For more than 60 years, Israel has engaged in a unceasing campaign to dispossess Palestinians of their land and their rights. Its ability to do this has depended on three factors in particular:
* overwhelming military superiority;
* keeping public opinion, especially in North America and Europe, on its side;
* making ordinary working-class Israeli Jews believe that it is in their interest to support Israel’s Zionist elite rather than making common cause with ordinary Palestinians.
Israel’s military dominance is unchallenged, thanks to unconditional support and limitless supplies of advanced military technology and equipment provided by the United States and its allies (including Canada). However, military dominance has not been able to achieve Israel’s ultimate goal: forcing Palestinians to stop resisting and to acquiesce in their dispossession and oppression. Israel’s relentless onslaught has been met by equally determined Palestinian resistance which, despite the odds, steadfastly refuses to accept the injustice of occupation.
This Palestinian resistance has called into being an ever-growing international network of support and solidarity. In dozens of countries and hundreds of communities around the world, organizations and movements have emerged to demand that Israel be made to adhere to international law and to basic principles of justice.
Israel and its supporters see these international campaigns as a huge threat. Israel has escaped the sanctions that have been applied to other states which commit human rights abuses and violate international law only because the United States automatically vetoes all attempts to hold Israel accountable. Israel is also crucially dependent on huge annual inflows of foreign aid, to the point where it is conceivable that the state would collapse if the flows of outside cash which prop it up were to be withdrawn.
Anything that undermines public support in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, therefore, threatens the external backing on which the Israeli state depends for its very existence. It is true that the governments which turn a blind eye to Israel’s violations of international law mostly ignore popular opinion in their own countries as well, but this could change if support for Israel were to become a serious political liability. In this regard, what is particularly worrisome from Israel’s point of view is the fact that support for Israel among Jews in the United States and Canada, especially among younger Jews, has declined dramatically. If Jews stop supporting Israel, then all foreign support is in jeopardy.
Threats to Israel’s international legitimacy bring with them an even greater internal danger: the danger that Israeli Jews will themselves start seeing the Zionist formula – in essence, a militarized apartheid state holding down the Palestinian population by force – as a dead end.
If working-class Israeli Jews were to see their interests as being different from those of the ruling elite – if they come round to the view that their long-term interests will be better served if they join Palestinians in working for a democratic secular state with equal rights for Palestinians and Jews – Israel’s ruling class would find itself in the same untenable position that the white elite in apartheid South Africa faced in the early 1990s. Already, Israel’s rulers are debating what to do about the ‘demographic threat’ they are facing: Israeli Jews are leaving the country in increasing numbers to move to other countries, while the Palestinian population continues to increase.
The Palestinian resistance, and the growing international support which it has attracted, have had a substantial effect in changing the way Israel is perceived. Increasingly, international public opinion is no longer willing to turn a blind eye to ethnic cleansing, house demolitions, systematic humiliations, imprisonment, torture, and the indiscriminate killing of civilians, children as well as adults.
Faced with the erosion of its credibility and support, the Israeli state has lashed out by using ever-increasing repression against the non-violent Palestinian resistance. One of the centres of this resistance is the village of Bil’in, which has been fighting the expansion of an illegal Israeli settlement on its land with weekly non-violent protests for more than five years now, protests which have turned Bil’in into an international symbol of non-violent resistance. The Israeli state has been using ever more extreme tactics of harassment and brutality to attempt to crush the village and put an end to the protests, which it correctly believes are causing substantial harm to Israel’s international image. Similar tactics of harassment and imprisonment are being used against other Palestinians who resist, as well as against Jewish Israelis and international solidarity activists who support the Palestinian cause.
At the same time as it attempts to crush internal resistance, the Israeli state, aided by its supporters in the United States and Canada, has launched extremely aggressive and well-financed propaganda campaigns abroad whose goal is to counteract the decline in support for Israel.
A telling characteristic of these campaigns is that they by and large do not focus on attempting to justify Israel’s behaviour. One has to assume that the architects of the propaganda efforts realize that it is no longer possible to explain war crimes and human rights abuses in a way that the international public will accept.
Instead, the focus has shifted to attempting to shut down criticism of Israel by targetting the most outspoken critics with crude smear tactics and outright censorship.
On a growing number of campuses, for example, this has involved harassment and firing of outspoken professors (e.g. Norman Finkelstein, Joel Kovel), as well as attempts to ban events such as ‘Israeli apartheid week’.
In Canada, we are now seeing an attempt to silence criticism of Israel by labelling all such criticism as ‘anti-Semitism’ and therefore as hate speech. This tactic has a triple purpose: to suppress public awareness of what Israel is doing; to discredit critics by smearing them as ‘anti-Semitic’, and to keep Jews onside by frightening them with the spectre of anti-Semitism.
In Canada, the Harper government, fanatically pro-Israel, is fully involved in this effort. It has cut funding to groups which have supported Palestinians in their quest for justice, and it has set up a Parliamentary body charged with coming up with the legal rationale for making it illegal to criticize Israel.
If the Harper government is successful in getting its way, statements such as the following, all of them expressions of generally accepted principles of human rights and international law, will henceforth be classified as anti-Semitic hate speech in Canada:
‘A state must be the state of all its citizens.’
Saying this will be classified as ‘anti-Semitic’ because it implies that the Israeli state has a duty to serve and represent all of its citizens equally, Palestinians as well as Jews.
‘Everyone born in a state, and everyone who has been a permanent resident for a specified and reasonable period of time, is entitled to citizenship.’
Saying this will be classified as ‘anti-Semitic’ because it would mean that Palestinians under the rule of the Israeli state have the right to be citizens of Israel.
‘All citizens of a state must be equal under the law, equally entitled to the rights, privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. A state may not favour, or discriminate against, citizens, on the grounds of religion, ethnicity, or race.’
Saying this will be classified as ‘anti-Semitic’ because it implies that Israel has to dismantle its discriminatory, apartheid-style system of laws.
‘Every state must accept its internationally recognized borders and must renounce all claims on territory outside of its borders.’
Saying this will be classified as ‘anti-Semitic’ because it would mean that Israel would have to stop seizing land beyond its borders.
‘All states must abide by international law, including the Geneva conventions, laws against collective punishment, laws against torture, etc.’
Saying this will be classified as ‘anti-Semitic’ because it implies that Israel has to stop engaging in ethnic cleansing, collective punishment, and other violations of international law.
‘Refugees have a right to return to the lands from which they were expelled by an invading army or occupying power.’
Saying this will be classified as ‘anti-Semitic’ because it means that the Palestinian refugees expelled from their homeland by Israel must be allowed to exercise their right of return as guaranteed by international law.
‘Sanctions should be applied to those who violate international law.’
Saying this will be classified as ‘anti-Semitic’ because it implies that Israel should face sanctions for engaging in collective punishment and ethnic cleansing, for practicing torture, for committing war crimes, for defying UN resolutions and World Court rulings, and for other illegal acts.
The attempt to outlaw criticism as Israel by labelling it as ‘anti-Semitism’ is a serious threat which needs to be exposed and challenged. At the same time, it should also be recognized as a tactic of desperation, a tactic that has become necessary because of the ever-growing opposition to the crimes of the Israeli state.
The resort to increasingly blatant open repression is a symptom of loss of control. In the past such tactics would not have been necessary because any criticism of Israel was confined to the outer fringes of public debate. Now it has become mainstream, and those who support an ethnically defined, apartheid-style Israeli state are feeling increasingly threatened. Those of us who support a democratic secular state should feel encouraged, even though the struggle is far from won.
December 27, 2009
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