On May 15, 2021, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) fired three missiles into the al-Jalaa Building in Gaza, home to the regional bureaus for international media outlets Al Jazeera and the Associated Press. On live television, viewers from around the world watched as the eleven-story office building was totally leveled. In its public statements about the incident, the IDF was unapologetic. According to the IDF, the bombing was justified by their belief that the office building was actually being used as a staging area by “Hamas military intelligence assets,” a claim that up to now remains unsubstantiated. 

The bombing came in the middle of a week that saw over 200 Palestinians (including at least 63 children) killed by Israeli bombs and bullets, and thousands more displaced. The escalation in violence was first prompted by a confrontation between Palestinian protesters and Israeli armed forces over attempts by the State of Israel to evict a group of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, long recognized by the international community as Palestinian territory. In response to the violence unleashed by the IDF, the Palestinian people have launched huge protest actions, including a general strike launched by Palestinian organized labor. 

As someone following the events from thousands of miles away, I was filled with rage and indignation seeing the images and videos coming out of the occupied territories of Palestine. At the same time, however, I was encouraged by what seemed to me at the time to be an almost universal condemnation of what the IDF and the State of Israel were doing. Palestinian voices were being given platforms on mainstream media to talk about Israel as an apartheid state. Global celebrities like Mark Ruffalo and Dua Lipa came out with strong statements calling out the genocidal violence being done by the IDF. The bombing of the al-Jalaa building, seen rightfully by most as an attack on the free press, drew condemnation from media outlets, human rights organizations, and ordinary netizens across the globe.  Many activists who had been active in the movement for Palestinian liberation for decades have described the last few weeks as a “watershed moment” in terms of conscientizing the international community to the situation in Palestine.

However, as days went on, it also became hard to ignore the backlash against the rising support for Palestine. Those who have openly proclaimed support for the Palestinian people and condemned the actions of the IDF and the State of Israel have been labeled as antisemites, leading some high-profile figures, like Mark Ruffalo, to retract their original statements of condemnation. A week after its regional office was bombed into the ground by IDF missiles, the Associated Press again made headlines when it fired one of its journalists, Emily Wilder, after a group of American conservatives uncovered and complained about her history of pro-Palestinian activism in college. 

How should we understand the persistent backlash against criticisms of Israel, despite what seems to be the growing recognition of the violence of its occupation in Palestine? This article will attempt to account for and respond to two arguments that are commonly used to defuse and discredit critics of Israel.

The “Self-Defense” Argument

The first argument goes something like this: “Israel’s actions in Palestine are an exercise in legitimate self-defense against threats to its existence as a State.”  Proponents of the “self-defense” argument will then usually go on to cite the attacks launched against Israel by groups like Hamas, the current ruling authority in the Gaza Strip. This argument frames the violence as part of a “conflict” between Palestine and Israel, between two equal sides jostling over disputed territory. The implicit premise of this argument is that the bulk of the responsibility for the violence is with the Palestinian militants engaged in armed struggle against Israel. Even putting aside the numbers that show the vast disparity between Palestinian and Israeli casualties, this line of argumentation is based on a mischaracterization of the State of Israel, one which obfuscates the reality of Israeli settler-colonialism.

From its conception, Zionism, the political movement that sought to establish a Jewish state in historic Palestine, was understood by its own progenitors as a colonial project.  In 1923, 25 years before the founding of the State of Israel, prominent Zionist leader  Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote an essay in which he argued for the need for a future Jewish state to build an “iron wall” that would be able to hold off resistance by Arab-Palestinians, stating: “Zionism is a colonization adventure and therefore it stands or falls by the question of armed force.”

The prophetic nature of these words would be revealed with the campaign of ethnic cleansing undertaken by Zionist militias in Palestine from 1947 to 1948. This campaign would see the displacement of over 800,000 Palestinians, the destruction of countless Palestinian settlements, and the subsequent establishment of the State of Israel.  This series of events, memorialized in the collective Palestinian memory as the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”) can be understood as both a culmination of the colonial ambitions of Zionism, as well as an ongoing process of displacement and dispossession. Since the Nakba, Israel has only continued to encroach on internationally recognized Palestinian territory, leading to the displacement of countless Palestinians, who constitute one of the largest refugee populations in the world. Israel’s existence as an ethno-state was founded on and perpetuated by the occupation of historic Palestine, and the elimination of the Palestinian people. This makes Israel a prime example of a settler-colony.

