Backing Palestine: The Language Of Oppression


Any individual or organization which criticizes the policies of the Israeli government towards Palestinians faces a barrage of outrage from defenders of Israeli policies.

That the leaders of significant institutions appear to be intimidated by such pressures is apparent in events which have been cancelled, and in fearful responses to campaigns to silence critics of Israel’s abuses of the human rights of Palestinians.

Pressure and Responses

In late April, 2015, at the University of Southampton, publicity about a conference, ‘International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism’ provoked such pressure from what I would call the Israel lobby that the University’s Vice Chancellor cancelled the conference. The Director of Research at the Southampton University Law School said, “Cancelling this event makes the university look weak, spineless and reactionary.”

The editorial Board of the prestigious British Medical Journal, The Lancet has so far resisted demands that the editor of the journal be sacked for publishing an Open Letter from doctors who protested the suffering of patients in Gaza, during the Israeli army’s Operation Protective Edge. Even after an inquiry by the journal’s ombudsman, in which most of the lobby’s claims were rejected, that lobby persisted in demands for The Lancet editor to apologize or be dismissed.

In the first few months of 2014, in the Federal Court of Australia, an Israeli law firm Shurat HaDin failed in its prosecution of Associate Professor Jake Lynch, for implementing the principles of the BDS movement. Such is the tradition of compliance with Israeli demands that Shurat HaDin could appear in Australia, launch a prosecution, lose on all counts yet continue to contest the awarding of costs against them.

That failure has not deterred the people who want to demonise Lynch for his support of Palestinians’ human rights. A recent (March 2015) petition from the Australian Union of Jewish students demanded that the Vice Chancellor of Sydney University sack Dr Lynch on the grounds of his alleged role in the events surrounding the March 11th protest against the British Colonel Richard Kemp who, despite the slaughter of civilians in the 2014 Operation Protective Edge, regards the Israeli defence forces as “the most moral army in the world”.

The hypocrisy of the ‘we are always right’ lobby knows few limits. In 2011, the Director of Research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, Monique Canto-Sperber forbade a speech in support of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement by the French author and human rights campaigner Stephane Hessel. Yet in 2015, Canto-Sperber accepted an invitation to travel to the United States to give a lecture on ‘freedom of speech.’

In early 2015, in the United States, four elderly Jewish American citizens – who had risked their lives for civil rights in the 1960’s – were banned from speaking at Hillel, the Jewish campus organization, because they had shown themselves in favour of Palestinians’ human rights. One of those veterans, Mark Levy, asked at Swarthmore College, “Why are they afraid about what a bunch of old folks are going to say to you?”

In May 2015, in a similar effort to stifle appraisals of Israeli policies, Dr Peter Slezak, the Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) was not allowed to speak at the Limund-Oz Festival of Jewish ideas because of his support for the BDS movement to end the occupation of Palestinian lands.

The language used by Mark Levy and Peter Slezak contrasts completely with the contents of the hate mail which I receive when I write or speak about Palestinians’ human rights. It is usually vile, peppered with sexual innuendo, characterized by Islamophobia and has included death threats.

Few of the vehement defenders of Israel would imitate the writers of such hate mail, but if their anger is to be discouraged – I don’t believe it can be stopped – then the language used and the reasons for it merit closer scrutiny. 

Provocation and Language

Anything that can be construed as anti-Semitic is likely to provoke anger and accusations. The facile claim that any criticism of Israel has to be anti-Semitic is assumed to have such momentum behind it that no-one should resist. The former civil rights activist, Mark Levy commented, “Unless you are 100% uncritical of Israel, you can’t call yourself a Jew.”

Those who quickly cry ‘anti-Semitic’ appear to show no interest in Palestinians’ lives, let alone their rights; and people who might regard themselves as humanists are derisive about Palestinians. In his recent address to a Washington conference on the influence of Israel in American politics, the distinguished Israeli journalist Gideon Levy has spoken about the “systematic de-humanization of Palestinians.”

The development which produces the most strident reactions concerns the increasing support for the BDS movement, which aims to end the occupation of Palestinians’ lands and emphasizes Indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination. Not used to opposition that has an effect, the critics of BDS demonize the supporters out of all recognition as to who they are, what they write and say.

