What can we make of the viewpoint represented by Israel Apartheid Week?
What are its origins, what does it mean, and what are its consequences?
These are important questions. But many people must wonder why a conflict so far away has so many echoes on the American college campus? Why should you worry about Israel Apartheid Week or about other efforts to demonize Israel, to portray Israel as the sole cause of the war in the Middle East, and to work for the elimination of the Jewish state?
I want to talk first about the origins of what I will refer to, in honor of its authors, as the “apartheid narrative,” and then consider its effects in three dimensions: 1) on Israel; 2) on Arab Palestinians; and 3) on those who promote the apartheid narrative, and on the circles in which they travel, including the American university campus.
We often hear talk of the need to “balance” the presentation of controversial political topics, and so in some quarters this panel tonight might be considered an effort in the direction of a more balanced presentation of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But the words “unbalanced” and “one-sided”, as they are generally used, mean simply an overly uncritical presentation of a single viewpoint. For example, we might give an “unbalanced” view of our favorite candidate’s performance in a presidential debate, exaggerating his performance or over-estimating the faults of his opponent.
However, if we said to someone who didn’t know better that our favorite candidate showed up for the debate but his opponent did not, we would not be giving an “unbalanced” summary of the debate. We would be telling a lie.
And so it is with the Israeli apartheid narrative. It is not an exaggeration of a truth; it is not an overly enthusiastic bit of cheering for one side as opposed to the other. It is simply not true. If you have attended any of the other events over the past week that were not sponsored by Israel Apartheid Week, then you have already heard some of the arguments and some of the evidence in this respect. I’ll just mention a few of many:
• In South Africa – where apartheid was invented and practiced for a century or more – the victims of apartheid, black South Africans, could not vote, hold office, move freely about the country, practice any of a number of professions, form their own independent political organizations, or live where they wished.
• By contrast, Arab-Israelis can do all of these things, and they do them regularly, and they do other things as well. Israeli Arabs – who are roughly one-sixth of the country’s population – serve in the police, the military, on the Supreme Court, in the Knesset, and in the Israeli diplomatic service. They form political parties, newspapers, interest groups, and civil associations without hindrance, and Arab Muslims and Arab Christians are completely in control of their own religious institutions.
• South Africa was a nation run by a minority of whites whose ancestors first set foot in Africa in modern times.
• By contrast, there has been a continuous Jewish presence in what the Romans called Palestine – although in varying numbers, to be sure – since ancient times. However, if only modern times count in such matters, then it should be noted that Jerusalem had a Jewish majority as early as 1863. The notion that Jews, like the Dutch, were “interlopers” or “colonizers”, is simply false.
If apartheid –which means “separate” or “apart” – does not describe the reality of Israeli Arabs, does it describe the reality of Arab Palestinians living in the West Bank – the territory captured during the 1967 Six-Day War? Much has been made during Israel Apartheid Week of the separation barrier dividing Israel from the West Bank, and of the military checkpoints that so disturb the lives of Arab Palestinians. But the barrier separates West Bank Jewish communities from Israel as well as Arab communities. And in any case the barrier not built until 2002 – 35 years after the 1967 war, and only as a result of the terrorist atrocities of the Second Intifada, during which suicide bombers recruited by Hamas and Fatah killed one thousand Israelis and maimed thousands more.
So if this narrative is not true, what motivates people to promote it?
Now, as you also know, we have been told by certain academics on this campus and many others that this question makes no sense – that is, the question of whether a “narrative” is true or false is said to be a meaningless question, since all narratives are conditional, or “contingent” – and that what are erroneously called “true” narratives – what used to be called “history” – are merely the narratives favored by those with power. Some of you may have heard such theories propounded in your own classrooms.
It’s a confusing idea, to be sure: that no story can be true except the story that no story can be true. But let’s see what it sounds like outside the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Let’s look at what we might call the Nazi Party narrative about the First World War.
Here’s how it went: Germany (said Hitler and, eventually, his followers) should have won World War I (or the Great War, as it was then called). Its arms, its tactics and strategy, the racial characteristics of its soldiers – these were all superior to the forces arrayed against the Reich by the Allies. And Germany would have won the First World War, except for one thing: Germany was stabbed in the back by the Jews. What is the conclusion of this narrative – which must, by the way, be a superior narrative, according to the current academic fashion, because at its inception the Germans were the weaker party, and it was the Allies who were powerful, and who were busy writing the history books? The conclusion is simple: next time Germany goes to war, it must deal decisively with its Jewish problem. And Germany proceeded to do precisely that.
Now we can say many things about the Nazi narrative about the Great War; but the most obvious thing to say is that it is false. Needless to say, the Jews did not stab Germany in the back, and this could not be the reason for Germany having lost the Great War. But note what happens when large numbers of people believe preposterously false stories, and then proceed to act upon them. They commit horrible crimes, and they make disastrous mistakes. In Germany’s case, the crime was the Holocaust. The mistake was to go to war with England, America, France, and Russia simultaneously – precisely the mistake Germany made in the first war. Except, of course, Germans had been convinced by Hitler that they lost the first war because of the Jews. As events demonstrated, that’s not why Germany lost the first war.
Thus, the narrative appears to have been wrong.
What are the consequences of the false Israeli apartheid narrative?
