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The Tempest Over the Hamas Charter

The Hamas charter has been the subject of fairly extensive media coverage in recent weeks. A number of newspaper pieces have argued that the charter is unapologetically racist; some have gone even further.

A piece by Daniel Goldhagen in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times argues, for example, that the charter expresses Hamas’ intent to embark on a genocidal program against Israeli Jews. Of course, in literally comparing Hamas to the Nazis, Goldhagen makes it sound as though there’s some titanic military-industrial power standing behind Hamas’s sloganeering, and as though Palestine’s awesome military might—its legions of soldiers, armored and mechanized infantry divisions, flotillas of bombers, and perhaps even a fleet of some kind—stands ready to rain ruin and devastation down on an innocent and practically defenseless Israel.

It’s difficult to determine whether to read a piece like Goldhagen’s as ruthlessly cynical or naïvely childlike (does he really think that Hamas or the Palestinians in general are in a position to embark on a genocidal campaign against the Israelis, even if that’s what they really want, which is at best a doubtful proposition?). Perhaps it’s some strange combination of the two. In any event, it’s certainly an expression of gross ignorance and greatly exaggerated overstatement—and there’s plenty of both around in the US these days when it comes to Hamas, which is why, although Goldhagen’s piece may be particularly lurid in its depiction of Hamas, it’s not entirely unrepresentative of a larger set of trends.

Now, there can be no doubt that the Hamas charter is not only xenophobic, sectarian, and racist, but also ill-conceived, inaccurate, retrograde, and intellectually vacuous.
Nevertheless, the obsessive attention being paid to this document in the US in recent weeks forces one to ask not merely what purposes such an obsession serves, but also what equally (or even more) important issues it elides or covers up.

First, one has to marvel at the interest being paid to the racism of the Hamas charter, given the extraordinary lack of interest here in Israel’s own racism, which is executed not merely on paper and in theory but actually, practically, materially.

Israel’s Basic Laws, for example, discriminate between Jews and non-Jews in ways that many of those Americans who object most loudly to the mixture of religion and politics strangely don’t seem to find objectionable.
And Israel’s unique existence as a country that expressly claims to be not the state of its actual citizens but rather of a globally dispersed people manifestly privileges the (non-Israeli) Jews of New York and Chicago over Israel’s actually existing non-Jewish citizens. Although they amount to some twenty percent of the state’s population, the latter are literally written into second class status by virtue of their non-Jewishness in what loudly proclaims itself to be the Jewish state.

Members of this Palestinian minority are stigmatized for their non-Jewishness not because they willfully chose to live in a Jewish state that pre-existed them. Rather, they are the remnant of the bulk of Palestine’s original non-Jewish population, which was terrorized from its land and homes before, during and after the creation of Israel in 1948. Their expulsion was expressly called for as early as the 1930s by Israel’s founding fathers precisely in order for Israel to become a Jewish state in the first place. “A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians,” the Israeli historian Benny Morris points out, echoing the logic of David Ben Gurion; “therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads.”

Israeli planning in the territories that it forcibly occupied in 1967 includes ethnically-defined forms of control that have generated, among other things, the current grotesque situation in Hebron, whose population of some 400 Jewish settlers—nestled in Hebron illegally—absolutely dominates a city of 130,000 indigenous Palestinians. Palestinian Hebron has been driven to the edge of destruction—shops sealed shut, whole neighborhoods evacuated, commerce crippled, families forcibly evicted—in order that a tiny group of fanatics can live out its private religious fantasy.

Moreover, Israeli policy seeks to maintain the population of Jerusalem in a ratio of 72 percent Jews to 28 percent “non-Jews” (i.e., Palestinians). Again, this startlingly racist objective exists not merely on a scrap of paper, but as the actual foundation for policies affecting literally hundreds of thousands of people on a daily basis. It is the foundation for issuing (or denying) building permits and residency documents; for implanting illegal colonies and settlements; for harassing an entire community; for breaking up families; for denying human beings access to the city in which they were born, which happens every time a Palestinian Jerusalemite is barred from entering Jerusalem—in other words, every single day.

How come we hear so much about the toothless Hamas charter (no matter how vile it is), and so little about Israel’s planning in Jerusalem? What do all those people who have so sanctimoniously seized the moral high ground in denouncing the nominal racism of Hamas have to say about the actual racism of Israel? Where are the voices clamoring for withholding US support for Israel because of its relentless violence against an entire people simply because it is not Jewish?

Surely the intelligent approach to the discussion of the Hamas charter is to say that racism is racism, and that both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—not just, and not always, the Palestinians, should be pressured to move beyond racist archaisms that are unworthy of the twenty-first century, and to do so not merely in terms of their rhetoric, but in their actual policies, regulations, politics, and laws.

In the meantime, we would do well to recognize the difference between a racist ideology backed up by little more than thin air, and one backed up by the full force of a nuclear-armed state with the tanks, the planes, and the soldiers to impose its will on another people—as it has chosen to do for decades on end.

SAREE MAKDISI is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UCLA and author of the weblog Speaking Truth to Power. Email: makdisi@humnet.ucla.edu

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Saree Makdisi’s latest book is Palestine Inside Out.

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