Shireen - Important Caring Words
From Jewish Currents: May 17, 2022
Hundreds of protesters contested the ethnic cleansing of Masafer Yatta, in the South Hebron Hills, on May 13th. Days earlier, the Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed while covering an Israeli military raid in the West Bank. Earlier this month, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that residents of Masafer Yatta could be expelled from their land to allow the military to turn it into a training ground.
· On Monday, The Intercept reported that two congressional Democrats plan to call upon the FBI to investigate the killing of Abu Akleh. Reps. André Carson and Lou Correa have sought signatures for the letter to the law enforcement agency. “Given the tenuous situation in the region and the conflicting reports surrounding the death of Ms. Abu Akleh,” a draft of the letter says, “we request the State Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) launch an investigation into Ms. Abu Akleh’s death. We also request the U.S. Department of State determines whether any U.S. laws protecting Ms. Abu Akleh, an American citizen, were violated.” Abu Akleh’s US citizenship features prominently in the request. “As an American, Ms. Abu Akleh was entitled to the full protections afforded to U.S. citizens living abroad,” the letter adds. “We, the undersigned Members of Congress, urge you to uphold the values that our nation was founded on, including human rights, equality for all, and freedom of speech. We have a duty to protect Americans reporting abroad. We look forward to your timely response.”
Israel refuses to probe soldiers who killed Shireen Abu Akleh
Rights and Accountability 20 May 2022
Israel announced that it was not going to launch a criminal investigation into the death of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, despite all but admitting that a soldier shot and killed her.
On Thursday, the Israeli military said it had “identified a soldier’s rifle that may have killed” the iconic Al Jazeera correspondent last week “but said it cannot be certain unless the Palestinians turn over the bullet for analysis,” according to the AP news agency.
The Tel Aviv daily Haaretz reported that the military declined to order a probe because “there is no suspicion of a criminal act.”
In other words, the Israeli military came to a conclusion without bothering to investigate – despite the international attention and outrage over the high-profile journalist’s killing.
Haaretz, parroting the Israeli military spin, stated that “the soldiers testified that they did not see the journalist at all and aimed their fire at gunmen, who were indeed nearby.”
The paper added that questioning soldiers as suspects “would provoke opposition and controversy within the IDF [Israeli military] and Israeli society in general.”
Yesh Din, an Israeli organization that has published data showing that Israel’s self-investigations are merely a whitewash mechanism, said that the refusal to probe soldiers shows that military authorities “no longer even bother to give the appearance of investigating.”
So far Israel has provided no credible evidence that anyone besides a soldier could be responsible for Abu Akleh’s death while she was wearing a protective vest and helmet identifying her as press.
The media workers who survived the attack say they were deliberately targeted.
Shatha Hanaysha, who was next to Abu Akleh when she was shot, said that the soldier who fired at her colleague “intended to kill her because he shot the bullet at an area of her body that was not protected.”
Ali Samoudi, who was shot in the back and moderately wounded during the attack, said “we were going to film the Israeli army raid, and suddenly they shot us without asking us to leave or stop filming.”
“There was no Palestinian military resistance at all at the scene,” Samoudi added.
The International Federation of Journalists has referred Abu Akleh’s killing to the International Criminal Court, calling it a “deliberate and systematic targeting of a journalist.”
The ICC opened an investigation into suspected war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip last year but appears to be prioritizing spending its strained resources on the situation in Ukraine, further heaping doubt on its credibility.
Israel’s failure to launch a criminal investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing provides further evidence – if any was needed – that Palestinians cannot access justice within the Israeli system.
Under the principle of complementarity, the ICC in The Hague only pursues cases where justice cannot be served in local courts.
In the handful of cases where a soldier has been prosecuted by Israeli over the killing of a Palestinian, the sentence has typically been a slap on the wrist.The Israeli generals and politicians that shape the policy that has resulted in thousands of Palestinian fatalities over recent years are never held responsible.
An ICC investigation, should one move forward, would most likely focus on high-ranking civilian and military officials.
Shireen Abu Akleh’s final moments
Abu Akleh and other media workers were covering a military raid in Jenin refugee camp when they came under fire from the direction of Israeli soldiers.
An unnamed Israeli military official told AP that “we have narrowed down the IDF [Israeli military] weapon that might be involved in the fire exchange near Shireen.”
The journalists who were with Abu Akleh when she was killed have said that there was no exchange of fire at the time and the shooting came from only one direction – that of the Israeli soldiers in the camp.
Video emerged on Thursday showing Abu Akleh’s final moments:The clip shows a group of people including the crew marked as press standing in a street and joking, clearly not feeling any sense of danger or urgency as they would have had there been an exchange of fire at the time.
The people in the video run for cover as several shots are fired, all apparently from the same direction. After a few seconds, several more shots are fired, seemingly from the same direction as the first round of fire.
After the second round, a man heard but not seen in the video shouts “Shireen, Shireen” and repeatedly calls for an ambulance in Arabic.
