Mondoweiss Online Newsletter


Mondo Award Winner: Sameeha Elwan

Mar 04, 2011

Sameeha Elwan


So far we’ve rolled out three of our winners from the Mondo Awards of the new year. Now here is our #5 winner (in order, going from the top inspirational piece, to be announced next week), winner of the Lyrical Award, Sameeha Elwan for her piece, “The land, the gun, the olive tree,” first published December 30.

The Land, the Gun, the Olive Tree


In Memory of Nakba

He closed his eyes when the smell of the thyme found its way to the deepest memory his mind is still tirelessly clinging to. He opened them with a persistence to inhale as much of the smell as he can. Something that would help him live on the memory a bit longer. Something that would compensate the years of wait. They didn’t give him a chance to preserve that smell deep in his heart sixty two years ago; but it has been in his memory locked, never been forgotten since. He, now, couldn’t believe his eyes when the smell was combined with the real vision of the field. His field. He wished “Um Salem” would be there to pinch him as she always did when he was trapped between a vision and a reality. She was not there to share him the vision. “It’s not the time for mourning”, he thought. He was there, at last. For sixty two years, the scene of the olive tree he and his grandfather once planted and he watched growing up never escaped his memory along with the hymn his grandmother used to sing him while baking bread on “Taboun”. He remembers some of its lyrics. They were always so patriotic. “The land, the gun, the olive tree”.

His sons and grandsons have always mocked him for keeping the key of a house that most probably has turned into a military barrack, a prison maybe, or might have been simply inhabited by other people who if were willing to steal the house could never steal the memories the house arouse in him. They never believed him when he said he will return one day. They should see him right now, approaching that olive tree to shelter from the burning rays of the sun. He was burnt out. His old boy was covered with sweat, but he never stopped walking towards it. Towards his olive tree with his voice murmuring the hymn his grand mother was singing to him, “The land, the gun, the olive tree.”

“Grandpa, it’s raining, grandpa. You have to get back into the tent”. “Yebna. Yebna. The gun. The Olive tree”

“We’re not in Yebna, grandpa. Don’t you get tired of having the same dream every single day?”

It took him a minute as usual to go back to where he really was. It was Not Yebna; he realized when he opened his eyes. It was his little granddaughter who was clinging into his clothes, trying to find shelter from the drops of rain which have now turned the camp into a swamp.

“Never. It is that dream of return that keeps us alive. Lobna” he bitterly answered.

Elwan posted this story first last August, on her site, “Here, I was born.”

Defending the indefensible — badly

Mar 04, 2011

Pamela Olson


The following is a piece from the Jerusalem Post (JPost), which is usually a pretty right-wing Israeli paper, but it has one amazing column called Rattling the Cage by Larry Derfner.

Let me back up a minute. Last night I went to a debate about the Goldstone Report featuring former Congressman Dr. Brian Baird (D-WA) (you can pretty much guess he’s no longer a Congressman based on the fact that he tells the unvarnished truth about the situation in Israel/Palestine — that kinda thing gives you a very short shelf life in Washington) and Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY), who defines the concept of Progressive Except for Palestine. The moderator was a columnist at the New York TimesRoger Cohen, who frequently covers the Middle East and usually knows what he’s talking about.

Dr. Baird, who actually visited Gaza and saw the results of Operation Cast Lead for himself, and also visited Sderot and talking with several Israeli officials, argued that the Goldstone Report is a fair document with respect to both the reality of what happened during Operation Cast Lead and the international laws that were violated by both sides, and it should be taken seriously and acted upon.

When Weiner wasn’t fabricating demonstrable falsehoods out of whole cloth (There are no Israeli soldiers in the West Bank? Goldstone didn’t criticize Hamas?), he countered by talking really loudly about how Israel is…

Well, here’s the thing. I don’t need to tell you what Anthony Weiner said because Larry Derfner, in the following article, explains most of his points. It’s amazing. Almost as if Weiner were reading from some pre-fabricated set of talking points. Guess that’s what you gotta do when you don’t have any actual arguments — when you’re called upon to defend the indefensible. [My comments are in brackets.]

