By Jeremy Salt – Ankara
Yet another politician has been hauled over the coals for criticizing Israel. David Ward, Liberal Democrat MP for the British constituency of Bradford East, recently issued a statement saying he was saddened ‘that the Jews who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza.’ Outrage and reprimands soon followed, not just because of what he was saying but because he spoke just ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day, marking the 68th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The Holocaust Educational Trust and the Board of Deputies of British Jews took him to task and so did the Israeli embassy.
Mr. Ward’s own party quickly jumped in. He was summoned to a meeting with the chief whip and publicly reprimanded in a statement which read: ‘This is a matter we take extremely seriously. The Liberal Democrats deeply regret and condemn the statement issued by David Ward and his use of language which is unacceptable.’ Mr. Ward made a mistake in saying ‘the’ Jews who suffered persecution in the camps went on to inflict atrocities on the Palestinians. Of the Jews who survived the Nazi onslaught some were involved in the clearance of the Palestinians but only some because most died. Otherwise Mr. Ward’s statement was factually correct. The people who slaughtered the Palestinians and drove them off their land in 1948 were Jews. The settlers humiliating and beating the Palestinians on the West Bank are Jews. What was unacceptable in the eyes of Mr. Ward’s party was that he dared to speak the truth Mr. Ward was initially defiant. ‘I’ve spoken to the chief whip and he’s got his views,’ he said. ‘I don’t feel bad about it in any way. They consider my comments regrettable – I consider their reprimand regrettable.’ Under pressure, he backed down to the extent of saying that he never intended to offend the Jewish people ‘as a whole, either as a race or as a people of faith.’ He apologized ‘sincerely’ if his words had caused unintended offence but he insisted that he would continue to remain critical of Israel’s actions.
This is a run of the mill situation. Journalists, politicians, academics who speak out against Israel get this treatment all the time and Mr. Ward would have been subjected to the same enfilading fire whether it was Holocaust Day or not, not that anyone has the right to close down debate on Israel-Palestine in the name of the millions of Jews slaughtered by the Nazis. Their destruction was industrial mass murder driven by concentrated race hatred and that was what made it exceptional in a long history of genocides. Some 12 million Africans died during the Belgian occupation of the Congo and that was genocide, too, but of a different kind, an imperial genocide characteristic of the age: the native was not a human being but a savage or a beast of burden, to be worked to death, to be kicked, whipped, beaten or shot for fun like a hippo in the river. Millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians were killed during the American assault on Southeast Asia and that also can be classed as genocide. It is unfortunately the case that genocides are more the rule than the exception in human history. The enduring lesson of history is that all humans are capable of these atrocious acts, irrespective of time and place.
The genocide of the Palestinian people – a people united by history, language and culture and living on a land that belonged to them when the Zionists arrived, – was different again but genocide nevertheless, stamped by the paradox that it began to unfold in the very year that the world agreed on a definition of genocide.
The 1948 Convention on Genocide sets out five criteria for genocide of which three are relevant to the murder, displacement and dispossession of the Palestinians: ‘In the present Convention genocide means any of the following acts with intent to destroy in whole or part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group
(b) Causing seriously bodily or mental harm to members of the group
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or part.’
The killing and dispossession of the Palestinians meet these three criteria to the letter. Writing in the Guardian on February 6, Aida Edemariam described Mr. Ward’s link between the Jewish Holocaust (there have been others) and ‘the occupation’ as a ‘total category error.’ In fact, the error is all hers, as Mr. Ward was talking not just about ‘the occupation’ – she obviously means 1967 – but what happened in 1948 and what has been happening ever since. Massacre, rape, terrorism and theft on a grand scale were the tools that were used to destroy or drive the Palestinians off their land in 1948. These deeply immoral acts were committed by Jews and raise the question of how they should be judged by other Jews. An analogous case is the massacre of Palestinians by Christians who went into the Sabra and Shatila camps with crosses swinging around their necks. Could any Christian faithful to the teachings of Christ call this behavior Christian? Compounding Israel’s culpability and the culpability of Zionism as an ideology which legitimized the Nakba, the genocide did not begin and end in 1948 but has continued incrementally ever since.
