The Norway Killings: Jumping the Gun

The herd mentality of pundits and commentators was on display as they fell over each other to immediately blame the Norway killings on Muslim extremists. It wasn’t long before it became clear that the culprit, Anders Behring Breivik, was a blond Norwegian far right sympathiser, an Islamophobe, a Christian fundamentalist and an admirer of the English Defence League and of Geert Wilders.

Muslim extremists have indeed been responsible for atrocities in Europe, but this fact has merged with a more generalised anti-Muslim prejudice to produce a fixation with Muslims as the source of numerous negative trends afflicting Europe. We’re constantly being warned about the dangers of ‘Islamo-fascism’, a seriously flawed concept, while the European fascism that we know and love is being shortsightedly neglected.

You only need to read this article by Gary Younge, dating from 2008, to realise that the heirs of Hitler and Mussolini are once again flexing their muscles as they benefit from alarm over immigration, the failures and iniquities of capitalism, the greed of bankers and high unemployment. Or follow the work of Cas Mudde who warns that the new right as represented by Wilders and others are still closely attached to the ideas of the traditional far right.

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Israel and the Anti-Boycott Law: The Wider Implications of Popular Indifference

This piece is cross-posted from openDemocracy where it was published on 19 July. A small part of it appeared in my earlier post on the anti-boycott law (13 July).
The motivation for the law is not primarily to give voice to the sentiments of the Israeli-Jewish majority, although it relies on the existence of those sentiments to achieve its goal – and that is something altogether more far-reaching.
International Jewish and non-Jewish condemnation of the anti-boycott law passed by the Israeli Knesset on 11 July, which makes it an offence for citizens to either advocate or implement an academic, consumer or cultural boycott of Israel, including Jewish settlements in the West Bank, continues to mount. But the man responsible for sponsoring and driving through the legislation, MK Zeev Elkin, chairman of the coalition and a resident of a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, is unrepentant. Asked if he thought the new law would cause Israel international damage, he replied: ‘In the long run, I think not.’ Elkin and his Knesset colleagues are confidently turning their backs on domestic and international opposition to the new law, secure in the knowledge that the majority of the Israeli public supports it.
While that confidence may be misplaced, given that the law will almost certainly be challenged in the Supreme Court (although there is no guarantee that any challenge will succeed), there is no gainsaying the power now being wielded by Knesset members intent on cracking down on the very existence of dissenting voices in Israeli civil society – all the way from parents’ groups opposing the militarization of Israeli society to the appointees to the Supreme Court – and on any institutions that are less than wholeheartedly fervent in their expression of uncompromising nationalist and anti-Arab/Palestinian enthusiasm. Just how successful they are in driving the political agenda can be seen in the fact that while Prime Minister Netanyahu and other senior political figures absented themselves from the vote, presumably because they were concerned about international reaction, after the event Bibi belatedly felt obliged to place himself in the vanguard of the campaign to enact the anti-boycott law by making a public statement taking credit for it: ‘Don’t be confused—I authorized the bill. If I hadn’t authorized it, it wouldn’t have gotten here.’ He rejected the idea that the law is anti-democratic: ‘What stains [Israel’s] image are those savage and irresponsible attacks on a democracy’s attempt to draw a line between what is acceptable and what is not’, he said.

The Knesset Menorah, Jerusalem, Wkicommons

 The Knesset Menorah, Jerusalem – Hope for Salvation. Wikicommons.

The furore over the new law did just about make it onto the pages of national newspapers and broadcast news bulletins in the UK and other countries, but with so little coverage of events in Israel and Palestine recently, observers may find it hard to judge what the wider implications of this current controversy may be. The fact that even right-wing organs of opinion in Israel, like the Jerusalem Post, staunch Jewish institutional defenders of Israel and its government, like the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and NGO Monitor and a politically hawkish diaspora Jewish periodical, like the UK’s Jewish Chronicle and many other non-left wing voices have attacked the law for being a dangerous infringement of freedom of speech could give the impression that the Israeli Zionist right has gone too far and is about to be reined in. Or that this is some kind of aberration in a society known for the unfettered character of its public debate. Regrettably, neither of these optimistic conclusions can be justified.

‘The tail is wagging the dog’

Most Israelis are utterly opposed to a boycott of their country and would probably argue that advocates of a boycott are motivated by antisemitism. They would therefore view the aims of the law as uncontentious and would not be troubled by accusations that it undermines freedom of speech. If such freedom gives licence to people to propose measures that would lead to the destruction of the state, many Israelis would no doubt regard it as one freedom well worth curbing. But the motivation for the law is not primarily to give voice to the sentiments of the Israeli-Jewish majority, although it relies on the existence of those sentiments to achieve its goal—and that is something altogether more far-reaching. As the Labour MK, Daniel Ben Simon, put it, this law ‘binds Israel and the settlements into one piece’. In other words it constitutes a de jure annexation of the West Bank by giving legal protection to the settlements for the first time and in effect obliges Israelis to support the settlements by doing business with them. Or in Bradley Burston’s words: ‘The measure erases the legal differentiation between settlements and Israel proper, regarding targeted boycotts against goods from the settlements as actions harmful to the state of Israel itself.’

This move can hardly have come as a surprise to Israelis, Israel’s supporters in Jewish communities worldwide and those governments, particularly in the west, that are sympathetic to Israel’s definition of its existential concerns. In reality, the settlement movement has been insidiously hijacking politics and the apparatus of the state for years. And since the advent of the Netanyahu government in 2009, any limitations on this process have been greatly weakened. The prime minister may have rhetorically accepted the 2-state solution, but all his actions – or perhaps it would be better to speak of his inactions – have been designed to prevent its implementation. In the absence of any serious government peace initiatives and as a result of the government’s refusal to halt settlement building, the political initiative has been ceded decisively to the settlers and their political allies. As Yossi Vertersummed it up: ‘there is no government in Israel and no head of government. The tail is wagging the dog. Junior MKs dictate the national agenda to the government.’ It’s as if the settlement project has openly swallowed the state whole.

