Sunday, March 22, 2009

My T-Shirt, and Their's; and a Judicial Document

Pregnant Palestinian woman in the <span class=


SOME years ago, at a left-wing event in London, I was introduced to an American called Werner. He was not interested in my magazines, but asked me a question about (non-existent) links with another organisation. He listened impatiently to my explanation of the difference, before asking whether so-and-so was a member of my group, which I admitted. But this other crowd had published something by said so-and -so, Werner pointed out triumphantly, as though he thought I was hiding something.

Though friends had said this veteran was interested in the Jewish Socialists' Group, somehow I got the impression he was not interested in joining, nor learning our history, nor in contributing to our magazine. I'm not paranoid, and the bunch of us were heading to the pub and not the police station, but Werner's questions struck me as more third degree than Fourth International.

What really excited Werner was my T- shirt. It was quite a nice one, I thought; no slogans nor provocative statements to read, just a tastefully artistic townscape of old Jerusalem rooftops and archways, and the one word "Palestine" in quite discreet letters underneath. This was enough to set Werner going. Why was I wearing it? Well, I'd been helping out on a London Friends of Palestine stall that morning. But why Palestine? Why was I supporting the Palestinians?

"What about the Jews of Syria?!", climaxed Werner accusingly. I had to admit that I knew very little about the Jews of Syria. I looked to see if he was about to offer me an appropriate T shirt. I pointed out to him that the Palestinians were not responsible for the regime in Syria, (indeed they had suffered at its hands, as at Tel al Zataar) , any more than the Jews in Syria were responsible for the Israeli state's actions in Palestine. Or Lebanon. Perhaps I should have suggested he address his concerns to Ariel Sharon, who unlike me, did reportedly have secret contacts with the Syrian regime, Syrian security minister Rifaat al Assad (the present Syrian leader's uncle) at any rate, before the Lebanon war and the Sabra and Chatila massacres.

I did know some Syrian Jews, in Manchester, very nice people too. I should have listened to Werner if he had anything worthwhile to tell me about Syrian Jews, or invited him to write something about any campaign he was involved in for them. But I suspect he was only engaged in what my late friend Peter Fryer used to call the "Negroes-in-the South" method of argument. In Peter's younger days in the Communist Party they were trained to sidestep any criticism of the Soviet Union, such as over the treatment of some minorities, by saying "What about the Negroes in the American South?" It did not answer the question of Soviet minorities, nor did it help Black Americans, but it saved the trouble of thinking about the problems.

In this case I had not challenged Werner with any critical remarks about Israel, or Zionism, and had no idea what his views were to begin with, but the one word "Palestine" on my T-shirt had elicited his response. And exemplified a species of logic. All Palestinians are Arabs, some Arabs have allegedly behaved badly, therefore all Palestinians are guilty, and even to mention the name of their country is objectionable.

What brought this memory back to me, of an unimportant person and a trivial episode, was reading veteran Israeli journalist and peace campaigner Uri Avnery's article this week, "A Judicial Document". As Uri remarks, it had been a tumultuous week in the affairs of Israel. Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had made it clear he was abandoning the captive Israeli soldier Gilead Shalit. Labour leader Ehud Barak had decided to join a government which includes outright fascists. The former President of Israel was indicted on rape charges. A group of Israeli soldiers who served in Gaza testified that Israeli officers gave orders to kill unarmed civilians, including children.

A good week to hide any, then (as British government officials might have said). "In this cacophony, who would pay any attention to a sentence written by lawyers in a document submitted to the Supreme Court? ", wondered Avnery.

One issue I do recall concerning Syrian Jews was the case of young Jewish women who were not permitted to leave Syria in order to marry. Perhaps the regime was concerned that Syrian Jews might be reinforcing Israel. I think this human issue was resolved eventually, at least I have not heard it raised recently. But, as Avnery reminds us, Israel has a law which says that the wife of an Israeli citizen is not allowed to join him in Israel if she is living in the occupied Palestinian territories or in a “hostile” Arab country. (Note, incidentally, that legal distinction between Israel and the occupied territories is more than you get on Israeli tourist maps or in many Western media reports.)

