A recent call
for a cultural boycott against Israel by John Berger and others has elicited
one of its more wretched responses in the Guardian
(Dec. 22), signed by Anthony Julius and Simon Schama. I confess I haven't heard
of Anthony Julius before – I am told he is a lawyer, and lawyers sometimes bend
truth for their clients. But Simon Schama is a prominent academic, professor
of history at Columbia, a man of science. He should know better.
Who's Singling Out?
A recurrent theme in anti-Palestinian propaganda
(usually misnamed "pro-Israel") is "Don't Single Out." The idea is that evil
should be addressed everywhere; the greater the evil, the greater the protest
against it should be; and since there are worse cases of evil than Israel's,
Israel should not be criticized. Not now, at least: perhaps after all other
evils have been eradicated.
The article by Julius and Schama is no exception: you'll find this cliché
as argument number three:
"[T]hough the call [to boycott Israel] purports to affirm universal,
human rights values, it is incapable of explaining why it seeks a boycott of
Israel, alone among the nations of the world. It says nothing about the abuses
and human rights breaches inflicted on Israel's citizens. It says nothing about
the egregious human rights abuses committed elsewhere in the world (Darfur,
Chechnya, and many other places)."
Let's apply the Don't-Single-Out argument to the writers themselves. If, as
they claim, evils should be addressed top-to-bottom, then Schama and Julius
must either consider the proposed boycott the greatest evil on earth, or else
they have already done their best to address all greater evils.
Is the proposed boycott really the greatest evil on earth? Well, I haven't
heard of a single human injured, killed, or even suffering because of it. But
while Julius and Schama were busy writing their article, Gaza had been under
Israeli siege for months on end. Numbers
of dead reached historic levels; a million and a half human beings have
been locked in the tiny Strip, deprived of proper medical care and on the verge
of starvation. Schama and Julius don't even mention this evil.
At the same time, the U.S. government has been using Julius' and Schama's
tax money to train
and arm one party of the feared Palestinian civil war – coincidentally,
the party that lost the recent democratic elections. Schama and Julius don't
mention this evil, either. But they did find the time to single out the call
for boycott and to write against it. And they do have the nerve to blame the
initiators of the boycott of "singling out," i.e., of hypocrisy.
But – you may argue – perhaps the writers have already addressed all the greater
evils on the globe, so that they can legitimately find time to address the boycott?
Well, I tried to trace Schama's peace activism. Googling "Schama and Israel"
yields just one relevant result: during the last Lebanon war, when Israel was
flattening entire neighborhoods in Beirut, killing
at least 1,140 civilians, 30 percent of them children under 12, Prof. Schama
went out of his way to express this devastating criticism of Israel's atrocities:
"what Israel's doing – bombing city centers – is ultimately not going to
help its own attempt to get rid of a mini-army like Hezbollah," he told
BBC. Bombing city centers, then, is quite fine – the only problem is that
it's not all too helpful. A brave criticism indeed. And so moral, too.
I then Googled "Schama and Darfur": nothing of relevance. "Schama and Chechnya":
nothing at all. (By the way, how about U.S.-controlled Iraq? Or Afghanistan?
Everything fine over there?) But now I have to be careful: perhaps Simon Schama
has been an unrelenting and indefatigable activist for peace and justice in
Palestine, in Darfur, in Chechnya, and in "many other places," as he puts
it. But as far as I can see, his relentless activism hasn't left any trace on
the World Wide Web (where his name yields more than 450,000 results). Perhaps
the public activity of Schama – honored "Commander of the British Empire" –
was done entirely in private.
To dismiss the analogy drawn between Israel and
South African apartheid, Julius and Schama claim that "Palestinian, Druze, and
other minorities in Israel are guaranteed equal rights under the basic laws.
… There are no legal restrictions on movement, employment, or marital relations."
This claim is correct, at least on a layman's level: an informed historian
and a serious law expert should have known that marital relations between partners
of different religions/ethnicities are not possible under Israeli law; but let's
not expect too much. What turns their words into pure demagoguery is that neither
Berger, nor the
boycott initiative, not even the Palestinian
call for boycott mention the status of minorities within Israel as their
motivation for the boycott, or for comparing Israel to South African apartheid.
Julius and Schama know very well why Israel is likened to apartheid South Africa:
not because of minorities within it (discriminated as they are), but because
of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. With this, of course, they cannot
cope. So first they dismiss a claim not claimed, and then move on to distract
from the occupation with a single, counterfeit sentence:
"[T]he relations between Israel and the Palestinians of Gaza and the
West Bank are not governed by Israeli law, but by international law."
That's indeed one of the greatest pearls I have ever read in this context.
I challenge the legal expert and the honorable historian to supply one piece
of evidence for a single aspect of "the relations between Israel and the Palestinians"
– i.e., of the occupation (a term the writers carefully avoid) – which is actually
"governed" by international law. Does international law allow creating
settlements and moving the occupier's population to occupied land? Does
international law allow deporting
occupied persons, individually or en
masse? Does international law allow constructing
the apartheid wall? Does international law allow setting hundreds of checkpoints
and a permit system that makes Palestinian economic and even family life utterly
impossible? Does it allow confiscation
of land and property, as Israel's occupation forces constantly practice?
International law does not allow any of these. Israel does not respect a single
paragraph of international law, which, according to Schama and Julius, "governs"
its relations with the Palestinians.
If a history student claimed, say, that in the 17th-century Dutch Republic
certain relations were "governed" by some legal principle, not bothering to
mention that that legal principle was not accepted by the concerned party, was
not implied, and had no impact on reality whatsoever, I am sure Prof. Schama
would finish him off, rightly dismissing his statement as pure charlatanism.
But when Israel's occupation is at stake, Schama himself readily resorts to
this kind of demagoguery.
One doesn't have to be a professor of history
at Columbia to know that historical analogies are always controversial, simply
because history never really repeats itself. The apartheid analogy has been
under fire, too: e.g., because unlike the blacks in South Africa, the Palestinian
liberation movement struggles for a nation-state and not for a single multi-ethnic
one. I myself agree with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who recently said
that what Israel is doing in the occupied territories is worse
than apartheid; "apartheid" has by now turned into a euphemism. Dismissing
an historical analogy, as Schama and Julius are doing, is always easy.
However, Julius and Schama insist on introducing their own historical analogy:
in an article criticizing the boycott as "banal," they themselves use the
most banal analogy of all, namely that of Hitler's Germany. There's no need
to address this analogy, nor would it have been worth mentioning at all, were
it not for the extremely manipulative manner in which Julius and Schama introduce
it. The nexus between the present boycott initiative to "April 1933" Germany
is fabricated by a single sentence, standing suspiciously alone as an independent
paragraph. It reads:
"This is not the first boycott call directed at Jews."
What a manipulation. Berger's is indeed not the first boycott directed
against Jews: it's not a boycott directed against Jews at all. It is
directed against Israel, not against Jews. Some of its supporters
are Jews, but this doesn't really matter. To discredit the boycott, Julius and
Schama lie about its target, portraying a political boycott as a racist one.
By this manipulation, the writers in fact reaffirm the defamation that "all
the Jews" are culpable and thus responsible for the Israeli occupation.
This is precisely the criminal logic behind indiscriminate terrorism against
innocent Israeli civilians and Jews worldwide.