Thursday, May 16, 2013

I have been more than a little remiss about adding to this blog since late last year, but I still write a lot about Israel – and recently published a little book entitled 'Dear Gary, Why You're Wrong about Israel', which is a response to an anti-Israel activist (look for it on Amazon if you haven't done so already). Anyway, in an attempt to break the non-posting habit of several months, here's a little exchange of letters between myself and Professor Malcolm Levitt of Southampton University. It started with a remark he made in support of Stephen Hawking's decision to boycott Israel by refusing to attend a major conference there. See what you make of this.


First, my initial letter to him

> Dear Professor Levitt,
> I am not a chemist nor, indeed, a scientist of any kind. My academic
> background exists in a very different field, but one, I hope, that is of
> particular relevance to the subject of this e-mail. I am a former lecturer in
> Arabic and Islamic Studies and a former editor of The Middle East Quarterly,
> an international journal. My PhD was in an adjunct area of Persian Studies. I
> have a particular interest in the Middle East (where I have lived, first in
> Iran, later in Morocco) and my several visits to Israel have created in me a
> particular interest in matters relating to that country, both religious and
> political.
> I was alerted today to a statement you made recently relating to the decision
> by Professor Steven Hawking to boycott a conference due to be held in Israel,
> when you said ‘Israel has a totally explicit policy of making life impossible
> for the non-Jewish population and I find it totally unacceptable.’ Assuming I
> have quoted you correctly, I feel impelled to ask you where on earth you
> obtained such a manifestly nonsensical view. Like anyone, I feel free to
> criticize Israel when its government policies stray from the straight and
> narrow. Like any country, Israel makes mistakes. But when critics level
> accusations that are simply divorced from reality – that Israel practises
> apartheid, for example, or that it is ‘a Nazi state’ – then I cannot let such
> remarks pass by.
> Israel is the one country in the Middle East (and often far beyond) of which
> it plainly and categorically cannot be said that it ‘has a totally explicit
> policy of making life impossible’ for adherents of any but the dominant faith.
> In Iran, for example, members of the indigenous Baha’i religion (about which I
> have written extensively) are hanged, imprisoned, denied employment in all
> professions, refused entry to the universities, and are threatened with
> genocide. Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews there are treated harshly. For
> many, life is impossible. Jews have been driven out of all the Arabs
> countries. In most Arab countries (notably Egypt), Christians are persecuted,
> churches are destroyed, and whole communities have been leaving over the past
> ten years and more. Those are all countries you would do better to condemn.
> Israel is the only country in the Middle East whose Christian population has
> risen steadily since 1948. And Israel’s treatment of the Baha’is is exemplary:
> they have their international centre in Haifa, where they have built gardens,
> terraces, and white marble buildings facing the Mediterranean, half of a
> UNESCO World Heritage Site that puts the Iranian regime to shame. The other
> half of the UNESCO site is situated outside Acre and contains the holiest of
> the Baha’I shrines. In Iran, every single one of the Baha’i holy places has
> been bulldozed, never to be rebuilt. Every Baha’i cemetery has met the same
> fate.
> In Israel, then 1967 Protection of Holy Places Law guarantees the safety of
> all Jewish and non-Jewish sacred sites:
>   1.  The Holy Places shall be protected from desecration and any other
> violation and from anything likely to violate the freedom of access of the
> members of the different religions to the places sacred to them or their
> feelings with regard to those places.
>      *   Whosoever desecrates or otherwise violates a Holy Place shall be
> liable to imprisonment for a term of seven years.
>      *   Whosoever does anything likely to violate the freedom of access of
> the members of the different religions to the places sacred to them or their
> feelings with regard to those places shall be liable to imprisonment for a
