What's Left

December 27, 2002

Pro-Israeli apologist sets the agenda

By Stephen Gowans

Shira Herzog, executive vice-president of the Calgary-based Kahanoff Foundation, and a writer on Israeli affairs, says she wants pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians to tone down their rhetoric and sort out their differences. But first, she says,

"Jews want to hear that Israel's legitimacy as a state is not questioned. They want to hear unequivocal condemnation of terrorism and its perpetrators. They want to hear understanding of Israel's need to defend its citizens. They want to hear acknowledgement of its effort to maintain democratic principles in the face of challenges unknown in duration and scope to any other Western democracy. They want to hear empathy for the suffering of Israeli victims of terror."
"If these understandings exist," Herzog tells us, "supporters of Israel should be prepared to hear and debate criticism of Israeli policies and actions on its merits."

Herzog is playing games.

The nature of the parameters Herzog says should define the bounds of legitimate discussion of Israeli-Palestinian issues are, in fact, the central claims on which the Israeli side of the dispute rests. As such, they deny, or subordinate, the Palestinian claims. Accordingly, rather than preparing the way for debate, accepting Herzog's parameters would end debate -- in Israel's favor.

For example, Herzog says Canadian Jews want to hear that Israel's legitimacy as a state is not questioned. But equally, Palestinian refugees want to hear that the legitimacy of their right to return to their homes, mandated by international law and recognized in the case of other peoples, is not questioned. Accepting Herzog's parameter effectively subordinates the legitimacy of the Palestinian claim to Israel's claimed right to exist as a Jewish state.

And while Herzog says Canadian Jews want to hear understanding of Israel's need to defend its citizens, Palestinians just as much want to hear understanding of their right to resist military occupation. Yet, inasmuch as Israel's need to defend its citizens is taken to mean occupying Palestinian territory and abridging Palestinian rights, the two are in conflict. Why is it that we must accept the Israeli claim as senior to the Palestinian claim?

Written from the Palestinian side, Herzog's parameters become:

"Palestinians want to hear that their right of return is not questioned. They want to hear unequivocal condemnation of Israel's state terrorism and its perpetrators. They want to hear understanding of Palestinians' need to defend themselves against Israeli aggression and expansionism. They want to hear acknowledgement that Israel's illegal military occupation has dragged on for decades. They want to hear empathy for the suffering of Palestinian victims of Israeli war crimes and terror.

"If these understandings exist supporters of Palestinians should be prepared to hear and debate criticism of Palestinian actions on its merits."

But these parameters weren't presented by Herzog, for to accept them means to accept the Palestinian side of the debate (as accepting her parameters means endorsing the central claims of the Israeli side.) And you won't see the Palestinian side presented in Western media, even though we're told by Israel's supporters that newspapers and TV are thoroughly pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli. Yet Canada's The Globe and Mail (which has run a number of Herzog's commentaries) features an almost total absence of Palestinian voices, its commentary on Israeli-Palestinian affairs limited to Jews, Israelis, former Israelis, and ardent pro-Israeli sympathizers.

There's almost a complete identification with Israel in the West, no more so among the general public than, relatedly, among the media. On the other hand,  Palestinians, and Arabs more generally, have become iconic representations of terrorists. And the negative images of Israel that do arise, usually related to war crimes and atrocities carried out by Israeli forces in the occupied territories, almost invariably unleash new charges of an anti-Semitic bias in the Western media. As often as not, these charges are accompanied by calls for balance, this amounting to a demand to catalogue the war crimes, atrocities, and human rights violations of Arab states (as if this is somehow relevant.)

On the same day Herzog was articulating her "new rules for engagement" the Jerusalem Post was editorializing about a rising tide of anti-Semitism in Canada, its evidence consisting of "anti-Israeli incidents" on university campuses (demonstrations against the Israeli crackdown in, and occupation of, the West Bank and Gaza) and an incident that occurred in Toronto in July, in which David Rosenzweig, an Orthodox Jew, was murdered outside a kosher restaurant by -- so the editorial claims -- a neo-Nazi skinhead. The problem was Rosenzweig's assailant wasn't a neo-Nazi, though the story fits well with the tendency to attribute every injury to Jews (and all criticism of Israel) to anti-Semitism.

This isn't to say anti-Semitism isn't a problem in Canada; it is, this no more shockingly evident than when Saskatchewan Indian leader David Ahenakew recently ranted about Jews as a "disease," excusing Hitler's "[frying] of six  million of those guys" because "[t]he Jews ... nearly owned all of Germany prior to the war" and "[Hitler] was going to make ... sure that the Jews didn't take over Germany or Europe." (In its ugly callousness and repellent stupidity, this recalls the words of those who say killing thousands of Afghans was excusable because the Taliban was harboring al-Qaeda, or of those who dismiss the hundreds of thousands who could die as a result of a US-led invasion of Iraq by pointing to the three thousand who died on Sept. 11. "We have to fry those guys to make sure Saddam doesn't give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists and take over the Middle East.")

Sadly, there seems to be a linear relationship between anti-Semitic incidents (such as Ahenakew's) and Israeli outrages, and between Israeli outrages and mischevous charges of anti-Semitism; which is to say, the more Israel's behavior becomes reprehensible, the more anti-Semites feel emboldened to do and say anti-Semitic things; at the same time, the more Israel carries out brazen crimes, the more Israel's apologists feel the need to level charges of anti-Semitism to deflect criticism from Israel's actions.

There is a rising tide: of anti-Semitic acts and slurs carried out by racists (like Ahenakew) who think Israel's outrages somehow imbue their reprehensible acts and words with legitimacy; and of sly innuendo and sophistical charges carried out by Israel's supporters (like Herzog) who think Israel's reprehensible acts and words, and the idea of ethnically cleansing Palestine to make way for a Jewish state, are defensible.

Zionism, unfortunately, is one of those retrograde ideas, hardly endorsed by all Jews, and thoroughly repudiated by many, whose weight owes more to what isn't said about it than what is.  Few in number are Canadians prepared to denounce it openly, either for its racist nature, or its uselessness in providing a Palladium against anti-Jewish racism; for to do so is to invite a cataract of abuse and invidious accusations.

Instead, genuflecting to Israel's "right" to exist as a Jewish state, invariably shortened to "Israel's right to exist" to disguise its racist import, is now demanded as a sine qua non of inclusion in civilized society, but once you accept Israel's right to exist as a purely Jewish (as opposed to an equal multiethnic) state, you accept, as Herzog's parameters do, Israel's central claim, and from this, in pristine Aristotelian logic, follows all about Israel that is an affront to universal notions of justice: the idea that some people (Jews) have rights that are senior to others (Palestinians); that some forms of racism (against Palestinians) are acceptable; that the abridgement of some people's rights (Palestinians) is just. In short, it's a small step from Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state to Palestinians are second class human beings who can be driven from their homes, subjected to decades of military occupation, and denied rights accorded to others.

Were Herzog sincere in initiating a healing process she might establish a different set of parameters, not one which insists on endorsing Zionism, but one in which Jew and Muslim alike abandon exclusive claim to Palestine, and agree to live, not side-by-side in mutually hostile, incessantly warring mono-ethnic states, but equally in a multicultural Palestine, where no individual has rights senior to another because of race, language or religion. As a measure of how thoroughly dominated by pro-Israeli commentators the discussion has become, this idea, rarely ever acknowledged, is peremptorily dismissed on those rare occasions it is acknowledged, as "not on" and impractical. Instead, it's said, as oppressors always say, that the only practical road to peace is to accept the oppressor's terms.

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