The general vanishes

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A few years ago, an Iranian general, Ali Reza Asgari, deputy minister of defence, vanished during a foreign trip. Rumours spread that he had defected or had been kidnapped by Israelis or Americans. At the end of 2010, the general once again appeared in the news. This time he was reportedly found dead in Israel. 

While no confirmation from Israel is forthcoming, there remains a strong suspicion that he was kidnapped by Israeli agents in Turkey, brought to Israel via the US Air base at Incirlik, interrogated for three years and finally died (was killed or committed suicide) in an Israeli prison. I have no privileged sources to support or deny the story. As a scholar long interested in Israel and Zionism, I can only assess the probability of such an event. Could Israel commit such acts? Is it congruent with its past record? Does it fit the ideology of Zionism that lies at the basis of the state of Israel?

Prima facie, the source of this story appears credible. This story reached me through a blog named ‘Tikun Olam”, Hebrew for Repairing the World, run by Richard Silverstein, an American Jewish activist. Jews, such as Ilan Pappe, Noam Chomsky and the rabbis of Neturei Karta have been among the most active and best-informed critics of Israel. This is no coincidence. Most Jews, religious or not, rejected Zionism when it emerged in the late 19th century. In spite of the establishment of the Zionist state and its military an economic successes, Jewish opposition has not vanished to this day. My recent book on Jewish opposition to Zionism explains and interprets this important but often obscured phenomenon that sheds a different light on the century-long conflict in the Holy Land. Having looked at what motivates Jews who reject Zionism, I am inclined to trust Jewish critics of Israel. While they are motivated by a strong desire to show that what Israel is and does has nothing to do with Jews, Jewish history and Jewish religion, their sources are usually reliable, and I have no reason to doubt this one.

Secondly, the suspected scenario fits established patterns. Kidnapping individuals in other countries and bringing them to Israel is part of the ethos that Israeli security services have developed over the years.

The history of Zionist activities even before the establishment of the state of Israel shows a taste for intrepid, often violent adventures and disdainful disregard for law, national or international. The cultivation of distrust by the state of Israel pretending to assure “the survival of the Jewish people” serves as a carte blanche to justify the use of any and all means available. Ironically, Zionism has turned the Holy Land into the most dangerous country for a Jew to live in. 

The first political murder perpetrated by Zionist organizations occurred as early as 1924, when Jacob De Haan, a prominent opponent of Zionism, was shot as he was leaving a synagogue in Jerusalem after the evening prayer. His murderers were Zionists who had infiltrated the British police. The murder was to prevent De Haan from organizing a delegation of rabbis to London in the hope of convincing British colonial authorities that Zionists did not represent Jews in Palestine or elsewhere, that Zionists represented only themselves. As a result of De Haan’s assassination, this delegation never left for London, and Zionists continued to act as if the Jews of the world were supporting them. Among the conspirators to murder was the future President of Israel Yitzhak Ben-Tsvi. Later, Zionist assassination squads committed murders of British and international officials in Cairo, with at least one of them being attributed to the future Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Shamir. 

There is a bitter irony in the manner in which the state of Israel consistently ignores and defies public international law. In fact, Israel may be the only state to derive its legitimacy from an international organization, i.e. the United Nations. It was a decision of the UN General Assembly to partition Palestine in 1947 that gave the Zionist movement a degree of international respectability. Taken against the will of the majority of Palestinians – Jewish, Christian and Muslim – the UN resolution was a bizarre vestige of colonial mentality and a recipe for chronic violence that has plagued the region ever since. When the United Nations later called on Israel to allow Palestinian refugees back, Israel refused and snubbed the international organization, proceeding to obliterate hundreds of Palestinian villages. Israel added insult to injury by settling the lands conquered from Egypt, Syria and Jordan in June 1967. Israel has since ignored dozens of resolutions adopted by the UN.

Israel has acted with resolve and determination, colonizing the occupied territories, assassinating presumed enemies around the world and – with particular relevance to our case – kidnapping people in other countries. The kidnapped are a rather motley crowd, ranging from the Nazi official Adolf Eichmann kidnapped in Argentina to the Israeli nuclear technician Mordekhai Vanunu abducted from Italy. Since kidnapping is part of the Israeli arsenal, it is quite conceivable that General Asgari would be dealt this way. / Israeli security services enjoy the privilege of impunity because of unswerving protection by the United States. In fact, there is an interesting parallel between the exceptionalism of Israel and that of the United States. Both countries have acted self-righteously in pursuit of its interests whatever the legal consequences. The only counterweight has been the threat of credible force from their adversaries: this is how, for nearly half a century, the aggressive instincts of the United States were held in check by the Soviet Union.

