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October, 2007



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Is Criticism of Israel Anti-Semitic?
Shooting The Messengers
By Mariano Aguirre

One reason that the US government, politicians and people don't have a clear idea of the situation in Israel/Palestine is that any criticism or complaint about Israel, no matter how well-researched and moderate, is swiftly attacked by lobbies in the US as being anti-semitic.
The New York Post editorial on 5 January 2007 read: "How did this man ever become president of the United States?" Readers might have thought this was a crack about President George Bush in a paper owned by Rupert Murdoch. But the editorial went on: "He's gone from failed president to friend of leftwing tyrants and global scold of anything that represents America's legitimate interests"; he wanted to "demonize Israel" and had secretly given "PR and political advice to Yasser Arafat". The Post was damning not Bush, but Jimmy Carter, and it said Democrats should "cut all their ties" to him for "when he flatly condones mass murder, he goes beyond the pale".

Carter was president from 1977 to 1981, but the editorial was reacting violently to his recent publication of Palestine Peace Not Apartheid (1). In it he wrote that if the Israelis continued their repressive policies in Gaza and the West Bank, blocking any possibility of a Palestinian state, the region could move towards South African-style apartheid: "Two peoples occupying the same land but completely separated from each other, with Israelis totally dominant and suppressing violence by depriving Palestinians of their basic human rights" (2). The [Jewish] Anti-Defamation League responded in the media by accusing Carter of anti-semitic views.

Carter insists that he was talking about Palestine, not the situation in Israel, but there has been vociferous reaction in sections of the US Jewish community. Like the Anti-Defamation League, they take any criticism of Israel to be anti-semitic. The protests have succeeded: both the chairman of the Democrats, Howard Dean, and their leader in Congress, Nancy Pelosi, distanced themselves from Carter. In this early pre-election period the affair was unwelcome and pushed them to take a stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The book continues to sell well, though. Henry Siegman, the Jewish American political analyst and director of the US Middle East Project, sees nothing new or problematic in it, and the reactions only reveal "the ignorance of the American political establishment, both Democrat and Republican, on the subject of the Israel-Palestine conflict" (3).

Carter is director of the Carter Centre for Conflict Resolution, and he engineered the Israeli-Egyptian agreement on the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Sinai Peninsula before the 1979 Camp David Accords. In the book, he draws on over 30 years of experience in the region and his contacts with its leaders. He explains the background in layman's terms and provides a balanced account of the options proposed for a lasting settlement, including the need for two independent states and solid guarantees for Israel's security. An unprejudiced reading shows that, though critical of Israeli policies, he is not hostile to the state, contrary to the claims of his detractors.

Primary obstacle to peace
Carter believes that the region will be plagued by terrorism as long as the Israelis continue their repression, a scandalous belief during the war on terror. He stresses, "Israel's continued control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land". At the same time he condemns Palestinian terrorism (although not convincingly enough, according to Ethan Bronner in The New York Times on 7 January 2007). He adds that, since the Camp David Accords, successive Israeli governments have been the main obstacles to peace, and points out that the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin was the first to break the parties' commitment, under the accords, to UN resolutions 242 and 338, which stress the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war, and call for the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from the West Bank and Gaza and the recognition of the Palestinian people as a separate political entity, with a right to determine their own future.

In Carter's view, Begin's actions support the suggestion that no concrete offer was ever made to Yasser Arafat about the creation of a Palestinian state during talks at Camp David in July 2001 with prime minister Ehud Barak and US president Bill Clinton; it is wrong to pretend that Arafat was responsible for blocking the negotiations. Clinton's special envoy to the Middle East, Dennis Ross, has berated Carter about this (4) but there is plenty of support for his idea elsewhere (5).

