Exposing William & Mary Professor’s Toxic Anti-Israel Bias
by Rachel Zaslavsky
Professor Stephen Sheehi, who serves as the Sultan Qaboos bin Said Chair of Middle East Studies at the College of William & Mary, has made several misleading assertions regarding the history of the State of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is necessary to highlight and respond to these inaccurate claims.
On February 6, 2022, Sheehi appeared as a guest on a video podcast by Trapart Films, “Rendering Unconscious,” where he claimed that the Zionist relationship to the land of Israel “is a psychotic relationship to the land” that is “built on fantasy.” By characterizing the Jewish relationship to the land as one built on “psychosis,” Sheehi dismissed thousands of years of Jewish history and the continual presence of Jewish communities in Israel. Additionally, Jews around the world have prayed in the Hebrew language for centuries, facing the holy city of Jerusalem, and yearned to return to Israel.
Together with his wife, Sheehi wrote the book “Psychoanalysis Under Occupation: Practicing Resistance in Palestine.” In this work, the Sheehis accused Zionists of settler-colonial “reality-bending.” They likened Zionists to colonialist regimes that “enact a fantasy and make it into a reality.” However, settler-colonization is not applicable to the Zionist project. You cannot colonize your native land.
In a Flat Hat article, Sheehi defined settler-colonialism as a specific form of colonialism in which “settlers disengage from their home country and start to identify themselves through the settler colony itself.” Thus he must understand why his own claim that “[Zionism] always has been a settler-colonial project” is false. There is no empire or mother country behind the Zionist movement.
In a video lecture published on May 31, 2021 for Daanish TV, Sheehi called Israel a “little, western, white colony.” He also made a similar remark on the “Rendering Unconscious” podcast, where he portrayed the escape of Jews to Israel as a “story of whiteness, a story of white European colonial hegemony.”
Nevermind that half of Israel’s population today is not “white,” and certainly not European. Most Jews in Israel today are Mizrahi Jews, those from the Middle East and North Africa.
The first Jews in Israel were not a “white,” privileged class, but a subjugated minority in their countries of origin. These Jews — the ones who weren’t already in Israel — were refugees, fleeing empires not only in Europe, but also from North Africa and the Middle East. Centuries of antisemitism in Europe and in the Middle East, culminating in the Holocaust and Jewish expulsion from Arab lands, pushed Jews to return to Israel. Zionism is not solely a Western phenomenon.
The false charge of colonialism also involves the exploitation of the local population. Sheehi asserted in the Daanish TV video that Zionism has “always been intent on the elimination of the Palestinians.”
However, exploitation or removal were not a part of the Zionist project. Theodor Herzl, a key Zionist figure, thought local Arabs would benefit from Jewish settlement. Israel has not exploited the Arab population within her borders, but has granted them full citizenship. Zionism was not a colonial economic or empire-building project, but a national, ethnic movement.
Furthermore, how can Zionists be seeking to eliminate Palestinians if Israel continues to offer Palestinians peace deals to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, and when the Palestinian population keeps growing? It is the Palestinian side that consistently has rejected Israeli peace offers and refuses any solution that maintains the existence of a Jewish state.
What Sheehi accuses Zionists of doing is what he himself is doing: “rejecting reality into the normative logic of being.” The reality is that Israelis are people who have rebuilt and thrived in their indigenous home. Israelis are not the “white,” settler colonialists that Sheehi would have you believe they are.
Professor Sheehi is in a position to disseminate dangerous and grossly incorrect views to impressionable and poorly informed students. That’s a problem not just for pro-Israel students, but for truth and integrity.