I was staunchly pro-Palestinian when I arrived at Georgetown University to begin studying for an MA in Arab Studies in the fall of 1995, or at least I thought so.
I had read Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem in college a few years earlier and accepted the basic conclusion that Israel’s unwillingness to compromise had become the primary obstacle to Middle East peace.
If any place might have been expected to shepherd this eager young mind into accepting “progressive” orthodoxy on Israel, it would have been Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS).
There I received a solid grounding in post-colonial theory, revisionist historiography of Israel, and so forth.
Radical though their views may have been, I don’t recall many CCAS faculty caring much what I thought of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and few were involved in the kind of campus activism that is de rigueur among academics today. The roster of guest lecturers hosted at CCAS’s spacious, elegantly appointed boardroom was another story, however, and notices for anti-Israel events throughout the Washington, DC, area were routinely advertised on the center’s bulletin board. Going to them was the cool thing to do, and I attended more than I care to admit.
However, while I remained sympathetic to the Palestinian experience, I found interacting with other sympathizers increasingly intolerable. My immersion into the anti-Israeli movement brought me face to face with peer antisemitism for the first time, primarily among European and American students who shared much the same liberal outlook as myself.
Oddly enough, I don’t recall any disparaging talk about Jews (albeit plenty about Israel) from Arab students at Georgetown, some of whom went out of their way to befriend Jewish students and faculty. It was Western students who said the darndest things.
The final straw came when I arrived with friends at an Israeli embassy protest during the September 1996 Western Wall Tunnel riots, when organizers led the crowd in chanting “Bibi, Hitler, just the same / Only difference is the name.” I left in disgust, then sent an email to CCAS students and faculty inviting anyone who felt Hitler was no worse than then (and current) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to join me on a visit to the US United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the other side of town. There were no takers, though several students – including two who had enthusiastically participated in the rally – privately applauded the letter.
Truth be told, though, the biggest problem with the pro-Palestinian movement wasn’t so much the antisemitism as it was the varying degrees of willful blindness displayed by its foremost advocates both to the suffering of other ethno-sectarian groups in the region (particularly Kurds and Christians) and to Palestinian suffering at the hands of villains other than Israel, particularly those seen as leading the fight against the Jewish state. There was more than antisemitism at work here.
This blindness owed much to the fact that CCAS and other Middle East studies departments were becoming increasingly inundated with lavish grants from Arab governments.
Having fed their own citizens a steady diet of propaganda blaming all the region’s ills on Israel, they now promoted this narrative abroad very effectively.
This was painfully evident when Lebanese human rights attorney Muhammad Mugraby traveled to the United States in November 1997 for a short lecture tour at the invitation of Human Rights Watch. As it often does when hosting guests from the Middle East, HRW asked if CCAS would be interested in hearing Mugraby speak.
Yes, the answer came back from a CCAS administrator failing to see why a Muslim discussing Lebanon in the wake of Israel’s devastating Grapes of Wrath campaign the year before would be a problem, so Mugraby was scheduled to speak at the center.
That was, until the day of the talk, when (I’m guessing) CCAS faculty learned that Mugraby was speaking about the abduction and incommunicado detention of Lebanese and Palestinians by Syrian forces then occupying all but a sliver of Lebanon (with the blessing of most Arab and Western governments). The location was abruptly changed from the CCAS boardroom to on ordinary classroom outside the center. No faculty were in attendance.
At that time, I was doing freelance Web development work (a little html knowledge went a long way back then) for, among others, an NGO stridently critical of Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians, and got to know its Jewish-American director.
When I mentioned the Mugraby story, he confided in me that a longtime Palestinian friend of his had been imprisoned incommunicado for many years in Hafez Assad’s Syria, which then held far more Palestinians in its prisons than Israel, and under far worse conditions.
Then why focus on Israel, I asked. “I can’t do anything for him,” he explained.
Alongside the antisemitism and the money, this idea of Israel as the low-hanging fruit for do-gooders wanting to improve the Middle East was the third foundation stone in what became a vast conspiracy of silence about how the region works during the 1990s.
The well-intentioned flocked in droves to the belief that Israeli- Palestinian peace was achievable provided Israel made the requisite concessions, and that this would liberate the Arab-Islamic world from a host of other problems allegedly arising from it: bloated military budgets, intolerance of dissent, Islamic extremism, you name it.
Why tackle each of these problems head on when they can be alleviated all at once when Israel is brought to heel? Twenty years later, the Middle East is suffering the consequences of this conspiracy of silence.
I don’t have a particularly rose-colored view of Israel’s history (or that of any other nation-state, including my own), nor do I put much stock in the religio-cultural attachments that make many Israelis resistant to sweeping concessions.
I just don’t buy into the “theory of everything” where Israel is concerned. The particulars of when and how Israelis and Palestinians work out their differences don’t matter that much, and insofar as they do Netanyahu is among the least of the complications getting there.
That makes me a hardline Zionist, liberal friends tell me.
All right, I guess.The author is a research fellow at the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum.