San Francisco buses have recently started displaying these ads:
At first I thought this was (brilliant) satire. I mean, American Freedom Defense Initiative sounds like something George Orwell would make up. Alas, it is a real thing.
I can’t help thinking these ads have a lot to teach us about Western White people’s support for Israel. The alternate text for them could have been ‘Indigenous sovereignty anywhere is a threat to colonisers everywhere’.
It seems that the aim of these ads is to get White American people to identify with Jewish-Israelis by equating Palestinians with Indigenous American people. Inadvertently these ads illustrate the connection between Western settler-colonialism (for instance in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), and Zionist settler-colonialism in Palestine. In all these countries, Indigenous struggles for sovereignty threaten existing power structures. In all these countries there’s an ethnically privileged group who are terrified of having to stop their exploitation of Indigenous resources, and having to give back what was stolen.
One of the most frustrating ideas I’ve encountered while working with Western pro-Palestine activists is that Israel is somehow an exceptional state, that it is different from other colonial states. Once, at a Palestine teach-in, a Pākehā man spent half an hour explaining to me why I shouldn’t compare New Zealand colonialism to Israeli colonialism. (According to him, Māori were lucky that Europeans introduced them to universal human rights values.)
The idea that Israel is somehow special is a Zionist idea. Zionists argue that the Israeli state doesn’t have to meet basic minimum human rights standards, like legal equality for all its citizens, because it is special. That’s not an idea Palestine solidarity activists should be reinforcing.
I realise I’m not making any profound statement by pointing out that Israel is a colonial state. Many people have pointed this out in the past. For many Palestine solidarity activists in Western countries (both Indigenous people and those who are part of colonising groups), this activism is part of a wider struggle against colonialism and imperialism.
But I’ve also encountered people who use an inverted form of the rhetoric employed by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (I still can’t type that with a straight face). Where Zionists initiatives try to get White Western people to identify with Jewish-Israelis, pro-Palestine activists try to get White Western people to dis-identify with Jewish-Israelis by situating Israel as inherently incompatible with the principles for which the West stands—democracy, equality and freedom. I agree that Israel is not compatible with these principles. But I don’t think Western governments are either.
I’ve often heard Americans complain that support for Israel is inconsistent with the ethics on which the USA was founded. The USA was founded on the genocide of its Indigenous people and the slavery of African people. Those aren’t just historical atrocities that are disconnected from today’s American society—the USA continues to be a racist and colonial country. Support for Israel is utterly consistent with that.
Denying the colonial nature of Western states does real harm to Indigenous people who are suffering under colonisation. It also does harm to the struggle for Palestinian liberation. This is something that Mike Krebs articulates really well in this article:
If Israel is held accountable for its crimes against Indigenous people on the world stage, Canada has a greater risk of meeting the same fate. It can’t allow these precedents to be set, and thus it benefits from ensuring that the UN and its various bodies are kept weak and unable to uphold international law.
He’s talking specifically about Canada, the country that colonised his people’s lands, but what he says is equally relevant to other settler-colonial states. I recommend reading the entire article.
The San Francisco bus ads were quickly corrected:
This picture sums it up pretty succinctly.