ABC Unleashed, March 25, 2009
Currently gracing Australia’s shores is American-Israeli Dr. Jeff Halper, a retired anthropologist and now full-time activist in charge of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). His last public lecture was delivered yesterday evening at the University of New South Wales.
His presence in Australia has been punctuated by the usual circus of claims and counter claims that happen every time a renowned critic of Israel is in the country. First, a mainstream, pro-Israel Jewish organisation will go through statements previously made by the critic, and then, if they find faults, attack those arguments.
The Israel critic’s defenders then jump up and down, claiming the Jewish community is attempting to stifle criticism of Israel. This very course of action has occurred during Halper’s visit, played out on the pages of the Australian Jewish News, the Sydney Morning Herald and various angry blogs.
The claims of stifling criticism of Israel are both predictable and unfounded. Indeed, by attacking the arguments of Israel’s critics, in this case Halper, the mainstream Jewish community is engaging in discussion, not stifling it. (And by not answering the Jewish community’s criticisms, instead simply claiming to be the victim of a conspiracy against free speech, the Israel critic’s defenders show the weakness of their central argument…)
To top it off, most of this is lost to the wider Australian community. All they see is a variant of Monty Python’s Life of Brian – where members of the Judean People’s Front have it out with the People’s Front of Judea.
Halper has spoken at universities, parliaments and town halls in most Australian capital cities. As part of his tour he lectured at the University of Melbourne on March 11. As an interested party, and as a doctoral student there, I went along to see what he had to say.
Halper’s organisation, ICAHD, protests the demolition of Palestinian houses by Israel, and calls for the houses destroyed to be rebuilt. Palestinian houses have been demolished by Israel for security reasons (though Halper denies this) and because the owners did not have building permits (just as buildings built without permission in Australia are demolished). Needless to add, Jewish Israelis must also have permits to build.
ICAHD’s central purpose might sound noble. But far more than build houses, Halper travels the world besmirching Israel as a genocidal regime, intent on destroying not Palestinian homes, but Palestinians themselves. A poster advertising the Melbourne University lecture claimed Palestinians are “under threat of extinction.” (This despite the Gazan population’s rate of increase being the nineteenth fastest in the world.)
At the lecture, of which I have a recording, Halper claimed that Israelis don’t use the word ‘Palestinian,’ but rather just ‘Arab.’ This allegation is both blatantly wrong and an attempt to paint Israelis as racists, intent on denying Palestinians their identity. Likewise, according to Halper, Israelis “have completely eliminated … the Arabs from our lives, from our interests, our discussions, [and] our political concerns.” He added, “[When] I use the word ‘occupation’ [in conversations with Israelis] … people don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, or they pooh pooh [the concept]. It’s not a part of the discourse.” Really? Read any Israeli newspaper, from the hard left to the right and everything in between, and you’ll see “Palestinian” and “occupation” written dozens of times every day.
If Halper’s central argument is valid, why does he need to resort to such outlandish and easily disproved falsehoods to disparage Israel?
His falsehoods went from ridiculous to outrageous: In the recent Israeli election, he claimed, the two-state solution was a “non-issue.” Indeed, “Gaza, the occupation, peace – I don’t think were mentioned once by any political party during the entire electoral campaign,” he said. This is astounding given Kadima, the party that ended up winning the most votes, made a two-state solution the centrepiece of its campaign.
He went further, that it’s accepted policy in Israel that “Arabs are our permanent enemy.” Aside from peace treaties with two Arab countries and the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians, Israel’s entry to this year’s Eurovision song contest is a Jewish-Arab duet singing about peace (chosen, not by an elite, peace-loving minority, but by popular vote; a mass, peace-loving majority). Moreover, the political argument in Israel is not whether there should be a Palestinian state, but when it can be pragmatically established.
Halper quickly descended into conspiracy theories. His explanation of why more than 90 per cent of Jewish Israelis supported the recent operation against Hamas in Gaza is that “there are some pretty powerful forces” in Israel “limiting criticism of the government.” Ironic, coming from an Israeli whose full time occupation is criticising the Israeli government!
Maybe, just maybe, 90 per cent of Jewish Israelis saw that diplomacy, ceasefires and voluntary withdrawal from Gaza didn’t stop rockets. (Rockets from Gaza actually increased seven-fold after Israel’s 2005 withdrawal.) Maybe these Israelis realised that a million of their fellow citizens living under daily, indiscriminate attack was an outrage, and something had to be done. Maybe, but Halper refuses to see that. In his lecture, he mentioned the rockets just once, and that as a punch line in a joke.
The central thesis of his lecture was that Israel is attempting to make the occupation of the West Bank permanent. He presented a map he claimed was Israel’s plan to establish three separate self-ruling Palestinian “cantons,” but deny Palestinians independent statehood. These allegations are provably false. Israel has offered the Palestinians a state in over 90 per cent of a contiguous West Bank, plus Gaza (an offer confirmed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Washington Post). Presumably Abbas knows more about Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations than Halper.
But beyond Halper’s false allegations, the issue that he never addressed is this: What’s in it for Israel? If Israel does want to make the occupation permanent, it must surely have a reason. Israel’s control of the West Bank costs Israel money, lives and reputation. Does Halper think Israel obtains some sort of monetary advantage by occupying Palestinians? There is no mineral resource to be had in the West Bank or Gaza. The cheap labour argument doesn’t work, since few Palestinians work in Israel. Is it the ‘Greater Israel’ issue? In this year’s election, less than six per cent of Israelis voted for parties that categorically reject the idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
The majority of Israelis do not want to retain control of the West Bank. The only reason Israeli troops are still there is because there is no Palestinian leadership willing and/or able to take control and prevent rocket and other terrorist attacks from the West Bank into Israel. But Halper didn’t address that; he can’t address that, because that simple fact drains the rest of his argument of what little credibility his falsehoods leave.
Toward the end of his lecture (which he started, somewhat ironically, with a discussion on “intellectual honesty”), Halper called for an academic boycott of Israel. Those academics who, like Halper, call for an immediate, unconditional Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would be spared the humiliation of being blacklisted. Everyone else, including those who want peace but also want a Palestinian leadership likewise committed to peace, will be caught in his McCarthyist net.
In other words, Halper supports stifling the free speech of everyone who disagrees with him. And his supporters claim they’re the ones being stifled!