An article titled “In Defence Of Israel” is being circulated to media-persons in India by the Spokesman of the Embassy Of Israel in Delhi. This article, published in Open magazine, was written by Jonas Moses Lustiger (a student based in Paris, who has earlier lived in India). The article names me specifically, and refers to mine and Aditya Nigam’s posts on Palestine in Kafila, but I was not interested in engaging with Lustiger’s largely ill-informed, propagandist and misrepresenting rant. But now that it appears we are responding directly to the Israeli state, I feel perhaps I should put some things on record.
Let me begin by stating my complete agreement with Lustiger on three of his key statements in the Open article.
It is true that Israel’s current government is one of the worst it has known and most of its citizens have lost hope for peace. It is also true that Israeli society is turning more racist, intolerant and ignorant of the suffering and existence of their immediate neighbours—Palestinians. Of course, the Palestinian people have been denied many rights and have been living under precarious conditions since Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. True, they have been repeat victims of unjustifiable violence and a large proportion of Israeli politicians deny their claim to an independent land, even as Israel threatens the viability of a Palestinian state by wielding tools of colonisation.
Pretty much sums up our three posts on Kafila – what’s not to agree?
Second: I’m also in complete agreement with him on his characterization of Cameri Theatre (in the context of INCACBI’s call to boycott Cameri Theatre when it performed in Delhi):
It is true that the Cameri once performed in Ariel, a colony in the West Bank, despite a cultural boycott declared by Israeli artists and writers, and this is condemnable.
Nevertheless, says Lustiger, “this does not make it a ‘propaganda tool’ ” of the Israeli state, as the INCACBI statement claims. Well, that’s a matter of opinion, isn’t it? If Cameri Theatre defied the calls of progressive Israelis not to perform in notorious Ariel, as Lustiger concedes, then it seems reasonable to assume it is being used by the Israeli state (much as Lustiger’s own piece is!) as a propaganda tool.
Of course, by occupying and oppressing a people for more than 40 years, Israel has contributed to creating and aggravating its reality
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.
Lustiger then deftly sets aside all these True Confessions to segue into saying unkind things about “Indian intellectuals” who do a
cut-and-paste of the anti-Zionist position of American academics like Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler, but without their knowledge and experience of Jewish history.
No deep knowledge of Jewish history and still daring to write about Palestine. The audacity! Of course, only Jewish history is relevant to understanding Palestine, because as Golda Meir put it decisively:
There is no such thing as a Palestinian people… It is not as if we came and threw them out and took their country. They didn’t exist. (In a statement to The Sunday Times, 15 June, 1969)
Lustiger submitted a comment of 1695 words to Kafila, responding to me in the debate on Aditya’s post “Imagining Post Zionist Futures”, a comment that was nothing like the Open article in tone or content. There he adopted an extraordinarily offensive tone, advising me that it would
be more efficient to focus on alternative development models, inequalities, Kashmir, North East, Adivasi, Naxalites, Woman rights, Dalits, all crucial in India today, and not to loose [sic] time uttering so many ineptitudes and formulating unverified statements… I kindly advise you to Wikipedia “historiography”, “epistemology” and probably “deontology”.
That was useful, certainly, and I took his kind advice to heart. Thanks to him, I now know the meaning of those really big words. (Not to mention the correct spelling of “lose”.)
Now, having conceded the absolute unethicality and cruelty of Israeli oppression of Palestinians, what does Lustiger do? Two quick sleights of hand, familiar to those of us who have been following the issue of Palestine for decades:
a) switch to the sufferings of Jews under the Holocaust:
Zionism was born in an extremely anti-Semitic 19th century Europe after a two-millennium history of Jews at the receiving end of discriminatory laws, massacres, forced displacement, ghettoisation and utmost poverty.
But who in India talks about the Holocaust, he asks.
Well, my first post on Kafila certainly did. I said:
Fleeing terror and genocide in Europe, and anti-semitism globally, Jews from all over the world poured into Palestine.
I didn’t use the heavily loaded code word ‘Holocaust’, it is true. But what does Lustiger think I’m talking about? Is the problem that I didn’t spend sufficient words and time on it? But as the Americans say pithily – everything isn’t about you, honey!
And presumably that phrase in the sentence (“from all over the world”) also answers his other question:
Do Indian experts on West Asia know that the Israeli people are not merely European, as many here tend to believe, but are a mix of people of Indian, Georgian, Yemeni, Iraqi, Persian, Chinese, Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Argentine, Uzbek, Syrian, Afghani, Turkish, Brazilian, Ethiopian, origin?
(He also mentions in this long list “Polish, Portuguese, Austrian, German, Russian, Bulgarian and French”, which I would have thought are “European”, but then what do I know? I only cut and paste from American writings and need to look up Wikipedia to learn the meaning of deontology.)