Sliding down the anti-democratic slope

The anti-boycott law is just one of a slew of anti-democratic, racist and repressive measures introduced mostly by Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) MKs since the 2009 general election. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) monitors these developments. At the end of July last year it produced a list of the top 14 anti-democratic Knesset bills. Some have passed into law, like the Naqba law, which prohibits the use of taxpayers’ funds to commemorate the establishment of the state of Israel as a tragedy – a direct attack on the Palestinians’ perception of their experience of 1948 – and the anti-boycott law. Others are still under, or are awaiting, consideration (and often subject to political infighting between the main right-wing parties). For example, the foreign state funding bill, which targets left-wing political organizations and human rights groups in order to curb their activities, and a bill giving the Knesset veto power over appointments of Supreme Court justices, by means of hearings for candidates in the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee – a proposal that Likud MKs were already announcing, to the excitement of the Likud central committee, as their next legislative project barely 48 hours after the vote on anti-boycott bill. It’s true that Netanyahu, only hours later, publicly stated that the government would oppose this second bill and protect the Supreme Court, but his behaviour over the boycott law suggests that such commitments are distinctly flaky.

The targets of these illiberal measures – the NGO sector – are doing what they can to fight back against the attacks on their credibility and very existence. But there is no public groundswell of support for them. On the contrary, there seems to be a popular appetite for, or at least an indifference to, the undermining of individual human rights and the bolstering of the tyrannical power of the hard-line Zionist right-wing in the Knesset. Much of the comment in Israel objecting to the anti-boycott law focused very specifically on the principle of freedom of speech, almost in abstract, and showed no sympathy for the aims and objectives of the human rights NGOs or the groups defending the rights of Palestinian-Israelis. As the columnist Carlo Strenger put it:  ‘The result of Netanyahu and Lieberman’s systematic fanning of Israeli’s existential fears is tangible in Israel: polls show that Israelis are deeply pessimistic about peace; they largely do not trust Palestinians, and in the younger generation belief in democratic values is being eroded.’

Embracing isolation

In a society where there is increasing sympathy for the notion of ‘transfer’ – the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and of Palestinian citizens from Israel – as well as growing hostility to foreign workers, attacks on academic freedom, a religious right unashamedly propagating racist measures against Arabs, accentuation of the character of Israel as a specifically ‘Jewish’ state in which rights of citizenship vary according to religious or ethnic identity, the anti-boycott law will only strengthen the growing international perception that Israel’s citizenship values diverge from those in the countries with which it most likes to associate itself, especially the United States. These trends have been accentuated ever since the pro-democracy character of the Arab uprisings became clear. As Paul Pillar wrote in the National Interest: ‘Not only have the demands for popular sovereignty in Arab countries highlighted the deprivation of popular sovereignty for Palestinian Arabs; to the extent that democracy emerges in any Arab countries, it undercuts the old we’re-the-only-democracy-in-the-Middle-East argument that repeatedly gets served up to Americans.’

The situation is made even worse by the failure of right-wing Israeli politicians to understand the international climate. There is certainly hostility to Israel across the region but the prevailing Israeli mindset, reinforced by the kind of scenes we saw when the US congress lapped up every intransigent word and phrase of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech in late May, refuses to recognize that the state has anything to answer for and sees its image problem almost entirely as a matter of improving the country’s public relations. The popular mood is both sullen and self-satisfied. Carlo Strenger writes: ‘Ordinary citizens in Israel don’t trust the world; its politicians are richly rewarded for noisy declarations of undying patriotism and for defying the world.’ Israelis are understandably tired of constant wars and international vilification. On the other hand, many Israelis would agree that ‘Israel is currently experiencing one of the finest periods in its history’: low unemployment, booming tourism, radically reduced fears about security, the introduction of major reforms in transport, education and communication.

If this combination of aggressive nationalism, a political leadership devoid of principle and led by the nose by anti-democratic parliamentary factions, a drive to silence the country’s ‘fifth column’ and disloyal ‘alien’ elements, a mounting sense of regional isolation and the celebration of the fruits of a kind of economic autarky—if all this is reminiscent of incipient or proto-fascism, it’s an observation made by many worried and loyal Israelis in recent months and years. Ha’aretz’s Burston writes about ‘learning about fascism one step at a time’. ‘I’m learning that the success of the Boycott Bill is a textbook case of the quiet appeal, the brilliant disguise, the endlessly adaptable expertise in the workings of democracy, that help explain the progress of fascism in our time. So this is what I’ve found out so far: At first, it doesn’t feel like fascism. That’s why it works.’ Last November, the Director of ACRI told me that ‘proto-fascism is becoming normal’.

Significance of the diaspora Jewish response

Finally, the response of diaspora Jewish supporters of Israel to the new law is undoubtedly significant. Despite a shift to the right in recent years, Jews are generally still on the liberal side of liberal societies. While some have become disillusioned with the culture of human rights, because they believe that bodies like the UN Human Rights Council are grossly unfair in singling out Israel for condemnation, many still care deeply about human rights, oppose the occupation and support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect very many such Jews have a bifurcated attitude on the question of boycott. They may well support, even if only by personal action, the boycott of produce from Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but they are utterly opposed to boycotting universities or businesses in Israel. They argue that it would hit liberal Israelis who are themselves severely critical of the Netanyahu government. Underpinning such views is the common, unspoken feeling one senses among even very concerned Jews: a visceral shrinking back from the idea that Israeli Jews could ever deserve the treatment meted out to apartheid South Africa. For them, it was perfectly logical and principled to separate boycotting Jewish settlements in the West Bank from boycotting Israel proper. The settlements represent the Zionism that has gone astray. Pre-’67 Israel still represents the values of democracy, human rights, equality and the rule of law.

