During last night’s Sydney Ideas event with Sareee Makdisi, I gave the following introduction:
22 September, 2009
Excavating Memory in Jerusalem
Professor Saree Makdisi, US academic, author and Middle East analyst
Seymour Centre, Sydney University
An introduction by Antony Loewenstein
During an interview with the Boston Globe in 2008 during the release of his book, Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation, Saree Makdisi argued the following:
“[There is a] prevailing orthodoxy that in general Israel is the aggrieved party and the Palestinians are the aggressors, whereas it seems to me that the situation is exactly the opposite. Half of Palestine’s people were forced from their homes during the creation of Israel in 1948; they have never been allowed to return although they have the legal and moral right to do so. Instead we see the continuing existence of a system that keeps people displaced and unable to exercise their full human rights.”
The perversion of language, for this professor of English Literature at the University of California, is central to his thesis. Our mainstream media constantly frames the Middle East conflict as between two equal sides, two aggrieved parties and two victims. The Jews of Europe, including my own family, were butchered in the name of fundamentalism during the Holocaust, but the Palestinians have been paying a high price ever since for Hitler’s crimes. The Palestinians are the new Jews. Occupation has become a modern Zionist trait.
During my recent visit to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza I saw the creeping apartheid discussed by Makdisi in his copious public writings and recent book. It is often mundane, hidden but devastating. I witnessed messianic Jews set fire to Palestinian fields in the West Bank while Israeli troops stood and watched. I observed vicious racism in Jerusalem by protesting settlers against the “Negro” Barack Obama and Arabs. I spoke to Gazans suffering under an Israeli and Egyptian imposed siege, the effects of the December/January war still fresh in their lives, whole neighbours flattened.
Last week’s UN Gaza report, compiled by the distinguished South African Jewish judge Richard Goldstone, marked a turning point, for the simple fact that it correctly claimed that, “while the Israeli government has sought to portray its operations as essentially a response to rocket attacks in the exercises of its right to self-defence, the [UN] mission considers the plan to have been directed, at least in part, at a different target: the people of Gaza as a whole.” Whether the international community allows Israel to literally get away with murder is now a key question.
Makdisi’s message, eloquently explained in his Edward Said Memorial Lecture presented over the weekend, is that tired slogans will no longer suffice. And ideas that were once on the fringes are gaining mainstream acceptance. Decades of Zionist exceptionalism, global Holocaust guilt, colonial expansion and violence have seen to that. Here is a short extract from Makdisi’s Said presentation, articulating the logical and only democratic answer to the conflict:
“There is no question that committed Zionists from across the political spectrum will resist the move toward the one state solution in the way that privileged groups have always historically resisted the erosion of their privileges. The resistance, even the violent resistance, of privileged groups did not stop South Africa from abandoning Apartheid; the United States from abandoning Jim Crow laws or the institution of slavery itself; or, for that matter, the British aristocracy from relinquishing its privileges in the great Reform bills of the nineteenth century. And so it is with those who seek to protect the privileges of the Jewish community in Israel/Palestine today, who know perfectly well that they are running out of time, and that the world will not—or at least should not—tolerate the kinds of discrimination practiced in Israel and the occupied territories for much longer.”
Makdisi correctly uses the term “apartheid” to describe the situation in the occupied territories. It is not just accurate but essential if one is to honestly reveal the racially exclusionary regime implemented there, backed by the US, the EU and Australia. The only logical answer, as Makdisi constantly reiterates, is a global boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel until it accepts the basic tenets of international law and ends the occupation.
The last six months alone have seen great strides in this movement. Last week leading US Jewish paper, the Forward, had an article headlined, “Palestinian-Led Movement To Boycott Israel Is Gaining Support”. As Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian leader of the BDS campaign, told the publication, “Our South Africa moment has finally arrived.” Any university, institution, cultural ambassador, filmmaker or individual trying to “normalise” relations with occupying Israel will be targeted.
The power of Makdisi’s writings is not just because he is a Palestinian and articulates a narrative the Western world has spent so long to suppress and deny but because he reveals the largely hidden realities of a Middle East client state drunk on its arrogance and seeming invincibility. It is the job of Jews, Arab, Palestinians, Christians and human rights activists everywhere to no longer tolerate the superficially appealing victimhood of Zionism.
Jewish historian Tony Judt wrote in 2006 on Israel’s 58th birthday that the country was curiously immature, “consumed by a brittle confidence in its own uniqueness; certain that no one ‘understands’ it and everyone is ‘against’ it; full of wounded self-esteem, quick to take offence and quick to give it.”
The situation is even graver in 2009, with an Israeli Prime Minister who has never truly accepted the legitimacy of the Palestinian people and a US President who thrives on making pretty speeches with virtually nothing to show for it; a magician whose bag of tricks convinces only the most devoted and deluded. Despite months of public debate, the occupation in the West Bank has only deepened since Obama’s inauguration.
American Jewish intellectual and blogger Joseph Dana wrote recently that, “Contemporary Jewish identity has been constructed around two opposites, which cannot function without each other, the Holocaust and the State of Israel.” This incestuous relationship has allowed the Palestinians to be demonised as the cause of Jewish suffering, rather than the victims of post-Holocaust, Jewish militarism. It takes both Jews and Palestinians to challenge this equation and Makdisi is leading the conversation.
Let me close with Makdisi in the Huffington Post in July, signalling the inherent contradiction of modern Zionism:
“Israel today is no more Jewish than America is white or Christian. The big difference, though, is that, whereas America (for the most part) embraces its own multiculturalism, Israel still desperately wants to be Jewish. Its absurd demand to be recognized as such (no other state goes around impetuously demanding that others accept its own sense of its national character) is an expression of its own profound insecurity: not its military insecurity – the only serious military threat Israel faces on its own territory is imaginary – but rather its anxious awareness of its status as a botched, and hence forever incomplete, settler-colonial enterprise. Unlike Australia, there were too many Aboriginals left standing when the smoke cleared over the ruins of Palestine in 1948. And to this day the Palestinians have refused to simply give up, go away or somehow annul themselves.”
I stand before you as a Jew who turns in shame at what my people have become in supporting a state with leaders who boast of imprisoning, killing and blockading another people. Not in our name.
I’m honoured to introduce Saree Makdisi, a man with peace and justice on his mind.