Finding Israel guilty by analogy
Robert Fulford: At this stage the boycotters are fighting a war of language
Saturday, October 14, 2006
The people who have dreamt for years of making Israel appear illegitimate have recently concentrated on depicting its current struggle as a rerun of the fight within South Africa during the apartheid era, with Jews playing the whites this time and Palestinian Arabs the blacks.
That comparison wouldn't survive serious scrutiny, but it's just dumb enough to stir enthusiasm among those who bring to this question nothing more logical than a suspicion of Israel and sometimes a dash of anti-Semitism. A few hundred people holding those views gathered last weekend in Toronto at a conference, The Struggle Continues: Boycotting Israeli Apartheid, at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. A Palestinian flag covered the rostrum and Arabic music filled the auditorium.
It was not a notably coherent event. On the way in, I heard a student say, "She was like, 'Boycott Israeli goods!' And I was like, 'Which are they?'" Then, without explanation, the opening event turned out to be an expression of Canadian Indian culture. Zainab Amadahy, from the Coalition in Support of Indigenous Sovereignty, explained that all of Toronto belongs to the Mississauga Indians, their ownership certified by treaty long ago.
Next, she and three others sang a native "honour song." We were asked to stand during the singing because, she said, this was close to a national anthem. She couldn't tell me the English meaning of the words ("they're about praising warriors"), but she sang them with great conviction and was applauded as enthusiastically as anyone else at the conference. An event that had at first seemed no more than normally confused now began to appear seriously addled.
The atmosphere was a mixture of campus rally and union meeting. It won't surprise anyone to learn that the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3903, provided the support that made the conference possible. After all, the Ontario section of CUPE came out last spring in favour of an anti-Israel BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) campaign, demonstrating that CUPE is rich enough to have a foreign policy and clever enough to know which tiny slice of territory in the Middle East will help the union depict itself as vigorous and progressive. Local 3903 represents York University's faculty, teaching assistants, and graduate assistants; it was among several locals that brought the anti-Israel resolution to CUPE Ontario.
The York union's presence as a sponsor didn't entirely accord with the plaintive story told by David Noble, a York teacher, who gave a talk about pro-Israel organizations in Canada. He described them as so effective that York has become "essentially captive" to Jewish opinion leaders.
At this stage the boycotters are fighting a war of language. They believe that the right labels will win their argument. If successful, they could eventually isolate Israel and make its concerns seem trivial and its accomplishments cruel.
So the boycotters borrow their language from past events, hoping familiar words will carry familiar emotions. Their rhetoric depends on finding Israel guilty by analogy.
What Israel calls a security fence, the boycotters call an apartheid wall. What Israelis call Gaza, a region from which Israeli settlers have been withdrawn, the boycotters call Bantustan, a term used to describe territory occupied by blacks under apartheid. The boycotters stack up the borrowed language in piles of words. Jamal Juma'a, co-ordinator of the Anti-Apartheid Wall committee in Jerusalem, said, "Israel is a colonial racist apartheid state."
Each of those words brings with it heavy baggage. But in this context do they also carry authentic meaning or have they been worn out by rhetorical overuse? What does "colonial" mean when applied to Israel? Colonial states acquire networks of colonies, across the globe, if possible. Israel is charged, at worst, with expanding its own borders at the expense of its neighbours. There's no sense in which that can be called "colonial," particularly in an era when the Israeli government is trying to get rid of territory it acquired when being attacked.
The boycotters ignore that kind of complication. They throw handfuls of terminology in the direction of Israel and hope something sticks. They filled the air at the conference with words like "solidarity" and slogans like "Common cause with the oppressed all over the world." Turning Jewish experience against the Jews, speakers referred to Israelis "ghettoizing Jerusalem." They borrowed even from the Balkan wars and accused Israel of "ethnic cleansing." Perhaps in deference to more moderate standards of debate in Canada, conference speakers (unlike many Arab publications) did not depict the Israelis as Nazis. But they came close.
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