“Phew! If you receive this…” it means the Conference is actually happening — so began the letter that welcomed us at the three-day International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Exceptionalism and Responsibility conference in Cork, Ireland, so tenuous and troubled was its genesis.
In what Professor Oren Ben-Dor described as a “spectacular failure of the protection of basic rights,” pro-Israeli censors had successfully blocked the conference twice in the UK, and nearly sabotaged it in Cork. The saboteurs did nonetheless succeed in forcing the conference out of its original venue, the University, on Friday and Saturday, and in costing it more money. City Hall ultimately allowed the organizers to rent a conference hall for those two days.
The Conference’s legacy is but part of a broad campaign of pro-Israeli harassment and intimidation in which the British government itself is shamefully complicit. Speakers all the way from internationally esteemed scholars like Richard Falk, to non-academics such as me, continue to have book talks and other events pulled in deference to that foreign pariah state, and slandered with scant means of redress.
But, finally, the saboteurs failed: last weekend, the beautiful city of Cork hosted this academic conference that examined the very nature of Israel — its “legitimacy, exceptionalism, and responsibility” — and the sky did not fall.
To my mind, the conference achieved two towering precedents. One, Israel’s exceptionalism — and, yes, its very legitimacy — are no longer above discussion. And two, “the occupation” as the operative mantra of the “conflict” is finally retired from the job it was never fit to hold.
“Occupation” as the rallying cry had always played into Israel’s hands. It presupposed the maintenance of an apartheid state within Israel and denial of right-of-return, and presupposed a fragmented Palestine. Moreover, even the alleged gold standard of “ending the occupation,” the so-called “67 borders” (1949 Armistice Line), grossly misrepresented that geographical aspect by ignoring the Israeli confiscation of the vast tracts of land between the 1947 partition and the Armistice — more than half of what was supposed to be Palestine, even if one accepts the legality of Partition. The Armistice was a temporary cease-fire line, not redrawn borders. That land that is every bit as “occupied” as the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.
The Conference was not limited to like-minded scholars. Prof. Geoffrey Alderman of the University of Buckingham was welcomed to the floor to argue the Zionist case. Professor Alan Johnson, of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, was also scheduled to speak at the Conference, but he backed out in protest at the inclusion of Richard Falk.
Nor was discussion with the majority anti-Zionist camp by any means monolithic. There was, for example, vocal dissent over Prof Yosefa Loshitzky’s use the term Untermenschen (“subhumans”) to describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Speaking from the audience, Ghada Karmi eloquently defended the use of the term, while Naomi Wayne, a member of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, warned that the use of any word associating any aspect of Israeli behavior with any aspect of Nazi behavior would cost “Jewish diaspora support.” The Jewish Chronicle, outraged at the “notorious anti-Israel” Dr. Karmi’s words, misrepresented her point, and reported that she “has lived most of her life in the UK” as though she had chosen to move there. (In fact, she and her family were ethnically cleansed from their Jerusalem home in 1948.)
Meanwhile the prolific slanderer of anyone critical of Israel, UK blogger David Collier, was scouting the hall for his usual tabloid trivia. He found it newsworthy, for example, that activist Ronnie Barkan was chatting with me (and, lest he be doubted, uploaded a photo to prove it). He then tracked me as I passed near a table where books by various authors were piled up for sale, and deduced that I must be checking on progress (my recent book was among them). This, too, was newsworthy. We were all, Collier’s headline reported in his usual libel-immune manner, “politely wishing the Jews to a nasty death.”
Coffee breaks, lunch breaks, and dinner meet-ups allowed the shop-talk to continue till late. The mix of experiences, expertise, and opinions among the group was energizing. In addition to the invited speakers, I enjoyed conversations with people as varied as young, refreshingly idealistic students with diverse interests and backgrounds, to prominent and experienced figures such as British politician Clare Short, all brought together in the common cause. Ms. Short is a former Member of Parliament of the Labour Party; were she still, her mere attendance at the Conference would have gotten her into serious trouble, as the Party is self-inflicting a faux “anti-Semitism” purge to silence any pursuit of human rights and international law, aka criticism of Israel.
