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Israel Is Still Racist and Colonialist—But at Least It Has a Name

Dispatch from the 60th anniversary of the Bandung Conference, Indonesia, where the Jewish state is a pariah

Jon Emont
May 27, 2015
Marching back to Bandung: China's Xi Jinping, Indonesia's Joko Widodo, and Malaysia's Najib Razak, during ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the Asian-African Conference, Java, April 24, 2015.(Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images)

Marching back to Bandung: China’s Xi Jinping, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, and Malaysia’s Najib Razak, during ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the Asian-African Conference, Java, April 24, 2015.(Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images)

The Bandung Conference, whose 60th anniversary was celebrated last month, was the first-ever large-scale gathering of Asian and African leaders in the post-colonial period, a meeting that was historic for its symbolism as well as for the resolutions it produced. Malcolm X attended and reminisced about his time in Java in a famous speech years later. “At Bandung all the nations came together, the dark nations from Africa and Asia. … Some were communists, some were socialists, some were capitalists—despite their economic and political differences, they came together. All of them were black, brown, red, or yellow.” The conference produced a document, The Final Communiqué in Bandung, signed by all participating nations, linking the fight against imperialism and racism to the fight for universal human rights, and set in motion the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement.

On Friday, April 24, of this year, representatives from 77 countries gathered again in Bandung for the memorial Asia-Africa Conference (AAC). Java, in Indonesia, is the most populated island on Earth, with 140 million people crammed into a space the size of Pennsylvania. Bandung, a mid-sized city in West Java, is the historic vacation-home of wealthy Jakartans, who would flee the polluted capital on the weekends. But now, as any taxi driver will tell you, the traffic—and pollution—is as bad there as anywhere else in Java. For the opening of the conference, the government banned road traffic. Instead clusters of Indonesians, many dressed in red and white, the national colors, wandered toward the center of town, under the watchful eye of guards with submachine guns and crowd-control equipment. Posters with the face of Indonesia’s legendary post-colonial leader Sukarno whipped at them in the wind, from every street sign and lamppost. “It’s a historic day,” a plainclothes police officer named Aje offered to me. “We’re all very proud of this city.”

Along with South Africa, American-buttressed South Korea, and a smattering of other Asian and African states aligned with Westerns powers, Israel was not invited to attend the initial meeting of the ACC 60 years ago. For many of the Arab leaders in attendance, Israel’s founding was the most recent and heinous example of imperial conquest, made worse because Israel was founded at a time when imperialism was supposed to be in decline. Gamel Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s second president, established himself at the conference as a fiery pan-Arab visionary, declaring, “Under the eyes of the United Nations and with its help and sanction the people of Palestine were uprooted and expelled from their fatherland to be replaced by a completely imported populace. … Never before in history has there been such a brutal and immoral violation of human practices.” When Israel was not portrayed at the conference as a colonial power in and of itself, it was portrayed as an imperialist pawn. Zhou Enlai, Premier of China, said that he was convinced that, “had it not been for foreign intervention, the tragedy of the Arabs of Palestine would not have taken place.”

The fortunes of Asia and Africa have changed dramatically since the first Bandung conference. Sixty years ago, every African and Asian country was poor by Western standards. Today, two of the world’s three largest economies are Asian, the Asia-Pacific region is the fastest growing part of the world, and nominally communist China now spearheads the world’s largest infrastructure banks. Clearly, the “Spirit of Bandung,” whereby weak formerly colonized peoples hoped to leverage their moral authority to create a new world order, was going to have to be wildly transmuted to have any relevance in 2015.

Yet Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the president of Indonesia and co-host of the ACC, identified one people whose situation could serve as a cinch that might tie the ACC back to its anti-colonial roots. “Palestine is the only country that’s still colonized, and now is the time its position as a colony must be ended,” Jokowi said, in the run-up to the ACC. He promised that the ACC would produce three documents. Two would relate to the Spirit of Bandung and promoting Asian-African economic and cultural ties in the future. The third would be the Declaration on Palestine. The ACC organizers announced that every U.N.-recognized Asian and African country was invited to the conference except for Israel.

