Thursday, 17 May 2012

Anti-Semitism and Criticism of Israel

Along with my letter and those of Laurence Davis and Raymond Deane in yesterday's Irish Times, there was a 'pro-Israel' letter from David Fine.

Mr Fine asserts that there is 'something wrong' with Irish democracy 'if cultural groups are prepared to boycott the only functioning democracy in the Middle East', and if these groups support instead 'a quasi-state whose party in power has enshrined the demand in its own constitution to "drive the Jews into the sea"'.  He endorses Minister Alan Shatter's description of efforts by Palestine activists to persuade Dervish to give up its planned Israel tour as 'cultural fascism'.  Fine goes on to assert that 'Any form of opposition to the Jewish state ...  can only be interpreted as a veiled form of anti-Semitism'.  He then notes that Israel, 'unlike the Palestinian state', guarantees the vote to all its citizens, regardless of their ethnic background, gender identity, and so on.

This statement is problematic in various ways.  Firstly, it denounces 'cultural fascism' and then, without missing a beat, suggests that any form of opposition to the Jewish state is anti-Semitic - a formulation that is awe-inspiring in its totalizing reach. Secondly, the statement is factually incorrect.  Let's deal with the facts first.

Israel is not 'the only functioning democracy in the Middle East'.  Turkey is another democracy in the region, albeit also with serious flaws.  Israel is better characterised as an ethnocracy, because of the priority given in its Basic Laws to the Jewish people.  In that Basic Law, Israel is defined not as the state of its citizens, but as the state of the Jewish people.  This has the immediate and practical result of rendering all non-Jews in Israel as second-class, in juridical terms.  Furthermore, under the terms of the Law of Return, it means that a Jewish person living in Paris or Miami has the automatic right to citizenship of Israel, whereas a Palestinian person living in Cairo, whose parents left in 1948, has no such right.  Uri Davis has pointed out how at its inception the state of Israel transferred certain functions pertaining to the state over to organisations which are constituted only to assist or work for Jewish people.  A good example of this would be the administration of state lands by the Jewish National Fund.  Because the JNF continues to see its function as, indeed, the Judaization and 'redemption' of the land of Palestine, the ability of Palestinian citizens of Israel to buy or trade in land is fundamentally restricted.  A more recent example of this kind of structural racism would be the 2003 Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law.  This law prevents Palestinians from the Territories who marry Palestinian citizens of Israel themselves becoming citizens of Israel. It was renewed by the Supreme Court in 2006 and extended to persons from Syria, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.  The publisher of Ha'aretz, Amos Schocken, said in 2008 that the existence of this law on the statute  books turned Israel into an apartheid state.

Fine's statement is completely unclear as to what Palestinian 'state' he refers to.  Neither the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, nor the Hamas government in Gaza could be said to exercise anything like true sovereignty, so there is no Palestinian 'state'.  Neither the PLO Charter, nor the Covenant of Hamas (which is deeply problematic, and shot through with elements of anti-Semitism) make any mention of an ambition to 'drive the Jews into the sea'.

As to the idea that any opposition to the  Jewish state is a veiled form of anti-Semitism, well, the intention of such a statement is to delegitimize and block any criticism of Israel by the use of one of the worst slurs or aspersions that can be cast in the post-Holocaust world.  But there is a number of problems with this strategy:

1) it seeks to block all opposition, of any kind - be that militant or written or verbal or political or cultural or religious, violent or non-violent. We should note that it even blocks criticism of Israel by Jewish people, and by Israeli citizens.  This kind of blanket suppression of opinion is, surely, one of the essences of fascism; 

2) it elides the differences between the Jewish state and Jewish people everywhere.  Far more Jews live elsewhere in the world than in Israel.  Not all Jews identify with the 'Jewish state' - many of the most courageous and powerful critics of Israel are Jewish.  Not all Jews inside Israel identify with or fully endorse government policy.  Not all Jews fully identify with Zionism.  This statement in fact arrogates to Israel the right to represent all Jews everywhere, whether they like it or not.  This too is hardly democratic;

3) the fact is that the charge of anti-Semitism is thrown so often, and so easily, these days means that it has become profoundly and dangerously cheapened.   Its use by someone like Fine elides the gulf of difference between Nazi advocates of genocide and non-violent protestors who demonstrate outside Israeli embassies.  This elision, too, is characteristic of the fascism Fine purports to oppose.

