner of the Old City, one of the most venerated places of worship in the entire world much less historic Palestine. Palestinian scholar Salim Tamari has referred to the Israeli policy of denying Palestinians access to worship in Jerusalem “a regime of discrimination.”

“East Jerusalem has been reduced from Palestine's commercial and political capital to another Palestinian ghetto.”

The denial of building permits is the other side of Israel's policy of denying visas to Palestinians who hold North American or European passports: the latter blocks the development of Palestinian society by robbing it of both capital and a skilled cadre of professional analysts, social planners, architects, and administrators, while the former produces ghettoization on a massive scale. The Israeli Jerusalem Municipality issues on average only 100 building permits annually to Palestinians, as compared with 1,500 to Jewish Israelis. As a result of this racist policy, between 1986 and 1996 40 to 60 percent of Palestinian Jerusalemites were forced to move outside the municipal boundaries. Most belong to Palestine's middle class. East Jerusalem has been reduced from Palestine's commercial and political capital to another Palestinian ghetto. Within these ghettos, it's very common to find Palestinian businessmen as well as college graduates driving broken down shuttle vans for less than $10 a day.

Last week I was riding in one of these vans on the way to visit a friend in Ramallah when the engine quit. The driver graciously returned our money - a mere shekel and a half each, about 30 cents - and we piled out of the van to wait along the road for a different van. While waiting together we could see a speeding sports car brake as it approached us. The windows came down and the people inside, a family of Jewish Israelis, flipped us the middle finger. A small thing compared to the total scale of Israeli oppression of Palestinians, yet the image has stayed with me. A shiny new BMW, a well-scrubbed family on the way perhaps to the local synagogue or a birthday party, their sparkling faces, taking a little time out of their busy day to say hello to a group of dusty travelers stranded by the side of the road.

Jonathan Scott is Assistant Professor of English at Al-Quds University and the author of Socialist Joy in the Writing of Langston Hughes (University of Missouri Press, 2006). He can be reached at Jonascott15@aol.com.