Israel-Palestine Conflict: Memories of University Days with Israeli Students
Studying for a law degree outside London is naturally perceived to be a drab and dreary experience. Barring the overly oxygenated fresh air blowing from the Yorkshire Dales and the neighbouring Peak District with its undulating hills giving way to pine-covered mountains, the stillness of the picture-postcard perfection can seem disturbingly unreal at the best of times. Add to that the unending reading lists heaped upon unsuspecting students, one quite often feels buried in the proverbial and yet a perpetual tunnel of legal theory, jargon, precedents, and Latin maxims. The only bright and entertaining hour seemed to arrive in the shape of group discussions which invariably led to lively debates often laced with innocuous banter encouraged by most of the tutors.
Writing a ruminative piece on how the Israeli right has completely hijacked the national discourse on the Palestinian issue and how the ultra-right has managed to become mainstream, although fascinating, is an agonizingly painful case study in its own right. Those acts that used to be viewed as problematic, if not outright racist, and were only discussed in whispers by Israeli students a generation ago, are vociferously and brazenly defended on the grounds of self-defence in Israel with victimhood being the cornerstone of such a vacuous argument.
A large majority of students in Britain have always supported the Palestinian cause since as far as the memory goes and they still do. But their support has not been able to halt the Israeli onslaught on the West Bank and Gaza illegally carving up settlements that have mushroomed without any let or hindrance over the years, adding chapter after chapter of systematic ethnic cleansing and rewriting the old-fashioned canons of apartheid afresh which the US Senator Bernie Sanders calls Nationalist Racism. It’s the manner in which Israel has perceptibly won the information war over the last few decades by selling its narrative of how the international world owed the Jews a homeland and how that somehow legitimizes their inhuman treatment of the Palestinians. This narrative has gained currency in the Judeo-Christian world amidst a deliberate cobweb of disinformation weaved by Israel, thanks mainly to an eleven-year run for Benyamin Netanyahu as prime minister.
Fresh from reading William L Shirer’s voluminous work “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” and a few other books which romanticized and glorified the creation of Israel like Larry Collins and Dominique La Pierre’s “O Jerusalem”, some alluding to the “Nakba” as incidental and unavoidable damage, admittedly I was a little accommodative and wasn’t in the kind of mode which compels one to totally boycott Israeli students without a debate. As was the case then, cacophonous and heated arguments between Jewish and Arab/Muslim students have continued for decades at university campuses all around the Western world and continue to this day but without yielding any results.
Initially, only a smattering of Israeli students could be seen in the law faculty who participated in those group discussions but hardly spoke much mainly due to the language barrier but were otherwise very studious: oftentimes armed with their portable tape recorders during lectures to which they listened once they had gone back to their halls of residence, the kind of handy cassette recorders most Western correspondents to the Middle East used to carry in their luggage in those days. As the first year wore on, the number of Israeli law students multiplied occasioning more frequent interaction in connection with studies as well as extracurricular activities.
Almost all the Israeli students came from affluent families who could afford to send their children to study for three years in a relatively expensive country like Britain having finished three years compulsory stint in the military after high school. Like Moshe, some had arrived as couples. A Jew of Yemeni extraction, Moshe who became a good friend had also landed with his wife, Vered, an industrious and stern-looking, European Ashkenazi. As I started to call Moshe by his Arabic/Yemeni name, Moosa (to which he never objected and only chose to respond with a smirk which seemed to suggest, “you are going to get me into trouble with my wife!”) his fellow Israeli friends would give a half indignant stare at times but would grin with amusement which also alluded to the “othering” of non-Ashkenazi Jews inside the Israeli society. After all, Moshe spoke fluent Arabic and, unlike the majority of Israelis, did not pronounce his “R” like the French-sounding “gh” which is the case with most Hebrew speakers. The deliberate use of the Arabic Moosa on my part was meant to get a few reactions which although laid bare the frictions and cracks inside the Israeli society but the unanimity on inhabiting an illegally grabbed land to the exclusion of all others remains a unifying force for Israelis of different backgrounds to this day. At the same time, the juggernaut of Zionism has rolled on relentlessly ever since to colonize more land, hypocritically cry wolf, and manage to get some sympathy despite the resultant ethnic cleansing in the name of national survival.
“What are the chances that you will sit with the PLO and work out a peace settlement in the near future”? I asked Shaul Feinstein one day. “Zero”, was his short but categorical answer. “This will never happen”, he says dismissively with an exaggerated movement of hands and with a devil-may-care shrug of his shoulders. Add to that the typical retort of a Zionist that there are twenty-two Arab countries to which the Palestinians can easily relocate which has reverberated from time immemorial and does to this day and you get the most combustible mix ever in a political dispute. Furthermore, increasingly draconian evictions and land acquisitions which are apparently sanctioned by Israeli law have not only gone literally unchallenged and have, consequently, gained traction in the Western world (aided dutifully by the mainstream media), that their intensity and frequency has also attained dangerous proportions over the last couple of decades almost defanging the severity of those actions (like those of ultra-right Israelis forcibly evicting Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem where they have lived for centuries) to the innocuousness of news about a shoplifting in a nearby shopping mall!
