Palestinians look at the destruction of their homes after Israeli strikes in Nusseirat refugee camp in central Gaza Strip. (File photo: AP)
The Zionism imposed on Palestine is an extension of Western imperialism in the Holy Land, said a prominent Palestinian American historian.
In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency, Ussama Makdisi, professor of history and Chancellor's Chair at the University of California Berkeley, underscored that it is essential to realize that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dates back to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, not to Oct. 7, 2023.
“So in November 1917, Lord Arthur Balfour, a European who was British foreign secretary at the time, promised another European, Lord Rothschild, that the British Empire would support a Jewish national home in Palestine by ignoring the fact that the overwhelming majority in the land were Palestinians,” he said.
He underlined that the declaration, which recognized the civil and religious but not political rights of Palestinians, was the beginning of colonial Zionism.
“And the egregiously pro-Zionist British mandate, in its administrative and political structures, transplanted European-made Zionism into Palestine,” said Makdisi.
Elaborating on the Europeanness of Zionism, he highlighted that Zionism emerged in Europe, not among the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire or the Middle East or the wider Muslim world.
“Namely, Zionism responded to European questions. It responded to European antisemitism, European racism, European nationalism and European romanticism. Zionist leaders also proposed a quintessentially European solution: colonizing somebody else’s land and transforming it into a European-style Jewish state.”
Shedding light on the ties between Zionism and European colonialism further, Makdisi noted that “Zionists themselves recognized it as a colonial project and they sought the support of the greatest imperial power of the time, the British Empire, to establish this colonial project.”
Commenting on the Western support for Zionism and ongoing Western support for Israel, he drew attention to the role of antisemitism in Europe.
Firstly, the antisemitic persecutions in some European countries and pogroms in Russia created sympathy towards Zionism in the late 19th century, according to Makdisi.
“And secondly, there was the paradox of European antisemitism that encouraged an aspect of colonial Zionism: moving the Jewish population out of Europe to Palestine appeared to resolve what was known as the Jewish Question,” he said.
Citing a concrete example, Makdisi added that the British Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu, who was Jewish, opposed the Balfour Declaration, which he described as antisemitic, as it suggested that Jews belong to Palestine, not to Europe.
Zionism, Western Christianity and Liberalism
Asked about the perception that Evangelical Protestants have particularly been firm supporters of Zionism and Israel, often supported by images in the media, Makdisi said: “It’s not just religious Christians but also Western liberals who have been the staunchest supporters of Israel.”
“Though the first group of Protestant missionaries in the Holy Land of the early 19th century wanted to convert Jews, Muslims and Christians, their views grew more nuanced as a result of their experiences in the field.”
However, secular liberals and their liberal states have been playing a crucial role in support of Zionism and Israel, he noted.
Palestinian struggle as a national liberation movement
Makdisi emphasized that Palestinians regardless of their religion and ideological tendencies have been united in the struggle for a free Palestine from the beginning, and repression by Israel only led to growing support by Christian and Muslim Palestinians, whether they are in Gaza, the West Bank, Eastern Jerusalem or in the diaspora.
However, Israel and its supporters deliberately distort reality and present the Palestinian struggle as a terror campaign by Islamist extremists, he said.
Transnational support for the Palestinian struggle
Comparing the Palestinian struggle from the 1960s to the 1980s which was led by Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Makdisi said support for Palestine is now even wider and more popular, not only in the Global South as before but also in the West.
“Despite systematic and enormous censorship, intimidation and crackdowns, there is a major youth mobilization in the West, as seen in the rallies in various European and American cities, university campuses,” he said.
Biden and Israel
Makdisi asserted that US President Joe Biden, who attracted most of the Arab and Muslim votes in the 2020 elections, is more pro-Israel than even conservative, right-wing former President Ronald Reagan.
“It’s astonishing to see how cruel he has been towards Palestinians, how deaf towards Americans who have sympathized with Palestinians, and how callous to Palestinians who have family members in Gaza, or Americans who just want peace. He is totally out of touch with his electoral base, with young people,” Makdisi said.
Against this backdrop, there might well be consequences for Biden when it comes to his re-election bid, he warned.