The Israeli military, despite not investigating Abu Akleh’s killing as a criminal matter, is demanding that the Palestinian Authority turn over the bullet fragment recovered from Abu Akleh, claiming it is needed to decisively determine whether she was killed by the soldier’s gun.
Israel has not made public the full body camera footage recorded by the soldiers involved in Abu Akleh’s killing or their GPS locations or other information that may help definitively establish responsibility for the reporter’s death.The soldiers who were operating in Jenin the morning Abu Akleh was killed were wearing body cameras and the Israeli military published a heavily edited montage of their footage: Bellingcat, a research group largely funded by Western intelligence contractors, analyzed open source information including videos of the incident shared on social media.
The researchers determined that the available evidence supports eyewitness testimonies that “place the blame on IDF [Israeli] soldiers” for Abu Akleh’s death.Al Jazeera, Abu Akleh’s employer for 25 years, reported on Thursday that the broadcaster, along with the Palestinian Authority, Qatar and the slain journalist’s family, were formulating a plan to seek justice for her killing.
Israel has treated Abu Akleh’s killing as a public relations crisis and nothing more.Abu Akleh’s family told Al Jazeera on Thursday that “we were expecting this from the Israeli side. That’s why we didn’t want them to participate in the investigation.”
The family added that “we urge the United States in particular – since she is a US citizen – and the international community to open a just and transparent investigation and to put an end to the killings.”
The administration of US President Joe Biden in Washington had previously said that “it is important to us that those who are responsible for [Abu Akleh’s] death be held responsible” and that the Israeli military “have the wherewithal to conduct a thorough, comprehensive investigation.”Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, tweeted on Wednesday that he had “discussed ironclad support for Israel’s security” with Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister, during a meeting at the White House that day. Sullivan did not say whether he discussed the killing of a US citizen by the Israeli military during his meeting with Gantz.
In addition to the killing of Abu Akleh, Israel has come under international pressure over its shocking attack on her funeral last Friday.
Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said on Saturday that the assault, “which was being filmed and broadcast live, appeared to be unnecessary and must be promptly and transparently investigated.”
“This culture of impunity must end now,” she added.
Even Tedros Ghebreyesus, the director of the World Health Organization, condemned Israel’s attacks on healthcare, including the police assault on pallbearers outside the Jerusalem hospital where Abu Akleh’s body was being kept ahead of her burial.
Another Jerusalem funeral attacked
On Monday, Israeli police attacked the funeral of Walid al-Sharif, a Palestinian Jerusalemite who died on Saturday from injuries sustained when he was shot by a sponge-tipped bullet fired by police during an assault on Ramadan worshippers at al-Aqsa mosque in April.A Palestine Red Crescent Society ambulance was hit by live fire and rubber-coated bullets fired by Israeli police during Monday’s attack.
More than a dozen people were hospitalized, two with eye injuries, as police fired tear gas canisters and used batons against mourners.
A relative of the deceased, Nader al-Sharif, was seriously injured by a sponge-tipped bullet near the graveyard and, the following morning, was placed under arrest and cuffed to his his bed at the hospital where the was being treated.
Israeli police assaulted the man’s brothers and cousin inside the hospital.
Also on Monday, Israeli police arrested 34-year-old Amro Abu Khudeir, one of the pallbearers beaten by officers during Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral.
He was interrogated about his participation in the funeral, his lawyer, Khaldoun Najm, told media.
Even though images of Israeli brutality have been shown around the world recently, a delegation from its police force was given a warm welcome in Britain this week.
Some Israeli police officers even went on patrol in the Hackney area of London.
“You Cannot Unsee This Image”
Rashid Khalidi on the colonial logic that devalues eyewitness accounts of the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh
Israeli police attack mourners carrying the casket of Shireen Abu Akleh in East Jerusalem on May 13th.
Last week, Shireen Abu Akleh, the beloved Palestinian Al Jazeera television reporter who had fearlessly covered Israel’s occupation since the Second Intifada, was gunned down during an IDF raid on occupied Jenin in the West Bank, despite wearing a flak jacket that clearly identified her as a member of the press. Palestinian eyewitnesses at the scene, including a colleague of Shireen’s who was himself shot, reported that the shots came from IDF soldiers. Gruesome images flooded social media, sparking outrage and horror. Despite the eyewitness testimony and Al Jazeera’s statement that their reporter was shot by Israeli military forces, much of the Western mainstream media coverage echoed official statements from the Israeli government and its communications apparatus claiming that Abu Akleh was killed in crossfire between the IDF and Palestinian militants.
