My interview in US magazine Truthout by Dan Falcone:
Dan Falcone recently interviewed journalist, blogger, filmmaker, activist and author Antony Loewenstein in East Jerusalem via Skype to discuss his current film project, Disaster Capitalism — inspired by his 2015 book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (Verso, 2015), as well as a host of domestic and foreign issues impacting the West, the US and the world. In his film project, Loewenstein provides commentary on US involvement and influence in Haiti, Afghanistan, Gaza, Papua New Guinea and beyond. Loewenstein also draws parallels to Brexit and the national election in the US within his own research and work, and explains how those areas are relevant.
Daniel Falcone: I wanted to first ask you about the film that you’re making, Disaster Capitalism. I know that you’ve spoken a lot about the book, about your thesis, about the argument. Could you just tell me something about the film or where you are in the process of the film and what will the film convey differently from the book, if anything?
Antony Loewenstein: I started working on the book about five years ago, and I started working on the film at about the same time, and initially, I was working on my own. I was traveling to some of these places that are featured in the book, and decided I wanted to do a documentary about it. I didn’t know the shape of what that would look like. In 2012, I partnered with a New York-based filmmaker Thor Neureiter, and he and I have been working together ever since. He’s my film partner and we have been to Papua New Guinea, Afghanistan and Haiti, twice each.
They’re featured in the book as well, but the film is different for a few reasons. One obviously touches on similar issues — people making money from misery, corporations, individuals in countries that are poor or developing. But a lot of the money ended up being unaccountable, and many Haitians themselves say to us, in the film, that “We never saw the money.”
We look at, in the film also — as I do in the book — the role of the Clintons, particularly Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Bill Clinton, of course — for those who don’t know Hillary and Bill actually had their honeymoon in Haiti in the mid-1970s. I only mention that because they have expressed a love for Haiti for decades, and what that love has actually meant though is, “I believe that Haiti should be exploited.” Until a few years ago, she was the face of putting in power the last prime minister, Michel Martelly, who was a dictator, essentially. He had no qualifications. He used to be a nightclub singer, and I’m not putting down nightclub singers, but he just had no experience in the political arena. The country, basically, has gone to turmoil since.
So the film shows communities, locally, who are suffering, and Papua New Guinea, in Bougainville, which is a small province or country to the north of Australia, it’s a beautiful, beautiful country, incredibly rich with natural resources, but in reality, like so many countries that are so wealthy, it’s incredibly poor because it’s been exploited by Australian and American and Canadian mineral companies, and Bougainville had a huge copper mine — it was the biggest in the world in the 1970s and ’80s — run by the large mineral company Rio Tinto, [which is in both] Australia and London.
There was a huge civil war over this mine. It was one of the most brutal civil wars in that part of the world, between Australia and Asia Pacific for years, but no one’s ever really heard of it. It’s not particularly known.
Outstanding work, thank you, Antony. In shifting gears a bit but perhaps related, how about the Brexit decision and other European countries that might follow suit. How is that pertinent in the realm of disaster capitalism in your estimation?
I think it’s really relevant. You know, I spend time in my book, not in the film, but in the book Disaster Capitalism, I spent quite a bit of time in the UK and looking at particularly the issue of immigration and how immigration is often being privatized and outsourced. What that means is that a lot of detention centers where immigrants are being imprisoned, essentially, run for profit. I think the Brexit decision was an interesting one.
On the one hand, I think the effect of it is going to be very negative for Britain, but at the same time, I had a great deal of sympathy, from a left-wing perspective of why people wanted to leave. I think the majority of people who wanted to leave and voted to leave were not going from a left-wing position from what I’ve read. What I’ve read and spoken to people is that there was profound degree of unease, concern, about the fact that in the last 30 years — which is something I talk about in my book — the British economy has not benefited the majority of the population, and it’s why then immigration is easily blamed for these problems.
So in line of what you’re saying in terms of Trump versus Clinton, the Trump populism, if you will, or his ethno-nationalism, is gathering support in terms of his foreign policy, where he’s trying to take advantage of this mistrust for neoliberals and institutions, and he’s not giving very constructive answers, and his base is given dangerous points of view to real concerns. Can you comment on this?
I agree, and just to be very, very clear again, this is not at all a robust defense of Donald Trump. He is using a clearly strong sentiment of an aspect of predominantly white Americans who feel totally disenfranchised from the US economy. That view is not illegitimate.
I think the people who support him don’t overly care about the fact that there’s not a great deal of detail behind his policies.
Hillary Clinton, to me, is a dangerous demagogue who also has learned nothing from history whatsoever and has made so many bad decisions on Iraq, on Libya, on many other cases. I’m not suggesting that someone like Trump would be better.
Clearly, I think it’d be wonderful that there’s a female president, yes, but surely that’s not the only important issue. How does she see women in Afghanistan? Does she think that Muslim women should be bombed in various Muslim countries? Yes, she does. That’s a less than feminist position.
They’re not leaving us with very good choices in the US; often the case.
Agreed. And if I was American, and I’m not for a second telling you how Americans should vote, I think, at the moment, I would probably vote for someone like Jill Stein who’s of the Green Party, who from what I read, has very interesting policies. They’re progressive.
When looking at a region like Gaza, how can disaster capitalism be pertinent in the Middle East and especially in terms of our relationship with Israel? For example, it seems like a lot of your work — I know you touch on warfare and the consequences of militarism, but it sounds like — what it reads to me as anyway — is your critique of imperialism and resource wars in addition to how we sponsor terrorism or military campaigns across the world, but how about specifically Gaza? Is the west essentially destroying that place only to build it back up and destroy it again and other regions that support the occupation?
The situation in Gaza is incredibly desperate. I have not been there for a few years. I was last there in 2009. I’m now based in East Jerusalem. Gaza is really almost the perfect example of the tacit failure of Israeli and US policy towards Palestinians — that there really is no great desire to resolve this issue. What I mean by that is, the circle status quo that exists between Israel and Hamas, the rulers of Gaza, is Israel doesn’t actually have a great desire to overthrow Hamas. They could overthrow Hamas in a day.
So Israel essentially believes, and the US gives uncontrolled and unlimited amounts of military support, which I might add has increased under Obama. This idea, somehow, that many in the Zionist community argue that Obama has been the worst president for Israel and a disaster, it’s a complete lie. The fact that settlements on the West Bank have no impact on the financial support that Israel has received.
The occupation is going to be 50 years old in 2017, next year. That’s in the West Bank. In Gaza, Israel in theory disengaged in 2005. As I said before, they still control the land, sea and air borders, which was always done in an incredibly bad and poor way, barely touches the surfaces of what Gaza needs.
It’s like an open-air prison. The border with Egypt is sealed virtually 99 percent of the time. The border with Israel is also mostly sealed. Very few Gazans can get in and out. So the effect that Israel, and with US and Western support, is backing, and funding and arming a permanent open-air prison, for no real strategic benefit, let alone humanitarian relief. It really depends how one views the Israel-Palestine conflict.
A lot of the Americans, when they watch the news media coverage of the Middle East, and they’re presented with a sampling — don’t really have an understanding of who the Palestinians are. They don’t know much about the Palestinians, but they see, I think, isolated acts of violence perpetrated by Palestinians against Israeli soldiers, and it’s a separate point to Israel “mowing the lawn,” or barricading a place like Hebron, the city that they recently did indeed block off. In other words, separate from the Israeli policy, there seems to be this marriage between what Israel does as justified because they are on the receiving end of Palestinian terrorism.
And people aren’t really able to distill the fact that Israel policy is going to carry on no matter what happens, whether there’s a stabbing, a kidnapping, an explosion, etc. People are correlating Israeli policy with actions of people on the other end of this for years. This isn’t just a media culture, but it’s in the educational system, higher education and people that study international relations. What do you think about the corporate media structure and how it delivers this picture to American society from the standpoint of what’s happening to the Palestinians?
Well, certainly, 9/11 has made this far worse, and even before then, but certainly become a lot worse since 9/11 in your country. The framing of the Israel-Palestine conflict is usually like this: Israel is defending itself. Israel was sort of sitting here minding its own business. Palestinians are aggressive. They’re angry. They’re stabbing us. They’re killing us. They’re blowing up buses in Tel Aviv. They hate us because we’re free, because we’re Jews, because we’re a democracy, whatever it may be.
