Racists exploit BDS and Israel to advance their agendas of hatred

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By Khaled Diab

As recent motions in the German Bundestag and US Congress reveal, both the BDS and pro-Israel movements are exploited by racists as fig leafs to further their agendas. These racists must be exposed and challenged.

Friday 24 May 2019

Taking a leaf out of the US Congress‘s playbook, Germany’s Bundestag has labelled the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as “anti-Semitic” in a non-binding resolution which enjoyed cross-party support.

Given that Germany has, in recent years, instated or participated in numerous sanctions programmes, one would think that its parliament could tell the difference between targeting a repressive regime and hating an entire people.

After all, I do not regard Germany’s earlier decision to sanction the Syrian regime for bombing its own people, or its embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia for its warmongering in Yemen, as expressions of anti-Arabism or Islamophobia. Instead, they are efforts to deploy ‘soft weapons’ to curb or stop these conflicts – or at the very least not to profit from them or be a party to them.

Likewise, the entire EU, including Germany, as well as Israel and many Jewish groups, boycotted Austria briefly after Jörg Haider’s Austrian Freedom Party became part of the governing coalition in 2000.

“The pattern of argument and methods of the BDS movement are anti-Semitic… [and] recall the most terrible phase of German history,” the motion issued by the German federal parliament stated.

Although I admire Germany’s efforts to come to terms with the crimes against humanity committed by the Hitler regime, and the country’s determination to avoid a repeat of that tragedy amid a massing current of anti-Semitism, this effort to equate the present BDS movement with Germany’s dark Nazi past is way off the mark.

There is no equivalence between a totalitarian, genocidal state which stripped Jews of their rights and very nearly succeeded in exterminating European Jewry, and a civil society campaign which defends the human rights of Palestinians and opposes the decades-old Israeli occupation. Suggesting that the two are the same is tantamount to blaming the victims for their demise.

What adds insult to injury is the German far-right’s efforts to jump cynically on the anti-BDS bandwagon.

It is beyond ironic that the extremist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which claims to be Israel’s “one true friend” in the Bundestag while simultaneously stoking anti-Semitism and nurturing nostalgia for the Third Reich, has put forward the harshest alternative resolution, calling for an outright ban of BDS in Germany.

This must appear to be a can’t-lose proposition to the far-right party, which can now deflect criticism of its anti-Jewish agenda while disguising its anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry in a cloak of virtuosity. Moreover, European anti-Semites supporting Israel is not as odd as it sounds because they have long regarded it as channel for removing Jews from the West.

This variety of stealthy anti-Semitism needs to be challenged as actively as open racism against Jews.

Those, like the Green party, who voted for the resolution on the progressive end of the spectrum are inflicting unforeseeable damage on German democracy, by curtailing citizens’ freedom of expression and action. It also sends the implicit message that even peaceful forms of Palestinian resistance are not acceptable in some western eyes.

That is not to say the German authorities should stop challenging and combating the poison of anti-Semitism, but they should focus on actual incidents of Judeophobia, rather than stigmatising an entire anti-occupation movement.

Although the principles of BDS are not anti-Semitic, in and of themselves, the movement can and does attract anti-Semites.

Some racists instrumentalise the movement to cover up their irrational hatred of Jews and to conceal their hateful bigotry behind a sheen of respectability. Others allow their sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinian people to plunge them down the rabbit hole of rabid racism.

This leads to the sorry and troubling situation in which some pro-Palestinians perpetuate the vilest and filthiest of anti-Semitic tropes, such as the myth that wealthy Jews covertly run the world through their alleged control of the global banking system, not to mention the seemingly supernatural powers they ascribe to Israel and the Mossad.

Some truly ludicrous variations of this which I have heard or encountered include the myths that the Israeli Mossad was behind everything from the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks to the creation of the Islamic State (ISIS) jihadist group and the master puppeteer behind the Syrian civil war.

Most sickening is when a BDS supporter or pro-Palestinian sympathiser downplays or downright denies the Holocaust, either by claiming the Holocaust never took place or by insultingly insinuating that the Zionist movement played a role in the persecution of Jews in order to win sympathy for their cause, thereby simultaneously blaming the victims and absolving the perpetrators.

A recent example of this was a short video downplaying the extent of Nazi extermination drive and purporting to reveal “the truth behind the Holocaust and how Zionism benefited from it”, which was posted by AJ+ Arabic last week. Al Jazeera quickly deleted the offensive tweet and suspended the two journalists whom it said made and published it.

It is imperative that efforts to combat and weed out this insidious racism are scaled up, both in the Arab world and the West, for the integrity of the pro-Palestinian movement and for the safety and security of Jews.

While the BDS movement is clearly not racist, it is not necessarily as effective as some think, nor as ethically straightforward as its advocates believe, and a convincing moral case can be made for supporting, opposing or modifying it.

One thorny question relates to the issue of fairness. Although it is completely understandable that Palestinians would focus on their own cause and engage in a boycott of their oppressor, it is less clear why outsiders would choose this cause over others.

For many pro-Palestinian activists, their support is part of a broader humanist worldview that opposes injustice and oppression wherever it occurs and regardless of whomever commits it, such as is the case with Jewish supporters of the Palestinian cause. Moreover, Palestine and Israel are of enormous symbolic, political and historical importance, both in the Middle East and the West.

However, some are guilty of selective outrage and the hypocrisy that accompanies it. For instance, there are those who rail against the crimes and injustices of the Israeli occupation while defending the crimes and injustices of, for instance, the Assad regime.

Then, there is the conundrum of collective punishment, especially when it comes to the cultural and academic boycott of Israel and the blanket “anti-normalisation” movement in the Arab world, which impacts even Israeli progressives, such as celebrated author and academic Shlomo Sand, and sometimes even Israeli journalists sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, such as Amira Hass.

And, as the anti-normalisation camp becomes more vocal in Palestine, on the back of a quarter of a century of disappointment and decades of dispossession, this also inhibits joint action between Palestinian and Israeli civil society and citizens, as several peace activists confessed to me during a recent visit to Ramallah.

But the reality is that Palestinians will not be freed by BDS alone. In addition to a targeted boycott of the institutions that facilitate the occupation, there needs to be targeted engagement between Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Jews. The goal of the conflict needs to shift from vanquishing a determined enemy who refuses to bow down to gaining a steadfast ally to bow to in mutual respect.

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Voting for Palestinian empowerment in Jerusalem

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By Khaled Diab

Despite the dogmatic reactions from the politically orthodox, Aziz Abu Sarah’s aborted mayoral bid is the latest manifestation of the Palestinian struggle’s shift towards a civil-rights movement.