> term of five years.
>   2.  This Law shall add to, and not derogate from, any other law.
>   3.  The Minister of Religious Affairs is charged with the implementation of
> this Law, and he may, after consultation with, or upon the proposal of,
> representatives of the religions concerned and with the consent of the
> Minister of Justice make regulations as to any matter relating to such
> implementation.
>   4.  This Law shall come into force on the date of its adoption by the
> Knesset.
> This Law is rigorously applied to Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Baha’i and other
> holy places. There is nothing remotely like it in any Islamic country. In
> Saudi Arabia it is expressly forbidden to build churches, synagogues, temples,
> and it is illegal for Christians and others even to meet in their own homes to
> worship.
> The Israeli law of citizenship and other related laws confer on all citizens
> the same rights and responsibilities. This applies to non-Jews as fully as to
> Jews. Arabs are full citizens of the state, they may vote in all elections,
> they may form political parties (and there are quite a few of them), they may
> stand for parliament (and a great many serve in it), they serve as members of
> the Supreme Court, as judges in other courts, as university teachers and
> professors, 20% of all students in all universities are Arabs (with Arabs
> forming 18% of the population), and so on. There is, quite flatly, no law or
> regulation calling for any form of apartheid. Go to Israel (and it may help
> you a lot to do so) and watch: no restaurants barred to Arabs, no shops barred
> to Arabs (Christian or Muslim), no buses for Jews only, no trains, no
> university campuses, no hotels, no beaches. All Israelis have the same rights.
> Not only that, but consider the situation of women in Muslim countries,
> especially now that Salafi and other radical Muslim groups are taking over
> across the region. In Israel, women have full rights with men. That includes
> Muslim and Christian women. In all Muslim countries, homosexuals face hanging,
> flogging, and other cruel punishments. In Israel, they hold gay pride marches.
> Muslim and Christian as well as Jewish men who are gay only have rights and
> protection under the law in Israel.
> I have hinted at religious freedom and its denial in all Muslim states. The
> Israeli position has been set out thus:
> "Every person in Israel enjoys  freedom of conscience, of belief, of religion,
> and of worship. This freedom is guaranteed  to every person in every
> enlightened, democratic  regime, and therefore it is guaranteed to  every
> person in Israel. It is one of the  fundamental principles upon which the
> State  of Israel is based… This freedom is partly  based on Article 83 of the
> Palestine Order  in Council of 1922, and partly it is one  of those
> fundamental rights that "are  not written in the book" but derive  directly
> from the nature of out state as  a peace-loving, democratic state6'…  On the
> basis of the rules – and in accordance  with the Declaration of Independence –
> every  law and every power will be interpreted  as recognizing freedom of
> conscience, of  belief, of religion, and of worship."
> I find it remiss of you, as someone endowed with considerable intellect, to
> have been so grossly misled about the reality of life in Israel. Your
> statement goes beyond the limits of reasonable and fair discourse. I can only
> consider you to have been misled by unprincipled persons who wish to
> disseminate falsehoods about Israel for base motives. In the face of the facts
> I have given and your freedom to board a plane to Israel in order to see all
> of this for yourself, I have to ask you to apologize to the citizens of a
> moral, ethical and democratic people, both Jews and Arabs, who have endured
> almost daily attacks from enemies determined to wipe them from the face of the
> planet. That Jewish Israelis have had the patience and moral strength to hold
> out the hand of friendship to so many Arab citizens while experiencing suicide
> attacks and rocket fire from their brethren across the border should inspire
> you to think again. As a university teacher you have a responsibility to
> dissociate yourself from such a totally explicit lie as the one you have
> uttered. Please reassure me that you understand the points I have tried to
> make.
> Yours sincerely,
> Dr. Denis MacEoin

Next, his response to me.

> Dear Denis
>  Thanks for your comments and insights. First let me make it clear that when a
> journalist interviews you over the phone and distils what you said into a few
> words it does not always come out precisely as one would wish. In this case I
> would say that Israels policies are indeed totally explicit and severely
> discriminatory when it comes to the occupied territories. In that case the
> statement attributed to me in the paper is accurate. With respect to Israel
> itself there is definitely severe discrimination against some non-Jewish
> elements but for the most part the veneer of an egalitarian democratic society
> is maintained - for the time being. But since Israel maintains total military
> control of all of historic Palestine it should be viewed as a single unit. The
> fact that there is a fraction partitioned off in such a way as to have a local
> Jewish majority and which is favoured with a high degree of democratic rights
> is not highly relevant, in my opinion. In any case even these local democratic
> rights have some severe discriminatory aspects such as the "law of return"
> which is racially based and inhumane.
>  I hope this clarifies matters somewhat.
> Best wishes
> Malcolm
> Sent from my iPhone
> On 11 May 2013, at 19:54, "Denis MacEoin"

>> wrote:
> Prof. Malcolm Levitt
> Dept. of Chemistry
> Southampton University

And finally (for the moment), my longer reply to him. I hope it all makes sense!

 FAO Malcolm Levitt

Dear Malcolm,

I do understand about journalists and their ways. I have suffered from the same misinterpretations many times in the past. But I am surprised that you again say that ‘Israel’s policies are indeed totally explicit and severely discriminatory when it comes to the occupied territories’. That at least qualifies your earlier statement. May I take it, then, that you do not now say that Israel has a totally explicit policy of making life impossible for the non-Jewish population’. If that is so, then we are part of the way towards a better understand. However, I still take exception to the view that Israel’s policies are severely discriminatory when it comes to the occupied territories. Now, I do not say that there is no discrimination in either Israel proper or in the West Bank. Discrimination is practically ubiquitous and is very hard to eradicate. I was brought up in a severely discriminatory society, Northern Ireland, in the 1950s and 1960s, and I have had close first-hand knowledge of how discrimination operates. There is plenty of discrimination here in the UK, as there is in any country you care to mention. Discrimination against Palestinian Arabs is severe in Gaza, where Hamas kills its opponents or gay men and imposes strict controls on individual liberties. The Jordanians, Syrians, Lebanese and others discriminate harshly against Palestinian refugees.

But you still insist that ‘with respect to Israel itself there is definitely severe discrimination against some non-Jewish elements but for the most part the veneer of an egalitarian democratic society is maintained - for the time being’. I really don’t know what to make of that. Does giving the vote to all citizens constitute a ‘veneer’? Does permitting non-Jews to serve in parliament seem like a veneer? Does granting university places to Arab students in proportion to the Arab size in the general population seem like a veneer? Or perhaps you think that, at some future date, Arab graduates will have their brains sucked of everything they have learned? Or that all the votes that have been cast by Arabs will be taken back as if in a magic trick? What non-Jewish elements do you mean? Be precise, and demonstrate whether  the severe discrimination you speak of is state-ordained or simply the sort of discrimination that one can find in any country. Is Israeli discrimination more severe than that found in Iran, Saudi Arabia or Sudan, to give three examples? I think that last comment  – ‘for the time being’ – unnecessary and cynical. Israel has consistently improved conditions for Arabs, both Christians and Muslims, since 1948, and I am unaware of any sense in which circumstances for non-Jewish Israelis have gone into reverse in that period, in fact I know for a fact that they have improved to the point where Israel’s Arabs enjoy better livelihoods, working conditions, and general living conditions than their brethren in most other Arab countries. Do you really think that the countries responsible for the misnamed ‘Arab Spring’ or for the tyrannical regimes that preceded and succeeded those upheavals have anything, the slightest thing, to teach Israel about how to conduct its affairs and treat its citizens well? Egypt kills Coptic Christians, persecutes them, burns down churches; Libya is full of intolerance; Lebanon sees a widening rift between Christians, Sunnis, and Shi’is, while refusing Palestinians the right to work in over seventy professions; Syria piles intolerance upon intolerance. There is now a mass exodus of Christians from the Middle East. But in Israel the Christian community is still growing after 65 years. Can you really say that any of this is evidence that Israel deserves to be criticized by you or anyone else, while a country like Iran, that allows the demands of religious extremism make life a misery for most of its citizens. In my earlier e-mail, most of which you have ignored, I drew attention to a key fact, that Israel is the only country in the Middle East (and as far afield as the Muslim world in its entirety) that not only tolerates the Baha’i religion but encourages it to the point of running its international affairs from Haifa and possessing beautiful buildings and gardens, while all Baha’i properties in Iran were turned to rubble long ago. Why would a country that stands out in so many ways be your choice to find fault with? If you truly care about human rights, why on earth aren’t you picketing the Iranian embassy, the Libyan embassy. The Egyptian embassy or (some years ago) the Syrian embassy or the Saudi embassy. Those are countries that really do make life impossible for their non-Muslim (and many of their Muslim) citizens. Their breaches of human rights are egregious and well known. Yet you bother about Israel, a country I for one would be more than happy to live in, even though I’m not a Jew.

