The Israeli government and its supporters have long utilized a wide range of propaganda tools to sugarcoat Israel’s atrocities against the Palestinians. In addition to pinkwashing (using Israel’s relative support of gay rights to sugarcoat the country’s apartheid nature) and greenwashing (perpetuating the perception that Israel has environmentally-friendly policies to do the same), Zionist advocates are now using a different method: Assadwashing.
As the Syrian uprising moves into its second year and Bashar al-Assad’s regime continues its brutal crackdown, the pro-Israel camp has breathed a sigh of relief and put on an indignant grin. Zionists now feel justified in pointing to Israel’s northeastern neighbor and exploiting the Syrian people’s suffering and resistance in order to further their own political agenda, depicting Israel as a “vibrant democracy” in comparison to Syria. Perversely, to Zionist propagandists, Assad’s pernicious brutality comes not as a tragedy but as a savior.
Assadwashing in action
At one of our Israeli Apartheid Week events at Boston University, in which we hosted Samer Arafa, an exiled Palestinian, and Jewish-American journalist Max Blumenthal, we witnessed this tactic in action. A man sitting in the back of the room during the Q&A session completely ignored the content of the lecture and asked what the speakers were doing regarding Syria.
Blumenthal replied that this question is a typical Zionist talking point, and is used to deflect attention from Israel’s crimes. Interestingly, a few weeks later, we saw this very man appear in a propaganda video titled “Hijacking Holocaust Remembrance at Northeastern University,” which identified him as Richard Landes, a Boston University History professor and, evidently, a right-wing ultra-Zionist.
Landes is known for his belief that the mainstream media is “anti-Israel” and “overstates” Israel’s massacre of Palestinian civilians for propaganda purposes (“Muslim, anti-Semitism, Israel and the dynamics of self-destructive scapegoating,” The Daily Telegraph [blog], 1 December 2011).
A website which Landes runs called The Second Draft denies that the murder of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Durra during the second Palestinian intifada was carried out by Israeli forces.
The website is also of the conviction that Palestinians teach their children “unbridled hatred towards Israelis.” Its opinion on Arabs is elaborated in this statement: “The Palestinians teach explicitly, as do many Arab nations, that to die in the ‘jihad’ — holy war — against Israel purchases the ‘martyr’ instant acceptance into heaven. And it is a very red-blooded and lusty male heaven they are promised, characterized first and foremost by endless sex with a multitude of virgins” (“Who killed Mohammed al-Dura?”, The Second Draft, undated).
Constructing Palestinians, and Arab nations at large, as blood-thirsty savages, Landes’ Islamophobia and unabashed Orientalism, as revealed through this website, cannot be reconciled with a belief in Syrian — or Arab and Muslim — human rights. On the contrary, such an ideology views Syrians as nothing more than convenient pawns to further anti-Palestinian propaganda in the service of Israel.
Using one oppression to mask another
Aiming to demonstrate an inconsistency within the Palestine solidarity movement, supporters of Israel have frequently utilized Assadwashing to undermine efforts to bring about justice and self-determination for the Palestinian people.
The latest to take up this tactic is the Israeli government itself, which distributed a letter to activists taking part in the recent Welcome to Palestine 2012 “flytilla” in which it told the activists to direct their activism against Syria, Hamas and Iran.
“We suggest you solve the real problems of the region, and then come back and share with us your experience,” the letter, tweeted by an official Israeli government spokesperson, said.
For Israel and many of its supporters, Assad’s repression, and other injustices in the Middle East and the world are sufficient justification for apartheid and ethnic cleansing. To them, injustice anywhere is not a threat to justice everywhere, but a way to steer attention away from Israel’s behavior.
Until every other problem in the world is solved, they seem to be suggesting, no one ought to utter a word of criticism of Israel.
In an American society whose conceptions are still shaped by colonial views of the world, it seems that the few causes one can participate in without constantly being on the defensive, are those which contribute to Western imperialism and the NGO-Industrial complex — what has been called the “White Savior Industrial Complex.” What once was the “white man’s burden” has now morphed into liberal “humanitarianism.”
In this context, few question people committed to “saving children” in Africa; instead, they are hailed as champions of social justice.
Such an environment makes it easy for Zionists, and others, to demonize dictators of what are known as Third World countries. Yet when it comes to the imperialist leaders of the West, they are considered to be the world’s liberators — even when they have committed crimes resulting in death tolls, as in the invasion of Iraq, of hundreds of thousands at least.
This is emblematic of Israeli Assadwashing where the Syrian regime and other Arab states are considered despotic, whereas Israel is a light unto the world, a democracy surrounded by hostility.
Some dictators are Zionist-approved
Israel supporters who ostensibly support Arab human rights have used the Arab uprisings as a playing field for their own political agendas. This hypocrisy is obvious when looking at the Egyptian uprising which toppled Hosni Mubarak, an initially unfavorable outcome to many Israelis (and the Israeli government itself) who rallied for this favored dictator.
Indeed, if these pseudo-supporters of Arab human rights uniquely cared about Syrian rights, for example, they would be actively lobbying the Israeli government to give up the Golan Heights, a Syrian territory which Israel had ethnically cleansed and has been occupying since 1967.
The Syrian question is intimately tied with the Palestinian question. One cannot cherry-pick support for the right of the Syrian people to live free from tyranny without support for Palestinian liberation from Israeli settler-colonialism, and the opposite is also true.
The Syrian regime’s crimes do not justify Israeli crimes, as per injustices elsewhere, and all must be opposed. To be a Zionist, in whatever degree, is to believe in the oppression of Palestinians, and one cannot support freedom in one place and deny it in another.
Questions directed at supporters of Palestinian self-determination regarding what they are “doing about Syria” are irrelevant as these are rarely asked of activists involved in other causes, and are intended not to shed light upon the Syrians’ struggle, but to whitewash Israeli criminality.
Thus, according to Zionist logic, pro-Palestinian activists’ raison d’être must be disguised anti-Semitism unless they are protesting every single injustice in the world simultaneously, and even then, their motives are questionable. Palestinians, uniquely, are asked to carry this burden. The earnest college students who are praised for taking part in development missions in Africa are rarely told, for example, that they should go home and solve America’s deep problems of poverty, inequality and violence, before they show concern elsewhere.
The hypocrisy of the Zionist establishment and its propagandists in their feigned support for the Syrian uprising is ironic; for it is common knowledge that if Homs is Gaza, and Assad is Israel, they would not be organizing rallies or pretending to care about the victims. Instead they would be bringing Assad’s soldiers to tour university campuses in order to show their “humanity” and argue for their “right to self-defense.”
Jamil Sbitan is a Palestinian student at Boston University. He is an active member of the Boston University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, and is also active in the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter @JamilSbitan.