In his 2014 address to the AIPAC conference, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu criticized BDS 18 times. In on April 10, 2015, David Palumbo-Liu wrote about the backlash against BDS supporters in the USA: “As the BDS movement grows, the flow of money to stop it increases and Republicans spot a winning issue.” He continued, “It is exactly this well-worn and illegitimate equation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism that gives cover to a large backlash movement in the United States.”

The backlashers foment fear about the utterly unrealistic disappearance of Israel, and are not averse to fabricating how people behaved at BDS functions and what the consequences were. In regard to student protesters chanting ‘Free Palestine’ before the Colonel Kemp Lecture at Sydney University on March 11, Dr Suzanne Rutland claimed that the reference to freeing Palestine “really means dismantling of the Zionist entity which means genocide against Israel’s Jewish population”.

In his letter about the loud student protests prior to his lecture, Kemp seems to have assumed that as a former military officer, he could demand that the Vice Chancellor of Sydney University take action. He was the authority on what happened, as shown by his claim – completely false – that two senior academics, Jake Lynch and Nick Riemer were “both apparently leading and encouraging the protesters”.

Kemp insisted that because Jews were being intimidated, anti-Semitism was obvious. He used the familiar straw man technique to say what happened and then added his judgement that this “type of racially motivated aggression is totally unacceptable”.

In similar vein, in a recent article in the ABC’s Religion and Ethics report and in a book ‘Boycotting Israel Is wrong’, Australian academics, Phillip Mendes and Nick Dyrenfurth parade outrageous accusations about members of the BDS movement. They are ‘malevolent’, ‘bigoted’ and are taking a ‘McCarthyist plunge into zealotry’. In the hope of abolishing the movement with a few touches on their keyboards, they even insist that that BDS is a key source of intolerance in Australian society.

Articles in News Ltd publications about the protest at the Colonel Kemp lecture at Sydney University showed similar exaggeration and incitement.

In The Australian of April 2, Peter Baldwin described an approximate 15-minute protest by a handful of students as, “At Sydney University today, mob rule works.’

On the same topic, Miranda Devine in The Daily Telegraph of April 15th referred to “campus totalitarians”.

In The Australian of 18th April, Jeremy Jones chimed in with his own moral absolutism: “It is incontrovertibly a fact the so called BDS activity is a magnet for the malicious and a podium for prejudice.”

Baldwin and Jones combined accusations about anti-Semitism with fear of the influence of Islam. Baldwin wrote of “this growing affinity between the Left and Islamists, one of the strangest and most disconcerting developments of recent times.” Jones attempted to equate a non-violent, international law-based movement – BDS – with a return to Nazism.

In his observations about protests at the Kemp lecture, Jones included a reference to “Synagogues set on fire or daubed with swastikas and having windows smashed”.

The Toxic Effects

The financial and political power of those who regard Israel as exceptional, entitled to do what it likes, has an insidious effect.

In response to pressure, leaders become cowards and comply.

Support for Israel is given, irrespective of the flouting of international law, irrespective of large scale Palestinian fatalities, the continued building of illegal settlements or the numbers of adults and children held in administrative detention without trial.

If supporters of Palestine and of the BDS movement were to use even a fraction of the venom thrown by defenders of the Israeli government, they would be condemned, almost certainly labelled anti-Semitic.

Such venom will no doubt follow the publication of this article and will be peppered with the usual attempts to change the subject, ‘You have not mentioned Hamas’, ‘What about Syria? ’, ‘Why not concentrate on ISIS?’

Merely exposing aggressive language and tactics will not hinder the campaign to dramatize the Israeli governments’ virtues.

To widen the chinks of optimism in an otherwise depressing scene, citizens from every walk of life, and leaders in particular, must summon courage. Palestine needs to be recognized, the BDS movement understood and supported. 

There should be no stifling of debate on these issues.

In opposition to those who oppose justice for Palestinians, stress has to be placed on the language and practice of non-violence, on respect for universal human rights and the rules of international law.

That objective applies to all Israelis and all Palestinians. That’s where the hopeful language lies. That’s the only civil agenda. Is there any other way?

* Stuart Rees is the Founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation. You can read an alternative point of view on this issue from Philip Mendes, at the following ABC link. 

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