There’s a new crop of Zionists in town and they really, really want you to believe in their left-wing credentials. They’re still critical of Israel, sure, but believe in the inherent progressivism and radicalism of Zionism. Many call themselves, as Jews, “indigenous to Judea.” Among them are self-styled activists concerned that excluding Zionists from anti-racism events amounts to “antisemitism on the left” and pundits who say that being an anti-Zionist is akin to being homophobic. I saw a TikTok recently in which a blue-haired teen declared their commitment to “BLM” and Jewish “return” and “decolonization” … by occupying Palestine.
If you’re thinking that something about this whole thing feels… weird, well, you’re not wrong. The IDF, never known for nuance, is remarkably unsubtle in its propagandizing. On their English-language social media, the IDF posts affirmations-style memes calling Arabs terrorists and tries to “debunk myths” about Palestine; on their Arabic-language accounts, they tweet photos of bombings captioned with morbid, religious warnings. You pretty much know what to expect if you come up against an official Israeli account, and most of their die-hard social media stans are similarly consistent: Arabs are terrorists, hating Israel is antisemitic, and the country was originally promised to Jews by God.
But the notion that Jews are “indigenous” to Palestine, specifically to the Biblical kingdom of Judea, is new to me. And it means something different than just saying that the Jewish religion started there or that it continues to occupy a key role in Jewish history and culture (both of which are true). “Indigenous” carries a unique connotation — that of resistance to being colonized. It is not an identity, it’s a position. And despite spending my life in all manner of Jewish cultural and religious contexts, I have never heard that word or positioning used before. No one my parents’ age was familiar with it, and it matches neither the pitch of religious Zionist messaging nor the actual history of Palestine. But here were all these kids, pointing to their curly hair or dark eyes as evidence of Semitic nativity (you know, like fascists do!), citing genetic studies and calling themselves “decolonized.”
Politicians have always used pandering and pantomime to sell racist policies. But in a world where it is no longer cool to be openly racist, colonialism must adapt to defend itself. Backed by American capitalists and Israeli government funds, Zionist propagandists are trying to win the war of public opinion by abusing the aesthetics of social justice. These adaptations give us a clue into how radical programs of liberation can easily be twisted and turned against us.
It’s hard to know what to make of this. My instinct is that, given its timing and popularity among North Americans, it represents an attempt to undermine solidarity between Palestinian, anti-colonial, Black, Aboriginal, and Indigenous movements. But far from adding to its legitimacy, these claims further demonstrate Israel’s consistency with settler colonialism as a project. No matter any ancestral claims we have to Palestine as a cultural and religious heartland, Zionism copies every other settler colony in seizing and enclosing the land for private profit, using genocide and displacement, and claims at being the “true indigenous people” (a phenomenon that also occurs sometimes in Canada), as a method of replacement, even when that claim is premised on classically imperialist tropes and manipulations. Whereas early Zionists embraced colonialism explicitly, contemporary Zionists in the apparently post-colonial era must now present themselves as the victims — what Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang call the “settler moves to innocence,” using Biblical historical claims, the appropriated cultures of its most systematically marginalized Jewish citizens, and straight up race science to paint settlers as natives. Of course, that question is materially irrelevant to the unforgivable wrongness of the Israeli occupation. But it still seems to do its job: the goal here is not to win an argument, but to muddy the waters enough that something as straightforward as settler colonialism can now appear “complicated,” cynically abusing the language of contemporary social justice.
Here were all these kids, pointing to their curly hair or dark eyes as evidence of Semitic nativity (you know, like fascists do!)
Obviously, I don't think that every idiot online with a bad opinion is an agent of the Israeli government. However, I do think that, with the right funding, a well-spun narrative can travel far. And the nature of social media is such that people can easily get tricked into spreading a lie if it already appeals to their existing biases.
