A Conversation with Miko Peled on the State of Israel and the Palestinians

[This is a partial transcript of an interview aired on 11 April 2023 on Berks Community Television.]

Faramarz Farbod: Can you explain what you mean by Zionism?

Miko Peled: To put it as simply and succinctly as possible, Zionism is an ideology that says the Jewish people all over the world have a right to Palestine at the expense of Palestinians. It created a theory that because all Jewish people around the world are descendants of ancient Hebrews a few thousand years ago, they have a right to return. And that the Jews are not a nation united by religion, but a nation united as all other nations by a land, a country, a history, and so on, which, of course, is completely antithetical to Judaism. According to Judaism and Jewish law, what unites Jews is their faith, the laws, the Jewish laws, not language or a country. Anyway, the Zionists were secular people. They said we are a nation like all nations, our country is Palestine, and our history is the Old Testament. They believed in the religious part of the Old Testament, but they said we can throw out God and all that nonsense. But the history there, that’s our history. I grew up and learned that history, the stories of the Old Testament; we learned them as history.

That’s Zionism, and it says that I and every Jew around the world, well, I certainly, because I was born there, but any Jew around the world, has the right to come to Palestine, and they call it Israel, the land of Israel.

FF: That is the so-called Right of Return, which is extended to the Jews but not to the Palestinian inhabitants who were displaced.

MP: Yes, of course. The Palestinians were considered, and are considered, invaders, foreign invaders. It’s our land, we may have been gone for two thousand years but we are back. You know, the use of ‘we were there and now we are back’ and so this is us. The reason I think this is absurd is that if you ask any Israeli Jew “Where are you from?” they’ll say Ukraine, Poland, Russia, Iraq, Yemen, Kurdistan, Maghreb, Iran, and every other place in the world; but you ask any Palestinian outside of Palestine “Where are you from?’ — ask any child, you know that I go to conferences and there are always a lot of children — they say: Yafa, Haifa, Jerusalem, and so on. They know the name of the villages up and down the country. These people are all from there. But take Bezalel Smotrich, the far-right Israeli Minister of Finance, who is the most rabid, racist Zionist, perhaps in the history of Zionism. His name is the name of a town in Ukraine. He has this rant that goes on telling Palestinians that they are Arabs and that there is no such thing as Palestinians. They’re just Arabs and they need to go back to Arabia. If their name is Messrie (Egyptian in Arabic) then they need to go to Egypt, and so on. But his name is Smotrich, and he hasn’t even changed it. It shows the absurdity of this whole idea of the right of Jewish people to return to a place they never came from.

That is what Zionism is. It’s the ideology that created an apartheid regime in Palestine that gives privileges to Jews at the expense of the Palestinians. That’s what it is. It’s a racist ideology. It’s a violent ideology. And what we see today is that ideology being manifested.

FF: We could say Zionism is a violent ideology not because it is theoretically a violent ideology. If there was a place without a people where this in-gathering of Jews from around the world could take place, then it would not require any violence. But because Palestine was inhabited by the Palestinians, Zionism in practice necessarily became very violent. It also required sponsorship by global powers, earlier Great Britain, and later the United States. Otherwise, there would be no state of Israel the way we are experiencing it as a settler-colonial, apartheid state.

MP: It also required this new notion, a new creation of a secular Jew — historically a new thing. For Jews, the yearning to go to Jerusalem was always for prayer and worship. It had nothing to do with sovereignty. Jews never sought and according to Jewish law are prohibited from sovereignty in the Holy Land. There is a famous line by a Rabbi, an Egyptian who lived in Baghdad, Iraq, in the 12th century, that every practicing Orthodox Jew knows. He wrote it in Arabic using Hebrew letters, discussing religious issues as part of a famous treatise. He wrote that the Jews are a nation united by their sharia, their religious laws. That’s it. Zionists came up and said, no. You don’t have to be religious. It has nothing to do with religion; we are a nation, and on and on.

So, that’s what Zionism is, and as you said, there is no way it could go without violence. This is why they created this mantra: “A land without a people for a people without a land.” First, this was a Christian mantra before it became a Jewish Zionist one; the Christian Zionists preceded the Jewish Zionists in the early 19th century. But it is not that they didn’t know there were people living in Palestine, but these were people who didn’t matter because they are brown. They are not European. This is a Eurocentric settler-colonial ideology that made perfect sense at the time. It’s like people say, Balfour promised Palestine to the Jewish people by giving a note to a Jewish millionaire by the name of Rothschild. Who the hell is Balfour and who the hell is Rothschild and what have they got to do with giving and taking Palestine and promising it to anybody? But they are two white racist Europeans talking about the land that belongs to brown people. They could do that, and it was perfectly acceptable at the time.

FF: You are referring to the Balfour Declaration in 1917. I agree. Even Theodore Herzl (the founder of modern Zionism) who argued for the immigration of Jews to Palestine to form a Jewish state in response to European anti-Semitism, wrote in his 1896 book, The State of the Jews, that a Jewish state in Palestine would be “an outpost of civilization against barbarism,” betraying the European colonial and racist mentality of the times.

MP: Herzl also talked about how disgusting Jews are and how the Zionist is a new Jew who is good-looking and looks more like the Greek ideal of what a human should look like. He wrote some terrible things about Jews that no one would dare say today. If you look at his writings, it’s quite horrifying the way he and some other early Zionists describe Jews.

FF: I wonder why? Is that because he was looking down on the condition of Jews who had lived in ghettos? Is that what he was associating that image with?

MP: He was disgusted by Jews. He hated Jews. He couldn’t help the fact that he was a Jew. You must read his writings. He had this idea that you must break away from this ugly, filthy, thieving Jew, and create this new image of the Zionist Jew who is good-looking, tanned, brave, fights for their rights, cultivates the land, is enlightened, speaks an enlightened language, and so on. Many early Zionists, the whole generation of my father, what’s called the 1948 Zionists who were born in Palestine, hated the Jews, hated the image of the European Jew, which was somebody who is subservient to God, follows what they perceive as God’s laws, lives in a secluded way in a way that they can worship and not be interrupted, and refuses to carry guns. To this day, the Orthodox community in Palestine refuses to serve in the military, and they get hate, they get arrested, they get beaten, and they get persecuted terribly by the Israeli authorities for their stance which is a very honorable moral stance of refusing to carry arms and participating in this military thing. But the Zionists look down on these people. Even at one point, they said, we are creating the state but not for these people. We are creating the state for this enlightened Jew, not for this backward Jew. So there are a lot of very strong antisemitic overtones in early Zionism.

FF: It’s ironic that by now the enterprise of Zionism in a way has led to this turnaround in Israeli politics towards the rise of nationalistic religious Zionism at the expense of let’s say a more pragmatic, Ashkenazi, Labor party-type Zionism that dominated in the first several decades of the establishment of the Jewish State. I wonder what Herzl and other early Zionists might have said if they were alive to witness this turn of events moving from this secular Jew to now this rising dominance of Zionist type or character of nationalistic and religious Jews, a settler from the West Bank.

MP: Who knows what people like Herzl would have said? When you look at it historically, what we see today does not represent a shift or change. I think it’s a very natural succession of Zionism up to this point. People talk about how, as you said, they used to be kind of secular and socialist-oriented. But we can’t forget that this secular, socialist-oriented ideology was established over a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide, a genocidal campaign against another nation. And then when they established the state, the few Palestinians who remained in Palestine were put in ghettoes. They were not second-class citizens but people with no rights. In the West, people thought it was this wonderful thing; it was a miracle. In the 70s and the 60s, young Americans and young Europeans would go and volunteer on the Kibbutz. And the Kibbutz was this idealistic creation. But, of course, the land and the water were stolen, and labor was cheap. The Palestinian farmers who were thrown out of their land were now hired at starvation wages to cultivate the land for these Ashkenazi settlers. So, yes, there was this sense that it was idealistic, and they presented it that way in the West. But the truth was very different. Look at the current Israeli cabinet and government. They are the true representation of Zionism.

FF: You could say they are the case of Zionist chickens who have come home to roost.

MP: Yes. You know, you got the hundreds of thousands of Israelis protesting. Why are they protesting? This is the 40 or 45 percent of Israelis who did not vote for the people who are in government power right now. They were quite happy and satisfied when these settlers terrorized Palestinians in the West Bank. They belong in the West Bank. They don’t belong on the national scene. They don’t belong as ministers in our lives. They belong to these rowdy, ugly people that we don’t like and don’t want to associate ourselves with. These 40 or 45 percent in the streets do not see themselves as settlers; they do not see themselves as people who committed war crimes going on for 75 years. The other Israelis have. Now these other Israelis are back like you say they are turning to roost. Now they are in the government. They hold nationally important positions. They create policies that touch on everybody. That’s why Israelis are so angry now and protesting in the streets because they don’t like the face of these people. It’s like looking in the mirror and discovering that you are terribly ugly.

FF: So, it’s like the tension between let’s say liberal Zionism and religious, ultra-nationalistic Zionism of settler kind. Is this essentially what we are seeing?

MP: Yes, although I would use the word ‘liberal’ cautiously because all they care for is their own privilege within the apartheid regime. This does not extend to anybody other than Israeli Jews.

FF: Right. That’s why when people say ‘Israel is the only democracy’ in the Middle East, they are really talking about at best a closed utopia, for the Jews only. We cannot call Israel a democratic state when you have the ongoing occupation of Palestinians and the apartheid practices as acknowledged by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Harvard Law School, B’Tselem, not to mention Palestinian sources.

MP: Of course not.

FF: In a September 2022 U.N. Report by Ms. Francesca Albanese, the current Special Rapporteur about human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, she argued that the denial of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination constitutes the very heart of the injustice in Palestine. This denial is the key reason why we have this terrible situation in Palestine today.

MP: Yes. A couple of years ago, the new Rapporteur that you mentioned co-authored an excellent paper called “Palestinian Refugees in International Law” and she asked me to write a review that I published. It talks about claims of Palestinian refugees. Not only have they not become weaker over the years; they have become stronger over the years. It shows exactly what was taken from Palestinians in 1948 beyond just their homes and their land. We are talking about public spaces, cities, produce that was on the fields and trees, and you know billions were stolen and what the value of that is today and what Israel owes Palestinians to this day. Because there is an attempt to delegitimize the Palestinian claims to return and to reparations, saying only the Palestinians who were alive in 1948 and were displaced have any rights of refugees. She shows that is legally untrue and that people don’t realize just how much the Zionists stole. People had money in the banks. People had cars. Farmers had agricultural equipment. There was produce in the fields. There were fruits on the trees. There were entire cities, public spaces, theaters, schools, and hospitals, and all of this was taken and stolen to create houses and apartments. These were big cities. The Zionists came and said that there is nothing here and that we made the desert bloom. You know the Negev, which is a fertile desert, if you look at aerial photos the British took in the 1920s you see enormous plots of land that were cultivated. Israel did not make anything bloom. They went on a rampage and stole and destroyed. They have continued the destruction to this day. I am glad that you mentioned her because she coauthored this important paper.

FF: That’s why the Palestinians say that the land was furnished when the Zionists came and took it. Palestine was not empty neither of people nor riches.

MP: That’s right.

FF: Let’s get to the current protests and the new government in Israel. There have been months of protests in Israel against the judicial reforms that Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, has been pushing for. Currently, it has been delayed. But part of the news of the delaying of the push for the overhaul of the judicial reforms by Netanyahu was that he gave Itamar Ben-Gvir, the Minister of National Security of Israel, who had opposed the delay, his own so-called private militia, or a new national guard. People like Ben-Gvir and the settlers who follow him have been going around saying to the Palestinians they terrorize that they are going to give them a second Nakba. That’s a word that Palestinians use to describe the catastrophe that befell them in 1948 when they lost their land, homes, and their history. This poses a tremendous problem for the security of all Palestinians in the coming months.

MK: Yeah, I mean there is a discussion about guaranteeing the safety and security of the Palestinians. They are the ones that are being killed regularly for over 75 years. They are the ones who are endangered. But the narrative and the discourse are always about the safety of the Jews and the Israelis. And that’s kind of what justifies the $3.8 billion going from the US to Israel and they milk that to the bone. It’s the Palestinians who need some kind of guarantee for their lives and safety. Again, it was always the case. Now, it is even worse. Netanyahu supposedly made a promise that he was going to put a hold on these judicial reforms, which most people call a coup, not judicial reform. But nobody believes him. I don’t believe him. He says one thing and does another quietly. This is how they operate. The protests are not stopping. But you do hear voices from people who work in the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education that their budgets have been sliced and slashed to provide funding for Ben- Gvir’s new Army which is some kind of new militia. The lives of the Palestinians have always been in danger since Israel was established. Now it’s much more severe. The lives of every Palestinian are in danger all the time. They were saying that this militia would only deal with terrorists and political issues. In other words, every Palestinian child with a rock is a terrorist. Anyone who rejects Zionism, the state of Israel, or what it does is a supporter of terrorism. You and I would be in that category. Every other Palestinian would be in that category.

The Palestinian citizens of Israel are probably the most cooperative, quiet, educated, and as a community contributing to society and the well-being of others. They are all going to be terrorists now. We are talking about Palestinian Bedouins in the Negev, some 300,000 people, the Palestinian citizens of Israel in general, about 2 million, any activists within that community, and any politician who runs against the settlers. The settlers control the municipalities, and city councils, and are now getting more control of the military and the police. Palestinians are on the edge of a precipice without any question, and nobody is speaking for them. Nobody is talking about how to guarantee their safety and security. It’s never part of the conversation. It’s a very serious problem. There is always this expectation, expression, and discourse that ‘the Palestinians need to…,’ ‘the Palestinians should…,’ and ‘if only Palestinians could…’ Well, the Palestinians are in a maximum-security prison. They are doing everything they possibly can. There is not going to be another Salaheddin, Messiah, or God knows who is going to come and save them.

If we allow our representatives to send the money to Israel, they will continue to do so. If we allow our representatives to identify with Zionism, which is a racist, brutal ideology, then they will continue to do so. If we tell them to stop and demand they stop, then there is a chance they will stop. But we hold the keys. The other thing is we always hear that Israelis are people of conscience. But we saw liberal Israelis in the hundreds of thousands in the streets and never heard one voice calling to end the blockade of Gaza or allow the allocation of the same amount of water to Palestinians who are not allocated water. That is not part of the conversation at all. Two hundred fighter pilots refused to show up for duty as reservists. When did they ever refuse to bomb Gaza? So, we cannot look up to Israeli society; help is not going to come from them. These are the most liberal people that we are seeing in the streets now, and this is not a part of their agenda. So, it’s up to us. People on the outside must help the Palestinians.

FF: Yes, that’s why the Palestinian Israelis are not part of these protests. After all, what if you secure the independence of the courts in Israel? They have not been nice to the Palestinians with home demolitions and all sorts of other issues. Nobody is talking about their issues; Palestine is the elephant in the room here.

Let’s talk about the US-Israel relationship. Why does the US support Israel when all human rights organizations say Israel subjects the Palestinians to a brutal system of oppression and apartheid? We still have Biden saying that he is a Zionist and a friend of Israel. The US goes on to support Israel with the $3.8 billion that you mentioned in terms of money but also with all the other layers of US support: diplomatic, political, using the US veto in the UN, strategic, economic, integrating some of the US high-tech industry with that of Israel, intelligence-wise, ideological, and so on. Why do you think that is? Is it due to a very effective PR machine at work, the Israeli lobby, or is it an imperative of the American Empire, maybe Israel is a watchdog for the US in the region, or a combination of all these?

MP: It is all the above. People imagine the Israeli lobby as a bunch of people in suits at the Capitol. That’s how Israel operates. The Zionists learned very early on, a hundred years ago, that in America all politics is local. That is why anybody who runs for city council, school board, or any mayor, police chief, or deputy-police chief, regardless of how small the town is, immediately gets a trip to Israel, which includes a helicopter ride with some famous General over the Golan Heights, and visits here and trips there in jeeps and so on. They have been investing in cultivating politicians, making sure that schoolbooks, textbooks, and social studies portray the issue of Israel-Palestine the way they want it done. They got watchdog organizations through- out the entire country looking at and reading social studies textbooks. They are in the black and Latino churches. They are taking delegations of young black leaders again to Israel. They have got these organizations where Zionist Jews sit with black Americans talking about their mutual suffering. You know, one of the most privileged groups in America sharing suffering with probably one of the most disenfranchised groups in America and the world. They have been doing this for a hundred years. They have pockets without limits. They are very good at it. On top of that, about half of the foreign aid bill comes back to purchase weapons, and the whole issue of shared values of two countries that are built on racism and genocide. So, it is a combination of all the things that you mentioned.

FF: I am glad you mentioned the ‘shared values’ because, when people here in the US mention it, they mean that we are both democracies, that we both respect human rights and the rule of law, and so on. But, as you said, it is the values of racism and settler colonialism that both countries share.

Lastly, do you see any difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party when it comes to relations with Israel and the US support for it?

MP: No. Not at all. This is a bi-partisan issue and will always be one because it has nothing to do with politics. It is above politics.

FF: Some poll data suggest the rank-and-file of the Democratic Party has shifted its perspective on this issue but not the establishment of the party. Bernie Sanders pointed to the Israeli violence against the Palestinians and refused to attend the AIPAC gathering when he was invited. These developments point to an opening of sorts at least among the rank-and-file of the party. But like you, I don’t see any shifts in the establishment of the party.

MP: Yes, I think it is marginal. There is some shift in the margins. But in the larger scheme of things, I don’t think there is any difference here. I think the problem is that nobody is speaking for the other side at any level. There is no Palestinian presence in Washington, D.C. Nothing, not one, zero. There are a couple of little NGOs located in basements in Virginia and other places but there is no presence at all. Nobody is speaking seriously for Palestine anywhere in this country. So, it does not matter. I mean, if there was a presence and they were speaking and doing a good job of it, then the whole bi-partisan support could shift.

FF: Thanks, Miko for joining me. And thank you for your honesty, defiance, and empathy, and for seeing the Palestinian other as human. These are qualities that we need if we are to bring about positive changes in Palestine. We need to see your example replicated.

MK: Thank you very much for inviting me to your program.

Faramarz Farbod, a native of Iran, teaches politics at Moravian College. He is the founder of Beyond Capitalism a working group of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities-Lehigh Valley PA and the editor of its publication Left Turn. He can be reached at farbodf@moravian.edu. Read other articles by Faramarz.