That’s a fundamentally wrong and racist view. There’s no doubt that there is Palestinian violence against Israel. Yes, it happens. There are — not so much these days, but there have been suicide bombings and stabbings, and any attack, to me, against civilians is fundamentally wrong, and should stop. There’s an occupation that is happening. I’m living here in East Jerusalem. It’s happening right here, and it’s happening right down the road.
So in Israel the rhetoric — and in the US too is — Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, Al-qaeda are all the same thing. They’re framed in all the same way, so when there’s, for example, a beheading of a journalist in Syria, or Iraq, by ISIS the last couple of years, many in the Israeli political elite and the media automatically tie that, and they say, “You see. The Arabs, they’re crazy.”
We’re still at a stage, in 2016, where we’re actually — are we not accepting it’s an occupation? Are we saying that it’s not permanent? Fifty years is permanent.
What are your thoughts on something like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) or the impact of the lobby? A lot of the criticism of Israel that I read shows the left sort of having these divisions within the progressive side in terms of criticizing the United States’ support of Israel and the occupation. How influential is the lobby? Are we more concerned with government decisions, media structures, or is the lobby the influential interest group? I see differences of opinion in terms of what question should we be asking and where do we apply a critical focus.
Also, in BDS, there’s a disagreement there too. How pertinent is BDS? Is that the most constructive response? I just see members of the left wing that are — I wouldn’t say feuding, but they disagree on the effectiveness of BDS, where do you come down on this?
Okay, two points there. There’s no doubt the Israel lobby is influential. It has power. AIPAC, which is America’s largest Israel lobby, at its conference a few months ago, and you see it’s powered by the people that are speaking there, which is pretty much all the top political leaders on the Democratic and Republican side, hundreds of Senators come, thousands of delegates, Jews and non-Jews, mostly Jews, but others too. They have influence. They have power. There’s no question about that. They push a very hardline position.
There are small groups. The group Jewish Voice for Peace is one that I have a lot of time for. They’re a lobby group of sorts. They’re liberal Jews. They’re based around the US. They have, I think, about 100,000 people signed up. They speak out very forcefully about occupation.
Let’s not forget, BDS was established, officially, in 2005 by Palestinian Civil Society, essentially saying to the world, “We’re living here under occupation. We’re asking you to please help us by not supporting any institution within Israel. That could be cultural. That could be academic.”
I think there is a desperate attempt now, in the US, to make BDS illegal. I don’t think we’re that far away from a very important test case that I suspect will go to the Supreme Court.
We’re talking about criticizing a policy which demonizes Palestinians for over half a century. Within Israel itself, BDS is not supported by the majority of Israel Jews. There’s no question about that.
Thank you, very much.
I’m now based in East Jerusalem as a freelance journalist and I was thrilled to recently secure the cover story in Newsweek Middle East (15 June edition) on Israel’s settler movement (+ here are my photos from the assignment):
Har Bracha vineyard is a Jewish business situated near Nablus in the occupied West Bank. Established in 2004, its location offers spectacular views. With an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) jeep parked outside, owner Nir Lavi recently told me that he was proud of his livelihood cultivating grapes, because it proved that anti-Semitism would always fail.
“European anti-Semitism never dies,” he said. “Boycotts against us [Israel] show this.” He sells most of his products to Israelis and Jewish communities in the United States, “who have Shomron [greater Israel] in their hearts.” In response to growing global and local moves to boycott products produced by Israelis in the West Bank, Lavi opened a shop in Tel Aviv this year. He aimed to convince Israelis that the West Bank was a place of safety and legitimacy.
Last week marked the 49th year of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. In 1967 Israel seized what is now termed the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) in an act of war. Soon after this war, illegal settlements—Israeli communities built on occupied ground—began to take shape, and some 30 settlements were established between 1967 and 1977, home to roughly 5000 settlers. During this period, settlements were mostly in the Jordan Valley and it wasn’t until the late 1970s, under a more right-wing Israeli government, that they began to expand in the West Bank. Now, nearly 700,000 settlers live throughout the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
On a daily basis, and in contravention of international law, Israel confiscates land and constructs settlements that run deep into Palestinian territory. Worse still, Israel demolishes Palestinian homes and other civilian structures, forcibly displaces and transfers Palestinian civilians and exploits the natural resources of the Palestinian land. Despite the widespread condemnations and calls for cessation, Israel continues its actions with impunity. The persistent confiscation of land, water, and other natural resources also violates The Hague Regulations of 1907, which prohibit an occupying power from expropriating the resources of occupied territory for its own benefit.
Earlier this year, U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro sparked unease when he noted that Israeli settlements have expanded; Israeli vigilantes murder Palestinians without fear of investigation or reprisal; and, in the occupied, Palestinian areas, Israelis enjoy civilian legal protections while Palestinians live under military rule.
Lavi told U.S. Jewish publication, The Algemeiner, in January that the aim of his shop was, “to show sympathy and patriotism at this time, and to connect to our fellow Israelis. We don’t mind where they come from, what their background is, or what’s their political agenda. We want us to be united.”
Har Bracha employee Alice Zeeman, a religious settler with seven children who was born in Germany and converted to Judaism in her teens, told me that the facility opened 20 years ago because “there was a prophecy.” After being evacuated from the West Bank settlement of Homesh in 2005, along with thousands of settlers in Gaza during the so-called “disengagement,” Zeeman was unequivocal about her Arab neighbours. “I shout at Arabs [because they kill Jews],” she said. “I don’t call them Palestinians. They’re our enemy. We cannot employ the Arabs here. In the vineyard, only Jews work. I don’t want to see Arabs dead but I just want them to live somewhere else in the Arab world. They can only live here if they accept Jewish rule. It’s in the Bible.”
Wearing a red headscarf and speaking with a slight German accent, Zeeman explained that one of her life missions was to have a large family. “I never listen to the news. I just keep on having children. One of the most important products of the settlements are children.” She disagreed with the idea of Arabs either working with her or building settlements. A common sight across the West Bank is Palestinians constructing Israeli homes, because they have few other job opportunities due to high unemployment and a traditional farming economy that has been crushed by the Israeli occupation. “Settlements should just be built by Jews,” Zeeman said. It was a view echoed by Lavi. “We only want to have Israelis build our community,” he said.
This is a story of how the settlers won. After nearly 50 years since Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Six Day War, its proponents have placed themselves in all levels of the Israeli state, guaranteeing institutional support for the continued expansion of settlements across the West Bank. It has rendered impossible any contiguous Palestinian state, the clear aim of the settlers and their enablers from the beginning. The two-state solution is dead, if it was ever possible.
I recently spent time traveling across the West Bank in the searing June heat talking to settlers, sleeping overnight in their houses and engaging on politics, daily life and Palestinians. I was given a unique insight into communities that mostly appear in the media as cartoon character extremists, blind ideologues or those seeking cheap housing (Israel encourages people to move to the West Bank by providing huge financial incentives and inexpensive accommodation). I witnessed all three, but also found people defiant in their beliefs, angered by what they perceived was global opposition to their lives fueled by anti-Semitism and confident that they were unlikely to be forced to leave their homes in any peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Jewish supremacy, the belief that Jews have the God-given right to control all the land in Israel and Palestine and the Arabs must submit to it, was ubiquitous throughout my travels. Paternalism merged with capitalism. Yehuda Cohen, CEO of the plastics company Lipski, which has a factory in the West Bank Barkan industrial park, told me that he hired 50 Palestinian workers because he gave “people hope. I need Palestinians and they need me.” He said that Europeans wanted to boycott his products and label them but today he was still able to sell freely across Europe.
There are around 1,000 Israeli companies operating in over a dozen industrial zones in the West Bank and about 25,000 Palestinians working in these facilities, usually making more money than if they were employed by Palestinian firms. Many Palestinian workers and unions oppose these jobs because they normalize the occupation and do nothing to strengthen the Palestinian economy. Human Rights Watch issued a report in January criticizing Israeli discrimination for “entrenching a system that contributes to the impoverishment of many Palestinian residents of the West Bank while directly benefitting settlement businesses, making Palestinians’ desperate need for jobs a poor basis to justify continued complicity in that discrimination.”
