Critiquing Israel: colonialism or Jewish culture?
Written by Eric Walberg    Thursday, 05 April 2012 02:51    PDF Print E-mail

Fighting the enemy at times means fighting your erstwhile comrades-in-arms, writes Eric Walberg

The phenomenal success the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has had since it began in 2005 has attracted attention from all corners of the political spectrum -- for better or for worse. Israel is scared. Israeli thinktanks have described BDS as a greater threat to Israel than armed Palestinian resistance. At the same time, at the forefront of the movement against what is now widely called Israeli apartheid are Jews -- Israeli and diaspora. This is not surprising, as Jews have traditionally been active in “political mobilisation and opinion formation”, according to Benjamin Ginsberg.

So it should not be surprising if the BDS movement itself experiences turmoil. For several years now, the UK Palestinian Soldarity Committee (PSC) has conducted a policy of calling leading activists such as Paul Eisen, Gilad Atzmon and Israel Shamir -- all Jewish -- anti-Semitic for daring to point out that those who persecute Arab Muslims and Christians are not just Zionists but are invariably Jewish. That the Jews who have opted to take Israeli citizenship are increasingly racist, belligerent settlers who use their new identity to dispossess, terrorise and murder Palestinians, with the intent of forcing them to leave even the remaining 12 per cent of the land once called Palestine.

These Jews have given Judaism a bad name, causing some “good Jews” to critique their own religious heritage and even disown it, such as American highschooler and winner of the 2012 Martin Luther King Jr Writing Award Jesse Lieberfeld, who came to realise, “I was grouped with the racial supremacists... I was part of a delusion.” For these Jews, Judaism today had been perverted by Zionism. Paying tribute to Jesse, ex-Israeli Gilad Atzmon said, “Journeying from choseness is a life-struggle. From time to time you may feel lonely but you are never alone. Humanity and humanism are there at your side -- for all time.”

Atzmon, born and bred in Israel, with holocaust victims in his family, is the latest victim of the UK PSC, which earlier ostracised Eisen for his Der Yassin Remembered group honouring martyred Palestinian Muslims and Christians of the 1948 Nakba, when thousands of Palestinians were killed and hundreds of thousands made permanent refugees.

After being ostracised, Eisen and Shamir dismissed the “gatekeepers” in the movement, and carried on with their analysis and organising from the sidelines, sidelines which are growing just as fast as, if not faster than the mainstream and are now firmly centred on popularising a one-state solution to solve the Palestine-Israel problem.

Atzmon continued to lock horns with the UK PSC establishment, hoping to change it, though it is dominated by the likes of Tony Greenstein with his J-Big (Jews boycotting Israeli goods). No doubt Atzmon’s Sabra heritage steeled him for battle with those supporters of the Palestinians who see the movement as more a way to fight anti-Jewish sentiment (caused by Zionism) than to actually achieve victory for the Palestinians. He decided to write an analysis of his Jewish heritage and how it was transformed over the past century entitled The Wandering Who? (see Al-Ahram Weekly “Jezebel’s Legacy”). His book became a bestseller and he has been touring America and Europe regularly, speaking out bravely and making his gilad.co.uk a must read for all who care about both Palestine and “the plight of the Jews”.

Jewish intellectuals such as Ilan Pappe are following Atzmon’s footsteps and leaving Israel, disgusted with the cynicism and duplicity of the entire Israeli establishment. Atzmon has attracted many admirers -- too many, it seems -- from among the more mainstream critics of Israel. Richard Falk and John Mearsheimer -- both Jewish -- endorsed Atzmon’s book, Mearsheimer recommending that the book “should be widely read by Jews and non-Jews alike”.

On 13 March, near the end of Atzmon’s latest tour of the US speaking to pro-Palestinian groups, Electronic Intifada editor Ali Abunimah published a letter at the US Palestinian Community Network (PCN) signed by 23 Palestinian activists, including Columbia University professor Joseph Massad and Omar Barghouti, a founder of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Committee for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and author of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (currently doing an MA in philosophy at Tel Aviv University). The letter called for “the disavowal of the racism and anti-Semitism of Gilad Atzmon”. Abunimah effectively excommunicated Atzmon from participating in pro-Palestinian activities of the US PCN, as he was by the UK PSC. Atzmon wound up his tour the next day with an interview with (Jewish) history professor Norton Mezvinsky of Connecticut State University, at Washington’s Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, where he rebutted the charges against him.

