Palestine: Silent Compromises
By Justin Podur
31 October, 2015
Many vicious attacks have been reported. On Friday October 23, a rabbi named Arik Ascherman was chased by a masked man trying to stab him, near the Itamar Israeli settlement. On October 22, a Jerusalem man named Simcha Hodedtov was shot and killed by police as a terrorist. On October 18, a twenty-nine year old named Haftom Zarhum was shot and then beaten to death by a mob in Beersheba. On October 13, Uri Rezken was stabbed in the back while shopping. He screamed “I am a Jew, I am a Jew”, to his attacker, but was stabbed four times anyway.
This list of incidents above is selective, though not exhaustive. It consists solely of attacks by Israelis against Israelis who were mistaken for (or in Ascherman's case thought to be too close to) Palestinians. It does not include the vast majority of deaths and injuries in this latest round of violence, deaths and injuries of Palestinians attacked by Israeli security forces, accompanied by horror stories of children shot while seeking help; children imprisoned without trial; planted weapons after shootings. Nor does it include massive, organized attacks by mobs of settlers against Palestinian villages. It also does not include the deaths and injuries of Israelis killed by Palestinians in the knife attacks that are much more thoroughly covered in the Western media than the much larger numbers of Palestinians killed.
What started this round of violence? Israel's armed settler movement is attempting to change the way that Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque is run. In fact, they want the mosque torn down, like the Babri Mosque was torn down in India in 1992. The Israeli government, which the settler movement has largely taken over, has a strategy that probably involves ultimately dividing the mosque site and banning Palestinians from it, as has been done in Hebron. As with the second intifada in 2000, Israel put pressure on the al-Aqsa site until Palestinians resisted. When Palestinians resisted, Israel escalated with lethal force, and now continues to escalate with no end in sight.
In the midst of this violence, Israel's political leaders are attempting to suppress what a George W. Bush advisor called the “reality-based community” and replace it with a set of racist fantasies. The Israeli Justice Minister who last year brought you the genocidal comment that Palestinian children were "little snakes", this month has said "there never will be a Palestinian state."
Prime Minister Netanyahu topped this all off with a rehabilitation of Hitler. Offering a denialist version of history, Netanyahu made a speech claiming that Hitler didn't want to kill the Jews until the Mufti of Jerusalem gave him the idea. German government spokespeople attempted to correct the record, emphasizing that Germany spends time and energy on Holocaust education and does not wish to see politically convenient revisionism undermining those efforts. Max Blumenthal, who has documented Israel's descent into chaos in his book Goliath, writes about the effects of Netanyahu's incitement:
"By blaming a Palestinian for the Final Solution, Netanyahu has helped his countrymen adjust to the macabre reality. He reassured them that they were not settler overlords or vigilante brutes, but Inglorious Bastards curb stomping SS officers in the woods outside Krakow. And he sent them the message that those Palestinians lurking behind concrete walls and under siege in ghettoes were not an occupied, dispossessed people, but a new breed of Nazis hellbent on Jewish extermination. Netanyahu's comments about the Mufti were much more than a hysterical lie; they were an invitation to act out a blood soaked fantasy of righteous revenge."
Israel was founded to be a refuge for Jews who were persecuted in Europe. Some of its founders had democratic and socialist aspirations that were contradicted by their militarist and colonizing plans and methods. After decades of failure to reconcile these, Israeli society has abandoned pretense, and embraced racism and violence from the highest levels of government to the settler masses celebrating attacks on social media.
It is obvious why such politics and such fantasies would be appealing to right-wing politicians and their constituencies in the West, like the outgoing Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the 5.6 million people who voted for him, or the Democrats and Republicans in the US who support Israel.
What is more difficult to understand is how those who espouse liberal politics can continue to hold on. Some no doubt see Israel as it was decades ago, in some kind of struggle between different kinds of Zionism, one of which sought a two-state solution. Having out-of-date information can be a problem, but refusing to update one's information is a political decision.
Two months ago when the Canadian election had just begun and the New Democrats were purging pro-Palestine candidates, I argued that they were playing a game they were guaranteed to lose. I strive to stay in the reality-based community: I do not think that being pro-Israel cost them the election. But backing down in the face of right-wing bullying, and declaring unconditional support for a society that is sliding into fascism, form political habits. They broadcast either a lack of courage or the support of a racist and violent project. Julian Assange wrote that “every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train our character to be passive in its presence and thereby eventually lose all ability to defend ourselves and those we love.” Could it be that people so trained make uncompelling candidates for progressive voters?
One reason Westerners find themselves with an out-of-date idea of Israel's society and its trajectory is that we are not allowed to talk about it anywhere, including university campuses. A report called The Palestine Exception, by Palestine Legal, documents 292 incidents of the suppression of free speech on campuses, used against advocates of human rights for Palestinians. The report groups the incidents into nine categories of tactics: 1. False accusations of antisemitism and terrorism; 2. Official denunciations; 3. Bureaucratic barriers; 4. Administrative sanctions; 5. Cancellations and alterations of events; 6. Threats to academic freedom; 7. Lawsuits and legal threats; 8. Legislation; 9. Criminal investigations and prosecutions. The report is important, especially for student activists who are starting out and should know what to expect.
The Palestine Exception reveals many things. One of them: the unconditional defense of Israel regardless of what it does and what it becomes, has political consequences. The more indefensible Israel's behaviour, the more debate has to be avoided, the more taboos have to be established, and the more those who speak about it have to be punished. This is true on campuses, where the freest possible research is supposed to take place and where students are supposed to be taught to think critically and contribute their knowledge to society. It is also true in the media, which is supposed to inform our decisions about what to do in the world. It is true in democratic politics, in which we are supposed to be able to deliberate with the widest possible range of discussion in order to make decisions. The farther Israel slides down its current path, the more unfree we will all have to be, the more disconnected from reality we will have to become, in order to continue to accept it.
Justin Podur is the author of Haiti's New Dictatorship (Pluto Press 2012). He has contributed chapters to Empire's Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan (University of Toronto Press 2013) and Real Utopia (AK Press 2008). He is an Associate Professor at York University's Faculty of Environmental Studies.