By Vivienne Porzsolt
Wednesday 22 November 2006
First of all, I need to say that violence hasn’t worked.
Israel , with its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, created the very Hezbollah it now seeks to destroy. The recent war against Lebanon has spectacularly failed in its stated aim to destroy or even ‘degrade’ Hezbollah. On the contrary, Hezbollah has gained massive support in Lebanon and throughout the Arab and Muslim world.
For Hezbollah, the rocket attacks in response to the Israeli bombings did not succeed in repelling Israeli attacks and Lebanon has been laid waste. Suicide killings of civilians have not achieved Palestinian liberation either.
The physical violence is obvious. But I want to look at the kinds of violence beyond the physical. Violence also occurs at the level of language, at the level of emotion, at the level of claims to knowledge and fact, at the level of suppressing or distorting public debate and at the level of fundamentally racist attitudes.
Information and ‘truth’ are major sites of struggle in this conflict. The mainstream media in Australia base their reporting on the Middle East on assumptions which favour Israel. The conflict is presented as a legitimate if unequal struggle for land, rather than a struggle against colonial occupation and repression.
How often are the words of official Zionist propaganda reported as fact? Israel is fighting for its existence; Israel has a right to defend itself. As if Israeli actions in the recent war had anything to do with rational self-defence.
Then there is the lie that Israel has withdrawn from Gaza: ‘We gave them Gaza and look how they treat us!’ The reality is that not a cabbage or a lettuce, let alone a human being, can get out of or into Gaza without Israel’s permission. Gaza is a giant prison with people combing through garbage for scraps of food to survive. The ongoing killings — over 250 in Gaza in July/August — can only be called genocidal. The conditions are reminiscent of the Warsaw Ghetto. And who knows about them? All these suppressions and misrepresentations of information must be exposed.
At the same time, we cannot correct this distortion by equally biased narratives from Arab/Palestinian/Muslim perspectives. In parts of the Left, there is a tendency to exaggerate the crimes of the State of Israel. The reality is bad enough. Sometimes, rhetoric is used against Israel with a venom that I don’t notice in quite the same way with other Left struggles. Calling the massacres at Sabra and Shatilla in September 1982 ‘the other Holocaust,’ or claiming ‘Zionism = Nazism’ is not just bad history; it provokes resistance for no purpose.
I appreciate that anger at the Zionist hijack of the Holocaust as a justification for Israel’s actions, lies behind some of this. However, as a Jew, I find this special hatred anti-semitic. We are better served by opposition grounded in evidence and language appropriate to its object.
Jacqueline Rose, author of, The Question of Zion, warned against treating Zionism as a ‘dirty word.’ Zionism is problematic because it is at once a national liberation movement of Jews and a settler colonialist project.
A homeland for Jews did not always mean a Jewish State. There have historically been many kinds of Zionism including the bi-national visions of Buber and Magnes which were not based on a demographic Jewish majority. The Jewish State model won out historically, and that history has been racist and oppressive — but should this mean that national aspirations for the Jewish people are illegitimate?
I reject the double standard that denies Jewish/Israeli national aspirations in the same breath as supporting Palestinian nationalism. No nationalism, even if expressed as a struggle against national oppression and dispossession, is without problems. Could the Palestinians be said to have attained national self-determination if they were a minority in their own land?
The way out of the inherent violence of nationalist rhetoric and action is to base the struggle on justice, and human and national rights for both Palestinians and Israelis. In other words, a truly bi-national vision. Too often, the very notion of national aspirations for Jews is attacked in parts of the Left as illegitimate and racist. If we want a peaceful, just future, we need to challenge this.
Thanks to Scratch
I think we are witnessing a sea change in public attitudes to Israel. No longer is it such a sacred cow. The unprovoked Israeli onslaught on Lebanon has further undermined the guilt-laced sympathy many liberals in the West feel for Israel. The publication in the Sydney Morning Herald of John Safran’s marvellous satirical article ‘Jumping off the Zeppelin of Zion’ is particularly telling of the shift in attitudes. He makes the point that considering how hard Israel’s actions make it for Jews to identify with Israel these days, there are other ways of affirming Jewish identity than Zionism. Allelluja, I say!
Unfortunately, at the same time, in response to Israel’s actions, there is a revival of traditional anti-semitism. Jewish silence feeds this. Arab and Muslim anger at the oppression of the Palestinians is sometimes expressed as anti-semitism. As a progressive movement we must expose and oppose it as we oppose all racism, especially among our own ranks.
So what can be done?
There are numerous non-violent movements in both Israel and Palestine that get little exposure in our mainstream media. The refusenik movement is well known. Less well known is the Palestinian non-violent movement, the International Solidarity Movement. There are daily demonstrations against the Occupation Wall with local Palestinians, international and Israeli activists taking part.
During my visits to Israel/Palestine, it has been evident that both the Palestinian resistance movements and the Israeli peace movement are too weak to bring about change unaided from outside. The Palestinians, with all their steadfastness, cannot defeat the military might of Israel. The brave activists of the Israeli peace movement have little impact on the outlook of the great majority of Israelis.
Boycott is the most obvious form of outside pressure. In a recent email to me, Dorothy Naor, a veteran Israeli peace activist, pleaded for this. ‘If you can, please push boycott/divestment/sanctions of all kinds. That’s about what is left to give us here any hope.’ But we need to be smart about boycotts. This is not the same context as apartheid South Africa. While US firms had investments in South Africa, it did not have the same strategic importance for the US as does Israel.
A scattergun approach, targeting everything from Israel, has little chance of success. We are on stronger ground if we target those operations that directly support the Occupation and where a boycott can create a lot of waves — for example, a campaign against Caterpillar, which supplies the bulldozers that destroy Palestinian homes.
A cultural boycott should be carefully framed. It should be aimed only at those who do not speak out publicly against the Occupation. We need to support Israelis who oppose it. We also need to avoid the trap of creating a best-seller, as Michael Danby’s attacks have done with Antony Loewenstein’s book, My Israel Question.
A key issue is to campaign to shift Australian Government policy to conform to international law and human rights instead of the US line. Currently, both Government and Opposition act as mouthpieces for the Zionist Lobby. Two Australian ex-ambassadors from the region — Peter Rodgers and Ross Burns — have felt bound to speak out. Naturally, they have been met with a barrage of attacks. But they have stimulated the debate.
Those of us who are Jewish have a particular responsibility to raise the issues. I call on my fellow Jews to break their silence.
I understand that for many Jews, the State of Israel is a guarantee of survival and that any criticism that exposes its failings seems to undermine that refuge. Yet what black despair lies behind this belief! That there is no safe place in the world except in an Israel armed to the teeth constantly at war with its neighbours and trampling on the rights of its citizens.
Like Norman Finkelstein and Andrew Benjamin, I am outraged at the way the Holocaust has been used by the Zionist movement to manipulate the fears of Jews — always constructing Jews, and by extension, Israel, as eternal victims. If we are always powerless victims, then all is justified in self-defence.
If we take a reality check, we see that we are not at all collectively powerless. We must take responsibility for the crimes and injustices committed in our name, stop this uncritical support for Israel and speak out for what is right. That is the best antidote to anti-semitism.
This is an edited version of a speech given at Politics in the Pub.
About the author
Vivienne Porzsolt is a member of Jews against the Occupation Sydney