This fundamental asymmetry between colonizer and colonized undermines the argument that Israel is only engaged in legitimate self-defense. The war in Palestine is not a confrontation between two equal belligerents, but one between an occupying force and a colonized people fighting for liberation. In the context of settler-colonialism, violence originates from the event of colonization, not from the acts of resistance by the colonized people. 

Despite Israel’s attempts to paint its actions as a response to Hamas’ extremism and religious fundamentalism, Israeli guns have been pointed towards Palestinians long before the formation of Hamas in 1987. The violence being done unto the Palestinian people is what has allowed Israel to maintain itself as a colony on stolen land. The violence, rather than being an aberration, is a condition for Israel’s existence.

The “Anti-Zionism is Antisemitism” Argument

The second “argument” is less of an argument, and more of a rhetorical move that aims to discredit attempts to criticize Israel’s actions. It is one commonly deployed to shame figures who publicly speak out against Israel, and paint them as bigots. The general claim is that being against Israel, or anti-Zionist, is the same as being antisemitic. 

It is important to note that the reality of global antisemitism cannot be denied or minimized. All over the world, throughout the decades and centuries, members of the Jewish diaspora have been subjected to bigotry, discrimination, and violence. It is this history of persecution that led many Jews towards Zionism as a political solution to their problems. All social movements are vulnerable to being co-opted by reactionary elements, and certainly, there are actual antisemites who ride on anti-Israel sentiments to enflame hate against the Jewish. As radicals and progressives, it is our responsibility to push back against these reactionary elements whenever and wherever they emerge in our spaces.

However, the attempt to label all criticisms of Israel as antisemitic is disingenuous, and premised on conflating the Jewish people with the State of Israel, and Judaism with Zionism. Israel is not a people, but a state. Prior to the establishment of Israel, Jews had lived in Palestine for millennia. Calling for an end to Israel’s illegal and violent occupation of the region does not preclude acknowledging the right of Jewish people to live in peace in Palestine. The Palestinian liberation movement criticizes Israeli settler-colonialism precisely because it sees the existence of Israel as a settler-colony as the chief roadblock in achieving peace for all the peoples in the region. 

Moreover, this line of thinking assumes that the Jewish people are a homogenous group, and unanimous in their acceptance of Zionism as an ideology. This is an erasure of the long tradition of anti-Zionism within the Jewish community, whether for the interest of justice or for religious reasons. This tradition is embodied today in groups like the Jewish Voice for Peace, a national organization of Jewish Americans opposed to the Zionist occupation of Palestine. The existence and growing strength of groups like JVP belie the attempts to paint the Jewish people as a monolith that wholly endorses the actions of Israel.

A Victory for Palestine is a Victory for All

For progressives in the Philippines, standing with the Palestinian people in their fight against Israeli settler-colonialism is a moral and political imperative. This imperative is one that emerges not just from our fidelity to values like international solidarity and justice, but also from our peoples’ own experiences of struggling against colonialism and imperialism.

To stand with Palestine is also to stand against imperialism, particularly the imperialism of the United States of America. Israel is historically the number one beneficiary of military aid from the United States, receiving billions of dollars every year. Unconditional support for Israel is a political position that enjoys bipartisan support in Washington D.C., one that remains consistent from one President to another. Despite the international condemnation of the most recent Israeli bombing campaigns, President Joe Biden has only doubled down on his support for Israel, affirming its “right to defend itself.” As a condition for its support, Israel serves as a strategic outpost for asserting American interests in the region.

The imperialist system that props up Israeli settler-colonialism is the same one that immiserates the broad masses of people globally and here in the Philippines. It is the same system that has violently repressed working class movements, and liberation movements of all stripes, wherever and whenever they emerge to challenge its hegemony. As Filipino progressives fighting for a more just nation, and a more just world, our struggle is inescapably tied to the struggle for Palestinian liberation. It is incumbent upon us to support the Palestinian peoples’ demands for an end to the illegal occupation of Palestine, the recognition and assurance of human rights for all the Palestinian people, and the right to return for all Palestinian refugees.