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Ilan Pappé: Words are not Neutral

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One thing Dr. Ilan Pappé said during his talk Ethnic Cleansing in Palestine, Past and Present on Friday night, Jan. 30, at IUPUI stuck with me more than anything else he said.

"Words are not neutral," were his words, in the context of the Palestinian Authority going to the United Nations to demand statehood.

But there were many other words and phrases that Pappé, who is professor of history and director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, used during his talk in provocative contexts. These were terms that you would never hear, say, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu using in regards to the subjects of Israel, Zionism, and the Palestinians. Phrases like ethnic cleansing. And incremental genocide. Or words like colonialism.

And such terms drew the ire of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) that released a statement on the night of his talk. They expressed their disappointment that the IUPUI Political Science Department was allowing Ilan Pappé, who they labelled a "discredited historian," to express his views.

It did make sense to me, however, that the JCRC didn’t want the current and past actions of Israel against the Palestinian population described as “ethnic cleansing” and “incremental genocide.”

This is, after all, the group that sponsored the Stand with Israel rally at the Jewish Community Center on July 27, 2014 to support Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” assault in Gaza which left over 2,000 Palestinians dead. Five Israeli civilians, including one child, were killed by rocket attacks from Gaza during this conflict, as well as 66 Israeli Defense Forces soldiers. This was a war, in the words of Lindsey Mintz, executive director of Indy’s JCRC, that was about “an existential threat to the state of Israel," and about “protecting their citizens from rockets launched at them by terrorists.”

Pappé didn’t talk much about this operation—ostensibly launched to respond to Hamas rocket attacks—during his lecture, but in my interview with him, he described Israel’s actions, trying to force the Gazans to accept “the same arrangements of incarceration in the West Bank” by using “all the lethal and most updated weapons they have at their disposal on the densest urban space in the world.” The results of such actions, Pappé said, “can only be genocidal.”

Pappé was more concerned in his lecture, however, about framing the conflict in different terminology than it is normally framed in the United States.

“The first entry in a new dictionary has to be colonialism,” Pappé said at the start of his talk “And it’s a very difficult concept to sell in regard to Israel and Palestine.”

Pappé went on to describe Zionism—the movement that brought European Jews to settle in Palestine—as a colonial movement, with similarities to the movements of European peoples to the Americas, to Australia, and to New Zealand. In all of these cases there was only one problem: an indigenous population that had to be reduced or eliminated, he said.

But when a colonial movement, in this case Zionism, is born out of suffering and victimhood, this complicates things, according to Pappé.

“One can fully understand and empathize why Jews in Europe felt insecure and wanted to look for a safer haven somewhere else,” he said.

“It’s not a complex story,” he said. “It happened elsewhere.”

The other thing that makes it hard to understand as a colonial movement, he continued, is that the displacement of native peoples in the Americas and elsewhere is something commonly understood to have happened long ago. Pappé describes what he labels the ethnic cleansing of Palestine - resulting from Zionism — as an ongoing process that began in earnest during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War when much of the Palestinian population was forcefully expelled from Israel by the Israeli Defense Forces.

Jumping ahead 60 years, Pappé described Palestinians as living in “the world’s biggest prison,” (the topic of his next book) where Palestinians are “locked from any elementary feature of basic life that you enjoy here in Indianapolis. They cannot ride a bus, they cannot go to university, their fields, they cannot go to their businesses….”

(It wasn't clear whether Pappe was referring exclusively to Gaza, one of the world’s most densely populated urban areas, where the situation on the ground is considerably worse than in the West Bank.)

The two-state solution he describes as a delusion driven by American diplomats, “the best drivers in neutral that the world has ever seen.” The Israelis, according to Pappé, use this peace process as cover in order to consolidate as much territory in the West Bank as possible.

Pappé's proposed solution to the Israel/Palestine problem is a one state solution where Jews and Arabs have equal democratic rights.

At the end of his lecture Dr. Pappé took questions that audience members had written on note cards. So I submitted a question.

I asked if the extreme groups on both sides of the conflict would be able to live in the same small territory without killing one another, and whether or not the one-state solution was just a recipe for further conflict.

“I think that one of the common misunderstanding about any attempt to move forward with the one state solution that it is a solution based on the assumption of eternal human love for one another,” he said. “That a one state solution means that everyone is constantly hugging one another and agreeing with each other about moral opinions and future perspectives and so on…”

As the person who asked said question, though, I have no such misunderstandings. I thought that Pappé's response assumed that the person who asked it was naïve. I wasn’t making any assumptions based on eternal human love: rather I doubted that Hamas supporters and West Bank settlers could cohabit in the same space for more than a nanosecond without shooting their Uzis and Kalashnikovs at each other.