After you read this, watching Israel apologists at work becomes kind of entertaining. I bet we could make a good drinking game out of it.

Rattling the Cage: Tips for information warriors

Larry Derfner
Jerusalem Post
March 2, 2011

As you well know, Israel has never been in such peril as it is today. Anti-Semitism has risen to historic levels. Israel’s enemies are arming themselves with weapons that endanger not only its existence, but its very existence. And now, added to these grave existential threats comes the upheaval we’ve seen spreading throughout the Middle East.

In these days of uncertainty, a volunteer army of steady, sure, confident voices in Israel’s defense is more critical than ever. Here is a set of talking points for you to use when fighting the information war for Israel’s survival. B’hatzlaha — good luck.

1. “Our hearts are with the protesters in the square, but…”This lets your audience know at the start that you, as a supporter of Israel, are in favor of democracy, even for Arabs. Then you get to the “but,” and after the “but,” you only mention the bad, terrible things that could happen.

For example: “But Islamic fundamentalists could take over, just like they did in Iran.” “But the new leaders could tear up the peace treaty with Israel.” “But they could support terrorists like al-Qaida.” “But they could destabilize the whole region and start World War III.”

You start off paying lip service to the good — democracy — but keep it brief and vague, and then when you get down to specifics, hit them with one doomsday scenario after another. By the time you’re through, your audience will be more scared of Arabs than ever.

2. “Stability.” This was the point to bring up during the Egyptian uprising — not that we were against democracy and in favor of tyranny, God forbid, but that we were for “stability,” i.e. Mubarak. Today, of course, it’s a little late for that argument. But while it’s become dicey to use the stability gambit against Arabs protesting against dictators, it can be adapted to shore up the case for Israel — and, indirectly, still make the case against the Arab protesters.

It goes like this: Instead of saying, “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East,” which may not be the case for long and which sounds like you want to keep it that way, you say: “Israel is the only stable democracy in the Middle East.”

This reminds your audience of all the terrible things that could happen with these uprisings, and, again, leaves them more scared of Arabs than ever.

Now that your listeners are in a black mood, now that they’re booing the Arabs again, it’s time to lift their spirits and get them cheering for Israel. Time to switch from negative to positive.

3. “Vibrant democracy.” This is the oldest of old chestnuts in the Israel advocate’s basket of goodies — that Israel is a “vibrant democracy.”

The funny thing is that it used to be true — the Right would fight it out with the Left, they went back and forth from the government to the opposition, there would be huge rallies by the settlers and huge rallies by the peaceniks. Today there’s no Left, there’s no fight, there are no huge rallies. Today the only debate is between the hard-liners who want to jail all the Arabs and leftists today and the moderates who counsel patience. The settlers keep building, the army keeps slugging away and barely a peep is heard in protest. But you can still sell people on Israel’s “vibrant democracy” — show them clips from the shouting matches in Knesset. Remember: It’s not the steak, it’s the sizzle.

[And don’t forget — Israelis want peace. Netanyahu’s just sitting there at his lonely little table waiting for the Palestinians to come to him and negotiate peace. If only the Palestinians would come to him and make peace! (Palestine Papers? What Palestine Papers?)]

4. “Israel is not perfect.” This is indispensable. It shows the audience that you’re not a propagandist, not a shill, not trying to sell them a bill of goods — and that criticism of Israel is welcome, so long, of course, as it’s fair. What is fair criticism of Israel? To say that Israel is not perfect — that’s fair. Israel makes mistakes — that’s fair. And if anybody asks you for an example of a mistake Israel has made, you can say, “Well, we thought the Palestinians wanted peace, but…”

Or, “Well, we thought the world would support us when we tried to make peace, but…”

In other words, Israel’s mistake, Israel’s imperfection, is that it’s too good. That’s criticism, and audiences will be impressed with your candor.

