I’ll add my 2p to the critics of John Pilger’s latest. Think I’ve probably been too mild, though.
Anybody familiar with the Israel boycott debate will find his New Statesman polemic against Israel unremarkable, except maybe for its comprehensive coverage of nearly all of the anti-Israel themes in currency at the moment. The article is intended to reinforce these and broaden their reach – the boycott campaign will only succeed if it manages to construct Israel as the world’s worst state.
An early rhetorical reference to Elliot Abrams’ Zionism signals to alert readers that if they’re expecting a trustworthy report they’ll be disappointed. Had Pilger merely wished to point out a bias then describing Abrams as a pro-Israel US policy-maker would have been more accurate – but ‘Zionist’ achieves far more than pointing out a bias. Used here it will stigmatise Abrams not just for being pro-Israel but for his ethnicity. It’s a sleight-of-hand which communicates that Elliot Abrams is a Jew. Is he even Jewish? It doesn’t matter – an increment of damage is done. This use of ‘Zionist’ as a dirty word is widespread now, intended to strip Zionism of any positive association and make it a byword for an aggressive, supremacist, cleptomaniac, Jewish supporter of a privileged Jews-only state on stolen Palestinian land. But ‘Zionist’ is an extremely baggy term – only the most extreme feel entitled, by virtue of their birth, to live in Hebron, for example. Secular political zionists believe in the emancipation and ongoing self-determination of 5.3 million Jews residing in a currently hostile region, and therefore believe in Israel’s continuing existence. It is not acceptable for Pilger to use the word ‘Zionist’ in this way. But it is typical of the boycott movement.
There follows a stale litany of Israel’s abominations. He shakes his head in faux astonishment. Nothing like it in UN history. No other tyranny has such a record of lawlessness. No country enjoys such immunity. Certainly this creates a very, very bad impression. But by what standards does he assess UN history, or tyranny, or immunity? Has he weighed Israel against Iran, currently persecuting trades unionists and academics while financing military aggression across the region? Or China in its occupation of Tibet, imprisonment of large numbers of dissenters, harassment of AIDS activists, knowing sale of weapons to Darfur and censorship of the Internet? US? UK? Russia? Myanmar? Malaysia? We should vigorously condemn the evils of Israel’s occupation and we should uphold the equal rights and opportunities of all ethnicities in Israel. And, if we really care about human rights, we shouldn’t allow our selective concern for Israel to divert our attention from other states. So exactly why does Pilger insist that Israel is the world’s worst state? He doesn’t dignify us with an explanation. Impressions are what’s important to Pilger – we’re to take his word for it.
For regular Engage readers Pilger’s inaccuracies veer in familiar directions (read the comments to the piece for more fisking – he gets certain specific claims very wrong). There’s an attempt to cast anti-boycotters as partisan “friends of Israel” – of course they cannot be pigeonholed as that – they all have their own reasons for opposing the boycott and many are (Amir Hanifes, Ken Livingstone and Cath Palasz for example) often actively critical of Israeli policy. Pilger holds up South Africa as a precedent but the analogy fails because Palestinians and Palestinian Israelis, once the same, now exist in very different circumstances – Palestinians are occupied non-citizens whereas Palestinian Israelis – the 164,000 who remained in 1948 and their descendants – have imperfect but improving legal rights (the recent Land Law ruling is a deplorable relapse which is contested in Israel). None of this is any comfort whatsoever to Palestinians but should give pro-boycotters pause for thought: Israel, an occupying state, not an apartheid state and not a racist state.
That the boycott is ‘Jewish-led’ is neither here nor there – Jews can be antisemitic. So when Pilger dismisses the charge of antisemitism as ‘intimidation’, he is complacent. The recent union boycotts and condemnations, in the absence of similar treatment of other states according to universally applicable standards, are fundamentally discriminatory. They are also frequently defended with antisemitic tropes and stereotypes. Pro-boycotters have had to compromise their anti-racist credentials to make their case, and Pilger doesn’t seem to mind.
Pilger is right that the influence of pro-boycotters is growing. But he is wrong to present their campaign as a grass-roots movement, when in fact it’s the work of a small, assiduous group of ultra-activists who take advantage of union apathy and political process to push their boycott agenda. So far they have been conclusively over-ruled in the AUT and NUJ once the membership gets involved, and this summer Oxford, LSHTM and Imperial UCU members have already discussed and rejected the boycott in local ballots. They realise that the conflict to is more complicated than Pilger will admit and that if we want to end the occupation we should support the Israeli and Palestinian Left.
Dedication to the world’s oppressed and downtrodden is an unquestionably honourable thing, and Palestinians need the support of strident voices like Pilger’s in building a state and claiming an equal shared of resources, infrastructure and opportunities to succeed. Racist and violent acts against Palestinians by Israelis should be exposed and subject censure. But Pilger’s piece represents the worst excesses of underdoggism – unconditional, uncritical support for Palestinians which therefore never acknowledges that they, and regional string-pullers, have independent roles in the conflict. In Pilger’s essentialist view, helping the underdog means demolishing the oppressor rather than ending the oppression. This prevents him acknowledging the real fear of 5.3 million Israeli Jews that, if the ongoing project to end their independent state succeeds, it will be they who deserve his most avid ministrations.
Israel is a relatively successful state and in some areas – including academia and technology – an outstanding one. There is ample hope that the occupation will end and no indication that more than an extremist fringe of Israeli Jews feel they have the right to hang on to the Palestinian territories. Polls (such as OneVoice’s and PSR’s ) register a commitment in the majority of Israelis, Palestinian Israelis and Palestinians to two states. This is why balanced presentation of the facts about Israel and Palestine hasn’t been enough to galvanise union support for boycott and in order to achieve the longevity for their campaign, pro-boycotters have had to sacrifice the anti-racist character of the boycott and tap in to existing anti-Israel and antisemitic fervour.
So, during this pro-boycott ideological offensive, expect more of the Pilger variety of demonisation and be ready to dissect the half-truths and plain untruths.