At Sydney's Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House last Sunday, touring Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe, spoke to the topic, Israel is an apartheid state. The Concert Hall was virtually full, partly I imagine as a result of his hugely successful appearance on Q&A, and the audience was appreciative and receptive. Needless to say, Pappe was a breath of fresh air, speaking easily and wittily without notes, and was given a well-deserved standing ovation at the end.
For those of you not present, I thought it might be useful to summarise his speech and the q&a session which followed:
Pappe: Is this a dangerous idea? Many Israelis wouldn't think so. Nor South Africans. Nor many journalists and progressive folk in the West. Liberal Zionists though find it dangerous, and for many years have been trying to square the circle in an attempt to justify Israel's apartheid policies. Jewish communities, of course, are allergic to the very idea. No, it's not the recognition that Israel is an apartheid state that's dangerous, it's Israel itself that is dangerous; dangerous to Palestinians, dangerous to Jews in Israel and abroad, and dangerous to the world beyond.
Apartheid is a generic term for a legal, economic, social and political regime based on dispossession, discrimination and segregation on the basis of race, religion or nationality. The early Zionists, who were prolific diarists, described the Palestinians as dangerous aliens and usurpers. Their resistance to Zionist colonisation led the colonisers to develop apartheid policies of self-segregation and gated communities, which they forced on the native population once they'd become a ruling majority in 1948.
They institutionalised segregation, forcing on the Palestinian minority in Israel an invisible apartheid based on restricted living spaces, double standards in the courts and reduced access to state benefits. The Palestinian Israelis are confined to enclaves, with no new Arab towns being built since 1948. In contrast, hundreds of Jewish settlements have been constructed. In the West Bank, apartheid is starkly visible. Gaza of course is a world on its own, a large ghetto. How ironic that the people who most suffered from policies based on demography and population control in Europe should be dishing it out to others in Palestine.
Pappe then took questions from the audience:
The first questioner took exception to his reference to Palestine's indigenous Arab population. Jews too are indigenous to 'Palestine' she contended. Pappe responded that he was not indigenous to Palestine, but a 3rd generation settler-colonialist, and that, for good or ill, that's what most Israeli Jews, and Australians for that matter, were. Sorry about that.
The second bemoaned the US's propping up of Israel, seeing little progress so long as that pertained. Ever the optimist, Pappe reminded the audience that historically nothing is forever and cited such positives as America's 1919 King-Crane Commission and President Eisenhower's bringing the Israelis to heel in the wake of the 1956 Suez crisis. He further noted a fundamental change away from knee-jerk support for Israel in US universities, civil society and the trade union movement.
The third asserted that however hard poor little peace-seeking Israel looked, it simply couldn't fond a peace partner. Pappe, however, explained that the so-called peace process had essentially been a matter of USrael always dictating to the Palestinians.
The fourth asked Pappe if he saw evidence of a tipping point in the Middle East conflict, but I can't quite remember his answer. I think it was something along the lines of the light being often just around the corner of the darkest tunnel.
The fifth raised the issue of an academic boycott of Israel. Pappe was supportive of the idea, pointing out the role of Israeli academics in squaring the Israeli circle and acting as a scholarly shield for Israeli oppression.
The sixth asserted that while there was only one Jewish state, African refugees were flocking there, so go figure, Pappe. Pappe argued that in fact Israel didn't really care where its immigrants came from so long as they boosted its numbers vis-a-vis the Palestinians, and noted that many of the so-called Russian Jews brought in in the 80s were actually Christians. He went on to say that, at the end of the day, only the Palestinians were in a position to give permission for people to live in Palestine.
And lo, the seventh turned out to be our friend from the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, Vic Alhadeff. Vic asserted that as an ex-South African he knew what apartheid was and had struggled against it (See my 23/10/10 post SuperVic?). Pappe, he charged, was too blinded by anti-Zionist ideology to be an objective historian. Isn't it funny, said Pappe, how only Zionist historians get to be objective? He went on to refer to South Africa's apartheid as petty apartheid in comparison with Israel's more hidden, veiled variety. A comic interlude then occurred following some confusion on the compere's part as to whether Vic's question had been fully addressed and he was invited for a second chomp of the cherry. Vic, having already resumed his seat, fairly leapt from it and sprinted to the microphone, evidence if one needed it, of the man's astonishing athleticism, if not of the relevance of his intellectual contribution to the debate, given that I was too cracked up to hear what he said second time around.
The eighth referred to a thesis on the Tantura massacre of 22-23 May, 1948 by one of Pappe's former students, Teddy Katz, suggesting that it had been discredited by the evidence of one of his interlocutors, an Abu Fihmi. The latter had died a long time ago, reflected Pappe, and the fact that Katz became the subject of a defamation case over his thesis is indicative of the depth of Nakba denial in Israel. (The Katz affair features prominently in Pappe's 2010 book Out of the Frame: The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel.)
If I got it right, the ninth asked if Pappe's politics were in conflict with his faith. Pappe said he'd heard just about every question and more during his 14 appearances in Australia but not that one. He replied beautifully that, as his Zionism receded, the more human and Jewish he felt.
The tenth was outraged at the fact that Zionist barrister Irving Wallach had sought to legitimise his support for Israel by citing the alleged statements of certain aboriginal clients. Pappe remarked on the phenomenon of the blind spot so common in certain Jewish intellectuals/activists, who evinced concern for every downtrodden people on the planet bar one. I can speak to an Israeli audience, he said, about Palestinian women forced to give birth at checkpoints, Palestinian kids suffering from cancer being refused entry to Israeli hospitals, the demolition of Palestinian homes, and the torture of Palestinian prisoners, and nothing moves them! - which is why we need a global BDS campaign.
A final comment - for the record. Pappe's appearance at the National Press Club last Wednesday was attended by not one representative of any ms media outlet. I have heard, in explanation, that the ms press don't bother attending NPC sessions when historical matters are on the agenda. If there is any truth in this, it surely constitutes a damning indictment of the press. And while on the subject of Pappe and the press, I imagine that efforts were made to interest at least its Fairfax half in taking an opinion piece from him, doing an interview with him or maybe even a feature. Whether that was the case or not, nothing whatever by or about Pappe ever appeared. Censorship? Self-censorship? Who knows? To look at it from another angle; if, here in Australia, we have a press that doesn't actively seek out an interview with a visitor of Pappe's stature, that's bad; but if we have a press that actually refuses an opportunity to interview him when offered one by those organising his tour, that's even worse.