Photo: ©K. Maes

Friday 5 October 2018

It has been over 40 years since East Jerusalem had a Palestinian mayor (Ruhi al-Khatib) and nearly three-quarters of a century since a Palestinian mayor (Mustafa al-Khalidi) governed Jerusalem as a whole.

But one Palestinian is on a mission to change this reality. Aziz Abu Sarah, a Jerusalemite Palestinian peace activist, journalist, social entrepreneur and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer has announced his candidacy for mayor in the upcoming elections at the end of October.

His motivation?

“I want to inspire hope,” he told me. As someone who lived for years in Jerusalem, I can vouch that hope is one commodity that is in extremely short supply among the Palestinians of East Jerusalem. They live under Israeli rule but are largely disenfranchised. Their precarious legal status as “permanent residents” means they have little protection or recourse against the mushrooming Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, evictions, home demolitions, or even being stripped of their residencies.

In addition, hemmed in by the wall, East Jerusalem has become cut off economically from the rest of the Palestinian West Bank, and maintaining social and cultural ties is a one-way process, seeing as West Bank residents cannot visit Jerusalem without a difficult-to-acquire Israeli entry permit.

Nevertheless, the legal, political and social barriers standing in the way of Abu Sarah are substantial and formidable, which led me to wonder whether his candidacy was more a protest action than an actual political campaign. “I want to win. This is serious,” insisted Abu Sarah, who is part of al-Quds Lana (Jerusalem is Ours), a Palestinian-run list for seats on the city council.

The most immediate hurdle is a legal one. Abu Sarah is not technically entitled to run for mayor, as Israeli law stipulates that only an Israeli citizen may become mayor of Jerusalem, which effectively means that the vast majority of Palestinian Jerusalemites, excepting the minority with Israeli citizenship, are permitted to vote in municipal elections but not to run for office. Abu Sarah says he has hired a lawyer to make his case as a candidate before the Israeli courts, but he admits that “my chances are low of getting approved”.

“If I am approved, then I have 180,000 potential voters in East Jerusalem. This is way more than I need to win the mayoral position,” Abu Sarah asserts.

However, there is one major glitch in this optimistic view: the support Abu Sarah is counting on is notional. Since Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967, there has been an official voter boycott of the municipal elections in place. “I do have an uphill battle, though, convincing Palestinians to vote, making sure Israel has enough polling stations, making sure people are not afraid from the ‘anti-normalisation’ threats,” acknowledges Abu Sarah, who had eggs thrown at him by unidentified protesters when he launched his bid.

Given that boycotting the elections for city hall has been the orthodoxy for the past half century, it is unsurprising that Abu Sarah’s campaign has provoked controversy and opposition, with representatives from the Palestinian political establishment and activist communities harshly criticising the hopeful mayoral candidate for allegedly normalising the occupation and some going so far as to accuse him of being part of an Israeli conspiracy to get Palestinian Jerusalemites to accept the occupation, i.e. a veiled (and sometimes not-so-veiled) accusation of treason.

The Mufti of al-Aqsa Muhammad Hussein hinted that participating in the elections, either as a voter or a candidate, was tantamount to heresy and whoever did so removed himself or herself from “the religion, the nation, and the homeland”, while the PLO’s Saeb Erekat suggested that any form of participation in the ballot would “serve to aid Israel in the establishment of its ‘Greater Jerusalem’ project”.

This kind of rhetoric not only places Abu Sarah’s safety and well-being at potential risk, it is also unfair. People may disagree with the strategy pursued by Abu Sarah and like-minded Palestinians but accusing them of being cowards and sell-outs is not only defamatory but also betrays a lack of imagination. “It pains me a lot that our state of dialogue within the Palestinian community has reached such a level,” Abu Sarah confesses. “I invite them to talk to me, argue with me and convince me that I am wrong. I say openly that if anyone does, I would withdraw from the elections but never due to threats,” he adds courageously.

Boycotting the municipal elections in the early days of the occupation made sense because Palestinians of Jerusalem had the hope and expectation that Israeli rule over them would not last long. Half a century on and with no end in sight, this strategy has not aged well and sticking to these outdated orthodoxies and dogmas has actually become self-defeating, as it gives the Israeli authorities a carte blanche to make life as difficult and unbearable as possible for Jerusalemite Palestinians.

“[Critics] argue that Israel wants us to vote but, in reality, that’s not true. If Israel wanted us to vote, they wouldn’t have only three or four polling stations in East Jerusalem while they have dozens in West Jerusalem,” argues Abu Sarah. “Israel doesn’t have an interest in having Palestinians know what’s happening behind closed doors or how the budget gets divided or how permits to build new areas happen.”

Despite all this, a growing number of Palestinians in Jerusalem believe that political involvement is a necessary way to safeguard their presence in the city and to keep alive their struggle, which has been abandoned by the international community and Arab world. Abu Sarah expects that up to 30% of eligible Palestinian voters will cast a ballot – a low turnout by any ordinary measure but a revolutionary jump compared with the minuscule 2% or so who voted in the previous election.

The opposition of the Fatah-led PLO to a new cadre of young leaders emerging who challenge its domination of political power and its Oslo illusions is understandable. Less clear are why Palestinian activists who favour a democratic binational state of equal citizenship for Arabs and Jews would also oppose such an initiative. Surely, voting in elections and running for office are, alongside grassroots activism and civil disobedience, vital components for achieving such an outcome.

It is both odd and contradictory that running for the Knesset and voting in Israel’s general elections is accepted when it comes to the Palestinian citizens of Israel, but taking part in local elections are a huge no-no for Palestinian Jerusalemites, who have lived under Israeli control for only 19 years less. This is in spite of the fact that, if combined, the potential political clout of these two groups of Palestinians living under direct Israeli rule would, as I have long argued, be formidable.

On the Jewish side of the city, Abu Sarah’s candidacy is being met with hostility from the ultra-nationalist and religious right, even though they are the ones most vehemently opposed to the partitioning of the city. “Israeli nationalists are terrified of Palestinians voting… They are terrified of the potential. One political group already asked the government to disqualify us,” Abu Sarah says.

Despite the hostility, Abu Sarah’s groundbreaking campaign has gained him the admiration of a significant number of Jews. “While I can’t vote in the Jerusalem municipal elections, I admire, respect and trust Aziz Abu Sarah, and I think what he’s doing is very important for Jerusalem,” says Sarah Tuttle-Singer, a writer based in Jerusalem. “It’ll be a travesty and a stain on the holy city and all of Israel if he is not allowed to run.”