What follows is a brief sampling of the three days of presentations.
Professor Falk’s opening lecture spoke of the Balfour Declaration as the “perfect crystallization of the colonial mentality,” and described how the confluence of the old normalcy of imperialism, and new ideals of self-determination, caused a “collision of normative ideas.” Touching on the recurrent Conference theme of international law, its limitations and possibilities, Prof. Falk noted how the structure of the UN Security Council placed veto power in the hands of the most powerful nations, contradicting law’s ideal of defending the weak from the powerful. He spoke of “soft power” and “hard power,” and how Israel’s and the US’s abundance of the latter did not guarantee their success. It was soft power that ultimately prevailed in, for example, Vietnam.
Ghada Karmi articulately addressed the most taboo subject of all: the very legitimacy of the Israeli state. After outlining her view that the state is a “stitch-up”, illegitimate from its very foundations, she advocated a re-evaluation of Israel’s membership in the UN. Israel was granted membership in the world body subject to living up to its obligation, which it has willfully and continually defied.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Dr. Karmi, Professor Alderman argued the Israeli case. He accepted the Balfour Declaration as a legal document, and noted that it addressed “Jews”, not “Israelis”, implying legal vindication for Israel’s claim to be a state of (all) Jews. As regards Palestinian rights, he pointed out that the Declaration protected only “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” not their political rights — an oft-heard argument that inescapably acknowledges, it seems to me, a system of ethnic castes: apartheid. Invoking another early Zionist claim, Prof. Alderman said that all of Palestine and Transjordan was supposed to go the Zionists, not just the land west of the Jordan. And as regards the West Bank, Israel is not occupying “Judea and Samaria,” but is merely the successor of the British administration of the land. He dismissed any talk of a one-state solution on the grounds that Jews would be terrorized by “Arabs.”
In discussing international law and settler colonialism, Markus Gunneflo noted how Resolution 242 focused on 1967 rather than 1948, and how international law falsely distinguishes between Palestinians in Israel, versus Palestine. John Reynolds described how emergency laws were used to control the colonized. Anthony Löwstedt noted how the law treats European Jews as being equally “indigenous” as the Palestinians, and proposed “invader racism” as an alternative term for Israeli apartheid. Oren Ben-Dor touched more on how the psyche of the Israeli state prevents it from constructive self-reflection. Like other speakers, Mia Tamarin compared Israeli versus South African apartheid. Capitalism, she explained, conceptualized law through property rights.
Saturday began with our daily dose of “holistic science.” A minute of silence was followed with the unmemorable wisdom, “you can argue with words, but you can’t argue with silence.” The audience endured this with heroic politeness, but was more fidgety when this was followed by instructions to turn to our neighbors and engage in– well I wasn’t sure what.
Dr. Ronnen Ben-Arie spoke of how settler colonialism was a rejection of a shared life. Lawyer Leah Tsemel passionately described how the “flexibility of Israeli law” effectively legalized crimes against the Palestinians, and observed that targeted killings appear now to be replacing mass deportation. In the end, speaking as an Israeli, she implored the world to “implement international law — save us!”
Yosefa Loshitzky spoke of how entrapped Gaza serves as a proving ground and showcase for US and Israeli weapons marketing. Perhaps no other aspect of the “conflict” so succinctly and chillingly encapsulates the complete dehumanization of a people, and so Professor Loshitzky used Gaza as a multifaceted metaphor. It was she that caused some controversy by using the term untermenchen; but when an aggressor state ethnically cleanses a population to a narrow strip of land, locks that population inside it, systematically terrorizes the imprisoned people, and uses them to demonstrate the killing power of its weapons, is the term untermenchen really any stretch at all? The people of Gaza, she said, are “reclaiming the right to be human.”