“Europeans wanted to boycott my products,” Cohen said, “but they have a brain and see that I’m part of the solution and not the problem for the conflict.” One of his Palestinian workers, Abel, argued that, “if Europeans boycott us, it affects our livelihoods. We should bring Arab students here to see how co-existence is possible.” It was impossible to know if these were his real views—because his boss was standing beside him when he spoke.
In the company staff room, Cohen showed me a pin-board full of photographs where he said he took his Palestinian and Jewish employees on short holidays. He wasn’t overly worried about growing boycott threats against his factory from around the world because, as he told The Times of Israel in 2014, “If we let them [the Europeans] profit, in the end they’ll invest. The Europeans know one thing: Israel treats them well.”
At a briefing by the Shomron Regional Council, one of the largest in the West Bank, travel guide Boaz Haetzni proudly said that there were now roughly 430,000 Jewish residents in the West Bank and appropriately 250,000 in East Jerusalem. All settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this. “Settlements have negative connotations so we use the terms ‘towns’ and ‘villages’,” he said.
Haetzni was frustrated that Israeli outposts in the West Bank, mostly considered illegal even under Israeli law, “were not authorized because of American pressure. We live in an economically viable area but the government of Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to disturb this growth. Our area is the solution to Israel’s housing crisis but authorities are trying to stop us.” He attacked President Barack Obama for placing unfair restrictions on Israeli expansion and alleged that Netanyahu publicly praised the settlements—but in private instructed his officials to contain any new construction in the occupied territories.
Haetzni acknowledged that Arab residents lived in “parallel land and systems under a different economic system and often on different roads.” This form of racial and economic discrimination is why many critics of Israel compare it to apartheid South Africa. It’s also why the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is rising in popularity across the world, especially on British and American campuses. A recent survey by Ipsos global market research found that one third of Americans and 40 percent of Britons backed a boycott of Israel, but problematically, many still viewed the tactic as anti-Semitic.
Over dips, vegetables and fresh bread, Haetnzi stated that the nearby Barkan industrial park was “the only place in the Middle East where Jews and Arabs are in peace—but we have still been boycotted by the Europeans and Palestinian Authority.” Like many settlers I met, Haetzni was obsessed with Jewish and Arab birthrates, proudly explaining that Jewish birthrates were soaring and could comfortably maintain a majority over Arabs in the West Bank for the foreseeable future. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics disagrees, having issued a report this year that found the number of Jews in Israel would equal the number of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories by the end of 2017.
It’s unsurprising that most settlers have no interest in leaving. They occupy some of the most fertile and beautiful parts of the West Bank. At the “Israel Lookout” in the Peduel settlement, the striking green and brown horizon included Tel Aviv through a heat haze and Ben Gurion International Airport. A young settler man serenaded his girlfriend with a guitar while sitting in a solitary wooden seat overlooking the view. The scene was tranquil and yet something was missing; Arabs were nowhere to be seen or heard. My guide Yehoshua Carmel, a friendly 30-year-old man born and living in Elkana settlement, acknowledged that it was “not normal to have Israeli soldiers around us all the time [for security]. I don’t want to live like this but it’s the only solution for now. If the IDF leaves here, it means that the government doesn’t want me to stay in this area. I would be very sad.”
I asked Carmel about settler violence against Palestinians, a constant threat and reality against Arab lives, farms and equipment, but he denied it was a problem and claimed the majority of attacks in the West Bank were by Arabs against Jews. “Maybe there are 50 fundamentalist Jews who want to use violence but most of us oppose violence,” he said. In July 2015, Palestinians in the village of Duma were firebombed by Jewish settlers and three members of the Dawabsheh family died including their 18-month old baby, Ali. Carmel questioned whether Jews could have committed such a grievous act. “It’s the wish of many around the world that the Duma murderers are Jewish,” he said. “It’s not terrorism if Jews did it; it’s murder. I won’t put the same terror label against Jews and Arabs. I’m religious and Duma was terrible. I’m praying it’s not Jews who did it.”
Israel’s settler movement has succeeded brilliantly in realizing its goals since 1967 due to a number of complimentary factors including decades-long persistence, Israel’s growing rightward shift, widespread distrust and contempt for Arabs and international support and complicity. The Jewish State’s backing of colonizing the West Bank has been prohibitively expensive, however. It was estimated by Israeli experts in 2007 to have cost US$50 billion since 1967 including security and civilian expenses.
Israel’s army has around 176,000 active duty soldiers and Israeli journalist Yossi Melman has calculated that it takes nearly 100,000 soldiers to keep the West Bank under Israeli control. US$600 million is required to maintain the occupation every year. The World Bank says that the Palestinian economy loses US$3.4 billion a year due to Israel’s discriminatory practices.
After nearly five decades of settlement expansion, reversing the trend is currently impossible. Although American and European governments often issue stern criticisms of Israel when new settlements are announced, there’s no economic incentive or punishment for Israel to end the addiction to expanding its territory. According to a new report by the non-profit Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, Israel has destroyed US$74 million worth of European Union projects in Palestinian territory in 2016, but the Jewish state has received no more than a public rebuke. U.S. President Barack Obama was condemned throughout my travels across the West Bank as anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli, but his time in office has seen the greatest financial support for the Jewish state in the country’s history.
Yet another failed peace initiative was recently pushed by France. A meeting was held in Paris that resulted in a bland statement with vague intentions to pursue an international conference before the end of the year, and Israel dismissed it entirely. The Palestinian Authority, a corrupt and un-elected body residing in Ramallah that faces increasing opposition from its own people for decades of mismanagement and failure, welcomed the initiative but has no power to encourage it. Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza that faces a strangulating blockade from Israel and Egypt, are determined to hold onto power and avoid another devastating military conflict with Israel.
With Daesh, Syria, Libya and Iraq weighing the region down into protracted conflicts, the Israel-Palestine conflict is no longer the key Middle East issue to be resolved. The ‘peace-process’ is dead, and Israel’s settler movement has capitalised on its demise; Netanyahu’s government has pro-settler politicians at every level including the recently appointed Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman who lives in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim.
When resigning Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon warned in May of “manifestations of extremism, violence and racism in Israeli society,” his message was decades too late. Thousands of Israelis converged at a Tel Aviv rally in April to support a solider who had executed an injured Palestinian in Hebron and the mood of the crowd was extreme, with one sign copying the Nazi SS slogan, “My honour is loyalty.” Also attending were members of Jewish supremacist group El Yahud who often attack Palestinians and leftist Israelis.
This wasn’t a fringe crowd but accurately representative of Israel’s body politic in 2016 with prominent politicians attending the event, including those from Netanyahu’s Likud party. A headline in Israeli daily Haaretz recently read: “Neo-fascists Threaten the West. In Israel They’ve Already Arrived.”
The settlers are equally mainstream and cannot be dismissed as minor players. Supporters recently released a guide book for tourists, “Yesha is Fun: The Good Life Guide to Judea and Samaria” [Biblical names for the West Bank] that pushes a “new and unique type of boutique tourism…tens of years after the return of the People of Israel to the land of our forebears”. Israel’s Civil Administration, tasked with managing the West Bank, were recently exposed by Haaretz for secretly re-mapping large sections of the West Bank in attempts to massively expand settlements. Israel’s largest human rights group, B’Tselem, announced in late May that it would no longer file complaints to the IDF and Israeli police about Israeli abuses in the West Bank and Gaza, citing poor or non-existent investigations by Israeli authorities.
Although there are small moves within Israel to find possible solutions to the conflict—“Two States One Homeland,” a new, small group including left-wing Israelis, Palestinians and settlers, advocates two sovereign states with open borders—the general Israeli mood is one of defiance, and an acceptance of the status-quo. It’s why the settler movement is so comfortable with its position and has few fears for its future. A 2016 poll by the Peace Index from the Israeli Democracy Institute found that 72 percent of Jewish Israelis did not believe that Israeli control over Palestinians was occupation.
