Thursday, July 14, 2011

The joke of Israeli democracy

There isn’t an educated person today who hasn’t heard it before: Israel is ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’; the ‘vanguard’ of freedom against tyranny; an ‘island of enlightenment’ imperilled on all fronts by a malevolent ‘sea of backwardness’. It’s a line that goes right back to Theodor Herzl’s 1896 pamphlet, Der Judenstaat, in which he envisaged a future Jewish State as “a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism”*. And it’s invariably the trope of choice whenever the Israeli government embarks on a PR exercise: here is Prime Minister Netanyahu addressing his sponsors in the US Congress in May of this year:

In an unstable Middle East, Israel is the one anchor of stability.

[America and Israel] stand together to defend democracy. We stand together to advance peace.

[I]n our free societies you can have protests. You can’t have these protests in the farcical parliaments in Tehran or in Tripoli. This is real democracy.

Israel has always embraced [liberty] in a Middle East that has long rejected it.

George Eliot predicted over a century ago that once established the Jewish state – here’s what she said, “The Jewish state will shine like a bright star of freedom amid the despotisms of the East.”

You don’t need to export democracy to Israel. We’ve already got it.

The passing by the Knesset this Monday of the Boycott Prohibition Law was merely the latest iteration of the Israeli government’s long-established tradition of unwittingly discrediting its own propaganda. For those who missed it, the law makes it a criminal offence for organisations and even individuals to boycott Israeli settlements in the West Bank. These settlements, of course, are illegal under international law, and thus it is incumbent on all Israeli citizens to oppose them by all peaceful and democratic means. Under a government that has shown itself vehemently opposed even to freezing the settlements, let alone dismantling them, boycotting is one of the few available non-violent options. This law, therefore, does not merely “subvert Israeli democracy”, as an editorial in Monday’s Haaretz proclaimed (as usual, one finds far more courage and principle from Israeli journalists than from their craven American counterparts: even the right-wing, pro-occupation Jerusalem Post published a critical editorial) - it actually makes it a crime for the Israeli citizen to abide by international law. 

Yet, as I say, this is by no means the only frontal assault on democracy in Israel in recent memory. In June, Haaretz reported the story of Lucas Koerner, a 19-year-old American college student who was violently arrested in Jerusalem and jailed for two days for protesting outside the Old City. A video featured in the online version of the article (and now viewed by over 345,000 people on YouTube) showed the plainly non-violent teenager, wearing both a kippa and a keffiyeh, speaking eloquently of the “completely unjustified and ethically reprehensible” occupation before being confronted by Israeli police (who, one mustn’t forget, have no right under the 1967 borders to be in East Jerusalem in the first place). After he refuses to hand over his passport, we see him being shoved to the ground and roughly manhandled into a nearby police car. Legal considerations aside, this seems a remarkably ungrateful way for the Israelis to repay their American patrons for the $3bn in aid they annually receive. Imagine the same had happened to a blue-eyed boy in Pakistan! Would the State Department have thought that unworthy of comment too? What does Alan Dershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard, author of The Case for Israel and self-styled ‘civil libertarian’, have to say about his tax dollars being spent beating up Jewish American kids?

Sticking for the moment just to free speech in Israel (which Dershowitz describes in his book as “complete”**), it might be worth mentioning the case of Uri Blau, the Haaretz journalist who fled to London in 2010 for fear of arrest after exposing the assassination by the IDF of two suspected Palestinian militants in contravention of a ruling of Israel’s own Supreme Court. So apparently embarrassing was the report that the government placed a gagging order silencing all mention of it in the Israeli media. It’s one thing for media organisations to censor themselves – as almost every Western newspaper and television network did, to their everlasting shame, at the time of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons. But for the government itself to intervene is sheer totalitarianism – exactly of the sort, as it happens, that one might encounter in Tehran and Tripoli.

And then there was the Nakba Bill, passed in March, which forbids state funds from being used to commemorate the nakba, or ‘catastrophe’, as Arabs describe their defeat and ejection from Palestine in 1948. I happen to think there’s a good case for the prohibition of spending public money on any such event – the day cannot come soon enough that, say, British monarchs start paying for their own damned weddings, or Popes for their own insulting public parades – but so long as state funds continue to be deployed in celebration of the Israeli Independence Day (which is, after all, the same nakba seen through the victors’ eyes) there is a plainly undemocratic double standard which serves only to Judaise the national historical narrative.