The Jewish people suffered in European nations because of anti-semitism up to and including Nazi gas chambers. We know this in India – most English readers grew up crying over Anne Frank’s diary. But how is that suffering translated into dispossessing the residents of Palestine from their land? How does that justify methods of dispossession and ethnic cleansing perfected by the Israeli state that even the Nazis could learn from?
Aditya’s post quotes Edward Said as saying poignantly:
Oslo required us to forget and renounce our history of loss, dispossessed by the very people who taught everyone the importance of not forgetting the past. Thus we are the victims of the victims, the refugees of the refugees.
b) The second sleight of hand is the claim that Israel is the Only Democracy in a Sea of Arab States.
Israel since its independence has been the region’s only free and pluralistic democracy and one of Asia’s few. Arab Israelis, 20 per cent of Israel’s population, have by law the same rights as all other citizens. They vote and send representatives to the Knesset (legislative assembly) in every election.
But both Israel’s socialism and its secularism are entirely internal to its Jewish citizens. Non-Jewish people of Israel/Palestine – Muslims and Christians – are excluded from both ideals. Did the “egalitarian socialist communities”, the kibbutzim that Lustiger celebrates, include the dispossessed Arabs whose land was stolen to set them up? Does Israeli secularism include the citizenship rights of non-Jewish people? Aditya’s post explains the hollowness of Israel’s claims to secularism quite clearly. As for the claim of equal citizenship for Arab Israelis, in my second post I have amply demonstrated the falsity of that claim, including citing an Israeli government report that says:
The Arab citizens of Israel live in a reality in which they experience discrimination as Arabs. This inequality has been documented in a large number of professional surveys and studies, has been confirmed in court judgments and government resolutions, and has also found expression in reports by the state comptroller and in other official documents. Although the Jewish majority’s awareness of this discrimination is often quite low, it plays a central role in the sensibilities and attitudes of Arab citizens. This discrimination is widely accepted, both within the Arab sector and outside it, and by official assessments, as a chief cause of agitation…
And then the slam dunk I was waiting for.
Lustiger triumphantly questions whether, with my claims to scholarship on gender, I am aware that
Israel is the only country in West Asia with a vibrant homosexual culture. It is one of the few nations in the world that recognises same-sex couple adoption rights. In fact, Tel Aviv is one of the world’s most gay-friendly cities. Israel is also the only country in the region where women enjoy the same rights as men.
It is clear that propagandists are not interested in even pretending to read the arguments of those who challenge them. I am therefore forced to ‘cut and paste’ the following account of Israel’s “pink-washing” from my own post ( I’m good at cut-and-paste, she said smugly):
Magid tells of being at a checkpoint at which an old Jordanian man was painfully getting out of his taxi to walk through the corridor. Magid decided not to take it as simply routine. He asked the young security officer – “Why not let him sit in the taxi?”
“It is not permitted,” said the guard coldly and expressionlessly.
“Look at him”, Magid persisted, “he can barely stand.”
“It is not permitted,” the guard repeated.
“Come on,” Magid demanded, ”Would they treat you like this in Jordan?”
Goaded, the guard finally burst out with – “Do you know they shoot gay men in Jordan?”
Hanh? you may well exclaim – what does that have to do with anything? Well, it does. Israel claims to be the only democracy in West Asia because it is “secular” (not Islamic) and because it respects diversity, especially queer rights. It’s interesting that a checkpoint guard should have had that line down pat – is it part of their training, perhaps? (Or to be more charitable, perhaps he was gay himself.)
But as Haneen Maikay, the director of Palestinian queer group Al Qaws, has said, “When you go through a checkpoint it does not matter what the sexuality of the soldier is.”
Israel’s queer friendliness is easily exposed. Yes, friendly to “queer people” – to Israeli (Jewish) queer people. (Although, in fact, sodomy and homosexuality were illegal in Israel until 1988, while homosexuality has been decriminalized in the West Bank since the 1950s, when anti-sodomy laws imposed under British colonial influence were removed from the Jordanian penal code, which Palestinians follow.)
Jasbir Puar terms this “homonationalism” – the coming together of racist nationalism with queer politics:
Israeli pinkwashing is a potent method through which the terms of Israeli occupation of Palestine are reiterated – Israel is civilised, Palestinians are barbaric, homophobic, uncivilised, suicide-bombing fanatics. It produces Israel as the only gay-friendly country in an otherwise hostile region. This has manifold effects: it denies Israeli homophobic oppression of its own gays and lesbians, of which there is plenty...
