How to Be Pro-Palestinian on Campus Without Being An Antisemite

An excellent essay by Andrew Pessin, Professor of Philosophy at Connecticut College, Campus Bureau Editor at “The Algemeiner.

The times may be a changing, in the campus wars over Israel: the idea that the anti-Israel movement is fundamentally antisemitic appears to be gaining traction. The evidence? In recent weeks several U.K. universities cancelled “Israeli Apartheid Week” events, at least one of which—the University of Lancashire—was explicitly motivated by the U.K.’s December adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. On that definition, certain forms of anti-Israelism are deemed antisemitic, and “Israeli Apartheid Weeks,” scheduled to occur on many campuses in Europe and North America this spring, often include events that appear to fulfill those conditions. Similar winds are blowing in the United States, where the U. S. State Department definition of antisemitism is able to do the same work, famously classifying as “antisemitic” actions that “delegitimize, demonize, or apply double standards to” the State of Israel. Already pro-Israel activists at schools such as Columbia University lobbied hard to cancel “Apartheid Week” events scheduled there starting three weeks ago, invoking the State Department definition and citing the Lancashire precedent. That effort failed, but what is significant is that the effort was made in the first place.

Some campus anti-Israelists are perhaps motivated by antisemitism. But many, perhaps the large majority, sincerely deny they are, and so there is much ongoing and tortuous debate over precisely when anti-Israel activism becomes antisemitism. Can you attack the legitimacy of the Jewish State without being an antisemite? (What if you sincerely believe, on the basis of your historical research, that it was founded illegitimately?) Is it antisemitic to accuse Israel of demonic behavior, if you sincerely believe, on the basis of evidence, that it is guilty of such? (The media is filled with such reports, is it not?) And anyway, what precisely constitute “delegitimization” and “demonization”? Israel’s supporters regularly accuse anti-Israelists of antisemitism; anti-Israelists claim Israel-supporters use that label only to silence their legitimate criticism of Israel. And the debate goes on.

“We are not antisemites,” campus activists proclaim, “we are merely fighting for the welfare and rights of the Palestinian people.” Being “pro-Palestinian” is wonderful, of course; but campus activism sometimes looks more “anti-Israel” than “pro-Palestinian,” and that’s where the trouble begins. On the surface, at least, being “anti-Israel” (or “anti-Zionist”) is not very wonderful: opposing the nation state of the Jewish people, or denying the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland—which often involves denying Jewish history and even peoplehood—surely looks and sounds like antisemitism, even if it is honorably motivated by pro-Palestinian intentions.

There are some who are not bothered by this: so determined in their quest for Palestinian welfare and rights, unreservedly convinced that promoting that welfare and those rights requires the dismantling of Israel, they are unconcerned if their actions may also be interpretable as antisemitic. Some may even be proud of this, in the spirit of one of the tweets that made Steven Salaita famous (by leading to his pre-arrival dismissal from the University of Illinois in 2014):

Zionists: transforming “antisemitism” from something horrible into something honorable since 1948. #Gaza #FreePalestine — Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 20, 2014

This essay is not for those people.

Instead it is for those—the significant majority of campus activists—who support the rights and welfare of Palestinians but who would not embrace the “antisemitism” label; those who may also be uncomfortable with the “anti-Israel” label, not least because it smacks of antisemitism. It is for those who are drawn to the Palestinian cause but who recognize that focusing exclusively on attacking Israel brings one perilously close to the fuzzy boundary of being antisemitic. No, the line between anti-Israelism and antisemitism is not very clear, but for those who are concerned to remain distant from that boundary, wherever it might be, this essay is for you.

As the campus winds perhaps begin to blow in the opposite direction of the famous 1975 U.N. Resolution 3379—and begin to proclaim that “Anti-Zionism is racism”—now is the time to remember that it is possible to advocate for the welfare and rights of Palestinians, to be “pro-Palestinian,” without even coming near the fuzzy boundary of being “anti-Israel”—and thus approaching the line of antisemitism.

Here are ten things one can do. (I thank Nevet Basker for inspiration and some ideas on this subject.)