Arguably, the same is true in other spaces where buzzwordy liberal branding and pithy empty gestures are keys to success. Case in point: this fall, dozens of entertainment industry professionals, from Neil Patrick Harris to Billy Porter to Mayim Bialik, signed onto an open letter in support of the Tel Aviv International LGBTQ+ Film Festival. Their endorsements went directly against repeated calls by Palestinians, queer and otherwise, to respect the cultural boycott of Israeli institutions, as the majority of Palestinian civil society has consistently demanded since 2005. The open letter was released by an organization called “Creative Community for Peace” (CCFP), a leader in a field of pro-Israel lobby groups that seeks to present solidarity with the Palestinian liberation movement as a tragically misguided obstacle to the vaguely defined “peace.” (CCFP is shares funders and leadership with the extreme right wing pro-settlement organization, StandWithUs.)
Palestinian activists argue that things like the Tel Aviv International LGBTQ+ Film Festival constitute examples of “pinkwashing,” which is defined as ”a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life.” There is strategic value in fashioning Israel (and other states like Canada, the US, the Netherlands, etc) as a paragon of liberal modernity where gays have legal rights — at once obscuring Israel’s own homophobic extremist elements and techniques, and depicting the Palestinian liberation struggle as incompatible with a modern world, Oriental and backwards.
Cultural output is part of that strategy: it is a form of soft power that Israeli institutions and governmental agencies consider integral to solidifying Israel as a “good guy” in the global imagination, even as it razes Palestinian villages (gays included). When millions of visitors descend upon Tel Aviv for Pride, they’re partying over top of the subsumed ruins of Jaffa. Tel Aviv University, for example, sits atop the former site of Sheikh Munnis, which was ethnically cleansed in 1948; the Nude Beach was once part of the ethnically cleansed village of Khirbat al-Zababida; tourists access the beach where the Pride route usually ends by crossing through what used to be the Arab neighbourhood of al-Manshiyya, which was depopulated in 1948 by Zionist militia; and so on.
The same is true of other forms of “washing,” practices of production designed to bolster Israel’s massive tourism industry and cement its image as a place with a limited, specific history free of Palestinians. Greenwashing, the use of environmentalism to obscure colonial displacement, is also common, as is the strategic cherrypicking of historical features to maximize religious tourism and undermine Palestinian claims to land ownership. Israeli land management law explicitly discriminates against Palestinians, and Israeli conservation projects (like the Ayalon-Canada Park, or its solar farms in the southern desert) are undertaken on stolen land, where Palestinian villages once stood and Palestinian Bedouin live and travel. Israeli authorities are currently, right now, in the process of destroying Palestinian cemeteries in Jerusalem to pursue archaeological digs, or to make room for a Biblical theme park. The list goes on.
I’m sure that on some level, many of the letters’ signatories — and the LGBTQ+ film festival’s organizers themselves — genuinely believed that they were participating in something progressive and beneficial. I mean, who doesn’t love gay rights and cultural exchange? Both principles appeal to liberal observers for good and obvious reasons. But depart from those vague principles, and the material realities become less good, if no less obvious.
The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs considers the online propaganda war a top priority. Winning that war requires messaging that appeals to an edgier, progressive sensibility and speaks with the lingo cribbed from Tumblr, Tiktok, and years of self-consciously feminist or anti-racist media consumption, in order to reconcile Israel’s PR goals with its real-world actions. It’s the same hasbara, just infused with social justice vibes. The audience and the context may change, but the strategy is essentially the same.
Whether through liberal bromides about art and togetherness, or pointed claims of racialized innocence, these patterns of social justice propaganda reveal the importance of solidarity in the face of glossy messaging. As elite partisanship and political pandering move further into absurdity, and our officially sanctioned political options become more desperate, it will become necessary to know a lie when we see it. Capitalist platforms profit from selling spin and sowing divisions. But we can succeed where those queer Zionists, liberal grifters, and imperial apologists fail. We have the power to build knowledge through deep solidarity that can weather the storm of these empty aesthetics.