[Israel’s so awesome, in fact, that whenever it does anything wrong, it investigates itself thoroughly and punishes the wrongdoers to exactly the extent they deserve — and I know because Israel tells me so. Let’s see ’em do that in Saudi Arabia!]

5. “Delegitimization.” A really cool word that you can use against anybody who says anything about Israel that you don’t like. Israel’s oppressing somebody? Delegitimization! Israel’s violating somebody’s rights? Delegitimization! It shuts people up. When you say they’re “delegitimizing” Israel, it’s like you’re saying they’re denying Israel’s right to exist, like they’re calling for the destruction of Israel, like they’re calling for the Jews of Israel to be wiped out! It puts people on the defensive beautifully. It’s like calling them anti-Semites without actually using the word, which was getting pretty stale, kind of embarrassing. Delegitimization sounds a lot more sophisticated, and it does the job more effectively.

[See also: The UN is biased against Israel, so we can safely ignore anything it says, any resolution it passes, and any report it commissions. (And hope nobody mentions the fact that Israel was founded by a UN resolution.)]

6. “Denying Israel’s right to self-defense.” This can be used against anyone who questions the divine justice behind anything the IDF does. Anybody who suggested that maybe Israel should not have banned pasta, for example, from entering Gaza was denying Israel’s right to self-defense. Anybody who wonders whether the army should take more precautions before shooting at Gazan fishermen, farmers and metal scavengers is denying Israel’s right to self-defense. Even Israeli combat soldiers who describe killing, brutalizing and humiliating Palestinian civilians are denying Israel’s right to self-defense.

Again, that’s like denying Israel’s right to life itself, which is a pretty serious charge. And an intimidating one. Use it liberally.

[Weiner hit this one particularly hard.]

7. “Context” or “contextualization.” This is a fancy way of saying “the background to a story that makes Israel look good and/or the Arabs bad.” If, on the other hand, the background to the story makes Israel look bad and/or the Arabs good, then this is not “context” or “contextualization,” it’s “propaganda.” For instance, if Israel blockades Gaza’s coast and airspace and attacks it with jets, helicopters, tanks and snipers, and you point out that Gazans fire Kassams at Israel, that’s putting the story in context. But if Gazans fire Kassams at Israel and someone else points out that Israel blockades Gaza’s coast and airspace and attacks it with jets, helicopters, tanks and snipers, that’s propaganda.

[And if Gazans were killed at a ratio of 100:1, and their entire civilian infrastructure was decimated for no militarily justifiable reason (and several Israeli officials admitted as much), and their economy and freedom are strangled by an illegal siege that collectively punishes a million and a half people, including six-year-olds seeking cancer treatments… Just say with a blank expression on your face, “Yeah, I know, war is bad, nobody likes war, but that’s what happens when law and reason break down,” and move right along.]

8. “Lawfare.” Sounds like “warfare,” doesn’t it? That’s the point — to turn lawsuits against the occupation, whether in foreign courts or in Israel’s own courts, into the equivalent of war. In other words, the equivalent of killing people. In other words, the equivalent of terrorism.

Going to court against the occupation is terrorism.

But you don’t want to use the word “terrorism” for a lawsuit, just like you don’t want to use the word “anti-Semitism” for some CNN story. So you call the CNN story “delegitimization” and the lawsuit “lawfare.” You gotta be subtle.

[See also: No one has the right to tell Israel where it can and can’t build on its own land. Not even if they’re giving Israel $10 million in aid every day. Not even if Israel is actually building illegally on someone else’s land. If Israel is building it, it is legal by definition, and it is in Israel by definition. And if prisoners are in Israeli prisons, they are guilty by definition. And if someone is killed by Israel, they deserved it by definition. And if a hospital or factory or school was destroyed by Israel with no military justification… um, well, by definition, the building had it coming, because… 12,000 rockets! Sderot! And if Hamas was holding to the ceasefire and Israel was actually the one who violated the ceasefire… er… 12,000 rockets! Sderot! Hamas! Democracy! Self-defense! The louder the better. (Weiner got audibly louder as the night wore on.)]

