Denouncing Israeli Violence is Not Anti-Semitism: Reply to Alex Ryvchin
A recent article by Alex Ryvchin is predicated, it seems to me, on a fundamental act of dishonesty. By failing to mention the violence of Israel’s military occupation, he allows other, more nefarious motives to be ascribed to Palestinians and activists.
Foremost among these motives is anti-Semitism. What else could be behind their bitter denunciations of the Jewish State?
Activist fantasies are said to invoke traditional images of the villainous “Zionist Jew” invented in order to distort the realities of both Palestinians and Israelis. Contrary to activists’ delusions, it is not the Palestinians who are the victims but the Jews – as always.
The anti-Semitic “trick”
While not a Zionist organization as such, the Executive Council of Australian Jews (ECAJ) seems to identify Jewishness with uncritical loyalty to Israel. This conflation permits the exploitation of widespread sensitivity to anti-Semitism in the shadow of the Holocaust. Criticism of Israel is silenced by playing on the fear of appearing to criticise Jews.
The late Shulamit Aloni, a member of the Knesset, explained in an interview that the charge of anti-Semitism is “a trick” that is used to ward off criticism of the Israeli government. She went on to say that “the Holocaust” is used to justify everything that Israel does to the Palestinians.
ECAJ is not alone in exploiting this trick. The growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is frequently compared to the Nazi campaign against Jewish shops in the 1930s. This disgraceful slander against a peaceful human rights protest is made despite the fact that the principal targets of BDS have been non-Jewish organizations such as Veolia, Caterpillar and G4S, all of whom are profiting from the occupation.
Nevertheless, the Nazi slur promoted by Jewish organizations and their leaders has been regularly echoed by Australian politicians, including foreign minister Julie Bishop. However, even its staunchest opponents know that BDS is a rights-based movement explicitly opposed to anti-Semitism and racism in all its forms. It is thus difficult to convey the shamefulness of this comparison by Jewish leaders, spokespersons and academics who must surely know better.
Foremost among these are Australian Jewish academics Philip Mendes and Nick Dyrenfurth. Their recent book Boycotting Israel is Wrong: The Progressive Path to Peace between Palestinians and Israelis is a case study in this sort of Nazi slander against critics of Israel. However, the most astonishing deceitfulness on the part of Mendes and Dyrenfurth is not what they actually say, but rather what they carefully omit. In contrast to the 200 pages devoted to Israel’s critics, there is no index entry for “Occupation” nor any hint of what might explain the motivation of BDS supporters other than their supposed Jew-hatred.
They include no map that would immediately convey the realities of Israel’s cantonisation and annexation of the West Bank, which represents 22% of historical Palestine. There is no mention of the immensity of the settlements or the wall on Palestinian land, all declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004. There is no mention of the 40,000 houses demolished by Israeli forces or the million olive trees destroyed, to say nothing of the abuse of children in administrative detention or 8,000 unarmed civilians shot dead since the year 2000. Not a single reference.
A viable Palestinian state has been destroyed by Israel and, in keeping with the Likud party charter, government leaders declare that there will never be a Palestinian state. Yet Mendes and Dyrenfurth claim that the peaceful BDS protest movement is trying to annihilate Israel by means of a kind of “war” and the “collective punishment of Israelis.”
The delusion and dishonesty of this strategy defy adequate characterization.
The ECAJ dirt file
Not content with maintaining a guilty silence about Israel’s crimes, the ECAJ also imagine that it can advance the cause of Israel and the Jewish community by vilifying those who publicly voice their criticism of Israel. Among targets for such character assassination have been former ABC producer Cathy Peters (see her reply here).
Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon has been accused of making a “typically vitriolic and hateful speech in the Senate” due to her “near pathological aversion to the Jewish state,” and appealing to traditional anti-Semitic images of “the Jew as war profiteer, conspirator and driven solely by money.” To attack Senator Rhiannon, Alex Ryvchin misrepresents remarks by Jewish American historian Norman Finkelstein, the son of Holocaust survivors, among the most trenchant critics of Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians. Ryvchin ignores Finkelstein’s warning that “the real enemies of the Jews” are “those who cheapen the memory of Jewish suffering by equating principled opposition to Israel’s illegal and immoral policies with anti-Semitism.”
Ryvchin’s “dirt file” has been used to smear representatives of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network (APAN), the leading umbrella organization representing Palestine solidarity groups in the country. The eminently respectable members include APAN’s patron, retired Major General Ian Gordon A.O., the deputy chief of Army in Australia and a former Chief of Staff of the UN Truce Supervision Organization in the Middle East. The President of APAN is Rev. George Browning, distinguished former Anglican Bishop of Canberra. Present and former members of the APAN Executive include other church leaders, Australian ambassadors to Israel, union leaders and academics.
