Friday, 4 March 2011

Cameron and Israel

When it comes to Middle East policy, British Prime Minister David Cameron is moving in the same direction as his predecessor Tony Blair, who ended his term in office as a rigid Islamophobe committed to the security of Israel whatever the Israeli government does to the several million Palestinians who have the misfortune to live under its jurisdiction.
     In a speech on Thursday to the Community Security trust, the British equivalent of the Anti-Defamation League in the United States, Cameron conflated Zionism and Judaism in a way that is either na├»ve or mischievous, but certainly contradictory from the head of government of a country which espouses universal human rights.
     He said that Zionists had a right to advocate their views without fear and that it is possible to be both a committed Zionist and a loyal British citizen. He spoke about anti-Semitism, a foolish and despicable racist ideology born in Europe, as though it were synonymous with anti-Zionism, a principled international movement that rejects racism in all its forms.
     Here are some extracts from his speech:
It is absolutely wrong that in any of our universities there should be an environment where students are scared to express their Judaism or their Zionism freely. It is absolutely wrong that universities should allow speakers to spread messages of anti-Semitism and hate...
The point is that it’s possible – and necessary - to have more than one loyalty in life. To be a proud Jew, a committed Zionist and a loyal British citizen. And to realise there is no contradiction between them.
     In 1991, under pressure from the United States, the United Nations General Assembly repealed a 1975 resolution that described Zionism as a form of racism and racial discrimination. But there are limits to the jurisdiction of the United Nations General Assembly. If it decrees that black is white or that the Earth is flat, its decrees are meaningless. They cannot prevent reasoned debate.
     Zionists maintain that the international community of Jews have a historic right to the land known as Palestine for the two thousand years until 1948, on the basis of a spurious ethno-national link to a group of people who inhabited part of that territory during the 1st millennium BC. They say that this right overrides the rights of people who have lived on that land for many generations and who played no part in the alleged departure of the Jewish population. The Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, in his recent book The Invention of the Jewish People, provides convincing evidence that most living Jews are in fact the descendants of Jewish converts who never lived in Palestine, while many Palestinians are probably the descendants of Jewish farmers who converted to Christianity or Islam over the past to millennia.
     Regardless of the historical facts, Zionism only makes sense in the context of the European racism of the 19th century, of which it is an offshoot. If Zionists do not often overtly claim ethno-national superiority over their Palestinian neighbours, it is only because excluding the Palestinians from their discourse has seemed a more promising strategy, given the stigma attached to racism. In practice, the Zionist strategy has been to pursue a process of ethnic cleansing, starting in 1948 and continuing to this day. To anyone who cares to look at the facts, Zionism is a form of racism. Cameron should know this.
     The British prime minister was wrong on several other counts. He said Israeli politicians should be able to visit Britain without fear of arrest when there is little prospect that any prosecution will follow. On the contrary, we need to put politicians of all nationalities on notice that the world is watching their actions closely and that, if they implicated in serious crimes against whole populations, they will not be welcome guests and may have to face investigation by an independent judiciary, whether in Britain or anywhere else that upholds the rule of law.
     On Iran's nuclear programme, which may or may not include plans to make nuclear weapons, Cameron adopted the same double standard as the United States and the rest of its allies. “We will not stand by and allow Iran to cast a nuclear shadow over Israel or the wider region,” he said. Why did he ignore the nuclear shadow that Israel has cast over the region for the past several decades with nuclear weapons the existence of which some Israeli officials have already confirmed? Israel's record as an aggressively expansionist state is well recorded, while Iran, which has no such record, is judged by outsiders' assessment of its unspoken intentions.
     Cameron, like many other ignorant Americans and Europeans, recycled the ancient theory that Arab despots ranted about Palestine to distract their populations from domestic repression:
But I fundamentally believe that what we are seeing now in North Africa need not be a new threat to Israel’s security. For decades autocratic Arab regimes have used the Palestinian cause to smother people’s hopes and aspirations. Their message to their people has been: never mind the lack of democracy here, focus on the injustices being done to your Palestinian brothers and sisters. Now young people are seeing through this and seeking their own economic and political rights and in the vast majority of cases doing so peacefully.
     In the cases of Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia, this is nonsense. Mubarak rarely spoke about Palestinian rights and Israeli violations of international law. He cooperated with Israel in the blockade of Gaza and in attempts to undermine the representatives the Palestinians elected in the free elections of 2006. The fact that Israel pressed the United States to support Mubarak to the bitter end is evidence enough that the former Egyptian president served Israeli interests well. The young people of Egypt and Tunisia know this and they believe that Palestinians have the same rights to freedom and dignity as they do.
     When Cameron says, “I will always be an advocate for the State of Israel”, he does not speak for me. Israel must be judged by its actions and its statements. It does not deserve a blank cheque.


  1. Invention, Jonathan, not Intervention (Sand's book title.) The other might also be an interesting book, of course...

  2. Another point. Only after I'd lived here in the US for many years did I realize that Americans construe the terms "race" and "racism" differently from anyone else in the world. For them (us), probably because of their own brutal engagement with slavery, the term "race" has to do only with skin color. (The other, broader understanding of the term "race" that is used everywhere else, is covered by Americans with the term "ethnicity".) So after the 1975 UN resolution, US Zionist organizations went out of their way to support the migration to Israel of Ethiopians who claimed (and maybe had) Jewish heritage. "Look!" they told everyone, "We are not racists!" (Well, regardless of the continuing, complexion-based racism to which those falashas and all other back Africans are in practice exposed, inside Israel.) But I just note that the proposition "Zionism is racism" that is so widely understood in the rest of the world is understood in a completely different way inside the US.