I sense that Abu Sarah is likely to garner some votes from the shrinking progressive, leftist liberal Jewish communities of Jerusalem, who would vote for him both as an expression of goodwill towards their Palestinian neighbours and as a protest against the domination of the city’s politics by the ultra-nationalist and religious right.

“I feel like he represents me more than the other candidates I’ve seen so far, on the issues that matter to me most,” believes Gil Elon, a Jewish resident of Jerusalem who intends to vote for Abu Sarah if his candidacy is approved. “Also, I think he won’t have the same type of corruption and other problems that leave other candidates vulnerable to thuggish influences.”

Although Aziz Abu Sarah, under pressure from the Israeli establishment and Palestinian authorities and activists, has since this interview announced his withdrawal from the mayoral race, his and disruptive daring move carries enormous symbolic significance for the long term. It is the latest high-profile manifestation of the long process I have been observing for years, in which the Palestinian struggle is being reinvented as a civil rights movement for equality – what I call the ‘non-state solution’.


This article first appeared in the New Arab on 25 September 2018.

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Israeli pilgrim in Prophet Muhammad’s house

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By Khaled Diab

A visit by an Israeli Jewish blogger to some of Islam’s holiest sites has stirred up controversy and anger. But should it have?

Wednesday 27 December 2017

A photo of a smiling man dressed in a traditional Arab thawb, keffiyeh and agal while standing in the middle of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Islam’s second holiest site, has sparked online outrage among some Arabs and Muslims.

That’s because the man in question, who has posted his photo posing with a bag emblazoned with Hebrew letters reading ‘Ben Tzion’, is not a Muslim worshipper but an Israeli Jewish blogger.

Instagram, where Ben Tzion had been chronicling his escapades, suspended his account, he claims, and the account is, at the time of writing, no longer active, following a deluge of angry comments.

Under the hashtag ‘#صهيوني_بالحرم_النبوي (‘Zionist_in_the_Sanctuary_of_the_Prophet’), numerous Arab Twitter users expressed severe criticism of Saudi Arabia for allegedly breaking the Arab boycott of Israel, seeing this as a further escalation of the kingdom’s apparent attempts to normalise relations with Israel.

Some took it as an opportunity to spew bigoted anti-Jewish sentiment. “Umar Ibn Al-Khattab… expelled Jews from madina [sic] 1400 years ago and now Saudi government are [sic] allowing them back again,” wrote one Twitterer.

The incident became a battleground in the ongoing Gulf propaganda war between Qatar and a Saudi-led alliance which has laid it under siege, supporters of which have accused Qatar of being an Israeli stooge. The truth is most Gulf countries have been discreetly cultivating relations with Israel for many years now.

“You prohibit Qataris from entering it but you allowed your cousin, the Jew, to enter,” wrote one Qatari user.

Despite (false) allegations that the Israeli blogger was on an officially sanctioned visit and that the Saudis had knowingly let him enter, Ben Tzion himself maintains otherwise. Speaking to BBC Arabic, he said that his trip, for which he used an undisclosed non-Israeli passport, was a private visit, to meet Saudi friends he had got to know in college in America (on a previous visit, he had visited a college friend in Iran).

In a telephone interview with the Times of Israel, Ben Tzion explained that the visit to Saudi Arabia was part of a regional ‘goodwill tour’ which also took him to Iran and Lebanon, both of which Israel defines as ‘enemy states’, prohibiting its citizens from travelling there, on pain of possible but unlikely prosecution – unless they happen to be political dissidents or Palestinians.

This two-sided rejection might be the reason why Ben Tzion keeps his full name and current location under wraps. In fact, a source close to the Times of Israel informed me that, although Ben Tzion occasionally blogs for the online news site, nobody there has met him in person.

Of Russian origin, Ben Tzion grew up in the United States, where he graduated from Babson College, a prestigious business school, and worked in real estate in the Boston area – he holds American, Russian and Israeli citizenship, my source informed me.

“No one in the Arab world ever approached me with hostility,” Ben Tzion told the Times of Israel. “Among regular people, there is no hatred. I was in Beirut two weeks ago – there’s no hatred, people are friendly.”

This revelation will shock and dismay a large number of Israelis, many of whom, I have learnt through years of interaction, are convinced they would be lynched upon entering Palestinian neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, let alone travelling deep into ‘hostile’ Arab territory. This is especially the case among Israeli Jews who equate contact with Arabs as a form of betrayal and self-hatred aimed at the destruction of the Jewish state by other means.

But such contact highlights the importance of direct, grassroots people-to-people contact. It helps demystify and humanise the other side. While this, in and of itself, will not solve the complex issues at the heart of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, understanding and empathy are vital prerequisites to eventual resolution.

Many Arabs will protest that this whitewashes the Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians and normalises the occupation. In my view, a distinction must be made between private, independent Israeli citizens and activists, and representatives of the state or members of organisations affiliated with the state or defending its crimes – and this distinction should be incorporated into the Arab boycott.

This does not mean that Arabs have to agree with Israelis or turn on the Palestinians. It simply means that they need to engage with Israelis and assist their Palestinian brethren in making their case.

Some Arab activists will counter that the boycott is effective and is working, as evidenced by the panicked anti-BDS legislations and activities of the Israeli state, including the recent decision to deny entry to a delegation of European parliamentarians and officials who had intended to visit jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti.

However, the limited successes BDS has scored lulls activists into a false sense of confidence. Even though Israel has become the subject of greater social and political opposition in Europe, this has scarcely made a dent in its economy and, as protection against possible but unlikely European sanctions, Israel has actively nurtured deepening ties with Asian and African states.

Moreover, the current situation empowers extremists, who increasingly call the shots, and opportunists, who take advantage of the chaos.

While principled Arab activists and citizens refuse to reach out to ordinary Israelis, the de facto Netanyahu oligarchical dictatorship is forging ever-deepening ties with equally unscrupulous Arab despots and dictators. And they are doing so not in the interest of peace, justice and security, but to further their own self-interest through conflict and war, injustice and insecurity.

Grassroots contacts founded on principles and dialogue are not simply about paving the way to a better tomorrow – they are also about sidestepping a worse and more destructive future from sucking our region even deeper into the abyss.

Another feature of the Arab backlash on social media was the rejection as somehow impure or contaminating the notion of a non-Muslim entering an Islamic sacred site. As someone who has entered the holiest sites of many other religions, I find this attitude bigoted and intolerant. While there are plenty of mosques, including the fourth holiest in Islam, the Great Mosque of Kairouan (Tunisia), which permit non-Muslims to enter, Mecca, Islam’s most sacred city, is the exclusive domain of Muslims.