One excellent point of reference in discussion of this kind is the work of the brilliant Jewish-American philosopher and cultural theorist Judith Butler.  Butler teaches at UC Berkeley, and is best known as a theorist of gender and sexual identity working at once in the Hegelian and poststructuralist traditions.  But she has also written influentially on hate speech, and she has long been an anti-Zionist activist.   In August 2003, she published an essay in the London Review of Books, 'No it's not anti-semitic', which she then re-published in extended form in her collection of political essays, Precarious Life (2006).  It starts off from statements made by Larry Summer, president of Harvard University, about campus 'anti-Semitism', and proceeds, carefully and politely, to demolish positions such as that of David Fine.  Anyone interested in the debate about Israel and Palestine should read it.


Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Letters in the Irish Times

In today's Irish Times, my letter replying to Ivor Shorts, along with letters by Raymond Deane and Laurence Davis, is published.  I am pleased, of course, though it must be noted that up until now the IPSC-bashers and proponents of 'balance' have had the field.  I am leaving my letter up here.

The link to today's letters is


Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Failed Arguments

When it comes to the Israel/Palestine conflict, bizarre, illogical and incoherent arguments are often produced to 'defend' Israel.  An example appeared in the Irish Times last Saturday May 12.  One Ivor Shorts suggested that criticisms of Israel would have greater credibility if they acknowledged the warlike intent and efforts of the Arab states against Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973.  Here's his letter:

Here's the text of a letter I submitted to the Irish Times by way of reply, which has not been published:

May 12, 2012

Dear Sir

Ivor Shorts (letters, Saturday May 12, 2012) argues that criticism of Israel has more credibility if it's preceded by criticism of wars launched by the Arab states against Israerl in 1948, 1967 and 1973, and rockets launched at Israel more recently.

Mr Shorts' argument is deficient on at least two counts, historically and logically. Historically: by the time that the Arab armies attacked Israel in May 1948, Jewish guerillas had already ethnically cleansed 250, 000 Palestinians, and assaulted the areas labelled as the Palestinian state to come under the UN partition plan. Everybody knows that Israel attacked Egypt, Jordan, and Syria first in 1967, arguably unnecessarily, by destroying their airforces on the ground. 1967 was a 'war of choice' for Israel. Even the 1973 war, launched by Egypt and Syria, never touched pre-1967 Israeli territory, but only territory conquered by Israel in 1967.

Logically: the barbarous crime of the 45 year occupation was not erased or exculpated in anticipation by the 1948, 1967 or 1973 wars. Who started those wars is irrelevant to the occupation now.

Yours sincerely

Conor McCarthy

I think that these points stand.  There are multiple  complications with Shorts's suggestion that Israel was the victim in 1948 and 1967.  Not only were the Haganah and the Irgun Zvai Leumi involved in offensive operations in the areas of the 'Palestinian state' envisaged under the UN Partition Plan as early as March 1948 - two months before the 'declaration of independence' after which the Arab armies intervened -  but infamous episodes such as the Dayr Yasin massacre of Palestinian villagers took place before the arrival of Arab troops.  Further, the Jewish militias were never outnumbered - by the end of the war in 1949, they outnumbered their Arab opponents by 2:1 - and after a crucial shipment of Czech armaments arrived during the first truce (June-July 1948), they were much better-equipped.  Jewish/Israeli forces successfully beat off their attackers, while the Palestinian exodus continued.

In 1967, similarly, the lead-up to the war was characterised by both Israeli and Egyptian brinkmanship.  As late as May 1967, Israel was told by American intelligence sources that it could successfully defeat any combination of the Arab armies.  Israel famously attacked first, in the swift and devastating 'pre-emptive strike' on the airforces of its Arab enemies, almost completely wiping out the entire strength of the Egyptian air force, and putting in strikes on the Jordanian and Syrian air forces later on the same day.   Israel's rapid and tremendous victory was due to its taking the initiative in this way.  Of course, what Shorts also fails to note is that during the fighting, another 250,000 Palestinians were expelled from the West Bank into Jordan.

Shorts fails to mention the 1956 Suez War, where Israel, Britain and France attacked Egypt, and he fails to mention the 1982 Lebanon War, where Israel invaded Lebanon, laid siege to Beirut, precipitated the Sabra and Chatila massacres of Palestinian civilians, and occupied large swathes of Lebanon for many years after.  

Having surveyed the historical record, one nevertheless then must note that the wars of Israel and the Arab states, started by one side or the other, in no way justify the occupation.  Are Israel's current crimes of illegal population transfer and colonisation, collective punishment, ethnic prejudice, extra-judicial execution, water and resource theft somehow wiped off the record by the fact that the Egyptian Army crossed the Bar-Lev Line in 1973?   Of course not, and to argue that they are is illogical and incoherent, a non sequitur on the grand scale.  So why does the supposed national newspaper of record  publish such crassly inaccurate and badly argued missives as that of Ivor Shorts?