(1) Protest Egypt’s siege on Gaza

Campus activism focuses on Israel’s blockade of the Gaza strip, imposed after the Islamic Resistance Movement (also known as Hamas) took over the territory from the Palestinian Authority in a violent coup over a decade ago. Activists mischaracterize the blockade as a “siege,” but in fact the international border between Gaza and Israel is extremely porous. Israel’s blockade restricts materials with military uses but imposes no restrictions on humanitarian and other civilian goods. Thus hundreds of trucks cross daily, carrying food, medicine, imports and exports, and supplies, and hundreds of people cross regularly as well, in much the same manner as at any international border. The official U.N. “Palmer Report” found the blockade to be perfectly legal, a justified act of self-defense undertaken by a nation to protect its citizens.

In contrast, Egypt has imposed a genuine siege on Gaza, sealing the border nearly entirely. Egypt opened the Rafa crossing for only 32 days in 2015, and 48 days in 2016, allowing a trickle of people to pass, many of whom have to wait days or weeks to pass; it has repeatedly flooded the many smuggling tunnels built between the two regions, and just three weeks ago it killed three Hamas operatives by filling a tunnel with toxic gas; and it has demolished thousands of homes along the Egypt-Gaza border to build a buffer zone between them.

To advocate for the Palestinians, advocate for Egypt to open its border.

(2) Protest Palestinians’ treatment in Syria

Some 4000 Palestinians have been killed in Syria since 2011. According to one source, as of September 2016 more than 12,000 Palestinians were stuck in Syrian prisons, including 765 children and 543 women; some 503 Palestinian prisoners had died under torture, and some female prisoners had been raped by interrogators and guards. Syria has been accused of gassing Palestinians and bombing them; some 120,000 Palestinians in Syria have fled the country as new refugees, and up to 280,000 Palestinians in Syria, about half the number registered in Syria prior to the civil war, have been internally displaced from their Syrian homes and camps. (Other sources say more.) The Yarmouk refugee camp, home to some 112,000 Palestinians in the early 2000s, now houses fewer than 20,000; no surprise, since as of September 2016 the camp had been without water for more than two years and without electricity for more than three. When Israel proposed in 2013 to allow Syrian Palestinians to escape the war and move to Palestinian territory in exchange for giving up any demand to move into Israel proper, Palestinian Authority (P. A. ) President Mahmoud Abbas stated, “It’s better they die in Syria than give up their right of return [to Israel].” Dying in Syria is what they have since been doing, since President Abbas denied them the option to live.

Conditions for Palestinians in Syria are far worse in every possible respect than they are for Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza, and all the more so compared to the Arab citizens of Israel.

To advocate for Palestinians in genuine dire need, advocate for Palestinians in Syria. Perhaps even demand that President Abbas accept Israel’s offer.

(3) Advocate for Palestinians in Lebanon

Decades after migrating to Lebanon, some 450,000 Palestinians are denied basic social and economic rights in a situation some might reasonably label as “apartheid.” According to Al-Jazeera, “Lebanon is their home but any chance of becoming a genuine part of the communities they live in is constantly undermined by strict laws ‘protecting’ Lebanese citizens’ rights, general safety and wellbeing.” Palestinians are denied citizenship and excluded from many professions, forbidden from attending public schools, and restricted in their rights to own homes. Conditions in their refugee camps are horrendous; they are often dominated by violence; illiteracy among Lebanese Palestinians has reached 26%, compared to 6% in the West Bank and less than 1% in Gaza. In recent weeks, Lebanon has essentially walled in one camp for “security reasons,” and announced that some 50 Palestinian homes were to be demolished to build a road. According to another source, not only are the Lebanese Palestinians “second class citizens,” but Lebanon is “the most hostile country” to Palestinian refugees.

To advocate for Palestinians in genuine dire need, suffering under a genuine apartheid system, advocate for Palestinians in Lebanon.