This incident is but the latest in a long history of devaluing Palestinian testimony and the denial of Palestinian subjectivity. For some larger context on this incident and the erasure of Palestinian testimony in general, I spoke with the eminent historian of the modern Middle East Rashid Khalidi, currently the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine. Our conversation took place last Friday morning, May 13th, just as disturbing footage of Israeli police attacking Abu Akleh’s funeral procession once again shocked the world. We discussed the colonial logic motivating Abu Akleh’s assassination, comparisons with the British colonization of Ireland and India, the shifting academic terrain of Palestinian history, and Zionist media strategy in the United States. Khalidi argues that the suppression of Palestinian testimony is a practice as central to the Zionist project as the conquest of land. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DS: The footage of Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral seems too horrific not to address. We saw Israeli occupation forces breaking into the hospital where her coffin was being carried as part of her funeral procession. We saw them attacking mourners, beating them with batons, ripping away flags, using tear gas and stun grenades, and almost knocking over her coffin itself. Why attack a funeral in front of the world? What’s the point of such an open display of fascism?
RK: Every colonial army believes that only force can maintain control. And it’s true. A British general in India who ordered his forces to fire into a crowd, killing nearly 400 people [in the 1919 Amritsar massacre], said he had to establish the “moral effect” of force. Why do Israelis shoot down Palestinians; why do they go into people’s homes and smash everything? The “moral effect” of force. Soldiers are trained to do that kind of thing, according to testimony from Breaking the Silence. So they kill her, then they attack her home, and then they assault the funeral. That’s three attacks on this person and on her family. It has to be understood as part of a policy of systematically humiliating, brutalizing, and degrading an entire people, which is what a colonial power has to do if it is to maintain control.
DS: With this assassination, we’ve seen outlets like The New York Times minimizing eyewitness accounts from Palestinian journalists who saw this killing firsthand. Why are Palestinians prevented from telling their own story?
RK: It’s part of a general mindset that Israel and other colonial powers dating back to the 19th century have had about the inferior subject peoples they rule. Their testimony is not valid, so it is to be ignored, prevented, and blocked. Only Englishmen in Ireland, only Frenchmen in Algeria can appear before a court. That unfortunately pervades US media, partly because Israel polices the media to make sure that its own mendacious narrative is prominently included, but also because reporters themselves are biased. If a white person or a Westerner is on the scene, that’s testimony, that’s a witness. But any number of Arab, even Arab American, witnesses are not accorded the same respect.
This is a particularly egregious case, because if you follow Al Jazeera and other Arab coverage of Shireen’s murder, all of those outlets cite testimony from her fellow victims, from people who the Israelis were also shooting at, and who were there when she was murdered. Those testimonies were eloquent and clear that there were no Palestinian resistance fighters in the area, and that the Israelis knew who they were shooting at. Several of them also spoke English, so language wasn’t a barrier.
DS: In the 19th century, many states in the US had laws against Black people being able to testify in courts, so this is part of our own colonial legacy too.
RK: Yes, and Native Americans too. All of this has common roots in Western European colonialism. An English person would not be prosecuted for killing an Irish person. That in practice is the situation in Israel and the occupied territories: Palestinians can be shot down and murdered in cold blood with impunity.
The only reason Shireen is getting any positive mainstream coverage is that many of these Western reporters, including people who are parroting Israeli lies day in and day out, were touched by her. Every journalist in Palestine knew her. She was a familiar face to everybody because she was always on television, because there’s always some brutality that the Western media doesn’t cover and Al Jazeera does, and she was the most iconic face. None of the Western coverage has mentioned that Israel bombed the Al Jazeera offices in Gaza. Al Jazeera is the most widely viewed outlet in the Arab world for news on Palestine, because the Arab governments that are hand in glove with Israel—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates—do not want their state-controlled media to report on Palestine. It embarrasses these regimes. For Israel, it’s essential that Al Jazeera be cut off at the root. They don’t want this coverage. That’s why they shoot and beat reporters and bomb or raid offices or confiscate their equipment.
This is the oldest colonial strategy. During the Irish war of independence a century ago, there was a whole section in Dublin Castle, where the British ran their counterinsurgency operation, devoted to propaganda and censoring the Irish Press and feeding stuff to British-friendly journalists. They did the same thing in India, and in Palestine during the Great Revolt of the 1930s. The French did the same thing in Algeria. Every colonial power has to do this, because if the truth gets back to the metropole, there will be a problem. Israel is an independent, nuclear-armed regional power, but it is also dependent on a metropole, which is the US and Western Europe. If the population of the metropole knows in granular detail what Israel is doing, its support will wither.
By 1921, the British public had seen British soldiers burn the city of Cork, in retaliation for an attack on British auxiliaries, and over time British public opinion turned and the British withdrew from most of Ireland. The Vietnamese understood this; they might or might not win on the ground, but their resistance would cause public opinion to turn in the US.
Israelis are not going to keep winning this war as time goes on. If one compares the situation 40 or 50 years ago with the situation over the last couple of decades, it has changed. One reason is that you can shut voices up, but there’s nothing you can do about images. The image of Israeli soldiers wading into a crowd of mourners carrying the coffin and beating people and almost knocking the coffin down—there’s nothing you can do to contravene that. Even if the mainstream media and the Israeli press attachés and AIPAC and the paid hacks completely black it out, it’s on alternative and social media. You can say anything you want about bullets and Palestinian gunmen and the supposedly murky circumstances under which this woman was murdered, and they’re doing an incredibly effective job at that, but you cannot unsee this image. And that’s why they shot this woman: She was a TV journalist about to broadcast images of their systematic attacks on refugee camps.