9. “Incitement.” This is the one to bang away at when there’s no, or nearly no, Palestinian terror to speak of, like there hasn’t been for years. When there was terror, you could say, “When the Palestinians stop terror, they will be amazed at how generous we are.” But now we’re in a bit of bind because the Palestinians have basically stopped terror, and, well, what does that leave us to work with? It leaves us incitement! When a Palestinian preacher quotes something gruesome from the Koran, when a Palestinian newspaper accuses Israel of war crimes, when a Palestinian textbook accuses Israel of ethnic cleansing, that’s incitement, and they have stop it or there will never be peace.

All right, we’ve got our rabbis, and they’re saying all sorts of crazy things about killing gentiles and how Arabs are animals and God knows what, and we’ve got this foreign minister who says he wants to execute Arab Knesset members who meet with Hamas and bomb Egypt, and the polls say half of Israelis want the Arabs gone, period.

But that’s not incitement, that’s… that’s… Israel’s vibrant democracy! Yeah, say that. If that doesn’t work, then try, “Israel is not perfect.”

And if they still complain, accuse them of “delegitimization.”

Remember, Israel is at war, the information war. All is fair.

[If all else fails — just make stuff up! Americans don’t know what’s going on, and Washington doesn’t care.]

[[end article]]

And that, my friends, is what it’s like to listen to Representative Anthony Weiner defend war crimes. What was funny, though, was that in this case, the moderator, the opponent, and about half the audience actually knew what was going on and called Weiner out on his more egregious counterfactuals (All the settlements are in Israel? Lentils were never forbidden from entering Gaza by Israel? Gaza is a sovereign nation?), which I think was something of a surprise to Weiner, who’s used to the echo chamber of Washington. But Weiner didn’t care. He just talked more quickly and loudly and said “vibrant democracy” and “self-defense” a few more times. And soon he’ll be comfortably back in Washington, where everyone agrees with him — or at least has to fervently pretend they do.

Afterwards I sought out Dr. Baird to thank him for everything he’s doing. I said, “I lived in the West Bank for two and a half years, and it’s really strange to hear a Congressman talk about the Middle East and not feel a complete sense of cognitive dissonance.” He laughed, and we talked for a minute about the utter lack of regard for truth or logic in Washington when it came to this conflict. I spent less than two years working in the Beltway trying to tell people who were not interested what’s going on over there before I gave up and decided to write a book instead. I have no idea how he kept his sanity doing it year after year.

He reminded me of the USS Liberty veterans I met when they memorialized the fortieth anniversary of the massacre in the summer of 2007 at Arlington National Cemetery. They all had the most astonished, pained looks on their faces when they talked about the way the government ignored their demands for any kind of inquiry into the incident. They know the truth is on their side — they were there. But the government, by brushing them off for forty years, essentially calls these good servicemen liars or crazy people.

But still they press on, every year renewing their demand. And Dr. Baird presses on, telling it like it is to a country that’s slowly, ever so slowly, one person at a time, coming to realize that something’s a little off. And judging from Weiner’s frequent deer-in-headlights look mixed with peevish smugness and outrageous gaffes, some part of his mind probably knows he’s living in the kind of deep denial that doesn’t allow one anywhere near the facts.

And that kind of thing has a short shelf life in reality.

Pamela Olson’s book, Fast Times in Palestine, will be published next month.

“Our policies are almost criminal” – Israeli MK Ben-Simon

Mar 04, 2011

Matthew Taylor


Roger Cohen’s latest NYT oped on Israel is a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s shot full of the usual subtle and not-so-subtle pro-Israel bias, eg, claiming Israel is a “vibrant democracy,” and a preposterous castigation of Abbas for having the temerity to demand a UN resolution on settlements. Notice how Cohen uses the word “us,” he identifies with Israelis and not Palestinians. On the other hand, he makes a helpful suggestion: if Obama were to visit Israel and address the Knesset, he might help shift public opinion toward ending the occupation.