In an interview, Carter said: "There is a general feeling throughout the Arab world, throughout Europe, not even noticed in this country, that our present administration has not given any consideration... to the plight of the Palestinians. And you don't have to be anti-Israel to protect the rights of the Palestinians to have their own land and to live in peace and without being subjugated by an occupying power." Such views may be current in Europe and the Arab world, but they are less frequently heard in the US. Carter accuses the Bush government of abandoning the Palestinians to their fate, and Israel of blocking any possibility of an accord. The refusal of the Bush and Olmert administrations to negotiate with Palestine's Fatah-Hamas coalition in March 2007 proved this.

In response to the attacks on his references to apartheid, Carter explained: "The alternative to peace is apartheid, not inside Israel... but in the West Bank and Gaza and East Jerusalem, the Palestinian territory. And there, apartheid exists in its more despicable forms, Palestinians are deprived of basic human rights." For Carter there are three essentials for peace in the region: guarantees on Israel's security, an end to Palestinian violence, and recognition by Israel of the Palestinians' right to a state in its pre-1967 borders.

Worse than South Africa
Carter said that life in the West Bank can be more oppressive for the Palestinians than it was for South Africa's black population. Israel is becoming less dependent on Palestinian labour, as work-seeking migrants arrive from other countries in the region, while the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank has led to a military presence far more obtrusive than there used to be in South Africa. Israeli settlers have occupied Palestinian land and Israel has introduced sophisticated movement controls to protect them and their settlements.

The former executive director of The New York Times, and ex-South Africa correspondent, Joseph Lelyveld considers (6) that Carter understates the comparison, as he limits it to the separation of the Israeli and Palestinian populations and the confiscation of land by Israel. In Lelyveld's view the problem is far more serious: Israel has annexed proportionally more land than did the racist South African regime. Under apartheid, a complex system of permits controlled how and which class of the population could move about, in much the same manner as Israel now monitors and limits the movement of Palestinians. The Guardian's correspondent in Israel, Chris McGreal, wrote on 6 February 2006: "There are few places in the world where governments construct a web of nationality and residency laws designed for use by one section of the population against another. Apartheid South Africa was one. So is Israel."

Before moving to Israel, McGreal spent 10 years in South Africa. He has compared Israeli repression with that under the apartheid system; he confirms their similarities, in the practices used and their effect in human suffering. Public services provided by the city of Jerusalem are often of higher standard for Israeli citizens than for Arabs living in the annexed part of the city. Following McGreal's articles on these comparisons and the close military relations between the apartheid regime and Israel, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (Camera) accused him of falsehood and defamatory distortion of the facts (7).

Yet the accusation that Tel Aviv is introducing a system comparable to apartheid is heard more and more frequently inside Israel. It is already a reality according to the government's critics, the human rights organizations and the courageous lawyer Daniel Seidemann (who has been using the Israeli legal system to defend Palestinians for years). A number of writers have explored parallel scenarios. Germany's Social Democrat foundation, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, has published three studies examining South Africa's history of negotiation and transition, and its lessons for the Israel-Palestine peace process (8).

Forced expulsion
Exclusion started in 1948 with the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians. It has continued with a policy of harassment, pushing the Palestinian population to abandon its struggle for an independent state, to leave the area or accept relocation in remoter parts of the region as second-class citizens (from this point of view, the withdrawal of the Israelis from Gaza was an operation to enclose the Palestinian population). The Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has produced a documented account (9) of the different institutional and repressive techniques used to displace the Palestinian population and reduce its members to second-class citizens. He goes further than Carter, arguing that if ethnic cleansing can be defined as the forcible expulsion of residents from a region or territory to establish uniformity in an ethnically mixed population, and if the purpose of the expulsion is to evacuate the majority of the residents and secure the resources of the region for those left behind, then Israel has been ethnic cleansing for the past 60 years.