(4) Advocate for Palestinians in Jordan

“It is no secret that many Arab countries despise Palestinians and subject them to apartheid laws and strict security measures that deny them most basic rights.” So writes Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh in one of his many reports on the persecuted status of Palestinians across the Arab world. Jordan, where 3.5 million Palestinians constitute perhaps half (or even more) of the population, is the only Arab country to grant them citizenship. Even so, many of these individuals are not “permanent citizens” but merely carry temporary passports, suffer discrimination, are grossly underrepresented in the parliament, and are treated as “second class citizens.” In the past few years many Jordanian Palestinians have seen their citizenship suddenly revoked as anti-Palestinian sentiment has grown, to the point where some Palestinians are calling for divestment from the Jordanian economy and complete disengagement from the Jordanian political system.

To advocate for Palestinians who, despite being a majority of the population, suffer from discrimination, advocate for Palestinians in Jordan. Perhaps support their call for boycott and divestment from the Jordanian economy and political system.

(5) Advocate for the reform of UNRWA

It is widely reported that some 700,000-800,000 Palestinian Arabs either fled or were forcibly expelled from the nascent State of Israel in the period from 1947-1949, encompassing the founding of the state and the conclusion of armistice agreements after Israel’s War of Independence—a period also referred to as the “Nakba,” or “catastrophe,” by those on the Arab side. These became the “1948 refugees,” whose descendants now number (according to various reports) in the five or six million range. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established in 1950, mandated to facilitate “the reintegration of the refugees into the economic life of the Near East, either by repatriation or resettlement,” a task understood to be both temporary and essential “in preparation for the time when international assistance is no longer available, and for the realization of conditions of peace and stability in the area.”

Some 67 years later these now five or six million “refugees” remain distributed in mostly impoverished, crime-ridden camps all over Gaza, the West Bank, and surrounding Arab countries (such as Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, as discussed above).

One might think that UNRWA has failed in its mandate, and that miserably—except that, along the way, UNRWA repeatedly changed its mandate as its budget correspondingly ballooned. As numerous experts attest, the UNRWA long ago dropped the idea of “resettling” refugees—despite resettlement being the major goal of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency that oversees all other refugees in the world apart from the Palestinians. To the contrary, within just a few years of its founding UNRWA transformed itself into an apparently permanent agency providing educational, vocational, and financial assistance to Palestinian refugees; and in a 2006 report it described itself as being “a global advocate for the protection and care of Palestine refugees.” That is very different from being a temporary agency tasked with resettling refugees to help them start new (and better) lives.

Indeed many critics argue that the UNWRA, rather than working to resolve the refugee problem, actively works to prevent their resettlement and thus perpetuates it. Even worse, it is well documented how extensively UNWRA schools promote and incite anti-Israel hatred in its thousands of pupils, surely not a promising way to “realize conditions of peace and stability in the area.”

There is a lot to be said about the political implications of the various ways of resolving the problem of the Palestinian refugees. But if you wish to advocate for the welfare of actual Palestinian human beings, living in decrepit conditions, unable to establish normal lives after seven decades, then you should advocate for granting them a fundamental right that is essentially denied them: the right to resettle and to live as citizens in the various countries in which they find themselves. This includes, quite shockingly, the regions most already recognize as “Palestine,” namely the West Bank and Gaza—for the Palestinian leadership, under whose direct authority almost all Palestinians in those areas live, has declared that, despite these refugees being Palestinians living under Palestinian authority in the self-declared State of Palestine, they are not considered “citizens.” (And indeed the P. A. has done essentially nothing for the refugees under its authority, preferring instead to use them, with UNWRA’s complicity, as a political tool against Israel.)

To advocate for Palestinians to have the right to choose resettlement and citizenship and decent lives in the countries in which they have lived for decades, advocate for the reform of UNWRA. Perhaps even advocate that it be gradually incorporated into the UNHCR, which has a long successful record in helping millions of refugees move on to better lives.

(6) Advocate for democracy in the Palestinian territories

All the way back in a 1998 essay, “A Desolation, and They Called It Peace,” pro-Palestinian academic superstar Edward Said wrote,

Why don’t we fight harder for freedom of opinion in our own societies, a freedom, no one needs to be told, that scarcely exists? …. [O]ur battle is for democracy and equal rights …. [W]e should concentrate our resistance on … creating stable and democratic civil institutions (hospitals and clinics, schools and universities, now in a horrendous decline, and work projects that will improve our infrastructure …)

The next several suggestions take their cue from Said, but we begin with the most important, because most general. Mahmoud Abbas recently began the 13th year as President of the P. A. and, officially, the State of Palestine. The problem is that he was originally elected to serve a four-year term, and there have been no presidential elections since. Even worse is the situation in Gaza, which Hamas took over in 2006-07 by means of an illegal murderous coup. Needless to say there have not been any relevant democratic elections in Gaza in the decade since.

