Anti-Israel ‘events’ are as numerous as midges in Scotland. Most are small meetings of like minded ‘anti-Zionists’ vociferously agreeing that the Jewish state is the number 1 source of global evil. The ‘opposition’ is very rarely represented; after all, the organisers of such ‘events’ typically aren’t interested in democratic debate – and certainly not when it involves ‘Zionists’.
There are rare exceptions: on June 17, 2019, an outfit called ‘Intelligence2’ (intelligence squared) organised a debate with the participation of both sides: the ‘Zionist’ and the ‘anti-Zionist’ camps – each represented by two speakers. The ‘motion’ proposed to the audience was ‘Anti-Zionism is Antisemitism’.
The pre-debate vote showed 15% of the audience in favour (i.e., believing that ‘Anti-Zionism is Antisemitism’), 59% against and 26% undecided – so it can be inferred that ‘anti-Zionists’ were attending in numbers. The post-debate poll showed 19% of the audience in favour, 76% against and 5% undecided. Basically – a defeat for the ‘Zionist’ side. I’m one of those who – had I attended the event – would have voted in favour to start with. So I watched the debate with interest on YouTube – and proceeded, for my many sins, to put pen to paper and tell you what I thought about it.
Before the debate even started, the moderator produced a definition of anti-Zionism:
“[O]pposition to the existence of a Jewish state in the territory defined as the historic land of Israel or Palestine.
That, of course, should have been not the beginning, but the end of the debate. After all, multiple opinion polls (see this for instance) have shown that, for the vast majority of Jews – to the tune of 80-95% – Israel ‘is an ‘essential’ or at least ‘important’ part of their identity. In other words, ‘anti-Zionists’ propose to dismantle a major pillar of Jewish identity, while at the same time proclaiming that they are not antisemites.
The moderator also told the audience that
“Now, surveys suggest that Israel is one of the most disliked nations in the world along with Iran and North Korea…
That was, of course, yet another opportunity to put the debate to bed without any further waste of everybody’s time. Iran is a theocracy that hangs people for ‘crimes’ like ‘waging war against God’ and ‘spreading corruption on earth’. North Korea is a Communist dictatorship that – among many other things – operates ‘labour camps’ in which tens of thousands of political prisoners are killed through starvation, exhaustion and exposure. Israel – warts and all – is a liberal democracy ruled by laws that, by and large, are in line with those of the UK, EU, USA and Canada. Even according to the United Nations Human Development Index, Israel ranks 22 out of 189 countries – ahead of France (24), Spain (26) and Italy (28). So what’s the reason for so much ‘dislike’? Is it a mere coincidence that “one of the most disliked nations” happens to be made up of Jews – the same nation that has been ‘disliked’, berated and hounded for centuries??
Oddly (some would think), at the ‘Intelligence2’ event the Zionist speakers did not use these arguments. In fact, they treated this public debate as if it were an academic one; they engaged in cogent and sometimes convoluted arguments, with great intelligence, but little flair. They displayed much intellect but little charisma, lots of logic but few rhetorical sparks.
Here’s a passage from those first of the ‘Zionist’ speakers, journalist Melanie Phillips:
“The Jews are the only extant indigenous people of the land. Israel was their kingdom more than three thousand years ago, they were driven out when it was occupied, they maintained a continuous presence in the land under the waves of colonialism – Assyrian, Roman, Abbasid, Mamluk, Ottoman and British –, they fought off Arab colonialists to re-establish their state in 1948 and are still fighting off Arab colonialism. When the Palestine Mandate of 1922 which parcelled out of the former Ottoman Empire, it enshrined their right to settle throughout that land, a right that endures unaltered in international law the law also entitles Israel to hold onto land seized from its attackers…
This was no doubt a good history lesson; but listing all the ‘colonialists’ who ruled the Land of Israel from early antiquity to modern times was most likely wasted on a non-academic audience. Add a rather monotonous, colourless delivery and there you have it: a collection of erudite arguments, well-anchored in distant history and complex articles of law – but utterly bereft of oratorical effect and emotional impact.