One noteworthy line:

“America is Israel’s insurance company and right now we need the C.E.O. to come and tell us, ‘You are not alone,”’ Daniel Ben-Simon, a Knesset member who recently left the Labor Party told me. “We especially need that because Israeli policy is not just a tragedy, it’s almost criminal.”

Translation of this quote, with the addition of the facts, and the removal of self-censorship: “Israel is committing numerous crimes under international law, including War Crimesthe Crime of Apartheid, and repeated violations of the Geneva Conventions. There is no hope that Israel, of its own volition, will reform itself. Only our biggest ally can coax/pressure us to change.”

No mention here, of course, of what stops the biggest ally from having a sane foreign policy on Israel/Palestine…when will The Israel Lobby become part of the mainstream discourse? Nowadays Cohen and Friedman will occasionally say “Israel has a problem,” but when will they say, “We have a problem“?

P.S. – Should Obama ever visit Israel, I wonder if the Israeli right will curse him with a Pulsa diNura, as they allegedly did prior to assassinating Rabin. It would not shock me at all if they made an attempt on Obama’s life, Israeli anti-Obama hate runs rampant.

Weiner-Baird debate lived up to its billing

Mar 04, 2011

Philip Weiss


Last night at the New School in New York, we had a greatdebate between two Democratic Party antagonists on the Israel/Palestine issue: Brian Baird, the former Washington state congressman, and Brooklyn congressman Anthony Weiner. The conversation was deftly moderated by Roger Cohen of the New York Times, who was not afraid to call Weiner out when the congressman said there are no Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, or when he said that all the settlements are in Israel.

The chief response to the debate so far (besides the predictable at the National Review) has been shock at Anthony Weiner’s contempt for international law and Palestinian humanity. A politician who has distinguished himself on healthcare reform and economic justice issues in the U.S. resorts to “It’s war, and war is hell” arguments when Brian Baird, a clinical psychologist by training, describes the destruction of schools and innocent families and U.N. compounds by Israeli bombing, and the collective punishment of millions of people denied lentils, toothpaste, building materials, and the freedom to move beyond a territory less than the size of New York City.  

When Cohen pressed Weiner on where Israel’s eastern border is, he said something about the Jordan River. I have the tape– I have to dig that out. At this point a man in the audience shouted, Are you in Israel now? It was a New York crowd. A heckler from the other side attacked Brian Baird over his statement that the Israelis had bombed Al Quds hospital with white phosphorus. The heckler said that there were militants hiding themselves at the hospital. Baird (a contributor to our book on the Goldstone Report) shook his head in consternation. He said it was no credit to the heckler or the country he was supporting that he was actually defending the bombing of a hospital.

Writes one friend who was in attendance:

what I gathered is something rather surprising: I actually got the impression that Weiner doesn’t really know much about the Israeli Palestinian conflict beyond some basic talking points. Him making a fool of himself claiming there was no occupation in the West Bank or that the border was on Jordan River are gaffes that an actual advocate for Israel in America was not likely to make. It suggests to me that Weiner is just badly informed and that his attachment to Israel is rather shallow: he is not really thinking about Israel beyond some ideal he has known ever since growing up in Brooklyn.

Writes another friend:

To my surprise, I learned something from tonight’s debate.  I thought about Anthony Weiner’s insistence that the borders of Israel extend from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River — a shocking statement to me even though I know this is the viewpoint of the settler movement in Israel.  I didn’t realize that it was the common currency of a “proud Zionist” as Weiner described himself.  So, if Weiner and his ideological pals believe that all the land taken in the 1967 war is “Israel”, no wonder negotiations can go nowhere even with the ever pliable Palestinian Authority.  Weiner and his pals believe negotiations are “giving” land to the Palestinians — an offer of any territory at all is a generous offer.  And to hell with the UN resolutions establishing the state of Israel and its borders, and even to hell with the Israeli juridical position that the land is disputed territory.  Does this mean that Israel no longer claims its legitimacy from the 1947 UN partition resolution?  Mondo bizarro. 