DS: This speaks to the power of Palestinian testimony, either through verbal accounts or through the direct publishing of images. How do you see this struggle over narration occurring in the field of history? I’m thinking in particular of cases like that of Israeli historians like Benny Morris, who didn’t use Palestinian testimony in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, his famous 1988 account of the Nakba.
RK: He rigorously excluded Palestinian testimony. He explains it in the preface to the book.
DS: Yeah. How has that history of exclusion impacted how you think about your work as a historian and about the field?
RK: I don’t want to sound complacent, but I think that the Israelis have lost the battle on the academic front. I don’t think there are many respectable historians who repeat any of the major myths that were believed, cherished, polished, and enshrined over the decades after 1948. Many of the best Israeli academics have fled Israel. I have half a dozen Israeli colleagues at Columbia. I’m sure they all go back, but they prefer to be here rather than there. Fifty years ago, you almost couldn’t find books on Palestine. The word “Palestine” was taboo. If you said “Palestine,” you were an antisemite, and you were somehow challenging the existence of Israel or wanting to destroy it. But the flood of scholarship on Palestine in the last couple of decades has been unstoppable—including a lot of critical, objective, scholarly work by Israelis.
Popular history is different; generations that grew up with a variety of lies and myths came to believe that Israel was a tiny, embattled outpost of democracy in a sea of hostile Arabs probably haven’t changed their views. They believe that the movie Exodus is factual. That’s what people over 50 or 60 believe; when I speak to older audiences, typically half of them have seen that film. It played a defining role in establishing those myths, but younger people don’t believe any of that. The younger they get, even if they’re sympathetic to Israel, they don’t believe the old claptrap.
DS: It seems like the new discursive move is to move away from allegations of bias—which, at least in my experience, used to be the dominant mode for dismissing Palestinians—toward new allegations of antisemitism. In some ways, this is a tacit acknowledgement that the academic battle has been lost. So the move now is to decenter Palestinians and recenter American Jews as victims. It’s a concession to more contemporary ways of thinking about testimony—that victims should be able to speak to the nature of their oppression. So they have to change who the victim is.
RK: There’s an interesting piece by Isaac Chotiner in The New Yorker, in which he interviews Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, and it’s very clear from that interview that this is exactly what the ADL and similar, well-funded organizations are doing. A good general understands when a line has been breached and you have to withdraw to another one. It’s a very shrewd move on their part, even if it’s an admission of bankruptcy. If you can’t argue the facts, argue lies. You cannot deny legitimacy to the testimony of victims in the Palestinian case, but in a Zionist interpretation of history, Jews are always, inevitably victims, and their victimhood is worse than anyone else’s, including Palestinians’. That works with a certain generation, but it doesn’t work with young people. When they see a picture of Israeli police in body armor and helmets beating the living bejesus out of mourners, who is the victim?
If you read the Greenblatt piece carefully, he in effect concedes that Palestinians are indigenous and that there are problems in Israel. But he says that these American students on campuses are antisemitic. It’s a remarkable strategic move.
DS: Given how important the US is as part of the colonial metropole for Israel, and this concerted shift in hasbara (Israeli propaganda) strategy away from the events on the ground and toward advocacy itself, what can Palestinians do to reassert their subjectivity, both as an oppressed people in Palestine, and as a marginalized people in the US as a part of the diaspora?
RK: If there were a coherent, democratic, unified Palestinian national movement, it would be involved in effective messaging that lays out a strategy for liberation and decolonization that appeals to Israelis, American Jews, Europeans, American conservatives, everyone. Somebody would be standing up in Ramallah, or even in exile, and saying, “Israel is not sovereign here, Israel has no right to investigate. The criminal doesn’t have the right to investigate his crime.” They would say, “We are the indigenous people. We are the real sovereign.” But the Palestinian leaders who might say that don’t represent anybody except their own narrow, partisan, and personal interests, whether in Gaza or in Ramallah.
What’s left is Palestinian civil society, which is doing a reasonable job of messaging given the limitations it faces. But it’s incoherent and amorphous, and there’s nobody really leading it, which is one reason you have all of these acts of spontaneous resistance. On the other hand, there’s a huge opportunity today, when you have the American media glorifying women putting together Molotov cocktails to be used against Russian occupation forces. Somebody should be yelling from the top of their lungs, from the United Nations and from every Palestinian embassy, that our resistance against occupation, armed or otherwise, is no different than Ukrainian resistance. Occupation is occupation, the only difference is 88 days versus 55 years. Occupation is illegitimate. Occupation doesn’t have the right to call resistance “terrorists.” That’s what you need a unified national movement to say; obviously, the Palestinian Authority, which is a subcontractor for the Israeli occupation, is not going to do it.
