There are surely millions of us, invisible to each other, enraged and powerless as we watch the massacre of Gaza and listen to our media describe it as a “retaliation against terrorism”, “Israel’s right to defend itself”. We have reached a point where answering the Zionist arguments is both useless and unworthy of humanity. So long as it is recognized that the shells landing on Ashkelon are likely to have been fired by descendants of the inhabitants of that region who were driven out by the Zionists in 1948, talk of peace is a smoke screen for continued Israeli assault on the survivors of that great injustice.
What then is to be done? Yet another dialogue between “moderate” Arabs and “progressive” Israelis? An umpteenth “peace plan” to be ignored? A solemn declaration from the European Union?
All such mainstream gestures are mere distractions from the ongoing strangling of the Palestinian people. But more radical demands are just as futile. The call to create an international tribunal to judge Israeli war criminals, or for an effective intervention by the United Nations or the European Union will accomplish nothing. The real existing international tribunals reflect the relationship of forces in the world, and will never be used against the cherished allies of the United States. It is the relationship of forces itself that must be changed, and this can be done only gradually. It is true that Gaza is a dire emergency, but it is also true that nothing really effective can be done today to stop it, precisely because the patient political work that should have been done before still remains to be undertaken.
On the three modest proposals that follow, two are ideological and one is practical.
1. Get rid of the illusion that Israel is “useful” to the West.
Many people, especially on the left, persist in thinking that Israel is only a pawn in an American capitalist or imperialist strategy to control the Middle East. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Israel is of no use to anybody or anything but its own fantasies of domination. There is no petroleum in Israel, or Lebanon, or Golan, or Gaza. The so-called wars for oil, in 1991 and 2003, were waged by the United States, with no help from Israel, and in 1991 with the explicit demand from the United States that Israel stay out (because Israel’s participation would have undermined Washington’s Arab coalition). For the pro-Western petro-monarchies and the “moderate” Arab regimes, Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands is a nightmare, which radicalizes much of their populations and threatens their rule. It is Israel, by its absurd policies, that provoked the creation of both Hezbollah and Hamas and that is indirectly responsible for much of the recent growth of “radical Islam”.
Moreover, the plain fact is that capitalists as a whole make more money in peace than in war. It is enough to compare the profits made by Western capitalists in China or Vietnam since making peace with those countries, compared to the past, when “Red China” was isolated and the US waged war against Vietnam. The majority of capitalists could not care less which “people” must have Jerusalem as its “eternal capital”, and if peace were achieved, they would hasten into the West Bank and Gaza to exploit a qualified work force with few other opportunities.
Finally, any American citizen concerned with the influence of his or her country in the world can see quite clearly that making enemies of a billion Muslims in order to satisfy every murderous whim of Israel is scarcely a rational investment in the future.
Those who consider themselves Marxists are among the first to see in Israel a simple emanation of such general phenomena as capitalism or imperialism (Marx himself was much more cautious on the matter of economic reductionism). But it does no service to the Palestinian people to maintain such fictions – in reality, like it or not, the capitalist system is far too robust to stake its survival on the Jewish occupation of the West Bank, and capitalism has been doing just fine in South Africa since the end of Apartheid.
2. Allow non-Jews to speak their mind about Israel
If support for Israel is not based on economic or strategic interests, why do the political class and the media passively accept whatever Israel does? Many ordinary people may feel unconcerned by what happens in a faraway country. But this does not apply to the West’s leading opinion makers, who never cease criticizing what is wrong with the policies of Venezuela, Cuba, Sudan, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, Islam, Serbia, Russia or China. Even unproved rumors and gross exaggerations are repeated with insistence. Only Israel must be treated with kid gloves.
One explanation offered for this special treatment is Western “guilt” for past anti-Semitic persecutions, in particular the horrors inflicted on Jews during the Second World War. It is sometimes pointed out that the Palestinians are in no way responsible for those horrors and should not have to pay the price for crimes committed by others. That is true, but what is almost never said and which is obvious nevertheless, is that the overwhelming majority of French people, Germans or Catholic priests today are just as innocent of what happened during the war as the Palestinians, for the simple reason that they were either born after the war or were children at the time. The notion of collective guilt was already very questionable in 1945, but the idea of transmitting that collective guilt to subsequent generations is quite simply a religious notion. Even if it is said that the Holocaust should not justify Israeli policy, it is striking that the populations who are supposed to feel guilty for what happened (the Germans, the French and the Catholics) are most reticent to speak out.
It is strange that at the very time the Catholic Church renounced the notion of Jews as the people who killed Christ, the notion of the almost universal guilt for killing the Jews began to take over. The discourse on universal guilt for the Holocaust is like religious discourse in general in the way it legitimizes hypocrisy, by shifting responsibility from the real to the imaginary (on the model of “original sin” itself). We are all supposed to feel guilty for crimes committed in the past about which, by definition, we can do nothing. But we need not feel guilty or responsible for crimes being committed right before our eyes by our Israeli or American allies, whom we can hope to influence.