The use of the Holocaust to ward off criticism of Israel throws a blanket over an existential moral problem, which boils down to what it means to be Jewish. Does it mean driving people off their land with or without the pretext that it is not their land? Does being Jewish mean humiliating, mistreating and beating a largely defenseless people? Does being Jewish mean delivering death and destruction to the people of Gaza and the West Bank because they have refused to accept the fate meted out to them? Does being Jewish mean introducing regulations that continually shrivel the size of the non-Jewish population in Israel? Should not being Jewish, if the center of the faith is morality, as we who are not Jewish are led to believe, mean rejecting every crime the state of Israel has committed against the Palestinians and continues to commit against them?
Netanyahu seeks to integrate Judaism and Zionism. He seeks to embroil Judaism in the Zionist venture, to harness it to the ideological and territorial aspirations of the state. He does not speak in the name of the people of Israel because many of them are Palestinian and they do not fit into his understanding of ‘the people.’ For him Israel is not the state of its people, in other words, the people who actually live there, Jewish, Muslim or Christian, but the state of the Jewish people. The idea that Israel should be the state of its people – like all other states – strikes at the heart of the Zionist idea and is therefore an alien concept to Israel’s Prime Minister. Furthermore, just as the early Zionists ‘extra-territorialized’ the Palestinians by putting their land beyond reach forever once they had bought it, from the beginning they also extra-terrorialized the state by turning it into the possession of a Jewish ‘people’ who do not live there and have no material bond with the land. This paradox is mirrored in the right of return, automatically granted to Jews who have never lived in Palestine and automatically denied to Palestinians who have lived there for generations. Compounding Netanyahu’s twisted thinking, there is no more a Jewish people than there is a Muslim people or a Christian people. Like Muslims and Christians, faith alone is the common bond between Jews around the world and faith alone is not sufficient as a definition of a people. Like Muslims and Christians, Jews observe their faith in different ways, right down to not observing it at all. Like Muslims and Christians, they have no obligation to respect a state just because it speaks in the name of their religion. Like Muslims and Christians, they may have, on the contrary, a moral obligation, as Jews or as plain human beings, to speak out against a cruel state – as Israel certainly is from the Palestinian point of view – that usurps their religious symbols and speaks in their name.
The collision between Zionism and the Arab world has been immensely destructive to Jews as well as Arabs. Jewish communities which had lived across the Middle East or in North Africa for centuries if not much longer were completely uprooted within 50 years. Although the Zionists have sought to turn this into a tradeoff between Jewish refugees and Palestinian refugees, the fact is that as part of the ‘ingathering’ they set out to uproot the Jews of the Arab world. As its emblems of statehood, Israel appropriated the pre-eminent symbols of Judaism. If Palestinians identify Jews as their tormentors, it is because the Star of David flies from the pennants of tanks and is emblazoned on the wings of jet fighters tasked with crushing them wherever and whenever they dare to raise their heads. Scrawled on their walls, the same symbol is the calling card of soldiers and settlers alike, a jeering reminder of their power over the people in their grasp. Is this what it means to be Jewish? The same set of questions could be asked of oppressive governments that set themselves up as arbiters of the Muslim way of life. Is Saudi Arabia any kind of good example for Islam? Many Muslims would not think so and the examples only multiply.
Sunk in their own pre-enlightenment world, the Jewish settlers of the West Bank violate other people’s rights as a matter of course. The land is theirs, so they think, and they are going to do what they like with it. They build their settlements and they cut down olive trees tended by Palestinians over generations. They humiliate the Palestinians in their daily lives and bring up to their children to do the same. They do all this not as Israelis but as Jews yet to identify them as Jews is to be accused of anti-Semitism.
