A rare voice: An interview with author Ilan Pappe

Ilan Pappe

A tenuous ceasefire is holding in the Gaza Strip after almost five months of a heavy dose of “Operation Summer Rain” by the Israeli military.

The showers of missiles, aerial bombardment, military incursions into populated areas over the course of the five month ‘rain’ storm have left dead more than 457 people, a quarter of them children, and well over 1,000 injured.

Since the summer rains began, many in the Israeli peace camp have remained silent about the ongoing crisis in Gaza and the West Bank. However, one voice remains constant in Israeli circles and continues to speak out despite opposition to the contrary. Professor Ilan Pappe is a professor of history at Haifa University. He has written numerous articles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has openly and continuously called for academic as well as cultural boycotts of Israel.

These pronouncements have made Professor Pappe a scion in the eyes of the Israeli government and public, but he continues to move forward in the hope of reconciliation and justice for Palestinians. His latest contribution is the new book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.

EI contributor Christopher Brown recently spoke over the phone with Professor Pappe about the current situation in Israel/Palestine.

Christopher Brown: Ehud Olmert recently appointed Avigdor Lieberman as deputy prime minister — a man who some consider a “fascist” in light of his views towards Arabs, and Palestinians in particular. Yet, the world press has barely said anything about his rants; for instance, that all Arabs should be expelled from the territories, and Arab Knesset members be executed for having any contact with the Hamas led government. Meanwhile, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, has his every word recorded for all to hear, regarding the Holocaust being a hoax, the destruction of Israel and the like. Your response?

Ilan Pappe: I think you’ve put your finger on two very important issues. The first one is the ideology that Avigdor Lieberman subscribes to that is an ethnic cleansing ideology. Someone who believes that the only way to solving the problems in Israel/Palestine is by expelling the Palestinians from Israel and any territory Israel covets.

I think the problem with Avigdor Lieberman is not his own views but the fact that he reflects what most Israeli Jews think, and definitely what most of his colleagues in the Olmert government think but don’t dare to say, or don’t think is desirable to say for tactical reasons. But I do think that we should be worried about Lieberman, not as an extreme fascist but rather as a person who represents the mood of Israel in 2006.

The second point is the double standard, the hypocrisy that you pointed to where you compared rightly the utterances of Ahmadinejad being repeated and how similar, and worse generalizations and attitudes by Israelis are not heard at all. And I think the reason has to do with the very peculiar standing that Israel has among the western world. [However] not in the eyes of civil society … [To] most people that live today in the west, [Israel] is a country that violates human rights, civil rights, and both its ideology and polices are not acceptable. But the governments are still very supportive of the state because the world is lead by an American president and a group of people who have a certain point of view, almost a religious point of view, in which such ideas like that of Lieberman fit well.

There’s not that much difference between Israeli policy and U.S. policy in Iraq. And I think as long as America is the super-power in the world and Israel is its closest ally, we will continue to see this double standard in the attitudes of governments and in the mainstream media.

CB: Sixty-one Irish academics wrote a public letter in September, calling for a moratorium on EU aid to Israeli universities until Israel abides by international law and basic human rights norms. In addition, a Canadian teachers’ union has also called for academic boycotts. Is this an effective way to pressure the Israeli government to address the occupation in a way that brings about justice for the Palestinians?

IP: It is an effective way if it’s not only an academic boycott. An academic boycott is only one component in what one cold call a cultural boycott of Israel, because it will be very hard in this globalized world we live in to bring about economic sanctions, which would have been the most effective in forcing a change in Israeli policy.

The second best, and more feasible, [way] is to send a message to Israel from the societies at large that its policies are unacceptable, that as long as it continues to do what it does it cannot be accepted … It cannot be in the community of civilized nations.

I think there is both a symbolic and a very political significance to a coordinated reaction by societies in the west for a message, a clear message, that is conveyed in the way of a boycott of divestment or any other symbolic act which says that there is a price tag attached to the policies that you pursue and as long as you pursue these policies, you are not welcomed here. Not as individuals — you are not welcomed here if you represent a certain ideology, a certain state, and especially if you appear as an official representative of this state. We are not inventing the wheel, of course. The cultural boycott was a very crucial component in the action against Apartheid in South Africa. It was very effective and useful according to people who lived there.

The most important thing to remember about such actions is that they are nonviolent. One has to show that the Palestinians, and the Palestinians have to discover it themselves, that there are nonviolent possibilities in pursuing the struggle against Israeli occupation. Because if they are nonviolent, who could blame the Palestinians for using every desperate means at their disposal to try and stop one of the cruelest and most oppressive occupations in modern times?

CB: What of those [like the Israeli lobby groups] who would say that proposing a cultural and academic boycott is furthering anti-semitism? How do you respond to that?

IP: Three points are important in this connection. The first one should highlight the fact that many progressive and liberal Jews both in the United States and in Europe are involved in the cultural boycott action. In fact, in the name of their Jewish identity, heritage, their understanding of Jewish values, they stood alongside those demonstrators against the violations of human rights in the southern United States, in South America, in South Africa, and in Southeast Asia — they see no difference when it comes to Israel-Palestine. In fact, in this case, even though it’s a Jewish state that violates human rights, it does not change their position. Whoever is the violator, they should stand against them.

The second [point] is, the Israelis are over-using the anti-semitic accusation against anyone who criticizes them. Not only [against] those who call for a boycott, even the mildest criticism of Israel is depicted here as an act of anti-semitism. I think with a good educational network, one could disseminate the views that this is an Israeli tactic that has very little to do with real or actualized upsurges of anti-semitic feelings, which definitely still prevail in some parts of the world. Maybe one or two known anti-semites have joined the wagon, but that doesn’t prove anything. The fact is that Israel wants to be immune from any criticism. And the shield it uses is always anti-semitism.

