In Defence of Israel

Why do Indian intellectuals ignore the Jewish state’s side of the story?
NAÏVETE
THE OTHER POINT OF VIEW  Students demonstrate outside the Embassy of Israel in New Delhi on 19 November 2012

I am a Franco-German. I have lived in Delhi and have travelled throughout India. I speak Hindi and understand Bengali. I know all the Madhuri Dixit songs. I consider Satyajit Ray one of my gods. I love reading Arundhati Roy. I have studied Economics and Philosophy at St Stephen’s college. I call myself a Buddhist, a seeker of the Sufi path, and I am also a Jew.

Since 14 November, a war has been going on between Israel and the Hamas, which rules Gaza. Both the Israeli government and Hamas have an interest in these hostilities. Both are reluctant to see the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority submit a resolution to the UN calling for an independent state of Palestine. Both have done nearly nothing in the last four years for the welfare of their citizens.

As I consider myself partly Indian and have a profound love for this country, I am upset to see again that many of my friends and people I admire here are so quick to point out the guilty party. Like India and many other places, Israel and Palestine have such a long and complicated history that quick judgments or simplifications are best avoided.

Activism in India is vibrant. Members of civil society comment on the news and try to criticise and contest what they feel are opinions propagated by the powerful and accepted by the mainstream. That said, I have a hard time understanding the radical stance of a number of Indian intellectuals on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and on Israel more generally—a cut-and-paste of the anti-Zionist position of American academics like Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler, but without their knowledge and experience of Jewish history.

I have often wondered at the readiness of Indian scholars, essayists and professors to sacrifice the rigour, articulation and verification of their discourse when it comes to Israel. They compromise what they are fighting for by committing factual mistakes, making fallacious arguments and refusing to consider a diversity of opinion or approach. Governed by passion and sometimes hatred, they are often dogmatic.

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On the current affairs blog Kafila, a comment by JNU Professor Nivedita Menon on Post-Zionism/Post-Apartheid, which had at least eight factual mistakes and many demagogical statements, caught my attention.

The situation in West Asia is dramatic, and there are victims on both sides. It is true that Israel’s current government is one of the worst it has known and most of its citizens have lost hope for peace. It is also true that Israeli society is turning more racist, intolerant and ignorant of the suffering and existence of their immediate neighbours—Palestinians. Of course, the Palestinian people have been denied many rights and have been living under precarious conditions since Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. True, they have been repeat victims of unjustifiable violence and a large proportion of Israeli politicians deny their claim to an independent land, even as Israel threatens the viability of a Palestinian state by wielding tools of colonisation.

But is this all?

Ms Menon and others seem to forget Israel since its independence has been the region’s only free and pluralistic democracy and one of Asia’s few. Arab Israelis, 20 per cent of Israel’s population, have by law the same rights as all other citizens. They vote and send representatives to the Knesset (legislative assembly) in every election. Israeli journalists, writers and academics are among the harshest critics of Israel and its policies. Even though their opinions are not always well received, they are allowed to express themselves in Israel without being threatened with charges of sedition or blasphemy.

Important Israeli public figures like writer and journalist Amira Hass have been living in Gaza in solidarity with Palestinians, sharing their lives. In 2008, Hass participated in the famous flotilla against the Gaza Blockade. (I don’t know what would happen to an Indian journalist embarking on a mission to cross the Line of Control in Kashmir.)

Israeli NGOs like B’Tzelem are among the most active in conducting daily fieldwork to report violations of the rights of Palestinians. Israel’s educational institutions like Tel Aviv University host students and professors from across the world, including Egypt, Jordan and Palestine.

Demonstrations against the ongoing operations by Israel in Gaza are held every day in the country and Israelis have repeatedly declared themselves against military intervention in Iran; the popular website Israel Loves Iran is just one example.

These days, the talk on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is not about hatred; there are many Israeli citizens who are following with great concern the suffering of people in Gaza. Many Israeli newspapers and radio channels are accusing the government of breaking international law. Isn’t criticism in times of war a real sign of democracy?

An article in The Hindu on 4 November reported that a number of Indian artists, filmmakers and thinkers had called for the boycott of a play by The Cameri, a prestigious Israeli theatre company that was slated to perform at the Delhi International Arts Festival. According to the report, ‘The citizens, in a signed statement, have called for the boycott, as they feel that The Cameri Theatre group serves as an “official propaganda tool for the State of Israel—a state that occupies Palestinian lands and practises apartheid policies on the Palestinian people”.’

Cultural life in Israel expresses a variety of contrasting opinions. For instance, films like Waltz with Bashir, which deals with Israeli responsibility in the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon, have been well received in Israel and at Cannes. Writers, poets, directors, performers, dancers and musicians in Israel do not speak as one, but represent the diversity of its society. Israeli film producers, for example, sponsor everything from Palestinian art-house movies like Ajami to anti-occupation films and Russian-Israeli comedies.

Boycotting or refusing to read, hear, see or talk to artists who hold Israeli passports (and are sometimes sponsored by independent government bodies) is not only ignorant but also racist. It is true that The Cameri once performed in Ariel, a colony in the West Bank, despite a cultural boycott declared by Israeli artists and writers, and this is condemnable. However, this does not make it a ‘propaganda tool’.

Why should it be impossible for the Indian intelligentsia to read Israeli novels and poetry, attend exhibitions by Israeli artists, listen to Israeli musicians, watch Israeli theatre performances, and still stay sensitive to the cause of Palestinians?