It was a hot June afternoon when I reached Kashuela Farms near the Gush Etzion settlements. Located near Jerusalem and Bethlehem, I drove down a dirt track to find two Jewish families living in basic conditions in a partially cleared forest, with a simple campsite and two tipis for visitors. A website advertising the location said that, “putting it mildly, the Arab villagers in the area do not ‘like’ the presence of the farm. Hence there is round-the-clock security.” Herds of goats and sheep lived in large enclosures and I arrived to find a British, Jewish woman and her three children, all living in a nearby settlement, buying a few chickens as pets.
It was a peaceful environment. Head farmer Yair Ben-David, 38-years-old with four children, told me that he had moved to the area four years ago because the Israeli government only wanted Jews to protect the 2,000 donums of land. After the Jewish National Fund and mayor of Gush Etzion provided initial assistance to secure Jewish hold on the territory, Ben-David started developing the site. “It’s Jewish land,” he said. “Even if Palestinians have ancestors here, they don’t have a 2,000-year connection like us.” He was friendly with only one Arab man who lived in an adjacent village. “Sometimes it’s better to have no relationship [with Arabs] than a bad relationship,” he said. “Arabs know that Israel is the best place to live [in the Middle East].”
I joined Ben-David’s family and his related neighbours for a Sabbath meal inside a house made secure with water pipes and plastic sheeting. Hebrew blessings were given over the bread and the food consisted of salads, roasted chicken and vegetables, Shepherd’s pie, beans and quinoa. The children ate and then ran around the room, rendered freezing after the blaring air-conditioning could not be switched off during the Sabbath. Ben-David had timers to control the lights and hot plate for food, because he was religiously unable to do it during the Sabbath.
During the meal, we discussed relationships, the 2005 Gaza disengagement (“one of the saddest days in Israeli history,” one said), successive Gaza wars (I was told that the Israeli military was too cautious and overly worried about civilian casualties) and the boycott movement against Israel (it could only be explained as anti-Semitism, Ben-David said). The atmosphere was friendly and I sensed they welcomed the opportunity to discuss politics with somebody whose views opposed theirs.
After sleeping in a tipi, the following morning I accompanied Ben-David and two of his children to the gated outpost of Gevaot on a nearby hilltop to attend Sabbath prayers. It was held in a modern synagogue overlooking a playground paid for by the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton-Passaic in New Jersey. A highly controversial outpost, in 2014 the Israeli government appropriated large tracts of private Palestinian land and illegally redefined it as Israeli state land. Today it houses around 35 families. Many of the residents were with special needs, including Down’s syndrome, and some of these men contributed to the gender-separated, morning prayers. A civilian, Jewish guard with a machine gun walked in and placed his weapon beneath him while he prayed. After the service, I saw four IDF soldiers relaxing near a settler home, playing with their caged animals, and enjoying ice-creams given to them by a settler woman.
The settlers have created an armed, garrison state with a frontier mentality. Defiant in their belief that God gave Jews the land and Arabs must submit to their rule or leave, their success over five decades of expansion is clear. Funded, insulated, protected and armed by the Israeli state, Israel’s present and future is being written by them. It’s a vision that guarantees ongoing racial tensions and Palestinian dispossession. The international community has known this for decades and done virtually nothing to stop it.
Australian Zionist lobby group AIJAC have been attacking me for over a decade for daring to challenge the Israeli occupation of Palestine and questioning their blind and obedient support for Israeli violence. Years ago they consistently tried to bully editors and publishers against publishing my work. It was a spectacular failure.
The pro-occupation organisation is increasingly marginalised in the public domain, along with public opinion, but this doesn’t stop them remaining loyal subjects of the Zionist state.
AIJAC’s latest attack emerged after my recent interview on ABC Adelaide in Australia about Israel/Palestine. Filled with factual errors, it’s worth quoting in full to show a sad demonstration of media monitoring in the age of Zionist desperation:
An unedifying love-in on ABC Radio 891 “Adelaide Evenings” (March 21) saw Peter Goers interviewing anti-Zionist activist and author Antony Loewenstein, who trotted out a litany of the sort of erroneous claims on which he has managed to build a career.
The mood was set from the outset with Goers introducing his guest saying, “I once wrote something that pleased Anthony Lowenstein and that pleased me very much.”
Loewenstein claimed, “Israel is the ultimate example of a country that plays by its own rules,” accusing it of ignoring “countless rulings in the International Criminal Court [ICC], every human rights group in the world – Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the UN and others.”
There have been no such ICC rulings, which has never taken a case on Israel. Loewenstein perhaps means the 2004 International Court of Justice’s non-binding opinion on the legality of the security fence. If so, apparently one ruling becomes “countless rulings” in Loewenstein’s rhetoric.
Not content to miss out on the chance to also talk nonsense, Goers chimed in that the security fence is “750 kilometres of an eight-metre high concrete wall. Imagine if you woke up dear listener tomorrow and there was an eight-metre high concrete wall on your fence line, so your driveway and front door is now useless. This is… the conditions under which many thousands of people are living.” Loewenstein said it affected “millions in fact”.
“In fact” only 3 percent of the fence is concrete and it mostly runs along the Green Line demarcating the 1949 armistice lines. The concrete sections were determined by the incidence of Palestinian sniper fire during the Second Intifada. In most places it is made of wire with electronic sensors detecting potential infiltrators. It certainly does not leave “thousands” of people with their driveways and front doors cut off, nor does it directly affect “millions” unless your argument is that it affects every Palestinian in the West Bank. And it has unquestionably reduced terror attacks dramatically.
Loewenstein, who is currently based in east Jerusalem, was asked if he will “get into trouble because of your views in Israel?”
He responded, “Weeellll, I probably would”.
Israel is a democracy that supports free speech and activists there say even more extreme things than Loewenstein but do not get deported or arrested unless they are involved in criminal activity. From this he segued into a half-lucid, largely non-factual summary of the debate in Israel over how to respond to NGOs like Breaking the Silence which releases anonymous testimony of former soldiers, often offering scant detail and exaggerated claims to malign the IDF for political purposes.
The debate in Israel is over mere disclosure of the funding NGOs receive from foreign governments. Many NGOs support a one-state solution and the BDS movement, and receive most of their funding from European countries that supposedly oppose both.
Loewenstein tried to spin this debate as an attempt to “to shut down dissenting Jewish groups within Israel,” adding “I think you have a serious question about how you see democracy, if at all.”
A man who died too young. John Kaye was a New South Wales Greens MP and friend. I was asked to comment about him by Wendy Bacon in online magazine New Matilda:
“John was a friend, a trusted, funny, witty and principled man who also happened to be a politician. It’s hard to find that combination especially in an age of opportunistic political leadership. I fondly remember visiting John at his parliament house office over the years to discuss any number of issues. We never had a particular reason to meet except to share ideas, thoughts, and a laugh. Like me, he was appalled at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and wasn’t afraid to say so. His Judaism didn’t become blind tribalism for the Zionist cause, like for so many Jews.
“He was a politician in New South Wales, and cared deeply about the marginalised and less fortunate in our society, but he knew and understood issues far beyond Australian borders. Since the news of John’s passing, I’ve looked over our email correspondence and it’s filled with humour and affectionate mocking of Judaism and its traditions, passion for human rights and no tolerance for bigotry (from Christians, Jews or anybody else).
“During our dinners and lunches together (often with his partner, Lynne), John would regale me with news and gossip from inside the political beltway and we would laugh at the absurdity of it all, realising that a life in politics should be more than allegiance to dogma. I will miss his wit and dedication and know that Australia is much poorer without his fire and commitment. In my thoughts, John.”
My feature in US magazine Mondoweiss:
Palestinians in Jerusalem, and the state of the city itself, are routinely ignored in much international press coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict. While the rise in Jewish, religious fundamentalism is central to understanding the current state of Israel – a recent Reuters report on religious Zionism within governmental and military ranks provided a cogent explanation of Israel’s far-right, nationalistic turn – Jerusalem is a city increasingly turning against its Arab population.
Grassroots Jerusalem is an organization dedicated to challenging this situation.