Which brings me to the plethora of similar Judaisation programmes, many of which would be roundly denounced as broad-daylight bigotry if enacted elsewhere. Last October, Netanyahu’s Cabinet approved an amendment requiring those seeking naturalisation as Israeli citizens to pledge loyalty to a “Jewish and democratic state”, a deeply sinister initiative, not inaccurately compared by the Israeli academic Prof. Gavriel Solomon to the Nuremberg Laws in Nazi Germany. Leaving aside the question of whether a state defined by an ethnicity or religion can ever be “democratic” (and here one thinks wearily of the ‘Islamic Republics’ of Iran and Pakistan), a fundamental principle of freedom is violated when citizens are required to pledge servility to their governments, rather than the other way around (the term ‘public servant’ did not enter our language by accident).

Or how about the Law of Return, which grants any Jew - defined as “a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion” - the automatic right to Israeli citizenship? This official, undisguised discrimination on the basis of religion is quite clearly anti-democratic by definition: just try to picture the reaction if the United States were to offer instant green cards for all Jewish converts to Christianity. Moreover, as the Palestinians are famously denied their own right of return, the result is the absurd situation that an Arab refugee born in Jaffa or Jerusalem cannot return to his house – even if he still holds the British or Ottoman era title deeds to it, as many do*** – while an American born in New Jersey can immigrate tomorrow as long as his mother never gathered figs on the Sabbath. 

A related injustice concerns the ownership of land. As Haaretz explained in an article bluntly titled, ‘Most Arabs can’t buy most homes in West Jerusalem’, in practice, 93% of Israeli land is not privately owned, but rather leased on a long-term basis from the Israel Lands Administration. This would be uncontroversial – the London real estate market works in much the same way – if it weren’t for Article 19 of the ILA lease, which stipulates that land may not be leased to foreign nationals, except those “[eligible] to immigrate to Israel in accordance with the Law of Return”; i.e. Jews. Since many Palestinians living in Israel do not have full citizenship, they are legally confined to living in just 7% of the country – unless, that is, they convert to Judaism or pledge allegiance to a “Jewish and democratic state”! Once again I invite you to imagine an America in which Jews were forbidden by law from living in Christian neighbourhoods. Why, I dare say Abraham Foxman might go as far as to call it anti-Semitic...

I could go on, but I imagine by now the reader has got the drift. And I’m wary of losing an important sense of perspective. Israel is still undoubtedly the best place in the Middle East to be a woman or a homosexual (even if women cannot divorce without their husband’s consent, and same-sex marriage is illegal), and the fact that most of the incriminating evidence in the foregoing is freely available in the Israeli public domain is indeed to the country’s great credit. But such achievements are merely minimum requirements for a democracy: the necessary but far from sufficient conditions. As long as the Israeli government continues to illegally occupy the territories of Arab peoples outside its borders; to ghettoise and persecute the Arab minority within its borders; and to clasp ever tighter at the bruised throat of free expression, then it forfeits its right to sit at the table of free nations, and its claim to be democratic is little more than a bad joke.

* Herzl, T., The Jewish State (1896), p. 96, as published by Dover Publications, Inc. (1988), based on the American Zionist Emergency Council text (1946)
** Dershowitz, A., The Case for Israel (2003), p. 218
*** See esp. Fisk, R., Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War, Chapter 2: ‘The Keys of Palestine’

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Defaming the Victims: Hitchens slanders the brave men and women of the Gaza flotilla

In the first chapter of his 2001 book, Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens begins, perhaps fittingly, by rejecting the title, lamenting that “our language and culture contain no proper word” for the term, and warning his imaginary correspondent that “the cynics have a point, of a sort, when they speak of the “professional nay-sayer””. It’s a charge that has sometimes been levelled at Hitchens, though I for one do not happen to think his pugilistic polemics the stuff of a mere crank or curmudgeon. One reason for his lasting effectiveness and readability (and indeed watchability) as a commentator is his consummate contempt for borrowed or otherwise unoriginal thinking. You see it all the time in his televised debates – throw him a hackneyed argument or a clumsy metaphor and he doesn’t just dislike it; he’s personally insulted. He takes it to heart. (Debating Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in New York last September, after being made yet again to refute the foolish and ignorant claim that Hitler was an atheist, the visibly irritated Hitchens growled, “Don’t you dare bring this up again”.) Yet very occasionally, in his eagerness to meet Salman Rushdie’s criterion of the poet as the one who “points at frauds”, he’s capable of broaching the slender but absolute barrier between the fertile terrain of scepticism and the rather less nourishing deserts of cynicism. 

