By Kourosh Ziabari
Conflict and fighting over land, resources and dignity between the Israelis and Palestinians have been dragging on for about seven decades, and the peace efforts seem to have been dismally stalemated now. The United States and its European partners have tried multiple initiatives aimed at bringing an end to this chaos, including a last-ditch gathering of 25 senior Arab and European diplomats as well as the UN Secretary General and the U.S. Secretary of State in Paris on June 3 to convince the warring sides to slam on the brakes and make decisions conducive to peace and compromise. However, the mission appears to be beyond the scope of the international community’s capacity, at least at the moment, as neither Israel nor Palestine agrees to make concessions on what they consider to be their national security red lines.
The public perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains mixed, with so many people siding with Israel as the world’s sole Jewish state, which needs to have the right to defend itself, while many concerned observers consider Israel’s conduct against the Palestinian civilians ruthless and legally objectionable. However, there is a heated debate underway on the permissibility of criticizing Israel over its actions and policies, which some governments have literally outlawed due to their close ties with the Tel Aviv. In several countries, the criticism of Israel is equated with anti-Semitism, so the public figures – without any ostensible pressure from the authorities – refrain from embarrassing their governments or risking their jobs by making critical comments against Israel.
A Canadian scholar and university professor tells Truth NGO that the government of Canada is “trying to intimidate into silence people who support the Palestinian cause.”
Prof. Gregory Shupak says he believes the Canadian government “would be on very weak legal ground if it were to try to prosecute people for criticism of the Israeli state.” According to Prof. Shupak, to say that criticizing Israel is anti-Semitic “is equivalent to claiming that criticism of Saudi Arabia is Islamophobic,” which he feels is not substantiated or logical.
On the obstacles to the settlement of disputes between Israel and Palestine, Prof. Shupak notes that Israel refuses Palestinian refugees their right to return because it sees Palestinians as a demographic threat.
“The goal of Israeli elites is to have as much land as possible with as few non-Jewish people as possible because they want to maintain a system in which people who are not Jewish have fewer rights than those who are. Israeli planners recognize that if Palestinian refugees return, they of course will not agree to continue to live as second-class citizens in their homeland,” he explained.
Gregory Shupak has a Ph.D. in Literary Studies and teaches Media Studies at the University of Guelph in Toronto. His fiction work has appeared in a wide range of literary journals and he regularly writes analysis of politics and media for outlets in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom including ‘Electronic Intifada,’ ‘In These Times,’ ‘Jacobin,’ ‘Middle East Eye,’ and ‘Warscapes.’ His first book “The Wrong Story: Israel-Palestine and the Media” will be published by the OR books in 2017.
In the following interview with Truth NGO, Prof. Shupak commented on the different aspects of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the international recognition of the BDS movement and the Canadian public and government’s approach towards the decades-old quarrel at the heart of the Middle East.
Q: Palestinians recently marked the Nakba Day when the Israeli state proclaimed independence in 1948 subsequent to the United Nations’ endorsement of a Partition Plan for Palestine one year earlier. Some seven decades have elapsed, and the Israelis still have not reconciled themselves with the reality of a sovereign Palestinian state. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear in his campaign for the 2015 legislative elections that there would be no Palestinian state as long as he is the premier. Do you think it’s viable to continually deny the Palestinians a land of their own?
A: It is patently unjust that the Palestinians have been denied a homeland for this long or, to put it another way, denied access to the homeland they already have. If the goal is a just peace across all of historic Palestine, then Netanyahu’s position is certainly not viable. However, he and the rest of the Israeli ruling class may be able to achieve their goal, which is not a just peace but the maximum possible amount of land and the minimum possible amount of Palestinians. As long as the support of the United States remains unwavering, the tragic dispossession of the Palestinians is likely to continue. That’s why it’s necessary for people in the United States, and the secondary nodes in its empire like Canada and Europe, to continue to organize in support of Palestinians through initiatives such as the BDS campaign.
