Israel and its supporters turn Palestine into a litmus test of democracy
by James M Dorsey on 07 Jun 2024 0 Comment

Innocent Palestinians bear the brunt of Israel’s Gaza war, but they are not the only victims of the conflict. So are freedoms of expression, the media, and academia in the West, as well as Arab autocracies. If anything, Israeli and pro-Israeli efforts to curtail debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, suppress criticism of Israel, and impose a restrictive definition of anti-Semitism may be the one aspect of the Gaza war in which Israel can claim success.


To be sure, nothing is more existential than the Palestinians’ struggle for sheer survival and to stay alive. Yet, in political terms, Palestine, Israel, and anti-Semitism have become lightning rods in what is an existential battle in defense of liberal democracy.


“The Gaza crisis is truly becoming a global crisis of the freedom of expression. This is going to have huge repercussions for a long time to come,” said Irene Khan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. “We need freedom of expression,” Ms. Khan said, arguing that it is important for democracy, development, conflict resolution, and peacemaking. “It will be harder to negotiate if you shut down one side,” she added.


Israel and its supporters are but one protagonist in a campaign that predates the war as well as former US President Donald J. Trump’s demonisation of the media, alongside illiberals, religious nationalists, ultra-conservatives, and Arab autocrats.


“I (am) an Emirati, whose normalising country has doubled down on its authoritarian repression following the Abraham Accords. I know countless Emirati academics and literary figures who have been slapped with indefinite travel bans (and that is the mildest form of repression yet) for objecting to normalisation, criticising Israel…, and more recently, for merely wearing a keffiyeh (including non-Emiratis in this case),” said sociologist Mir al Hussein, referring to United Arab Emirates’ 2020 establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel.


Ms. Al Hussein asserted that Israel “has caused us grave pains beyond what has and continues to directly affect Palestinians since the Nakba (or Catastrophe, the Palestinian reference to the creation of Israel). The (Israeli) technology sold to authoritarian Gulf regimes have resulted in at least one publicly known execution (Khashoggi). To be completely honest, Hamas as an ideology /militant organisation does not affect us as Gulf citizens… It is the unpopular alliance with the state of Israel, however, that has caused us direct harm.”


Ms. Al Hussein was referring to the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.


Egypt recently detained several students who were trying to promote pro-Palestinian boycotts and solidarity campaigns. The students are among dozens of people held in connection with protests against Israel’s military campaign, some of them detained in October when state-sanctioned rallies spilled over to unauthorised sites, including Cairo’s Tahrir Square famous for the mass protests in 2011 that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Analysts say Egyptian authorities fear that pro-Palestinian demonstrations could as in the past fuel domestic political dissent.


In Western democracies, the McCarthy-style Congressional grilling of American university presidents, the crackdown on student encampments in support of the Palestinians, and the penalising of academics and company employees critical of Israel have turned Israel and Palestine into litmus tests of democracy.


Rather than draw clear boundaries between legitimate debate about Israel and Zionism and anti-Semitism, efforts to curtail free-flowing discussion further blur the lines by targeting the political left, which is not immune to anti-Semitism by any stretch of the imagination, while empowering pro-Israeli anti-Semites on the far-right.


A report by the domestic German intelligence service warned this month that “the greatest antisemitic threat in Germany (is) the intertwining of right-wing extremism and antisemitism.”

“Israel-antisemitism relations are a model of successful ambivalent relations that efficiently serve both sides,” said Israeli columnist B. Michael.


Separating the wheat from the chaff is complicated by confusion over the complexities of Jewish identity, the notion of a Jewish people, distinctions between Jews and Israelis, and the right to a Jewish state, reflected in left-wing efforts to frame Israel as a classical colonial and settler state.


Undeniably, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict contains aspects of colonialism and a settler state. Yet, Jewish history and varying notions of Jewish identity don’t fit neatly into the box. Although bound by the commonality of religion and perceptions of history, Jews are a multi-ethnic, multicultural group.


A recent survey of American Jews by the right-wing Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) illustrated the diversity of Jewish attitudes toward Israel. Support for Israel hovered at about 50 per cent of respondents. Thirty per cent believed Israel was committing genocide in Gaza, 35 per cent viewed pro-Palestinian protests as anti-war and pro-peace, and 51 per cent supported US President Joe Biden’s withholding of some arms shipments to Israel.


The complexity of Jewish identity is evidenced by the fact that atheist Jews, unlike their Christian or Muslim counterparts, often still identify as Jews, embrace the concept of a Jewish people, and have a connection, positively or negatively, to Israel.


As such, Jews have a right to self-determination even if that does not entitle them to deprive others of the same right, occupy other peoples’ land, or deny them their humanity and dignity.

The efforts to curtail debate are bolstered by widespread polarisation in democracies, increasing anti-foreigner and anti-migrant sentiment, the rise of religious nationalism, and mounting distrust of political and economic elites.


From the perspective of Israel and its supporters, the curtailing of debate becomes all the more urgent as Israel’s war conduct strips the country of the moral high ground it successfully claimed for the longest time on the back of the Holocaust, centuries of discrimination and persecution of Jews, and the notion of Tikkun olam or ‘repairing the world,’ defined in its modern interpretation of classical rabbinic literature as contributing to social justice and improvement of the world.


