A pointless exercise

This year has brought about another round ill-informed criticism of IAW. Matt Abra’s article, in a previous issue of the Manitoban, being just one example. While the article’s misrepresentations of IAW organizers and the Palestinian solidarity movement and what I see as thinly veiled accusations of anti-Semitism are problematic and have been refuted many times over in the ongoing meta-debate about IAW, he raises a few additional points that I find curious and believe need further exploration.

First off the fact of the matter is that the Israeli state is practising apartheid against the Palestinians. Palestinians living in Gaza have been under a brutal siege for years. Palestinians living in the West Bank have been subjected to a decades-long military occupation, and have been cut off from each other and from their land by a system of walls, checkpoints, and Israeli-only roads. Palestinian refugees remain scattered across the region and the world, having been denied their right to return for over 60 years. Palestinians have to deal with house demolitions, settler violence, and the Bantustanization of the West Bank. While one could write entire articles and books discussing all the nasty things the Israeli state does to Palestinians — people have — this is just a sampling of the daily practices of the Israeli state.

Under such a situation, it seems odd to suggest, as Abra does via a quote from historian Norman Cohn, that the problem is one of “Zealots on both sides” and that one should care about: “those caught in the middle who just want to lead their lives in relative peace and with some semblance of normalcy.” Israelis may be able to continue to live comfortable lives in relative peace and normalcy. That option is not available to Palestinians who have to face the brutality of an apartheid system, whether they engage in resistance or not. The word normalcy brings to mind a similar word — normalization — the process of making the unacceptable widely accepted, and, to quote Simone de Beauvoir, “hanging the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them.” Rather than “normalcy,” all Palestinians have to look forward to, if there is no movement towards Palestinian rights, is the normalization of apartheid.

In his article, Abra goes on to make a curious comment, one I am highlighting because it exemplifies a train of thought which sorely needs to be deconstructed and critiqued. Abra states: “Israel Apartheid Week (sic) has never seemed concerned with negotiating peace.” This is the “dialogue” argument — the argument that student activists should focus on engaging in “dialogue” initiatives, rather than organizing in support of Palestinian rights and using powerful words, like apartheid, and engaging in forceful activism.

First off, this notion that it is up to students in Manitoba to “negotiate peace” is odd. No one in Manitoba has the moral or political authority to represent any party in this matter. It is not the place of Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) to speak on behalf of Palestinians and judge what kinds of proposals for their future are acceptable and unacceptable to them — our role is to act in solidarity with Palestinians, not dictate a political line to them.

Hypothetically, were SAIA and B’nai Brith on Campus to sit down over hummus and falafel and have some kind of miniature Oslo process, it would be an utterly pointless exercise. We could, in our model negotiation, think up some grandiose plan for a solution, and it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference to the Palestinian farmer in Hebron, who would continue to be beaten by settlers for daring to harvest his own olive trees.

Worse still, these kinds of “dialogue” initiatives are counterproductive. Instead of addressing the structural problems at the root of the conflict — colonialism, occupation and apartheid — these kinds of initiatives whitewash and reframe the conflict to one of ancient irrational hatreds and competing cultural narratives, which need to be heard and mutually validated. In reality, the problem is political and structural, and it is incredibly patronizing to demand that those concerned with Palestinian human rights spend their efforts validating a pro-apartheid political discourse instead of organizing against apartheid.

So, if trying to “negotiate peace” on campus won’t work, what should students who care about people suffering in Palestine/Israel do, beyond simply educating themselves?

First off, we need to call it like it is. Apartheid is the best, most comprehensive term to describe the situation in Israel/Palestine, and is a term which is grounded in international law. We can’t beat around the bush simply because a few people are uncomfortable with the term. If people support apartheid, perhaps they should be uncomfortable.

Secondly we need to take a rights based approach to the problem. Rather than trying to model the dysfunctional peace process — which many Palestinians quite rightly see as a process to grant legitimacy to the removal of Palestinian rights and to create Palestinian Bantustans — we need to critically examine how Palestinians are oppressed and which rights are denied.

This is where the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement comes in. Looking at the situation, we can see that Israeli apartheid is a relatively complex system of oppression, in that it manifests itself differently against three broad categories of Palestinian — those living under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, those facing racism as citizens of Israel and those scattered around the region and the world as refugees. As such, the key demands of the BDS movement — ending the occupation, full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel and the right of return — constitute a minimum program for a just solution for all three of these groups. The BDS movement is a non-violent movement, endorsed by a broad cross-section of Palestinian civil society.

Apartheid in South Africa didn’t fall because students in Manitoba decided to “negotiate peace” between blacks and whites. It fell because of intense pressure from anti-apartheid activists both within South Africa and around the world. Students in Manitoba were active as part of the global anti-apartheid movement, and in the course of that struggle faced many of the same criticisms that we see flung at IAW and SAIA today. Rather than attempting to delegitimize those who vocally criticize apartheid, it’s time for us to rise up and take our place as part of the new anti-apartheid movement.