How ironic then, or even tragic, that such good friends of Israel have been consigned, at a stroke, to the category of enemies of the state. Some of them have spent years of their voluntary time supporting Israel in one way or another, donating funds to charities, investing in Israeli businesses, defending the country in political forums and working for Jewish-Palestinian reconciliation. But it’s clear that they have failed to come to terms with the fundamentally disastrous changes in Israeli society, aided and abetted by Bibi Netanyahu and epitomised by the passing of the anti-boycott legislation. It’s a nice distinction to think that the settlements are not the ‘real’ Israel. Now such Jews must face the fact that ‘the settlements have annexed the state of Israel’.

Some commentators see a glimmer of hope in the broadly negative response to the law across the mainstream political spectrum in the Jewish diaspora. I find myself feeling far less sanguine. If enlightened Jews persist in holding to this illusory image of Israel, no matter what good works they may do supporting Israeli human rights organizations, they become part of the problem and not the solution. Israeli political leaders can continue to wrap themselves in the language of Jewish peoplehood with impunity—a very important weapon in their armoury: Jews worldwide, whether they like it or not, are enlisted as transnational allies in the state’s lone stand against the forces of regional and international darkness.

It’s not the law itself that matters, it’s the history that’s produced it, the context out of which it has emerged, the trends that look set to continue irrespective of what actually happens to the law. There’s no easy way out of this morass. But at a panel discussion on the Arab uprisings and the Israel-Palestine conflict, organized by Independent Jewish Voices on 14 July at Birkbeck, University of London, Ian Black, the Guardian’s Middle East editor cut to the quick when he said there’ll never be any real change until, ‘Israel reconciles itself with the Palestinians’.

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IJV Panel on the Arab Uprisings and the Israel-Palestine Conflict

This piece is cross-posted from the Independent Jewish Voices blog

Chaired by Professor Jacqueline Rose (Queen Mary, University of London), the IJV panel event discussing the impact of the Arab Spring on developments in Israel-Palestine, which was held at Birkbeck, University of London on 14 July, provided a fascinating, incredibly well-informed, though rather depressing picture. A full hall listened intently to the three expert presentations.

Professor Avi Shlaim (Oxford University) called the uprisings a ‘major watershed in the modern history of the Middle East’ and said ‘the stagnant status quo had been irreversibly shattered’. Three assumptions had been overturned: that change can only come from outside; the Arab world is conducive to authoritarianism and alien to democracy; revolutionary change will lead to Islamist theocracy.

The Arab Spring has had an empowering effect on Palestinians. Hamas and Fatah have lost their legitimacy, although the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation accord is highly significant. Among other things, it showed that there is a Palestinian consensus on the 2-state solution, since Hamas has indirectly recognized Israel, Professor Shlaim argued.

The Palestinians are deeply disillusioned with the US and Israel, and the Palestinian Papers discredited Fatah. There’s profound disenchantment with the so-called peace process – ‘all process, no peace’ – because it has given Israel cover for its colonising agenda on the West Bank.

The US cannot act as an honest broker and the imbalance in power between Israel and the Palestinians means that they must be pushed into peace by some outside agency. The projected declaration of a Palestinian state at the UN General Assembly in September, which the GA will support, may help in this regard.

Israel is clearly a player in the Arab Spring but its response has always been negative. Israelis have never seen themselves as part of the region. Bibi said Israel can only make peace with democracies, but now that the Arabs are moving in that direction, he has changed his tune.

‘Israel is succumbing to imperial paranoia’, Professor Shlaim said. ‘Unless there is a shift in Israeli thinking, Israel will end up on the wrong side of history.’

Dr Khaled Hroub (Director, Cambridge Arab Media Project) concurred with Professor Shlaim’s analysis. He added that the stability paradigms by which events in the region had always been judged had rapidly collapsed. Stability must be based on freedom, dignity and social justice, not on the idea that the end result of revolutionary change is always defeat or that Islamism is such a threat, dictatorship is the only answer. There is a new realism in the idea that Israel’s might is unsustainable because it’s unjust.

The revolutions have brought into play new forces: the youth and the silent majority. The traditional analysis of the Israel-Palestine situation, based on examining the actions of organized actors, no longer works.

The Palestinians are trying to find an alternative strategy, but so far this hasn’t succeeded because no internal plan has emerged that secures Palestinian consensus. Nevertheless, there is a recognition that Western policies of support for Israel can be changed by the people themselves.

On the role of the media, Dr Hroub said that when Al Jazeera was launched there were hopes that this would change things, but nothing concrete happened. Instead, it has acted as a safety valve – a means for people to let off steam, but leaving power structures intact. Nevertheless, the expression of global sentiment in favour of the revolutions in Tunis and Egypt was a result of the media coverage.

Non-violence proved to be more effective than violence. And the Palestinians are now taking this option very seriously, not just theoretically but practically.

Dr Hroub concluded by pointing out that the force and influence of Arab public opinion had been introduced into the Arab-Israeli conflict for the first time. Any future Arab ruler or regime now has to take Arab public opinion into account. This will expose the whole issue of peace and democracy to wider popular scrutiny. ‘Peace plans will have to go to the people.’

Ian Black (Middle East Editor, the Guardian) explained that the Arab Spring is about Arabs first and foremost, but intimately connected to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

While it’s truly a phenomenon affecting the entire Arab region, certain countries – Libya and Yemen for example – are not so significant for the Arab Spring as a whole (which is not at all to minimise the pain and sacrifice of the people in those countries seeking freedom and democracy). What happens in Syria, however, could be decisive. It’s just important to remember that what’s happening is different in different places. Among the public there is great sympathy for and broad emotional identity with the uprisings, but not total preoccupation.

Clearly, what now happens in Jordan and Egypt has major implications for the Israel-Palestine situation. However, conservative Arab regimes are more worried about what’s happening in Iran than in Israel. This can also be seen in the fact that the Bahraini ambassador to Washington is a Jewish woman.