Monday, 14 May 2012

Palestine Is Still The Issue

Here are links to three articles I've written touching on Palestine in the last few years.  Inevitably, they are already dated, but might still be of interest.

The first is a review of Norman Finkelstein's Beyond Chutzpah in Village MagazineVillage, both in its more recent low-profile manifestation, and in its original version edited by Vincent Browne with Sarah Burke, was one of the few Irish publications to take the question of Palestine seriously, and to be open to critical views.  Norman Finkelstein has been a radical historian of and commentator on the Israel/Palestine conflict for 30 years, since his brilliant debunking of Joan Peters's From Time ImmemorialBeyond Chutzpah, which has since gone to a second edition, remains useful as a critique of the political use of the 'anti-Semitism' slur, and as a powerful human-rights-orientated rebuttal of Alan Dershowitz's The Case for Israel
Beyond Chutzpah in Ireland

The second article is an essay I published in 2010 in The Citizen, the magazine of the Ireland Institute, a think-tank on modern republicanism in Ireland based in the Pearse Centre in Dublin.  The essay's endorsement of the Goldstone Report would seem to have been rendered out of date by Judge Goldstone's subsequent recantations.  Yet the furore the Report created at the time, the immense pressure then put on Goldstone, and the perceived propaganda victory for Israel of his turn away from the implications of his work perhaps bear out its original power. 

Palestine, Once Again the Issue

The third piece is a review of Gideon Levy's The Punishment  of Gaza, written for the Irish Left Review in 2010.  Levy is a columnist with the Israeli daily, Ha'aretz.
The Punishment of Gaza

Diary May 14

The Dervish controversy rumbles on.  FullSet, the support band for Dervish's planned tour in Israel, has issued a statement regretting the cancellation. The Irish Times has run several articles on the debate, which reveal as much about that paper's elite orientation and about the slanted 'objectivity' characteristic of power, as anything else of substance.  Kevin Myers, always acutely attuned to the agonies of the potentates, has published an article on Ynet, the internet arm of Yedioth Ahronoth, portraying the episode as 'the war on Israel, Irish-style'Such is the general level of Irish discussion.


Wednesday, 9 May 2012

An eloquent indirect riposte to Alan Shatter

Today, the IPSC organised an intervention at the AGM of Cement Roadstone Holdings, the Irish company which has a 25% share in the Israeli company which in turn owns the supplier of 90% of Israeli cement.  This is an example of intelligent, cogent and non-violent action of the kind Alan Shatter can't stomach.

This is the IPSC press release:

Palestinian women confront CRH Board, submit 10,000 strong petition urging divestment from Israel

Ireland Solidarity Palestine Campaign

Press Release, Wed 9th May 2012, 6.30pm

This year’s CRH Annual General Meeting in Dun Laoghaire was again the scene of calls for the company to divest from its Israeli business interests which are involved in building the illegal wall and settlements in Palestine. Two Palestinian women made impassioned pleas from the floor asking CRH to heed the 10,000 signature strong petition calling for CRH to “Stop Cementing Misery in Palestine”. The petition and demonstration were organised by the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC).

Outside, over 50 human rights activists created a colourful spectacle along Marine Road. 33 activists each held a single placard with one letter of the campaign slogan calling on CRH to divest while others held aloft 25 feet high Palestinian flags and 30 feet long Palestinian banners.

John Dorman, Divestment Officer of the IPSC, said that the intervention was because “CRH owns 25% of the Israeli company Mashav Initiative and Development Ltd, which in turn owns Israel’s sole cement producer Nesher Cement Enterprises Ltd. Nesher provide up to 90% of all cement sold in Israel, including cement used in the construction of Israel's illegal separation wall in Palestine and illegal settlements and checkpoints.”

Palestinian human rights lawyer, Huwaida Arraf, drew a round of applause in the meeting after her heartfelt entreaty to CRH, which left board members stony-faced and decidedly awkward looking. In her speech, Ms Arraf implored CRH to divest from Israel. She said, “I am here to plead with you not be complicit in building Israel’s ghettos of the 21st Century that my family is living in right now. You say that CRH has no control over the end use of the cement that the Nesher company produces. I’m sorry but Palestinians simply can’t accept that. We cannot accept it because you knowingly invested in this company, and you are aware that the company has built this wall and these settlements, declared by the World Court to be a violation of international law.

Ms Arraf concluded with a warning for CRH and its shareholders, saying that “CRH should divest from Israel like other companies are doing right now, or else they face the loss of massive contracts as companies like G4S and Veolia have seen recently as a result of their complicity with Israeli apartheid. It is tainting the reputation of your company, so please do as other companies, who care morally and ethically about their investors and investments, have done and divest”.

