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How Zionists use racial myths to deny Palestinians the right to go home

Proponents of settler-colonialism argue that Palestinian natives of Palestine are foreigners in their own land
Palestinians protest near the Gaza-Israel fence on 12 April (AFP)

Like all settler-colonial ideologies, Zionism has always been obsessed with race. Having emerged at the height of European colonialism and race science, it sought to learn from both. 

Zionists understood that making racial claims was foundational and essential for their colonial project, a realisation that still informs Israeli colonial and racial policy today. 

European racialism

In the late 18th century European philologists invented the category “Semitic” to describe the languages of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Horn of Africa - Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic and Amharic, among others -  to distinguish them from Indo-European “Aryan” languages.

Given the force of European racialism and its deeply racist culture then and now, the belief in the foreignness of Jews persisted

Since then European Christians began to consider European Jews, who did not speak Hebrew, as “Semites”, based on the religious Jewish and Christian claims that European Jews were the descendants of the ancient Palestinian Hebrews.

What is remarkable, however, is that no one suggested then - or now - that European Christians were also the descendants of the ancient Palestinian Christians!  

When antisemitism emerged as a political ideology, it latched onto the Semitic linguistic category that encompassed Jews, and antisemites converted this into a racial category. In 1879, German Wilhelm Marr, who popularised the term “antisemitism”, insisted that the hostility of antisemites to Jews was not based on their religion, but on their “race”.

Historical research has established for many decades that European Christians and Jews were native European converts to the two Palestinian religions of Christianity and Judaism, and not descendants of their ancient adherents, anymore than today’s Indonesian or Chinese or Bosnian Muslims are descendants of the ancient Arab Muslims of the Arabian peninsula. 

But given the force of European racialism and its deeply racist culture then and now, the belief in the foreignness of Jews persisted. It is a belief that the Zionist movement espoused.

Racial purity

Zionism accepted the claim of a Jewish “race” separate from the race of gentiles, and proceeded to justify its colonial project based on this. Just as Europeans understood their “superior” race as the justification for their colonialism, Zionism, as a new member of the colonial club, used similar arguments to colonise the land of the Palestinians. 

To further Zionism’s racial claims, Zionist Jewish scholars established in Berlin in 1902 the Association of Jewish Statistics to study, among other matters, the causes of the racial “degeneration” of European Jews. The very notion of racial “degeneration” had been invented a decade earlier by the second-most important Zionist leader at the time after Theodor Herzl: Max Nordau, whose 1892 book Degeneration popularised the term. 

Now that they had affirmed Jews were a race, Zionists needed to prove they were direct descendants of ancient Hebrews, as there seemed to be other contenders for this claim - namely, the Palestinians

Zionist scholars focused on the concept of the Jewish race, the centrality of Jewish demography to the survival of the race, the physical health of European Jews, the rate of intermarriage with non-Jews, the Jewish birth rate, and rates of Jewish conversions to Christianity. 

They diagnosed the situation of European Jews as one of “degeneration”, allegedly caused by their residence in the “diaspora.” The task for Zionism was to “regenerate” them by creating a settler-colonial state for European Jews in Palestine.

To Zionists, the decline in Jewish births signalled “degeneration”.

Some of their scholars were most concerned with the racial purity of Jews, arguing that the Enlightenment threatened this through mixed marriages, which introduced impure blood into the race - although they acknowledged that children of these marriages often remained outside Jewish communities, helping to preserve the racial purity of Jewish communities. 

Newcomers to Palestine

In contrast, diasporic social conditions and antisemitism were viewed as the social causes of Jewish mental and physical “degeneration” - which, unlike racial degeneration, could be reversed through Jewish colonisation of Palestine, which Zionism was undertaking on their behalf.

Now that they had affirmed Jews were a race, Zionists needed to prove they were direct descendants of ancient Hebrews, as there seemed to be other contenders for this claim - namely, the Palestinians who had inhabited the land since time immemorial. Like neighbouring Egyptians, Syrians and Iraqis, Palestinians are said to have mixed with peninsular Arabs after the peninsular Arab conquest of the region in the seventh century.

