This is a guest post from Nimer Sultany. Nimer is is Senior Lecturer in Public Law, SOAS, University of London. His book Law and Revolution: Legitimacy and Constitutionalism After the Arab Spring won the 2018 Book Award of the International Society of Public Law, and is shortlisted for the Society of Legal Scholars’ Peter Birks Prizes for Outstanding Legal Scholarship.
Imagine the uproar if the leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn were to cite Mahatma Gandhi on the question of Palestine (November 1938): “But my sympathy [to Jews’ conditions in Europe] does not blind me to the requirements of justice. The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me… Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French.” It is unlikely that Corbyn would cite Gandhi on this, however. According to the controversial IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, which the Labour Party is set to adopt in full, “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” is anti-Semitic.
The timing of this suppression of free speech is troubling. At the very time the Israeli government is implementing ever more extreme policies that solidify Jewish supremacy vis-à-vis Palestinian citizens inside Israel like me, Corbyn’s critics seek to expand the definition of anti-Semitism to the extent that it would stifle criticism of these very racist policies. At the time Israel routinely kills scores of Palestinians with impunity, Corbyn’s critics seek to deny him the ability to express unwavering solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom and equality, and deny us Palestinians the means by which we can express our suffering and name our oppression.
Whereas Corbyn’s critics seek to portray him as “palling with terrorists”, they have no qualms about celebrating, as Mark Regev did, Zionist leaders like Menachem Begin who was the leader of a breakaway alt-right group that murdered British officials and Palestinian civilians. Begin’s actions were part of the Zionist movement’s audacious armed robbery of the Palestinian people’s homeland to establish an ethnocracy.
Are Corbyn and his critics equally selective? Are Begin and Arafat both terrorists-turned-to-peacemakers? This discourse that makes Corbyn on the defensive is one that supports the violence that maintains colonialism and apartheid but condemns violence that seeks to resist it. It sanctions violence that sustains the longest military occupation since World War II. Yet, it is anti-colonial militants who seek to put an end to this systematic violence who are routinely condemned. The context in which violence occurs is eradicated.
Zionists like Andrew Feldman, the former chair of the Conservative Party, reduce Zionism to “Jewish national self-determination” in order to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Yet, the opposition to Zionism is precisely because it is not “a national self-determination” movement, but rather a settler-colonial movement. Unlike Zionist leaders like Israel’s founder David Ben-Gurion, Arafat did not call for the “compulsory transfer” of civilian populations to create “a Galilee free of Arab population” (12 July 1937) and “to expel the Arabs and take their places” even if force is necessary for that purpose (5 October 1937). Unlike Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin, Arafat did not engage in a Plan Dalet to drive civilians out of their towns during 1948, and then prevent their return by killing thousands of “infiltrators” who sought to return to their homes and bulldozing their villages. Unlike Israeli statesmen, Arafat did not impose a 20-years-long pass-permit regime and martial law on citizens who belonged to a national minority. Unlike Israeli leaders, Arafat did not engage in a mass confiscation of another nation’s lands, the mass incarceration of its sons and daughters, and the routine use of illegal weapons to bomb heavily populated civilian areas to force them into submission.
The point is clear: there is no equivalence between the systematic destruction of a people’s political existence, and the actions of anti-colonial resistance in the face of such an overwhelming project. Nelson Mandela is a freedom fighter even though the ANC engaged, as his autobiography suggests, in “sabotage”, “guerrilla warfare”, and “terrorism”. In fact, Corbyn—who has been attacked for laying a wreath in a Palestinian cemetery in Tunis—could have also quoted Gandhi on Palestinian resistance. Despite his well-known advocacy of non-violence he wrote in 1938: “I am not defending the Arab excesses… But according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.”
Has “the accepted canons of right and wrong” changed? The proponents of the expansive definition of “anti-Semitism” seek to deny Palestinians the ability to argue that “the existence of Israel is a racist endeavour”. Yet separating the “endeavour” from its specific policies hides their root cause. Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State is an explicit project to establish in Palestine “a rampart Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism”. His novel Altneuland imagined the inhabitants of Palestine as “Poor Turks, dirty Arabs, timid Jews”. Is that a “racist endeavour”? Israel is a settler colonial state which was born out of Zionist institutions and practices like the “Jewish Colonial Trust” and Jewish-only Hebrew Labour. Its founding entailed the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians, which condemned many of us to a life of exile, and the rest of us to second-class citizenship. The ongoing racist nature of this project is clear in that the state openly seeks to maintain demographic Jewish majority, advances Jewish-only communities, maintains segregated housing and education, and prevents Palestinian citizens from uniting with their spouses. Till this day, Israeli law refuses to include the principle of “equal protection of the laws” in the bill of rights, despite the repeated efforts of Arab lawmakers. Till this day, Israeli law refuses to acknowledge an inclusive “Israeli nationality” and instead posits an ethno-religious nationality.
These are facts that the proponents of the expansive definition of “anti-Semitism” seek to suppress. They argue that a definition of anti-Semitism should ban the Israeli Apartheid Weeks. As an academic who lectured in multiple Israeli Apartheid Week events on US and UK campuses, I describe Israel as an apartheid state because it created a separate and unequal status for the Palestinians. Whether it is a “separation wall” under false security pretences, two separate roads for two ethnically and religiously defined populations, or two legal regimes governing the same territory—Israel rules over millions of Palestinians denying them the right to determine their life conditions. In fact, Zionism’s reliance on ethnic cleansing makes it even more morally objectionable than the South African case. It is unsurprising, then, that both South African apartheid statesmen and anti-apartheid activists have recognised Israel as an apartheid state. Moreover, the “love affair between the security establishments” of Israel and South Africa’s Apartheid is well-documented.
While uncritical supporters of Israel may claim that all this amounts to “smear” or “de-legitimisation” — for Palestinians it is no less than speaking the truth about the facts of the situation as they know it from first-hand experience, as Palestinians under Israeli rule, and from extensive academic research. Indeed, many academics have studied the situation and analysed the policies that discriminate against Palestinians, segregate them from their Jewish counterparts, deny them their freedom, prevent their return, and silence their narrative.
Maintaining this ability to name the wrongs that are committed by powerful actors is crucial. Otherwise, the wronged party would be doubly victimised. Regardless of any concessions Labour and Corbyn may concede to these critics, Palestinian activists will continue to hold Israeli Apartheid Weeks, and to support civil society efforts to hold Israel accountable, like the BDS movement. Unlike Corbyn’s critics and their “new anti-Semitism”, we want the truth to be told, not mystified. Unlike them, we seek freedom and equality for all. We will not be silenced.