Grassroots Jerusalem’s website is an online platform with partners from 80 community groups in 40 Palestinian communities of Jerusalem. A mapping section online is a unique tool to provide the Palestinian narrative routinely lost in mainstream Israeli society. Grassroots Jerusalem criticises the ways in which, “the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) designs and provides a variety of maps to International Non-Governmental Organizations. The UNOCHA maps leave the West side of Occupied Jerusalem blank and unrepresented and do not display the Palestinian neighborhoods and villages displaced during the Nakba of 1948 nor the Israeli colonies which replaced them.”
2016 is a time where the Arabic language is increasingly marginalized within Israeli life, leaving the roughly 20 percent of Palestinians within Israel excluded. Israel is destroying Palestinian homes and buildings in partially annexed Jerusalem. The Palestinian village of Kafr Walaja was targeted this month. A recent Haaretz report about the demolitions didn’t mention why such actions are now commonplace. +972 Magazine explained:
“Hundreds of people have lost their homes and entire communities are in danger of expulsion. Settler groups such as Regavim [run by Australian-Israeli Ari Briggs], along with people such as MK Moti Yogev (Jewish Home) have been putting pressure on the authorities to carry out the demolitions, whose entire purpose is to expel Palestinians from Area C of the West Bank, under full Israeli civil and military control. The Jewish Home party’s formal plan is to annex Area C to Israel, leaving the rest of the Palestinians imprisoned in Areas A and B.”
One of the most insidious modes of disenfranchising Palestinians from their own territory is the Israeli use of alleged “breach of allegiance” to the Jewish state. A deliberate policy of forced displacement, Israeli officials have instituted a number of ways Palestinians can be slowly but surely reduced numerically to maintain a large Jewish majority. Munir Nuseibah, human rights lawyer and academic based in Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, recently wrote in Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, about the history of these policies and why they should be resisted:
“It is no longer enough for a Palestinian Jerusalemite to be actually living in Jerusalem and to maintain his/her center of life in the city. Palestinian Jerusalemites are now expected to commit to the new undefined criterion of ‘allegiance.’ The Israeli human rights organization HaMoked, which is based in Jerusalem, has challenged this new policy in the Israeli Supreme Court. However, the Court has not yet decided the case. Similarly, the case of the four Palestinian political leaders whose residency was revoked in 2006 is still pending.
“No one knows yet how many residencies have been revoked according to the relatively new criterion of “allegiance,” but at least a few more cases are pending in the Supreme Court. HaMoked has made an application based on the freedom of information act to force the Ministry of Interior reveal this information. It is worth noting that international humanitarian law forbids the expectation of allegiance from a population under occupation.”
Based in a small East Jerusalem office, and currently in the middle of a crowd-funding campaign to raise $100,000, which aims to allow them to become independent of foreign funding sources.
The group is deeply critical of how “international aid usually comes with a price: donors dictate their own agendas and ignore the voices of the people. They also perpetuate the need for aid by implementing unsustainable projects and perpetuate the occupation by treating it as a humanitarian crisis and not a political one.”
“This cycle has created an ‘INGO industrial complex’ that has become a rampant problem in the global South. The humanitarian approach keeps Palestinian civil society and grassroots leadership on short term funding cycles, fragmented programs with no coordinated vision that are authorized by international staff who are neither elected nor permanent residents of the city. The INGOisation of the occupation unintentionally draws the attention away from the real problem (occupation!) with increasingly privatized systems. It should be called what it is in the bigger picture: benevolent colonialism.”
The raised money will contribute to training more Jerusalemite guides for tours of the city and an updated edition of the Wujood (“Existence/Presence”) guidebook to Jerusalem. I have a copy of this fascinating book, partly funded by the European Union, which features nearly 150 pages of information about the city’s history, culture and logistics. Grassroots Jerusalem is also committed to publishing a Jerusalem atlas of maps.
I recently sat down and spoke to two of the group’s leaders, Amany Khalifa and Fayrouz Sharqawi, to discuss Grassroots Jerusalem, fighting Israeli occupation, media misrepresentation of Palestinians and foreign funding:
Fayrouz: “We currently have no donors. We had an EU grant 2011-2014 and they wanted to give us more money but we refused. They wanted partnerships between Israeli and Palestinian groups and we’re against normalisation. We rejected the money which is rare here. The US, EU and UN all give out so much money but what are they really achieving? Grassroots funding is to be independent. Ideology is dictated by foreign agencies. The hierarchy is very up down and not down up. It’s short-term funding, project based and against long-term strategy. We’re trying to build a model for other Palestinian groups. We’re aiming to raise $100k through the crowd-funding campaign.
We run Palestinian political tours around Jerusalem, mostly in English but also in Arabic including inside 1948 Palestine. We’re also aiming to reach Palestinians who don’t know their own history. We want to show the many Palestinian communities in Jerusalem and support them. We want to take tours behind the [separation] wall, which is difficult now due to logistics and time, such as Abu Dis and Shuafat refugee camp.
Amany: Whenever there’s a stabbing [in Jerusalem], the media focuses on this and not about the daily, non-violent resistance by Palestinians from local councils to other local groups in Jerusalem. We want to show the world the real Jerusalem, not just Via Dolorosa.
In the Old City, there are mostly only Jewish sites (a recent Haaretz article explained) and few Muslim ones on maps. The Judaization of Jerusalem continues. People don’t know that East and West Jerusalem are false divides. It’s not like the Berlin Wall here. Israel has drawn rules that make Jerusalem indivisible.
Fayrouz: I have to explain my right to exist even before Israel exists. I have to justify my experience in Palestine. I get asked [by journalists] why I don’t accept Israel’s right to exist. I hate this game. In the US, people pick between Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, different narratives. Same here in Palestine. We have many people and journalists ask if this is a 3rd intifada. We get asked this all the time. Mainstream journalists ask about Palestinian violence.
Israeli policy is maintaining a 70% Jewish demographic balance with 30% Palestinian. This is the long-term Israeli strategy. We are fighting Israeli propaganda globally. Many journalists have Israeli type questions in their minds.
Amany: We have a right to resist Israeli occupation. We are hopeful. It’s not our right to judge Palestinian resistance. Resistance can’t go by the book. The last Israeli war with Hamas showed Hamas digging tunnels under Israel into a kindergarten and choosing not to attack, focusing on military targets. I call it the IOF [Israeli Occupation Forces] not IDF. I went to Hebrew University, it’s a military factory, production of militarised society. There has been Palestinian resistance since the occupation of 1948. In the 1970s, planes were hijacked to raise the Palestinian cause. It’s ridiculous when the Palestinian Authority talks about co-existing with Israel.
We think international aid and money to Palestinians should stop. 70 years of occupation, the international community spiting in our faces and they want us to maintain the status-quo.
Fayrouz: The Palestinian Authority is the number one traitor, collaborator. [President Mahmoud] Abbas speaks against the will of the people, saying he wants peace. Abbas is worse than the Israeli government. PA has been critical post the Oslo peace agreement; Israel couldn’t control the West Bank without the PA.
Palestinians want to live. We want to liberate ourselves. We were hopeful during Oslo.
Yasser Arafat was a leader, a hero pre Oslo, but he brought catastrophe upon us [accepting the Oslo agreement]. He had no choice, his arm was twisted. Who forced Arafat into this situation?
Amany: The international community means governments influenced by multinational corporations.
We grew up to admire [Palestinian freedom fighter] Leila Khaled but now she supports the Assad regime. I can’t accept that.
Fayrouz: Everybody has a say over Jerusalem except Palestinians. No Palestinian leadership. PA is a failure, with no presence in Jerusalem, and development is decided by outside forces who are unelected. There are almost 400,000 Palestinians who have no real say. Our role is to collect Palestinian voices and amplify them. Our role is to network between Palestinian groups, to find almost one voice to speak to journalists about Palestinians.
Amany: “Peace-building” came with Oslo while the occupation grew. We’re not naïve that speaking to Israelis can help. The use of beautiful language can help, we’re told, but when you leave the meeting, Israelis and Palestinians go their own ways.
Our role is focusing on Palestinian communities. Building connections between Jerusalem, West Bank, Gaza and Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria.
There are maybe 20 anti-Zionists in Israel who could be partners. Anti-Zionism is the least I expect from partners. Without acknowledging the 1948 Nakba, Israel’s fascism, there’s no point in conversation.
We’re often asked why we don’t educate or teach Israelis. Non-violence is a privilege, impossible to implement.