Ian Black said that the mood among many Palestinians reflects the sentiment that ‘If ordinary Arabs can change things, why shouldn’t Palestinians also be able to change things?’ And the specifics of the Israel-Palestine situation matter a lot – things are much worse now than ever before.

It has to be acknowledged that there is hostility to Israel across the region and that this validates the embattled Israeli mindset. ‘But’, Ian Black concluded, ‘the threat to Israel is only there because Israel hasn’t reconciled itself with the Palestinians.’

A searching question and answer session then followed. Especially moving was the contribution from an Egyptian woman who had participated in the revolution and who was anxious that the chronology of events and the key forces be clearly understood. Others also focused on the nature of the uprisings and the direction they may now take, given that events in Egypt seemed to be taking a turn for the worse.

There was also interest in the implications of the declaration of Palestinian statehood expected at the UN General Assembly in September. Dr Hroub highlighted some of the possible negative aspects, arguing that the result could be more repression on the part of Israel, which may respond by annexing much of the West Bank. And there would be no force that could challenge such actions on the ground.

Responding to another question, Professor Shlaim said that Israel was becoming an anachronistic country in the region. The world has moved on and now gives priority to human rights, international law and so on. By its actions ‘Israel is undermining its own future’, he said.

Also answering a question about the planned UN GA Palestinian state declaration, Ian Black, acknowledging that Israel’s response to the Arab Spring had shown just how depressing and intractable the situation was, suggested that ‘A dramatic gesture, like the declaration of a Palestinian state, despite all the problems associated with it, could be a galvanising one.’

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The Anti-Boycott Law Crosses a Line: Will Israel’s True Friends Now Wake Up?

Only a few days ago I was talking about the issue of boycotting Israel with Jewish friends at a party. All could be defined as critical friends of Israel or liberal Zionists, deeply disturbed by the intransigence of the Netanyahu government and the anti-democratic trends gaining in strength in Israeli society. No one dissented from the principle of boycotting produce from Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. But when I suggested that the idea of a more general economic and cultural boycott of Israel was gaining support and that since the situation in Israel-Palestine had become so dire, it might be one of the ways of forcing Israel to end the occupation and begin serious negotiations with the Palestinians to reach a just settlement of the conflict, my thought was met with immediate condemnation and rejection. The settlements are one thing, boycotting universities or businesses in Israel itself quite another, I was told. It would hit liberal Israelis who are themselves severely critical of the Netanyahu government. Underpinning the arguments was the common, unspoken feeling one senses among even very concerned Jews: a visceral shrinking back from the idea that Israeli Jews could ever deserve the treatment meted out to apartheid South Africa. For them, it was perfectly logical and principled to separate boycotting Jewish settlements in the West Bank from boycotting Israel proper. The settlements represent the Zionism that has gone astray. Pre-’67 Israel still represents the values of democracy, human rights, equality and the rule of law.

Well, now that the Israeli Knesset has voted 47-38 in favour of the law for the Prevention of Damage to the State through Boycott (the Anti-Boycott Law), which makes it an offence for citizens to either advocate or implement an academic, consumer or cultural boycott of Israel, including Jewish settlements in the West Bank, I wonder what these good friends of Israel feel about being consigned, at a stroke, to the category of enemies of the state? Some of them have spent years of their voluntary time supporting Israel in one way or another, donating funds to charities, investing in Israeli businesses, defending the country in political forums and working for Jewish-Palestinian reconciliation.

The settlements-supporting Arutz Sheva news service reported that ‘A ‘Panels’ Institute poll for the Knesset Channel concludes that 52 per cent of Israeli population support the new bill, and 31 per cent oppose it,’ so it can hardly be said that the parliamentarians are out of touch with public opinion. Nevertheless, voices on the right of Israeli politics were not unanimously in favour of this new attack on free speech by any means. The Jerusalem Post, platform for some of the most outspoken right-wing commentators, editorialised against the bill. Significantly, Prime Minister Netanyahu and other senior figures in the coalition government absented themselves from the vote in the Knesset, suggesting that they were aware of the damage being done to Israel’s claim to be the only democracy in the Middle East by the drive to pass this bill into law and therefore not wanting to be visibly associated with the public spectacle – however much they may have supported the measure emotionally. Also, it may be a little premature for the parliamentarians of the right and the religious parties, and the supporters of the settlement movement as a whole, to be celebrating victory given that the law will almost certainly be challenged in the Israeli Supreme Court. Although there is no guarantee that it will be found unconstitutional.

But the fact is that signs of equivocation on the right are pretty meaningless since it is wrong to look at this law in isolation: it’s one more step along what is now a well-trodden path towards an increasingly illiberal, repressive, anti-democratic, ethnocratic and theocratic polity in which a hard-faced, exclusivist and racist nationalism is being allowed to characterise the entire country’s sense of itself. It’s true that the Anti-Boycott law crosses at least one line never before traversed: as the Labour Member of Knesset, Daniel Ben Simon, put it, this law ‘binds Israel and the settlements into one piece’; it constitutes a de jure annexation of the West Bank by giving legal protection to the settlements for the first time and in effect obliges Israelis to support the settlements by doing business with them. But this hardly comes as a surprise. And whatever happens to this law, there are more such measures in the pipeline.

The friends I was talking with are among the most enlightened and aware of Diaspora Jews, who are generally still on the liberal side of liberal societies. They care deeply about human rights, oppose the occupation and support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But, as their bifurcated attitude to the question of boycott shows, they have failed to come to terms with the fundamentally disastrous changes in Israeli society, aided and abetted by Bibi Netanyahu and epitomised by the passing of the anti-boycott legislation. It’s a nice distinction to think that the settlements are not the ‘real’ Israel, but in reality the settlement movement has been insidiously hijacking politics and the apparatus of the state for years. Now, the settlement project has openly swallowed the state whole, making pre-’67 Israel bow to the will and demands of the settlers and their political allies.

