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Professor Robert Wistrich - Reconstructing the Myth of Zionist Racism


It seems to me that in every generation since at least the 1930s, there has been one cause which has become a moral and a political litmus test, particularly for people who define themselves as progressive. In the 1930’s we could say that cause was Spain. In the 1960’s and early 70’s, for many it was Vietnam. In the 1970’s and 1980’s it was South Africa, and today, unfortunately for us, it is Israel. And worse than that, Israel is considered for people in the so-called “progressive camp” as the South Africa of today; and so I want to confine my remarks this morning, which will be brief, to this question of the “South Africanization” of Israel and the dangers that it contains, strategically and in other ways, and what perhaps we might be able to do about it.


And I want to give an example that I myself experienced very recently. I was in London several weeks ago, and at the School of Oriental and African Studies there was a conference held under the title: “Resisting Israeli Apartheid”. The keynote speaker was an Oxford University Professor of Poetry, a well-known favorite of the BBC, Tom Pollen. His lecture was entitled “Partition and Literature”. Tom Pollen, you may remember, distinguished himself approximately two years ago in an interview with Al Ahram, when he spoke about the Jewish settlers in the West Bank who should be shot because they are Nazis and racists and he feels nothing but hatred for them.


At this conference the discussions were not only theoretical but very operational, I would say. What they were discussing was how to isolate Israel financially. In other words, disinvestment, sanctions, boycott, intellectual isolation, apartheid’s scope and principles. And there were lectures about the boycott, such as: “Resistance - The Moral Dimension”. One of the most striking aspects of the Suez Conference was the presence of Israelis, of Jews, and ex-Israelis. For example, there was Uri Schlonski, who spoke about resisting apartheid and the charge of anti-Semitism; there was an Israeli who now teaches at the University of East London, called Chaim Breshit, who spoke about organizing the academics’ duty to expose Israel, the extrajudicial pariah state. And if I may quote from something said by this lecturer: “There is no valid comparison between South Africa and Israel. Israel is much worse. South Africa exploited its native population while Israel expelled and committed genocide against its native population”.


What we have to realize is that today this perception of Israel as the apartheid state is extremely widespread, not only on the fringes but in the mainstream of much of Western and particularly European opinion, but also on the American campuses as allusion has already been made to today. There is a whole range of so-called experts on this question of demonstrating how Israel is the South Africa of today.


I think the situation was already developing 20 to 30 years ago. I myself warned about it, wrote against it, but unfortunately very little has been done in terms of countering the intellectual and moral basis of such comparisons, so that almost by default this extremely prejudicial and even pernicious analogy has taken root, in the media, among political parties, in the churches, among intellectuals, and especially academics in the West. And the consequence is that Israel is tarred with what I think is the supremely injurious label of racism. Racism is considered, ever since the Nazi holocaust, as being the kind of original sin of mankind. And we have to ask ourselves, how is it that the state of Israel, that the intelligentsia of this country, the academy, the media, responsible people, have not paid more attention, have not mobilized themselves in a coherent way in order to counter something which perhaps more than any other single comparison tends to place Israel outside of the family of civilized nations.


And as I say, this argument of the South Africanization of Israel, which has been building up for the last 30 years, has consequences. The movement for boycott, particularly academic boycott of Israel, which has grown steadily in the last couple of years, has focused very much on the political and moral dimensions. The example of South Africa -the successful isolation of South Africa, the bringing down of the apartheid regime- is taken as a model for what needs to be done in the international community in order to completely delegitimize, to isolate and ultimately to bring about the demise of the Jewish state.


Now, I think one of the great problems is that to this day it has not been fully realized, in Israel and even in the Diaspora, that we are engaged in a war of ideas, which in a sense we have lost by default. The Palestinian case has been made successfully over time because a great deal of energy and intellectual resources have been devoted to exposing all the weak points in the Zionist case, while we have, in a sense, not only not answered -and it is perfectly possible to answer convincingly these false analogies- but we have not presented our own narrative.


It’s as if there has been a fundamental loss of confidence when it comes to presenting Israel’s case. It’s only very recently that we see signs of some kind of an awakening in this question. But we also need to go on the offensive, we need to counterattack. I ask myself why is it that so few spokesmen or advocates of Israel do not point out the very obvious facts regarding the countries that surround us in the Middle East, the facts that if we are going to discuss questions of racism, the record of the Muslim and Arab world is a singularly appalling one -its treatment of non-Muslims in general, not only of Jews, another point that we have not sufficiently brought out, but also of Christians and of other minorities. It seems to me that a very compelling case could be made regarding those who point the finger, and it is essential that we do this.


And I ask myself why we do not sufficiently bring out the question of Jihadism and militant Islamism as a danger, not only of course to Israel and to the Jewish people but as a threat to civilization as a whole. Of course this case is being made more now, since 9/11, and in the Diaspora it is being made to a certain degree, but when it comes to exposing the weaknesses of our own enemies, then I feel that this has been a major failing.


We also have to show the positive side of Israel in encountering such libels, falsehoods, half-truths and innuendos about Israel. Very few people in the outside world today, as a result of the reporting in the media, are aware of Israel as a force on the cutting edge of science and technology, the breakthroughs in medicine, things that we know about but we do not successful project to the outside world. Very positive aspects which are buried and submerged, not only by the fight of propaganda but by the fact that Israel always appears in the news as a country that is involved in conflict, in bloodshed and in war. And these are precisely the strengths, the achievements, the advantages that we need to emphasize, particularly in respect to our Arab adversaries.


One final example to illustrate a problem, perhaps the toughest of all: the role of Israelis and Jews that I emphasized before. Not long ago I saw an article in the Guardian which was reproduced from Ha’aretz, an article by Meron Benbenisty. Its title was: “Bantustan Plan for an Apartheid Israel”, and basically it presented the disengagement plan as a Bantustan model for Gaza to be added to the Bantustan models in the West Bank – Jenin, Nablus, Bethlehem, Hebron and Ramallah. With friends like that, of course we don’t need enemies. So the most difficult problem of all, perhaps, that we have to face is how do we deal intellectually, and of course that is the only way that we can do so, with dismantling the arguments of those from within who are constantly quoted in order to defame and de-legitimize the Jewish state. Thank you.










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