Is Zionism Colonialism? The Root Lie

Remarks delivered by Martin Kramer to a closed forum of New York-area students, convened by CAMERA at Columbia University on April 3, 2005. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

Strategies to Combat Bias against Israel?

I have been asked to speak about strategies to combat bias against Israel among professors. This is Jewish organization-speak. Advocacy organizations have strategies, and I am not an advocacy organization. I am an academic and an intellectual. My strategy, if you want to call it that, is simple: it is to identify and speak truth. It is also to acknowledge when truth is elusive, as it sometimes is, and to try to uncover it. So I will leave it to the pro-Israel professionals to give you strategies, if they have any. I don’t have any, unless it is telling the truth.

Edward Said, who was a professor at this university, always used to say that the role of the intellectual is to “speak truth to power.” I could never understand what that addition of “to power” meant. It placed an obvious reservation on the truth-speaking obligation of intellectuals: they should tell the truth, but this truth-speaking should be selective. The powerful deserve the truth, and the powerless … well, what do they get? For Said, the powerful meant the United States, Israel, the West, Arab governments. But the truth is indivisible, and to withhold it from those who have less power, such as the Palestinians, is not only a disservice to them, it places them in jeopardy.

There is one lie that has been told to the Palestinians by a variety of people, and that has done them an immense amount of harm. The failure of intellectuals, and especially of academics supportive of the Palestinians, is that they have become disseminators of this lie. On some campuses, like this one, it has been taught. I would call it the root lie a lie from which grow many other lies.

It is this: Zionism is a form of colonialism. It was not the national movement of the Jewish people to create a state. It was a foreign-backed colonial project, by which settler-colonizers dispossessed an indigenous people. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a tragic clash of nationalisms between peoples who have comparable or even equal claims. This is not a contest between two nations, with national identities and narratives. It is a straightforward case of nineteenth century style colonialist dispossession, committed by a non-nation a collection of land robbers against a nation from time immemorial, the Palestinian people.

Zionism and its progeny, Israel, are therefore inherently unjust. They are not the rebirth of a long-suppressed and oppressed people. They are the last breath of a dying colonialism, sustained not by hope, but by hatred. Zionism has created the myth of Jewish nationhood. But the Jews are not a nation, and as such they cannot have nationalism. They have only racism: a false sense of their own supremacy and the inferiority of others, above all the Palestinians.

This is a very great lie, and it is a self-serving lie. Those who believe it can sustain in their hearts the hope that in any given span of a few years, Israel will disappear. America will decide to dismantle it, or the Jews will decide that it is too costly to maintain, and so will go to other countries that are safer and more comfortable. For colonialism is something that is transient and lasts only so long as it is cost-effective. But authentic nations are forever, the ties of nations to their land are never really severed, and nations are bound by ties of solidarity that cross the generations.

This lie, told to the Palestinians by others and by themselves, explains why they have repeatedly underestimated Zionism, Israel, and Israelis. By now it should be self-evident to any objective observer that Zionism and Israel are driven by nationalism as deep as any other nationalism. Their aspirations and contradictions are comparable to aspirations and contradictions in all nationalisms. But to acknowledge this is to accept Israel’s permanence, and even its de facto legitimacy.

A Haven for Falsehood

The tragedy of the academy is that it has become home to countless people whose mission is to prove this lie. They do research, write books, and deliver lectures, all with the same purpose: to establish the truth of a falsehood. Who does this? They include Palestinians, who have paid a price for Israel’s creation and who would like to believe that Israel is a transient affair, destined to end in the state’s demise. They include Jews who do not want to belong to a Jewish nation because they believe they belong to another nation, or to no nation, and feel the need to demonstrate their other loyalty by denying Jewish nationhood not only for themselves but for others. And the list goes on.

For reasons that have to do with the political history of the American academy, these people are represented disproportionately in universities, where they reinforce one another by making a cult of the lie. In an Orwellian way, one earns membership in the cult by declaring black to be white, day to be night and with feeling. At this university, a faculty member has even gone so far as to declare Zionism a form of anti-Semitism against Palestinians. The more far-fetched the lie, the more its inventor is lionized for his courage.

So lie begets lie. Israel, like any state, is not immune to error. The more power a state has, the more consequential its errors, and Israel has succeeded in amassing more power than its neighbors. But for believers in the lie, Israel’s power on any scale is illegitimate, and therefore its every use must serve nefarious ends. Its exercise for any purpose, at any time, is disproportionate by definition. It is not that the Palestinians can do no wrong; believers in the lie will sometimes criticize Palestinians, and some of them enjoyed criticizing Arafat. It is that Israel can do no right. Its very power is a crime against humanity, however it is used.

I have no unique strategies about telling the truth, except to tell it. In a classroom setting, it is not always easy to tell a specific truth in response to a specific lie. Evidence must be investigated and substantiated. I would urge all of you to master as much history as you can from reliable sources. No strategy can substitute for knowledge.

But even without detailed knowledge, you are in a position to challenge the root lie. The root lie is not about details. It is not about precisely what happened in Jenin. It is about starting propositions. If you challenge and puncture this lie from the outset, you have prevailed, even if you are unable to counter lesser lies in real time.

Challenging the Lie at Columbia

This brings me to the case of Columbia. It is not always easy to tell what the controversy is about. Is it about harassment? Bias? Academic freedom? Or is it just another Middle East squabble? Perhaps it is about all these things: after all, there are so many players involved.

At a profound level though, I think it is also about speaking truth. Who speaks it reliably? Who twists it, and even lies?

This is the significance of the ad hoc committee report. This is a flawed document by a flawed committee. Even so, it reached a striking conclusion. An encounter took place in the classroom between a professor and a student. The student alleged that the professor threatened her: if she denied Israeli atrocities, she must leave the classroom. The professor denied the exchange ever took place. The student stood by her account and other students corroborated it. Weighing the evidence, the committee found the student’s claim to be credible.

This is an official finding by academic peers that the professor in question lied. By finding the student credible, the committee has determined that the professor is incredible. In a university where truth is so elastic and where lies can be purveyed under the protections of academic freedom, this determination is of no mean significance. When students are more credible than professors, even in the eyes of the university itself, and when students are deemed to have told the truth, and professors are deemed to have lied, this is a world turned upside down.

The university does not manufacture widgets. Its product is supposed to be the truth. When someone plagiarizes, cheats, or lies in an academic setting, these are the equivalent of theft. An act of theft is not always an isolated act. Often it forms part of a pattern, even part of a culture.

The point that students should press at Columbia is this: we are tired of being lied to, even in a postmodern environment where truth is fungible. There is a pattern and a culture, and it does not just relate to classroom conduct. Much more consequential lies are in evidence in the works of the professors in question. They are no longer deserving of trust. This is not a demand for balance or diversity. This is a demand for truth, and this is what Columbia owes us.

Resolving Columbia’s crisis is a matter of practicalities. But these practicalities must be subordinate to principles. Advocacy teaching is antithetical to the truth-speaking mission of the university. Columbia has been compromised; it must now redeem itself. And it must do so not only by reaffirming its commitment to academic freedom, but by reaffirming its commitment to truth.