If lack of eloquence were a capital sin, the Zionists would fortunately not be lonely in hell: the first ‘anti-Zionist’ speaker – Israeli-born Communist politician-turned-historian Ilan Pappé – also produced a rather lacklustre performance:
“For those who claim that anti-Zionism is a refusal to recognize the right of Israel to exist I would say that states do not exist by right, they’re found… they are founded by historical processes and they become a fait accompli. The debate is about the nature of the state and the regime, we are all entitled to wish for and work for a better, more just and egalitarian state for everyone who lives in Israel, in Palestine and for those who were expelled from there. In 1975 a vast majority of the United Nation member states defied Zion… defined Zionism as a form of racism and racial discrimination, it was passed with the same majority that passed the 1947 resolution recognizing Israel, the difference was that in 1947 the colonized world was not represented in the United Nations. In 1975 it was there, it was still trying to find its way in the post-colonial world. The third world discuss… equated Zionism with continued colonialism. Alas neoliberalism corruption in post-colonial politically… in post-colonial political system… a corruption in the post-colonial political system, an aggressive American imperialism have cast it to the sideways of history this impulse and energy but at its height and within it anti-Zionism was part of the wish of the colonized people to build a better and more just world…”
Humour and sarcasm are great persuaders and Pappé did attempt them a couple of times. Many in the audience would no doubt have laughed sympathetically, had they understood he was trying to be witty; but they didn’t.
Of course, even a humourless and flat-footed Ilan Pappé still has a great advantage as a speaker: a freak ‘anti-Zionist’ Israeli is by definition interesting – it’s the ‘man bites dog’ effect.
By the way, Pappé himself mixed up ‘antisemitism’ and ‘anti-Zionism’ several times during his speech – he had to stop and correct himself. Yet neither ‘Zionist’ speaker cared to point out – for the sake of the rhetorical effect if nothing else – that this may have been a Freudian mistake…
Pappé was followed by the second ‘Zionist’ speaker – former Member of Knesset turned academic Einat Wilf. To my surprise (I heard her speak before), the speech owed too much to her current occupation and too little to the former one: this was another presentation heavy on facts and structure and light in emotional effect. True, her obvious passion did shine through at times; but even then, the language was unnecessarily formal, the logic somewhat convoluted and the delivery unremarkable:
“We now know that antisemitism arose from a deep crisis in the society doing the blaming. After all, these templates and ways of thinking about my people have been around for millennia; yet they become particularly useful in times of crisis and we are indeed again a species in crisis. Technology questions the very intelligent of humanity; extreme weather undermines our confidence in our control; inequality undermines our ideal progress, our leaders or lack thereof leave us feeling bereft of a sense there’s a steady hand at the helm. And in times of crisis we desperately crave certainty and there are few greater certainties in this world to grab on than that the Jews are to blame…
Don’t get me wrong: to me, all this makes sense and sounds familiar; but psychoanalysing antisemitism, even in the context of a bigger point, does little to persuade people that ‘Anti-Zionism is antisemitism’.
Thus far, the debate was, politely speaking, ‘interesting’. It was about to became ‘exciting’ once Mehdi Hassan – Al-Jazeera journalist and the second speaker for the opposition – jumped into the ring. Hasan is a pro. He is naturally articulate, sharp and linguistically agile. Just as important, he is familiar with this ‘debate’ format. He knows this is about persuading people; it’s nothing like defending an academic dissertation. In this type of ‘debate’, sharp rhetoric wins over dull substance – hands down. In this type of debate, being accurate is hardly a priority – one can get away with twisted facts and iffy comparisons, because there’s just not enough time and span of attention to challenge them. It’s about stirring emotions, not conveying information.
And because of all that, Mehdi Hasan single-handedly won the ‘debate’. He didn’t even have to break a sweat: this was an unequal match; it felt like some professional snooker champion (say Ronnie O’Sullivan) was playing amateur pool players picked up from some country pub.
But it wasn’t all style and rhetoric – it was also strategy: both Melanie Phillips and Einat Wilf (and, to a certain extent, Ilan Pappé too) played defence. Hasan demonstrated once again that, in political ‘debates’ just like in military confrontations, one needs to attack if one wishes to win. He started his address, therefore, by wiping the floor with the motion and its defenders:
“Ladies and gentlemen we have been witnessing tonight a deeply cynical proposition to deliver a farrago of straw men distortions, deflections, false accusations and of course straight-up pro-Israel propaganda. Then again hearing Melanie Phillips come here and champion the rights of gays in Israel in order to defend Zionism was well worth the entry ticket in and of itself.