On Israelis, the consequence is obvious: instead of winning the world’s support in its struggle against the Arab governments and movements that have tried to destroy the country for the past sixty years, Israel gets the world’s condemnation, which means that the war continues, and will continue far into the foreseeable future. For example, what can possibly be the effect on Hamas, Fatah, the PLO, and Hizbullah of watching a credulous world community blame Israel for going to war in Gaza? Even the Saudis blamed Hamas for the Gaza war – but not the liberal churches or the human rights activists on college campuses and in the UN. The effect is obvious: the terrorist organizations responsible for waging the war will be encouraged to continue their activities. Hamas has already declared that it was victorious in the Gaza war, and will therefore, sooner rather than later, cause more suffering to Israelis and Arabs alike. After all, Hamas has said very clearly that Jews will lose because the Jews love life, while Hamas loves death.
Which brings me to the second dimension of the consequences of the false apartheid narrative: its effects on Arab Palestinians.
Many Arabs living on the West Bank would almost certainly welcome an end to hostilities and the beginning of a genuine effort at political and economic reconstruction. These people are called “moderates.” How many moderates are there? We don’t really know; and one reason we don’t know is that the people who are not moderate, who want the war against Israel to continue to the bitter end, will promptly kill anyone who gets in their way. A very brave Arab in East Jerusalem circulated a petition back in the 90s, just as the PLO was about to be installed as the Palestinian Authority, the first Arab government of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. His petition said: We Arabs do not want to be governed by Yasser Arafat. He collected 20,000 signatures before gunmen from Hamas, or perhaps from Fatah, caught up with him and shot him seven times. Surprisingly, he lived; not surprisingly, he stopped circulating his petition.
The war against Israel might have ended decades ago, if only those who fuel it wanted it to end. Instead of producing suicide bombers, the West Bank might be producing goat cheese, olive oil, wine, and computer chips. But their leaders have chosen, instead, to continue the war against the “Israeli occupation” – by which they mean not just the West Bank but all of Israel as well. One reason they continue this war is that they believe they will win. And one reason they believe they will win is that so many people outside the region, including many American and European academics, who think they are pursuing peace and justice, have joined them in their campaign to eliminate the Jewish state. What do we call people who do whatever they can to keep a war going? When I was a college student, we called such people “warmongers.” But the warmongers live far away from the carnage they help to create, and they will never see the Arab children who are taught by Palestinian TV to seek martydom, and they will never see the bloody results of the terrorist handiwork that their “narrative” helps to inspire. Too bad.
And this brings me then to the final set of consequences. What does the promotion of this false narrative do to those who get caught up in it?
Let’s start with what it does to their grip on reality – that is, on their ability to understand what’s going on in the world, how the world really works, and even where their own interests lie. We’ve already seen what anti-Semitism did to the Germans’ ability to understand something as basic as the folly of repeating the mistakes of the First World War. Do you think that this is an extreme example? Don’t be too sure.
I’ve just been shown an article from the American Jewish Yearbook from the 1940s. It describes the campaign being run by Father Coughlin, Senator Burton Wheeler, and Charles Lindburgh, the purpose of which was to convince Americans that a small group of clever Jews was leading the campaign to oppose Nazi Germany, and that America had no reason to be on unfriendly terms with Nazi Germany.
What “narrative” do you suppose convinced such men that it was in the interest of the United States for Nazi Germany to succeed?
What does embracing such a narrative do, furthermore, to the souls of those who possess it? We know what it did to Coughlin, Wheeler, and Lindburgh: it recruited them into the ranks of one of the most evil political movements the world has ever seen, and for this reason their names will be linked with shame until the end of days.
What does the Israeli apartheid narrative do?
Look at the news footage of the demonstrations against Israel, in the US, Canada, and Europe, during the campaign to defeat Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Notice the hatred, the rage, the embrace of the most vile slogans about “Jewish Nazis”, the demands to “Smash the Jewish State”, the open embrace of Hamas, Fatah, and Hizbullah – organizations responsible for the slaughter of thousands of innocent people. If you are concerned about Arab Palestinians, then you owe it to yourself to ask these questions: Is this what you want to become? Are these the people you want as allies in the struggle for “peace and justice”?
Or consider the now infamous Oliphant cartoon from the New York Times, a publication that is often mentioned as part of the “Zionist media” controlling what Americans see and hear about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Oliphant pictured a large, jack-booted, headless brute pushing a Star of David with wheels and teeth through Gaza, chasing a small “Palestinian” figure holding a child, cringing in fear.
This cartoon should not simply make you angry; it should make you afraid. Because this is how Jew-hatred starts. But this is never how Jew-hatred ends.
One more consequence: the impact of anti-Israel demonizing on scholarship.
Look at the success of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, whose foolish book on the Israel lobby made them rich and famous – despite the book’s failure to demonstrate a single American foreign policy decision that could be traced to the influence of the Israeli government, or even Israel’s supporters in the United States, and despite its amazing ability to misunderstand every important foreign policy decision over the past 30 years.
And notice the way in which all this talk about “narratives” subverts the most important aims of scholarship: the search for truth. After all, if there is no truth, then what is a university for? The insistence that history cannot tell a true story, but only a contingent one, is the end of scholarship, and the death of the University and all that it stands for. It is the opening wedge in the transformation of learning into propaganda, and is therefore the mortal enemy of everyone who values learning and the search for truth.
That is reason enough for all of us to be concerned about events like Israeli Apartheid Week. It is time, not for a “balanced” discussion of the Middle East, but for a discussion that demonstrates a respect for the truth, and a willingness to seek it.
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