I don’t want to say we have to emulate the media genius of the Zionist project. I’m not saying we have to emulate the Algerians or the Vietnamese or the Irish or the Indians—although the Indians were geniuses, and the way they defeated the British discursively is textbook. Israel is completely different. You never had a separate colonial project which wasn’t an extension of the sovereignty and the population of the mother country. English people were sent to North America, French people were sent to Algeria, but Zionism was an embryonic national movement of people who were not British: The British supported somebody else’s project for their own narrow, selfish strategic purposes. Nevertheless, there are lessons from each of these cases that the Palestinians should be learning and that are there in the scholarship. But there has to be some kind of chain of transmission down to the level of activists and politics. Read what the Irish did, in terms of creating an alternative sovereignty; the Indians and the Egyptians did the same thing. You create an alternative—not one controlled by your occupier, like the Palestinian Authority—but one that is completely altered, and then they arrest you. The Irish proclaimed their own parliament, and the British arrested them. Some of them died in hunger strikes. They created their own courts, all of it subterranean. The Indians did the same thing. They refused to participate in the machinery of colonial government. The fact that the Irish and the Indians understood that they had to get through to the British, and the Algerians understood they had to get through to the French—that’s why they won. Ultimately, what turned the tide was the metropole turning against the colonial crimes.
DS: I take your point about how critical this discursive fight is, and it seems like we need to find a way to assert Palestinian subjectivity on a discursive level in a way that is accessible to people who may have no reason to be involved in this fight.
RK: You know, Native Americans speak for themselves in this country. Black people speak for themselves. There’s a pushback against it, but that victory has been won. Palestinians don’t have that yet.
Since 2015, Jonathan Greenblatt has served as the director of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization devoted to chronicling and fighting anti-Semitism in American society. Amid a rise in anti-Semitic incidents documented by his group, and with hate crimes in general on the upswing, Greenblatt, a former special assistant to Barack Obama, has been speaking harshly about the tendencies he believes exacerbate anti-Semitism. One of those tendencies is anti-Zionism, which, in a recent speech, he referred to as “an ideology rooted in rage,” comparing it to white supremacy, and adding, “Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.” This comes at a time when a vocal minority of young American Jews has called for one secular, democratic state across Israel and the Palestinian territories.
I recently spoke by phone with Greenblatt. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why hate crimes are increasing, the historical roots of anti-Zionism, and whether it’s bigoted to oppose a Jewish state.
What is the mission of the A.D.L. and how do you see it specifically since you took over?
What is the challenge for an organization whose mission is both particularist and universalist? Is there tension there?
I think it is a creative tension or a healthy tension, but there certainly does exist the necessity of finding how those things interoperate. So, for example, in 1952, the A.D.L. wrote an amicus brief in the Brown v. Board of Education case and did so because our leadership in the nineteen-fifties, long before it was fashionable to fight for civil-rights issues, had come out strongly in favor of them, in favor of integration, in favor of desegregation. There were some among our volunteer base who said, Why is the A.D.L. getting involved? That’s not a Jewish issue. But our management in the nineteen-fifties said, Actually, this is our issue. It’s essential to who we are. Then later that same decade the A.D.L. came out in favor of immigration reform and did a lot of work in civil society in support of what became known as the 1965 Immigration Act. There were some among A.D.L. who said, Why is this our issue? The A.D.L. leadership said, No, it actually is our issue.
When I stood up against the proposed Muslim registry, in 2016, or when I went to the border and I was a very loud opponent of the way they were detaining undocumented children and separating them from their parents, some people have said, These things aren’t Jewish issues. Again, I think the way we treat people of different faiths, the way we treat people who immigrate to this country or come as refugees, speaks entirely to who we are. So I think this is exactly what the A.D.L. is all about and always has been.
Your group has released statistics indicating that anti-Semitism is on the rise in America. Why do you think that is?
The F.B.I. tracks hate crimes, meaning felonies and misdemeanors, reported through local law-enforcement agencies, that are crimes against an individual or an institution because of an immutable characteristic like faith, gender, sexual orientation, or national origin. The A.D.L. also tracks anti-Semitic incidents. So let’s say acts of harassment, or bullying—that might not rise to the level of a hate crime. Law enforcement doesn’t care if a kid gets bullied at school, but we do. We collect this information through our twenty-five offices across the country, as well as through lots of individuals and organizations. The F.B.I. 2020 stats—we don’t have 2021 yet—suggested hate crimes are up six per cent over all. We calculated in our most recent audit a thirty-four-per-cent increase in anti-Semitic incidents. That is consistent with an unfortunate pattern that’s emerged since 2016, where instances have been on the rise pretty much every year.
So what’s the cause of that? Political polarization and the coarsening of the public conversation has taken a lid off of politeness and people are now saying things in public spaces they just never did before. People are more vituperative with one another and going after each other. So I think that’s No. 1. I think No. 2 is the penetration of conspiracy theories: making wild claims about individuals such as George Soros or Sheldon Adelson or the Zionists or whatever. Now conspiracy theories are everywhere, and Jews are often at the center of them. No. 3, I think extremists are emboldened in this environment and you see them literally running for school boards, running for Congress. The last thing is that almost seventy-five years since the Holocaust, the collective shame that was there fifteen, twenty, thirty years ago has somewhat receded.