Audiences at political debates are not like jurors in a courtroom. They don’t necessarily ask for evidence – their fickle opinions can often be carried by a strong, passionate, determinate statement. Of course, Melanie Phillips had mentioned the word ‘gays’ only once in her speech, when she stated that Israel is
“the only country in the Middle East where […] women and gays can live in freedom
Hardly ‘championing’ anyone’s rights – more like a statement of fact.
Phillips could have (should have?) responded to that ad hominem attack, for instance by pointing out that, in a sermon delivered to the Islamic Unity Society, the oh-so-liberal Mehdi Hasan referred to the “kuffar [the Quranic Arabic term for heretics], the disbelievers, the atheists” as “cattle”.
Instead, she declared:
“I am sure that Mehdi Hasan and Ilan Pappé are deeply honourable men. I would not presume to say what is in their minds or what their motivation is…
Courtesy is such a nice thing, ‘innit? Unfortunately, as Mehdi Hasan proceeded to demonstrate, it is not niceties that win a political debate.
So, back to Mehdi Hasan’s speech. His next step was to re-state the proposed motion in a way that made it look unreasonable – indeed absurd – to the audience:
“[T]he motion says ridiculously, sweepingly, offensively, ahistorically that anti-Zionism is antisemitism that merely being opposed to Zionism – a political ideology, remember – is inherently, by definition, it’s ipso facto antisemitic. Which is absurd.
Put in this way, the motion does look ridiculous: how can opposing a political ideology equate racism? Surely people have the right to question, criticise and oppose political ideologies.
Except that Hasan did not ‘interpret’ the motion, he (radically) misinterpreted it. In fact, he managed to sneak past the largely unsuspecting audience two fundamental untruths.
To start with, Zionism is not a “political ideology”, despite Hasan’s surreptitious characterisation. He counted (correctly, as it turned out), on people to ‘buy’ that, because of the ‘ism’ suffix. Of course, many things are called an ‘ism’ (baptism, barbarism, criticism, plagiarism, etc.) – this does not make them political ideologies.
Wikipedia defines the term ‘political ideology’ as
“a certain set of ethical ideals, principles, doctrines, myths or symbols of a social movement, institution, class or large group that explains how society should work and offers some political and cultural blueprint for a certain social order.
But Zionism isn’t concerned with “how society should work”. It offers no “blueprint for a certain social order” has no global ambitions or implications, it is confined to one people and one (small) piece of territory. One can be a left wing Zionist, a right-wing Zionist, a liberal Zionist or a conservative Zionist, a profoundly religious Zionist or a militantly atheist Zionist. The difference between Zionism and ideology becomes self-evident if one considers the Israeli political spectrum: Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Labour leader Amir Peretz and Aryeh Deri (Chairman of the Mizrakhi Ultra-Orthodox party Shas) are all Zionists; yet they advocate radically different (if not diametrically opposed) blueprints of social order.
In fact, in its ‘modern’ version, Zionism can best be described as a national emancipation movement, not fundamentally different from similar tendencies found among other ethnic groups – from the 19th century onwards.
Some may seek to ignore the differences between ‘national emancipation movement’ and ‘nationalism’. The latter can be construed as an ideology – if one sees it as driving a certain world order. Consequently, one can be an ‘anti-nationalist’ without being accused of racism. But, even if one declares Zionism as nothing but the Jewish form of nationalism, this begs the question: why do ‘anti-Zionists’ attack with such venom just one embodiment of nationalism? Why would one fundamentally object to a Jewish state, but not to an Indian state, a Pakistani state, a Serbian state, a Croatian state, etc.?
Which brings me to Mehdi Hasan’s second untruth: his underlying suggestion that anti-Zionism is nothing but opposition to Zionism – “a political ideology” in his words. Sounds perfectly plausible – but it’s still utterly false. Let us remember the definition that was issued at the beginning of the debate – a definition to which all speakers would willingly subscribe. ‘Anti-Zionism’ is not just opposition to Zionism; it is:
“[O]pposition to the existence of a Jewish state in the territory defined as the historic land of Israel or Palestine.
