Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Why Israel?

Zachariah Sammour
(LSE SU Palestine Society)

I recently attended a meeting called by the LSE Environment and Ethics Officer, Lois Clifton, to discuss concerns that some students had aired over the LSE’s academic collaboration with an Israeli university, Technion Institute of Technology. I arrived late, but still in time to hear the predictable chorus of ‘Why Israel?’ emanating as though in unison from a group of irate students.

These students informed the rest of the audience in no uncertain terms that the very premise of the meeting (that LSE’s collaboration with Technion is troubling) was pernicious, irrational and xenophobic. Why, the room was asked, should the involvement of Israeli universities with their State’s military operations be of any concern to the student body? Why is an Israeli university being targeted?

I write in response to these questions, which I will refer to within the context of the meta-question, ‘Why Israel?’I will attempt to highlight for the reader the intended implications inherent in the ‘Why Israel?’ question before outlining two general species of response that can be given to rebut these dangerous implications.

The ‘Why Israel?’ question is based on a number of presuppositions, and identifying them is a prerequisite for understanding the question’s intended implications. These presuppositions are; firstly, that there are a number of political regimes engaged in conduct analogous to that of Israel with regard to its treatment of the Palestinians. Secondly, that these analogous regimes are subject to divergent degrees of public criticism and finally that Israel is subject to greater, more intense criticism than the analogous regimes by Palestinian Rights activists.

In light of these presuppositions the implications of the question become clear. If Israel is engaged in equally deplorable activity as that of a number of other political regimes, it cannot rationally or legitimately be subject to a greater degree of criticism for that conduct than are the analogous regimes. In the absence of any rational or legitimate basis for distinction, the heightened criticism of the Jewish State must be based on some irrational, presumably sinister, ground.

There are two broad types of response to the ‘Why Israel?’ question which would rebut the implied claims of irrational and arbitrary targeting of Israel. Each response seeks to undermine the implied accusation by challenging one or more of the presuppositions upon which it rests.

The first response accepts the first presupposition but rejects the second and third; essentially rejecting the argument that Israel is subject to greater criticism than regimes engaged in analogous activities. This response accepts that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people is qualitatively similar to the conduct of other regimes towards identifiable groups under their direct control.

This response would first establish a baseline comparator, seeking to compare the intensity of criticism directed against Israel with criticism directed toward analogous regimes. These regimes must be engaged in activity that is similar or identical to the Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and would therefore exhibit such behaviour as; the arbitrary detention of minors, forced and uncompensated acquisition of property, restriction of minority groups’ access to religious and cultural sites, political intimidation and violence (including violent repression of civil disobedience, assassination of dissidents, politically motivated arrests etc), restricted access to education, food, employment or any number of other violations of humanitarian and human rights law.

Fortunately, establishing a base-line comparison at LSE is quite easy, as we have had a number of fairly recent student campaigns directed at regimes other than Israel which have displayed such disregard for human dignity. A number of students involved with the Amnesty International Society, for example, have organised campaigns condemning the political violence and repression in Burma.  More famously, of course, the SU and a large number of independent student groups held public rallies, meetings and an occupation to condemn the links between LSE and the Gaddafi regime. It therefore appears quite clear that, at the LSE at least, criticism of a high intensity has been directed at regimes engaged in conduct analogous to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people.

Whilst one may point out that criticism of Israel has been far more frequent and sustained on our campus than criticism of states like Libya or Burma, this difference in volume(as opposed to intensity) can be attributed to the inevitably amplificatory effect of opposition. To my knowledge, no student group has publicly attempted to attack or undermine students engaged in criticism of the Gaddafi regime or the Burmese Junta. Criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians has, contrastingly, been subject to highly organised, consistent and vocal opposition at LSE, resulting in an escalation of both the debate and the ensuing criticism of the State of Israel.