Recently, you a gave a speech where you said, “Against the backdrop of rising anti-Semitic incidents, we will thank the G.O.P. leadership for their statements of support—and demand that they call out the bizarre anti-Semitic conspiracies of their candidates and elected officials. Against this same backdrop, we will applaud Democratic leadership for their statements of support—and demand that they call out the statements of those in their party who knowingly traffic in anti-Zionist tropes and make malicious claims against the Jewish state.” You tagged this rise to 2016, and most of the examples you listed were things I would associate with Republicans and especially Donald Trump. Is the major issue here Donald Trump and the course the G.O.P. is on? And is that course broadly not conducive to Jews thriving?
America has been not only the most vibrant democracy in memory but the open, liberal-minded society that we have here has been the best for the Jews. And historically you can see that the Jews tend to thrive in these open, democratic environments, where people are judged on the content of their character. We tend not to do very well in authoritarian societies. We tend not to do very well in the places where civil rights are diminished or squelched. All these freedoms have a lot to do with Jews prospering.
I worry a great deal about the diminishment of civil rights and the diminishment of these values and privileges that we really cherish. We have politicians or public figures who liken covid precautions to Nuremberg laws. I think that’s frightening. Holocaust distortionism, which is what I would describe that as, is a slippery slope that tends not to end very well for Jewish people. So, to answer your question, that does worry me a great deal because I do think it’s a slippery slope toward more illiberal policies.
I was asking whether partisanship and extremism more broadly were the problem, or whether it was the G.O.P. becoming a party that goes whole hog for many of these things.
I think when either party starts adopting conspiracies as if they were facts, that worries me. You’ve got people like Marjorie Taylor Greene in the Republican Party who say things that can’t be believed.
I can think of someone even more prominent in the Republican Party who says things you can’t believe.
Yeah, but Marjorie Taylor Greene is someone in elected office today. But, yeah, look, I think former President Trump’s insistence on the “big lie” that he didn’t win the election, and asking candidates to pay fealty to him, is deeply hurtful, and, frankly, that phrase is associated with the Holocaust. So, that’s very worrisome. I also worry about the conspiracism of some on the left, like all the crazy stuff about Israel. That was also in my speech.
In that speech, you said, “To those who still cling to the idea that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, let me clarify this for you as clearly as I can—anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. I will repeat: Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.” How are you using the term “anti-Zionism”?
Well, it’s not my term per se. It’s a philosophy of negation. It’s an idea that is based upon negating Zionism, and Zionism is the right of Jewish people to self-determination in their ancestral homeland. This right of self-determination, that many in the anti-Zionist camp want for Palestinians or would want for other peoples, they would deny to Jewish people. Unless you don’t believe in nationalism as a concept and unless you support denying the legitimacy of any national project from France to Ukraine, if you hold the idea that Zionism is the only form of nationalism that’s wrong, that’s discriminating against Jewish people. That’s the anti-Semitism.
I say this as someone who believes in a two-state solution and who’s taken flak for it in some quarters of the more right-wing segments of the Jewish community. I believe in Palestinian nationalism, and I believe in Zionism, and, if you will, Jewish nationalism. These things are not at odds with each other. So in theory there’s some people, whether you’re a pundit or a columnist or a professor, who might think it’s fine to hold this idea, but, in reality, as you can see in our latest data, the conflation of anti-Zionism with other forms of politics is actually quite dangerous to Jewish people of all persuasions.
You said it was O.K. to hold an anti-Zionist idea if you are a pundit or professor. So if I’m a history professor in New York, and I think that everyone in the area covering Israel and the West Bank and Gaza should be part of one democratic state, that’s O.K. to think, in theory, and not be anti-Semitic, but, in practice, people who want that are?
Let me clarify. I can understand that if you’re a pundit or a professor and you’re in the ivory tower, you might think that this is O.K—you can hold those views. But the reality is that in my job at A.D.L. I’m looking at this upsurge of anti-Semitism and trying to understand why it is happening and what’s driving it. Indeed, I find that I don’t have time for that theory. I’m living with the consequences of the practice and the people who propound this idea, Isaac, and contribute to environments in which anti-Semitism is on the rise. That’s what I'm saying.
So if I were a Palestinian in the West Bank and I thought that my situation really stunk, and that we should have one democratic state that covers all this territory—is that in practice anti-Semitic? No one is going to argue with you that many people who are anti-Zionist are also anti-Semitic. But people who would want a democratic state or states in that area, or would even want Israel to be a democratic state without a religious character—is that anti-Semitic?