Contemporary ‘anti-Zionism’ (as opposed to pre-1948 anti-Zionism) does not oppose a future political outcome; rather, it wishes to dismantle an already-constituted nation state. Or, at the very least, to change its character beyond recognition, contrary to the freely-expressed wishes of the overwhelming majority of its citizens.
And, as indicated already, ‘anti-Zionism’ does not propose to dismantle all nation states – or even a number of nation states. It takes issue with just one nation state – the Jewish state.
Once Mehdi Hasan’s untruths are exposed, the motion ‘Anti-Zionism is antisemitism’ does not look at all ridiculous or sweeping.
We are still left with ‘ahistorical’, by which – I presume – Hasan means his contention that
“many victims of the Holocaust opposed Zionism; on the other hand many antisemites supported Zionism.
Of course, pre-1948 there were indeed many Jews who opposed Zionism. But, does that matter? Every national emancipation movement has its opponents. It can hardly be claimed that, after World War I, all Arabs supported independence from the Ottoman Empire. For many – perhaps even for the majority – that empire was the latest embodiment of the scripturally prescribed Islamic Caliphate. But is that a valid argument for dismantling any of today’s 22 independent Arab states? Can one seriously try to resurrect the pre-1947 Indian opponents of Gandhi to justify dismantling the state of India? Or forcibly merging it with Pakistan?
As for “many antisemites supported Zionism”, Hasan would have great difficulty listing those “many” without resorting to ridiculous, Ken Livingston-esque statements like ‘Hitler supported Zionism’. The best he could do during the debate was to claim – based on one random statement – that Balfour was an antisemite. But, again: does all this matter? Even if we accept as given that Balfour was both an antisemite and a supporter of Zionism, so what? Saying ‘Anti-Zionism is antisemitism’ does not imply that only ‘anti-Zionists’ are antisemites, or that every supporter of Zionism must be free from antisemitic prejudice. Human beings are complex; one can harbour racist prejudice, even while supporting anti-racist causes. The fact that Abraham Lincoln and prominent members of the abolitionist movement harboured what would rightly be seen today as racist views cannot be used to justify slavery or to tar the cause of its eradication.
Hasan’s next argument was that denying Jews the right of self-determination isn’t antisemitism, because
“not every national, ethnic group that wants a state gets a state. Ask the Kurds, ask the Catalans, ask the Scots – there are more than 5,000 ethnic groups in the world today but only 193 member states at the United Nations…
He then went on to point at the Druze citizens of Israel
“do they have a right of self-determination if they create a Druze state inside of Israel?
Moreover, Hasan argued:
“It’s not racist for the Kurds to aspire to statehood […], but the flip side of that is true as well: the British government, the American government, most of the EU governments do not support Kurdish statehood; does that mean the British government, all of us, are racist towards the Kurds?
Let’s leave aside the (juicy, but fundamentally dishonest) example of the Scottish independence; the Scots were offered a referendum and a majority of the Scots themselves chose (at least at the time) the current situation (extensive autonomy within a federative state), rather than full independence. This is not a denial of self-determination – it’s an affirmation thereof.
Let’s also summarily dismiss the Druze case: Druze do not ask for an independent state of their own – not in Israel and not in Lebanon or Syria, in which there are even larger Druze communities. Indeed, I have been told (by just one Druze man, so I cannot vouch for the statement) that the Druze religion expressly prohibits its adherents from seeking political (as opposed to religious and cultural) independence.
It is, nevertheless, true that many national groups are still denied a state of their own, despite aspiring to one. It is no less true that ‘not supporting’ such national aspirations is different from actively opposing them; and ‘not supporting’ aspirations to a future nation state is very different from dismantling an existing one. And, in any case, two wrongs don’t make a right: true, the Kurds – because of unprincipled and self-serving attitudes by the ‘international community’ – still don’t have a state of their own; but how does that justify taking from the Jews a state they have already achieved?
Says Mehdi Hasan, in an attempt to defuse some obvious objections:
“The issue is not whether Jews deserve a homeland or have a historic connection to the land of Palestine — of course they do — the issue is whether those historic and religious claims justify creating and expanding a Jewish majority state…
To put it bluntly, this constitutes speaking with a forked tongue: Hasan manages to affirm in the same sentence that the Jews “of course” deserve a homeland and have a historic connection to the land of Palestine, but also that these are “historic and religious claims”. The former part of the sentence appears to recognise certain rights; the latter relegates them to doubtful, uncertain claims. Which is it?
