Anti-Palestinianism is as damnable as anti-Semitism: a statement is long overdue

Sep 15, 2021
Palestine flag feature
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Before endorsing the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of anti-Semitism, politicians in Australia and other western countries should consider the implications for the rights of Palestinians.

In public discourse, examples of anti-Semitism are numerous, but a search for illustrations of prejudice towards Palestine and Palestinians yields almost nothing. To fill this vacuum, and to hinder the rush to endorse the poorly conceived International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, a statement of anti-Palestinianism is desperately needed.

Controversy over anti-Semitism

In many countries, political parties and individual politicians are urged to endorse the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. There is even a motion before a forthcoming NSW Labor party conference that this IHRA definition be supported, otherwise the party could be considered anti-Semitic.

This definition says that anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews, but questions as to what is meant by “certain perception” or by “hatred”, are ignored. Instead, pressures to comply with that definition ensure the continuation of uncritical assumptions about anti-Semitism.

Barrister Geoffrey Robertson concluded that the IHRA definition was “imprecise, confusing, open to misinterpretation and manipulation”. The prominent US scholar Norman Finkelstein judged the document ‘”n impoverished, ignorant, slovenly substitute for rational dialectic”.

Israeli academic Professor Neve Gordon argued that the Israeli government needed this definition to justify its actions and to protect it from condemnation. My colleague Dr Peter Slezak recalls that the US non-government organisation Americans for Peace Now perceives the IHRA definition as quashing legitimate criticism and activism directed at Israeli government policies and would therefore not adopt it.

In spite of this criticism, politicians in Australia and other western countries find it easier to take the line of least resistance by approving the IHRA definition.

There are constructive alternatives to this compliance. The first is the Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism (JDA). The second is the prospective birth of a statement about anti-Palestinianism.

Released on March 2021 and signed by 200 scholars of Jewish studies and related fields, the JDA defines anti-Semitism as discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence towards Jews as Jews, and it challenges the use of the IHRA definition to prevent criticism of Israel.

The JDA rejects the belief that prejudice towards Israel is unique. It connects the fight against anti-Semitism with wider opposition to racism and bigotry, and perceives the IHRA claims as a tool for suppression of free speech, and for reinforcing perceptions of Jewish exceptionalism.

The carefully crafted JDA implies that those who would quickly support the IHRA definition should think again, not only concerning anti-Semitism but also about the blatant, previously ignored prejudice towards Palestinians.

Explaining anti-Palestinianism

The case for a statement about anti-Palestinianism should come as no surprise. Decades of military occupation of Palestinian lands, a siege of Gaza into a fifteenth year, millions contained in refugee camps and daily attacks on people’s lives and homes, may be reported as news yet accepted as routine, taken for granted.

Added to these brutalities are Palestinians’ experience of discriminatory, hateful and racist language, including being labelled as terrorists, not deserving of human rights, or even branded with the ultimate stigma, as not existing.

If even for one minute, such hatred was thrown against Jewish Israelis and their supporters, howls of rage would be heard around the globe. If similar outrage is to be expressed about anti-Palestinianism, the world needs to know that this concept, a yardstick of prejudice, should become as influential as concerns about anti-Semitism.

Before the birth of any official statement of anti-Palestinianism, it is not difficult to anticipate principles which would illustrate a significant document and the evidence on which it is based.

The Palestinian story should begin with accounts of a people’s enjoyment of respect, of entitlement to self determination, plus the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and instruments of international law. Yet an opposing narrative says there’s no such place as Palestine and in the words of former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, “There is no such thing as Palestinians… they do not exist.”

Even in an authoritarian world, there survives a principle that people who campaign non violently for their rights should be respected, yet prejudice towards Palestinians includes justification for killing them. In 2013, current Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett boasted, “I’ve already killed a lot of Arabs in my life, and there’s no problem with that.”

In 2018, Bennett advocated a shoot-to-kill policy for Palestinians crossing the Gaza border. Questioned whether children would be part of this policy, he replied, “they are not children, they are terrorists, we are fooling ourselves. I see the photos.”

Anti-Palestinianism can also sound genocidal, as when two rabbis wrote in a 2009 publication “Torah Ha Melech” that “non-Jews such as Palestinian Arabs are uncompassionate by nature and may have to be killed to curb their evil inclinations.”

If the IHRA definition declares it is anti-Semitic to deny the Jewish people their right to self determination, the same principle should affect the life chances of Palestinians.

On that basis, and consistent with international law, the architects of any statement of anti-Palestinianism would surely include reference to the Palestinian people being entitled to their own state. It would be negligent if such a principle did not also refer to illegal acts of Israeli occupation, annexation and the building of settlements.

In spite of principles which identify people’s entitlement to live in states of their own, Palestinians have been regarded as unworthy of such a right. From the deceit of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, to the displacement of 700,000 people in the Naqba tragedy of 1948, to June 2021 when Jewish supremacists in East Jerusalem chanted, “death to Arabs”, the treatment of Palestinians has been marked by cruelty.

With the connivance of US administrations, cues for cruelty have been expressed by successive Israeli prime ministers.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly asserted there would never be a Palestinian state. In an interview with The New Yorker in 2013, Naftali Bennett said, “I will do everything in my power, forever to fight against a Palestinian State”.

An historic moment

In Australia and elsewhere, politicians’ preoccupation with anti-Semitism and with supporting Israeli policies, has been sullied by indifference to Palestine and to the rights of Palestinians. These age-old abuses have provided the context for crafting a statement of anti-Palestinianism.

The publication of such a document will mark an historic moment. The weaponising of anti-Semitism to stifle the rights of Palestinians will at last be confronted by principles to advocate an end to anti-Palestinianism and to insist on respect for the common humanity of a whole people. Achieving that objective is imperative and long overdue.

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