I have not heard of boycotts anywhere of Chinese goods, Pakistani novels or Indian films, though these originate in states that oppress people in similarly unbearable ways. It is sad to see enlightened people in Delhi dismiss Israeli art as ‘propaganda’. They seem unaware that the essence of good art is its visionary, ill-behaved and disobedient nature.

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Ms Menon’s article in particular shows ignorance of Jewish and West Asian history, common to most Indian intellectuals I have read or heard discussing the subject. I wonder how people who so often refer to ‘Zionism’ and the ‘imperialistic origins’ of Israel and its US ally can be so ignorant. Zionism was born in an extremely anti-Semitic 19th century Europe after a two-millennium history of Jews at the receiving end of discriminatory laws, massacres, forced displacement, ghettoisation and utmost poverty. David Ben-Gurion’s Zionism was based on the principles of utopian socialism. Israel was founded as a socialist country actively supported by the USSR. The country’s moral, cultural and political identity was first crafted in the cradle of egalitarian socialist communities—the Kibbutzim. Some of this is still visible;  Israel’s leading publishing house is called Am Oved (‘working people’).

I have read many Indian intellectuals referring to ‘European Jews’ (who are more accurately called Ashkenazi Jews) as illegitimate colonisers of Palestine. But who in India talks about the Holocaust, the industrial killing in just four years of six million Jews of all ages—two of every three living in Europe in 1939—by the Nazis under Adolf Hitler? Most had lived in Europe since the Exile of first century CE. How many Indian anti-Zionists are aware that during World War II, the US and Great Britain refused asylum to European Jews who lived under racist laws and were threatened with extermination? Do Ms Menon and her fellow thinkers know that after World War II ended, eastern and central European Jews were rendered stateless and kept in displacement camps in Germany? Do they know that many displaced Jews were refused visas to countries like the US? Do they know that of the 3.5 million Jews who lived in Poland in 1939, no more than 300,000 survived, and those who tried to return to their homes in Krakow and Lublin were met with pogroms (five of which occurred in Poland between August 1945 and 1946)?

Hitler’s Mein Kampf is sold on the pavements of Delhi and an entire section in Kolkata’s Oxford Bookstore is dedicated to it. Zee TV broadcasts a series called Hitler Didi. I have heard no outrage against or condemnation of this fascination with Hitler, despite easily available information on the Nazi Holocaust in English and other Indian languages.

I wonder if Ms Menon, who specialises in gender studies, has ever cared to notice that Israel is the only country in West Asia with a vibrant homosexual culture. It is one of the few nations in the world that recognises same-sex couple adoption rights. In fact, Tel Aviv is one of the world’s most gay-friendly cities. Israel is also the only country in the region where women enjoy the same rights as men.

Do Indian experts on West Asia know that the Israeli people are not merely European,  as many here tend to believe, but are a mix of people of Indian, Georgian, Yemeni, Iraqi, Persian, Chinese, Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Argentine, Uzbek, Syrian, Polish, Afghani, Turkish, Portuguese, Austrian, German, Brazilian, Ethiopian, Russian, Bulgarian and French origin?

The Israeli reality of being a country with mostly hostile neighbours whose legitimacy is still not recognised by 32 countries, and which has to deal with daily attacks and terrorist threats, does not seem to be acceptable suffering to many Indian intellectuals. Of course, by occupying and oppressing a people for more than 40 years, Israel has contributed to creating and aggravating its reality, but denial of the existing situation only results in an inadequate understanding of the issues at stake.

I also wonder why human-rights violations by the Hamas in Gaza or the situation in Syria do not evoke much comment from left-leaning Indian activists. I wonder why, when I try to post comments on blogs like Kafila, on the article ‘Imagining Post-Zionist Futures: The Israeli Apartheid and Palestinian Resistance’, my posts are not published (or deleted). Selective indignation is not consistent with liberalism, and anyone who claims to be a humanist ought to defend the same principles consistently.

The fact that highly literate people in India are prone to such ineptitude, historical revisionism and populist rhetoric when it comes to Israel shows the irrational nature of such a discourse.

I call for a fair and just attitude, and yes, for a condemnation of Israeli politics, of occupation and colonisation, but I reject hatred of any kind. I am a leftist, I believe in social justice, equality, participation and freedom, but I can see that suffering exists everywhere and not just in Palestine. I also condemn any cultural boycott—this is an ignorant attitude that worsens racism and hatred, and it reminds me of the worst moments of totalitarianism.

It is hard to judge or understand when one cannot see through the eyes of the other. Jews have not forgotten Israel even after a two-millennium long exile, so it would be foolish to ask Palestinians to forget their claim.

And let me add that if we were to determine who this land should be rightfully returned to, the claims would not be limited to Israelis and Palestinians. Arabs should return Palestine to the Byzantines and Sassanids, who should return it to the Romans, who should return it to Jews, who should share it with the Greeks, who should return all Judea to Jews, who should hand it back to the Persians, who took it from the Babylonians, who stole Judea from the Assyrians, who have to hand it back to the Hebrews (Jews), who would then return it to the Canaanites.

In this non-exhaustive list, I am not including (retro chronologically) the British, the Ottomans, the Mamluks, the Latin Kingdoms of the Orient (remember the Crusades?) and the Seljuk Turks.

Of course, pressure should be maintained on Israel and supporting the Palestinian cause seems quite natural even though the reality is often more complex. This should not, however, lead to the demonisation of Israel, a plural and democratic country unique in its history and diversity. I hope a solution can be found in West Asia for its people to share this sacred land in peace. 

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Jonas Moses Lustiger is doing an  ‘economic and public policies’ programme at Sciences Po, Paris