Friday, April 08, 2011

A Letter to the Quakers

Teresa Parker
Middle East Programme
Society of Friends

Many years ago, I came very close to joining your ranks and becoming a Quaker. I have generally admired much of what you do and some of what you believe. But I am now thoroughly grateful that I did not become a Quaker then, for I fear I would have to abandon you now. I find myself frequently disappointed in the Quaker attitude to Israel, and more so given your recent decision to boycott settlements in Samaria and Judaea, which you regard as illegal under international law. That is, of course, highly inaccurate. There is no firm position in international law concerning these settlements, and authorities veer from one side to the other and will do so until the matter is resolved by a future peace treaty or other instrument. The only point I wish to make in this regard is that, so long as the legal position remains unclear, you have no right to declare the illegality of the settlements, particularly since you are not a properly constituted legal body with the authority to pronounce on such matters. There is something high-handed about your position, which clashes with traditional Quaker belief in the virtues of humility.

I have spent much of the past week composing a letter to a 12-year-old girl called Tamar Fogel, and distributing it to people around the world, who have written in support of the letter and the sentiments it expresses. The letter will be delivered to Tamar before Passover next week, by her grandparents. Even for a professional writer like myself, it proved a difficult letter to write. Tamar is the oldest of the three surviving children of the Fogel family. On returning from her Sabbath youth club three weeks ago, she found her parents and three of her siblings murdered in a bath of blood. Her mother had been stabbed to death, her father and two brothers had had their throats slit, and her 3-month-old sister had been beheaded in her cot. The perpetrator or perpetrators have so far remained in hiding. When news of this atrocity was made known, Palestinians in Gaza handed out sweets and danced in the streets of Gaza City.

The massacre of this harmless family, all residents of one of the settlements you so despise, is only the latest in a long line of atrocities that have been carried out against Israeli civilians. Palestinian terrorist attacks have no excuse, yet I have never seen a supporter of the Palestinians march or protest against the very great evil they represent. A website entitled ‘Quakers in Israel and Palestine’ says almost nothing about Israel, but records a long list of activities you have undertaken in the Palestinian territories. An American website called ‘Quakers With a Concern for Palestine-Israel’ has a series of links, not one of which presents the Israeli point of view, but most of which reiterate a pro-Palestinian position. Does that seem balanced to you? Fair? Helpful? Likely to work towards peace? Another site, entitled ‘Quakers in Britain’ has a page named ‘Israel-Palestine’. It shows a photograph of part of Israel’s security barrier, to be precise a section of the barrier which is a wall. Only 3% of that barrier is a wall, the rest is a fence. Why did Quakers choose to show the wall when the fence would have been more representative? Does that match Quaker ideals of fairness and justice? The barrier has reduced terrorist attacks within Israel by around 90 percent. Might it not have been appropriate to have made that clear? You will know that images of this wall sector are routinely used by groups and individuals who seek to defame Israel and who mischaracterize the barrier and the reasons it is there. Can you explain how Quaker ideals sit alongside those of groups motivated by anti-Semitism and hatred for the Israeli state?

Palestinians have done much to worsen their position. While sympathizing with their plight, fairness demands we take notice of their many acts of self-defeat and hatred. They have fought wars against Israel and killed thousands in terrorist actions. They continue to do so, and their boldness in semi-military action grows year by year. Israel has done much to help them and for over 60 years has appealed to them to accept the legal status of Israel and to build their own state alongside it. Yet their newspapers, their school textbooks, their radio, their television and their mosque sermons are filled every day with exhortations to kill Jews, with appeals to young children to grow up to become suicide bombers, with blood-curdling cries to launch a jihad once more against the Jews, ‘those sons of apes and pigs’. Speaking in English, Palestinian politicians preach peace, but in Arabic they deliver a message to their people of ‘No surrender’ and predict a day when there will be no more Jews and no more Israel. Does it not seem to you that Quakers might be better employed in trying to break down these dreadful barriers of hate and militancy? But do Quakers have the courage to do so? You have made many friends with Palestinians, but fewer, to my knowledge, with Israeli Jews or, for that matter, Israeli Arabs.