And here is Peter Belmont’s take on Weiner’s “brainwashing”from his blog:

I went into the event in general agreement with what I took to be Baird’s (and, I suppose, Cohen’s) position (that the Goldstone Report was accurate and its findings reliable as to facts and as to law). I heard nothing to make me reconsider my opinion.

On the other hand, I heard much to lower my opinion of the standards for factual accuracy (or is it honesty?), legal acumen, and evenhanded judgment on the part of Congressman Weiner that I took with me going into the hall. Perhaps I was naïve.

A few highlights.

Baird, who had visited Gaza to see the damage from the 2008-2009 Israeli onslaught there (which the Goldstone Report concluded to have constituted, in part, possible war-crimes), opened by remarking that the Congress had overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning the Goldstone Report without discussing it, without holding hearings on it, and without asking himself and a few others in Congress who had visited Gaza for any information they might have acquired first-hand on the subject. It was one of those don’t-confuse-me-with-the-facts Congressional votes—and one for which Weiner voted. Weiner did not dispute Baird’s characterization of Congressional process in this matter.

The Congress had somehow concluded (the “how” was not disclosed last night—one may surmise that AIPAC had a hand in developing and ripening this “conclusion”) that the Goldstone Report was, to the extent it contained anti-Israeli conclusions, biased, unreliable, and its allegations (in the nature of an indictment) of war-crimes and crimes-against-humanity assessed against Israel were incorrect and not worthy of being acted upon judicially.

No-one said a word about Judge Goldstone’s reputation as a jurist. Or as a Zionist. Weiner appeared to base his conclusion that the report was biased upon the possibly correct idea that the UN Human Rights Commission which sponsored Goldstone’s work, was itself biased. He ignored the possibility that a good man could do a good job even if the job was offered by a biased crowd.

(Off topic, here, but the USA’s veto of a pro-Palestinian (draft) resolution in the UNSC—for which UK, Germany, Russia, China, and every other country which voted at all voted in favor of—a resolution which expressed ideas the USA has often espoused itself—shows that an ill-intentioned entity can do a bad job, even when the job is offered by a good crowd.)

Weiner appeared to have concluded that the Report’s allegations of possible war-crimes against Hamas were, to the contrary, satisfactorily grounded. How he came to that conclusion—if indeed he did come to that conclusion—was not disclosed.

The issue of “intent” arose, Weiner claiming that various military acts taken by Israel weren’t war-crimes because their intent was not criminal. This discussion was unsatisfactory to me, because there was no elucidation of which acts were crimes per se and which were crimes only if, for instance, they were attacks lacking an intent to damage enemy combatants or war-fighting capacity. All questions of a requirement of “proportionality” were, likewise side-stepped.

There was discussion of the Israeli siege or boycott of Gaza. Weiner said it was OK as a long-continuing act of war, Israel and Gaza (or Hamas as government of Gaza) being, he said, at war. Baird asked if a boycott of “lentils” and ‘tomato paste” and “toothpaste” was allowed as part of a war-based boycott. Weiner seemed to think so.

Baird asked about Israeli destruction (by bombing, shelling, missiles) of an industrial zone in Gaza which had nothing to do with the “war”. Weiner said it was OK to destroy anything in a war, and pointed out that Israel had dropped leaflets on civilian residences announcing impending bombardment so the civilians could get out, as evidence if Israeli morality. I do not remember any discussion of whether or not there was anywhere for such civilians to go which would be safe from bombardment, shooting, etc.

The back-and-forth dragged on, and I got tired of listening.

At a certain point, 45 minutes to an hour into the proceedings, Weiner said that Gaza was not occupied territory and that there were no Israeli troops in the “West Bank” (a phrase which he appeared to intend, at this moment, to designate the part of the occupied West Bank east of the Israeli “separation” or “apartheid” wall).

Congressman Weiner appeared to use language in a very different way than I am used to hearing (or reading) it used, either in a deliberate attempt to mislead us, his audience of the moment, with knowingly false statements or else in a perfectly innocent expression of “received” ideas which he did not know enough to question, ideas which I judge him to have “received” from people who were using knowingly false statements with the intention of misleading their audience, including the Honorable Congressman.