This is completely unacceptable morally and counterproductive culturally and politically. Moreover, allowing non-Muslims into Islam’s most sacred heart would open up its soul to the rest of humanity.


This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 November 2017.

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Foreign tourists vote to thump Trump’s America

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By Ray O’Reilly

Left without a say in the election of Donald Trump, a new breed of conscientious objectors are making their mark on the USA. Foreign tourists are voting with their feet and going elsewhere.

Trump Tower, located in New York, which has also hit by the Trump slump in tourist arrivals.
Image: Wikipedia

Thursday 12 October 2017

Bad news is usually, well, bad news for tourism, especially if it stretches out over months and even years. Holidaymakers are skittish about things like terrorists taking pot shots at them on a beach, while many others let their conscience speak for them when they choose a destination.

The latest victim of this form of conscientious objection is the United States. Reports of international tourism arrival figures there tell no lies. Experts at Tourism Economics predicted earlier in the year that the USA could expect 6.3 million fewer visitors this year. That’s an 8.2%, or €8.5 billion, slump on 2016. New York alone was predicted to lose up 250,000 tourists in 2017.

Arrival figures for the first quarter alone showed a sharp decline of tourists from such countries as Switzerland (-28%) and Belgium (-20%), where I live. Theories and even catchy names abound for this, but what they all agree on is that the divisiveness of the Trump presidency is by no means solely a domestic socio-political phenomenon. It casts a worldwide shadow. The headlines that probably cover it best are the ‘Trump slump’ or ‘Trump dump’, which come with their own memes, images and even apps. But my personal preference would be the ‘Trump thump’ as the impact is far more than a slap to the world’s face.

Global citizens, those who observe developments at home and abroad but were unable to vote for the so-called leader of the free world, have found another way to vote… with their feet. With total tourist arrivals currently down by 10% on last year, the rest of the world is saying ‘no’ to Trump antics, ‘no’ to global bullying, ‘no’ to social division.

The dip in US tourism is not part of a global downward trend. Destinations worldwide welcomed nearly 600 million international tourists in the first six months of 2017. That’s around 36 million more than in the same period last year, according to the UN’s World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), making the January-June figures the strongest half-year performance since 2010. Growth was strongest in the Middle East (+9%), Europe (+8%) and Africa (+8%), followed by Asia and the Pacific (+6%).

The first half of 2017 shows healthy growth in an increasingly dynamic and resilient tourism market, including a strong recovery in some of the destinations impacted by security challenges last year,” said UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai. In his statement, he went on to talk about “tourism-phobia” and local protests against the summer “invasion of tourists” in the likes of Barcelona and Venice.

This is something the Big Apple didn’t have to deal with this year. And New Yorkers can probably look forward to an equally quiet Thanksgiving and Christmas, unless their president pockets his smartphone once and for all, and his die-hard enabler and the executive finally clue up to the further harm he can do to the States, and other regions.  

To anyone who would listen in the days and weeks after Donald Trump’s election, I made no secret of my views of a country that elects a demagogue to the highest office. ‘There is no way in hell I would set foot in the USA now,” I’d say, partially for entertainment purposes but genuine in intent. Friends would scoff as they jetted off to their Atlanta meeting or Las Vegas team-building. I was beginning to think I was the only one who cared. How else can you make a statement, when you’re not consulted on the running of the world?

To go or not to go?

If the Trump government can block entry to the nationals of myriad countries, in the twisted logic that ‘everyone wants to be in the USA’, then the only way to respond is to say ‘I don’t want to be there’ – a good old-fashioned boycott like that of the Iranian Oscar-nominated film director Asghar Farhadi who wanted no special treatment faced with Trump’s visa ban or the NHL stars refusing to visit the White House. And it seems now that many more, millions more, agree with the director of The Salesman, which took home the Oscar for best foreign film, and footballer Stephen Curry’s decision.

‘Guilt-edged tourism’ like this, where people are motivated by more than sun, sand and sea, is not typically applied to developed western countries. It tends to work more for the likes of China, Myanmar and North Korea, where the choice whether to go or not to go is weighted by arguments for and against the regime. Do you support the economy and encourage more open policies through engagement with regular folk, like tourists from Belgium, or does that merely prop up dictators in desperate need of the hard currency would-be tourists bring? It’s a tough one … usually.

But in this case, the ‘guilt’ is blunted by the fact that ordinary Americans, showing signs of easing out of the economic doldrums, are not likely to be directly hurt by any decision to stay away, to spend hard-earned savings somewhere else. This is probably more than you could say for North Koreans under the (seemingly necessary) additional economic sanctions now in place. No, the net effect is more symbolic, until enough right-minded people express their displeasure with the bully presidency before something really bad happens, some bad news that no one can spin or undo.

The travel sector is typically robust enough to bounce back when the source of the pain or the ‘bad news’ stops coming in. It can take some time – the full term of a presidency, for example – or it can go much faster; as fast at it takes to Tweet ‘we’re not necessarily seeking regime change’.

We’ll see. But in the meantime, keep voting with your feet, say ‘No!’ to tourism in America. Come to Belgium instead.

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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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Voting for Palestinian liberation

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By Khaled Diab

Active and effective Arab political participation in the next Knesset can be a game changer, shifting the Palestinian struggle towards civil rights.

Voting for change. Joint List's Ayman Odeh casts his ballot.

Voting for change. Joint List’s Ayman Odeh casts his ballot.

Wednesday 25 March 2015

In the run-up to the Israeli elections, media speculation focused on whether or not the voute would help or hinder the quest for peace and a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Personally, I didn’t expect the ballot to have any profound effects on the status quo of the headline conflict. However, missing from this equation, as so often is the case, was what the elections mean for Israel’s Arab minority, which constitutes a full fifth of the country’s population.

At first sight, their situation appears to be the very definition of a no-win situation. “I have yet to make a decision regarding which would be the best of two evils – a Zionist Camp government or a Netanyahu government,” Mimas Abdelhai, a young university student from al-Tirah, which lies in what is known as the “Arab triangle”, told me before the election. “The more racist the Israeli government gets, the more the international arena understands Palestinian suffering.”

This reflects the widely held conviction among Palestinian-Israelis that, when it comes to Israel’s Arab citizens, the main difference between the Israeli centre(-left) and the right is one of honesty. This broad-based anti-Arabism manifested itself, among other things, in the recent witch hunt against Balad Knesset member Haneen Zoabi.