Thirdly, and most important, one should differentiate between Zionism and Judaism. By now we can see after 60 years the implementations of the Zionist ideology on the ground from the Palestinian point of view.

This ideology may have done some good things for Jews around the world, but it is definitely something that does not allow the Palestinians to live in peace or even to live at all on their homeland, and this is Zionism. It has some connection to Judaism, but its not about Judaism. It’s about a certain colonial ideology that still, in the 21st century, is ascribed to by a state which is an unfinished project. The State of Israel has not been built properly. As you know, we don’t even have final borders.
I think it’s very important to educate people that this is not a Jewish question that we are dealing with; we are dealing with a certain relic of the colonial period that is still allowed to continue in a post-colonial situation. And as long as it continues as it does, [it] complicates the relationship between the Western world and the Arab world and the Muslim world.

CB: On November 7th the Democratic Party won elections that will allow them to control the Congress of the United States. The Democrats have been critical of the Bush administration’s policies regarding the handling of the Iraq war. But the party has reiterated that the relationship between the U.S. and Israel would not change. Is this policy the best course of action for both countries, much less the Palestinians?

IP: Well, the results of the mid-term elections are good news from many aspects for the American public. But I don’t think [the elections] bring any good news to this part of the world. In other words, I don’t think that the shift in the balance of power in both houses would change American policy towards Palestine. It may change, and it should change of course, American policy in Iraq. But I think the Democratic Party is as committed to protecting Israel at the expense of the Palestinians as was the Republican administration. I don’t think that in the foreseeable future we are going to see any fundamental change in American policy towards Israel.

You ask whether it should. Of course it should. It should because if [the Democratic Party] is loyal to the new perspective it brings to American politics — the idea that Americans should have some inhibitions in international behavior, that the use of force in Iraq was wrong, and that there is a problem with the American image and standing in the world — if indeed this is the message of the Democrats to American politics, then I think they should pay attention to fact that the Americans’ standing and position in the world is not only affected not by the invasion of Iraq, but also the unconditional support that America gives to Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.

I think that they should realize that only in a change in the attitude towards Israel and a much more honest brokerage of the conflict can really bring constructive change in the relationship between the United States and the Arab world; the Muslim world is, after all, one quarter of the world’s population.

CB: Peace Now [an Israeli Peace organization], has found that approximately 40 percent of the settlements, including long-standing communities, are built on private Palestinian land and not on state-owned land. Peace Now was given this information from a source inside the Civil Administration who wanted to expose the wide-scale violations of private Palestinian property rights by the government and the settlers. Do you believe that there are more in the government who disagree with the treatment of the Palestinians and are willing to speak out?

IP: Maybe there are more but I believe that this is not enough. This kind of criticism by Peace Now about the piece of information that they leaked to us is very important. But don’t forget for one moment any square inch that has been taken by Israel is an illegal occupation, not only the 40 percent that was private land.

The problem in Israel is [that] between Peace Now [and Avigdor] Lieberman, contrary to what people are saying, there isn’t that much of an ideological distance

It may be a starker violation but the whole Israeli presence there is a violation of human rights and civil rights. What is needed is much more than this kind of criticism. The problem in Israel is [that] between Peace Now [and Avigdor] Lieberman, contrary to what people are saying, there isn’t that much of an ideological distance. It’s a tactical question of how best to ensure a Jewish state with a vast demographic majority is not exclusive.

Lieberman says, let’s take any territory we need and achieve that goal by downsizing the number of Arabs living there. Peace Now says, no, let’s take less land and downsize the land rather than the population and then we can have the coveted exclusive supremacist state. Both positions are morally and politically wrong and unacceptable because at the end of the day you have 20 percent to 30 percent of [Israel’s population comprised of] Palestinians, even in the smallest state that Peace Now covets and Peace Now is not willing to see them as equal citizens.

And people, even in Peace Now, would put the idea of a Jewish state above any other failure, democratic or liberal. So I think that even if I would have found in the government or the administration people who want a cleaner mode of occupation, a more legitimized occupation, I would of course welcome it. But I’m warning [that] we’ve been there before. These people have even been in government and they didn’t make any change because the reason for the ongoing conflict between Israel/Palestine is not because Israel occupies parts of the West Bank and Gaza and is not willing to give them back. The reason we have the conflict is the Zionist ideology. This is where it starts and this is where it ends. As long as the vast majority of Jews in Israel subscribes this ideology in its present interpretation, I’m afraid we will not see peace and reconciliation coming to this land.

CB: Finally, Ilan Pappe, what can people who hope for the security of both the Israelis and Palestinians do?

IP: Well I think everybody has his or her role to play, especially people who care; either those that belong to Israel-Palestine or care about Israel/Palestine. I think the Palestinians have their role of resistance; the progressive forces inside Israel continue to try and educate and change the point of view of their compatriots.

But society outside has to play the same role that the anti-Apartheid movement played in the West during the heyday of Apartheid. We need a strong lobby inside the western world — especially in the United States, but also in Europe. That [lobby] would send a very clear message to Israel that these polices and ideologies are not acceptable, especially if you want to be part of the democratic world, and we need you to change your policy, the ideological nature of the state, and have a much more democratic society on the ground.

Israel needs a wake-up call. Israelis don’t know that this is what the world thinks about them and I think that civil societies around the world can be the alarm clock for them, and they should be the alarm clock.

Christopher Brown is an independent grassroots journalist living in San Francisco, CA. He has a blog on Palestine at www.cbgonzo.blogspot.com.

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