Israel declares war on peaceful activism

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By Khaled Diab

The Israeli government fears and combats peace and rights activists with greater gusto and urgency than armed extremists.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 6 October 2016

Anyone who has met the soft-spoken and mild-mannered Brigitte Herremans, the Middle East policy officer at Belgian Catholic charities Broederlijk Delen and Pax Christi, would be confounded to hear her labelled as a threat to public security and order.

But that is exactly how authorities at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport described her as they deported the Belgian peace activist and charity worker –while the founder of the pro-Israeli right NGO Monitor called her a “radical leader of political warfare”.

Like so many times before, Herremans had landed in Israel, earlier this month, to take a group of Belgians on a familiarisation tour of Israel and Palestine, where they would get the opportunity to see, first hand, the situation on the ground and to meet local Israeli and Palestinian peace activists.

But this time was to prove to be different. Following a three-hour detention, including a brief interrogation, Herremans, who had refused to divulge the names of her Palestinian and Israeli contacts, was put on a plane back home and banned from entering Israel for a decade, while the group she had been leading was allowed into the country.

“Unfortunately, I was aware that I might be refused entry to Israel, this time,” Herremans told me following her return to Belgium [see full Q&A here], citing “the Israeli government’s growing animosity towards NGOs and the increasing attacks by groups such as NGO Monitor”.

Established in 2002, NGO Monitor claims to “promote accountability” and “informed public debate” of the activities of international and local NGOs.  But “accountability” seems to mean accepting the narrative and policies of Israel’s extreme right government unquestioningly and uncritically.

NGO Monitor’s charge sheet against Herremans and Broederlijk Delen includes providing miniscule funding to a number of NGOs promoting human and legal rights and allegedly supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), which Broederlijk Delen does not actually do, according to Herremans.

Other presumably insidious and heinous acts exposed by NGO Monitor include organising an expo on the terrifying theme of ‘Peaceful resistance in Palestine and Israel’.

This is something that has long miffed me. The Israeli right repeatedly and harshly criticises Palestinians when they engage in violent resistance and terrorism and claim that their enemy only understand the language of violence.

Yet when Palestinians use the language of peaceful activism and non-violence, a process of deep-seated distrust and paranoia, combined with wilful distortion and twisting, translate these actions into the lexicon of terrorism and warfare.

This is because hitting someone who refuses to hit back exacts a heavy burden on human conscience and makes the hitter look and, deep down, feel like a thug and a bully. In contrast, rocket attacks from Gaza or knifings in the West Bank make it far easier to justify violence and oppression to oneself and the world.

That explains why the Israeli government, like many regimes in the region, fears and combats critical elements of civil society, especially leftist and rights groups, who are armed with little more than their consciences, with greater gusto and urgency than armed extremists.

Even uncontroversial charities, which actually indirectly help Israel by cleaning up the mess caused by its wars and improving the lives of Palestinians have fallen foul of this growing paranoia. For example, America’s largest Christian charity, World Vision, has been forced to suspend its operations in destitute Gaza because its manager there is accused of having funnelled funds to Hamas which are more than double the organisation’s budget there.

On the legislative front, the Knesset recently passed the contentious and controversial “NGO law”, which appears to single out left-wing and rights groups as treacherous agents of insidious foreign powers, rather than expressions of internal dissent and opposition to an unjust and unsustainable situation.

“These efforts are aimed at crippling the activities of and silencing the voices of organisations dedicated to critiquing Israeli government policy and actions,” notes Nadeem Shehadeh, a lawyer with Adalah, the first Palestinian-run legal centre in Israel.

In addition to Jewish-Israeli anti-occupation groups, Palestinian civil society and political parties have been a central target of these efforts, points out Shehadeh, referring to a spate of legislations in recent years, including the so-called “Nakba Law” of 2011 and the raising of the Knesset voting threshold in 2014. This was meant to sideline Arab parties but had the unintended effect of forcing them to unite under the conciliatory leadership of Ayman Odeh.

“The current political environment in Israel suggests that these efforts are not about to subside but are rather enjoying a distinct upswing,” observes Shehadeh. And as Palestinian activists, and their Israeli and international allies, increasingly resort to what has been dubbed “lawfare”, Israel’s clampdowns and crackdowns are likely to intensify over the coming years.