Fayrouz: The majority of Palestinians don’t believe in dialogue and peace-building. Some believe that this helps make us lose even less. Growing numbers of Palestinians in Jerusalem want to be residents here. All options for Palestinians are decided by others. We’re tired of compromise.
It’s been 15 months since we received any salary for Grassroots Jerusalem. When we talk about, say, refugees returning to 1948 Palestine, we’re told by donors we’re too political. Donors are scared including European donors. One outside group who owned property in East Jerusalem said they wouldn’t rent office space to us because they were worried about the Israeli response. It’s our city.
BDS success shows that this issue is all about money.
Amany: We think BDS should work more organising Palestinian groups here. They should speak to us. It’s hard and impossible for me, living here, to avoid Hebrew University so what can Palestinians do to support BDS? Somebody has to visit local Palestinian communities. You can support BDS and invest here in our communities.
Fayrouz: We ask tourists to boycott Israeli businesses and support Palestinian tourism. We encourage foreigners who want to come and volunteer in Palestine to not go to West Jerusalem and have fun in Israeli bars. What’s their real goal here?
The position of Palestinians in Israel itself remains a daily challenge to assert one’s right to equality. I recently met a young Palestinian, Israeli woman in Jerusalem, living in the north of Israel, who said that having an Israeli passport made her an outcast in the Arab world. She couldn’t access many nations because of this document and she craved another nation’s passport. She wouldn’t want to bring up her children in Israel to suffer the same way she had with institutionalised racism and discrimination.
When I said I tried to avoid buying products from the settlements at local shops and supermarkets in Jerusalem, she said she didn’t really care because it made no difference. For her, Israel and the settlements were the same entity, the same country, the same laws. “It’s already one country”, she said. She argued that businesses in Israel proper and the settlements both pay tax to the Israeli state and the Israeli government funds and supports the illegal settlement project.
My column in the Guardian:
New South Wales Premier Mike Baird recently visited Israel and Palestine, the first for a sitting leader of the Australian state. After travelling to the occupied West Bank and seeing the Aida refugee camp, Baird wrote on Facebook that the situation was “heartbreaking.” He continued:
“I don’t know where the cycle of thousands of years of violence ends. But I do know that all kids should be able to dream. That they should have hope of a better future.”
Baird’s motherhood statements, pushing the human angle of the conflict, diluted the politics. He didn’t mention the Israeli occupation, its nearly 50-year existence and effects on Palestinian children. Human Rights Watch recently stated that, “Israeli security forces are abusing Palestinian children detained in the West Bank. The number of Palestinian children arrested by Israeli forces has more than doubled since October 2015.” Amnesty issued a report this month telling Israel to protect human rights defenders and activists from Israeli military and settler violence.
Baird also briefly went to Bethlehem and met its first female mayor. He wrote that Vera Baboun was a teacher and “fierce advocate for her community as she seeks to solve some very complex problems.”
Channel 9 News and Sky News covered Baird’s time in the West Bank, at least the word “occupation” was briefly uttered by one report, yet they both grossly exaggerated the journey into a supposedly brutal war zone. It’s nothing of the sort. I’m based in East Jerusalem and safely travel to the West Bank without fear of attack.
Apart from scant time in the West Bank, Baird’s trip was principally about deepening NSW’s economic, medical cannabis and policing ties to Israel. Co-ordinated by the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce and the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, Baird was effusive in his praise for Israel. He told the Australian Jewish News that Israel is an “incredible nation” that is “leading the world in so many ways”. He wanted his trip to represent a “critical turning point” in relations between NSW and Israel, “going from being … allies and friends to significant collaborators and economic partners.”
Baird inked a deal with Israeli arms manufacturer, Elbit Services, to provide a flight simulator to help the Australian Royal Flying Doctor Service. Elbit is subject to a worldwide campaign against its involvement in Israel’s military and building of the separation wall through Palestinian territory.
The politics around Israel/Palestine are changing in Australia, however, and Baird’s visit won’t change this reality. Outgoing Labor MP Melissa Parke – who worked as a UN lawyer in Gaza – tabled a petition in parliament urging Australia to back the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. The Greens’ Lee Rhiannon is an outspoken opponent of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Although many politicians and journalists from most media outlets routinely take free pro-Israel lobby trips to Israel with a few minutes in the West Bank, and despite growing opposition in the NSW Labor party, the Australian public are becoming less tolerant of the Israeli occupation and regular attacks against Gaza.
Roy Morgan polling from 2011 showed that a majority of Australians opposed expanding Israeli colonies in the West Bank, and in 2014 a majority also thought that Australia should vote yes for Palestinian recognition as an independent member state at the UN. These trends have had no effect on Australia partneringwith Israelis weapon’s manufacturers over the last decade; Canberra is keen to purchase battle-tested armaments.
The boundaries of acceptable political debate in Australia are narrow. Think of so-called Labor dissidents pushing for the party to recognise Palestine at some point in the indeterminate future when such a policy is irrelevant to facts on the ground after nearly 50 years of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
The Palestinian Authority, the likely head of this “state”, is an authoritarian and corrupt body backed by the west, including Australia. What’s brave calling for them to rule over Palestinians? On the ground in Palestine, the idea of “recognising” Palestine elicits confusion. Many Palestinians tell me they crave global support and recognition but after years of empty gestures and UN resolutions their scepticism is warranted. Palestinian politicians haven’t faced an election in over 10 years.
I know that some activists in Australia celebrated Mike Baird’s brief trip to Palestine as a sign that political leaders have to at least show interest in the Palestinians in 2016. Perhaps. But until journalists and politicians talk more honesty about Israel’s stranglehold on the Palestinian territories, public opinion will continue to turn away from the Jewish state.
Crikey is one of Australia’s best independent news websites. I contributed extensively over the years from 2009 – 2012. Its current departing editor, Marni Cordell, with whom I worked when she edited another great Australian site, New Matilda, has written a revealing article that interviews previous Crikey editors and their experiences. It contains this anecdote that proves once again that being critical about Israel/Palestine is full of political and financial risks:
Misha Ketchell (2005-2006) says he felt sick “pretty much every morning” as Crikey ed. “I don’t miss the sheer terror of being on that tight morning deadline, or coming home at the end of the day a shell of a human being. I’ve never since worked under the same sort of compressed time pressure that we did at Crikey in those early days.”
One of the most awkward, however, was “probably when I published a poem that Guy Rundle wrote as a tribute to Antony Loewenstein, called ‘Ballad of the self-hating Jew’.
“When the poem arrived I realised it was genuinely affectionate tribute to Loewenstein, but it was riffing in a typical Rundle edgy way and I was worried that some people might not get the satire and think it was anti-Semitic,” he says.
“I rang Antony and asked him to vet the poem. He liked it and said we should publish it, so we did. Then the calls started to come in accusing us of anti-Semitism. Some very important advertisers pulled their advertising. Eric Beecher was great about it — he never said a word — but I knew it hurt Crikey commercially.”
For the record, I still like the poem so here it is (this will make most sense for people living in Australia):
by Guy Rundle (for Antony Loewenstein):
He was trucking down Carlisle St
With a bagel in his hand
Someone said to someone
Who is that awful man?
Him? Oh my dear I thought you knew
That’s the neurotic, self-hating Jew
He thinks it’s not impossible
That Israel is in error
And even if you’re airborne
Terror is still terror
Mass killing might be wrong!
Gosh even torture too?
Yes, amazingly, cos he’s a neurotic quite
psychotic, self-hating Jew
He believes peaceful neighbours
Can’t be built from rubble
And it’s possible that Begin
Was Arafat sans stubble
That Dershowitz is crazy
And Danby might be too
He’s a neurotic, psychotic, ingrate
third rate, self-hating Jew
He’s pretty sure that AIJACS
Will get a surface clean
(sotto voce: Gaza for example)
But you shouldn’t inhale it,
If you know what I mean
He disagrees with Leibler (gasps)
So alas it must be true
He’s a third rate, ingrate, simple inexplicable,
Utterly despicable, neurotic, quite psychotic, blue meanie party pooping self-hating Jew
He thinks that Eretz Israel
Needs someone to restrain her
Says he likes chopped liver
But not if it’s called “Qana”
He’s a yarmulke-wearing mullah
And once we’ve whacked Hezbollah
(any day now)
We’ll settle his hash too
Ingrate third rate, neurotic, quite psychotic
Vanunu in a muu-muu, self-hating Jew.