The results have been devastating for the Palestinians, but also for Israel. The US-based Jewish journal Tikkun deplores the eclipse of the Zionists' early vision: the creation of a state as a model of freedom and a home and refuge for the Jewish community worldwide. Instead, Jerome Slater wrote in Tikkun, the Zionist dream has turned to nightmare, "because there is no more dangerous place in the world for the Jews than Israel", and because of the "avoidable, ongoing and ever-worsening sin" of the "inevitable harms done to the Palestinians by the creation of Israel".

Carter's criticisms of Israel and the US are found in greater detail in the writings of Rashid Khalidi, an American of Palestinian origin who has been under attack since the University of Columbia appointed him as Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies in 2003 and director of the university's Middle East Institute. In his latest book, Resurrecting Empire (Beacon Press, Boston, 2004), Khalidi examines the relation between the US imperialist view of the Middle East and the way Tel Aviv and Washington prevent the creation of a Palestinian state. The New York Post accused Khalidi of anti-Semitism in 2004 and insinuated that Arab governments were financing the Edward Said Chair.

Harassment is becoming more frequent on US campuses. Organizations, some of them for students, have been asked to investigate the activities of faculty members accused of anti-Semitism. Boston's David Project Centre for Jewish Leadership produced a film in 2004 in response to complaints by Jewish students from Colombia University that they were under academic and political harassment by professors Joseph Massad and George Saliba (10). The Center's website published over 30 articles criticizing Carter's book. Other websites monitor the activities of human rights organizations and US foundations and denounce what they consider to be any anti-semitic policies or financial support for Palestinian organizations.

The Campus Watch site accuses Khalidi of extremism and regularly organizes demonstrations against what it considers to be anti-Israeli and anti-US discourse in the lecture halls. On one of its pages, created by the right-winger Daniel Pipes, it urges students to supply information on academics. In 2006 there was a rise in tension around academics critical of Israel. There were strong reactions to an article published in London by two specialists in international relations, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (11), on the overriding influence of Jewish pressure groups in the US on its foreign policy in the Middle East; they claimed this had pushed the US into the war in Iraq. A few months later, Tony Judt, British and Jewish, and director of New York's Remarque Institute for European studies, was attacked for "anti-semitic" views; he had maintained that the only solution to the conflict in the Middle East was a single, binational state (12). Judt held pro-Israeli views in his youth and is today regarded as a traitor. In October 2006, the Anti-Defamation League successfully pressed the Polish consulate in New York to cancel a conference Judt was to give on its premises. This caused shock, but Judt was later able to make his point - in Israel's reputable Haaretz newspaper (26 July 2007) - that Israel's future will remain in the balance as long as it continues repression and occupation in Palestine.

Mariano Aguirre is director of Peace, Security and HumanRights at the Madrid think-tank FRIDE (Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior),

(1) Jimmy Carter, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2006).

(2) Interview with Amy Goodman on the programme Democracy Now! (30 November 2006,

(3) Henry Siegman, "Hurricane Carter", The Nation, New York, 22 January 2007,

(4) Dennis Ross, "Don't Play with Maps", The New York Times, 9 January 2007.

(5) See Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, "Camp David: the Tragedy of Errors", The New York Review of Books, 9 August 2001 (; Tanya Reinhart, Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948 (Seven Stories Press, New York, 2002); Alain Gresh, "Camp David's thwarted peace", Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, July 2002.

(6) Joseph Lelyveld, "Jimmy Carter and Apartheid", The New York Review of Books, March 2007,

(7) Camera, 20 February 2006,

(8) Yair Hirschfeld, Avivit Hai, Gary Susman, in Winfried Veit (ed), Learning from South Africa: Lessons to the Israeli-Palestinian Case (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Herzeliya, 2003).

(9) Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 2006).

(10) N R Kleinfield, "Mideast tensions are getting personal on campus at Columbia", The New York Times, 18 January 2005.

(11) John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, "The Israeli Lobby", The London Review of Books, 23 March 2006.

(12) Tony Judt, "Israel: the alternative", The New York Review of Books, 23 October 2003. Translated by Robert Corner


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