On the last day of the ACC, a committee of national representatives duly released the “Declaration on Palestine.” It began, “We deplore that 60 years since the Bandung conference, the Palestinian people remain deprived of their rights.” The declaration drew the link between anti-colonialism and justice for Palestine: “We, in the spirit of African Asian solidarity pay tribute to the resilience and steadfastness of the Palestinian people in the face of the illegal Occupation and reaffirm our full support of the just struggle of the Palestinian people.” The document resolutely blamed Israel for the breakdown in recent political talks, while at the same time commending Palestinian leadership for their commitment to international law. It called for immediate action to realize a two-state solution and an immediate end to Israeli occupation of West Bank and East Jerusalem.

I spoke with Ali Jarbawi, a Palestinian writer, political scientist, and politician, about the link between the struggle for Palestinian rights and the anti-colonial struggle. I asked him to explain why leaders of formerly colonized nations considered Palestine to be colonized by Israel. “Because Israel is the occupier and you have a colonial occupation. It is the actual reality,” he said. “It’s a classic example of a Western occupation. People came from one place—Europe—to another place, Palestine. [Israel] was all started by Europeans coming to Palestine. They were Jews, but they were Europeans. It was a classic example of colonial occupation from the beginning.”

This view is, of course, very different from mainstream Jewish and Israeli narratives about the state of Israel, which tend to emphasize Jews’ historic and aboriginal relationship to the land of Israel (you can’t colonize your own homeland), and the fact that the Russian and European Jews who founded Israel were not ardent colonists sent out by their “home” countries but, in many cases, members of an oppressed minority group who were fleeing for their lives. At the Asia-Africa Conference, however, it was Jarbawi’s narrative that prevailed, with the 77 Asian and African states signing on.


As I watched the swelling crowds of Bandung locals, cheering Xi Jinping’s cavalcade, on streets lined with the flags of every African and Asian nation but one, it was impossible not to wonder what it meant that so many huge, developing, formerly colonized nations see Israel as Jarbawi does, where Israel is one of the last colonial states, and Palestine is one of the last still-colonized peoples. If the ACC needed a modern-day symbol of colonialism to keep the spirit of Bandung alive, there are plenty of other occupations that arguably could have served the purpose. Indeed, despite the president of Indonesia’s assertion that Palestinians are the only still-colonized people, questions of different occupations, at times, reared their head awkwardly throughout the conference.

First came Kashmir, a border territory between India and Pakistan, claimed by both, that has hosted a long-running insurgency against Indian rule. On the afternoon of April 23, one of the last days of the ACC, Indian and Pakistani representatives interrupted a day of long and droning speeches to engage in a spirited fight about the status of Kashmir. The Pakistani representative condemned the Indian occupation. “The people of Jammu and Kashmir are still waiting … Jammu and Kashmir is not an integral part of India, the people of Jammu Kashmir have yet to exercise their self-determination.” For their part, the Indian representatives thought there could only be a bilateral solution to this conflict. “As the representative of Pakistan knows … under the Lahore declaration of 1999, India and Pakistan are committed to resolving our disagreements in a bilateral forum.” After a series of contentious back and forths (parliamentary procedures allowed states to deliver rebuttals when their countries were directly maligned), the delegates retired to the day’s closing ceremonies, hosted by the renowned campaigner for individual and tribal rights Robert Mugabe.

Then there is Papua, which is a huge island in the South Pacific. The eastern half is its own country, Papua New Guinea, while the western half is part of Indonesia, and home to a long-running self-determination movement. During the Conference, Octavianus Yoakim Mote, secretary general of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, issued a release from his exile in Brooklyn, which was passed along to me by representatives of Human Rights Watch. “West Papua remains unfree, today, 60 years later [after the original Bandung Conference]. It is Indonesia, today, that holds West Papua as a colony. Today, the time has come to end colonial rule and permit West Papuans a genuine act of self-determination.”