Many Palestinian citizens of Israel with whom I spoke felt torn about the issue of casting a ballot. “I haven’t decided if I’m going to vote or not, but previously my idea was that we all should boycott the elections, and stop giving Israel the image of being a ‘democracy’ it markets to the world,” said Sahar Issawi, who is from the north but works for an NGO in Jerusalem.

Drawing on traditional Arab anti-normalisation rhetoric, there are those who urged Palestinians not to vote. Describing casting a ballot as “an effective stamp of approval for Israel’s discriminatory regime,” Haifa-based activist Waad Ghantous called for an Arab boycott of the election and the construction of “shadow institutions to relieve the suffering on the ground and provide the basis for a unified struggle against our oppression”.

With incendiary, rightwing anti-Arab racism at fever pitch – such as foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s recent suggestion that “disloyal” Arab citizens “deserve to have their heads chopped off with an axe” – it is understandable that Palestinians in Israel should feel the urge to reject rejection.

However, it is my conviction that the only thing worse than voting is not voting. While voting in elections for a Knesset which they feel actively isolates them may seem like folly, not voting is reckless because it would effectively involve Arab voters exiling themselves into self-imposed isolation, leaving the arena wide open for the far right to continue its campaign of creeping disenfranchisement.

Instead, Israel’s Palestinian minority should use its demographic strength to force Israel to sit up and take notice. “I intend to vote,” insists Amir Ounallah, a Haifa-based IT entrepreneur. “I want Israelis to realise… that they do not live in Europe, that, like it or not, they live in the Arab Middle East.”

And the higher Arab voter turnout (63.5% v 56% in 2013), combined with the joining of forces between Arab parties under the umbrella of the Joint List, has certainly caused the Israeli mainstream to take note, both positively and negatively, as reflected in Netanyahu’s scaremongering tactic to draw rightwing voters by claiming: ” “Arab voters are going in droves to the polls. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses.”

The Joint List, an improbable alliance between Palestinian nationalists, Arab-Jewish leftists and Islamists, was formed out of a recognition of the growing common threat facing Palestinians in Israel. Active participation in the political process may help block the raft of discriminatory legislation which the Knesset has been passing recently, the latest of which is the draft “Jewish state” basic law.

“All we have to do is become determined to get involved in the political game and the right wing will be in big trouble,” the eloquent head of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh of the communist-leaning Jewish-Arab Hadash party, said in an interview prior to the vote.

In Israel’s notoriously fractured political landscape, the relatively high Arab voter turnout has ensured that the Joint List is now in the unprecendented position of being Israel’s third largest party, which was forecasted by most pre-election polls.

But electoral success is unlikely to have any effect on the fundamentals of the situation, many fear. “Since the United List will have no impact, to my mind, whatsoever on Israeli politics, it will enhance and accelerate the search for an alternative strategy for the Palestinians,” Ilan Pappé, the ground-breaking Israeli historian and activist, told me.

Personally, I believe that high-profile Arab engagement in the next Knesset carries the potential of being a game-changer. Effective Arab representation will not only act as a buffer against further discrimination, it could also help reduce the socio-economic marginalisation Arabs, who are one of the poorest segments of society, endure in Israel.

In addition, with the Oslo blueprint for a two-state solution looking more and more like an illusion or even a delusion, I believe that the struggle for equality being waged by Israel’s Arab minority could point the way to the future.

Like Pappé, I think the most effective, and perhaps only, path forward to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a civil rights struggle. In my book, I call this the “non-state” solution, in which talk of states and statehood are abandoned for the time being in favour of a joint Arab-Jewish struggle for human rights and human dignity.

This would involve Jerusalemite Palestinians, West Bankers and Gazans following the lead of their brethren in Israel, and joining forces with them, to demand full rights and equality under the Israeli system.

Once this is achieved, then a popular peace process involving everyone can be launched with the aim of forging a peace of the people, by the people, for the people.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 16 March 2015.

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Can the boycott against Israel succeed… and how?

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By Khaled Diab

The furore surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s SodaStream endorsement raises the question to what extent BDS can help end the occupation… and how.


Tuesday 4 February 2014

Lost in Translation brought Scarlett Johansson global fame. Will the actress’s latest role – lost in the occupation – earn her widespread infamy?

Since the announcement that the Hollywood star was the new face of the controversial Israeli firm SodaStream, a war of words between pro-Palestinians and pro-Israelis has gripped the (social) media. While pro-Palestine activists condemn Johansson for whitewashing the Israeli occupation, pro-Israel activists see the American’s insistence on sticking with the endorsement deal as a vote of confidence in Israel’s economy and democracy.

Meanwhile, sensing a contradiction in Johansson’s dual roles as an Oxfam and SodaStream “ambassador”, the international NGO castigated the American celebrity, eventually parting ways with her. This came after, according to the BDS movement, a reported “internal revolt” within Oxfam, or in ScarJo’s own words, “a fundamental difference of opinion” with the charity over BDS.

In her own defence, Johansson contends that: “SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine.”

In this, she echoes the Israeli company’s own publicity. “At SodaStream, we build bridges, not walls. It’s a fantastic sanctuary of coexistence and an example of peace in a region that is so troubled and so needs hope,” the firm’s CEO, Daniel Birnbaum said in a promotional video.

It is true that SodaStream employs hundreds of Palestinians under terms they probably wouldn’t get at a similar Palestinian firm and Birnbaum, to his credit, was willing even to embarrass the Israeli president in defence of his Palestinian workers.

However, it is hard to miss the elephant in the room: if Birnbaum is such a prophet of peace, why is he profiting from the occupation by operating a factory in an illegal Israeli settlement which makes the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state impossible? Surely, if SodaStream really wished to act as a “bridge”, it should relocate its main factory to the Israeli side of the Green Line or, better still, set up shop in PA jurisdiction.

The high-profile campaign against Johansson, as well as other recent successes has been interpreted by many pro-Palestinians as another success for the BDS movement. In contrast, a lot of pro-Israelis have seen in the actress’s refusal to back down a clear signal of what they call #BDSfail.

Setting aside the ethical debate surrounding BDS, this raises the question of whether efforts to pressurise Israel by isolating the country can really achieve their stated goals of “Ending its occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall”.

One way of determining this is to examine similar efforts in the past. By putting pressure on a firm’s reputation and profits, corporate boycotts have a relatively decent success rate, as reflected in a number of recent examples, though some companies are more vulnerable than others to this kind of pressure.

Despite the growth of neo-liberalism and the associated privatising of government, countries do not tend to operate like corporations, with the financial bottomline only one factor in many affecting their behaviour.

Hence, the record of boycotts and sanctions against states is far more patchy. In reality, when faced with a determined adversary, punishments of this kind can often fail to deliver the desired results, even in their most extreme manifestations: full sanctions.