Next to speak on the issue was Fatin Al Tamimi, a Palestinian woman from Hebron in the West Bank. Ms Tamimi pointed out that her “hometown is now an apartheid city because of the illegal settlements and checkpoints in its centre, built with cement from Nesher. CRH says it is committed to the highest standards of ethical, legal and moral standards. All I have to do is look at my home town, and CRH’s facilitation of Israel’s apartheid regime of occupation in Palestine, to see that this is a hollow claim. And I am not the only one.”

To prove her point, Ms Tamimi concluded: that she “would like to present the Board of Directors with a petition which has over ten thousand signatures calling on CRH to stop cementing misery in Palestine and to divest from its Israeli business interests. While most signatories are Irish, there are names here from Jacksonville to Johannesburg to Jerusalem, all united behind this call. The question is, will you listen CRH?”

At this point the petition was handed to the Board in cardboard boxes decorated to represent the Apartheid Wall, while Ms Tamimi held aloft a large placard calling on CRH to listen to the call.

During his intervention, John Dorman of the IPSC questioned whether falling profit rates for CRH were due to their continued investment in Israel. He also noted that the IPSC would be distributing a “CRH Annual Comic” in the lobby, but that it came with a health warning that “you may not find it funny that CRH profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestine”. 200 copies were distributed and the comic is available to download here:


The Israeli Occupation of Palestinian Territories - Resources

Neve Gordon is a distinguished Israeli political scientist teaching at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev.  His book Israel's Occupation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008) is probably the most complete, and one of the most alarming, accounts of the conquest, occupation and colonisation of the Palestinian Territories.  His personal website collects articles, book reviews and is updated regularly: Israel's Occupation | Neve Gordon

Here is a website I discovered only recently.  It brings together a very strong collection of archived documents, commentary, analysis and information for activists.  Its contributors include Amira Hass, Rashid Khalidi, Bashir Abu-Manneh, Noam Chomsky, Irene Gendzier and Gideon Levy: Israeli Occupation Archive




Dervish, Alan Shatter and 'fascism'

What is one to make of the IPSC/Dervish/Alan Shatter barney?

The plain facts of the case are as follows.  Highly-regarded Irish traditional band Dervish planned a tour of Israel.  Palestine solidarity activists called upon the group, via its website, to reconsider.  The band announced on Monday April 30 that it had cancelled its tour.  And then Alan Shatter, Ireland's Minister for Justice and for Defence, weighed in,  with two statements attacking the 'IPSG' (sic).

On closer examination, a few more interesting things emerge.  Dervish's members come across as well-meaning, but politically naive and a bit dim.  They say in their original statement that they were not aware of the cultural boycott of Israel, but 'We now feel that we do not wish to break this boycott'.  The band's lead singer, Cathy Jordan, says in a separate statement posted the next day that 'venom' was directed against the band, in 'an avalanche of negativity'.  She claims that she is a 'humanitarian', one who 'abhors all violence for whatever reason', who 'loathes any violations of people's human rights and dignity'.  It is not clear in Jordan's statement where the 'venom' and 'negativity' actually came from, though the general public assumption has been that it came from Palestine activists.  Looking at the band's 'notebook' on the evening of May 9, I could find only two comments criticising the band for playing in Israel, and a great many more lambasting it for cancelling its tour.

Alan Shatter comes out of the melee principally as a cynical opportunist, but also as a paranoid bully.  His first statement accuses the 'IPSG' (sic) of 'cyberbullying'.  He says that it is 'absolutely understandable' that the group would bow to the pressure put on it by withdrawing from its tour, but that of course the 'IPSG' (sic) has no interest in 'peace and reconciliation' of the kind hoped for by Dervish.  He notes that, 'worryingly', declassified documents from Osama Bin Laden's last hideout in Pakistan 'indicate that the actions of the Irish Palestinian Solidarity Group (IPSG) and its associates have caught the attention of some of Osama Bin Ladens followers who now see Ireland as promising ground for support'.  The IPSG's appeal to human rights 'rings hollow', Shatter declares, as it ignores the constitutional rights of Irish people 'to get on with their lives, to travel, and to perform around the world free from bullying'.

So where are we?

Dervish wishes to recognise the boycott - fair enough.  Equally, if it feels it was put under horrendous and wrongheaded pressure, then it could stick to its original intentions, damn the begrudgers, and go ahead with its tour.  Clearly, the pressure was considerable but if Dervish was truly principled it could ignore it and get on with its tour.