I get it. I understand what you’re saying. What I’m talking about is not the Palestinian who is displaced from their village in 1948. Not talking about that. I get that as an idea, but, in practice, what I’m dealing with are the students at Rutgers University, who, when they read off the names of Holocaust survivors, or people in their family who died during the Holocaust, their fraternity is pelted with eggs, and students who claim some fidelity to anti-Zionism or Palestinian nationalism harass them. That’s a problem for me. And, again, I’m not debating or questioning the authenticity of an Indigenous Palestinian person who’s living in the West Bank who feels impinged upon by the Israeli state. By the way, my wife’s family was displaced from Iran. My grandfather’s family was all slaughtered in the Holocaust, but my grandfather didn’t subscribe to and I don’t subscribe to the idea that the German state needs to be dismantled and destroyed and that German people don’t have a right to self-identity.
I understand the answer you’re giving. But in the speech you compared anti-Zionism to white supremacy very clearly, so—
Correct, I did. Let’s say a white person said to me, “My plant got closed. These immigrants came in and took my job, and so, therefore, I don’t know, immigrants shouldn’t have any rights, immigrants don’t just deserve the same rights as we do.” I would feel the same way if someone said, “You know what, these Jews came and took my home, they don’t have any rights.” It’s a similar phenomenon.
It seems like you’re drawing a lot of distinctions in this conversation and defining things not as broadly as you did in the speech. You are saying certain forms of anti-Zionism are anti-Semitic, or you’re feeling that anti-Zionism, broadly speaking, can lead to anti-Semitism, which seems a little different than comparing anti-Zionism directly with white supremacy. There’s no professor espousing white supremacy in the ivory tower that you are O.K. with. That’s what I’m trying to draw out.
O.K., I understand. So let me make sure that I’m crystal clear with you. If you are a person in the West Bank, a Palestinian, an Indigenous Palestinian person, I understand why you don’t like the Israeli state, but if your goal is to destroy it, I think that’s a problem.
Is creating a secular state destroying it? A state for Jewish people, but not a Jewish state, if that distinction makes sense.
Ask my grandfather or ask my wife. These kinds of countries exist in the Middle East. I don’t think Syria would be a great outcome for anybody. I don’t think Yemen would be a great outcome for anybody. I don’t think the state of Lebanon would be a great outcome for anybody. I don’t. So, to answer your question, do I think a secular non-Jewish state would work? No, I don't think so.
Right. I think people would say the West Bank isn’t working, but—
Look, I think you’re correct, I think the West Bank is a suboptimal situation.
Here, you are saying, I don't think a one-state solution can work, and you may be right. But I don’t know that people who preach it are anti-Semitic.
There are a lot of people who get involved in these movements, Isaac. There are Jewish people involved in the [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] campaign. I don’t think they’re all self-hating Jews. I think many of them think this is a way for us to be supportive of human-rights issues. However, the architects of the campaign don’t believe in Zionism and the right of Jewish people to a homeland of their own.
There are a lot of young Jewish people in America who don’t consider themselves Zionists, and there are also Jews in Israel, religious Jews, who do not consider themselves Zionists. So anti-Zionism is very multifaceted.
People who try to compare the Satmar Jews to members of Hamas—I think that’s a farce. I mean, give me a break. I could probably find Palestinians who don’t believe in a Palestinian state.
I wasn’t equating anyone. Many Jews in America have been saying something for a long time, which is do not treat us as Israelis. Do not commit hate crimes against Jews in America because you don’t like the policies of the Israeli state. Do not accuse us of having dual loyalty and looking out for the interests of Israel. Is there any danger in equating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism so strongly that in some ways it’s doing the work of the people who want to equate those two things: Jews as a whole with Israel and Zionism?
I wish I didn’t have to have this conversation with you or with anyone.
Anti-Zionism is a new hue of a very old color. Jews have been delegitimized for centuries. For thousands of years. Judaism isn’t a real religion. The Jews aren’t a real people. The Jews don’t really deserve rights. We have heard this throughout time. Today, the subject of derision is the Jewish state, not the Jewish people. But it is an old practice. It's like old wine in a new bottle.
To answer your question, we have fought against dual loyalty, against that canard. There’s nothing wrong with having a passion for your homeland. Italian Americans have that, Irish Americans have that, Chinese American people have that. There’s nothing wrong with having a strong identification, but Zionism, a desire to go back to Jerusalem, the longing for Zion, isn’t something that David Ben-Gurion came up with. It isn’t something that Theodor Herzl came up with. It has been embedded in the faith and the traditions of Judaism for thousands of years. You can’t open a Torah on a Saturday morning for your daily prayer, you can’t go through a holiday, without seeing these references.
So you’re right, there are maybe more young Jewish people today who identify as progressive and think anti-Zionism is part of their progressive identity, but if you peel back the layers in anti-Zionism, it is a historic form of delegitimization targeting Jews. It may have a different veneer today, a different façade, but it’s the same architecture of intolerance that’s been there for centuries.