Q: Israel usually discredits criticism against its actions and practices as anti-Semitism, and that’s why so many observers of Israeli politics are concerned that their comments might be denigrated as racially-motivated or embodying Hitler’s anti-Jewish mentality, so they simply tone down their criticism or even refrain from blaming Israel when it’s blameworthy. What’s your take on that? Does the charge of anti-Semitism mean that Israel should be immune to critical investigation of its conduct?
A: No state should be immune to critical investigation of its conduct and that includes Israel. Saying that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic is itself anti-Semitic. It’s anti-Semitic because it rests on the premise that Israel represents all Jewish people in the world, or that the state is the embodiment of Jewishness, and to take that position is to say that the Jewish people as a whole are responsible for the many severe crimes committed by the Israeli state. Claiming that criticism of the Israeli state is anti-Semitic is equivalent to claiming that criticism of Saudi Arabia is Islamophobic. There are indeed anti-Semites who are anti-Israel just as Islamophobes will sometimes criticize Saudi Arabia, but it does not follow from this that opposition to either state’s practices is necessarily racist or that the oppression either state enacts isn’t real. That’s to say nothing of the huge number of Jewish people who are anti-Zionist, many of whom are very active in Palestine solidarity, or who live far away from Israel and basically indifferent to what happens there. Frankly, with rare exceptions, when people accuse critics of Israel of anti-Semitism, something very simple is happening: an attempt to change the subject from the injustices done to Palestinians.
Q: Right. So, one of the main obstacles to the resolution of conflict between Israel and Palestine is the question of Palestinian refugees. There are about 7 million Palestinians refugees scattered across the world, many of whom were displaced following the creation of the Israeli state in 1948. Why does Israel refuse these displaced Palestinians their right to return? Won’t this intransigence on behalf of the Israelis deepen the Palestinians’ hostility towards Tel Aviv and kill the chances of any possible compromise in the future?
A: Israel refuses Palestinian refugees the right to return because the Israeli ruling class sees Palestinians as a demographic threat. The goal of Israeli elites is to have as much land as possible with as few non-Jewish people as possible because they want to maintain a system in which people who are not Jewish have fewer rights than those who are. Israeli planners recognize that if Palestinian refugees return, they of course will not agree to continue to live as second-class citizens in their homeland. Israel’s refusal to allow displaced Palestinians to return to their homes unquestionably deepens Palestinian hostility to Israel. How could it not? As long as Israel maintains this position, a just resolution to the question of Palestine will be impossible.
Q: There are currently 36 world countries which either do not recognize Israel or have severed their bilateral relations with Tel Aviv at a certain point in time for different reasons. Does this absence of unanimous international recognition, especially by the Muslim and Arab nations, have any impact on the way Israel behaves, or shall these states simply talk to Israel and compel it to revise its policies?
A: Israel likes to portray itself as a small country threatened by every other state in the region, but this image is wildly misleading given the massive military advantage that – thanks to the United States – Israel has over every other state in the broader Middle East, which includes an unparalleled nuclear arsenal. Moreover, Israel has peace treaties with key states such as Egypt and Jordan. The idea of Israel as the regional David against an Arab and Muslim Goliath is also belied by the actual practices of most of the regional governments who either do little to nothing to support the Palestinian cause or actively help Israel oppress Palestinians, which is what Egypt for example does by helping enforce the siege of Gaza. While the populations of the countries in the Middle East are angered by the injustices done to Palestinians, most of these states are undemocratic U.S. allies. Public opinion matters little in Egypt, for instance, so Sisi can go on participating in the oppression of Palestinians. Most governments in the region, including Israel, help the American ruling class in its efforts to dominate the Middle East, so in a sense Israel and many of its ostensible adversaries are effectively allied. The U.S. would rather the Palestinians continue suffering than lose Israel as a strategic ally so the American government will use its considerable leverage over most other governments in the Middle East to ensure that they do little if anything to challenge Israel.
Q: Pro-Israeli sentiments have been usually deep-rooted and entrenched in Canada, and as Yves Engler notes, “Zionism is part of Canada’s political fabric.” As a Canadian scholar, what’s your feeling about the influence of Israel on the high-level decision-makers in the Canadian government and the penetration of Zionist ideology in the Canadian society? Have you identified differences between the Conservative government of the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in terms of their approach to supporting Israel?