Israel’s campaign to silence its critics, irrespective of the cost to democratic freedoms, including the freedom of choice, kicked into high gear in the mid-2000s with the emergence of the Boycott, Diversification, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that threatened the moral high ground Israel claimed or what Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called “deligitimisation.”


“The core issue is not whether they are going to boycott us or not boycott us. The core issue is whether they are going to be successful in implanting in the international discourse that Israel is illegitimate as a Jewish state,” said Yossi Kupferwasser, a driving force behind Israeli efforts to counter BDS. In Mr. Netanyahu’s mind, the threat warranted the creation in 2006 of a separate ministry, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy to counter BDS.


Politicians from across the political spectrum supported the move, with the ministry being headed over the years by Israeli wolf warriors like the country’s current United Nations ambassador, Gilad Erdan, and the current minister, Ron Demer, to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a dove in Israel’s contemporary environment, and the current opposition leader, Yair Lapid. The ministry and Israel’s supporters can claim successes, albeit at the expense of democratic freedoms.


In response to BDS, 38 of the 50 US states have passed anti-boycott laws or adopted executive orders in the past decade banning governments from doing business with or investing in companies that do business with Israel, despite a 1982 Supreme Court ruling that political boycotts were protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution resting on the “highest rung of hierarchy of First Amendment values.” Evangelical Republicans often sponsored the anti-boycott bills.


Following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the city of Dickinson, Texas, went as far as requiring residents who wanted relief to certify that they do not and will not boycott Israel. In a similar move, the German parliament condemned BDS as anti-Semitic, a step that fell short of the far-right’s call for the banning of the movement.


“Any country that bases its founding mythology around the Boston Tea Party and the boycott of tea, you would think that today, a few hundred years later, we would still see boycotts as a form of political speech, and therefore protected by the First Amendment,” said Arkansas magazine publisher Alan Leveritt. Mr. Leveritt, a farmer and a publisher, who describes himself as a part of a family of “white trash farmers,” bumped up against the law when a college advertiser demanded he sign a legally required statement that he would not boycott Israel.


As a free distribution magazine, Mr. Leveritt’s Arkansas Times is dependent on government educational and health agencies’ advertising. “Most people I talk to said, ‘What does this have to do with the price of tea in China?’… It has no relevance or bearing on Arkansas. I have the right to boycott anyone I want to, and the state has no business getting involved in that. Period. It’s none of their business,” Mr. Leveritt said.


“There is no boycott activism in Arkansas… We’re not boycotting anyone. We’re just saying that you have no right to tell us what our speech should be. If we want to boycott, we can… It’s a political act. It’s not one I choose to take. I just object to government saying, ‘We got a big wad of money over here, we’ll give it to you, we’ll advertise with you, but here’s some conditions that you need to meet first, such as, here’s the political position you need to take regarding foreign policy for God’s sake,’” Mr. Leveritt added.


Rabbi Brian Block of Little Rock’s Temple B’nai Israel, Arkansas’s largest synagogue, is an ardent Israel supporter. “Supporting Israel is of the greatest importance to me. I could not be stronger in my opposition to boycotts of any Israeli products. However, I was appalled that a newspaper would have to sign an oath that it would not participate in any kind of political action,” Mr. Block said.


He noted that “American freedoms are terribly important to American Jews. We wouldn’t be in the magnificently enviable position in which we find ourselves where we not blessed with freedom of religion and the rights to express ourself as we sit fit.”


Scholars Moustafa Bayoumi and Pamela E. Pennock trace the origins of efforts by Israel and its backers to counter, if not quash, expressions of support for the Palestinians to the 1960s. Mr. Bayoumi argues that Islamophobia in the United States took on an anti-Palestinian dimension in the wake of the 1967 Middle East war. Mr. Bayoumi charts the targeting of Arab immigrants and pro-Palestinian activism by the National Security Agency and the FBI as well as pro-Israeli American Jewish organisations.


Mr. Bayoumi suggested that “young Muslim Americans and Jewish Americans who are at the center of today’s protest movements are placing Palestinian rights back in the struggle to defeat Islamophobia. Why? Clearly not because of any scriptural kinship to Palestine, contemporary identity politics, or antisemitism. The reason seems much more fundamental: freedom…. This is not a position just for the moment – it’s a lesson about overcoming oppression worldwide.”


Ms. Pennock documented pro-Israeli attempts to counter criticism of Israel going back more than half a century that helped lay the groundwork for current efforts to curtail fundamental democratic freedoms, including freedom of expression and assembly. Ms. Pennock quoted a 1969 Anti-Defamation League (ADL) report on a conference at Ohio State University of the Organization of Arab Students of the US and Canada that could have been written today.


“The political activity of the Arab students in the United States will increase significantly in the coming school year. They are beginning to display a much greater understanding of how to present their arguments to the various levels of the American public (church groups, new left, lower middle class, etc), and any successes are certain to increase their confidence and, hence, their activity. The situation, however, is by no means hopeless if the proper action is taken immediately. One thing is certain, the threat on the campuses and in the churches can no longer be ignored but must be confronted directly. Otherwise, we will lose by default because the Arabs are making rapid gains in several areas,” the report warned in a conclusion that anticipated events unfolding today.


Courtesy The Turbulent World with James M Dorsey 

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