Being a leading nation-state in the world created in the name of religion, race, and ethnicity (barring a few exceptions like the falasha Jews from Ethiopia and a few others), exclusion and indeed expulsion of the rest of the peoples from the state makes up a convenient and workable ideology for Israel. “You know one day my parents sat me down and said never forget your past and never forget the Nazi concentration camps. Always remember you as a people are up against a dangerous enemy who is hell-bent upon making you revisit Auschwitz in the Holy Land. Never let that happen again”, confided a very serious-looking Shai Cohen to me one day. “But does that justify doing a counter holocaust to the indigenous Palestinians by you”, I fired my next question. Naturally sensitive to the charge of engineering a seemingly brutal and unstoppable Nazi-like treatment of Palestinians spread over seven decades but obviously invisible to most Israelis, such questions never went down well. So I relent. Similar answers flowed from someone like Yair who was rumoured to belong to the commando unit responsible for assassinating a first tier Palestinian leader living in exile in Tunisia.
But typical arguments, like, they get free world-class healthcare which they could not have dreamed of had this land remained a backward, nondescript, and medieval-looking Palestine, invariably continued to be advanced. Free world-class healthcare at the cost of freedom? Grotesquely and quite bizarrely, based upon their past experiences in the Europe of 1930s and 40s, a clear and unequivocal national consensus seems quite entrenched in the Israeli psyche which thrives on fear – fear of the enemy who fights for his rights mostly armed with rocks and bare hands and is mostly underage. No matter how morally, legally, and politically right and justified that “enemy” maybe, Israel is always right in dishing out a disproportionate and crushing response that has meant she has, based upon that perennial paranoia of the enemy – even though the enemy does not possess one-tenth of the military might of Israel – invented and developed espionage and surveillance gadgetry and software that have no rivals in the world.
Both autocratic and democratic governments across the globe have viewed such inventions with envy and have always wished to get their hands on some of those to crush political dissent domestically. It is widely reported in the media that the software used to hack phones of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and his fiancée had been developed in Israel. Other countries like UAE and India have cosied up to Israel in the recent past more on account of its prowess in surveillance technology than due to its expertise in pioneering drip technology which has revolutionized agriculture in drought-hit countries.
The arguments advanced by my Israeli friends in favour of ‘self-preservation’ sounded as hollow, lethal, and racist then as they do now and swell one’s heart with a sense of foreboding. Over time that impulse of existence to the physical exclusion of Palestinians has set dangerous and irreversible precedents and has created an irresistible urge for those countries to acquire espionage equipment and software – apart from made-in-Israel military hardware – that wish to decimate challenges to their often oppressive and monarchic governments in a blatant denial of universally recognized human rights. The one most crucial difference between Israel and those countries that wish to oppress their populations is that it does not recognize Palestinians as first-rate citizens of Israel (which is without legal and moral justification, though), whereas all the countries desirous of quelling dissent at home with the help of Israeli surveillance technology are waging war against their own subjects and hence are guilty of alienating and ‘othering’ sections of their own populations sowing seeds of avoidable armed insurrections often leading to civil war-like situations, some potentially spilling over into neighbouring countries. And the vicious cycle continues.
Today, government ministers come on TV and openly advocate killing Palestinian children in Gaza raids likening them to snakes that have to be crushed before they bite you. It looks a far cry from sharing jokes with fellow students about Meir Kahane ridiculing his virulently anti-Palestinian bile with neither party imagining in their wildest dreams that such poisonous philosophy of the lunatic fringe would one day become the most popular slogan of any mainstream Israeli politician. A far cry indeed from those days when students did utter the words “occupied East Jerusalem” during International Law lectures without raising too many eyebrows. A recently published article in the Guardian may be worth a mention here. The author, Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer, argues that the charge of apartheid on the state of Israel leveled two or more decades ago looks quite pertinent today with progressive voices inside Israel echoing more vocally what a majority of its citizens including himself used to reject categorically in the past.
Israeli avarice for land was ominously depicted by late Robert Fisk in his epic book, Pity the Nation in which he quotes an Israeli tank operator invading Lebanon in 1982. After having crossed the international border into Lebanese territory the soldier looked at the wide expanse of land in front of him and quipped with a glint in his eyes: “you have a beautiful country”. The above incident tallies up with a joke which I first heard from an Israeli friend during my university days and is now doing the rounds on social media. An immigration officer at Heathrow airport to an Israeli passenger: “Occupation?” “No, just here for a visit”, came the curt reply. The Israeli left, although now whittled down to a small number, is gradually waking up to the reality that the joke is on the Palestinians and it’s a cruel one. In another ironic twist of fate, a far bigger joke is about to be played on them if Naftali Bennett, the far-right politician who does not believe in a Palestinian state, replaces Benyamin Netanyahu as prime minister.
Tariq Bashir is a Lahore based lawyer. Follow him on twitter @Tariq_Bashir