If the Quaker movement stands, in the eyes of non-Quakers, for anything, it is the pursuit of peace. Your efforts, when directed to that end, have been commendable. We all hope and work for peace. It is an essential quality of civilized human life that all of us, be we religious or secular, should make efforts in the path of peace and reconciliation, for without them civilized life is not possible. I do not, however, believe that boycotting one side in this conflict is conducive to peacemaking. Through her tears, the little girl Tamar, whom I mentioned above, told an interviewer that she was resolved to continue in the path set by her parents. Her surviving family, her grandparents, aunts and uncles are all religious people, much like yourselves. They work hard to build something that symbolizes the survival and endurance of the Jewish people against the odds. No people in history have gone through the persecution, brutalization, and contempt that he Jews have done. We all thought that, when the Holocaust had ended, its horrors would speak to mankind and mark the end of hatred of the Jews. And yet it is clear today that anti-Semitism is as strong as it ever was, perhaps stronger. Hatred of Israel has become a mask for hatred of the Jews. Why else would the one Jewish state be singled out for the daily opprobrium that is heaped on it? Why do ordinary young people march in the streets chanting ‘Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas’? Not in Berlin in 1939, but in London in 2009. Having survived the Holocaust and returned to their homeland after 2000 years, the Jews are not going to cave in to your boycott or any other trick that singles them out for punishment, much as Hitler singled them out.

For over 60 years, the Jewish people have done all in their power to make peace with their neighbours. They have given up Sinai and Gaza, and they will give up most of the West Bank when a reasonable deal has been made with their enemies. What have the Palestinians given in return? In 2000, Yasser Arafat walked away from an offer at the Camp David Summit that gave him 97 percent of what he had asked for. He then started a pre-planned second intifada, in the course of which over 1000 Israelis and over 4000 Palestinians were killed. While Israeli hospitals continue to treat Palestinians of all kinds, the Palestinians have offered a steady diet of violence, from suicide bombings to bullets to car bombs. They fire rockets on civilian communities, they target children, they teach their children to kill. No Israeli school teaches violence. So why do people of peace like yourselves prefer to boycott Israelis and to leave untouched the men of violence? Perhaps you will say you work among the Palestinians to inculcate a love for peace. If that is so, may I say in sorrow that your efforts have borne no fruit? As time passes, the Palestinians grow more violent, not less, more dismissive of gestures for peace, not less.

You have a role to play in the Middle East, but at present I believe you are playing the wrong one. The settlements are a prickly subject that will be settled in its own time. It is fairly certain that most of the settlements there now will remain. The Palestinians and the Jordanians say that no Jew will be allowed to remain on Arab soil. Yet 20% of the population of Israel is Arab. Racism against tolerance, surely. I think it would be better if you could agree not to interfere in the settlements, for which you seem ill-equipped. Work with both sides, by all means. Give comfort to the Jews and good counsel to the Arabs. Associate yourselves with activities like Israel’s Save a Heart Campaign, which gives heart transplants to Palestinian children. Much good can come of that, and your help would be much welcomed. Go to Hebron and see for yourselves how the small Jewish population is restricted to 3% of the town, on pain of death. Much reconciliation is needed there. Visit Givat Haviva's Jewish-Arab Center for Peace, the Parents Circle-Families Forum, the four Hand in Hand schools in Israel and the West Bank, and many, many more. Such projects offer a positive response to alienation and fear. Boycotts only exacerbate enmity.

I do not doubt your motives, your sincerity or your commitment. I only ask if you are properly informed about the realities of the Middle East and whether you do not take your information from tainted sources. You must act by your own lights, but I fear that is exactly what you are not doing. You have a mission to the Palestinians, and that is essential. But I believed you also have a mission to the people of the settlements, to children like young Tamar Fogel and her two brothers. The horror she witnessed will never leave her. But nor will the determination she has to build on the foundations left by a loving mother and father. If it is possible, I would ask you to visit some settlements and to sit in silence with the people who live in them. But do not boycott them or the produce they work so hard to grow.

Yours sincerely,

Denis MacEoin

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Letter to Edinburgh University Student Association

The following letter was written to the EUSA following their vote to boycott Israel because of its 'apartheid'.

The Committee
Edinburgh University Student  Association

May I be permitted to say a few words to members of  the EUSA? I am an Edinburgh graduate (MA 1975) who studied Persian, Arabic and  Islamic History in Buccleuch Place under William Montgomery Watt and Laurence  Elwell Sutton, two of Britain’s great Middle East experts in their day. I  later went on to do a PhD at Cambridge and to teach Arabic and Islamic Studies  at Newcastle University. Naturally, I am the author of several books and  hundreds of articles in this field.

I say all that to show that I am  well informed in Middle Eastern affairs and that, for that reason, I am  shocked and disheartened by the EUSA motion and vote. I am shocked for a  simple reason: there is not and has never been a system of apartheid in  Israel. That is not my opinion, that is fact that can be tested against  reality by any Edinburgh student, should he or she choose to visit Israel to  see for themselves.