Moreover, years of demonising and stigmatising anyone who criticises or opposes Israel’s occupation and the abuses it leads to, no matter how benignly done, has created an extremely toxic atmosphere in which right-wing radicals and fanatics feel justified in using or threatening violence.

Targeted groups include the internationally respected human rights organisation B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, which collects the testimonies of Israeli soldiers with the aim of exposing the reality of the occupation.

Palestinian rights groups, such as Al Mezan in Gaza and Al Haq in the West Bank, have also been receiving an alarming level of threats targeted at staff and their families, which have included photos of their houses to flowers delivered to their homes.

Despite the increasing dangers involved, brave Palestinian and Israeli activists continue their efforts to oppose the occupation peacefully and to advance efforts to build a robust and resilient peace, no matter how far off and elusive it seems from where we stand today.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 29 September 2016.

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Muslims with altitude and the fine art of terrorism

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By Khaled Diab

If you  are or look like a Muslim or Arab, whatever you do, do not read, sweat or speak Arabic when flying.
Even nonsense Arabic or an Arabic shopping list can terrify your fellow passengers. Photo: Rock, Paper, Scissors

Even nonsense Arabic or an Arabic shopping list can terrify your fellow passengers.
Photo: Rock, Paper, Scissors

Tuesday 30 August 2016

Choosing what to read on a flight is always a dilemma. Too short and you’re left kicking your heels. Too complicated and you may not be able to focus.

However, if you happen to be a Muslim or an Arab, or to look like one, you also need to factor in the potential alarm or panic your fellow passengers or crew might experience upon catching sight of your choice of reading material.

This is what Brit Faizah Shaheen discovered to her chagrin. Upon returning to the UK from her honeymoon, she was detained by police who interrogated her about the book she had been reading on her outbound flight, which a crew member had reported as “suspicious”.

And what was the terrifying book in which Shaheen was immersed? Was it perhaps The Management of Savagery, which guides ISIS’s butchery and barbarity? Maybe it was Sayyid Qutb’s takfiri classics in which he reinvents the concept of Islamic holy war to make it offensive rather than defensive, a sort of Jihad Unbound?

Nope, it was a book, in English, about Syrian art. What exactly the flight attendant found suspicious about this title is unclear. Perhaps (s)he suspected that Shaheen had turned terrorism into a fine art. It is possible that (s)he believed this was the latest cunning Islamist plot to destroy the West: by artistically deconstructing it.

Unsurprisingly, Shaheen has decided to throw the book – legally – at the airline and the police (I may have been tempted to throw it physically).  “The whole experience left me feeling disappointed and angry,” she wrote in an opinion piece for The Guardian.

Ironically, Shaheen, who appears to be secular and as far away from a radical jihadist as it is possible to be, is a psychotherapist with the NHS. Her job is to help prevent the radicalisation of British Muslims with mental health issues, something that is likely to put a price on her head in terrorist circles.

If someone like Shaheen can be detained for nothing more than the religion she wears lightly, imagine what life must be like for conservative Muslim travellers who are guilty of nothing beyond being pious.

And Shaheen’s story is not an isolated one. Caught between Donald Trump and other far-right demagogues on both sides of the Atlantic, on the one hand, and jihadist terrorists, on the other, not to mention the increasingly shrill and hysterical public discourse, the past couple of years have seen a huge spike in ludicrous and distressful incidents – a phenomenon that has been dubbed ‘flying while Muslim’.

Flying for Arabs and Muslims is certainly no amusement park – literally for the British Muslim family which lost $13,340 in missed flights when they were detained on their way to DisneyLand.

Perceived offences for detention, interrogation and ejection from flights include speaking or texting in Arabic, using the word “Allah” while sweating, being nervous, complaining about being thirsty, or somehow vaguely making someone else feel unsafe. That is my personal favourite. Being a tall brown guy with a stubble/beard, I run the risk when I fly of  being kicked off my flight because I make some bigot’s heart race a little faster.

Beards too can be a hair-raising – or razing – experience. Even non-Muslim hipsters with beards have fallen victim to this kind of hair-ism, as have non-Muslim economists practising the terrifying ancient Muslim art of Algebra. After a fellow passenger allegedly deemed he looked “Arabic [sic] and scary”, Mark French was ordered to shave his stubble or not be allowed to board the flight.

Similarly, a Pole of Armenian origin, i.e. a Christian, was barred twice from boarding a flight after a woman complained that he “looked like a terrorist” – whatever that means.

We must bear in mind that such ludicrous incidents are still relatively rare, and that is why they capture headlines. However, they appear to be increasing in frequency, as are the less sexy but more common security and background checks, fuelled by mounting public apprehension and sweeping anti-terror legislation introduced in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks. Although greater vigilance was required, some governments exploited public fear to push overly draconian regulations.

And this kind of ethnic profiling and the farcical behaviour it engenders occurred regularly in the aftermath of the mass killing in America. I recall how, in 2003, I was interrogated at the US embassy in Brussels about whether I’d been a toddler soldier in Gadaffi’s army, because of the accident of having been born in Tripoli while my parents were working there.

On arrival in Washington DC, I was taken to a dingy backroom where I spent hours waiting and divulging personal details I had long since forgotten and which I found to be an enormous intrusion on my privacy.

At Israel’s Ben Gurion airport, traditionally the world capital of racial profiling, I have received some of the best “VIP” treatment I have ever known, including welcoming parties outside the plane, interrogations, long waits, special massages and the searching of the vehicles I come in at the airport perimeter – though the system has improved somewhat and become less intrusive recently.

However, times are a-changing and race- and religion-based paranoia is going global, with a number of Western countries following Israel’s lead. A Palestinian-American friend of mine who is an international aid worker must now wait every time he enters the States until they’ve carried out a full background check, after having endured the highest security level, a six, in Tel Aviv, which involves the minute inspection of every item of baggage.

Naturally, it is in everyone’s interest, including that of Muslims, who are disproportionately the victims of Islamist terrorism, to exercise vigilance. But there is a huge difference between being vigilant and being vigilante – and we are drifting perilously close to the latter.

Such discriminatory practices and social stigmatisation could also help push the emotionally vulnerable, who are preyed on by preachers of hate, into the hands of jihadist recruiters. “In my field of work, I recognise that some individuals have been made vulnerable due to factors such as a sense of injustice, peer pressure, negative media and a lack of a sense of belonging,” Shaheen pointed out in her Guardian piece. “Being victimised due to a mistake can have such a negative impact that it could lead to higher potential risk of radicalisation.”

And the prevention of radicalisation is far more effective than trying to cure it. That is why we need to tackle the Islamophobic narratives which tarnish and distort the image of peaceful Muslims, who make up the majority of the hundreds of millions who belong to this global faith, leading to public hysteria.

We also need to curb the excessive powers of security services and police, not grant them even more arbitrary leeway, because this hurts not only Muslims but is an invasion of everyone’s privacy and right to dignity.

These are dark, frightening times we live in. However, paranoia and stigmatisation will not bring us to the light, but will only prolong the night.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article which first appeared in Haaretz on 16 August 2016.

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Egypt’s borderline paranoia

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By Khaled Diab

My interrogation at the Egyptian border about my journalism and opinions is not about state security, but the insecurity of a paranoid state,

Wednesday 18 November 2015

Following the crash of a Russian airliner over the Sinai, concerns have been raised about lax security at Egypt’s airports. Although the jury is out on what actually happened, I can report that there is one area of border security in which Egypt excels: policing the minds of its own citizens.

I got a taste of this during a recent trip to Sinai. Given my Arab and journalistic background, entering and leaving Israel is sometimes akin to playing the lottery, with the winning ticket being a simple, straightforward, untroubled passage.

As we approached the Eilat-Taba crossing between Israel and Egypt, I felt a sense of trepidation, like a gambler watching the roulette wheel spin.

Although we were travelling for leisure, the mutual distrust and cold peace between my native and host countries meant there was a pretty high chance that my passage would be far from leisurely.

On the Israeli side, everything went so smoothly — with the women working in the small terminal so charmed by our son that they tried to tempt him behind the counter — that I allowed myself the luxury of hoping the same would happen on the Egyptian side.

Alas, it was not to prove so. Fortunately, after a while, they stamped the passports of my wife and son and let them leave – though my prolonged absence got my wife very worried.

