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Letter to the Editor: A Closer Look at Decolonization

Gaze Skylines, 2007. Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons.

To the Editor:

While many people have voiced support for Israel after the terrorist attack on Oct. 7, which killed more than 1,400, some are making excuses for the attackers or even celebrating the killings.  

These commentators justify the attack on civilians as “decolonization.” Because Israel colonized Palestine, they argue, Israelis’ existence on former Palestinian land is illegitimate, and it is righteous to exercise violence to destroy Israel. While some of these advocates distance themselves from Hamas’ brutality, most affirm the fundamental righteousness of its cause, which is to wipe Israel off the map. 

One might be inclined to agree in the abstract. If Israel seized and colonized Palestinian land, is it not moral for Palestinians to oppose the existence of Israel? However, the sense of justice here is deceptive. When scrutinized, it becomes clear that decolonization is not a progressive movement to right the wrongs of the past. It is ethnic nationalism and bigotry, veiled with social-justice language. 

First, the history. Jews were persecuted in Europe for thousands of years, a pattern which culminated in the Holocaust. In this context, a movement arose to create a Jewish state in the Jews’ ancestral homeland, and in the late 1800s and 1900s, many Jews moved to Palestine, which was controlled by the Ottoman Empire and then the British Empire after World War I. When Britain decided to leave in 1948, the United Nations proposed a plan for partitioning the region between a Jewish (Israeli) state and an Arab state. The Arabs rejected this plan, and a war broke out, which the Israelis won, forcing out many Arabs who now live in Gaza or the West Bank. 

The “colonizer” narrative oversimplifies this story. Many of the Jews who moved to Palestine were forced out of their homes in Europe by horrific violence and had nowhere else to go. Labeling these Israelis as “colonizers” who had no right to the land is thus willfully blind to their status as refugees.  

Secondly, all modern Israelis are descendants of Israel’s founding generation. These Israelis were born in Israel, and it has always been their home. The decolonization movement says that it is righteous to destroy Israel and violently expel Israelis from their homes (or kill them) because of the sins committed by their grandparents. In other words, the decolonization movement believes that modern Israelis are less deserving of human rights because of the circumstances of their birth. 

This is a failing moral framework for a few reasons. 

First, it lends itself to an endless cycle of violence, in which past wrongs are used to justify present wrongs which are used to justify future wrongs. Because every group has wronged and been wronged, using old wrongs to justify new wrongs would fuel constant bloodshed. The solution to past injustice is not an equal and opposite present injustice. 

Second, decolonization represents the notion that land belongs, in perpetuity, to the ethnic group which “originally” occupied it. This is reminiscent of the Nazi doctrine of Lebensraum (“living room”), which justified genocidal wars on the grounds that much of Europe was rightfully German. The “original owner” notion is flawed for two reasons. 

First, many disputed territories have changed hands several times throughout history. Both Jews and Arabs have inhabited the land that is now Israel, in fluctuating numbers, for centuries. How far back do you go when determining who was there first? Fifty years ago? One hundred? Five thousand? One can cherry-pick a year to favor any position. 

Second, we don’t have to concern ourselves with answering who was there first, because ultimately, it is irrelevant. What matters is not who occupied territory X a number of years ago, but who lives on it now. Consider the United States. 

The land that U.S. citizens currently live on was formerly home to diverse Native American societies. Europeans committed genocide against these peoples and then founded the U.S. on the newly available land. This was a grave injustice. While the dispossession of Native Americans continues, the territorial seizures were largely finished by one hundred years ago. Since then, Americans of all stripes have made their homes here. The U.S. is currently home to around 330 million people, including Native Americans, descendants of migrants from around the world, descendants of slaves and new immigrants.  

Decolonial logic holds that the United States has no right to exist because of its founding in genocide. By this logic, modern Americans have no right to the home they were born in, and attacks against America are justified because all Americans have inherited the centuries-old sin of European colonizers. Are Black Americans colonizers for being descendants of slaves brought to stolen Native American land? And if modern Black Americans are not colonizers, but white Americans are, why the difference?  

My point in this letter is not to oppose any redress of historical injustices. Native Americans today are marginalized, and the U.S. has a moral obligation to support their prosperous coexistence with non-Native Americans. The state of Israel has an obligation to stop its expansion into the West Bank, to recall its settlers who have chosen to move there and to support a Palestinian state that is willing to coexist with Israel. Correspondingly, Palestinians must be willing to coexist with Israel. Any ostensibly pro-Palestine movement that seeks the destruction of Israel (as Hamas does) is just as immoral as an Israeli movement that seeks the annihilation of Palestine. Tolerance cuts both ways.  

My point is that the “decolonial” narrative, which asserts that Israel or the U.S. has no right to exist at all, is not a progressive vision of justice. It is a fundamentally hateful movement that prioritizes the human rights of one group over another based on their ancestry. If that’s not bigotry, I don’t know what is.

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this piece only represent the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect The Times-Delphic or its editorial staff. Additionally, the 1,400 people killed in the Oct. 7 attack comes from numbers released by Israeli authorities.

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