More than half a century of American sanctions against Cuba did not lead to the demise of the Castro regime, but impoverished Cuba, leaving it suspended in a decaying time bubble. Other Cold War sanctions hardly fared much better.

A decade of international sanctions against Iraq only succeeded in turning what was once the most-developed Arab country into a graveyard for children and a public health catastrophe. Similarly, the Gaza blockade grinds on, with Egypt too tightening the screws, yet Hamas is still very much in control while the people suffer terrible destitution and isolation.

In fact, in the three examples above, sanctions actually had the unintended effect of strengthening the regimes in question. In each case, sanctions were portrayed as an unfair and unjust form of foreign meddling and the regime as a heroic force of resistance, enabling it to intimidate opponents and shutdown dissent.

There have, of course, been some successes. Many advocates of BDS point to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa as a clear precedent. “Sanctions were the final blow to the apartheid regime in South Africa,” the BDS movement says on its website.

“Such action made an enormous difference in apartheid South Africa. It can make an enormous difference in creating a future of justice and equality for Palestinians and Jews in the Holy Land,” believes none other than Nobel prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu.

But what kind of a role did the campaign of disinvestment and sanctions play in toppling apartheid in South Africa?

Although South Africa was under African sanctions since the 1960s, these had only a marginal effect, and it was not until the West joined the movement in earnest in the mid-1980s that it began to have a perceptible impact.

Among the boycott’s clearest effects was the flight of capital and credit, the rise in economic hardship, and a slow-down in the flow of much-needed foreign technology, which had a knock-on effect on economic growth and the cost of doing business.

On the other hand, even at the height of anti-apartheid sanctions, South Africa managed to find “sanctions-busting” alternatives, and began a process of recalibrating its economy and finding alternative trading partners. There is also evidence that the boycott was losing steam. For instance, even though the United States had passed a Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act only in 1986, US imports from South Africa, by 1988, rose by 14% and exports by 40%.

In addition, sanctions had some unintended consequences. For instance, it forced the country to innovate more, such as developing alternative energy technologies, and had economic consequences for poor blacks and post-Apartheid governments. This explains why opposition to sanctions was not only the preserve of neo-cons, with some South African black and white anti-apartheid activists expressing serious misgivings.

If economic sanctions had only a marginal effect, the academic boycott was even more questionable in its efficacy. “That most of the scholars in our study judged the boycott to be an irritant or inconvenience, rather than a significant barrier to scholarly progress, suggests that it proved more a symbolic gesture than an effective agent of change,” concluded one extensive survey of South African academics conducted at the end of the apartheid era.

In many cases, rather than causing guilt and galvanising opposition to the system, “many scholars felt left out, isolated, unjustly discriminated against”.

If boycotts and sanctions played such a vague and marginal role in toppling apartheid, what actually brought down the system?

It is my conviction that the lion’s share of the credit must go to internal dynamics. Apartheid was not only an unjust system but an unrealistic one. It is impossible to oppress and disenfranchise the majority of a population indefinitely. Mounting, sustained and highly organised black (and, to a lesser extent, white) resistance was the pivotal factor. Of similar import was the enlightened leadership of Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, who managed to neutralise stiff conservative opposition to dismantling apartheid.

With hindsight, there is a tendency to afford boycott and sanctions against South Africa a more central role in defeating apartheid than they actually played, thereby depriving the real agents of change, who risked all for their convictions, of some of the glory they deserve.

That is not say that boycotts and solidarity campaigns are useless. If anything else, they at least provide a morality boost through solidarity to the oppressed and enable outsiders to distance themselves from policies and actions of which they do not approve. However, these are tools that need to be handled with caution and care to ensure they do not misfire.

In the Israeli and Palestinian context, the most effective approach is to continue to demand the grassroots boycotting of corporations that profit from the occupation, thereby promoting a more virtuous and constructive cycle of investments. For instance, a campaign could be launched to force SodaStream to relocate its facilities to areas of the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

In addition, like with South Africa, the United States should end its military aid to Israel until it ends the occupation, which might possibly be the single most effective economic action any party can take.

I also believe that the academic and cultural boycott needs a major rethink and revamp, especially its Arab variant (which sees many Arabs unwilling or afraid to engage with even sympathetic Israelis), to penalise Israeli peace-breakers and to embrace and empower peacemakers. Such engagement, especially between Palestinians and Israelis, will also help lay the ground for the post-occupation era.

Ultimately, like in South Africa, the occupation, segregation and injustice of the situation will be defeated by Palestinian resistance and Israeli opposition, which would be a far truer “bridge to peace” than the words of a self-interested beverage company or glamorous actress.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 30 January 2014.

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The reel story of Egyptian Jewry

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In telling the story of Egypt’s vanished Jewish communitya new documentary sheds light on a forgotten chapter of history.

Friday 29 March 2013


The Jews of Egypt, the reel history of Egypt’s Jewish minority, was due to be screened in Egyptian cinemas a couple of weeks ago, after the documentary had successfully featured in a number of domestic and international festivals.

As someone who is keenly interested not only in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also its human ramifications and implications, I was excitedly looking forward to the opportunity to see the much-awaited documentary upon my next visit to Egypt. In fact, so keen was I to view this ground-breaking documentary, and to meet its maker, that I travelled especially to Rotterdam a couple of months ago, but through some misunderstanding, director Amir Ramses did not manage to make the rendez-vous.

“I was very enthusiastic for the commercial release,” a jet-lagged Ramses told me from Cairo, shortly after getting off the plane from New York. “I thought that three years of work might finally be worth something and that the message I wanted to transmit was going to reach audiences on a larger scale.”

And the message? Through a mix of personal testimonies from Egyptian Jews in exile, statements from historians specialising in the era and archive footage, Ramses sought to shed light on a largely forgotten chapter of Egyptian history. He wanted to show that once upon a time Jews were an integral part of Egypt’s cosmopolitan social fabric and felt just as Egyptian as their Muslim and Christian compatriots.

In my view, this message is an incredibly important and relevant one. Decades of animosity and conflict have led to the redacting by both sides of the inconvenient chapters in which Arabs and Jews coexisted largely peacefully, leaving the impression that “Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia”.

Though I have personally been aware for years of the kaleidoscope of Egypt’s Jewish past, The Jews of Egypt was a golden opportunity to reacquaint a new generation of Egyptian audiences, beyond older people and a narrow intellectual elite, with this suppressed aspect of the nation’s identity.