As for the Jewish majority state, Mehdi Hasan is not required to help with (or even approve of) “creating and expanding” it. It is already created. Nor is he opposed just to “expanding” it, but – as we have seen – to its very existence, irrespective of size and borders.
Next come the usual accusations. Mehdi Hasan claims that in Israel
“one ethnic group is privileged over another while another group is permanently disenfranchised dispossessed and subjected to endless military occupation.
Beyond the obvious disagreement on facts (e.g. to what extent any ‘privileges’ awarded to Jews in Israel are unusual, unacceptable or fundamentally different from those awarded the majority population in other countries), I take issue with Hasan choosing to cavalierly ignore the small issue of a 100-year-old conflict. A bitter series of wars and violent acts, accompanied by political, economic and cultural warfare, as well as continuous attempts to criminalise and deny Israel’s legitimacy. A conflict that the Jews neither wanted nor initiated, but for which consequences Mehdi Hasan appears to make the Jewish state wholly and uniquely responsible.
Is it really fair to – on one hand – affirm the right of Arabs (including Arab citizens of Israel) to express hostility and rejection to the very existence of the state of Israel and, at the same time, demand from the Jewish state to treat that Arab minority in the most egalitarian and enlightened way possible? When, in the whole history of mankind, has a state been held to similar standards?
But even if we were to believe (ad absurdum) that Israel and only Israel is responsible for the current situation of inequality and “endless military occupation”, it does not follow that the ‘culprit state’ should be dismantled. Which nation state has – in the whole history of mankind – been dismantled because it ‘misbehaved’? Which nation state has been forced to become a bi-national or multi-national state? Even the Germans did not forfeit their right to their own nation state, despite the German state perpetrating the most hideous crimes in history!
‘Anti-Zionists’ often cite the case of Apartheid South Africa. But, even if (again ad absurdum) we ignore all the other many, huge and obvious differences, in South Africa whites have always been a minority (less than 20% in the 1960s, less than 8% nowadays); a minority, moreover, that had no “historic connection to the land”, a typical colonial settler population.
Perhaps feeling that he stepped on uncertain ground, Hasan quickly returned to ‘demonstrating’ that the motion was unreasonable. This time, by claiming that it would force the Palestinian themselves to embrace Zionism. Voting in favour of the motion, he said
“means to say to that oppressed group the Palestinian people to say to them that you’re either a Zionist you either subscribe to the ideology of your oppressor or you’re a racist. What kind of choice is that?
Just in case anyone missed it, Hasan drove the point home once more during the Q & A session:
“If you vote for the motion tonight you’re saying […] we all have to be Zionists otherwise we’re racists, we’re bigots, we’re antisemites. Which, look, wouldn’t be the end of the world for me: fine, I’ll be a Zionist if you want me to be a Zionist I mean I once almost voted Lib Dem I’m okay with labels – but to ask the Palestinians to not just accept their dispossession, their ethnic cleansing, their ongoing occupation, but to also call themselves Zionists or else… is outrageous, you can’t ask Palestinians to be Zionists you just can’t, and by the way if they say it’s racist to oppose Zionism well it’s racist to ask Palestinians not to oppose their own occupiers…
This is, of course, just another wild spin: the choice is by no means binary. One is not required to be either a Zionist or an ‘anti-Zionist’ – in fact most people are neither; the Palestinians are not required to support or love the State of Israel – they’re not even required to stop opposing its actions or its policies. They are required – not by the motion proposed at a random ‘debate’ in London, but by sheer intellectual honesty – to admit that the Jews possess the same right they demand for themselves: the right to an independent nation state of their own. Such admission would not make the Palestinians Zionists and would not prevent them from protesting or opposing the Israeli actions; but it would indeed take them out of the ranks of ‘anti-Zionists’. Demanding such admission is not outrageous – it is logical and necessary if peace is to be made. Most conflicts in mankind’s recent history were not over the actual existence of states – they were conflicts over borders and resources. Which made them more amenable to resolution by concession and accommodation.
One more – not very sophisticated, but highly effective – parable, oft-used by ‘anti-Zionists’ and recited at the debate by Ilan Pappé:
“The idea that the land of Palestine is the land of Israel always when you hear it think about someone coming to you in the dead of night in London and tells you I used to live in your house 2000 years ago and because of that the house belongs to me and the next day they come with the police who says ‘they have a right, you have to give them half of their house’.”