We do not need to defend here the importance of democracy, and of democratic principles and institutions. Those seeking to advocate for the rights and welfare of Palestinians ought to advocate for the implementation of democratic systems and institutions in the territories controlled by Palestinians for the past decade (Gaza) or two (Area A in the West Bank).

(7) Advocate for economic development in the Palestinian territories

It isn’t merely the lack of democracy that should trouble pro-Palestinian activists, it’s the lack of everything that follows from democracy. Even democracies have problems with corruption, for example, but at least there are mechanisms in place to expose the corruption, correct it, and bring the perpetrators to justice. Where there is no democracy there are no such mechanisms, and indeed corruption among Palestinian leaders is reportedly rampant. Both Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas are said to be or have been worth billions—and this despite the facts that (a) the world laments the impoverished condition of the Palestinian territories, and (b) the Palestinians receive by far the greatest amount of per capita humanitarian aid than any other people in the world.

A scathing account of P. A. corruption may be found here, detailing how Palestinian political objectives (such as harming Israel) often override sound economic principles, and how the European Union found that about two billion of its euros has been lost to Palestinian corruption in a recent five-year period. Medical fraud is another problem, through which officials of both the P. A. and Hamas skim millions for their personal use. Others directly blame P. A. corruption for the economic stagnation of the territories they control. Hamas has funneled many millions to its leaders’ pockets and to building war infrastructure, such as tunnels and rockets, rather than rebuilding Gaza; even worse, it is alleged to steal both money and supplies provided by international humanitarian aid and donations. It has been widely reported that the P. A. directs a significant portion of its budget to rewarding those who murder Israelis, and to their families. More disturbing corruption details may be found here.

Pro-Palestinian activists devote much time promoting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel—despite the fact that many argue that BDS is primarily harmful not to Israel but to Palestinians, depriving them of income and of jobs. (See here, for example, and this detailed economic analysis of the Palestinian territories.) But it seems that those seeking to promote the welfare of Palestinians ought primarily to advocate for eliminating corruption and for promoting economic development within those territories—including, perhaps, cooperation with Israel.

(8) Advocate for freedoms of expression, assembly, protest

Speaking of another democratic institution, we saw above Edward Said’s 1998 lament about the lack of free expression among the Palestinians. Two decades later, a recent article begins,

A novelist, a journalist and a university professor walk into a bar. Sounds like a joke, but it stops being funny when these three figures are the latest victims of the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) crackdown on public freedoms, above all, freedom of expression.

Novels are banned, journalists are arrested, a professor faces trial for “extending his tongue” against President Abbas and/or the P. A. , while dissenters sometimes receive death threats for daring to criticize the leadership. Human Rights Watch, an NGO that is no friend of Israel, reports on the use by both the P. A. and Hamas of arrests and torture to clamp down on journalists. More details on the direness of the situation were reported by Reuters, including this conclusion by Human Rights Watch: “Both Palestinian governments, operating independently, have apparently arrived at similar methods of harassment, intimidation and physical abuse of anyone who dares criticize.”

According to a 2016 publication by leading Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid, “Freedom of the press and freedom of expression over social media has been routinely interfered with by the authorities in the Palestinian controlled areas of the West Bank. Journalists and media outlets critical of Abbas have faced systematic harassment.” But, the report notes, it isn’t only mere harassment:

The Palestinian Authority has been responsible for numerous extrajudicial killings of individuals … as well as having a long and troubling record with regards to the issuing of the death penalty. There is an equally serious and widespread phenomenon of torture and extreme physical abuse that has taken place in Palestinian Authority prisons ….Arbitrary arrest and detention continues to be a serious point of concern in Palestinian Authority areas, with this infringement of rights often used as a weapon against critics and opponents of President Abbas and his ruling Fatah faction.

