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Home arrow Labour arrow Zionism and its critics: Labour, the left and anti-Semitism
Zionism and its critics: Labour, the left and anti-Semitism PDF Print E-mail
Feb 27, 2003 at 12:00 AM
A presentation by Sid Shniad to the
Trade Union Committee for Justice in the Middle East Forum:
Trade Unionists and the Israeli-Palestinian Crisis
February 27, 2003, Vancouver, BC

Last December, Judy Rebick wrote an article for Rabble in which she observed that being Jewish has never been the source of barriers in her life. At the same time, Rebick noted that there has been more discussion of anti-Semitism in recent months than at any time in her adult life.

So how should we account for this apparent discrepancy? Rebick provides the answer, explaining that "… Israeli leadership has skilfully woven the myth that opposing their policies is opposing the Jewish people, that criticism of Israel is, in and of itself, anti-Semitic."

There we have it. In Israel/Palestine, one of the world's strongest militaries is using its unfettered power to occupy and oppress another people, in defiance of countless United Nations resolutions. But instead of addressing the substance of this problem, Israel's defenders have taken to labelling the country's critics as anti-Semites.

The history of anti-Semitism can be useful in helping us avoid being silenced by Zionists' misuse of this charge. Western hatred of Jews dates to the earliest days of the Christian Church. That is when the practice of channelling popular outrage against social and economic injustices into anti-Jewish attitudes and violence began. Later, in Eastern Europe and Russia, where anti-Semitism reached its pre-Hitlerian height, pogroms, organized and encouraged by reactionary governments and supported by Church establishments, became regular occurrences. This hostile atmosphere provided a major impetus for Jewish immigration to the United States and Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The phrase "anti-Semitism" itself was labeled in the late 19th century by the German Jew-hater, Wilhelm Marr. Marr transformed the linguistic term "Semite", which refers to a linguistic group including Arabic and Hebrew, into a racial construct that he used to support his theory of Jews' purported racial characteristics. His intention was to deny Jews' European heritage in an attempt to show that they constituted a threat to Christian society in Europe.

The Nazi Holocaust was the ultimate manifestation of Marr's anti-Semitism. The effects were devastating, particularly the death and torment that Nazi persecution caused – not only to Jews, but to millions of others who were slaughtered in death camps as well.

The traumatic experiences of the Holocaust remain with us today. Some Jews have interpreted it as a definitive refutation of their longstanding hope that they could escape persecution in societies where they constituted a minority of the population. Instead, many Jews concluded that the Zionists were right – that Jews would always be at risk, and that pogroms and forced exile could start again unless they had access to refuge in a Jewish state.

I disagree with this view of the world. To those who are concerned about the potential threat of resurgent anti-Semitism, I would say that security will not be achieved or sustained by fixating on the trauma of the Holocaust, or in the unquestioning embrace of Israel as a haven for the world's Jews. In my view, achieving and sustaining security can only be achieved through vigilance and cooperation with allies who are determined to combat all forms of hatred and oppression – whether they are based on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or any other trait.

Defenders of Israel often point to anti-Jewish sentiments in Arab and Muslim societies to validate Israeli actions. But it is important to note that anti-Jewish attitudes are not endemic to these societies. They have arisen in response to the displacement of the Palestinian people, the occupation of their land, and Israel's relentlessly belligerent stance with respect to the other peoples of the Middle East.

The unfortunate fact is that the only experience with Jews that most Arabs have is with reactionary Israeli political leaders, soldiers and settlers, and North American Zionists who voice racist and hawkish views with respect to Arabs and who give unqualified support to Israel's mistreatment of Palestinians. If we are serious about addressing the issue of anti-Jewish attitudes in the Arab world, we have to tackle the basis of those sentiments.

It is simply wrong to insist that opposition to the occupation of the West and Gaza, to the rejection of Palestinian refugees' claims resulting from conflicts dating back to 1948, or to Israeli laws that give Jews more rights than non-Jews must be rooted in antipathy toward Jews. To counteract the regressive reflex which characterizes all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism, activists working for a future in which Palestinians and Israeli Jews can live together in mutual respect, peace and security must take the fight against anti-Semitism out of the hands of those who use it to stifle debate about Israel's racist and oppressive policies. And while confronting real anti-Semitism wherever it exists, we must simultaneously confront those who dishonour centuries of Jewish persecution by defending racist policies that are antithetical to the pursuit of justice for all victims of oppression and injustice.

Fortunately, the ranks of progressive people who are promoting this approach are growing, both inside and outside Israel. Ilan Pappe, a senior lecturer of Political Science at Haifa University and the Academic Director of the Research Institute for Peace at Givat Haviva is one outstanding example. Pappe recently presented a lecture at McGill University in Montreal, entitled "Israel, a State in Denial." In that lecture, he pointed to contradictory interpretations of the events that took place in Palestine in 1948.