The global queer movement opposed to Israel’s Occupation and Apartheid holds that pinkwashing not only manipulates the hard-won gains of Israel’s gay community, but it also ignores the existence of a growing Palestinian queer movement and gay-rights organizations such as Aswat, Al Qaws and Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. These groups are clear that the oppression of Palestinians crosses the boundary of sexuality
This understanding exists too, among sections within Israel. As Yuval Ben-Ami, Israeli cultural critic points out, Israel’s Gay Pride parade estranges many who experience discrimination on grounds other than sexual orientation, as well as those aware of the discrimination that others face.
Similarly, Aeyal Gross, a professor of law at Tel Aviv University, argues that “gay rights have essentially become a public-relations tool,” even though “conservative and especially religious politicians remain fiercely homophobic.”
Rabbi Alpert, a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinic Cabinet, has spoken publicly against Israel’s “pinkwashing”: the exploitation of Israel’s reputation as a champion of gay rights in order to rebut claims that it is a major violator of Palestinian rights. In an interview, Alpert said that what troubled her was that Israel claimed to be a Jewish state and homeland for world Jewry. As such, it speaks in her name and this she could not allow. Gays historically have known dispossession and being stripped of rights as human beings. Therefore, she said, they identify with those, like the Palestinians, who have none.
These two sleights of hand are all too familiar, and we have thoroughly deconstructed them in our three posts which Lustiger does not think it necessary to read before launching his ill informed tirade.
He claims by the way, that I made “eight factual mistakes”, but he does not say what these are, anywhere. Or perhaps, along with not knowing how to write, I have forgotten how to read?
Lustiger goes on at great length about the dissident voices inside Israel, many of whom Aditya and I have in fact cited extensively, including B’Tselem, which he thinks he is bringing to our attention. But it is from among those dissident voices also that the call for boycott of Israel comes.
Ilan Pappe puts it far more sharply than we would (cited in our third post):
In order to stop the extension of these war crimes, the extension of this criminal behavior, let’s admit that we need external pressure on the State of Israel. Let’s thank the associations of journalists, physicians and academics who call for a boycott on Israel as long as this criminal policy continues. Let us use the help of civil society in order to make the State of Israel a pariah state, as long as this behavior continues.
Clearly, the boycott call (a global initiative, as Aditya’s post showed, not one initiated by us illiterate Indian intellectuals) does not mean “refusing to read, hear, see or talk to artists who hold Israeli passports” or not to “read Israeli novels and poetry, attend exhibitions by Israeli artists, listen to Israeli musicians, watch Israeli theatre performances”.
It means an academic and cultural boycott of institutions in Israel, most of which are complicit with the state’s apartheid policies. It means you can go to Israel and talk to people in a cafe, in an open space, make the point that the global community will not cooperate with legitimizing Zionist oppression of the Palestinian people. Not all visiting Israeli cultural groups need to be boycotted, only those that come under the patronage of the Israeli state, those that like Cameri Theatre do not consider themselves as part of progressive and dissident Israeli voices.
Lustiger says “I have not heard of boycotts anywhere of Chinese goods, Pakistani novels or Indian films, though these originate in states that oppress people in similarly unbearable ways.” Well, what if there is a call for boycott of these states? What if from within a country a movement emerges that makes such an appeal? Should we not take that seriously? If tomorrow there is a movement and a voice from within China or India that calls for a boycott, certainly we should not dismiss it out of hand. Of course, Israel is a somewhat special case. It has with impunity transgressed all international conventions, protocols and laws. The other state that did this on a large scale was apartheid South Africa, against which we know that this strategy was used to good effect.
In his lengthy, insulting and arrogant comment submitted to Kafila*, Lustiger had made insane “historical” claims, some of which he repeats in this article – for instance, that European Jews had “lived in Europe since the Exile of first century CE”. Twenty centuries afterwards, they are still ‘In Exile’ and must “return” to the land promised them by no less than God? So of course, Palestinians dispossessed a mere 45 years ago can have no right of return. This is another common Zionist strategy – the Jewish people have a history that can be traced back for millenia, Palestinians did not exist until 1948.
Of course, Lustiger is no more “insane” than Golda Meir, who said
This country exists as the fulfillment of a promise made by God Himself. It would be ridiculous to ask it to account for its legitimacy. (Le Monde, 15 October 1971)
For us, and for all sane voices in the region, both Israeli and Palestinian, the question is no longer to “determine who this land should be rightfully returned to”, as Lustiger in a third sleight of hand holds. If the issue is posed in this way, there is of course, no resolution, because of the layers and layers of history, settlement, war, conquest etc that any place in the world has. The question is of how to ensure justice now in that chequered land with its history that has already happened. This was the question Aditya’s post (our third in the series) raised. And there he explored the voices that stand for a bi-national one-state solution.
There is no going back. What there is, is the present, which needs to be engaged with as ethically as possible. And one possibly effective way to do this is to boycott and isolate the state of Israel in the world community.