Except that Pappé’s ‘house in London’ parable strays away from the facts of the real story in too many ‘subtle’ ways and hence cannot in any way serve as a guide to the rights and wrongs of the situation.
Here’s a more honest (if longer) parable:
My maternal grandmother was born somewhere in Eastern Europe. Her family owned a house there. They were all killed or made refugees in the Holocaust. I am what’s left – and I grew up listening to my grandma’s stories, longing, dreaming, praying to be able to live in my ancestral family home. For many years, I couldn’t: the road was long and dangerous and my persecutors wouldn’t allow it. One day, I was finally able to go there, to reclaim my inheritance. That’s how I found out that, as soon as my family was killed and chased away, some Polish neighbours moved in. As the borders changed, they were also thrown out and Russians moved in their stead. Next, there were Latvians and finally Ukrainians… By the time I got there, a few generations of Ukrainians had lived in the house. The people I found there thought of it as their own home; I thought of it as mine. Someone said that the only just solution would be to partition the house into two smaller apartments. My heart ached, but I agreed – at least this way I’d have some of my family home – and a roof over my head. But the Ukrainians wouldn’t even hear about it and they tried to kick me out…
The Q & A session consisted of just a few questions. Some were obvious, one or two were stupid.
Somebody asked the ‘anti-Zionists’:
“Why is Israel singled out as a human rights violator – in the United Nations, by the Labour Party, by many other entities— as compared to so many egregious violators of human rights including in the Middle East why is it consistently singled out is that not a form of anti-semitism?
Mehdi Hasan ‘responded’ to this question by promising to challenge its premise. then he pointed out that, in a previous ‘Inteligence squared’ debate, he had harshly criticised the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. So no ‘singling out’, he claimed.
Of course, the premise of the question was not that Israel is singled out at the ‘Intelligence2’ debates, but “in the United Nations, by the Labour Party, by many other entities”. Hasan did not challenge that premise, because it is very difficult to challenge it: for instance, Israel is the only country in the world for which the UN Human Rights Council maintains a permanent agenda item (‘permanent’ meaning that it has to be discussed at every session). This ensures that resolutions condemning Israel are adopted each time the Council convenes. In contrast, Saudi Arabia is a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, alongside other human rights stalwarts like China, Iraq, Egypt, Rwanda and Cuba.
At the debate, unfortunately, nobody pointed this out. Or the obvious fact that no one (or, at least, no one of any consequence) talks about ‘anti-Saudism’ or even ‘anti-Wahabbism’. The likes of Jeremy Corbyn, Ilan Pappé and Mehdi Hasan may well be using Saudi petrol to drive to ‘Boycott Israel’ demonstrations.
Perhaps the best question was one which was nearly laughed down by an already impatient audience:
“My question is why are we… this is almost masturbatory… you should pardon the expression… what is the solution… we’re all thinking, kind people… what is the solution?
It was asked in a soft voice, with apparent British courtesy – which is perhaps why none of the speakers realised that they have just been called ‘wankers’. (As if to prove the point, none of them really attempted an honest answer, preferring instead to use the floor to try and score some extra points.)
Jokes aside, I can fully understand why the lady who asked that question referred to the ‘debate’ as masturbatory. Masturbation may earn us some selfish pleasure – but it doesn’t create anything. No baby was ever conceived by masturbating. And that’s what the speakers did: they practised a form of intellectual wanking – Mehdi Hasan more than all the others.
* * *
Mehdi Hasan won the debate. But it is a Pyrrhic victory. It doesn’t help the Palestinians; it doesn’t help anyone. The entire debate can (and should) be filed under ‘more of the same’: more oil on the fire; more on how not to change anything. More incrimination that attracts recrimination, that generates counter-recrimination…
82 years ago, when the conflict was still young, the Peel Commission diagnosed it as “fundamentally a conflict of right with right”. My parable supports that view.
Ilan Pappé’s parable is just more intellectual masturbation – pleasurable for him no doubt, but utterly sterile. My parable is an invitation to make love and create life. Perhaps it’s naïve, perhaps clumsy – but at least I’m trying to do it with a partner…