Shatter, of course, deliberately overlooks the fact that the band has said that it wishes to recognise the boycott, and rushes unbidden to the group's defence.  His protection of Dervish 'rings hollow', to say the least, because his real purpose is to attack the IPSC, which he misnames, and which he smears with the linkage with al-Qaida.  The briefest examination of the documents referred to shows no reference to the IPSC or 'its associates' (whoever they are), but refers simply to the 'the sympathy of the Irish people to the Palestinian issue'.  He vapours about the constitutional rights of the Irish people, but there is nothing in Bunreacht na hEireann about a right 'to get on with' our lives.  There is, of course, a constitutional right to travel, but the IPSC and the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel nowhere seek to prevent anyone travelling to that country - the question is what one does when one gets there.  Furrthermore, Israel blocks entry to persons it opposes for political reasons all the time - notable recent examples were the denial of entry to Noam Chomsky in 2010, and the 'Flytilla' activists either denied entry or eventually deported last summer, but, unsurprisingly, Shatter has nothing to say about that. 

In today's Irish Times, Shatter is quoted in his second public statement on this matter as accusing the IPSC of 'cultural fascism'.  But more notable are Shatter's own threats and posturing.

By having a website, Dervish enters the public sphere.  The IPSC, or any other group of activists, is entitled to respond to Dervish in the public sphere in a respectful and responsible manner.  It is not the fault of the IPSC if Dervish cannot handle being made aware of the voluntary cultural boycott, or of Israel's frequently 'fascistic' approach to dissenting opinion, including dissenting cultural opinion.  Alan Shatter, a powerful minister holding two important portfolios, with much greater and easier access to the media than the IPSC, is using the Dervish story, and that group's narcissism, immaturity and ignorance, as a pretext to beat up on a respectable civil society organisation going about its campaigning business by accusing it of bullying and insinuating its alliance with the most reprehensible and intransigent kind of militancy.  It is he, not the IPSC, who is practicing the methods of 'fascism'.


Saturday, 5 May 2012

Hallo everyone -

I write that in the full knowledge that 'everyone' so far is only a handful of people!  However, Adam's ability to find the blog and comment on it is encouraging, even if I do not agree with his views.

I want today to put up links to some websites I find useful, interesting and stimulating.  Most of these will be political.

The first of these is Counterpunch - - edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair, one of the best, sharpest and often funniest leftwing websites emanating from America.  I have long been an admirer of Cockburn's.  His book Corruptions of Empire, invoked as an example on this  blog, came out in 1988, and was the first book of journalistic reflections I ever bought.  It remains a source of information, hilarity, and splendid prose.  Alexander, of course, comes from an extraordinarily talented family of writers.  His father, Claud, was a brilliant Scottish radical journalist in the 1930s, a writer for the Daily Worker, and a founder of The Week.  He was a columnist on the Irish Times after he moved with his family to Ardmore Co. Waterford, and it was there that he later noted at one point that 'Wherever there is a stink in international affairs, you'll find that Henry Kissinger has recently visited'.  His sons, Alex, Patrick and Andrew, are all important journalists.  Patrick is one of the most distinguished Anglophone Middle East correspondents, and one of the bravest, staying on in Baghdad right through the 2003 invasion and its chaotic and murderous aftermath, and writing books on the occupation and on Muqtada al-Sadr.  Patrick and Andrew co-authored a very fine study of Saddam Hussein ('An American Obsession', it's subtitled) well before the Bush administration decided to make Iraq safe for democracy.

Alexander writes with equal verve and wit about subjects as various as American politics, PG Wodehouse, cookery, sex and the Israel lobby.  The roster of contributors he has assembled for Counterpunch is very impressive, including Noam Chomsky, Alain Gresh, Uri Avnery, Robert Fisk, Ralph Nader, Kathleen and Bill Christison, Mike Davis, Perry Anderson, Fidel Castro, among many others.  Irish contributors include Harry Browne and Mairead Maguire.  The website is updated daily, and St Clair and Cockburn also issue a hardcopy newsletter version.

For material specifically on the Middle East and on Israel/Palestine specifically, I admire Electronic Intifada - see The Electronic Intifada - Electronic Intifada was set up in 2001 by Ali Abunimah.  Abunimah has written for various Western papers including the New York Times, the LA Times and the Guardian.  He's also the author of a book advocating the 'one-state solution' to the Israel/Palestine conflict.  EI includes blogs, material on media coverage of the conflict,on development and human rights, activism and is open to contributions.   EI is a necessary corrective to the bland, ostrich-like and putatively 'objective' coverage of Israel/Palestine mostly available in Ireland.