One of Israel’s biggest newspapers staged the country’s first national conference against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement this week in Jerusalem. Yedioth Ahronoth and its website Ynet organized a day-long event that featured the majority of leading Israeli politicians and many cultural figures. Fear, paranoia, anger and determination was ubiquitous amongst the panelists and audience. BDS could never have imagined a more high-profile advertisement for its agenda.
Co-sponsored by Sodastream, World Jewish Congress, Bank Hapoalim and StandWithUs, who are organizing their own anti-BDS event in Los Angeles in April, the aim of the day was to counter the worldwide growth of BDS. The organizers stated that, “without knives or missiles but with an explosive payload consisting of outrageous lies – genocide, apartheid and crimes against humanity – the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is conquering a growing number of strongholds in Europe, the United States and elsewhere. From the campuses of California to the supermarkets of Paris, the academic, economic and cultural boycott is becoming a palpable threat to the international status of the State of Israel.”
Held in the Jerusalem Convention Center, hundreds of young and old participants from across the globe were treated to a collection of images in the foyer mocking the intentions of BDS supporters. One picture featured two black Africans standing on dry land while pro-Palestinian flotillas headed out to sea in the opposite direction. “Let’s wave these, maybe we’ll get some support, too”, one of the impoverished looking Africans said to the other while holding Palestinian flags. Another image showed an Israeli soldier saying to what was presumably a Palestinian woman, “Ho, cute baby.” A man sitting in a director’s chair labelled BDS shouts, “Cut! We need more hatred! The world won’t buy that!”
The professionally organized conference was slick. Throughout the day, short videos with ominous music were shown to the crowd. The clips were of BDS supporters, BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti (a name repeatedly mentioned during the day, including threats to remove his permanent resident status), global protests against Israel and musicians who refuse to play in the Jewish state.
Speaker after speaker either confirmed the BDS threat or said it shouldn’t be exaggerated. There was confusion how to tackle a problem that couldn’t be destroyed by conventional military means. Yedioth Ahronoth Editor-in-Chief Ron Yaron said that BDS should not be underestimated. There was a “feeling that you have been marked…We don’t want to wake up in 10 years to find ourselves in a position like apartheid South Africa.” He quickly dismissed any comparison between the two nations.
An “information kit for Israelis studying abroad” was available listing the “lies” and “truth” about Israel. It’s a curious document. While acknowledging that, “not every closing of every store in Hebron is fair and not every delay at every checkpoint is justifiable”, occupation (though this word isn’t used) is still sugar-coated. “In spite of the obvious improvements in the lives of Palestinians from 1967 until today, Israeli rule has also created serious issues for Palestinians.” The 1948 Nakba is explained away as “there were some instances of expulsions [but] these were not the rule.”
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, hailed as a moderate in some of the American media despite recently meeting with members of Lev HaOlam (a group dedicated to supporting businesses in the occupied West Bank), condemned BDS. “The BDS movement is a movement founded on the non-acceptance of Israel’s existence”, he said. “We must differentiate between criticism and de-legitimization. We must show the world the claims of the BDS movement are based on hatred and enmity of the State of Israel.” Rivlin praised Israel’s democratic nature and “one of the most ethical armies in the world”. He closed his remarks by saying that, “the Israeli flag should be held high and we should be proud”. The crowd cheered.
Ron Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, told the gathering that, “our enemies have failed to destroy Israel militarily and economically. Having failed, they are trying to destroy Israel politically.” He accused “well-financed anti-Israel groups” of poisoning the minds of Jews on US campuses. “Most Jewish students are ill-equipped to defend themselves”, he argued. The irony was lost on the crowd that the US Zionist community has already spent tens of millions of dollars trying to polish Israel’s image with little discernable effect. There’s no evidence that BDS groups have received any comparable financial backing.
Lauder pledged to push the US Congress and other nations “to make economic boycotts illegal.” There are signs that the US Congress is taking note and pushing to criminalize constitutionally protected speech and non-violent resistance. France is leading the way with other countries likely to follow. Such legislation guarantees BDS activists will break the law and challenge its moral and legal basis.
Successive politicians slammed BDS and never mentioned the occupation (a word that only appeared during the day when questioning BDS allegations against Israel). Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan linked BDS to jihadism and Islamist terrorism, a connection repeatedly made across every panel. “Supporters of BDS justify their actions because of the ‘occupation,’ but if we really look at them, they also wave Hamas flags and call for the destruction of the State of Israel. This fight is not over any particular thing in our lives – but over our right to live here.” Erdan was pleased that every US Presidential candidate spoke out against BDS at the recent AIPAC conference in Washington DC. “Not Bernie Sanders”, he said, “but I’m sure he’ll be against it, too…With the help of God and you all, we will succeed.” Erdan recently claimed that BDS was a threat “to the international community” as well as Israel.
Haaretz journalist and commentator Gideon Levy has written for years that the majority of the Israeli media are mouthpieces for the government of the day. They may disagree with certain policies now and then but in the end they’ll side with Israel’s pro-occupation regime. The anti-BDS conference offered more evidence to prove Levy’s point. Yedioth Ahronoth columnist Ben Dror Yemini praised Israel’s democracy and relished “exposing” critics “who publish lies”. Another Yedioth reporter, Ronen Bergman, after recounting one of his Israeli intelligence sources “recently telling me that we can fight Hizbollah, Iran and its nukes but we haven’t yet defeated BDS; it’s a strategic challenge for the Israeli state”, asked whether “we defeat BDS like we did Hamas and Islamic Jihad 15 years ago [during a wave of suicide bombings]?”
One of the more predictably disappointing speakers was EU Ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, who was recently defamed in a video by Israeli settlers comparing him to Hannibal Lector. After refusing pro-Palestinian activists request to withdraw from appearing on stage with Dani Dayan, former head of the settler movement and just appointed Israeli consul-general in New York, his comments were timid. After stating that EU policy towards the settlements was that they were illegal, he continued: “Our policy is engagement with Israel. We are Israel’s largest trade partner, and we are Israel’s most important international partner in science, technology, and the list goes on.”
He was asked if an Israeli company had offices or factories in both Israel and the occupied territories was reason to label its product from the settlements (as is now happening in the EU with products from the West Bank). He said no. “Settlement products are welcome on the EU market”, he stated, undermining any effort to hold Israeli companies to account.
A flurry of Israeli politicians appeared, mouthed anti-BDS platitudes and left the building. Labor Opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog, who recently proposed a policy of forcibly separating from the Palestinians, praised the IDF as “working to the highest goals” and compared BDS to classic anti-Semitism. Yair Lapid hoped to “motivate the start-up nation”.
Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon said there was “no evidence that the Israeli economy was affected” by BDS though pledged to help any Israeli company that was. Israeli farmer Bar Heffetz recently wrote on Facebook that BDS was having an effect on sales to Europe. Kahlon said that Palestinians were the ones suffering the most from BDS “as the boycott harms the exports from the settlements, where most of the workers are Palestinians.” Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said it was fashionable to “be vegan and hate on Israel” and wanted Israel to “change its policies [and] support the IDF as a moral and strong army.” Education Minister Naftali Bennett wanted Israel to “change the narrative and highlight our strong points. Trade with Europe is up and Israel is a steady light tower in an Arab storm.”
Challenging the official position that BDS wasn’t harming the Israeli economy, a panel with Israel’s leading industrialists argued otherwise. Former Intel Israeli President Shmuel Eden said that BDS was a “terrible threat” and “we are losing young, Jewish Americans”. Michael Jonas, CEO of Afek Oil and Gas, accused BDS of “terror” and expressed displeasure that many Arab states didn’t recognize its drilling in the occupied Golan Heights. Daniel Birnbaum, CEO of Sodastream, said Israel was in a “war” and denied that his company’s recent move to open a new plant in the Negev had any connection to BDS pressure (a contrary position to what he argued last year). “We needed a bigger plant and in the Negev, one hour from Ramallah, gives Palestinians work. This isn’t an apartheid state; we need co-existence.” Ofra Strauss, chairperson of the Strauss Group, urged more publicity about US and Israeli ties. “I grow in pride when people around the world drink Sodastream”, she said.