In addition, the documentary represents some much-overdue recognition of the historical wrong committed against Egyptian Jews. Caught as they were in the crossfire of the Arab-Israeli conflict, between the rock of pan-Arabism and the hard place of Zionism, the Jews of Egypt first became ostracised and then were unfairly expelled or pressurised out of their homeland.

An Egyptian Jew I know from London, who was forced out of his homeland in his teens but still maintains ties with Egypt, shares these sentiments. “The film not only showed that Jews from Egypt felt strongly towards their time in the country and are fond of their experience there, but it would also have opened the eyes of a number of people concerning a past that seems to have been obliterated from their history,” said the man who wished for personal reasons to conceal his identity.

Sadly, however, it looked like this might not happen, after all. Even though Jews of Egypt  had received the necessary green light from the censor (and had even been viewed by the minister of culture as recently as December 2012), national security stepped in at the last moment and called off the release. Whether or not the film has actually been banned was unclear.

The sudden eleventh-hour decision to stop the screening left Ramses – who, along with producer Haitham el-Khameesy, self-financed this indie production in order to maintain its independence and ensure it does not serve one agenda or the other – unsurprisingly miffed, bewildered and furious. Interpreting the move as a means to “terrorise freedom of expression and suppress creativity”, el-Khameesy has indicated their intention to sue all the relevant authorities.

And it seems that efforts by the filmmakers and their supporters, and the ensuing stink abroad, led to a reversal of the decision and the film got another green light and was set to appear in theatres last Wednesday.

“I expected harassment before I got my permit, but I was ready for that and prepared to discuss the film with censorship committees. But they gave me the permit and I was relieved,” Ramses reflected. “But for national security to do something that is constitutionally not their right, that was a total shock.”

But what is behind this mysterious move – the sort of cloak and dagger arbitrary authoritarianism that Egypt’s revolutionaries had hoped would become a thing of the past?

“I think it must be the usual paranoia of the Egyptian authorities towards the word ‘Jewish’,” Ramses hypothesises, citing as an example of this, “when you say Jewish to a policeman, it’s like saying bogeyman.”

For his part, the director of the censorship committee, Abdel-Satar Fathi, who has “supported the film all along”,  says he called national security for an explanation. In confirmation of Ramses’s speculation about the state’s state of paranoia, the censor was told that “the film’s title might cause public uproar”.

The Egyptian Jew from London, who is now in his 70s, finds this contemporary distrust and hostility inexplicable and surreal. “It is ironic that when there were some 80,000 Jews in Egypt there was no rampant anti-Jewish feeling as there is today when there are hardly any Jews in the country,” he poses.

In my view, the fact that there are currently probably fewer than 100 indigenous Jews left in Egypt actually makes easier the strong anti-Jewish sentiment gripping most strata of Egyptian society. Most Egyptians never come into contact with Jews, and the only Jews they are regularly exposed to, through the media and popular culture, are two-dimensional Israelis who oppress Palestinians and deny them their rights.

This anger at Israel’s excesses towards the Palestinians has been accompanied by Arab powerlessness to do much about it. Rather than admit that Arab defeat is largely a symptom of Arab weakness and disarray, there are those who exaggerate the power of their enemy, which makes some subconsciously seek solace in the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, first floated in Tsarist Russia, relating to Jewish plots for world dominance.

In contrast, when Egypt was home to a prominent, visible and diverse Jewish community, the fact that many people knew Jews personally or saw positive Jewish role models all around them not only tempered the suspicion with which majorities often view minorities but also presented a picture of surprising harmony. In fact, it would strike many as surprising today, but Egypt, particularly then-cosmopolitan Alexandria, was regarded as a safe haven, and land of opportunity, for Jews fleeing persecution elsewhere.

Jews, perhaps unsurprisingly, were prominent in business, banking and industry – establishing Egypt’s most famous department stores and helping set up its first national bank as part of economic efforts to resist British domination.


Like Hollywood, Egyptian cinema, widely known as the Hollywood of the Middle East, was at first dominated by foreigners and minorities, partly because in the early days, people from “good families” did not go into acting and partly because of the creative insight being a relative outsider affords.

Though Jews were more often involved in production and direction, some of Egypt’s best-loved stars were Jewish. One example was the singer-actress Leila Mourad, who captivated an entire generation with her ethereal voice and girl-next-door demeanour, and whose films even brought Jews and Arabs together in mandate Palestine.

Although Mourad’s diva status was second only to that of Um Kulthum and she managed to hold on to her place in people’s hearts until she died, the Arab-Israeli conflict cast a long shadow over her later career.

She took early retirement at the peak of her fame in the mid-1950s, perhaps troubled by the Syrian-led Arab boycott of her films and music, though Egypt’s revolutionary regime defended her, and she was even briefly the first “voice of the revolution”. However, as a sign of her enduring popularity, a popular Ramadan bio-soap was made about Mourad – ironically, a Syrian production – which dealt sensitively with her Jewish heritage.

Looking back from my vantage point a couple of generations down the line, the thing that has most caught my eye as my awareness of Egyptian Jewry has deepened is just how closely involved Egyptian Jews were in Egyptian nationalism and the country’s struggle for independence.

For example, the name Yaqub Sannu might not ring many bells today, but in the 19th century he was a big deal in Egypt’s nascent nationalistic movement. This Egyptian Free Mason and Jew, whom my brother drew my attention to, established one of the country’s first anti-imperialist publications, The Man in the Blue Glasses.

One extremely colourful revolutionary political agitator featured in Ramses’s documentary is Henri Curiel, the son of Egypt who spoke poor Arabic and the son of a wealthy banker who became a communist revolutionary. Even after he was exiled from Egypt and stripped of his nationality, Curiel continued to feel Egyptian and supported the region’s independence struggles from his base in France, especially in Algeria. According to Jews of Egypt, Curiel warned Nasser of the impending tripartite attack by France, Britain and Israel in 1956, though the Egyptian president did not take the warning seriously.

“I was surprised the most by the passion of the Jews of Egypt even after they were expelled. They never stopped loving their country. They never lost their sense of belonging,” Amir Ramses told me. “I made this film as a tribute to that time in history when Egypt was a cosmopolitan and tolerant country.”

Although there was a lot wrong with that era and I try to resist rosy-coloured nostalgia, narrow nationalism has caused Egypt and the Middle East to fall out of love with diversity and to become less tolerant towards difference. I hope in the future the region will be able to rediscover this spirit of acceptance.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 24 March 2013.

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Palestinian liberation through the Israeli ballot box

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By Khaled Diab

Despite their marginalisation or disenfranchisement in Israeli politics, Palestinians can use Israel’s democratic tools to their advantage.