In any case, I saw no point to remaining and rose from my seat in the third row of a large auditorium, and walked out.

I hope Baird and Cohen found a way to rescue this “conversation”, so very much at cross-purposes as to facts and law. Perhaps they took a deeper look at the question of whether or not Gaza is “occupied” territory. Or at whether “collective punishment” by a 4-year blockade, on its face forbidden as an element of belligerent occupation, is permitted as an incident of non-occupational war—and other interesting questions of law.

If one takes the view that Congressman Weiner held all his ideas honestly, one sees that the power of the Lobby is much more than some thought—going, on this view, beyond mere arm-twisting all the way to brain-washing Congressmen. For my own part, I am well persuaded that Congressman Weiner’s performance last night was an attempt to brain-wash his audience, and I am less concerned about whether he was an innocent or a witting participant in this attempt which, either way, may be presumed to have originated with AIPAC and the rest of The Lobby.

Israel in Egypt: consistency among turmoil

Mar 04, 2011

Yakov M. Rabkin


The uprising in Egypt has sent shock waves throughout Israel. Egypt is Israel’s most powerful neighbour and an ally not only in the siege of Gaza but on a wide range of regional issues, including Lebanon, Iran and Iraq. Both Israel and Egypt are recipients of billions in U.S. aid and have followed the neo-liberal path that strengthened the welfare of the respective elites. Finally, under President Mubarak Egypt shared Israel’s burden of being the main promoter of Western interests in the region. While reactions from Israel have widely varied, its gamut has been consistent with the fault lines in Israeli society.

Quite a few people believe that “a good Arab is a dead Arab”, the slogan that an Israeli high school teacher recently found in lieu of an answer in a civics course test. Many more in the Israeli mainstream relate to Arabs, including Arab Jews, in a condescendingly colonial manner. And, finally, there are Israelis who see Arabs as equals, humans who deserve the same respect and dignity as anyone else.

Contrary to common perceptions, there is a significant body of political opinion to the right of the current Israeli government. On web sites run by and for the West Bank settlers, one reads suggestions for the Israeli army to reoccupy parts of the Sinai, namely the Mitla and Jiddi passes. According to this logic, Israel must act unilaterally to prevent any attempt on the part of Egypt to pose a land-based threat to Israeli territory. The rhetoric in these circles is patronizing and essentialist: Egypt will go Islamist (and therefore anti-Israel) if only its people have a voice in the choice of their government. Nothing better can be expected of them.

Fears of an Islamist takeover are rife: “even if the crowds on Tahrir Square appeared civilized and educated, the majority of Egyptians are nothing of the sort”. By invoking Enlightenment values these commentators argue that Arabs are not sufficiently modernized to be accorded democratic rights. This was the dominant opinion among the participants in the Herzliya conference, the “Israeli Davos” or “Neo-con Woodstock”, taking place under the spectre of the Tahrir Square. “In the Arab world, there is no room for democracy,” affirmed Israeli Major General Amos Gilead before an approving audience. This rather influential sector of Israeli elites articulates attitudes and fears that Israelis, and therefore their government, largely share.

Israel’s official reactions have shown consistency in its reactions to the turmoil in Egypt. While the discourse of the Israeli government evolved as the crisis unfolded, it reflected preference to rely on authoritarian leaders while dismissing local population. This is why the first Israeli response to the televised images of crowds in Tahrir Square was a natural one: an appeal to Western capitals to prop up Mubarak. Israeli blogs were full of bitter words of criticism of President Obama, accused on abandoning loyal allies and “Western values”. His support, however fickle, for the uprising shook many Israelis, for whom America is the principal guarantor of Israel’s future. 