Put simply, the frequency or volume with which one must express their opinions if they wish them to be vindicated will be determined, in large part, by the extent to which those opinions are actively opposed. Whilst the same individual may hold similarly intense views with regard to the conduct of a number of States, it is reasonable and rational for that individual to devote greater energy to criticism of a State where there is an active dispute as to the propriety of its actions, as opposed to a situation where the State’s conduct is widely condemned. To put it in the colloquial, there is little point preaching to the converted.

Thus, if we accept that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is not qualitatively unique, we do not necessarily need to accept the cries of Israeli victimisation. Other regimes are criticised, as too are links between the LSE and those regimes when they are discovered, and so criticism of Israel for similar activities cannot be seen as arbitrary or pernicious.

The second response that can put forth to deal with the ‘Why Israel?’ implications denies the validity of all three of the presuppositions. Crucially, it denies that there is a contemporary political regime engaged in analogous conduct to Israel with regard to its treatment of the Palestinians. This approach posits, resolutely and unapologetically, that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians stands alone in the modern world for its deplorability.

This response does not argue the uniquely reprehensible nature of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is evinced in Israel’s appalling human rights record.  It does not even base the assertion on the actions of Israel that are without contemporary precedent, such as its illegal mass settlements in the West Bank or the likewise illegal wall snaking through the territory and separating entire communities and families into a closed world of dust, concrete and ever-watching soldiers.

Instead, this response points to the systematic, generational oppression and disenfranchisement caused by both the illegal Occupation and the refusal to admit Palestinian refugees back to their homes as evidence of the unique nature of Israel’s conduct. Together, the Occupation and the refugee crisis constitute a complete vitiation of Palestinian political freedom,  rendering successive generations of Palestinians incapable of determining, in freedom and dignity, their own destiny and future.

The long-term occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel involves more than the mere transitory presence of foreign soldiers on Palestinian soil. It means more than the threat of death, torture and imprisonment. It means more than the promise of perpetual hardship and poverty, or a life of UN handouts, devoid of dignity and worth. It means complete, abject and unrestrained subjection of one people to the will of another.

The occupation renders the Palestinians hostage to the political process of Israel; it leaves decisions pertinent to the most intimate aspects of their lives subject to the desires and interests of others. Whether a Palestinian can go to school, whether she can visit her Grandmother in the next village, whether she will ever feel the warm waves of the sea against her skin, all of these questions have been decided for Palestinians by a foreign people for generations. If we accept Kant’s argument that freedom is self-mastery, then Occupied Palestine is a land of slaves, directed and constricted according to the desires of others.

Israel’s conduct toward the Palestinian refugees, those forced from their homes in Israel at the birth of the State by Israeli military groups, also singles it out for special criticism. Israel has forcibly excluded entire generations of Palestinians from not only the political process which determines their lives, but also from their land, people and heritage. The refusal of Israel to permit the refugees to return to their homes is morally deplorable. It has created a Stateless people, unable and unwilling to settle in the States they were forced to enter, and yet unable to return to the homes of their ancestors and birth. Whilst the treatment of Palestinians within many Arab States is worthy of intense criticism in its own right, the undeniable fact remains that these refugees exist in conditions of poverty and perpetual political limbo as a direct consequence of Israel’s refusal to permit them to return to their own homes.

This second type of response therefore provides a rational basis for distinguishing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians from the conduct of other regimes. If Israel is subject to a higher degree of criticism, then this criticism is entirely justifiable.

Accordingly, the dangerous implications of the ‘Why Israel?’ question must be rejected. Israel is not subject to unjustifiable or arbitrary levels of criticism. So long as one is willing to critically and honestly assess the nature of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, some variant of the above responses seems an inevitable answer to the question. On the basis of its treatment of the Palestinian people, Israel is an entirely reasonable and justified target for serious criticism, and the conduct of its educational institutions which make its egregious conduct possible should not be shielded from our attention on the basis of academic freedom. Honest, reasonable debate, in full view of the relevant facts, is needed; not cries of victimisation which frankly belittles the debate and its participants. 

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