One such example was to be found in this week’s Slate column, in which Hitchens elected to make disobliging and, I think, slanderous remarks about the brave members of the Free Gaza Movement who are quite literally risking their lives this week to deliver aid to and express solidarity with the hopelessly impoverished citizens of Israel’s most tightly throttled bantustan. Granted, he makes a number of very pertinent if not exactly new points about Hamas and Hizbullah that fully ought to be made. Business, you might say, as usual. What he absolutely does not do, however, is demonstrate that these thugs and theocrats have anything at all to do with the fleet of vessels currently headed for the Gaza Port. Indeed, he does not even try to demonstrate it, preferring instead to simply state point-blank: “It seems safe and fair to say that the flotilla and its leadership work in reasonably close harmony with Hamas”. Does it now? I seem to recall Hitchens phrasing something once about assertions made without evidence...

It’s the sort of line one more usually gets from the Dershowitz-Phillips brand of Likudnik. Yet according to the same New York Times article to which Hitchens links in his article, the Free Gaza Movement has its origins not in Hamas but in the International Solidarity Movement, an unarmed outfit calling for civil resistance to the Israeli occupation co-founded by both Palestinians and Israelis with a spotless record of nonviolence and no confessional leaning of any kind (for what it’s worth, at least two of the Palestinian co-founders, Ghassan Andoni and Huwaida Arraf, are nominal Christians). Previous members have included Rachel Corrie, an American college student killed in 2003 for putting herself between an IDF bulldozer and the home of a Palestinian pharmacist illegally designated for demolition, and Thomas Hurndall, a British photography student picked off by an IDF sniper round fired – in the words of the killer’s own testimony – “as a deterrent”. Not that all ISM casualties have been by Israeli hands: in 2007, ISM member Akram Ibrahim Abu Sba was shot dead by Islamic Jihad gunmen in Jenin whilst trying to mollify a dispute between the Islamists and some Palestinian Authority security forces. And in April of this year, the Italian writer Vittorio Arrigoni was kidnapped and strangled to death by an al-Qaeda-linked group called ‘At-Tawheed wal-Jihad fi Filasteen’ (‘Monotheism and Jihad in Palestine’) for the crime of coming from an “infidel state”. That by itself would seem problematic enough for Hitchens’ premise that the ISM are all in bed with the Islamists*, but we also have the following words of Arrigoni directly addressing the question of Hamas in an interview with Peace Reporter:

Personally, as an activist for human rights, I do not like Hamas at all. So I have something to say to them too: they have greatly restricted human rights since they won the elections. [Translated from Italian.]

So much for “volunteer[ing] time to make [Hamas] look more presentable”. It’s sad to see the man who spoke so movingly at the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture sullying the memory of his fellow journalist Arrigoni with such callous sangfroid. On a better day, Arrigoni and Akram Abu Sba are the sort of people Hitchens – the co-editor with Edward Said of Blaming the Victims – might have been found defending. 

His article is also notable for what it doesn’t say. At no point would the reader have any idea, for instance, that the blockade of Gaza Port is illegal – that it is, in the words of Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, former judge of the International Criminal Court and President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, “in direct contravention of international human rights and humanitarian law”. Not that it’s quite that simple – few, I think, would go as far as the UN jurist Desmond da Silva, who said that Israel would have had no right to board the Mavi Marmara “even if Bin Laden himself was on board”. I for one am neither able nor willing to ignore the fact that the regime in charge of operating the port at Gaza has explicitly stated its intention to wage jihad** against Israeli civilians, and has amply and multiply acted on this intention in the past. For Israel to grant Hamas totally unfiltered access to the high seas would be to recklessly endanger its own citizens, for whose human rights the ISM also states its support. But to starve Gazans of things like fresh meat, canned fruit, fishing rods, textiles and wood – all of which were banned before the Israeli government eased the blockade in embarrassment after the previous flotilla fiasco – is plainly a form of collective punishment with no security benefit of any kind. So Hitchens is punching air when he says the “intended beneficiary” of the campaign is Hamas. The intended beneficiaries, who were also to an extent the actual beneficiaries of last year’s effort, are quite obviously the people of Gaza, along with anybody else who minds about the enforcement of international law.

* The ISM posts its own response to the charge that it collaborates with terrorists on its website
** From Article 13 of the 1988 Hamas Charter: "There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad."