The Israeli parliament’s vote last week making it a crime to support any boycott of Israel, including products from Israeli settlements in occupied Arab lands, has rightly generated considerable debate about what this means for Israel, Zionism and Israelis.
The complex and larger-than-life tale of the modern state of Israel has always been seen by its two very different faces around the world. For Jews and many others, Israel has been about a vibrant nationalism miraculously reborn from the horrors of the European Holocaust and centuries of discrimination and subjugation of Jews by white Christian Europeans and Russians. For most Palestinians and Arabs, Israel has been about a predatory and malicious combination of colonialism and racism, the creation of an exclusionary ethnic state on land that was taken from others, with Jews having a higher quality of personal and national rights that the indigenous Arabs.
These two competing narratives have played out for the past century. The miracle of vibrant Jewish nationalism and impressive statehood, on the one hand, and the criminality of Zionist colonialism and racism, on the other, are impossible to reconcile. Yet reconcile them we must – or at least Zionists and their supporters must – if we are ever to approach any possibility of a negotiated peace that allows Israelis, Palestinians and other Arabs to live a normal and peaceful life in the Middle East. The anti-boycott law that has been approved in Israel will provide new ammunition for those who see Israel and Zionism as intemperate racists, or even, as some Israeli critics have said, fascists.
The basic issue is not whether it is good or bad, right or wrong, to criticize Israeli policies and to support a boycott of Israel. It is not about whether the Arabs should formally recognize Israel as “a Jewish state,” or whether Israel is a vibrant democracy that can teach some lessons to the surrounding Arabs. The issue is simply whether Israel and Zionism are above the law of humankind that attempts to maintain peace and security among peoples by enforcing certain principles of justice and order.
The new Israeli law has generated widespread anger and contempt because it essentially says that Israel and Zionism are above the law, and cannot be held accountable, criticized or challenged through boycotts and sanctions in the same manner that the world sanctions other states that engage in immoral or criminal activity. In other words Israel and Zionism can do anything they wish – including criminal colonialism – without accountability or review, regardless of existing legal or ethical constraints that apply to all other people and states.
The various boycotts of Israel have not hurt it very much in material or political terms. They have been symbolic acts that Israel has seemed able to withstand quite easily. So why have Israelis reacted so fiercely, and with such official parliamentary zealotry, through this anti-boycott law? I suspect it is because the sustained boycott effort threatens to place Israel dangerously close to the singularly distasteful place in modern history once occupied by apartheid-era South Africa. When American mainstream churches, British academics, European labor movements, Norwegian investment funds and other respectable institutions around the world formally boycott Israel because of its apartheid-like policies in the occupied Arab territories, and some Israeli officials think twice about traveling abroad for fear of being indicted, a boycott suddenly takes on a much more menacing tone.
Israel is responding with hysterical overkill as it finds itself increasingly assaulted politically by boycott pressures because of the deeper moral challenge that boycotts represent: the de-legitimization of the Israeli state that modern Zionist has created. The real threat to Israel is not what others are doing to it, but what Israel is doing to itself – through its criminal policies of territorial colonization, its persistent assault on Palestinians everywhere, its refusal to negotiate a reasonable peace agreement that acknowledges the Palestinians’ historical rights in the land, and, above all, by claiming for itself greater legal, national and moral rights than it is willing to concede to the Palestinians.
So when the supreme Zionist law-making institution representing the Jewish people – in the wake of the divine mandate passed on to humankind via the law-giver Moses – decrees that Israeli actions cannot be challenged on legal, political or ethical grounds, or opposed through boycotts or sanctions, many observers and victims of Zionism naturally react by thinking that this particular duck sure looks like apartheid, it smells like apartheid, and it feels like apartheid.
If the Israeli parliament takes such actions that rekindle the Zionism-is-racism debate, which is precisely what is happening, then one has to add sheer stupidity to Israel’s catalogue of shortcomings. Moses must be uncomfortable in his grave in view of the great divine message he carried to the Jewish people and all of humankind in Deuteronomy 16:20, namely to “pursue justice and only justice.”
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.