Skip to main content

Why Israel's leaders call for 'Second Nakba'

As Jewish Israelis lose their demographic majority, terrified colonists seek means of maintaining supremacy
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) greets National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir during a media briefing at the parliament in Jerusalem on 23 May 2023 (AFP)

One of the key factors in the survival and irreversibility of white European settler-colonies around the world has been demography. If white colonists are unable to eliminate the majority of the native population, their fate, no matter how long their rule lasts, is ultimately sealed.  

This is essentially why the white colonists of the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, continue to hold power, and why the white colonists of Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, Kenya, Congo, Angola, Mozambique, Rhodesia, Namibia and South Africa lost it.

The white colonists of Latin America were unable to kill off most of the indigenous populations, which led to racial mixing and the reduction of whites to minorities, although the white and mixed races continue to exert power even in those Latin American countries that have a slight, or near, majority indigenous populations, like Bolivia, Peru, Guatemala or Ecuador.

Israel is interesting among the white settler-colonies for having established a demographic majority only to later lose it. The settler-colony created a Jewish majority through ethnic cleansing in 1948, assuring itself of a permanent colonial future.

However, as a result of its further territorial conquest in 1967, which brought close to one million more Palestinians under its rule, Israel has reverted to having a Jewish minority in the last couple of decades.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


Declining numbers

It is in this context of Jewish minority rule that the battery of racist laws that Israel instituted after 1948 as a ruling colonial majority proved insufficient. The new Jewish minority status necessitated the enactment of the 2018 Nation-State Law, which guaranteed Jewish supremacy in the settler-colony regardless of demographic realities.

That Jewish colonists have again become a minority in historic Palestine is what precipitates the reasonable expectation that Jewish settler-colonialism has become reversible

Indeed, as Jews lost their demographic majority, major infighting among the Jewish colonists ensued on how best to maintain Jewish supremacy in light of their declining numbers.

Two major wings committed to Jewish supremacy emerged: the first is a religious fundamentalist and openly racist quasi-fascist wing represented by much of the present Israeli government, while the second is a religio-racist wing with a secular face that likes to present itself as a form of tolerant liberalism.

Both wings support Jewish supremacy and the denial of equal rights to Palestinians, and both have been devising plans about how to get rid of the Palestinians. Yet, ethnic cleansing - historically accomplished by the religio-racist-yet-secular-faced wing - is now also a major talking point of the quasi-fascist religious fundamentalists who rose to power in the last two decades.

It bears mentioning in this regard that the intent of the judicial reforms the governing fundamentalist wing and its supporters are calling for is to boost their ability to expel and oppress the Palestinians. The liberal and "secular" opponents of these reforms, however, are not worried about the Palestinians.  The other Jewish supremacist wing fears the reforms would intrude on the rights of "secular" Jewish Israelis.

Israel's latest census shows Jews to be slightly over seven million people. Palestinians inside Israel are slightly over two million, with three million more living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and more than two million in Israeli-besieged Gaza. While these numbers show a slight but increasing Palestinian majority, the calculation of the number of Jews in Israel is based on considerations of Jewishness on which not all Zionists agree.

This is why the head of the Zionist Organisation of America (ZOA), Morton Klein, has recently issued a demand that Israel abandon its method of establishing Jewishness, as encapsulated in its Law of Return, especially regarding immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The ZOA statement insists that the Law of Return, after it was amended in 1970, is leading to the "de-Judaisation" of Israel. The ZOA affirms that "the Jewish state's Jewish majority has been shrinking at a rate of one percent every three years" such that "over the past 30 years, the Jewish state's Jewish majority shrunk by 10 percent and now stands at only 73.6 percent, reduced from 84 percent".

These numbers, of course, exclude Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza and include half-a-million Soviet Jewish immigrants that Jewish religious law, or Halacha, the pre-1970 Israeli Law of Return, and the ZOA do not consider "Jewish". This means that Israel’s Jewish population by the ZOA’s estimation stands at 6.6 million Jews.

That Jewish colonists have again become a minority in historic Palestine is what precipitates the reasonable expectation that Jewish settler-colonialism has become reversible.

Reversing settler-colonialism

In the case of Algeria, the reversal of settler-colonialism was achieved when it gained independence. The Algerian liberators granted the minority French colonists (numbering about one million people, or one-ninth of the population) equality and removed all their privileges, a fate worse than death as far as the colonists were concerned. Refusing equality, the colonists departed to their mother country at once.

