By Yousef Munayyer
It was always hard to take Jared Kushner seriously.
Yet what struck me in a recent interview Kushner gave to Axios was how well, despite his utter lack of credibility or experience in diplomacy, his perspective aligns with a long tradition of Zionist and Western attitudes toward the Palestinian people and oppressed people of color in general. Responding to an interviewer’s question about the capability of Palestinians to self-govern, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser questioned their right to self-determination, putting the burden on them to prove they are deserving of freedom, justice, equality and their human rights.
The distinction of being innately less deserving of human rights and freedom is reserved for peoples facing the brutal oppression of colonialism and racism. In the role of historical colonizers, white men considered themselves a superior people with a right to deny everything and anything to others who are less than—only the white man could know what is best for the backwards and savage peoples under his rule. This mindset is embodied today in Trump’s policies against migrants, trans folk and people of color, as well as policies that both he and Kushner are enacting against the Palestinian people.
Historically, this mindset has been a staple of U.S. domestic policy. Take, for example, the ways in which the U.S. government ethnically cleansed the indigenous people of this country, “civilizing” them, including through “schools” that tore children from families, stripped them of their culture and demanded they metaphorically (and sometimes literally) “die as Indians,” so they could “rise as men.” The indigenous people, these would-be saviors believed, could “be civilized if placed among civilized people.”
Such attitudes were also prominent in the resistance to granting black people their civil rights. In the 1950s, writers like William Buckley editorialized against civil rights using racist and patronizing arguments, arguing that black “backwardness” afforded the Jim Crow South the right to “impose superior mores for whatever period it takes to effect a genuine cultural equality between the races.”
Understanding the centrality of similar attitudes in Zionist and Western positions toward the Palestinian people is crucial to understanding the root of the “Israel-Palestine problem”—which could more accurately be called the “problem of Israel denying Palestinians their rights.” Kushner is not an outlier but rather part of a lengthy tradition based on colonialist thinking.
Theodor Herzl, the European-born founder of modern Zionism, wrote that the native Arab population of Palestine—uncivilized and barbaric, in his view—should welcome Zionist colonization as a way to develop their country. “Do you think that an Arab who owns land or a house in Palestine worth three or four thousand francs will be very angry to see the price of his land rise in a short time, to see it rise five and ten times in value perhaps in a few months?” he asked of the Palestinian mayor of Jerusalem in 1899. Herzl’s patronizing question is echoed today in the “peace proposals” of Kushner and company, who appear to think that the Palestinian people can be persuaded to give up their freedom and right to live in safety with their families in return for outside investment in their economy—an economy, which it is worth noting, that has been in an Israeli choke hold for nearly half a century.
Winston Churchill believed native Palestinians were incapable of advancement, telling a 1930s British commission that “it is for the good of the world that the place [Palestine] should be cultivated, and it never will be cultivated by the Arabs.” Palestinians, to Churchill, were an inferior people that colonializing Europeans were justified in “civilizing,” just as was done to the indigenous populations of North America, Australia, and large swathes of Asia and Africa.
The colonial mindset was the same—simply replace the name and spectrum of skin tones. “I do not admit,” Churchill declared, “that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to those people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race or, at any rate, a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”
More recently, these attitudes have been dressed up in the language of democratization, as perhaps best captured in the policy of the George W. Bush administration. No form of self-determination for Palestinians could be supported, Bush made clear, until “the Palestinian people have new leaders, new institutions and new security arrangements with their neighbors.” Sounds an awful lot like Kushner.
In other words, the fundamental sequence remains the same: The Palestinian people must prove they are deserving of their human rights, their freedom and their equality—until they do so, their oppression is justified. Such a formula is only possible in a framework where people are not created equal. Those who are inferior must accept the dictates of the superior group, including acquiescing to external actors’ decisions in regards to their governance, quality of life and rights.
This attitude has dominated Zionist and Western approaches to Palestine, the Palestinian people and people of color more broadly. Every U.S. administration, even those that ostensibly supported a two-state approach, always put the political demands of Israelis above the rights and self-determination of the Palestinian people, effectively ensuring that two-state diplomacy was merely a way to perpetuate a status quo of Israeli oppression. And Kushner, for all his inexperience, had more than enough familiarity with these attitudes to deploy them expertly, just as his many predecessors have.
A just peace cannot be built on a foundation of racism. The burden should not be placed on those whose rights and freedom are denied, but rather on those who are denying them. We must move away from outdated frameworks that present the Palestinian people with false choices and threats that seek to strong-arm them into accepting their own subjugation.
Instead, we must acknowledge the agency of the Palestinian people and stop treating them as being less deserving of freedom, safety and equality than Israelis. That is the only framework in which a true and just peace can be reached: a framework in which freedom, historical justice and equal rights are the foundational building blocks for all—not lofty goals that one group must prove that they are worthy of receiving.