But you would also agree that the debate over Zionism has not necessarily had this “anti-Semitic veneer” for centuries, right? There are a lot of Jews who were anti-Zionists before—
Give me a—Isaac. Sure, there were Jews who were worried that it would create more anti-Semitism directed against them in America. When you ask me these questions, it suggests to me that you’re coming at this from a particular editorial perspective. To compare the fear that existed in the Jewish community in the nineteen-thirties—that wasn’t anti-Zionism in the way that we have it today. The Jewish people in America or in Europe who were concerned about the prospect of creating a state of their own were terrified of the literal annihilation of their people that was taking place around them. Don’t liken the American Jewish leaders from the nineteen-thirties who had deep questions about what Zionism would mean to the people writing the charter for Hamas today.
That’s not what I’m doing. I was trying to make the point that I thought that Zionism and anti-Zionism as ideas come in many forms. Look, we know that the Balfour Declaration, which was one of the bases of the modern state of Israel, was written by Arthur Balfour, who had views about Jews and other people that we might not like—
Is anyone saying it’s white supremacy? What am I missing here?
Well, I’m drawing an analogy.
The person who feels concerned about immigrants or concerned about plant closures, that isn’t white supremacy, and we shouldn’t call it that. The person who, in the nineteen-thirties, said, I’m concerned about this Herzlian project, that person was not anti-Zionist like what we have today. We need to be able to distinguish between the two, but radical people who promote an ideology in which the fundamental tenet is denying Jews the same rights as others, that’s dangerous and it is combustible. Period.
In your speech, you very clearly compared anti-Zionism, without these distinctions, to white supremacy. What about people who are worried that the Israeli state has a religious character to it, in the way it deals with Jews versus non-Jews—where the objection is to a religious state?
I don’t see a movement to disassemble Pakistan. I don’t see that.
Pakistan was created at basically the exact same time as Israel. It is a state that has a religious character to it, and one can easily believe that it was a mistake to create, but now it has a right to exist. Thinking its religious character is not O.K., and that it is not O.K. for the state to treat small minorities of Christians and Hindus any differently than Muslims—I don’t think that would make you anti-Pakistan or anti-Muslim in some way. One could even argue against religious states for the same reasons that you brought out at the very beginning of this interview—that there’s not something universalist about them.
I got a news bulletin not too long before we talked that the government of Israel just swore in the first Muslim Supreme Court justice at the highest court of the land. For a country with a quote-unquote religious character, with a Jewish star on the flag, it is remarkable to me that they have a ruling government, a coalition that is more diverse politically and religiously than the U.S. government today. I don’t know how many Muslim members we have in our Cabinet. I don’t know how many Muslim parties. We live in a world in which there are dozens of Muslim states. Most of them—I shouldn’t say most of them, because I don’t know this for certain, but a plurality of them—make references to Islam or Islamic iconography on their flags or in their constitution. It’s remarkable to me that we don’t have a push to de-Islamicize all these countries.
There was a giant push to say to the Muslim world after 9/11 that they needed to change how religious their societies were because they were leading to terrorism and violence. People have certainly lectured the Muslim world on issues within their own societies. Anyway, I hear the point you’re making about the Muslim Supreme Court justice. And Pakistan has had a female Prime Minister. That doesn’t tell us everything about gender dynamics in Pakistan.
Wait a second. That’s a whole different conversation. I used that example in the context of your comments about universality and how different religions are treated in Israel, which we were narrowly talking about a moment ago. At the end of the day, Israel is a country unto its own. To your point about the dual-loyalty thing, I don’t think it’s right when Jews are held to a different standard, and I don’t think it’s right when Muslims are held to a different standard. I don’t think it’s right when people are categorized and litmus tests are administered based on their religion or their national origin. I don’t agree with that. I’ve stood up against it when it’s been done to Chinese people and I’ve stood up against it when it’s done to Muslim people and I’ll stand up against it when it’s done to Jewish people.
There is much debate in American society now over whether racial or religious groups or people within those groups should be able to define what constitutes bigotry against them. I’m curious how you think through whether anti-Semitism is something that Jews themselves get to define or whether it’s more something that society has to negotiate together.
It’s a complicated question, but I think it’s fair to say that the people from different marginalized groups who’ve been struggling with that marginalization for some time have the right to say what feels right and what doesn’t feel right. I’m not a trans person. I don’t think it’s for me to define what is transphobic or not. A trans person should do that. I don’t think it’s for me to define what’s an indication of anti-Muslim bias or not. I think it’s for the Muslim person to tell me.
That’s an interesting answer. With a situation like Israel, some Jews think that certain resolutions to the conflict would be anti-Semitic, and some Muslims think the current situation or other resolutions are anti-Muslim. So you have the problem of how to figure that out.
These things are complicated. I think as often is the case with issues of identity, they go to how we define ourselves. They don’t always lend themselves to pat answers and different people can perceive things differently.
Dylan Saba is a civil rights attorney and writer based in New York City, and is currently a fellow at Jewish Currents.
Dylan Saba is a civil rights attorney and writer based in New York City, and is currently a fellow at Jewish Currents.
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