"The Arab citizens of Israel belong to Hamulas (clans) which extend beyond the borders of the state. Arabs generally marry within the Hamula. This is an ancient custom, deeply rooted in their culture, probably originating in the desire to keep the family property together. In the Bible, Isaac married his cousin, Rebecca.

"The 'Green Line', which was fixed arbitrarily by the events of the 1948 war, divides families. One village found itself in Israel, the next remained outside the new state, the Hamula lives in both. The Nakba also created a large Palestinian Diaspora.

"A male Arab citizen in Israel who desires to marry a woman of his Hamula will often find her in the West Bank or in a refugee camp in Lebanon or Syria. The woman will generally join her husband and be taken in by his family. In theory, her husband could join her in Ramallah, but the standard of living there is much lower, and all his life – family, work, studies – is centered in Israel. Because of the large difference in the standard of living, a man in the occupied territories who marries a woman in Israel will also usually join her and receive Israeli citizenship, leaving behind his former life.

"It is hard to know how many Palestinians, male and female, have come to Israel during the 41 years of occupation and become Israeli citizens this way. One government office speaks of twenty thousand, another of more than a hundred thousand. Whatever the number, the Knesset has enacted an (officially “temporary”) law to put an end to this movement".

The usual excuse offered for discriminatory laws and repression in Israel is "security", but as Avnery remarks, "Behind the security argument there lurks, of course, a demographic demon. The Arabs now constitute about 20% of Israel’s citizens. If the country were to be swamped by a flood of Arab brides and bridegrooms, this percentage might rise to – God forbid! – 22%. How would the “Jewish State” look then?"

The matter came before the Israeli Supreme Court. The petitioners argued that this measure contradicted the Basic Laws which guarantee the equality of all citizens. The answer of the Ministry of Justice lawyers let the cat out of the bag. It asserts, for the first time, in unequivocal language, that:

“The State of Israel is at war with the Palestinian people, people against people, collective against collective.”

"At war with the Palestinian people". No nonsense there about fighting 'extremists' or "war with Hamas", such as we heard from Israeli PR people during the Gaza slaughter, and dutifully repeated in every broadcast by the BBC and other Western media.

So every Palestinian, be they Hamas or Fatah, or Democratic Front, or no party at all, every Palestinian - man or woman, young or old, is an enemy. Whether they live in Gaza, or the West Bank, or Lebanon, or anywhere else in the world, or are citizens of Israel. "A mason in Taibeh, Israel, a farmer near Nablus in the West Bank, a policeman of the Palestinian Authority in Jenin, a Hamas fighter in Gaza, a girl in a school in the Mia Mia refugee camp near Sidon, Lebanon, a naturalized American shopkeeper in New York – “collective against collective”.

So it is not really surprising that Israeli courts discriminate when handing out sentences, that the occupiers consider themselves entitled to take land and water resources, that armed settlers are allowed to terrorise Hebron stall holders and Bedouin shepherds, or that Israeli planes drop white phosphorus on residential areas, and soldiers are ordered to kill civilians. The hasbara ('explanation') merchants may deny these things, or claim they are exceptions, the unfortunate side-effect of war. But the Israeli Supreme Court rules differently. We can forget that old jibe about liberal-minded soldiers, too, "they shoot and cry". The daily Ha'aretz reported last week on the soldiers of an army unit who had proudly ordered T-shirts showing a pregnant Arab woman with a rifle trained on her belly and the words “1 shot, 2 kills”.

I wonder what sensitive souls like Werner would have to say about those T-shirts? I know that they would be upset to hear that some Israelis unhappy at the depths their society has plumbed are calling it "nazification".
I know that the IDF is not the only army to carry out atrocities, and the Israeli government is not the only one to lie about them. I hope there are not many supposed democrats and "socialists" left who are prepared to make an exception and find excuses for Israel. The Israeli Supreme Court has spelt it out with honesty. And though I am not one of those who always leap to make odious and cliched comparisons, I can't help thinking of which other infamous regime once declared itself at war with an entire people.

It is not a pleasant thought. But it something we have to think about.

No, Israel is not there yet. It still has decent people, they are still able to demonstrate and protest against what their state is doing. But they are worried about the way their society is going. And Israelis like Uri Avnery, who spoke in London recently, are pleading with "friends of Israel" to support them, and not their government.

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