A sign of the anti-BDS campaign’s desperation was asking American actress and comedian Roseanne Barr to give the keynote address. She has a history of defaming Islam. Her talk rambled between accusing BDS of being “fascist” and “right-wing” and denying Israel was occupying any Palestinian territory at all (a position shared by virtually all of the day’s speakers). The crowd cheered throughout her talk. “It’s a huge turn-on being in service as a Jew”, she said to applause.
A panel dedicated to “beating the boycott movement on social media” consisted of mostly StandWithUs employees. “Strategic consultant” Chen Mazig, self-described “good friend” of Roseanne Barr, called prominent Palestinian writer and tweeter Ali Abunimah “a raving fanatic, a lunatic. He hates Jews”. Honest Reporting CEO Joe Hyams wanted the audience to “focus on the 85%-90% of people [online] who are undecided about Israel”. His organization routinely publishes propaganda for the IDF.
By late afternoon, and the program running overtime, US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, repeated US talking points about Israel and vigorously opposed BDS. Interestingly, he urged Israel to resume peace talks with the Palestinians because, “when we have such a tool, our hand is strengthened, not with the core advocates of BDS, who have a truly anti-Israel agenda independent of the conflict, but with those who are persuadable, and there are significant numbers of such people.” It was a theme repeated by Tzipi Livni earlier in the day. BDS would apparently suffer if at least the illusion of peace talks took place.
Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, a hard-right politician who has called all Palestinian people the “enemy”, said that “justice ministers around the world are great friends of Israel. They all love Israel and want to cooperate with it, especially in light of Israel’s experience in the war against terrorism.” She’s right; this co-operation is deepening and will likely continue to do so after more attacks like the ones recently suffered in Europe.
By day’s end, with all the fish, chicken, salad and marzipan chocolate eaten, the final session was about the cultural boycott of Israel and how to beat it. Actress Yael Abecassis said that she was a “spokesperson [for Israel] as soon as I leave the house, when I leave the country. We are all soldiers.” Musician Idan Raichel said that BDS activists had never successfully cancelled his performances. Producer Shuki Weiss, who revealed that Elton John was asked to sign an Israeli loyalty pledge before his show in Tel Aviv, said that few international musicians were listening to the BDS call by former Pink Floyd member Roger Waters.
It was a surreal day, filled with determination to defeat BDS, but participants were seemingly incapable of truly understanding why the movement was surging globally. Anti-Semitism was the oft-stated reason. The current mood in Jewish Israel is nationalistic, belligerent, fearful and contemptuous of Palestinians, pro-military and intolerant of dissent. International media is being blamed for Israel’s poor global standing.
BDS is working. Israeli companies are increasingly moving out of the West Bank to avoid being boycotted (though corporate media outlets like the Financial Times continue to produce plush spreads about the “start-up nation”). In many ways, the West Bank and Israel are already indivisible politically and morally; it’s one state with Jews and Arabs facing different rights and laws. Israel proper is complicit in establishing and deepening the West Bank colonies. De-facto annexation of the West Bank is happening today. Gaza remains broken.
The fact that this anti-BDS event happened at all, after years of Zionist groups and the Israeli government claiming the movement was irrelevant, was a clear sign that BDS has started to bite. Mossad is already pushing a cyberwar against BDS activists. The anti-BDS conference revealed that there are few strategies being contemplated apart from more money for US campuses to spread Israeli propaganda and funds to better sell the country’s supposed benefits to an increasingly skeptical world.
There’s no doubt that draconian legislation against BDS could hamper the movement’s rise in the short term, and BDS leaders could be targeted by political, social or military means, but the underlying trajectory of Israel is clear. The US and its allies are now supporting the “first signs of fascism in Israel”, Gideon Levy recently said. BDS will continue to grow globally because Israel is helping its cause on a daily basis.
Yesterday I was interviewed by ABC Radio Adelaide from Australia by host Peter Goers on Israel/Palestine, disaster capitalism and Papua New Guinea:
In 2012 I co-edited a collection with Ahmed Moor called After Zionism: One State for Israel and Palestine. The issues within it have continued to become more relevant as the two-state “solution” is increasingly viewed as unworkable and unethical.
A long essay in the New Left Review by Perry Anderson discusses the necessity of one-state for long-term peace:
From the beginning, no-one saw more clearly the nature of the Oslo Accords than Edward Said. Before his death he started to speak of a bi-national state, not as a programme but as a regulative idea—the only long-term prospect for peace in Palestine, however utopian it might seem in the short-run. In the decade and a half since, the number of voices making the same proposal, at greater length and with much greater specification, has multiplied. What in the inter-war period was a minority line of thinking in the Yishuv, extinguished in 1948, has become a significant strand in Palestinian opinion, with some echoes in Israel. The expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the construction of the Separation Wall, the insulation of Gaza, the scission between Fatah and Hamas, the futility of Arab representation within Israel, have leached credibility, however weak, from the Road Map. Some months into the Second Intifada, the first incisive argument by a Palestinian for a one-state solution appeared in early December 2001, in an article by Lama Abu-Odeh in the Boston Review—to this day, one of the most lucid and eloquent statements of the case. In the summer of 2002 it was succeeded by a powerful and more pointedly political piece from Ghada Karmi in the Lebanese journal Al-Adab. Three years later, the first book-length advocacy came with The One-State Solution from the American scholar Virginia Tilley, further developed in an effective rejoinder to a left-wing critic from Israel.
Thereafter the dikes opened. In 2006 appeared the Palestinian-American Ali Abunimah’s One Country, in grace of style and inspiration of outlook the single book closest to Said’s own work. In 2007 Joel Kovel published a blistering attack on the conventions of Jewish nationalism in Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine. In 2008 Said’s nephew Saree Makdisi produced what remains the best documented, most moving of all reports on the condition of the Occupied Territories, Palestine Inside Out, which ends with its own case for a single state. In 2012 two works by Israelis and a third with Israeli and Palestinian contributors appeared within a few months of each other: The One-State Condition by Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir, Beyond the Two-State Solution by Yehouda Shenhav and After Zionism: One State for Israel and Palestine, edited by Anthony Loewenstein and Ahmed Moor. In 2013, Rashid Khalidi’s Brokers of Deceit called for the self-dissolution of the Palestinian Authority and shift to a struggle for full democratic rights in a single state, while the volume edited by Hani Faris, The Failure of the Two-State Solution, brought together the most comprehensive set of reflections and proposals on a one-state agenda to date, from some twenty contributors. Ripostes to this literature have not been slow in coming, from both Israeli and Palestinian sides. In 2009, Benny Morris produced One State, Two States, Hussein Ibish What’s Wrong with the One-State Agenda?; in 2012, Asher Susser Israel, Jordan and Palestine: The Two-State Imperative; in 2014, a group of Israeli and Palestinian insiders collaborated on One Land, Two States, under Swedish guidance. A new intellectual landscape has begun to emerge, one in which Olmert himself could warn of the dangers to Israel of increased discussion of a single state in the Promised Land.
The forms envisaged for such a state vary across the literature proposing it, from a unitary democracy with equal civil and political rights for all, to a bi-national federation along Belgian lines, to a confederation of ethnic cantons. But the general case they make rests on a set of common observations and arguments. Across the West Bank, not to speak of East Jerusalem, the grid of Jewish logistics and pattern of Jewish settlements have sunk too deep to be reversible: Israeli expansion has effectively destroyed the possibility of a second state nested within Zion. If it were ever to take shape, the second state offered Palestinians since Oslo could only be a dependency of the first, lacking geographical contiguity, economic viability or the rudiments of genuine political sovereignty: not an independent structure, but an outhouse of Israel. But since even the delivery of that is perpetually postponed, it would be better to turn the tables on the oppressor, and demand a single state in which at least there would be demographic parity between the two. As a political banner under which to fight, civil rights—so the argument goes—have a more powerful international appeal than national liberation. If Israel is impregnable to ethnic attack, it is vulnerable to democratic pressure.