But you speak of Israeli government policy in the West Bank, and that it is this you find severely discriminatory. No doubt there is much to be deplored. Life in the West Bank cannot hope to be normal, given the very nature of the occupation and the sort of society that has been created there by political and religious leaders. But I think you miss something very basic in your portrayal of Israel and the West Bank – context. Looked at without context, conditions in the West Bank must seem arbitrary and unnecessary. But the picture changes greatly once context is allowed to play a part in the argument. It would be absurd to believe that Israel, which strives hard to treat its Arab citizens well and to promote their well-being through education, the use of Arabic alongside Hebrew as a national language, the protection of Muslim and Christian Arab holy places, and the arrest of Jewish racists who harbour ill-will towards Arabs  it seems absurd to think the same government would arbitrarily decide to treat West Bank Arabs harshly. That would make no sense at all, surely. The situation in the West Bank has brought much opprobrium on Israel and tarnished its reputation internationally. In the long run, Israel knows that the West Bank will in the end be given over to its Arab population as the basis for a future Palestinian state. So why on earth wouldn’t it pull out now or at least be nice to the Palestinians?

Well, Israel already is nice to the Palestinians. You are wrong to imply that all Israeli treatment is severely discriminatory. Every year, Israel treats many thousands of Palestinians in its own hospitals. They are not discriminated against at all. They sleep on the same wards as Jews, they are operated on in the same operating rooms by the same surgeons, and for the most part they go home with very favourable opinions of the hospital staff, the first Israelis many of them will have met. Every year, Israel provides 30 million cubic metres of water to the Palestinian Authority (and 70 million to Jordan). Every year, hundreds of Palestinian children are given heart transplants through an Israel charity, Save a Child’s Heart. Under Israeli occupation, the West Bank economy has grown at a terrific rate, quite unlike the case in Hamas-occupied Gaza. Here’s something from a 2011 report by the Washington Institute:

‘Following the establishment of Prime Minister Salam Fayad's government in 2007, the West Bank witnessed rapid GDP growth each year through 2010, including a 12% spike in 2008, 10% in 2009, and 8% in 2010. The IMF attributes this growth to donor aid, improved security conditions, decreased Israeli restrictions on movement, and private-sector confidence due to good management by the Palestinian Authority (PA). In dollar terms (at constant 2004 prices), West Bank GDP climbed from $3.3 billion in 2007 to $4.4 billion in 2010, while per capita GDP went from $1,580 to $1,924, an increase of 22%. The growth looks even better when viewed over a longer period: in 2010, West Bank GDP was 50% higher than in 2000, and 124% higher than in 1994.’

Could that have been achieved under a policy of severe discrimination?

But let’s get back to context. How familiar are you with the historical background to the present situation? You will, I’m sure, know all about the way Israel was created, how the United Nations awarded two states, one to the Jews and one to the Arabs. Of course, the British had already given away a large tract of the future Jewish homeland when it created Jordan, but in the end it all boiled down to two states. Exactly the same thing as everybody’s ‘twin state solution’ today. The Jews took what they were given and were invaded by five Arab countries. The Arabs refused to establish a state unless it included the entirety of mandate Palestine. The rest is history. The Arabs have fought several wars to drive the Jews out of the region, they have openly stated (if we want to talk about explicit policies) a catch-all doctrine of ‘No negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no peace with Israel’. Would it make your life easy if your research partners adopted such a policy? The Arabs have turned down more generous peace offers down the years than any beleaguered people in history. And Mahmoud ‘Abbas still says there can be no Jews in a future Palestinian state, while insisting in Arabic that Israel will be wiped out and replaced by a greater Palestine. These are not easy conditions in which to work for peace.

But until the Palestinians agree to make peace with Israel (as Egypt and Jordan have done), Israel simply cannot pull out of the West Bank. It has already pulled out of Gaza, with disastrous consequences for both sides. Why would Israel wish further violence upon itself.