So, why do Israel and Palestine occupy a special place in the anti-colonial struggle? Ran Greenstein, associate professor at the University of Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, and the author of Zionism and Its Discontents: A Century of Radical Dissent in Israel/Palestine, said that these other cases of occupation, unlike Israel-Palestine are, “regarded by most countries as internal affairs or bilateral issues, created by the manner in which colonial rule came to an end, which created in some cases contested boundaries.” He said that, unlike Israel-Palestine, “They do not evoke the historically formative, centuries-long clash between European colonial powers and indigenous populations.” Palestine, according to Greenstein, became “a symbol of global opposition to colonialism” because it evokes a European attempt to permanently subjugate non-European land and non-European people. Self-determination movements in Papua, Tibet, and Kashmir do not have the same resonances.

Anti-colonialism as a basis for opposition to Israel is prominent in the developed world, with advocates of Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) of Israel based in the United States often employing anti-colonial rhetoric. But the ACC shows that anti-colonial opposition to Israel feels natural in much of the developing world, including many of the countries that Israel is relying on for its much-vaunted pivot to Asia. As Yiyi Chen, the director of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Peking University, wrote in Quartz in May, China is increasingly signaling its sympathy to the Palestinian cause because “Lackluster support for the Palestinian cause would not only bring complaints from Arab states but also damage China’s hard-earned international image as an advocate of justice in the developing world.”

Still, it is an open question how much Israel loses by its exclusion from largely symbolic events like the ACC. Emanuel Shahaf, the CEO of Technology Asia Consulting, and vice-chairman of the Israel-Indonesia Chamber of Commerce, was not surprised that Israel wasn’t invited to the ACC. “This is a conference for those who are disenfranchised and the Palestinians are disenfranchised. … I don’t think anyone in their right mind would have expected Israel to be invited,” he said. Nonetheless, Shahaf, whose Israel-Indonesia Chamber of Commerce recently published Startup Nation in Bahasa Indonesian, said it was important to take resolutions delivered by Asian countries towards Israel with a grain of salt. “Asian countries by and large don’t give a damn about our politics. As long as they get our imports and can invest in the high tech sector they will vote against us in the U.N., they will chastise us, but they will not do anything about it.”

The longer-term implications about developing nations rejecting Israel worried Shahaf, however. He described Israeli politics as a “clusterfuck” and bemoaned Israel’s inability to find a resolution to the conflict with the Palestinians. “We’re going to be in the doghouse in our future unless we change our ways,” he said. “It’s never good to be included among rogue nations like North Korea.

In fact, not only was North Korea invited to the ACC, but the hermit kingdom received a special souvenir for attending. During the ACC Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, Jakarta’s eccentric governor, decided to lend two orangutans from a local zoo to North Korea, in order to a establish an orangutan breeding program up north. Richard Zimmerman, the executive director of Orangutan Outreach, was strongly opposed to the move. He emailed me: “We will be extremely concerned about the orangutans’ welfare if they are shipped to North Korea, one of the most repressive, secretive nations on earth.”

Despite the fact that Israel was not invited, Greenstein, the South African academic, thought that the ACC taught a more optimistic lesson. “Note that the [Declaration on Palestine] expresses support for the two-state solution, and restricts its condemnation to the 1967 occupation,” he wrote. Sixty years after the Non-Aligned Movement was born, Israel was referred to by name and its rights to its 1967 borders were implied. Which is a kind of progress.


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Jon Emont is a journalist based in Southeast Asia. His writing appears in Tablet, The New York Times, New Yorker, Slate, New Republic, and other publications. His Twitter feed is @jonathanemont.

Jon Emont is a journalist based in Southeast Asia. His writing appears in Tablet, The New York Times, New Yorker, Slate, New Republic, and other publications. His Twitter feed is @jonathanemont.