A few days after Mr. Ward issued his statement, the lobby reacted with outrage to a cartoon drawn by Gerald Scarfe, depicting Netanyahu cementing a wall from the blood of Palestinians, with some of them squashed underneath or trapped between the bricks. Published on Holocaust Day, the caricature was described by a spokesman for the Board of Deputies of British Jews as appalling and a blood libel. It was certainly an ugly cartoon but it reflected an ugly truth, because like all other Israeli Prime Ministers before him, Netanyahu has shed copious quantities of Palestinian blood. The planes and tanks that devastate Gaza and kill its people do so on his orders. The senior Palestinian official who was murdered in Dubai was murdered on his orders. The death squads who dress up as Hollywood Arabs and go into the West Bank kill on Netanyahu’s orders and it is not just the Palestinians or the Lebanese or Syrians who die as the result of his directives. The nine Turks killed on the Mavi Marmara were killed with his approval, or so we have to assume from the way he congratulated the heroes of this mission afterwards. Netanyahu is totally complicit in everything the settlers do on the West Bank. Their violence is his violence. Their racism is his racism. They torment the Palestinians knowing that the state is 100 per cent behind them. Like these aggressively Jewish settlers, Netanyahu has no conception of universal human rights.
Scarfe’s cartoon was fully accurate in depicting Netanyahu as a man of violence and bloodshed and the wall as a crushing metaphor for Palestinian life under Israeli control, indeed as a metaphor for Palestinian life and death at the hands of Israel ever since 1948. Yet so disordered are the priorities on this question that it is the cartoon that causes outrage to Rupert Murdoch and the Board of Jewish Deputies and not the crimes committed by the settlers and the government behind them. These are not aberrant matters, happening now and again, but part of an ongoing collective process of which the Board of Deputies makes itself part through its ‘support’ of Israel. Israel offends the sensitivities of the Palestinians every day of the week without the Board of Jewish Deputies or Rupert Murdoch, who apologized for the Scarfe cartoon, raising their voices. The board has long since moved beyond its mandate ‘to promote and defend the religious and civil liberties of British Jews.’ It is now a Zionist body as well as a Jewish body, thereby saddling itself with moral contradictions which it does not even acknowledge let alone try to resolve. The board describes itself as being committed to challenge all forms of anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry when by supporting Israel in the round it condones the commission of all three. Surely the board does not need reminding that the Palestinians are also ‘Semites.’
This is hardly the first time that a cartoonist has fallen foul of the Zionist lobby. In 2003 Dave Brown, of the Independent, was similarly accused of committing a blood libel when he used Goya’s Saturn Eating his Son (1819) as the template for a caricature of a monstrous, naked Ariel Sharon stuffing a child into his mouth, against a dark background of helicopters in a smoke-filled sky. Again, as a metaphor it was perfectly accurate. Sharon remains directly responsible dead or alive for the killing of tens of thousands of Palestinians, including thousands of children. Yet had the gall to complain to the Press Complaints Commission about a cartoon which he believed defamed him and injured his good reputation …. Standing firm, the commission ruled against him.
Another cartoonist who has drawn the ire of the Zionist lobby is the Australian Michael Leunig, who in 2002 drew a cartoon showing a man with the Star of David on his back walking towards the entrance of the Auschwitz concentration camp and looking up at the infamous sign reading ‘Work Brings Freedom.’ In a second panel an Israeli with a gun is walking towards another entrance and another sign, this time reading ‘War Brings Peace.’ The juxtaposition enraged the lobby. Michael Gawenda, the editor of Leunig’s paper, the Age, and a leading member of Melbourne’s Jewish community, refused to publish it on the grounds that ‘anyone seeing it would think it inappropriate.’ One would have thought that the best way of proving this to be true would have been to publish the cartoon but readers were not to be given the choice.
A few days after the Scarfe cartoon appeared Israel refused to appear before the UN Human Rights Council to answer questions about its human wrongs record. This was the first time a UN member had boycotted the UNHRC’s Universal Periodic Review. Israel had already cut its links with the council, complaining that its decision to send a fact-finding mission to the West Bank showed ‘inherent bias.’ Going ahead without Israeli participation, the council issued a report concluding that ‘the magnitude of violations relating to Israel’s policies of dispossessions, evictions, demolitions and displacements from land shows the widespread nature of these breaches of human rights … the motivation behind violence and intimidation against the Palestinians and their properties is to drive the local populations away from their lands, allowing the settlements to expand.’
Within a week or so of the Scarfe cartoon appearing Israel bombed Syria. More Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched its last operation yet in the midst of all this disruption of international order, what causes outrage in the media and elicits reproving comment from governments is not this ongoing pattern of death, devastation and dispossession but one statement and one cartoon showing Israel and its Prime Minister in an unflattering but deadly accurate light.
– Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.