The fact that we are not all guilty of the crimes of the Third Reich is simple and obvious, but needs to be driven home to allow non-Jews to speak up freely about Palestine. As it is, non-Jews who often feel they must leave it to Jews, as the only people who have the “right” to criticize Israel, to defend the Palestinians. But given the relationship of forces between the Jewish critics of Israel, and the influential Zionist organizations claiming to speak for the Jewish people, there is no realistic hope that Jewish voices alone can save the Palestinians.
However, the main reason for the silence is surely not guilt precisely because it is so artificial, but rather fear. Fear of “what will they think”, fear of slander and even of being taken to court for “anti-Semitism”. If you are not convinced, take a journalist, a politician or a publisher to some spot where nobody is listening and there is no hidden camera or microphone, and ask whether he or she says in public all he or she thinks of Israel in private. And if not, why? Fear of hurting the interests of capitalism? Fear of weakening American imperialism? Fear of interrupting oil deliveries? Or, on the contrary, fear of Zionist organizations and their relentless campaigns?
We have little doubt, after dozens of discussions with such people that the last answer given above is the correct one. People do not say what they think of what calls itself the “Jewish State” for fear of being called anti-Jewish and being identified with the anti-Semites of the past. This sentiment is all the stronger inasmuch as most people who are shocked by Israeli policy are genuinely horrified by what was done to the Jews during the Second World War and are sincerely outraged by anti-Semitism. If one stops to think about it, it is clear that if there existed today, as was the case before 1940, openly anti-Semitic political movements, they would not be so intimidated. But today, not even the French National Front says it is anti-Semitic and whoever criticizes Israel usually starts by denying being anti-Semitic. The fear of being accused of anti-Semitism is deeper than fear of the Zionist lobby, it is fear of losing the respectability that goes with condemnation of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust as the highest contemporary moral value.
It is imperative to free criticism of Israel from the fear of being falsely accused of “anti-Semitism”. The threat of this accusation is an insidious form of moral blackmail that perhaps constitutes the only real potential source of a widespread revival of anti-Jewish resentment.
3. The practical initiatives are summed up in three letters : BDS- Boycott, disinvestment, sanctions
The demand for sanctions is taken up by most pro-Palestinian organizations, but since such measures are the prerogative of states, it is clear that this will not happen soon. Disinvestment measures can be taken by trade unions and churches, on the decision of their members. Other enterprises that collaborate closely with Israel will not change their policy unless they are under public pressure, that is, boycotts. This brings us to the controversial issue of boycotts, not only of Israeli products but also of Israel’s cultural and academic institutions.
This tactic was used against apartheid in South Africa in a very similar situation. Both apartheid and the dispossession of the Palestinians are a late heritage of European colonialism, whose practitioners have a hard time realizing that such forms of domination are no longer acceptable to the world in general and even to public opinion in the West. The racist ideologies underlying both projects are an outrage to the majority of humanity and gives rise to endless hatreds and conflicts. One might even say that Israel is another South Africa, plus exploitation of “the Holocaust” as an excuse.
Any boycott is apt to have innocent victims. In particular, it is said that boycotting Israeli academic institutions would unjustly punish intellectuals who are for peace. Perhaps, but Israel itself readily admits that there are innocent victims in Gaza, whose innocence in no way prevents them from being killed. We do not propose killing anyone. A boycott is a perfectly non-violent act by citizens. It is comparable to conscientious objection or civil disobedience in the face of unjust power. Israel flouts all UN resolutions and our own governments, far from taking measures to oblige Israel to comply, merely reinforce their ties with Israel. We have the right, as citizens, to demand that our own governments respect international law.
What is important about sanctions, especially on the cultural level, is their symbolic value. It is a way of telling our governments that we do not accept their policy of collaboration with a state that has chosen to become an international outlaw.
Some object to a boycott on the grounds that it is opposed by both some progressive Israelis and a certain number of “moderate” Palestinians (but not Palestinian civil society as a whole). But the main question for us is not what they say, but what foreign policy we want for our own countries. The Israeli-Arab conflict is far from being a mere local quarrel and has attained a worldwide significance. It involves the basic issue of respect for international law. A boycott should be defended as a means to protest to our governments in order to force them to change their policy. We have the right to want to be able to travel without shame in the rest of the world. That is reason enough to encourage a boycott.
(A french version of this text is in preparation).
Jean Bricmont teaches physics in Belgium and is a member of the Brussels Tribunal. His book, Humanitarian Imperialism, is published by Monthly Review Press. He can be reached at Jean.Bricmont@uclouvain.be.
Diana Johnstone is the author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, Nato, and Western Delusions published by Monthly Review Press. She can be reached at: email@example.com