Reliance on imperial support is a congenital trait of Zionism. From the end of the 19th century, Theodore Herzl systematically approached Berlin, London, Saint Petersburg and Istanbul in his efforts to create a Zionist colony in Palestine. The idea of dealing with indigenous inhabitants of the country would be utterly alien to the founder of Zionism and his disciples, and, indeed, a bizarre notion in the epoch of triumphant European colonialism. Herzl wrote that he wanted the future Jewish State to become “a part of the wall of civilization” against Asiatic barbarism. 

When Britain assumed control of Palestine, the Zionists came to rely on Britain to pursue a path of separate development: establishing settler colonies instead of joining the then existing pluralistic society, a true mosaic of dozens of ethnic and religious groups. This settler project received a decisive boost in 1947, when, under pressure from the United States and the Soviet Union, the United Nations General Assembly decided to partition Palestine, allocating 55% of it to the Zionists, who then constituted about a third of the population of Palestine and owned but 7% of the land. More significantly, this decision was made in spite of the opposition of the majority of the country’s population and of all the surrounding nations. In this sense, the United Nations embraced the dismissive attitude expressed by Lord Balfour in 1919: “Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, and future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.” 

The humiliation of six decades of denial of justice to Palestinian refugees dispossessed and displaced since 1948 remains a festering wound in the body politic of Egypt and most other Arab countries. President Mubarak, just as other “moderate” Arab leaders, knows how to pay lip service to the Palestinian cause while fully cooperating with Israel on a range of security issues. Needless to say, the siege of Gaza has been a joint effort of Israel and Egypt, and Wikileaks revealed that President Mubarak encouraged Israel to attack Gaza in the winter of 2009-10. But, whatever his past usefulness, photos of Israeli leaders with their Arab counterparts hanging in the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem were, according to The Nation, promptly doctored to remove any trace of “the old friend Mubarak”.

His departure may signal that “desires and prejudices” of Arabs will finally come to matter. This worries Israeli leaders habitually dismissive of “the Arab street”. The concern is not so much about the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt as about the looming end of impunity in Israel’s actions with respect to the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, international solidarity activists or UN human rights experts. The desperate fate of the Palestinians, experiencing unremitting encroachment of Zionist settler colonies, is likely to become a serious concern of the Egyptian democracy if it is ever allowed to emerge. This is why the majority opinion in Israel overtly prefers stability to democracy. And this may apply not only to Egypt, but also to Israel itself, ominously warned liberal commentators concerned about the growing intolerance of political dissidence in “the only democracy in the Middle East”.

It is the more cosmopolitan and liberal Israelis, who call themselves leftists, who warmly welcomed the uprising in Egypt. The veteran gadfly of Israeli politics Uri Avnery reminded his readers that he had welcomed the first Egyptian revolution in 1952 when Gamal Abdel Nasser assumed power and eventually became a hero of the Arab masses. These Israelis argue that their country should finally acknowledge and address the plight of the Palestinians, stop the occupation and learn to treat Palestinians as equal human beings. This is how Israel should strive to establish its legitimacy among the people in the region, rather than cling to alliances with the remaining “moderate Arab leaders” widely perceived as U.S. puppets and quislings. The events in Egypt may, indeed, encourage this kind of openness on the part of Israel, but this will require a momentous change in the country’s public opinion. Avnery believes that “when entire peoples rise up and revolution upsets all entrenched attitudes, there is the possibility of changing old ideas. If Israeli political and intellectual leaders were to stand up today and openly declare their solidarity with the Arab masses in their struggle for freedom, justice and dignity, they could plant a seed that would bear fruit in coming years.”

In the meantime, one hears more “realistic” calls for strengthening the military. Armed with conventional and nuclear weapons, the army should continue to keep Israel as “a villa in the jungle”, a phrase used by the current Minister of Defense Ehud Barak and graphically evocative of European colonialism. The turmoil in Egypt may help Israel shed this self-defeating self-image and embark on the course spurned by the founding fathers of Zionism: join with the diverse and multi-faceted ethnic and religious groups in the Middle East and become an integral part of the region.

The author is Professor of History at the University of Montreal and author of A Threat from within: a Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Zedbooks/Palgrave-Macmillan).

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