I’m reluctantly convinced that persisting with this illusory image of Israel makes enlightened Jews such as the friends I was talking with, no matter what good works they may do supporting Israeli human rights organizations, part of the problem and not the solution. It means that they cannot take the necessary radical and public step to say ‘enough is enough’, to acknowledge the damage being inflicted by Israel’s government not only on the Palestinian people, but also on the Jewish people. I’m not arguing that taking such a stand must be followed by support for a general boycott of Israel – that remains a tactical matter about which it is perfectly reasonable to hold differing views. There are plenty of other ways in which Diaspora Jews, who finally wake up to what Israel has become, can determinedly become part of the solution and help the country understand that the prevailing mindset, the one that can happily support the Anti-Boycott law, is leading to an unhappy end.

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Former Canadian Minister of Justice Cotler: ‘Calling Israel an Apartheid State is Not Antisemitic’

Professor Irwin Cotler, the former Canadian Minister of Justice and Chairman of the Inter-Parliamentary Commission for Combatting Antisemitism, recently told Ha’aretz journalist David Sheen:

‘You can criticize an Israeli policy or action as having been not only a violation of human rights and humanitarian law but also, you could even say it was a war crime,’ the former Canadian justice minister said. ‘It may be, as I say, distasteful to see that, or witness that, but I don’t regard that as being anti-Semitic content. I think that that’s part of what is called rigorous criticism and discourse.’

‘Where you say that Israel is an apartheid state, even then – that to me is, it’s distasteful, but it’s still within the boundaries of argument’.

Cotler’s remarks seem to have been received in relative silence by the blogosphere and others who comment regularly on antisemitism. This is curious to say the least given that Cotler is probably the most significant and influential international figure in the propagation of the concept of the ‘new antisemitism’, a key example of which is calling Israel an ‘apartheid state’. That what Cotler now says is a fundamental change in his position is clear from his past articles and speeches. In an ‘Alert Paper’, New Anti-Jewishness, written for the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute and published in November 2002, Cotler gave examples of ‘new antisemitism’ under 13 headings. Under the third, ‘Ideological antisemitism’, he wrote:

This finds expression not only in the ‘Zionism is Racism’ indictment – and the singling out of Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people and Israel’s ideological raison d’être, for discriminatory treatment – but the further criminal indictment of Israel as ‘an apartheid state,’ and the calling for the dismantling of this ‘apartheid state’ – a euphemism for Israel’s destruction.

Although he has never said that all critiques of Zionism are antisemitic, Cotler has avoided foregrounding this view. But in the Ha’aretz interview he is clearly keen to redress the balance. He says:

I think we’ve got to set up certain boundaries of where it does cross the line, because I’m one of those who believes strongly, not only in free speech, but also in rigorous debate, and discussion, and dialectic, and the like. If you say too easily that everything is anti-Semitic, then nothing is anti-Semitic, and we no longer can make distinctions . . .

I think it’s too simplistic to say that anti-Zionism, per se, is anti-Semitic. It may cross the line into being anti-Semitic where it ends up by saying, ‘Israel has no right to exist’, or ‘the Jewish people have no right to self determination’, or, that the Jewish people are not even a people.

I can imagine that many who have rightly seen the Canadian MP and law professor as the standard bearer for exposing the ‘new antisemitism’, and have lauded him for coining the phrase ‘Israel is the Jew among the nations’, will be bitterly disappointed by this change of mind. And at the moment they are keeping quiet about it.

But it comes at a very significant moment in the context of developments in the UK in relation to controversies surrounding definitions of antisemitism. Just during the last week a challenge has been mounted by the celebrity lawyer Anthony Julius, on behalf of Ronnie Fraser, against the University and Colleges Union for ‘institutional antisemitism’, following the Union’s highly controversial decision to reject the ‘working definition’ of antisemitism drawn up by the now superseded European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). More or less immediately after the vote at the annual congress of the UCU, the establishment bodies of the UK Jewish community, such as the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Zionist Federation, went into overdrive as they started a campaign to label the UCU as institutionally racist and demand that the Equality and Human Rights Commission investigate. They have received significant backing from politicians. And when the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, wrote an op-ed for the Jewish Chronicle, in which he attacked the UCU, this was taken as governmental support for the organized Jewish community’s stand. Lambasting the union for ‘boycotting visits by Israeli academics for a number of years’, Pickles argues that it’s not interested in securing freedom of speech but rather in silencing dissenting opinion. Various UCU decisions have ‘left many Jewish academics and students uneasy’.

When seen in this context, the latest resolution is in fact sending out a chilling message. It says that Jewish academics and students who perceive that they are being harassed or bullied should understand that they will be held to a different standard. It says that they should expect to be fair game for invective, and learn to live with feeling more vulnerable. Little wonder that the UCU has already seen many members of the Jewish faith, other faiths and none, vote with their feet and leave.

Julius’s letter to General Secretary Sally Hunt setting out UCU member Ronnie Fraser’s case against the UCU is written in the strongest terms. It accuses the union of breaches of the Equality Act 2010, threatens that unless a series of demands by Fraser are met – including the abrogation of the resolution rejecting the EUMC ‘working definition’ and a ‘commitment to sponsor a programme (for a minimum of ten years . . . ) educating academics concerning the dangers of anti-Semitism, with special reference to the relationship between anti-Semitism and what now passes for “anti-Zionism” ‘ – Fraser will make an Equality Act claim to the Employment Tribunal.

The letter is full of bombast and ridiculous hyperbole, and in places is just factually incorrect, but my concern here is not to analyse or critique the entire text. Rather, I simply want to draw attention to the fact that in two paragraphs listing the causes for Fraser’s complaint – i.e. the evidence of institutional antisemitism – the first item in each is the constant ‘anti-Israel boycott resolutions’, and it’s clear that the issue of boycott is a central bone of contention.