In that year, Zionism realized its most significant achievement through the establishment of the state of Israel in the land of Palestine. Pappe notes, however, that in the process of fulfilling their dream, Zionist forces destroyed five hundred villages and eleven towns and ethnically cleansed 750,000 Palestinians from their own land. "In the collective Israeli Jewish memory," says Pappe, "very few people remember or want to remember this less pleasant side of this story."

Pappe points out that while Israel's media, educational, and political systems refer to the events of 1948 as the "Day Of Independence," or the moment of the end of the 2000-year Jewish exile, they ignore the other side of the story. That side is much less pretty. It involves the systematic uprooting of another people, the destruction of the local population, and the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. According to Pappe, this history has been systematically erased from collective memory of Israelis.

Israeli textbooks, media outlets, and politicians have replaced this history with a benign fictional version that portrays the Jewish State in a highly selective, romantic light. It was not until the late 1980s, with the work of Israeli historians like Pappe and Benny Morris that Israelis and the rest of the world began to hear the version of the story that has been told by Palestinians ever since 1948. But Pappe explains that thanks to the power of Zionist propaganda, the Palestinian version of events continues to encounter difficulty in gaining widespread credibility.

Pappe notes that Israelis are in denial about several crucial issues: the events of 1948; the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1967; the reasons for Palestinian uprisings; the reality of Palestinians' suffering; and Israel's central role in contributing to that suffering. Pappe argues that house demolitions, expulsions and killings have, from the beginning, characterized the extremely brutal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. But he insists that denial of these facts has so fundamentally distorted Israelis' perceptions that they see the occupation as an act of benevolence that is bringing enlightenment and progress to the Palestinian people.

Pappe argues that the second Palestinian uprising, beginning in October 2000, elicited a renewed, intensified sense of denial among Israelis. While the occupation that existed between 1967 and 2000 was characterized by the collective abuse of Palestinians' rights, he explains that the conditions faced by the Palestinian population since October 2000 have undergone a further, serious deterioration.

Pappe makes the case that despite this human crisis, Israeli society is even less willing to face up to reality than it was in the 1967 to 2000 period. He argues that this state of denial generated the destructive consensus within Israeli society that brought Ariel Sharon to power and which was responsible for his re-election in Israel's recent elections.

According to Pappe, the final stage of denial, which dominates in Israel today, began with Israel's military incursion into the West Bank in April 2002, designed to crush Palestinian resistance. He believes that this denial prevents Israelis from understanding that the Palestinian people have been living under constant curfews and closures and that they have suffered pervasive malnutrition since that date.

For Pappe, the mistreatment of Palestinians at the hands of Israeli soldiers, which has now become systematic, is exemplified by soldiers' behaviour at military checkpoints. He cites an incident at one of these checkpoints where an Israeli TV station crew filmed Israeli soldiers playing Russian Roulette – with Palestinians. When this incident was aired on Israeli TV, the station received many letters of complaint – not about the soldiers' outrageous behaviour, but because televising such behaviour would help the "enemy."

Pappe explains that mechanisms of denial ensure that Israelis do not experience moral qualms about the nature of their society or its treatment of Palestinians. He argues that Israel's influence on North American media enables it to indulge in behaviour that would make other countries pariahs if they did anything similar. But he predicts the benign portrayal of Israel in the North American media will not hold much longer.

Pappe believes that denial is beginning to wane in Israel itself, thanks to the accessibility of alternative sources of information in the current age of global communications. He refers to the number of Israelis who are waking up to reality, citing the fact that while there were only five Israeli soldiers who refused to serve in the Occupied Territories in October 2000, there are now more than 500. In the same period, the numbers of Israelis demonstrating against the occupation has grown steadily.

Pappe notes that while the protest movement within Israel is growing, it is still very small. But he concludes that if someone like him can abandon the prevailing state of denial, others can, as well. He stresses that we can help in this process by bringing reinforcement from the outside to empower forces opposed to the occupation within Israel and to exert economic, cultural and political pressure on the Israeli State.

In my view, people who are concerned about Israeli behaviour cannot allow themselves to be silenced by fear of being labelled as anti-Semites or self-haters. Rather, it is the responsibility of progressives, unionists and activists of every stripe to insist that Israel be held to the same standards of law and morality as any other state. That is the only approach that can yield positive results for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Trade unions have a vital role to play in all this. The executives of the Canadian Labour Congress and the Vancouver and District Labour Council as well as the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the BC Government Employees' Union and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers have all joined with unions in Britain and Europe to take a strong position on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Our task is to get this issue in front of other Canadian unions and to ensure that these policies are backed up with organization and action.

To that end, we are asking that you

  • raise this issue in your own organization and get it to take a stand in opposition to the occupation.
  • participate in solidarity actions, including delegations to the West Bank and Gaza, to witness the conditions under which Palestinians are living as a consequence of the ongoing occupation.
  • promote educational efforts to increase popular awareness of the occupation and its consequences.
  • and last but not least, become a member of the Trade Union Committee for Justice in the Middle East.
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