Inhabiting the Desert: Unearthing Racism in the Formation of the State of Israel

As a student at a Jewish seminary, yet married to a pacifist, and a friend to a few Palestinians, I am inundated on all sides with varying rhetoric concerning the current conflict in the Middle East. Add to that description my identity as a Christian American, and you can well imagine my avoidance of the topic; as my friend Wes warned me, no matter what I say, I will invariably offend somebody.

And so I’d like to step back with care from the current headlines, and instead return to the early rhetoric in the formation of Israel, following the lead of esteemed scholar Yael Zerubavel in her article, “Desert and Space: Space Metaphors and Symbolic Landscapes in the Yishuv and Early Israeli Culture.”

Zerubavel discusses the “settlement discourse” within Early Israeli culture that demarcated two spaces: the desert and the yishuv or settlement, explaining “Zionist discourse portrayed the country as a desolate land and a desert, and emphasized the significance of the settlement of the homeland as a transformative process that was the key to Jewish national redemption” (202). This ideological demarcation became a vital part of the construction of national space, imparting to the Israeli settlers a rhetoric of “manifest destiny” as they carried Western Civilization into the primitive land.

Under this narrative, the desert became an imagined space where society and civilization were absent and chaos ensues. The desert became the “other” to the imagined hope of the settlement, but a necessary other,  as Zerubavel writes, “these concepts served as oppositional yet interdependent space metaphors and both are integral parts of the cultural construction of space in the emergent modern Hebrew culture” (203). Essentially, everything not belonging to the “Jewish settlement” became desert.

And this is where it becomes uncomfortable.  The Zionist settlers attributed the desert-like qualities of the land to the apparent neglect of the Arab dwellers. This neglect of the land, because of the absence of true Israelis to care for it, validated the Zionist position of resettlement. Zerubavel reminds us of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, 2nd Israeli President, and his opinion that “the cultivated land became a desert as a result of the Jews’ forced exile and the subsequent inhabitants’ limited means and negligence” (205). Suddenly, the formation of Israel is more than just the reestablishment of an ancient homeland; it is the reinstitution of the “real” inhabitants because those who have resided in the land are “inadequate.” These spatial qualities of desert and settlement became endued with a militaristic and national aura, heightening the sense of survival amidst the threatening presence of the “desert” Arabs.

However, while translating racist sentiments to spatial metaphors may have been useful, it does little to lessen the sting. We cannot ignore the blatant discrimination in much of Israel’s history and identity, a discrimination allowed and encouraged by the world, and particularly America, at large.

Today I asked my Jewish classmate, Meggie, how she felt about the racist implications of Zionism. She answered, “The racist aspects of Israeli policies are underemphasized in the Diaspora. If they weren’t, all the sentiments of “an apartheid state” would therefore be confirmed. If Jews are not 100% pro-Israel, then nobody is for Israel.”

And while I understand Meggie’s position, our classmate one seat over quickly interjected, “They have had a lot of opportunities to make peace. We offered land or peace but rockets were fired. We should be fighting. Peace will never happen. They don’t want a state. They just don’t want a Jewish state.”

To be fair, the conflict today is complex, and cannot be boiled down to one side’s racism or discrimination of the other. However, let us not forget our history. I feel deeply that we must recognize our hand in contributing to the spread of a Zionist racism, long overlooked in American discourse, and recognize many problems in Israeli society; such as, the lack of a clear separation of church and state and the ill-treatment of non-Jewish citizens. We must approach the state of Israel critically.

Renowned poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes,

A flag loses contact with reality and flies off.
A shopwindow is decorated with
dresses of beautiful women, in blue and white.
And everything in three languages:
Hebrew, Arabic, and Death.”

And we must remember, we have participated in that death.