Whatever position you hold on boycotting Israel as a means of bringing pressure to bear on it to fulfil its international legal obligations, end the occupation and so on – and I have always opposed boycotting as a means of achieving this – it’s difficult to regard boycotting Israel as a priori antisemitic. Professor David Newman of Ben Gurion University, who spent two years in the UK as the Israeli universities’ official coordinator of the campaign against the academic boycott, was adamant in remarks he made before finishing this assignment that it was both wrong and counterproductive to fight the boycott proposals on the grounds that they are antisemitic. If it reaches the point where the UCU had to defend itself against charges of institutional antisemitism at a tribunal, citing Professor Newman alone would be a strong defence.

Now that Professor Cotler has so publicly concurred with David Newman, UCU have an even stronger voice to use in their defence. It wouldn’t surprise me if Julius tried to use Professor Newman’s often strong criticisms of the Israeli government and his very dovish position on Israel-Palestine peace as a way of discrediting his view on boycott, notwithstanding the incontrovertible fact that Newman is a Zionist, heart and soul. But such a tactic would be impossible to use against Professor Cotler whose record as a defender of the Israeli status quo is impeccable and whose efforts to embed the concept of the ‘delegitimization’ of Israel in the international consciousness have been long-standing and sustained.

It’s true that Cotler says: ‘It’s where you say, because it’s an apartheid state, it has to be dismantled – then you crossed the line into a racist argument, or an anti-Jewish argument. ‘ In other words, that’s when call for boycott becomes antisemitic. But there are two problems with this argument. First, it would be extremely difficult to prove that the Union as a whole, in voting for boycotting Israel, is therefore saying Israel must be dismantled. Second, even if a handful of people in the Union do believe that boycott should lead to the dismantling of the Israeli state, however far-reaching or shocking such a view might be, it also cannot a priori be deemed antisemitic. If such people were arguing that the Israeli state should be dismantled in order to construct a single secular democratic state in which Jews and Palestinians, and anyone else living in the state, were fully equal, you might charge them with extreme naivety in believing that such a goal is attainable, but it would be grossly unfair to assume that they were advocating the proposal in order to implement an antisemitic agenda of exclusion, demonisation, dehumanisation and so on.

Of course, the Julius letter carries other alleged evidence of institutional antisemitism and I am not commenting on them at this point. As I wrote in an earlier post, I’m not in a position to judge whether the UCU is entirely devoid of institutional racism or antisemitism. I have no doubt that the Union may have behaved insensitively in some way, but I confess that it seems far-fetched to me that a charge of institutional antisemitism could be made to stick. Certainly, there is something about the bullying and aggressive tone of Anthony Julius’s letter that suggests he is simply trying to humiliate the UCU, frighten it into making redress, rather than demonstrating a serious determination to take the matter to a tribunal. But I would not take this for granted for one minute.

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Black Propaganda and Violent Rhetoric: Israel is Shooting Itself in the Foot over the Gaza Flotilla

Some first rate bloggers and journalists are covering the Gaza flotilla and revealing the lengths to which the Israeli authorities are prepared to go to stop the entire enterprise in its tracks. Not being party to any additional information about what’s going on, I’ve just been following the reports of others with increasing disbelief and astonishment rather than writing about the situation myself. But the black propaganda being churned out by the Israelis has reached such a level that it’s impossible to remain merely an observer. The urge to bring it all to further public attention, in however small a way through my still very young personal blog, is too strong.

For a country that’s constantly preaching to the rest of the world about the strength of its adherence to democratic values, Israel’s attempts to frighten off journalists sailing on the boats so that they can cover events first-hand have been quite extraordinary. The most blatant was the issuing of a threat by Oren Helman, Director of the Government Press Office, in a 26 June letter printed on headed notepaper ‘From the office of the prime minister’:

As Director of the Government Press Office, I would like to make it clear to you and to the media you represent, that participation in the flotilla is an intentional violation of Israeli law and is liable to lead to participants being denied entry into the State of Israel for ten years, the impoundment of their equipment and to additional sanctions.

I implore you to avoid taking part in this provocative and dangerous event, the purpose of which is to undermine Israel’s right to defend itself and to knowingly violate Israeli law.

So much for freedom of the press – a freedom that is in Israel’s own interests since if there are ‘extremists’ aboard intent on pre-meditated acts of violence, as the Israeli authorities initially alleged, the journalists would be there to bear witness and bring such ‘facts’ to public attention. The outcry against this arbitrary and probably illegal measure was so strong that within a couple of days the injunction was withdrawn.

Meanwhile,  a video appeared on YouTube of an American gay rights activist who claimed that organizers of the flotilla had rejected his offer to mobilize a network of gay activists in support of their cause. This was clearly an attempt to smear the organizers as homophobic and as blind to the evils of the Hamas regime. But within days the video was exposed as a hoax by the Electronic Intifada, a pro-Palestinian Web site. The man in the video was identified as Omer Gershon, a Tel Aviv actor involved in marketing. As Robert Mackey explained on The Lede, the New York Times blog, on 28 June, ‘bloggers were quick to point out that people in three different Israeli government offices promoted it on Twitter soon after it was posted online.’ The Israeli press office then deleted its Twitter message and posted a new one, apologizing for having promoted ‘an apparent hoax’. It then emerged that the actor is linked with a producer, Elag Magdasi, who appears to be opposed to the flotilla campaign. His YouTube channel features a link to videos made by ‘a nonprofit Israel advocacy organization’ called Stand With Us. Mackey writes:

The Stand With Us YouTube channel currently features a new video that argues that Israel’s military ‘lawfully enforces a naval blockade on the Gaza Strip,’ which is necessary ‘to protect Israeli civilians from attacks by the terrorist organization Hamas.’

But was the Israeli government involved in the production and distribution of the video? When the Ha’aretz journalist Barak Ravid learnt of the story, the paper sent a series of questions to the prime minister’s office seeking answers. Ravid writes:

The premier’s office in response did not deny that that the government was involved in the video’s production, and admitted that government bodies had distributed the link.