Palestinians pray at al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem on 5 June (AFP)
Palestinians pray at al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem on 5 June (AFP)

Zionists do not claim that today’s Egyptians, Syrians and Iraqis are pure descendants of the invading Arabs, rather than indigenous peoples who mixed with them. Yet, Zionists, like Netanyahu, insist fantastically that all Palestinians are newcomers to Palestine from the Arabian peninsula. 

While modern Egyptians non-controversially claim ancient Egyptians as their ancestors, and modern Iraqis claim the Babylonians and the Sumerians, the threat came from Palestinians, who would claim that ancient Hebrews alongside Canaanaites, Philistines and all other ancient inhabitants of Palestine as their ancestors. 

The irony, however, was that even the founders of modern Israel, David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, insisted in a 1918 book that Palestinian peasants - then the majority of the Palestinian population - were the descendants of ancient Hebrews.

The Palestinian peasants, the authors argued, had held on to their Hebrew ancestors’ traditions, most obviously through maintaining the same names for their villages, and that "in their veins, without a doubt, flows much Jewish blood – from the Jewish peasants who in the days of the persecutions and terrible oppression had renounced their tradition and their people in order to maintain their attachment and loyalty to the land of the Jews.”

Dangerous precedent

That the leaders of the Zionist movement would recognise Palestinians as the ancient inhabitants of the land, whose majority converted from Judaism and other local faiths to Christianity and later to Islam, was a dangerous precedent that had to be erased from the memory of official Zionism and Israel. And so it was. 

This background terrifies Zionist ideologues and imperils their racialist claims. Here, the advances in genetic science in the last few decades and the baseless claims of many of its commercial practitioners have been a gift for Zionist racialism. 

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While the ongoing charlatan search for the “Jewish gene” has become the Holy Grail of race and racist scientists, especially Zionist ones, some in Israel have found immediate, practical uses to increase the number of Jews worldwide, and therefore increase the number of those that Zionism claims have a colonial claim to Palestinian land. 

Two years ago, a group of Israeli Jewish experts on genetics and Jewish religious law claimed that the so-called “Jewish gene” could help to prove “Jewishness” in line with Jewish religious law”, eliminating the need for the arduous process of conversion to Judaism by those whose Jewishness could not be ascertained by rabbis. 

In line with this bogus race science, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently jumped on the findings of geneticists and archaeologists who uncovered the skeletons of ancient Philistines, whose genetic markers they attributed to southern Europe. This was taken as proof by Zionist racialists that modern Palestinians are not linked to the ancient inhabitants of Palestine, and therefore have no claim to their own homeland. 

Right of return

Zionism’s arguments are two-pronged: that European converts to Judaism and their descendants who were away for 2,000 years have the “right” to return to their ancient homeland and drive out the inhabitants of the land; and that the Palestinian natives of Palestine are foreigners to their own lands.

We are still steeped in race science and colonial justifications, as we were back in the late nineteenth century

Unlike Jews, who can maintain a “right of return” after two millennia of domicile in Europe to an Asian land from which they did not originate, Palestinians, whom Israel expelled in 1948 and after, are denied the right to return to their actual lands after a mere seven decades of expulsion.

What makes this Israeli racist argument acceptable to most white Americans and Europeans is the very racism that has anchored it since the 19th century. We are still steeped in race science and colonial justifications, as we were back in the late 19th century.

The irony is that liberal and conservative supporters of Zionism and Israel among Europeans and Americans, Jews and gentiles alike - who claim to oppose racism and colonialism - find nothing unpalatable in Zionism’s insistent and continuing commitment to both. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Joseph Massad
Joseph Massad is Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of many books and academic and journalistic articles. His books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan, Desiring Arabs, The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism. His books and articles have been translated to a dozen languages.