Commentary  Our Response

Introduction

On September 10, we received an email from two McGill Law students who wanted us to publish a letter in which they express, among other things, their dissatisfaction with The McGill Daily’s definition of Zionism.

Following a lack of response from our editorial board, these students approached the Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Fabrice Labeau, asserting that the Daily was in violation of its Letters Policy. While the Daily’s position was, and remains, that the letter in question is in opposition to both our Statement of Principles and our Letters Policy, and that we should not have to publish it, Labeau determined that this perspective was not conducive to fostering an open exchange of ideas.’

This is a clear display of administrative interference in the Daily’s Letters’ Policy, as the Deputy Provost referenced a “nuclear option” – arbitration between the Daily and the administration over interpretation of the Memorandum of Agreement. This process would ultimately require time and money which the Daily does not have, but which the administration does. If the Daily were to lose in arbitration, it would mean our funding would be withheld, as would funding for Le Délit Français, thereby jeopardizing the existence of both papers.

Any dialogue that gives a platform to ideas which dehumanize a group of people only serves to amplify those views. It is deeply disappointing that Labeau did not recognize the inherent anti-Arab racism and dehumanization of Palestinian people present in this letter, which we will address further in this response

We have made a commitment to our readers to publish letters that are written to us in good faith and that hold us accountable, as per our Statement of Principles. However, citing our Letters Policy, the Daily and Le Délit reserve the right to reject “any letter whose content displays racial, ethnic, sexual, and socioeconomic prejudice.” This letter falls into that category. Our policy also states that we reserve the right to not publish any letter that is longer than 500 words in print, so long as it is in accordance with the rest of our policy. However, Labeau made clear to the Daily that this letter had to appear in our next print issue regardless and it can be found within this issue on page 13.

The content of the letter is unconscionable in its dehumanization of the Palestinian people. We therefore want to apologize to our readers for its presence in our paper, and provide the following response to it.

We would also like to apologize for our previously-published definition of Zionism for not being comprehensive. We hope our response here will address this lack of depth. In addition, we would like to apologize for the definition’s lack of acknowledgement of anti-Zionist Jewish groups such as Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), who do extremely important work in dismantling the idea that anti-Zionism is inherently anti-Semitic.

The Daily’s previously-published definition of Zionism in the issue that the letter is referencing reads as follows:

“A modern political movement advocating the colonial establishment of a Jewish state in the biblical land of Israel. Zionism’s ideological roots can be traced to the nationalist and European colonial movements of the 19th century. Two-thirds of the Palestinian populace were displaced in the war that led to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Zionism has come to represent a racist attitude and violent practice towards Palestinians that recognizes only Israeli/Jewish hegemony and legitimacy to self-determination in Palestine. (For more depth and historical context, the Daily recommends visiting the website of the BDS movement.)”

Please note that the following response contains quotes from books referenced in the letter we received. These excerpts may be difficult to read due to their overtly racist content and we urge people to proceed with caution. We are choosing to publish this response because we would like to make clear our reasoning behind our anti-Zionist stance.

Our Response

The acknowledgement of a connection to the land itself is not inherently colonial. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim people all share a religious connection to the land. However, Zionism, at its inception, was a political, colonial movement. Theodor Herzl, whose work is endorsed by the authors of the letter, openly acknowledges this. To state that Zionism has always been peaceful is to erase the very history of those sources to which the authors direct us. Further, it not only shows a contradiction in the authors’ own arguments, but displays acute disrespect and disregard for the humanity of the Palestinian people.

The term “Zionism” was coined by Nathan Birnbaum in the late 1800s, following his description of Jewish nationalism in Palestine and “reclaiming” the land. In this vein, Birnbaum founded the “Zion Union of Austrian Associations for the Colonization of Palestine and Syria.”

Herzl further legitimized the colonization of Palestine through his racist, colonialist, and Orientalist rhetoric. Herzl’s Der Judenstaat demonstrates this explicitly. When talking about forming the state of Israel in Palestine, Herzl writes, “We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism,” referring specifically to the “East” and deeming the Eastern peoples and Arabs to be “barbarians.” The fact that these students direct us towards this racist and colonialist book shows that their rhetoric is oppressive and harmful.

Further, in Altneuland, Herzl’s fictional descriptions of Palestine depict a barren land in need of saving from the Arabs who live there; he describes Jewish colonies in Palestine as “oases in the desolate countryside.” “Now everything is different,” Herzl has a Muslim character say, “They benefited from the progressive measures of the New Society whether they wanted to or not, whether they joined it or not.”

In a speech that Herzl gave in London in 1899, he told the audience, “And so I should think that here in England, the Zionist idea, which is a colonial one, should be easily and quickly understood.”

It bears mentioning that this idea was, in fact, “easily and quickly understood in England.” The 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which the British foreign secretary of the time promised that the British government would do their best to establish a “national home” for the Jewish people in Palestine, paved the way for the creation of the 1918 British mandate of Palestine and the 1948 war which resulted in the establishment of the state of Israel.

The authors of the letter challenge the characterization of the state of Israel as a colonial project, but in looking at its origins and history, it is apparent that it is one. They argue that Zionism’s principal goal is to promote equality between Israeli citizens and the “non-Jewish minority.” The language in this phrase homogenizes the “non-Jewish” population, erases the lived experiences of Jewish Palestinians, and implies that this “minority” came into being naturally instead of as a result of the forced displacement and ethnic cleansing of more than 80 per cent of the pre-war population in 1948.

In the letter, there is a vague reference to Israel having erred in some ways, which is a mischaracterization of what undoubtedly has been and continues to be ethnic cleansing. Plan Dalet drove Palestinians out of Palestine both through the material destruction of people’s homes and the threat of violence, which made it necessary for Palestinians to flee for their safety. By the time the 1948 war ended, around 750,000 Palestinians had been forcibly displaced and many still cannot return home, while others continue to live under violent occupation more than 70 years later. Further, even though the Israeli declaration of establishment claimed that the state would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants,” Palestinians who were not ethnically cleansed lived under military rule until 1966.

We cannot allow the harmful arguments put forth by the authors to go unaddressed. The Orientalist and racist rhetoric put forth by Herzl heavily parallels European scholars’ justifications of colonization in the Middle East and elsewhere, and the fact that the authors recommend reading Herzl’s work is a large part of why the Daily was unwilling to publish this letter.

The Daily would like to thank SPHR and IJV for their help in composing this response. IJV recommended the essay, “Zionism is Not ‘Not Judaism’” by Ben Lorber, which we would like to share with our readers as well.

If you would like to read the letter in reference, click the link below.

Response to McGill Daily on Zionism