Alone in the dusty, rundown terminal, I watched the Israeli and other tourists — many of whom were heading for Taba’s casinos — swan through the terminal with barely a cursory glance at their travel documents. In fact, with the passport control booth regularly unmanned, confused tourists actually had to search around for an official to check their documents.

Security is a well-documented concern at smaller Egyptian airports and crossings, though it is pretty tight in Cairo’s main international airport.

This was symbolically driven home to me on the way back. At the point where the Egyptian and Israeli crossings meet, two bored and unfit-looking Egyptian guards sat chewing the fat. On the Israeli side, a mean-looking body-builder type with an automatic weapon marched regimentally up and down, eyes camouflaged by his mirror sunglasses.

This hit-or-miss attitude to citizen security made me feel all the more offended by the long wait that was being forced upon me by the guardians of the security of the regime. I reflected to myself that being an Egyptian is not worth much, even in Egypt.

That partly explains why I haven’t renewed my Egyptian passport since it expired a number of years ago. I now enter the country on my European passport, which ironically provides greater protection, though less so than before, as illustrated by the Al Jazeera English trials.

With time on my hands, I began to wonder what was going on and my mind began to wander, in light of the increasingly arbitrary exercising of emergency powers in Egypt, between likely and more fanciful possibilities.

After a couple of hours, I was finally taken upstairs and led into the office of a senior officer. The air-conditioning in the spartan room was set to Arctic and the AC unit, as if mimicking some ancient form of torture, was dripping loudly into a bucket at the back.

Unlike my recent interrogation at Ben Gurion airport, my interrogator was far friendlier and exceedingly polite, regularly remarking on how “talking to you is really enjoyable” in an ambiguous tone of voice. In a way, I felt like I was the special guest on a surreal, Kafkaesque talk show, with the host exhibiting what might have been, under other circumstances, a flattering interest in my career and ideas.

The idealist in me was screaming to tell my interrogator that he was intruding on my privacy, while the realist counselled patience. Fearful of escalating the situation at a time when Egypt is undergoing one of the largest crackdowns in its modern history, with hundreds literally vanishing into thin air and thousands behind bars, I listened to the voice of caution.

After satisfying the officer’s curiosity about what I was doing living in Jerusalem, he wanted to know what I’d produced recently about the Israeli-Palestinian context.

Our exchange got even more philosophical when he switched his line of questioning to my beliefs. When he asked me whether I was still a Muslim, I tried to deflect his question by arguing that it was an issue of private conviction. When he persisted, we got into an exchange about the difference between being a-religious, agnostic and atheistic, and where I stood on that spectrum.

But all this turned out to be the appetizer. What most concerned the state security officer seemed to be my journalism about Egypt and my views on the situation there, including in the troubled Sinai.

As I expressed my honest views of Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and the absence of democracy in Egypt, I wondered what my interrogator was making of what he was hearing. However, he was giving nothing away. Showing the kind of balanced interviewing style absent from the pro-regime media, he simply probed my opinions, without passing judgement.

I don’t know how much of my interrogation was based on information the authorities already had and how much was a fishing expedition. Though I’m certainly on state security’s radar — as demonstrated by the fact that they knew I was a journalist at Cairo airport when I passed through there last summer, without me have declared myself as such — a lot of it was fishing, since the officer confiscated my computer and phone, and called me back for a number of rounds of questioning. However, I’m unlikely to find out, short of another revolution throwing up my file, as the previous one had done with my father’s.

However, as I sat waiting, I realised that the information I had already volunteered could be used to concoct a “compelling” case against me, especially with all the show trials that have occurred over the past couple of years.

Based in Israel/Palestine, I am highly critical of the regime, write for the Israeli media and, even worse from the regime’s perspective, Al Jazeera, and have photos of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Raba’a al-Adawiya protest camp on my computer. In addition, though many Egyptians have become more open and tolerant towards atheists in recent times, the regime has a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde approach to non-believers, which has depended largely on the personal convictions and whims of individual judges and officials.

I could not resist a wry smile at the dizzying array of charges or suspicions that could be directed my way: “Zionist agent,” “Muslim Brotherhood sympathiser,” “insulting the president,”  “defaming religion,” to mention but a few.