9 thoughts on “A pointless exercise

  1. To begin, Israel is not a colonial state. Israel was founded based on the right of self-determination of the Jewish people in 1948 (via the 1947 UN Partition Plan) on land wherein there was a Jewish majority. In fact, this is the same right that offers the basis for the Palestinians’ right to statehood, also offered to them in 1947, and again in the 1990s, and again in 2000, to which their leaders consistently turned down. You are partially correct in that there is one colonial state that was founded in what is historically known as “Palestine” – however, that state is Jordan (a British colonial state). Do you then suggest that Jordan be boycotted, and for that matter Canada, the U.S., Australia… perhaps every other colonial state in the world? Colonialism is after all one of the major problems at hand, according to your article.

    This is but one example of how your article is so simplistic, and often inaccurate, in its breakdown of the conflict. Instead of addressing any role that the Palestinian leaders have played in the obstruction of their people’s statehood, you place all the blame on Israel. This is a feature of the IAW approach that is well highlighted in Mr. Abra’s article, which you so clearly failed to grasp the point of. You disregard that Israel grants the same rights and freedoms to all of its citizenry – whether Jewish, Arab or Christian. You disregard that Gaza and the West Bank are not apart of Israel, that the Palestinians living there are not citizens of Israel, and therefore are not granted full access to Israel and its institutions – just as Mexican citizens do not receive such unrestricted access to the United States. In fact, Israel has separated its institutions as much as possible from those of Gaza and the West Bank, so that they can one day form the independent Palestinian state. Furthermore, you disregard that Israel necessarily restricts and monitors closely the entry of noncitizen Palestinians into Israel for security reasons, and that since construction of the security fence, suicide bombings in Israel have been reduced by over 90%.

    Rather than attempting to fully address the complexities of the issues at hand, you dismiss any such effort to understand both sides of the conflict as “pointless.” How disheartening it is to see that within an academic context a student unabashedly asserts that dialogue is worthless. No one is kidding themselves when they propose an actual dialogue that they will subsequently be able to solve the world’s problems – but if we can’t at least sit down and discuss these issues civilly, with both sides being able to present their viewpoints, how can we ever in our wildest dreams expect there to be peace in the Middle East? Moreover, you’d think that at some point a university student like yourself would realize that such dialogues at the very least educate both speakers and audience – allowing them to develop more nuanced and intelligence stances than they ever would be able to within the misinformed one-sided context you advocate for.

  2. To begin, Israel is not a colonial state. Israel was founded based on the right of self-determination of the Jewish people in 1948 (via the 1947 UN Partition Plan) on land wherein there was a Jewish majority. In fact, this is the same right that offers the basis for the Palestinians’ right to statehood, also offered to them in 1947, and again in the 1990s, and again in 2000, to which their leaders consistently turned down. You are partially correct in that there is one colonial state that was founded in what is historically known as “Palestine” – however, that state is Jordan (a British colonial state). Do you then suggest that Jordan be boycotted, and for that matter Canada, the U.S., Australia… perhaps every other colonial state in the world? Colonialism is after all one of the major problems at hand, according to your article.

    This is but one example of how your article is so simplistic, and often inaccurate, in its breakdown of the conflict. Instead of addressing any role that the Palestinian leaders have played in the obstruction of their people’s statehood, you place all the blame on Israel. This is a feature of the IAW approach that is well highlighted in Mr. Abra’s article, which you so clearly failed to grasp the point of. You disregard that Israel grants the same rights and freedoms to all of its citizenry – whether Jewish, Arab or Christian. You disregard that Gaza and the West Bank are not apart of Israel, that the Palestinians living there are not citizens of Israel, and therefore are not granted full access to Israel and its institutions – just as Mexican citizens do not receive such unrestricted access to the United States. In fact, Israel has separated its institutions as much as possible from those of Gaza and the West Bank, so that they can one day form the independent Palestinian state. Furthermore, you disregard that Israel necessarily restricts and monitors closely the entry of noncitizen Palestinians into Israel for security reasons, and that since construction of the security fence, suicide bombings in Israel have been reduced by over 90%.

    Rather than attempting to fully address the complexities of the issues at hand, you dismiss any such effort to understand both sides of the conflict as “pointless.” How disheartening it is to see that within an academic context a student unabashedly asserts that dialogue is worthless. No one is kidding themselves when they propose an actual dialogue that they will subsequently be able to solve the world’s problems – but if we can’t at least sit down and discuss these issues civilly, with both sides being able to present their viewpoints, how can we ever in our wildest dreams expect there to be peace in the Middle East? Moreover, you’d think that at some point a university student like yourself would realize that such dialogues at the very least educate both speakers and audience – allowing them to develop more nuanced and intelligence stances than they ever would be able to within the misinformed one-sided context you advocate for.