I cannot say that I’m a disinterested party in this. My background is Jewish (although non-observant), I speak a little Hebrew. I’ve been to Israel twice, seen how tiny a country it is, and can see why Israelis are obsessed with their own security. But I also served as a Peace Corps volunteer in a predominantly Muslim country in West Africa for two years where the topic of Palestine didn’t come up (except among my fellow volunteers). That is to say, what mattered most to your typical Nigerien villager was getting enough to eat. And, seeing human problems in primarily economic terms, I cannot help but see the injustice being perpetuated when Israeli officials put Gaza “on a diet.” That is, attempting to restrict calorie intake in order to change their political leanings.

So while my cultural affinity is towards Israel, my political views are, shall we say, more nuanced.

And, as far as Pappé 's proposed one-state solution to the Israel/Palestine problem is concerned, it is not an option that I necessarily agree with, but since there is no possibility of a two-state solution diminishes every year as the Israelis build up settlements, roads and walls in the occupied territories at an ever-increasing pace (Pappe describes the two-state solution as “a dead body dragged out of the morgue.”) the one-state solution might at the very least a proposal that needs to be looked at and debated.

Of course, Israelis have legitimate fears about what a one-state solution would mean for themselves and their families. Just for starters, a one-state solution - one man, one vote - would almost certainly mean the end of the Jewish state if Palestinians one day outnumber Jews, especially if the right of return is granted for Palestinians and their descendants (a number upwards of 5 million people). The right of return is a proposition that Pappé wholeheartedly endorses.

In a June 2014 poll by the Washington Center for Near East Policy, by more a two to one margin Palestinians polled in Gaza and the West Bank desire majority rule by Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. There are all sorts of questions that Israelis might have about such a state when and if the Palestinians outnumber Israeli Jews. Perhaps the most important question is this: Would Israelis have to vacate their houses when the Palestinian grandchildren of the original owners come back to claim their property?

Pappé has claimed in a previous interview that his Palestinian friends who support Hamas just want to live side by side with Israelis, not displace them (a claim that would do more to anger than reassure your typical Israeli who look at Hamas as a terrorist organization). But while it is unclear what his proposed one-state solution - or majority Palestinian rule for that matter, would mean for Israel’s Jewish population - it is understandable why most Jewish Israelis would want nothing to do with it, at least at this point in time.

Pappé acknowledges that—with a right wing government currently at the helm and a rightward-leaning Jewish population, that there is no hope for change coming from within Israel. It can only come from abroad, he said. That is why he supports the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement aimed at the state of Israel, taking guidance from the strategies of the anti-Apartheid movement which eventually forced South Africa to become a majority-rule country, he said.

So while I understand that Pappé's ideas might be anathema to many Jews, I don’t think Jewish students on campus are in any danger as the JCRC might have you believe. (I do think, however, that the Indianapolis JCRC would agree with Pappe’s contention that words are not neutral.)

“Unfortunately, talks like the one occurring at IUPUI this evening will likely incite hatred of the State of Israel and its supporters,” reads the Indy JCRC statement, “Thereby fuelling the flames of extremism and creating an anti-Semitic climate on campus that may become hostile to Jewish students.”

I personally wish that the Indianapolis JCRC would be more open to discussions about the future of Israel/Palestine including both Israelis and Palestinians of all different viewpoints, and perhaps hosting such a discussion. Such a debate would certainly be more informative and instructive than last year's "Stand with Israel" rally.

I also disagree with the JCRC’s characterization of Pappe’s lecture as “hate speech.”

To believe this, you also have to believe that being anti-Zionist necessarily means being anti-Semitic, a topic that Pappé quite naturally spoke to during his lecture. He, after all, is often accused of being anti-Semitic himself.

The case can be made that, in terms of politics—as an Israeli Jew—Pappe is so far out that he’s left the ballpark. But that doesn't mean he's anti-Semitic. He's Jewish, after all, and he has family back in Israel.

His political positions, however, have made it impossible for him to continue his scholarship and research in Israel, which he left in 2008. But in leaving the ballpark, as it were, Pappe is developing an audience of—and maybe even a dialogue with—concerned American citizens of all faith backgrounds, as well as of Palestinians.

You see, his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine is widely read next door to Israel—in Gaza.

“In Gaza in 2009 we heard about his book,” said University of Indianapolis graduate student Fidaa Abuassi, during her introduction of Ilan Pappe. “But the only way to read his book was to smuggle it… Once we had access to his book we made copies, and we distributed them. And don’t worry about copyright because in Gaza we don’t have basic human rights.”

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