But people who say this are under attack. Banning the right to call Israel racist underlies the accusations of antisemitism made against Jeremy Corbyn and the left.
Yet next Tuesday Palestinians will commemorate the 70th anniversary of an event that can only be described as a campaign of ethnic cleansing against them.
The creation of Israel saw nearly one million Palestinians systematically expelled from their land. To Palestinians that expulsion is known as the Nakba—or catastrophe.
It laid the foundations for a state that still sustains itself on Palestinian oppression.
That state was born on 14 May 1948 when Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, signed its founding declaration. From the start, Israel could only survive with the backing of the major imperialist powers, including Britain.
Just months before its creation, the United Nations (UN) had decided on a plan to split Palestine in two—without the agreement of the Palestinians.
The plan was clearly unjust. It was to “give” 56 percent of Palestine to colonisers who at the time owned just 6 percent of the land and made up one third of the population. Yet even this wasn’t enough.
Israel’s founding declaration didn’t specify its borders. Days before he had even declared Israel’s formation, Ben-Gurion was already talking about expanding them.
Before the UN plan was agreed, Ben-Gurion had written that Israel’s borders “will be determined by force and not by the partition resolution”.
He also told members of the future Israeli government that there were “no territorial boundaries for the future Jewish state”.
By 1949 Israel had invaded and occupied closer to 80 percent of Palestine, claiming it all as its own.
The founders of Israel had no intention of sticking to the UN’s partition plan, or of respecting a Palestinian state. They were motivated by an ideology—Zionism—that aimed to create an exclusively Jewish state in all of Palestine.
Zionism began as a response to violent antisemitism in Europe towards the end of the 19th century—particularly in the Russian Empire. States used Jews as scapegoats, and encouraged racist mobs to attack Jewish communities.
Several Jewish groups, particularly socialists, heroically resisted this. But the Zionists wrongly accepted that antisemitism would always exist. Their answer was to colonise Palestine and establish an exclusively Jewish state.
There was one major problem—the people who already lived there. An exclusively Jewish state needed an overwhelming Jewish majority which the UN’s partition plan didn’t give.
Ben-Gurion’s problem with the plan was that, “There are 40 percent non-Jews in the areas allocated to the Jewish state.
“Such a demographic balance questions our ability to maintain Jewish sovereignty. Only a state with at least 80 percent Jews is a viable and stable state.”
The Zionists developed a deeply racist attitude towards Palestine’s Arabs—who were mostly non-Jewish—that enabled the colonisation and occupation.
When it came to partition the budding Zionist state developed a systematic plan to clear Palestinians out of its territory and ensure a Jewish majority. Supporters of Israel still say that no such plan existed. They say that Palestinians fled because of a war with neighbouring Arab states after Israel’s creation.
But a plan did exist and it even had a name—Plan Dalet. It was a military operation to capture and clear out Arab villages to add to the new Israeli state. The techniques it used were clear—“By destroying villages (by setting fire to them, by blowing them up, and by planting mines in their rubble).
“In the case of resistance, the armed forces must be wiped out and the population expelled outside the borders of the state.”
Those techniques were honed and developed in the months leading up to Israel’s formal creation. Some 250,000 Palestinians had already been expelled from Palestine by 14 May 1948.
Operations were described using Hebrew words associated with cleansing—“tihur” meaning “purifying”, “nikkuy” meaning “cleaning”.
If there is still any doubt that expulsion of Palestinians was always the aim, see the words of Ben-Gurion one month before the partition plan was adopted. “They can either be mass arrested or expelled,” he said. “It is better to expel them.”
In this matter-of-fact way, Ben-Gurion described a policy that brought horror to Palestinians. Some 850,000 were made refugees.
The Zionist army, the Hagana, carried out atrocities and massacres, reducing entire villages to rubble.
In the city of Haifa, where Jews and Arabs both lived, the Hagana besieged Arab areas with heavy shelling and sniper fire. The Hagana’s elite Carmeli brigade launched an assault on its Arab neighbourhoods.
The brigade’s commander Mordechai Maklef—who later became the Israeli army’s chief of staff—gave simple orders. “Kill any Arab you encounter. Torch all inflammable objects and force open doors with explosives.”
Haifa’s Palestinians fled to the city’s port and took shelter in its market. Hagana mortars shelled the crowded streets where they gathered, causing people to stampede to board boats leaving the city.
Several people were crushed or trampled in the panic. One witness described how “the boats in the port were soon filled with living cargo. The overcrowding in them was horrible. Many turned over and sank with all their passengers.”
That process of ethnic cleansing and partition is one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century. Its consequences are still felt by Palestinians.
Can there ever be a free Palestine?
Palestinian refugees and their descendants from 1948 number around six million today. They have never been allowed to return to the land they were expelled from.
More than 1.5 million of them still live in refugee camps that are now more like built up, crowded slums.
The partition of Palestine didn’t lead to a Palestinian state. Areas of Palestine left by the Israelis became attached to Jordan and Egypt, and then occupied by Israel after the Six Day War of 1967.
The “Palestinian territories”—the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip—became economically dependent on Israel, and stunted by it.
Palestine had been an agricultural society, but much of its fertile land ended up in Israel. And while Israel’s economy boomed, Palestinians remained in poverty.
A supposed peace deal signed between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in 1993—the Oslo Accords—was supposed to lead to a “viable Palestinian state”. Instead it drove the effects of partition deeper into Palestinian society.
Israel used peace talks to deny responsibility for Palestinian refugees and to browbeat the Palestinian Authority (PA) into dropping the demand for their right to return.
After Oslo the Occupied Territories were divided up still further into three zones, with varying degrees of control.
Israel controls imports and exports to the Palestinian territories, and has a monopoly on basic commodities. It collects taxes on behalf of the PA, along with contributions to an Israeli benefits system that Palestinians are not entitled to claim.
The PA was required to circulate the Israeli currency, the New Israeli Shekel, and forbidden from launching its own without permission.
In areas under its control, Israel has built vast settlements the size of cities, connected to Israel by Israeli-only roads and railways. Inside the settlements are factories for Israeli products, made using low-paid Palestinian labour.
This set-up is justified by the same racism behind the Nakba. It still denies Palestinians’ claim to any of their land—and often even their existence as a people.
And it has the same purpose—to claim all of Palestine for Israel.
This has caused a crisis for Israel. As its occupation of Palestine deepens, the idea that there can be two separate states for Jews and Arabs looks increasingly impossible.
The only solution is a single state, where Arabs and Jews can live together with equal democratic rights. But this doesn’t fit with the project of building an exclusively Jewish state of Israel. Palestinians would once again be the majority.
In the face of this crisis, Israel has reacted violently. It has massacred protesters in Gaza trying to cross the border fence to return to the land they were expelled from.
The return of Palestinian refugees to Israel is seen as a threat to Israel’s existence. Yet the right to even describe this system as racist, or to suggest that Arabs and Jews can live together, is being slowly rolled back.
Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised for refusing to sign Labour up to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism “with all its examples”.
These include “claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour”.
That definition has already been used to shut down debates on Palestine, and to block support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign in universities.
Faced with this, it’s important to stand up for the right to be anti-Zionist and to expose the racism at the heart of Israel.
Banning the right to call Israel a racist state means silencing Israel’s victims. It makes it impossible for Palestinians to explain their history and what Israel has done to them.
Above all, it means erasing the memory of the Nakba.