On the occasion of a visit to Parliament House, ECAJ circulated a document in advance to MPs in order to reveal the supposed disreputability and lack of credibility of APAN delegates.
Jews who criticise Israel
Since Alex Ryvchin’s most recent article is concerned primarily with smearing Jewish supporters of Palestine – including myself – it is relevant to provide some background. I have already written about Ryvchin’s modus operandi in a letter published in the Canberra Times (10 November 2014) responding to an article he wrote with ECAJ Director, Peter Wertheim. They had denounced Melissa Parke MP following her courageous statement in Federal Parliament supporting the BDS movement:
In my letter, I referred to the slurs thrown especially at Jews like distinguished academic and UN official Richard Falk or Israel-Australian Professor Marcelo Svirsky, and I noted that I am also singled out for special mention. Ryvchin and Wertheim alleged that I think Jewish children are “fair game” for threats to have their throats cut with shouts of “Heil Hitler” and “all Jews must die.” This vile accusation was based on words taken out of context, despite my explicit clarification and warnings that they not be misrepresented in this way.
In response, I remarked: “It is difficult to imagine a more disgraceful descent into the gutter. This defamation is so offensive and absurd that it reflects more on Ryvchin and Wertheim than on me.” My letter continued with remarks especially relevant to Ryvchin’s most recent efforts to defame me:
“… their deceit is a special kind of depravity when they know full well that both my parents were Holocaust survivors and my 89-year old mother is a survivor of Auschwitz, where most of my family were exterminated.”
In his recent article, to illustrate the delusion and derangement of Jews among Palestine activists, Ryvchin cites my speech to one of the Sydney Town Hall protest rallies for Gaza in 2014. Ryvchin denounces the entire protest as a display of anti-Semitic “hatred that underpins the anti-Israel movement,” and, therefore, ridicules my remarks in which I paid tribute to the audience in anticipation of precisely the kind of deceit and demonisation that Ryvchin now tries to perpetrate.
I cited my family background, saying: “I think I can recognize anti-Semitism when I see it and I don’t see any anti-Semitism here.” By taking these words out of context, Ryvchin portrays me as a dupe, but his personal attacks have a significance beyond my own reputation. Ryvchin chooses not to mention my explicit acknowledgment that each week, the rallies’ MC explicitly emphasised that the demonstration was not about Jews, but about Israel. Each week this remark was met with loud, enthusiastic applause in clear affirmation of the important distinction that Ryvchin and the Israel Lobby wish to obscure.
The full context of my remark explains why Ryvchin was so intent on misrepresenting me:
“… we join hundreds of thousands of decent people in cities around the world to express our humanity. But each of these rallies have been described as hate-filled and anti-Semitic. I want to re-affirm what speakers have said in previous weeks, it is not anti-Jewish to be critical of Israel. It is for humanity. Most of my family were victims of anti-Semitism – exterminated in the Nazi Holocaust. My parents were both survivors. My 89 year old mother is a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. So, I think I can recognize anti-Semitism when I see it and I don’t see any anti-Semitism here.”
In my Sydney speech, as also at a Melbourne rally during the assault on Gaza in 2008-2009, I spoke in anticipation of the usual slanders against protesters. Addressing the absent Jewish audience as well as those present, I hoped that they might recognise an alternative stance adopted by many Jews who can no longer hide behind the deceit of official propaganda echoed by the Israel Lobby. Citing the words of former Israeli parliament member, Uri Avnery, I said we condemned the military assault as “inhuman, superfluous” and “abominable.”
Ryvchin’s characterisation of the rallies as dominated by anti-Semitic symbols and slogans is an outright falsehood. I attended every protest and march during the five weeks of the Israeli devastation of Gaza in 2014. In response to Ryvchin’s suggestion that I was indifferent or oblivious to the symbols of anti-Semitism, it’s relevant to mention the only two occasions on which I saw something offensive of this nature.
At the beginning of one rally, a tattoo-covered skinhead was wearing various Nazi insignia and a swastika ring. Several members of the audience were remonstrating loudly with him when I joined them. I told him that most of my family perished under those symbols of the Third Reich and I added that, whatever may have been his reasons for being at the rally, they were not the reasons of the others, and that he was doing them a grave disservice by his presence. He left quietly.
The only other inappropriate, offensive sign I witnessed was a poster held by a young man at the foot of the podium where I was soon to speak. The poster showed an equal sign between a swastika and the Star of David. I spoke to the man for fifteen minutes and he put his sign away.