And it is the violence that lies behind the sometimes harsh conditions imposed on West Bank Palestinians. You cannot take the violence out of the equation. It is the overriding context. The Jews do not undertake their obligations in the West Bank lightly or gratuitously. Under the Balfour Declaration adopted in the San Remo Agreement, and also under the cession of sovereignty under Article 95 of the Treaty of Sèvres, there is a limitation on the political rights of the Jews. They are prohibited from impairing the civil or religious rights of non-Jews when they exercise sovereignty. But no nation on earth can give up its right to self-defence. Palestinian culture, on the other hand, will not give up its right to aggression. Calls for jihad, praise of ‘martyrs’ (i.e. suicide bombers), threats to kill Jews because they are beasts or viruses or cancers are a staple of Palestinian TV, of mosque sermons, and of political speeches in Arabic. And over the years since the 1920s, violence directed against Jews and Israelis has been fierce, regular, ruthless, and deeply destructive. The two intifadas killed thousands of Israelis and destroyed entire families.

Hence the checkpoints, patrols, separate roads and the checks on a people many of whose young men and women are devoted to violence. I could continue at length in describing Palestinian terrorism, but I’m sure you don’t have that much patience, so I’ll focus instead on a single instance, from which you may draw broader conclusions.

In December 2004, Wafa al-Biss, a young Palestinian woman from Gaza was treated for severe burns at Beersheva’s Soroka Medical Centre. She remained in hospital till January 2005. In the following June, she had to return to the hospital for further treatment. On her way to Beersheva, she had to pass through a checkpoint, where she was found to be carrying a 22-pound bomb strapped to one leg. She tried to detonate it there and then, but was prevented. After several years in prison, she was released as part of the deal freeing terrorists for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Schoolchildren awaited her on her return home, and she said to them ‘I hope you will walk the same path we took and God willing, we will see some of you as martyrs.’ That is fiendish beyond all human expectation. Wafa al-Biss planned to detonate herself among the doctors and nurses who had saved her life, and among as many children as possible. Do you think checkpoints are mere discrimination? Wafa is not the last Palestinian stopped wearing a suicide vest and planning to gain access to a hospital, to a hospital where Israel doctors and nurses treat ailing Palestinian entirely without discrimination. Checkpoints and other restrictions that are imposed on the denizens of the West Bank are entirely self-inflicted. It is all about security. Violence and security, twin contexts for restrictive treatment. It is surely obvious: stop the violence and the preaching of violence and you will be treated like anybody else. I can remember checkpoints vividly in Belfast. Just a short walk through town would take me through several checkpoints manned by the army or the police. It was a restriction, but I never grumbled because I knew why checkpoints were there. Once, almost my whole family was wiped out when a bomb exploded under their train. By pure chance, the train was travelling more slowly than usual. If further restrictions had been suggested, would I or my family have said ‘no’?

Further down you write that ‘since Israel maintains total military control of all of historic Palestine it should be viewed as a single unit’. Apart from the non-sequitur, this illustrates the gulf between us in terms of academic disciplines. The statement is nonsensical. Israel occupies only a part of what you term ‘historical Palestine’. Put simply, there was never any entity called Palestine between the Roman departure (when it was Syria Palaestina), the Byzantine period and finally the era of the Umayyad and ‘Abbasid empires and the creation of British mandate Palestine. Under the preceding Ottoman empire, it was regarded as essentially southern Syria, and it was as part of Syria that the Arabs in the 1930s and 1940s wanted to treat it. The British mandate area is the only one relevant to present claims. It is much smaller than the area of Syria Palaestina, which may be historical but is wholly irrelevant to modern international boundaries. A large part of it was the area handed to the Hashemite Arabs to form Transjordan (now Jordan). Israel is not in military occupation of Jordan. Gaza was at one point occupied by Egypt, but then fell into Israeli hands until 2005, when it was handed back to its Arab residents. Israel is not in military occupation of Gaza. Israel itself is not under military occupation, since it was legally established as a state through the San Remo conference, the League of Nations, and the United Nations. The only area under Israeli occupation is the West Bank, but things are not that simple.
Following the Oslo Accords of 1993, Israel relinquished much of its control over the West Bank. The area is now divided into three sectors. Sector A is totally under Palestinian control and includes 55% of West Bank Palestinians. Area B has Palestinian civilian administration with Israeli security. It includes 41% of West Bank Palestinians. And Area C is under Israeli control but includes a mere 4% of West Bank Palestinians. What this boils down to is that Israel has military control over 4 per cent of all West Bank Palestinians and no control over 96%, nor any over all the Palestinians living in Gaza. So in what sense does it make sense to speak of ‘all of historical Palestine’ (whatever you mean by that) as ‘a single unit’.