Mazen Masri dissected the oxymoron “Jewish and democratic.” Advocate Yoella Har-Shefi described her battles in the Israeli courts to be identified as an Israeli national rather than of “Jewish” nationality — a pivotal topic because it gets to the root of the Zionist tribal (and, I would argue, anti-Semitic) “ownership”over Jewry as a “race.” Similarly, journalist Ofra Yeshua-Lyth assailed the claim that Zionism is “Jewish self-determination,” as the popular construct has it. The opposite, she noted, is the truth: Zionism has robbed Jews of self-determination. Dr. Haitam Suleiman described how Israel picks among the complex of laws inherited from successive colonizers of the land. He noted how unlike the rest of the speakers, he will return to his home (Israel) and face interrogation about his activities this weekend.
Perhaps the most lively speaker was the prolific law professor Ugo Mattei, who among other achievements had successfully blocked Silvio Berlusconi from privatizing water throughout Italy. Capitalism, he explained, has traditionally distinguished “claimed” from “unclaimed” land. He made a parallel between the West’s seizure of Palestine, and how Christopher Columbus had brought along a notary on his voyages of discovery in order to register any lands encountered — land that was clearly “unclaimed” since only “Indians” (substitute “Arabs”) lived there.
Barrister Salma Karmi-Ayyoub analyzed whether current legal advocacy is fit for the purpose in Palestine (it is not). Occupation law, for example, merely addresses the conditions of occupation: it could force the IDF to arrest children during daylight hours rather than at three or four in the morning (as is Israel’s predilection), while further institutionalizing the actual injustice. International law excludes Israeli Palestinians and refugees from the wider movement for justice, and misrepresents “occupation” as the issue. She explored ways that more imaginative uses of international law could serve as constructive tools.
Dr. Hatem Bazian spoke of the power of identity, and how our concepts of what it is to be human, of time, of history, of law, and even of self, is Eurocentric. Yakov Rabkin (author of What Is Modern Israel?) spoke of the intolerance of the Zionist movement, and contrasted it with the 1788 report of an Italian traveller to Istanbul, who was baffled by the harmony among Christians, Jews, and Muslims in that Islamic city. (Rubbish!, Prof. Alderman yelled from the back at one point during Prof. Rabhim’s talk.) Haim Bresheeth spoke of the “new anti-Semitism” jargon used by Israel to tarnish its critics.
Dr. Salman Abu-Sitta of Palestine Land Society was the most revolutionary of all the speakers in that he left the “conflict” behind and presented post-victory plans — coherent, practical blueprints for the refugees’ return. If this sounds premature, it is not, because in the process he dispels common arguments used to stymie a resolution. He methodically demonstrated that the refugees could return with far fewer obstacles than commonly perceived, and that the logistics would cost much less than a single year’s US “aid” to Israel. And it would be a one-time expense.
Jeff Halper championed the bi-national state. Well aware that much of the audience (and this writer) probably were hardcore one-staters, Halper argued that a bi-national state achieved essentially the same result, but with the advantage that it could be “sold” to the Israelis. Mutaz Qafisheh proposed opening Palestine to all Jews and Palestinians, while George Bisharat spoke of the two faces of law, justice versus power, and introduced gender and LGBT rights into the equation.
At a concluding Round Table, four panelists spoke of the way forward. Prof. Cheryl Harris argued passionately for unity among the world’s various struggles against racism, tying in the Palestinian resistance to the resistance against racial violence in the US that gained focused momentum after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, three years ago. Dr. Atef Alshaer spoke about Palestinian resilience in the use of arts and literature as resistance, and read aloud a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, first in Arabic, then in English translation. Professor Falk noted in his summary that the conference marks a shift from the “ending the occupation” narrative, to what it is really about: ending apartheid. His UN report’s use of the word had sent the US and Israel into attack mode, and made the UN censor its own report — but that taboo word has now been normalized. No, it’s not a “conflict.” Yes, it’s apartheid.