Finding it a bit of a yawn to keep fingering “the Occupation” as the root of all evil in the Middle East, academics at the University of Southampton have moved on to something far more energizing: a three-day conference planned for April that will examine whether Israel has a right to exist.
“This conference... constitutes a ground-breaking historical event on the road towards justice and enduring peace in historic Palestine,” the British university proclaims on its website. “It is unique because it concerns the legitimacy in International Law of the Jewish state of Israel.
“Rather than focusing on Israeli actions in the 1967 Occupied Territories, the conference will focus on exploring themes of Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism; all of which are posed by Israel’s very nature.”
The mastermind behind the conference is law and philosophy professor Oren Ben-Dor, a former Israeli who has written that the occupation that should be debated, but is not, is “the occupation of the whole of Palestine” and not just the territories conquered in 1967.
According to a report by Jerry Lewis in last week’s Jerusalem Post, a letter written late last year by leaders of the British Jewish community “left Prof. Hazel Biggs, head of the University of Southampton’s Law School, in no doubt of the strength of feelings about the conference.”
While these Jewish leaders stressed that they would normally and without reservation support the right of any university group to express critical views, the proposed conference, which “sets out explicitly to question the very legitimacy of a member state of the UN,” appeared to cross the line of acceptability.
The law school, their letter continued, was being used as an academic platform to advance not just legitimate Palestinian national rights, but to demonize and delegitimize the very right of existence of the State of Israel.
Alas, Prof. Biggs remained adamant, turning down further appeals to rethink the April event.
Commented one talkbacker: The hot air generated at this conference is likely to make a significant contribution to global warming.
WRITING IN Britain’s Telegraph on March 13, Tim Stanley cited academic freedom of speech as the reason why he supported the conference going ahead. But he asked readers to consider a few points.
It is true, he said, that Israel was a state created where no such state had existed before. “But so was Iraq, Syria, Uganda and Togo. They were all products of decolonization, all lines drawn on a map by a bureaucrat with a pencil and ruler.”
Why, Stanley asked, does no one debate the legal foundations of the existence of Nigeria, an uneasy mix of tribes and religions, where a near-genocidal war was conducted to subjugate its southeastern portion? He then mentioned the oft-tragic displacement of a settled people – the Palestinians – but noted that this wasn’t unique. Where, he asked, is “the wailing and gnashing of teeth” over the displacement, deaths and wars caused by the creation of India and Pakistan, or the displacement of Amerindians by European colonists? Israel’s contemporary borders were framed by conflict and remain controversial, Stanley admitted. “But where is the conference questioning the legality of North Korea’s existence and condemning its terrorist attacks on the South? Or a conference challenging Rwanda over its policy towards Hutu migrants and its alleged support for rebel movements in eastern Congo?”
In short, said Stanley, echoing the very questions Israelis and Jews so often ask: “What is it about Israel that makes people debate its ‘legality’ so much more often than they do that of other states? Why is it held to such an impossible standard? Why do its critics regard it as unique among newborn states struggling to survive? “Why, looking beyond this conference, is Israel the one country in the world whose critics so often conflate its government and its people – even seeking to punish the former by boycotting the latter?” If you could do with some evidence that not everyone in the foreign media has tunnel vision when it comes to Israel, read the rest of Stanley’s article, headlined “Southampton University wants to debate Israel’s right to exist. But that right is sacred.” You’ll find it on Google.
While not uncritical, it reassures simply because it attempts to be fair and objective, qualities in very short supply these days when the topic is the Jewish state.
STANLEY’S APT questions, so often ignored by lazy or malicious media, recall an exchange Menachem Begin had in June 1977 on his first day as prime minister of Israel, when another British reporter asked him provocatively about Israel’s right to exist.
“Traditionally,” intoned the new premier, “there are four major criteria of statehood under international law. One: effective and independent government. Two: effective and independent control of the population. Three: a defined territory. And four: the capacity to freely engage in foreign relations. Israel is in possession of all four and, hence, is a fully-fledged sovereign state and a fully accredited member of the United Nations.”
But the question had rattled Begin considerably, leading him to this rhetoric in the Knesset several hours later: “The right to exist? Would it enter the mind of any Briton or Frenchman, Belgian or Dutchman, Hungarian or Bulgarian, Russian or American, to request for its people recognition of its right to exist? Their existence per se is their right to exist!” Begin subsequently refused to be drawn into any kind of debate over Israel’s right to exist. There was simply nothing to discuss.
I RETURN to my ex-compatriot, the tireless philosopher and legal expert Oren Ben-Dor, host of the upcoming Southampton conference, only to mention that I have, belatedly, just finished The Finkler Question by British Jewish writer Howard Jacobson, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2010.
This funny and unflinching, occasionally ominous novel about exclusion and belonging, in which “Finkler” both denotes the name of a character and is a synonym for “Jew/ish,” is a worthwhile read on a number of levels.
But particularly trenchant – and relevant to the present context – is Jacobson’s satirical treatment of a self-righteous group led by Sam Finkler called “ASHamed Jews,” an anti-Zionist collection of British Jewish academics, entertainers and other minor celebrities that holds endless nitpicking meetings to hammer out the crucial distinction between being “ashamed of being Jewish,” being “ashamed as Jews” and being “Jewishly ashamed.
And all this, noted a reviewer, “is woven through vituperative, sometimes hilarious, sometimes tedious arguments about Israeli exceptionalism.”
In connection with which Finkler’s wife, the non-Jewish and often perceptive Tyler, unforgettably berates him in a manuscript discovered after her death: “For pogrom after pogrom, Jews bowed their heads and held on. God had picked them for His own. God would help them....
“The Holocaust changed all that FOREVER. Jews finally woke up to being on their own. They had to look out for themselves. And that meant having their own country. In fact, they already had it, but let’s not get into that, Mr.
“And when you have your own country you... become like everybody else! Only you and your cronies won’t let them be like everybody else because for you, Shmuel, they are still obliged to obey the God (in whom you don’t believe!) and be an example to the world! “Explain... why else you can’t leave the Jews of the country I’ve even heard you call Canaan... alone? ...Is yours some perverted patriotism that burns up territory you’re afraid of losing so that it won’t fall into enemy hands?...
“Why don’t you mind your own f---ing business, Shmuel? You won’t be judged alongside Israyelis [sic] unless you choose to be. You have your country, they have theirs – a fact that, to quote you on being married to me, ‘invites neither exceptional sympathy nor exceptional censure.’”
PROF. BEN-DOR: You’ve abandoned your native land. So can’t you leave it, and us, alone?