If you mean that the whole of mandate Palestine (minus Jordan) should become a single entity, in other words, one country then I must tell you that that would not on ly spell the end of Israel, it would almost certainly lead to a genocide of today’s 6 million Jews. Hamas alone have promised that task to themselves, and if you read their Charter, you will see the threat spelled out in stark language. That Charter is readily available online. Here’s a link to a translation (which I recommend) from Yale University: No-one who has not read it (or any of the crucial documents included in the classic compilation, the Israel-Arab Reader) really has a right to make suggestions for the future of Jews living in Israel, however well meaning those suggestions may be. You say, moreover, ‘the fact that there is a fraction partitioned off in such a way as to have a local Jewish majority and which is favoured with a high degree of democratic rights is not highly relevant, in my opinion’. That is pure bigotry, and I don’t hesitate to say so. Israel was created  in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman empire as were Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan, all of which had the same rights (though the Arabs dispensed with democracy pretty quickly). It was created as a home for the Jews, a people who were severely persecuted in Europe, killed in their millions, and treated as second-class citizens in the Islamic world. That was its raison d’être, and it has fulfilled its promise very well indeed. The fact that in this region only the Jewish state knows how to govern itself, functions democratically, provides full freedom for the press, gives opposition parties and anti-Israel NGOs the same rights they would have here is highly relevant. All the Arab states have had exactly the same chance as Israel to lead democratic lives and all have disintegrated into tyranny and religious extremism. That is a very good argument for saying that Israel, not any of its wanton neighbours, should be the model for government across the Middle East. But all the surrounding states spit nothing but the most vicious antisemitism and seek to destroy Israel, with all the good things it has done for mankind.

‘Even these local democratic rights have some severe discriminatory aspects such as the “law of return” which is racially based and inhumane.’ The international community created Israel as the world’s only Jewish state. Today, as endless government reports and individual surveys will tell you, antisemitism has grown out of measure in Europe and the Middle East, to the point where Jews have fled or are fleeing countries like Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Holland has gone into antisemitic overdrive. Belgium the same. Attacks on Jews are up everywhere. Even as a non-Jew I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. But in my childhood and youth I thought genocide of the Jews to be a thing of the past, buried in all our memories, never likely to come into the light again. I was wrong. Yet knowing that another Holocaust is no longer such an impossible thing, I read the words of a rational man, and I see him determined to weaken the one country in the world that can guarantee a safe haven for any Jew who seeks it. Jews have a right of return because Jews need the protection it affords. I do not challenge your right to criticize Israel. But you carry that criticism into irrational and prejudiced territory. I have asked you to examine real facts about Israel, but you come back to me with surmises and inaccuracies. Your profession drives you to do better than that. To visit Israel with open eyes. See fault by all means, but do not load your criticism with existential weight, do not call for the extinction of one of the best, most creative, most human rights focused countries in the world – for such I hold Israel to be. Most of all, I deplore your readiness to tear apart such a country, when you appear not to stand up against human rights enormities in countries that also call for Israel’s demise. Why is that? Why does Iran pass muster even as it hauls its political opponents, its religious heretics, its gay men and its women charged with adultery to the gallows? Why do you condemn Israel that has hanged only one person in its history, Adolf Eichmann, mastermind of the Holocaust? There can be only reason for this exceptionalism, but I leave it to you to use your powers of reasoning to decide what that may be.

If I have been a little harsh, do understand that I cannot see a brave and honest country trounced by someone who is uneasy about the facts pertaining to its existence and its actions and say nothing. I live a rational life and I base my understanding of Israel on what I believe to be facts and rational arguments. Perhaps you can still do that.

Yours sincerely,