  3. Jonathan,

    Apologies but this post seems rather misplaced: a foolish article written on an otherwise thoughtful blog.

    You equate Zionism with Israeli so-called expansionist policy - a calculation that would be similar to equating democracy with American policy in the 1960s in Indochina or with British policy pretty much across the world in the 19th century. I am not seeking to comment on the integrity of Israeli policy, but only to draw a distinction between ideology and action.

    You seem to question the existence of a Jewish nation per se, which of course, is a valid question depending on how broadly or narrowly one defines nationalities. However to the extent that you believe there is such a thing as an Arab nation (or, a Palestinian nation, for that matter) then the very religious, social, linguistic, and cultural ties that embody such group can clearly and pronouncedly be found among the Jewish people. It seems that the modern world accepts a rather broad definition of nationality, and, although I think the Jewish nation would qualify as such even under the strictest interpretations of nationality, the liberal use of that term seems an easy fit for this people.

    You loosely and declaratively define Zionism as a racist ideology though offer no proof of such charge. You seem to take the UN's authority on this matter when its verdict is led by the Third World, yet impute ill intentions and dispute its authority when the verdict reverses. In the least, this can politely be referred to as a double standard; of course, it is just rather proof of no standard. One of the commenters to this post has an a-ha moment: those Ethiopian Jews, whom Israel so gallantly saved and has desperately sought to integrate into its society, may be the object of racism by some Israelis - hence, Zionism is racism. But then the UN resolution if the mid 1970's was certainly premature, and needed to await the arrival of the Ethiopians!

    You deny Arab despots' cynical use of Israel to distract their peoples by denying that Mubarak or Ben Ali did so. And Nasser? Sadat prior to Camp David? Or the handful of thugs and criminals that "led" the Syrian people post 1948, ending with the Assad dynasty? Or Hezbollah?

    You conclude by noting that Israel should be judged by it's actions and statements, which is certainly a fair standard if equally applied to the Iranian regime whose statements you seem to have forgotten, and whose bellicosity with its Lebanese proxies you ignore.

    Awhose despite its home on a very thoughtful blog on Arab affairs, your post falls victim to the same intellectual dishonesties which plague those sympathetic to the Arab cause: that sympathy with the Arab peoples is best reached through a denial of the Jewish people's national aspirations. Is this not a form of racism?

  4. Firstly, Zionism is in origin a colonial project since no Jewish state existed where Israel now stands until Zionists arrived and drove out the indigenous inhabitants. If you want to use the term 'expansionist' that's fine by me, though I didn't use the term myself.
    Secondly, the question of whether a Jewish or a Palestinian nation exists or not is fairly irrelevant. Even on the basis of individual rights, whatever rights 'diaspora' Jews might have had can overrule those of indigenous individals only in the eyes of racists. That is the definition of racism - the belief that one group of people has special privileges over another based on their origin or ethnicity or national identity (since you believe in a Jewish nation). The United Nations and the Falasha (which I never mentioned) are irrelevant.
    Thirdly, Cameron was talking specifically about the recent Arab uprisings, which overthrew Mubarak and Ben Ali, not Abdel Nasser or the Syrians of the 1950s. I too spoke specifically about Mubarak and Ben Ali.
    Fourthly, Cameon didn't say one could be both a loyal British citizen and a convinced believer in vilayet-e-faqih. If he did, I would challenge him.
    Fifthy, the neuter possessive adjective in English is spelled 'its', not 'it's'.

  5. Jonathan,

    Zionism in its purest form sought to carve out a space for a displaced people. Co-habitation with the indigenous population is not incompatible with this ideal. Zionism Act 1 seemed to meet this ideal: Faisal and Weizman entered agreements, economic cooperation between the Yishuv and the local Arab and Druse villages was widespread, and few instances of strife between the groups were recorded. I believe Segev has documented this period quite well.
    Zionism Act 2 got more complicated, but blame for this can significantly be attributed to the rejectionism by elements of the indigenous Arab population: Hebron 1929, the riots of 1936, endless assaults on Jewish kibbutzim, the Mufti's murderous cries from Berlin during the war. Were these acts of racism by local Arabs and their leadership? Were the individual rights of the co-habitants of the land considered by the Arabs? In Hebron, most of the Jewish residents had lived there for centuries before the city became judenrein. Zionism in this phase began to organize to defend the Jewish population. Was this racism? The Haganah was no more racist in Mandate Palestine than were Jewish partisans in Warsaw during the uprising - after all, the latter were intent on killing Germans!
    Once co-existence as a goal failed, the world chose partition of the land - an idea that the Zionists also accepted. As you know the leadership of the Arab indigenous population violently rejected it, and cried for a new genocide against their fellow inhabitants. Was this racism?
    In fact, the Zionists have created a state which undoubtedly has created lots of political and economic rights for its citizens of all genders, races, religions and orientations. (just ask the Sudanese - at least those that make it past the trigger-happy Egyptians). These are rights that are completely alien to the region. Judging the achievement of these goals needs to be done by standards that can be applied universally. Denouncing Zionism in it's entirety because of individual failures by the state of Israel would be synonymous with challenging the ideals of America's founding fathers because of Jim Crow.
    Apologies for the iPad-generated typos in my earlier post; looks like I have even caused you to generate some typos.