Thursday, 7 October 2010

Why the truth is taboo in the Holy Land

We had the chance at the Dubai School of Government last night to host Adam Shapiro and Huwaida Arraf, co-founders of the non-violent resistance movement in the Occupied Territories, the International Solidarity Movement (ISM);  Arraf also chairs the Free Gaza organization that was responsible for dispatching the flotilla this past spring to break the blockade on the Gaza Strip. It was an interesting conversation, but one that is often ignored. Shapiro himself made a very interesting point - in all the news reports you read about the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, you scarcely hear anything about Gaza. It is as if, the territory holding 1.5 million Palestinians has faded from existence. Yet, this has always been the troubling context of all Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The many elephants in the room are ignored in the feigned hope that perhaps somehow they will not be heard, seen, or felt. Sometimes, people do not want to face the truth until they are forced too.

The breaking of taboos is a continual process vis-a-vis the infamous conflict in the Holy Land. Many conversations are off-limits, particularly in the American mainstream media and especially when concerning Israel (or the preferred Israeli narrative). In past years, prominent figures have challenged this stranglehold on the discourse. In Israel, you have reporters like Amira Hass who has continued her brave coverage in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, unabated, despite threats and harassment. In fact, Haaretz - where Hass writes - has hosted a bevy of non-orthodox views, that many within Israel consider treasonous (i.e. Gideon Levy). Years prior, the so-called new historians such as Benny Morris (who has since become politically hardline if not extreme) and Avi Shlaim challenged the orthodox narrative in Israel, finally asserting the Palestinians as victims of the conflict, and asserting that Palestinians were refugees not just of their own creation. Ilan Pappe took this further with a groundbreaking book (in its depth and breadth) called The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Some disobedience in Israel can have consequences. Mordechai Vanunu who bravely unveiled Israel's nuclear program to the world in the 1980s, has been jailed, silenced and hidden from public view for the last two decades. Many years later, in 2002 when 50 soldiers started the Courage to Refuse movement by refusing to serve in the IDF in maintaining the occupation, they created a new space (albeit with legal consequences) for dissent.

Artists have also played their role in challenging the orthodoxy. The animated film (and award-winning) Waltz with Bashir starkly portrayed the reality of Israel's wars of having mixed morality at best, and involving dehumanization of the enemy in the worst case. World-renowned pianist Daniel Barenboim collaborated with renowned Palestinian-American Edward Said on concerts, including in the West Bank, and challenged the discourse on anti-semitism (see Wagner) in Israel; he also accepted honorary Palestinian citizenship, demonstrating solidarity across the two 'nations'.

The tradition of challenging the accepted narrative on the conflict has been especially difficult in the United States, where the mere mention of a view critical (in any form, artistic, journalistic, political etc) of the established Israeli perspective can end a career. The label of anti-semitism is tossed around without abandon, for example by the Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman. While before some 'challengers' such as George Ball (see Passionate Attachment) were effectively silenced, that is no longer the case. To talk about the 'lobby' in DC subservient to foreign interests used to be akin to believing in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. That taboo was broken by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in their landmark book The Israel Lobby, which was originally an essay that was rejected by a number of US publications, only to be published in the London Review of Books. Although Walt and Mearsheimer were lambasted, including in the Washington Post, as anti-semites, the label couldn't stick. Today, Walt is one of the most prolific contributors to Foreign Policy.

That same year, President Jimmy Carter published Palestine: Peace not Apartheid. Again, President Carter despite being the only President to actually achieve a successful peace agreement in the region,  was panned as naive and hyperbolic. Nevertheless, today, that phrasing is generally accepted not only within the United States, but also in Israel. Four years after the book was released, it was Israel's own Defense Minister Ehud Barak who stated: "If this bloc of millions of ­Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state." America's own military main man, General David Patraeus shattered the view this year that Israel was an ally to US national security interests just one month later. It is assumed that the U.S. military is gradually being more vocal about pro-peace interests, and in some ways, pro-Palestinian.

The unfortunate thing is that despite so many taboos being broken, too many still remain. Each successive strike only reveals that many traditional views are untouched. Yes, there is now J Street (a by-product I would say of Walt's book), which challenges AIPAC. However, the Yitzak Rabins are still scarce. Who is willing to acknowledge the Palestinians existence and the need for a viable Palestinian state openly and definitively? Breaking taboos is difficult and takes spine; it is especially precarious for politicians who face electorates. It is these leaders, however, who will be looked upon to fundamentally change the direction of the conflict and upend the status quo. For political leadership, breaking taboos happens by taking bold steps and holding bold positions. It means PM Netanyahu eschewing Yisrael Beiteinu for Kadima. It means President Obama freezing military aid as long as Israel doesn't freeze settlements. It means Congress supporting the President.

The stranglehold on the narrative by the orthodoxy has been broken. The truth is out and cannot be hidden, as seen from the Flotilla coverage this past spring. The Israeli occupation itself is self-corroding (see the recent stories) and leading in effect to an apartheid state unless there is peace and a two-state solution. It is now the turn of the politicians in Israel and the US to find the courage to voice that reality and break those final taboos. It is time for a real conversation about peace.

(The next post will cover the Palestinian-side of the equation and the need for bold leadership)

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