Algeria, Israel and the last European settler colony in the Arab world
Read More »

In the case of Rhodesia, Britain and the US rushed in the second half of the 1970s to succour the minority white colonists and safeguard their privileges lest their fate be the same as the colonists of Angola and Mozambique if not Algeria.  

Unlike the neighbouring Portuguese settler-colonies whose revolutionaries demanded outright independence and equality, the Zimbabwean anti-colonial revolutionaries had always been open to compromise. Allied with the small African land-owning class and petite bourgeoisie, they constantly appealed to the colonists' mother country, Britain, to help them win independence and some form of equality for the indigenous Africans.

To obtain political independence, Robert Mugabe and other Zimbabwean leaders willingly accepted a compromise that maintained the colonial economic privileges of the white colonists after independence.

The Rhodesian example became the blueprint for the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994, when the African National Congress accepted a similar deal from the US and the Europeans to end apartheid.

Unlike Rhodesia and South Africa, these were not solutions that imperial powers historically offered to the Palestinians, as the general imperial belief remained that the Israeli settler-colony based on its demographic majority was irreversible.

Approaching an end

The demographic reality, however, has changed considerably since the 1990s, so much so that even liberal human rights organisations began to call Israel an "apartheid" state in the past few years. Meanwhile, some erstwhile committed liberal Zionists began to call for, or, at least, expect, a one-state "solution" which would safeguard Jewish colonial privileges.

The threats of another Nakba are desperate measures of a settler-colony that knows its fate is now sealed, even if it will take years before the final collapse

For the liberal Zionists, a one-state "solution" a la South Africa or Rhodesia (from 1980 to at least 2000) is an attractive one as it would preserve Jewish economic supremacy permanently while only partially surrendering Jewish political supremacy - replicating the status of the South African white colonists but not that of Algeria's white colonists.

Jewish supremacists from both wings, the openly fundamentalist and the pseudo-secular (including members of "secular" parties like Kadima, Likud, etc), however, are terrified of the prospects of even nominal equality in a single state. Even though it would guarantee their colonial economic privileges, many are calling for a "Second Nakba" to avert such a fate.

That these public calls have multiplied and are echoed by mainstream political figures attests to the feeling of the approaching, if not imminent, end of the settler-colony.

This situation has understandably sounded alarm bells, not only among the Jewish colonists but also among their supporters, in the surviving white settler-colonies around the world. In recent years, Israel's leaders have expressed much concern about whether Israel will reach its 100th or even its 80th anniversary.

The threats of another Nakba are desperate measures of a settler-colony that knows its fate is now sealed, even if it will take a number of years before the final collapse. The task facing Palestinians now is to prepare for a post-Israel future. Will it be a future that grants equality to all, a la Algeria, or one that maintains colonial economic privileges, a la South Africa?

If the matter is left to the Palestinian bourgeoisie, which has shepherded the two-state solution and the Oslo surrender, we can be sure that a variation on the South African option will be imposed. Wealthy Palestinians ever since the beginning of the British occupation that sponsored Zionist settler colonialism in November-December 1917 have always favoured collaboration with the colonial power (a few even collaborated with the Zionists) as some kind of neutral arbiter.

Since the early 1970s, most of the wealthy Palestinians whose support for the Palestine Liberation Organization was predicated on moderating its demands for anti-colonial liberation, and who became the middlemen between the PLO leadership and the wealthy Arab Gulf regimes, have also insisted that the US be the arbiter between the Palestinians and their colonisers.

Israel: Why a Jewish supremacist state can never win
David Hearst
Read More »

Like the minority of wealthy Black Rhodesians who supported the British as an arbiter between them and the white British colonists, the Palestinian elite to this day continue to only consider solutions that are imposed by US and European imperialism. That such "solutions" have led the Palestinians since 1917 to where they are today has not swayed the Palestinian business class.  

Today, the question facing Palestinians is not whether Israel will end, but rather, what will replace it? Will the steadfast Palestinian resistance in all its forms and branches allow the Palestinian bourgeoisie to accept an imperialist and a colonial solution on behalf of the Palestinian people, or will the resistance impose an anti-imperialist and anti-colonial fait accompli by insisting on independence and equality and the removal of all privileges, political and economic, from the colonists?

Israel's end is approaching, but given the strident imperialist commitment to preserving Jewish colonial privileges and the submission of the Palestinian bourgeoisie to imperial solutions, the future of the Palestinians is far from certain.

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

Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, 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 into a dozen languages.
Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.