For decades, rather than admit that the colonial settler state generates hostility through dispossession and displacement, Israel has attributed the hostility of Palestinians and other Arabs to irrational causes, including “the new antisemitism”. This justified routine use of violence as “the only language they understand”.

The United States and other Western nations embraced this doctrine soon after the dismemberment of the Soviet Union. Thus the hostility of the perpetrators of the attack on the Twin Towers was attributed to “their hatred of our way of life”, rather than to perfectly rational causes such as rejection of US policies in Western Asia. The stage was set for the concept of “Clash of Civilizations”, and for the unabashed reliance on the use of force in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan as well as growing threats of the use of force against Iran. This is how the US practices have come to imitate those of Israel. Kidnapping was renamed “extraordinary rendition”, and came to be practiced with active cooperation of several European and Arab countries. There is little doubt that Israel and the United States would cooperate in such endeavours. It is therefore quite conceivable that the kidnapping of General Asgari could be carried out as a joint venture of Israel and the United States.

To justify a kidnapping of a deputy defence minister of another country, Israel had to build up the image of Iran as a dangerous and irrational enemy. This is how the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was portrayed as an anti-Semite who threatens to wipe Israel off the map.

These two claims have been proven false. While overtly anti-Zionist, he is not anti-Jewish. Indeed, had he been anti-Semitic, he would have harassed Iran’s Jews rather than criticize a nuclear-armed regional superpower. Nor has he threatened to wipe Israel off the map, as Zionist propaganda claims. Rather, comparing it to the Soviet Union, he expressed a wish to see Israel as the Zionist state disappear “from the page of time”. Just as the Soviet regime was not wiped out in a hail of nuclear weapons, he does not suggest using force to transform Israel into a normal state of equal citizens, which would live in peace with its neighbours. Like many non-, anti- and post-Zionist Jews, he wants Israel to evolve from a state for the Jews to an inclusive state of all its citizens.

A wish to see Israel evolve this way was misrepresented as a physical threat against Israeli civilians. This is how the emotionally charged allegations hurled at the Iranian president have become established truth and, moreover, ground for action in Israel and the United States.

Zionism has been a rebellion against Diaspora Judaism and its cult of humility and appeasement. Several Jewish thinkers had warned of this predicament. One of them prophesied in 1948, soon after the unilateral proclamation of independence by the Zionist leaders: 

And even if the Jews were to win the war, […] the “victorious” Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defence. […] And all this would be the fate of a nation that – no matter how many immigrants it could still absorb and how far it extended its boundaries – would still remain a very small people greatly outnumbered by hostile neighbours. 

This warning came from the German-American scholar Hannah Arendt who understood the perils of establishing a state against the will of local inhabitants and all the surrounding nations. Secular and religious thinkers alike had feared that Zionism would endanger Jews engulfing them in chronic violence. Indeed, to impose itself onto its “hostile neigbours” Israel has acquired the mightiest military in the region. But this has brought its citizens neither peace nor tranquillity as if confirming the words of the Biblical prophet Samuel: it is not by strength that man prevails (Samuel I 2:9). 

Nowadays, when no Arab state poses a military threat to Israel it is Iran that the Israelis are being told to fear. Just next to Iran, which is as yet far from acquiring a nuclear potential, lies Pakistan, an unstable regime with a real, not imaginary, nuclear arsenal. Just as Arendt prophesied, there may be no end to existential threats if Israel maintains its Zionist character. It follows that kidnapping a deputy minister of another country in a third one would make perfect sense in the Zionist frame of mind. While I have no solid evidence that the kidnapping took place, its probability appears rather high. 

The author is Professor of History and associate of CERIUM, Centre for International Studies at the University of Montreal. His recent book on the history of Jewish opposition to Zionism has been translated into eleven languages. It was named one of the three best books of the year in Japan in 2010, nominated for the Hecht Prize for Studies on Zionism in 2008, and for Canada’s Governor General Award in 2006.

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