A: I don’t believe that Israel is influencing decision-makers in Canada exactly. Canadian economic elites have found it very profitable to have relationships with their Israeli counterparts. For instance, capitalists in both countries have benefited from the free trade deal the two states have. The Canadian scholar Dr. James Cairns details Canada and Israel’s economic relationship in “Why are the Harper Conservatives so pro-Israel?,” an article that I’d recommend to your readers. Canada and Israel are also linked because the ruling classes of both countries enrich themselves by playing supporting roles in the U.S.-led empire in the Middle East and beyond. Canada, for example, bought drones from Israel for use in the U.S.-led war against Afghanistan. These are the material bases for the popularity of Zionism in Canada. My point is that Canadian decision-makers have their own reasons for being vehemently pro-Israel; it’s not the case that Israel or its backers are compelling Canadian planners to pursue policies they don’t want to pursue.
There is no meaningful difference between Harper’s position on Israel and that of Trudeau. In one case Trudeau said that he reserves the right to criticize Israel but his actual policies are identical to those of his predecessor. Stephane Dion, Canada’s current foreign affairs minister, said the Trudeau administration will abide by a 2015 memorandum of understanding that the previous government signed with Israel. The agreement promises that Canada and Israel will work together to counter the BDS movement. Trudeau’s government, furthermore, supported a motion condemning BDS introduced by the Conservatives, who are now in opposition. Because of the aforementioned economic and geopolitical considerations, Canada’s ties to Israel go much deeper than partisan politics.
Q: How does the Canadian public view and judge the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? A 2014 poll by the Toronto-based Forum Research indicated a division within the Canadian society on the issue of Israel-Palestine. The Times of Israel once called the government of Stephen Harper “the most pro-Israel government in [Canada’s] history.” However, the poll conducted when he was in power showed that 17 percent of the respondents sided with Israel in the Middle East, while 16 percent said they favored Palestine, and a massive 64-percent majority said they lean toward neither side. How do you describe the Canadian people’s attitude towards this ongoing conflict and the parties involved?
A: As the poll you refer to demonstrates, the Canadian public is divided on Israel-Palestine. I interpret the 64-percent majority who prefer neither side as being functionally pro-Israel because, unless one opposes oppression, she or he enables oppressors like Israel to use their military and economic might to their advantage. At the same time, the poll shows that only 17 percent of the general public are in line with the staunchly pro-Israel position taken by the Trudeau and Harper governments, so their policies lack public legitimacy. That 64 percent of the population represents a possibility. It shows that most of the public is up for grabs and it’s urgently important that Palestine solidarity activists in Canada tap into that segment of society. Notwithstanding the grim picture in the federal government, there are signs that pro-Palestinian political organizing has been effective in some ways. There have been countless victories for BDS on Canadian campuses, for instance. Also, the government of the province of Ontario recently failed to pass anti-BDS legislation they put forth, which was even harsher than the federal government’s. The bill was defeated at least in part because of the rapid mobilization of the province’s Palestine solidarity movement toward such things as circulating petitions and contacting members of the legislature.
Q: As you noted earlier, the Canadian government has been sensitively resistant against public criticism of Israel and advocacy for the BDS movement. Former minister of Public Safety Canada Steven Blaney had implied that Canada would have “zero tolerance” for the boycotters of Israel and promised during a UN General Assembly meeting that his government would unequivocally fight every form of anti-Semitism, including anti-Israeli rhetoric. Do you feel safe criticizing Israel in the Canadian press and during the public events? Have Canada’s domestic hate-speech laws been used to stifle the criticism of Israel?
A: I personally feel safe publicly criticizing Israel but I can understand why people might worry, especially if their jobs are insecure. Canada’s hate-speech laws have not been used to stifle criticism of Israel but there is some reason to be concerned that this could happen. At this stage, the Canadian state is trying to intimidate into silence people who support the Palestinian cause. I’m not a legal expert but my understanding is that the government would be on very weak legal ground if it were to try to prosecute people for criticism of the Israeli state. Thus far the attempt to scare people into abandoning Palestine solidarity has failed. In fact, I suspect and hope that the opposite is happening.