Let me spell this out, since I have the impression  that those members of EUSA who voted for this motion are absolutely clueless in  matters concerning Israel, and that they are, in all likelihood, the victims  of extremely biased propaganda coming from the anti-Israel lobby. Being  anti-Israel is not in itself objectionable. But I’m not talking about ordinary  criticism of Israel. I’m speaking of a hatred that permits itself no  boundaries in the lies and myths it pours out. Thus, Israel is repeatedly  referred to as a ‘Nazi’ state. In what sense is this true, even as a metaphor?  Where are the Israeli concentration camps? The einzatsgruppen? The SS?  The Nüremberg Laws? The Final Solution? None of these things nor anything  remotely resembling them exists in Israel, precisely because the Jews, more  than anyone on earth, understand what Nazism stood for. It is claimed that  there has been an Israeli Holocaust in Gaza (or elsewhere). Where? When? No  honest historian would treat that claim with anything but the contempt it  deserves. But calling Jews Nazis and saying they have committed a Holocaust is  as basic a way to subvert historical fact as anything I can think  of.

Likewise apartheid. For apartheid to exist, there would have to be  a situation that closely resembled things in South Africa under the apartheid  regime. Unfortunately for those who believe this, a weekend in any part of  Israel would be enough to show how ridiculous the claim is. That a body of  university students actually fell for this and voted on it is a sad comment on  the state of modern education. The most obvious focus for apartheid would be  the country’s 20% Arab population. Under Israeli law, Arab Israelis have  exactly the same rights as Jews or anyone else; Muslims have the same rights  as Jews or Christians; Baha’is, severely persecuted in Iran, flourish in  Israel, where they have their world centre; Ahmadi Muslims, severely  persecuted in Pakistan and elsewhere, are kept safe by Israel; the holy places  of all religions are protected under a specific Israeli law. Arabs form 20% of  the university population (an exact echo of their percentage in the general  population). In Iran, the Baha’is (the largest religious minority) are  forbidden to study in any university or to run their own universities: why  aren’t your members boycotting Iran?

Arabs in Israel can go anywhere  they want, unlike blacks in apartheid South Africa. They use public transport,  they eat in restaurants, they go to swimming pools, they use libraries, they  go to cinemas alongside Jews – something no blacks could do in South Africa.  Israeli hospitals not only treat Jews and Arabs, they also treat Palestinians  from Gaza or the West Bank. On the same wards, in the same operating theatres.  

In Israel, women have the same rights as men: there is no gender  apartheid. Gay men and women face no restrictions, and Palestinian gays often  escape into Israel, knowing they may be killed at home. It seems bizarre to me  that LGBT groups call for a boycott of Israel and say nothing about countries  like Iran, where gay men are hanged or stoned to death. That illustrates a  mindset that beggars belief. Intelligent students thinking it’s better to be  silent about regimes that kill gay people, but good to condemn the only  country in the Middle East that rescues and protects gay people. Is that  supposed to be a sick joke?

University is supposed to be about learning  to use your brain, to think rationally, to examine evidence, to reach  conclusions based on solid evidence, to compare sources, to weigh up one view  against one or more others. If the best Edinburgh can now produce are students  who have no idea how to do any of these things, then the future is bleak. I do  not object to well documented criticism of Israel. I do object when supposedly  intelligent people single the Jewish state out above states that are horrific  in their treatment of their populations. We are going through the biggest  upheaval in the Middle East since the 7th and 8th centuries, and it’s clear  that Arabs and Iranians are rebelling against terrifying regimes that fight  back by killing their own citizens. Israeli citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, do  not rebel (though they are free to protest). Yet Edinburgh students mount no  demonstrations and call for no boycotts against Libya, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia,  Yemen, and Iran. They prefer to make false accusations against one of the  world’s freest countries, the only country in the Middle East that has taken  in Darfur refugees, the only country in the Middle East that gives refuge to  gay men and women, the only country in the Middle East that protects the  Baha’is.... Need I go on? The imbalance is perceptible, and it sheds no credit  on anyone who voted for this boycott.

I ask you to show some common  sense. Get information from the Israeli embassy. Ask for some speakers. Listen  to more than one side. Do not make your minds up until you have given a fair  hearing to both parties. You have a duty to your students, and that is to  protect them from one-sided argument. They are not at university to be  propagandized. And they are certainly not there to be tricked into  anti-Semitism by punishing one country among all the countries of the world,  which happens to be the only Jewish state. If there had been a single Jewish  state in the 1930s (which, sadly, there was not), don’t you think Adolf Hitler  would have decided to boycott it? Of course he would, and he would not have  stopped there. Your generation has a duty to ensure that the perennial racism of  anti-Semitism never sets down roots among you. Today, however, there are clear  signs that it has done so and is putting down more. You have a chance to avert  a very great evil, simply by using reason and a sense of fair play. Please  tell me that this makes sense to you. I have given you some of the evidence.  It’s up to you to find out more.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Denis  MacEoin