But just as Muslims are loudly called on to disown Islamic terrorists such as Al-Qaeda, so must Jews disown their own Judaic terrorists, reasons Atzmon, who has been leading the way in this politically-incorrect battle. Now that the dust has settled, and support for Atzmon has poured in, the letter in retrospect looks like an exercise in hasbara gone wrong. Conspicuous in their absence among signatories are leading Israel critics Noam Chomsky, Norman Finklestein, Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, The Progressive’s Matt Rothschild, Tikkun’s Michael Lerner, and US Congress hopeful Norman Solomon.

It is possible to critique Atzmon for downplaying the imperialism behind Israel’s founding and support, which Abunimah does: “Our struggle is with Zionism, a modern European settler colonial movement, similar to movements in many other parts of the world that aim to displace indigenous people and build new European societies on their lands.” However, there is nothing wrong with critiquing the problem from a cultural point of view, and the guilty culture just happens to be Jewish. Sadly, there is more than one way to skin the Palestinian cat.

Shamir took the debate a logical step further by posing the question, “To disavow or debate Abunimah”. He was attacked by Abunimah a decade ago, when he “hunted me out of the pro-Palestinian movement, saying that without Shamir, they will win sooner.” After a decade of unrelenting Israeli crimes, Shamir advised Massad, Barghouti and other Arab signatories, “Our Arab brothers will do well if they will stand out of this debate: let the Jews fight out the battle for their identity. As it happens, Gilad is their strongest champion on the Jewish side, they should cheer, not discourage him.”

Perhaps what prompted the letter was fear that BDS was just not mainstream enough. This was the implication behind a dismissal of BDS by Finkelstein, who just a few weeks before the Abunimah screed, called BDS a “cult” and admonished Palestinians to limit their struggle to the “two-state solution”. While himself exposing the “cult” of the holocaust, calling it an “industry” used to promote Israel’s aggressive colonial agenda, Finkelstein disappointed many admirers by suggesting that BDSers are conspirators intent on wiping poor Israel off the tattered old colonial map. “What is the result? There’s no Israel!”

But ironically, Atzmon and Finkelstein are on the same side this time. They are both pro-Palestinian activists and believers in free speech and open debate, not afraid to point the finger at machinations of their co-religionists. Before writing his ill-fated missive, Abunimah, author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israel-Palestine Conflict, would have done well to ponder Atzmon’s defence of Finkelstein’s criticism of BDSers for their cultishness. “Finkelstein’s criticism of the solidarity movement is largely valid. The recent expulsion of Palestinians and academics from the UK PSC proves that we aren’t just dealing with a ‘cult’ discourse as Finkelstein suggests, far worse, we are actually dealing with a rabbinical operation that exercises the most repulsive Judaic excommunication tactics.”

“Finkelstein is correct when he suggests that the achievements of the solidarity ‘cult’ operations are pretty limited,” continues Atzmon. He looks beyond the gatewatched BDSers and the larger-than-life critics such as Chomsky, Finkelstein and himself -- two-state or one -- and predicts “that the solidarity movement is already a mass movement ... that the Palestinians and the Arabs will liberate themselves.”

The Lobby is no doubt patting itself on the back, having through obvious pressure on prominent activists helped to weaken its foes for the nth time. This tactic is part of the age-old strategy by those in power of “divide and conquer”. Just as Britian and then the US and Israel have worked to divide up the Muslim world to weaken and control it -- even mobilising “Islamic terrorists” (not to mention “Judaic terrorists”) in their schemes -- so the domestic representatives of imperialism do the same on the homefront, manipulating soft anti-Zionists.

The tactic was used in the Cold War, using liberals and ex-Communists to isolate Communists from movements critical of imperialism. Now as then, it is necessary not to boycott each other, but to work together without responding to provocation. It is to be expected that the bad guys are going to infiltrate progressive movements and try to split them.

When Saudi Prince Faisal grilled Hamas Chief Khaled Meshaal about his alliance with Iran, the Hamas chief explained: Yes, we have relations with Iran and will do so with whoever supports us. We are a resistance movement, open to the Arabs, to the Muslims and to all countries in the world, and we are not part of any agenda for regional forces.” BDSers may have their differences, but the goal is the liberation of Palestine. Let a hundred flowers blossom.

 

 

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Eric Walberg


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Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s.

He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.