Thursday 31 January 2013

The expected massive swing further to the right in Israel did not materialise, with, according to some estimates, an even 60-60 split of seats in the Knesset between the “left” and “right”. Although incumbent prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is not quite out, he is definitely down – and there exists the theoretical, though unlikely, scenario that he might not retain his position as prime minister if the famously fractured centre and left join forces.

Meanwhile, the new kingmaker, though probably not the king, is not, as many had forecasted, Naftali Bennett or the ultra-nationalist and religious right, or at least not them alone, but the compulsively centrist Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, which came in second, with an estimated 19 seats.

This gain for the centre, if not exactly the left, has enabled many secular and progressive Israelis to breathe a sigh of relief, though not necessarily to breathe more easily. “The Knesset as a whole looks like it will be significantly more moderate as a whole than after the last elections,” said on Israeli friend, Rifka, expressing a certain cautious optimism.

In fact, many on the Israeli left feel little elation, and some are gripped by a sense of deflation. “The public of floating voters went for the middle-class chauvinist TV presenter with good hair and mood music and the charming high-tech guy who calls them ‘achi’ (‘brother’),” believes Udi, a young British-Israeli. “This is a victory for banal, naïve, escapist anti-politics.”

And Yair Lapid, nicknamed Tofu Man by one commentator, is perhaps the greatest example of this escapist anti-politics. He is an actor, a journalist and a TV presenter. But when it comes to politics – he is a political novice and lightweight. He seems to have gained so many votes partly through his superficial charm and the fact that he is a household name, and partly by maintaining an almost pathological silence on the political issues dividing left and right during his campaign.

Another area of major escapism in Israeli politics relates to the Palestinian question – and the occupation hardly featured as an election issue, not even as a minor preoccupation, except perhaps with the religious and revisionist rights’ unapologetic determination to further extend and entrench the Israeli settlement enterprise and even to annex large swathes of the West Bank.

“It was a surprise to everyone that the centre and centre-left have revitalised themselves, but when it comes to Palestinians, no one is jumping with joy,” admitted veteran PLO politician Hanan Ashrawi in an article, expressing a widespread sentiment among Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Faced as they are with an apparently unending occupation and its attendant machinations – walls, checkpoints, martial law, ever-growing settlements, the absence of sovereignty and self-determination – and the indignity this produces, it is hardly surprising that the Palestinians of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza have little to no faith in the Israeli electoral process.

However, the lack of enthusiasm stretches across the Green Line to Palestinians living in Israel who, at least theoretically, enjoy equal citizenship and have the right to vote. They are frustrated by how the Israeli political establishment at best ignores them and at worst passes legislation that actively discriminates against them, despite the political leverage their votes should afford them.

In addition, even though they are generally better off materially than Palestinians living under occupation and enjoy greater freedom than Arabs living under autocratic regimes, they are nonetheless marginalised and stigmatised socially and economically. As one resident of Umm al-Fahm explained: “This is not my country. I don’t receive my rights in this state.”

This translated into widespread apathy – and a certain measure of active boycotting – towards the recent vote, with pre-election surveys suggesting that only half of Arab voters would cast a ballot, compared with some 75% in 1999. At the time of press, it was unclear what the actual voter turnout among Palestinian-Israelis was, though indications were that it would be far lower than the nearly 70% national average, despite the efforts of Arab parties, politicians, community activists and even the Arab League to bring out the vote.

One young Palestinian who had not intended to vote changed her mind at the last minute when she got wind of how low voter turnout in her community was. “I got nervous and upset. I grabbed everyone I know who didn’t vote and drove them [to the polling station],” she admitted.

In total, Arab and mixed Arab-Jewish parties together managed to secure an estimated 12 seats in the Knesset: United Arab List (5), Hadash (4) and Balad (3). Some lament the low voter turnout as a missed opportunity.

“Let’s assume they had voted in large numbers and managed to get 20 seat, which is feasible, then the Arab parties would have had the power to impose their opinion,” believes Hamodie Abonadda, a television producer and Hadash voter. Abonadda speculates that armed with that many seats, the Arab parties would have become impossible to ignore (as Lapid has insisted he will do) by the left and could have made it, for the first time in Israeli history, into a ruling Israeli coalition.

It is my conviction that the political leverage of Palestinians in the Israeli system could be multiplied significantly if the 300,000 or so Palestinian Jerusalemites joined the fray and decided to claim their right to vote.

However, this would involve them applying for Israeli citizenship, which many oppose because it would, they fear, give legitimacy to Israel’s decision to annex Jerusalem. In fact, in the clash between ideology and pragmatism, even participating in municipal elections, which Jerusalem residents are allowed to do without becoming citizens, is still regarded as an unacceptable form of “normalisation”, as I have heard from numerous activists.

“For too long… there has been this taboo on voting for the municipal elections because if one does vote then he/she is seen as a ‘traitor’,” explains Apo Sahagian, an Armenian-Palestinian musician and writer from the old city of Jerusalem. “But this mentality has only worked to the Palestinians’ disadvantage… For example, the approval given to settlement construction starts on the municipal level. If there is enough opposition at that initial level, then that settlement enterprise can be stopped or interrupted.”

Though Sahagian believes that only “raw pragmatism” will save the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom and equality, he opposes the idea of Palestinians in Jerusalem applying for Israeli citizenship. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that “in a different reality” the combined vote of Jerusalemite Palestinians and Palestinian-Israelis would “shake the political landscape of Israel”.

And “raw pragmatism” is guiding a growing number of Palestinians in East Jerusalem to learn Hebrew, as attested to by the plethora of posters advertising language courses, and even to apply for Israeli citizenship, which they see, in light of the vulnerable status of the permanent residence cards that can be taken away fairly easily, as a way of guaranteeing their presence in their beloved city, and hence preserving what remains of its Palestinian character. “What is the difference between having an Israeli ID and an Israeli passport? They’re both Israeli documents, but one gives you rights, the other does not,” one young Jerusalemite who had recently acquired citizenship confessed to me.

There are Jerusalemites I know who argue that the potential combined political clout of Palestinians in Israel and in Jerusalem could also help ease the suffering of their kin in the West Bank and Gaza.

Despite the fact that this emerging trend has sparked controversy, even within individual families, many Palestinians who are moving down this path are doing so out of principle, not just pragmatism, seeing it as an important step along the road to a single, democratic, bi-national, Arab-Jewish state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river.

A friend and neighbour from Jerusalem, with whom I spent long hours dreaming of a better future, expresses this reality succinctly: “There will not be two states. There is already only one state. All the people of this one state should be represented at the ballot box.”


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 26 January 2013.

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