After nearly eight hours in custody, I was released and was not bothered again during my stay, except for one brief visit to my hotel. Having a foreign passport, writing in English, living abroad and perhaps encountering a relatively open-minded officer meant that I am far more fortunate than the thousands of courageous prisoners of conscience filling Egypt’s prisons.

I fear that the crash of the Russian airplane, if it proves to be terrorism, will result in another, severe round of repression in which the regime will use the so-called “war on terror” to muzzle and imprison its critics.

An early sign of this is the shocking summons and detention by military intelligence of one of Egypt’s foremost journalists and human rights defenders, Hossam Bahgat, who, on the back of an enormous campaign for his release, has been let go for now but charges against him are still being investigated.

In Egypt, it would seem, critical journalists too often wind up behind bars, while hypocritical ones tend to get their own TV shows.

Of course, Egypt is not alone. To varying degrees, most of the Middle East treats journalists and freethinkers with an enormous dose of suspicion and paranoia. But they are fighting a losing battle, especially in the information age, as ideas cannot be silenced, arrested or detained at the border. Indeed, Bahgat’s articles are now enjoying an online renaissance with a global wave of readers triggered by concern about his arrest.

Egypt needs to stop searching people’s political and intellectual baggage and focus its attentions on the actual luggage moving through its airports. It’s the insecurity of the state that has to be shed before there can be true state security in Egypt.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 10 November 2015.

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Political baggage and state insecurity at Ben Gurion airport

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By Khaled Diab

Ethnic profiling at Israel’s airport is not about state security but the insecurity of the state, and is an infringement of fundamental rights.

Six has been my unlucky number ever since the first time I visited Israel in 2007.

Six has been my unlucky number ever since the first time I visited Israel in 2007.

Tuesday 4 November 2014

Although I like to travel light, when it comes to Israel, I always seem to be weighed down by generations of excess political baggage. And being a frequent flyer does not seem to provide me with any extra allowances or concessions.

This was driven home to me, yet again, when I recently went on a short, work-related trip to London from Jerusalem, where I currently live. Though I found myself surrounded by a large tourist group entering Ben-Gurion airport, the hawk-eyed security guard outside the terminal caught sight of my complexion and asked to see my passport.

His suspicions were confirmed when he read my Arab name, even though it was cunningly disguised inside the pages of a European passport. When I asked him in feigned innocence, as I sometimes do, why he had stopped me and no-one else, he gave me the standard response: “I’m just doing my job.”

After his boss deigned to allow me into the terminal, the security interviewers who act as the check-in’s gatekeeper also did their jobs and gave me a number six security label – the highest – which [currently] means that all my hand baggage is searched with a fine-tooth comb and high-tech gadgetry, I must stand in a body scanner, and get a complimentary security massage.

For those who are not convinced that this is a part of ethnic or racial profiling, consider the fact that when I travel to or from Israel with my European wife and/or blond son, I am not exposed to this level of scrutiny.

But in terms of intrusiveness, my return from London several days later was possibly the worst since I first started living in Jerusalem in 2011, though the wait was far longer on my first visit in 2007. After tapping at her computer and whispering into her phone, the passport control officer told me I had to wait.

Though I have become familiar with this drill, and I usually bear through it in silence, I informed her politely that the visa in my passport had already come with a security clearance. She too told me that she was just doing her job.

As I dawdled a little outside the designated area – for those familiar with the procedure, by the drinks vending machines in a darker corner of the arrivals hall – a heavily built plain-clothed officer full of rage and hostility approached me and yelled: “Stand inside. Now!”

Taken aback by this uncustomary aggression – usually, my interlocutors are polite but distant, even cold but sometimes friendly – I asked him politely to speak to me with respect. He repeated his order and I repeated my request, whereupon he threatened to deport me if I did not take the two steps back into the designated area within 10 seconds. I acquiesced while noting that I did not appreciate his tone.

A little while later, he returned in a calmer mood and led me into a non-descript office. “Do you know where you are?” he asked cryptically.

“An interrogation room,” I offered.

“And do you know why you’re here?” he continued mysteriously.

“Because I asked you to be respectful outside,” I suggested.

“You were rude to me but that’s not the reason,” my questioner said. He then proceeded to interrogate me about my work and about my wife’s work.