The Israeli journalists Joseph Dana and Maya Guarnieri, who are in Athens and preparing to board the American boat heading for Gaza, have been chronicling the pressures that the Israeli authorities and groups doing their work for them have been bringing to bear on the Greeks to prevent the boats from leaving port. A complaint lodged with the Athens port authorities that the American boat was not seaworthy, which then triggered an examination of the vessel, proved to have come from an Israeli ‘lawfare’ group called Shurat Hadin, the Israel Law Centre. The boat, The Audacity of Hope, was meant to leave port on 23 June to rendezvous in international waters with boats coming from elsewhere, but the Greeks said it could not set sail until the inspection was complete. Shurat Hadin is known for making frivolous legal complaints against the Freedom Flotilla. It openly boasts about its anti-flotilla activity on its website.

The flotilla organizers, for their part, insist that they have no intention of harming IDF soldiers and that all the participants have signed a declaration of on-violence. But after issuing a statement that it accepted that there were no ‘extremists’ or ‘Islamist terrorists’ on the boats, the Israeli authorities suddenly reversed their position and claimed that there were two Hamas supporters among approximately 500 people sailing. In addition, Ha’aretz reported, ‘Israeli military spokeswoman Maj. Avital Leibovich on Monday cited intelligence reports saying extremists in the flotilla have “dangerous incendiary chemicals” for use against Israeli forces.’

So it seems that the Israelis are swinging once again into a far more aggressive mode. The Israel Defence Ministry has now proposed setting up a naval court with powers to confiscate boats that attempt to breach the Gaza blockade. The defence minister, Ehud Barak, claims that the flotilla is a ‘an unnecessary provocation’, that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza and that ‘The real problem is the captivity of [soldier] Gilad Shalit and the fact that more rockets threatening southern Israel are continually being amassed there.’ Foreign Minister Lieberman said today (28 June) that the participants are ‘terror activists seeking to create provocation and looking for blood’.  ‘Unbelievable dissembling’ Mitchell Plitnick called all this in a tweet.

You would think that the Israeli authorities might have learnt a lesson from the disastrous outcome of the May 2010 flotilla when 9 people aboard the Mavi Marmara were killed by Israeli commandos when they boarded the ship. I’m sure that they either think they did or that they believed, deep down, that they had no lesson to learn. Their response to the Gaza flotilla 2 shows all the signs that both are true: one the one hand, behind the scenes pressure on the Greeks, black propaganda either generated by the Israeli government or by proxies who are tacitly or otherwise doing the government’s work for it, possibly sabotage – all in an attempt to discredit the action and even stop it before it got going; on the other hand, outright branding of the activists as terrorists, dupes of Hamas, preparations to board, impound and confiscate the boats – all as an expression of the Israeli official mindset that regards everything in the slightest bit negative that critics say or do about Israel as ‘delegitimization’.

And if you want to get a sense of how Israelis and some Jewish Diaspora leaders have lost all sense of reason in their talking up delegitimization as a phenomenon worse than antisemitism, read – if you can stand it – the long summary of a discussion organized by the Jerusalem Post between four prominent people before they spoke on a panel on delegitimization at the recent Israeli President’s Conference in Jerusalem. (The participants were Professor Irwin Cotler, former justice minister in the Canadian Liberal government, Professor Robert Wistrich, head of the Sassoon International Centre for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University Jerusalem, Malcolm Hoenlien, executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League and Miri Eisen, former international media advisor to the prime minister.)

The most sensible response and the one most advantageous to the Israeli government was clearly spelt out in a Ha’aretz leader. Analysing what the government has and hasn’t learned since last year, Ha’aretz concludes:

The government seems to be as frightened of the flotilla as one would think it would be of an attack by an armed naval fleet. It is preparing to keep the ships from reaching the Gaza coast as though it were preparing to fight an enemy seeking to infringe on Israeli sovereignty.

It seems to believe that military preparation is what will save Israel’s honour:

The country is not willing to give up a display of power, thereby no doubt contributing to inflating the flotilla’s importance.

Now trying to find ways to reconcile with Turkey, Israel would do well to avoid simultaneously finding new means to engage in conflict with countries whose activists will be on the Gaza-bound ships. A less fearful country would certainly have offered even to go as far as escorting the flotilla to the Gaza coast.

From Israel, we can at least demand that it let the flotilla get through to the Gaza Strip without once again endangering the country’s position in the world.

By allowing the flotilla to dock in Gaza Israel would be showing strength, not weakness. It would be a display of confidence and soft power. There would be no violence, no deaths. And perhaps afterwards, the author Alice Walker might even write of Israel’s readiness to show some understanding and compassion, and of her hope for the possibility of a better future for Palestinians and Israelis.

Now that would do something positive for Israel’s image in the world.

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There is a Path to Two Sovereign States, But the Gate Giving Access is Closed

Two very interesting pieces were published in the last few weeks essentially explaining why there’s now virtually no possibility of achieving a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. On the Magnes Zionist blog, the pseudonymous Jerry Haber posted ‘Some of what’s wrong with the liberal Zionist vision of the two state solution’. In the online magazine Souciant there’s Mitchell Plitnick’s ‘Goodbye to all that: post-mortem for Israel and Palestine’.

Haber argues that the liberal Zionist vision of the two-state solution ‘is not morally justifiable’ and represents what Avishai Margalit calls a ‘rotten compromise’, ‘one that result[s] in, or preserve[s], an inhuman system’. What it would do is deliver peace in the form of  ‘a Palestinian state that is only marginally better than occupation, and in which there is still a significant degree of Israeli control, hence, of dehumanization.’ But, Haber insists, ‘peace is not the endgame – dignity and self-determination are’.

Plitnick describes what he says ‘a real two-state solution would have looked like’.

