Stifling debate on Israel will only hold back peace
A clue to the disingenuous nature of the highly successful efforts of the global pro-Israel lobby to conflate any criticism of the behavior of the state with antisemitism can be found in an extraordinary statement issued by the chief executive of an organization called UK Lawyers For Israel.
The organization was founded in 2011 by a group of British lawyers “concerned about the failure to combat the use and abuse of law by enemies of Israel.” In the past, it has targeted the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which aims “to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.”
The lawyers’ organization says this movement is bent on “the delegitimization of Israel,” but in fact its aims merely parallel those of the international boycott movement that helped to end apartheid in South Africa.
Last month the lawyers took on a softer target — a group of Palestinian schoolchildren who attend two UN schools in Gaza. As part of an art project in collaboration with young patients at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, an exhibition of plates the children had painted was put on display at the entrance to the children’s outpatients department.
The lawyers’ organization leapt into action. The very presence of the exhibition made Jewish patients visiting the hospital feel “vulnerable, harassed and victimized.” Jews, said Jonathan Turner, chief executive of the lawyers’ group, “should not have to face a wall of anti-Israel propaganda when they go to hospital.”
It was a curious, and revealing statement. Why should Jewish patients in the UK be offended or otherwise bothered by criticism of Israel, any more than, say, Christian patients might be bothered by criticism of the UK?
Regardless, the speed at which the hospital removed the offending plates was evidence of the effectiveness of the conflation agenda. Thanks to groups such as these lawyers, and many similar organizations around the world, antisemitism and criticism of the behavior of Israel’s government have now become falsely but inextricably conflated, effectively shutting down debate about the behavior of Israel toward Palestinians.
To criticize Israel, goes the canard willingly adopted by brow-beaten Western politicians and media alike, is to criticize Jews. To express support for Palestinians is to be accused of antisemitism. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as “anti-Palestinianism.”
Take the case of Roger Waters, co-founder of the British rock band Pink Floyd, a staunch advocate of Palestinian rights, and an outspoken critic of what he calls the “apartheid state” of Israel. In February a court in Frankfurt labeled him one of the world’s “most widely known antisemites” and ordered a venue in the city to cancel one of his concerts. Other German cities are following suit.
In the past Waters has accused Israel of “abusing the term antisemitism to intimidate people like me into silence,” a charge for which the evidence continues to mount.
Everyone, including the British government, knows Israel is in the wrong over Palestine. But the British government’s view of Israel’s behavior is as unequivocal as its response is toothlessly pragmatic.
Antisemitism and criticism of the behavior of Israel’s government have now become falsely but inextricably conflated
Responding to a 2021 online petition urging it to impose sanctions, the government demurred, while at the same time urging Israel “to cease its policies related to settlement expansion immediately, and instead work toward a two-state solution.” Settlements, the statement went on, “are illegal under international law, and present an obstacle to peace.”
But behind the words, it is business as usual. This week the British and Israeli foreign ministers signed an agreement boosting economic, security and technology ties, and on Friday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shook hands with his British counterpart Rishi Sunak on the steps of 10 Downing Street.
The consequences of Israel’s willful encouragement of its illegal settlers are evident in the current wave of tragic tit-for-tat violence and killings, a pattern that has continued pretty much since the British reneged on the promises they made to their Arab allies in the First World War — declaring instead “sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations” and viewing “with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
The 1917 Balfour Declaration, which became British policy as soon as Britain was handed the territory of Palestine to manage as a mandate after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, contained one proviso that was swiftly forgotten: that in the event of the creation of a Jewish state, “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
Today, the Israeli government is openly prejudicing those rights by encouraging, funding and even arming the illegal settlers.
Relations between Israel and the Arab states are thawing, a development that can only be welcomed. The Abraham Accords have rightly awakened hopes of a more peaceful, and mutually profitable, future for the region.
But full and widely accepted rapprochement after such a long history of suffering and mutual distrust in Palestine can be achieved only through honest debate.
As long as that debate remains shut down by the atmosphere of moral fear imposed by Israel’s global army of advocates, the Israeli government will continue to treat Palestinians as second-class citizens, and the transition to peace and security in the region that full acceptance of the state of Israel in the entire Arab world would bring will remain out of reach.
Lamenting Israel’s perpetuation of this unhappy state of affairs should not be forbidden, but rather encouraged by all — including the many Jews throughout the world and in Israel itself who abhor what is going on supposedly in their name.
• Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK. Twitter: @JonathanGornall © Syndication Bureau