Equally troubling:

The Palestinian Authority has consistently infringed upon the basic civil rights of freedom of assembly and freedom to protest. The police regularly disrupt non-violent demonstrations and have often used excessive force and violence when dispersing protestors, as well as members of the media covering these events.

For more on the use of torture by the P. A., see here. That same article reports that

a London-based human rights group reported 3,175 cases of human rights violations, including arbitrary detentions, by the PA security forces in the West Bank during 2016. Hundreds of those detained include university students and lecturers, as well as schoolteachers.

Those advocating for the welfare and rights of Palestinians should advocate for their possessing some of the most basic democratic human rights within the territories they control: that of free expression, free journalism, free media, and freedoms of assembly and protest.

(9) Support academic freedom

Though a sub-category of “freedom of expression,” academic freedom merits a brief independent segment since it is frequently a specific focus for activists—who seek academic boycotts of Israel due to its alleged restrictions on the academic freedom of Palestinians. Suffice to say that, as in the previous section, “academic freedom” is reportedly in short supply in the Palestinian controlled territories. Those in need of convincing should consult Cary Nelson’s groundbreaking essay on the subject in late 2016.

Those advocating for Palestinians should demand their academic freedom within the territories they control.

(10) Support progressive values re: women, LGBTQ, religious minorities, children

According to that same Bassem Eid report mentioned above,

Women living in the Palestinian Authority suffer from widespread discrimination and unequal treatment with little or no assistance from the authorities to mitigate against this. Domestic abuse and honor violence remains a problem in Palestinian society. Similarly, homosexuals face severe ongoing persecution. The authorities have not only failed to act against this, but also stand accused of torturing and murdering homosexuals.

According to Eileen Kuttab, the director of the Institute of Women’s Studies (IWS) at Birzeit University in the West Bank, women’s rights in the Palestinian-controlled territories are negatively affected by the interlocking forces of political and social oppression. Women lack protections in the Palestinian legal system; there has been a rise in the practice of honor killings in the past year; there is a social stigma in the idea of women’s rights. While (contrary to some reports) there is apparently no official law against homosexuality in the P. A. , numerous sources affirm that homosexuality is deeply taboo there and that gay individuals have few protections; the situation is unsurprisingly worse in Islamist-run Gaza, where homosexuality is criminalized and perhaps even a capital offense. It is also no secret that Christians, among other religious minorities, are under increasing oppression across much of the Arab Muslim world; Palestinian Christians are no exception to this general rule.

As for children, well the quantity and quality of incitement to hatred and violence to which Palestinian children are subject, in official state schools, mosques, summer camps and elsewhere, has been widely reported. See children “jump for jihad” at a European-funded youth event in Nablus. See schoolchildren being taught to murder. See this 57-page 2015 report documenting the incitement in the P. A. educational system, from naming schools after terrorists to official textbook antisemitism, from honoring Hitler to producing terror-inciting educational television. The 2016 theme for Hamas-run summer camps was the “Jerusalem intifada,” camps where “young children learned to fire machine guns, crawl through tunnels and beneath barbed wire, handle rocket launchers and plant mines. They were taught kidnapping techniques for capturing Israeli soldiers and even had fun shooting at images of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.” Wherever one stands on the conflict it seems clear that all this is designed in the best case not toward promoting peace but toward perpetuating the conflict; and in the worst case it is sheer indoctrination of very vulnerable young minds, training them to be haters who endorse violence.

To advocate for the welfare and rights of all Palestinians, advocate to improve the Palestinian human rights record with respect to women, gays, and religious minorities; and for the future well-being of all Palestinians (not to mention Israelis), advocate for the end of indoctrinating hatred and violence into schoolchildren.

Here, then, are ten ways to be pro-Palestinian, to advocate on campus for the welfare and rights of Palestinians, that run no risk of accusation of anti-Israelism and antisemitism. One wonders whether, were campus activism to take more of this form, it might not also become more effective, in the long run, of achieving a peaceful resolution of the conflict, including the two-state solution.

But that is a topic for another essay.

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