Real land swaps kept to a minimum; full Palestinian control over their land, air, water and borders; trade and water sharing agreements; agreements between the countries for passage through their borders (not unknown, as from 1967 until Oslo, Palestinians went around the West Bank, Gaza and Israel proper regularly, and Israelis visited the West Bank and Gaza regularly and freely); firm international security guarantees for Israel and full peace and acknowledgment of Israeli sovereignty from Palestine and all the Arab states.

If all interested parties had articulated this specific vision eighteen years ago, writes Plitnick, ‘we would be in a very different place today, and it would have been much harder to have crushed the two-state solution, as appears to have been done’.

Instead, Israel built and built, making itself a global pariah, destroying the democracy Jews enjoyed and reversing the trend of integrating its Arab minority which, though it had been appallingly slow, had been progressing from 1949 until the end of the 20th century.

In then saying ‘two states means two independent and self-sufficient states, with all the rights and responsibilities that implies’, it seems to me that Plitnick is making the same point as Haber, that ‘dignity and self-determination’ were never on the table for the Palestinians.

The only way that two fully independent states could come about is if both sides make painful compromises, Haber argues. And what we have seen during and since Oslo, and what has been confirmed in the leaked Palestine Papers, is that when it came to the bottom line, only the Palestinians were being asked to make serious compromises. And none more serious perhaps than on the question of Palestinian refugees and the right of return.

In my view, nothing is more emblematic of what is involved in persuading the Palestinians that a solution to the conflict puts ‘dignity and self-determination’ first than Israel accepting the principle of the right of return. While it’s understandable that Israel should see that to do this would be erasing its ultimate red line, because it raises the spectre of hundreds of thousands or even millions of Palestinians returning to their homes within the Green Line and thereby dispossessing hundreds of thousands of Israelis and destroying the Jewish character of the state of Israel. But for the Palestinians to agree to a compromise that does not include acceptance of the right of return would in effect set in stone the notion that they have no historic or legal right to a state because there is no recognition that they have any rights whatsoever to the homes they had before 1948. It would be a denial of their dispossession. A denial of the naqba. Any state ‘offered’ to them would be entirely on sufferance, a ‘gift’ rather than a ‘right’ – the opposite of ‘dignity and self-determination’.

Now it’s quite widely understood that even if Israel did agree to accept the principle of the right of return, only a very small segment of Palestinian opinion would seek to seek to interpret this in a maximalist fashion and insist on the absolute actual right to return to inhabit every Palestinian home that was taken and every settlement, village, kibbutz, town etc. that was built on demolished Palestinian homes. This would be the pursuit of the principle of absolute justice, an impossible quest, as Haber argues. In reality, the Palestinian leadership would almost certainly accept a compensation arrangement and perhaps the symbolic return of some thousands or some few tens of thousands of refugees to their former homes. But what’s on offer to the Israelis to get them to understand and accept this is a purely pragmatic argument, a solution that emerges in the working out of how to get to the end point of peace. It still leaves open the possibility of failure because one side might decide that one person’s pragmatism is another person’s poison, or because fear or the exploitation of naked advantage might make one side behave in a way that is the opposite of what is expected.

So it comes back in the end to principles: principles that, if agreed to, would make it impossible for a new catastrophe of any kind being perpetrated on one side or the other. This, to me, is the nub of the problem. At its very basic, what must be avoided at all costs is any more killing, any more collective punishment, any more ethno-nationalist inspired dispossession. Particularly with children in mind – Palestinian children, Jewish-Israeli children, children of any identity who live in the region of conflict – the thought of some ‘solution’ that creates a new wholesale tragedy is unthinkable. It’s for this reason that the maximalist interpretation of the right of return – the absolute justice option – is inconceivable. The new pain and suffering it would inflict on families, on children, cannot be allowed to happen, not to mention the bloodshed that is likely to ensue if Israelis who take up arms clandestinely to oppose the implementation of any maximalist option begin to use them.

I would argue, as I have done for some years now, that the only principles that satisfy the demands of this situation are those of universal human rights. These are the only common values and principles to which all Palestinians and all Israelis can jointly subscribe. Using them as the fundamental guide will not mean that in reaching an agreement no one will experience some pain or disappointment, but it will mean that the least pain and disappointment will be experienced and that competing rights can be mediated as justly as is humanly possible. So, on the one hand, refusal to recognize the Palestinians’ right of return would contravene the principles; on the other hand, the massive displacement and dispossession of Israelis living within the pre-1967 borders would do the same. Again, on the one hand, refusal to bring a complete end to the occupation of Palestinian territory taken during the 1967 war would contravene the principles; on the other hand, if, on the basis of land swaps, the Palestinians are convinced that a Palestinian state, fully independent, self-sufficient, viable and fully sovereign could be established, not to make the land compromise would do the same.

Having made this argument I’m forced to admit that, given the current situation, what I’ve outlined is something of a castle in the air. Along with Haber and Plitnick, as things stand I see no possibility of Israelis and Palestinians reaching a point where they can agree on the ‘bad compromise’, to use Haber’s/Margalit’s term, that would bring about a two-state solution rooted in the principles of universal human rights. For all that some attempt to portray the Palestinian Authority as able to act independently, in reality what currently exists in Israel-Palestine is tantamount to a ‘one state solution’: the illiberal, repressive, Israeli-controlled one-state in which Palestinian-Israelis are treated as second-class citizens and Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are denied their human rights. We all know that prime minister Netanyahu claims to have accepted the two-state solution, but it’s also perfectly clear that he does not mean a democratic Israel protecting the rights of its Jewish and its non-Jewish citizens, existing alongside a sovereign Palestine. Instead, he and his coalition partners want a sovereign, explicitly Jewish state, separated from an assortment of powerless Palestinian bantustans, politically disjointed, lacking sovereignty and under Israeli control.

I think there is a path to a just resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, but the gate giving access to that path is securely closed. And I fear that it may never open.

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