“And what makes you a journalist?” he asked, his voice dripping cynicism and derision.

I responded simply that I’d been working as one for over 15 years. The officer then did something which I have personally never witnessed in the many times I have entered and exited Israel, though I have heard of others who have. He turned to his computer and presumably Googled my name, quoting from one of my articles doubtfully.

“Do you believe this?”

“I did when I wrote it, but I am not here to discuss my journalism or opinions,” I countered.

Changing track, he asked me about who I knew and who my friends were, adding his trademark, “Do you know why I’m asking?”

Miffed and offended by his question, I sidestepped answering it by admitting I hadn’t a clue. “If you’re trying to work out whether I have Israeli as well as Palestinian friends, well I have both and from many different walks of life,” I volunteered.

After asking me to write down my Israeli and European phone numbers and my e-mail address (another intrusion to which I objected but acquiesced), he told me I was free to go. By way of a farewell, he informed me that they reserved the right to stop me and my wife for questioning at any point on entry and exit in the future.

I don’t know if this greater scrutiny has anything to do with the recent Israel-Gaza war or whether I had been flagged personally, or whether it was purely random based on my ethnicity.

Whatever the case, it is a violation of my fundamental rights (such as equality before the law and freedom of expression) and an encroachment of my privacy, as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Israel is a signatory.

I fully understand Israel’s need to protect the security of its citizens, especially on something as potentially vulnerable as airlines. But its gruelling and exacting airport security, unmatched anywhere in the world, is more than up to that task.

An Israeli friend pointed out that she and her family underwent similar interrogations in America. To my mind, that is equally unacceptable. Governments have no right to intrude into our private lives – and when they do, it usually ends badly.

There is no justification for racial, ethnic or other forms of profiling, nor for intrusive questioning. Granting the state and its officials with arbitrary powers often means they will be exercised or abused arbitrarily. Ultimately, this is not about state security – but the state’s insecurity.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 30 October 2014.

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Confessions of a ‘self-hating Arab’

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By Khaled Diab

Only self-hating Arabs and Jews can save the Middle East from itself.

22 August 2011

I have a confession to make: I’m a ‘self-hating Arab’. In fact, some readers of my articles believe that I suffer from a rare form of political Tourette’s in which I cannot help but blurt out irrationally hateful criticism. I write regularly about all the ills I perceive in Egyptian and Arab society, including authoritarianism, corruption, gaping inequalities, human rights abuses, gender issues, insufficient intellectual freedom, etc.

As I’m in a confessional mood, and a good confession requires full disclosure, let me also admit that my self-hating does not end at the borders of the Middle East. Despite having spent the greater part of my life in Europe – namely in the UK and Belgium – it seems that I cannot help but criticise the West, particularly its colonial past, neo-colonial present and the attitudes of some towards minorities.

Almost a year to the day before Anders Behring Breivik mounted his deadly attacks in Oslo, I warned that far-right groups in Europe were probably a more dangerous threat than Islamist extremists and that we should not close our eyes to the violent fringe and its ambitions to execute major attacks. This predictably led to some accusations that I was an ‘Islamofascist’ who entertains sympathies for Islamists, jihadis and other breeds of baddies.

On the other side of the spectrum, I have been dismissed by some as a ‘closet orientalist’, an ‘Islamophobe’, a ‘neocon’, a ‘house negro’, an ‘Uncle Tom’ and even a ‘Zionist’. But the memo about my alleged Zionist sympathises has not reached the powers that be in Israel who, despite my European passport and based on my name and ethnicity, give me a special kind of ‘VIP treatment’.

At Ben Gurion airport last week, for example, I was stopped before I’d even entered the terminal and interrogated at the gate while hundreds of other passengers passed unharassed.

When I asked out of curiosity why I’d been singled out, the security guard answered unhelpfully and rather cryptically from behind the impenetrable barrier of his mirror sunglasses that it was “his job” – and it seemed to be the job of his colleagues to accompany me every step of the way.

While I can understand that the safety and security of flights needs to be ensured, surely the thorough searching of my luggage, including combing them for traces of explosives, and the massage-like frisking are enough on that count. But what exactly do the repeated questionings, the insulting infringement on my privacy and the long unexplained waits outside offices achieve except to send out the message that people of Arab origin are unwelcome guests here?