  3. First of all Brian, you’re supposed to wait for OTHER people to comment on your article, you’re not supposed to be the first (and only) one to comment on what you say. But then again, what can one say about your ill informed diatribe. If it was up to people like you and your zero-sum solutions, we would have to wait another sixty five years for a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

  4. The never ending Israel vs Palestine debate. I have lost all faith that it will ever be resolved. There is just way too much misinformation, bad blood and polarization. What the world needs is less groups on one side or the other, and more neutral groups looking at the entire situation. The truth is, Israel is not the grand, horrible and disgusting force that it is often made out to be, although it has done bad things and should be criticized for them. And, the reality is, Palestinians have, in many ways dug their own graves, although, yes, there have been great injustices and there needs to be massive change to make the situation better. Both sides share equally in what is going on. Both sides need praise when praise is due, and criticism when criticism is due.

  5. Additionally, I think some on the left (and I do include myself there) have to be careful. In the end, look at what you are actually supporting. Israel has done wrong, but, we have to be careful not to throw support blindly behind groups and people who do even worse. That doesn’t help anyone.

  6. Hi. Matt Abra here. Your argument is well written and insightful. And I will acquiesce your comment about my choice of the term “negototiate peace.” It was poor phrasing that did not properly convey my meaning, especially the idea of negotiation. Of course I do not implore a student movement to altercate and create peace. That was not what I meant. I meant to imply that IAW is a one sided movement that creates its identity antithetically to Israel, with their prime objective being one of “winning,” not one that has any bipartisan perspective or seems open to any compromise. I only get a certain amount of words, so unfortunately I could not make that clear.

    As for the rest of your article, it was exactly the response I expected – one in which the argument I was making had no bearing on how people would perceive it. I expected people would see that I was supporting Israel and then base their conclusions on that alone. However, I cannot say that I was in any way defending Israel within the article. In fact, the majority of my article had very little to do with the conflict in general, it was about how people perceive the conflict and how they base their opinions within a simple ‘us vs. them’ paradigm, which is the fundemental problem to begin with. That is what is wrong with movements like IAW.

    The comments you made about Israel are correct (although I do not share your certitude that apartied is the right word for it). Israel has problems; Israel violates human rights. But your entire article is nothing more than the typical one-sided perspetive that gives no traction to a solution, it only excacerbates the aggression. Palestine violates human rights as well, namely the insistence of many (not all) that Irael does not have the right to exist. Israel, however, always comes out seemingly more aggressive because they are more inherently powerful. But how can you not say the same about the U.S., or China, or even England? The fundemental problem is that “zealots” who do not believe in co-existence are the real enemy, on both sides, regardless of the differential in power.

    I have no problem with your article on its own merit, but I do take acception to it as a response to mine. My arrticle was about IAW, and while it did touch on a few of my points, yours was more about the conflict in general. I am happy that healthy discourse is taking place, and I am happy that you responded constructively (because a lack thereof is the entire problem in the first place), but if you are going to respond to me, please respond to the real points I was making and do not simply use me as an excuse to impose your own anti-Zionist agenda.

  7. I look forward to your boycotts of Iran, Sudan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which all have much worse human rights records than Israel. I mean, if human rights is the point of all this… right?

  8. @Matt,

    I understand the issue with the word limit, sometimes it is hard for me as well to stick to a word limit.

    I’ve been meaning to write a critique of the whole discourse around “dialogue” in this whole meta-debate about IAW and the phrase “Israeli apartheid” for a while, as it has been something that comes up from time to time surrounding this issue. Your article simply spurred me on to actually write it. I’m sorry if you object to it being seen as a response to yours; it is both a response to your article, and a critique of a broader political perspective which some parts of your article exemplified. One could say it’s a combination of a response with some other stuff that has been rolling around in my head as of late.

    I don’t think I accused you of “supporting Israel” and going from there, in fact, the parts of my article which were a direct response to yours were actually critiquing your neutrality and the “zealots on both sides” approach to the conflict. After all, as Howard Zinn said, you can’t be neutral on a moving train.

    That said, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that your article is objectively supporting Israel, given the timing and the harsh critique of Palestinian solidarity activists – see, “lies,” “libel,” “anti-semitic,” “itching for something to idealize about,” etc.

    One other point – regarding my article giving “no traction for a solution,” I think it was pretty clear the solution that I was proposing – that we apply BDS so as to put economic and political pressure on Israel and on corporations which support Israeli apartheid as a way to force the Israeli state to abandon its apartheid practices. After all, this kind of international solidarity was one factor in forcing South Africa to abandon apartheid. As the Sheizaf article I linked to above states, there really is no way around direct pressure on Israel. After all, power concedes nothing without a demand.

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