These were the only instances I saw that might fairly be described as anti-Semitic. Indeed, I had invited a childhood Jewish friend to join me at the rallies to witness the events for herself. I grew up next door to her, always seeing the tattooed Auschwitz number on her mother’s forearm. I invited her precisely because I was confident that, while not sharing my own views of Israel, she too would recognise anti-Semitism if she saw it.
In the light of the foregoing facts, Ryvchin’s apologetics for Israel on behalf of Australian Jews clearly involves an egregious hypocrisy: While justifiably condemning Palestinian terror or racism, Ryvchin has repeatedly refused to condemn the most heinous violence, mobs who chant “Death to Arabs” or the genocidal racism of Jewish religious leaders and Israeli government ministers.
Ryvchin seeks particularly to discredit dissenting Jews lest they expose the fraudulence by which groups like ECAJ maintain their monopoly on the “Jewish” voice and the lessons of the Holocaust. Such Jews include distinguished Israelis Uri Avnery, Gideon Levy, Jeff Halper, Ilan Pappe, Miko Peled and Amira Hass. In particular, like Amira Hass, American academics Sara Roy and Norman Finkelstein are children of Holocaust survivors, which constitutes the very motivation for their struggle on behalf of Palestinians. Speaking of his parents, Finkelstein explains: “It is precisely because of their suffering and their martyrdom that I will not be silent when Israel commits its crimes against the Palestinians.”
The true lessons of the Holocaust have been eloquently articulated by Amira Hass, whose mother survived Bergen-Belsen. From her mother’s experience, Amira takes her responsibility to be informing other Jews of what is being done in their name. She says her role is to ensure that Jews can’t use the excuse for which we rightly held Germans in contempt when they protested, “I didn’t know.”
Culpable, intentional ignorance
I have been trying to indicate the ways in which Ryvchin and the Israel Lobby act to maintain such culpable ignorance in the community. The resort to personal vilification is to divert attention from the factual matters at the heart of the Israel/Palestine conflict and the urgent moral issues they raise.
For example, rather than empty posturing and literary affectations, Ryvchin might have addressed the horrifying statistics of the Defence of Children International (DCI), showing that 1,900 children have been shot dead since the year 2000 in the West Bank – an average of nearly two each week. In a recent case, two Palestinian children were shot dead in cold blood by Israeli snipers, though they posed no threat to soldiers. Despite repeated prompting on social media, ECAJ has refused to utter a single word of condemnation of these atrocities and Israel’s culture of impunity.
The fatalities in Gaza are even more horrifying, caused in ways open to the grave charge of war crimes. The collective punishment of 1.8 million Palestinians by a crippling, criminal blockade culminated in the 2014 military assault causing over 2,000 deaths including 500 children. Are these facts to be dismissed as activists’ deceptions, “resistance fantasy” and mythology? Better not to mention them at all.
Also better not to mention the 600,000 illegal Jewish settlers in violation of the Geneva Conventions, or water stolen for their settlements, or the daily humiliations at hundreds of checkpoints. None of this can be explained on the grounds of security for Israel, even if we accept the usual assumption that only Israelis and not Palestinians deserve security.
Ryvchin’s glaring omission of these facts available from unimpeachable sources speaks for itself. These sources include Israel’s own human rights organizations Btselem, Gisha, Breaking the Silence and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Others include Amnesty International, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Al Haq.
Ryvchin asks why “the tiny number of Jews who turn completely against Israel and the Jewish community” fail to engage “constructively” by “criticising or contributing from within?” However, Ryvchin knows that repeated efforts to engage constructively within the Jewish community have been met with intense hostility, vilification, bullying and outright censorship – a matter that has gained some notoriety in the Jewish and mainstream media.
Regarding my own efforts, ECAJ President Robert Goot is quoted approving my being banned from the Jewish Limmud-Oz festival on the absurd grounds that people should not be “forced” to listen to me – as if it were to be compulsory for all Jews to attend my session. Clearly, the fear is rather that Jews might discover that official dogmas are open to question and perhaps some critics of Israel may not be the fanatical, delusional, self-hating monsters we have been portrayed to be.
Despite such efforts by Ryvchin and Israel Lobby groups, the disturbing facts of Israel’s conduct are increasingly difficult to ignore or deny. As Finkelstein put it in the title of his book on the Jewish community in the United States, “they know too much.” The cognitive dissonance for American Jews is more acute than for Australians since the majority of American Jews are Democrat voters and progressive. They are finding it impossible to reconcile their liberal values with Israel’s crimes on their behalf.
Mahatma Gandhi famously said of critics: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” Ryvchin’s efforts demonstrate that Palestine solidarity activists are in the final phase before we win.
Peter Slezak is Associate Professor of Philosophy in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of New South Wales.