Naturally, some Arab critics will view my living in Jerusalem as another sign of my self-loathing and will regard the above treatment as nothing more than my just deserts for trying to connect with Israelis with both empathy and sympathy.

Likewise, Israelis and Jews who try to reach out across the chasm of animosity, distrust and hatred to express understanding and sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians are similarly labelled.

“The self-hating thing is a weird one. It is supposed to refer to people who have so little pride in their history and culture that they are willing to sell themselves and their fellow Jews out to ‘the man’,” one alleged Jewish self-hater confessed. “It is a pejorative which tries to get you in a really rather personal and painful way.”

Naturally, it goes without saying that, like any self-respecting ‘self-hater’, I don’t regard myself as such. Rather, I believe that many of the people who fire off accusations of self-loathing are usually self-righteous and cannot admit their side commits any wrongs. They tend to abide by the precept that it is ‘my side, right or wrong’ and that we shouldn’t ‘hang our dirty laundry’ out in public.

So, why do some people adopt such harsh tones against members of their group who express dissenting views, no matter how rationally or honestly expressed?

In general terms, not conforming to the mainstream view of your community carries with it the risk of ostracisation. More specifically, the concept of ‘self-hate’ seems to enjoy the most currency among groups, minorities and peoples who feel under attack, threatened marginalised or demonised and so feel that it is important for all members to pull rank.

In the Jewish context, the long and painful history of anti-Semitism and discrimination, not to mention pogroms and the Holocaust, as well as popular Arab hostility towards Israel, has bred a level of hyper-defensiveness in the minds of many.

This explains why the ‘self-hate’ label – which gained popular currency following Theodor Lessing’s 1930 book Der Jüdische Selbsthass (Jewish Self-hatred) – probably has a longer history among Jews than among other groups. It can also be particularly virulent, as illustrated by the toxic Jewish SHIT list of over 7,000 allegedly “Self-Hating and Israel-Threatening” Jews.

This sense of embattlement engenders the misguided belief in the mainstream of the Jewish psyche that Israel should be defended at any cost and regardless of its actions.

Similarly, though Arabs have not experienced anything as apocalyptic as the Holocaust, most of the Middle East lived through centuries of foreign domination (Greek and Hellenic, Roman and Byzantine, Persian, Arabian, Turkic and Ottoman, British and French, etc.) in which the locals more often than not lived as effective second-class citizens in their own countries, over-taxed, oppressed and largely excluded from the corridors of power.

So, when the promise of independence came around after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the fact that the Palestinians were the first Arabs to be denied their freedom has transformed the Palestinian question into one of the most emotive issues in the collective Arab conscience, leading many to view it with greater irrationality than most other issues.

So, does that mean that ‘self-hatred’ doesn’t exist and no one deserves the label? Of course it does, especially among people whose history or contemporary reality makes them feel inferior to or persecuted by other groups.

For instance, what is termed ‘uqdet el-khawaga’ (‘the foreigner complex’) is fairly prevalent among Arabs, who have internalised orientalist stereotypes about themselves, and exhibits itself in aloofness towards all things local, good or bad, and praise of all things Western, also good or bad. More damagingly, there are and have been certain opportunist Arabs who are willing to collaborate, intellectually or practically, with foreign powers out to hurt their home countries, usually in return for material rewards.

Likewise, some of history’s most virulent anti-Semites have been Jewish. In addition, the condescension exhibited by some assimilated German Jews – who also internalised negative orientalist stereotypes – towards their Eastern European co-religionists, while not exactly ‘self-hatred’, did betray a certain discomfort with their background and heritage.

The trouble is that self-hatred and self-loathing is not used as an honest intellectual tool to examine the motives of a tiny minority who fit the bill. Rather, it is used as a powerful weapon to silence criticism and dissent from within one’s own supposed camp. But the only thing these alleged self-loathers hate is injustice, no matter who commits it, and so they should, instead, be called justice-lovers.

In a context where ‘us’ and ‘them’ threatens to submerge us before them, we are in desperate need of those who not only love their own side but are willing to show compassion and even love for the other side. And if that is self-hatred, then I’m proud to say that I hate myself.


This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 21 August 2011.

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