A response to Max Leak’s Israel ‘experiment’

Max Leak’s article published online in Cherwell the other day painted the Israeli-Arab conflict as a simple and monolithic issue of justice and equality vs. oppression and evil. To back up his point, Leak embarked on an ‘experiment’. He took an apartheid apology and replaced South Africa with Israel, and succeeded at getting it published in the OxStu. He claimed that this proved the worth of the apartheid analogy to Israel.

Leak’s experiment lacks any argumentative worth. This was a poor attempt to construct what he perceived as stereotypical ‘pro-Israel’ arguments, followed by the claim that these arguments were analogous to defences made against apartheid. It’s worth dealing with this first.

Leak’s article claimed that many of the arguments made by Israel’s defendants are the same as those made by apartheid apologists. He cites the following arguments:

‘We are told that the natives are barbarians who will slaughter their former rulers as soon as they get freedom; we are invited to look at a troubled region, and then at the little island of repressive stasis under discussion, and draw the conclusion that oppression works better than freedom in such a savage, unruly part of the world.’

Sure, there may be a small section of hardliners that may occasionally make these embarrassingly poor arguments. But if he ever cared to properly investigate what constitutes pro-Israel thought he would discover that this quite simply isn’t the case. Those who believe in Israel’s very existence (a bizarre claim to have to justify anyway) do so from a range of important normative positions.

The most common arguments in favour of Israel tend to fall into two categories. Firstly, many see Israel and Zionism as the fulfilment of Jewish collective rights to self-determination. The Jewish people, in an age of nation-states, sought to fulfil their own collective rights through creating a nation-state of their own through mass immigration to an ancient homeland. Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, others see Zionism as a vital refugee movement, providing one safe haven for Jews around the world in a period where anti-semitism led to a genocide from which the Jewish people still haven’t recovered. It is an argument that seems anachronistic, but yet in 2016 there is something of a Jewish Exodus from France to Israel.

I could go into these arguments in more depth. I’m sure Leak was well aware of them. He could have quoted pieces from student publication Zionish, or have looked at the output from liberal Zionist organisations Yachad or JStreet. He could have looked at the ideology of prominent early Zionists such as Ahad Ha’am, Be’er Borochov or Chaim Weizmann, or of Israeli political parties such as Meretz or the Zionist Union. But he undoubtedly chose to ignore these sources because they didn’t suit his pre-chosen narrative.

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In short, Leak can only sustain his analogy with a weak parody of what arguments constitute ‘pro-Israel’ discourse. If he ever cared to talk to anyone who even remotely claimed to be ‘pro-Israel’, he would have realised this. Instead, he picked and chose from the dregs of the internet and hard-right organisations.

The absurdity of his argument is also worth pointing out. Because some people justified both A and B using the same argument, Leak claims that A and B must therefore be the same thing.

Well, to apply Leak’s argumentative structure to his own cause, let’s try this. Hamas, a brutal and deeply anti-Semitic terrorist organisation, uses anti-colonial rhetoric and the language of oppression in its screeds against Israel. Leak and other Palestinian solidarity activists also use anti-colonial rhetoric and the language of oppression in its opposition to Israel. Therefore, as justifications for Palestinian solidarity activism are the same as those used to justify anti-semitic terrorists, all Palestinian solidarity activism must be anti-semitic terrorism.

I’m sure Max will agree that this is ridiculous. In short, the only conclusion we can draw from Leak’s experiment is that a rushed OxStu student editor agreed to publish a poorly written and weakly argued opinion piece. Some ‘experiment’.

It’s also worth turning to the narrative that Leak seeks to promote. The author’s slander of all pro-Israel and Zionist discourse with the tag of apartheid apologetics is particularly awful. Fundamentally, it fails to reflect the reality of the situation. The distinction between Green Line Israel and the Occupied Territories is one which did not exist in South Africa. The Occupied Territories are not part of Israel; they are Palestinian land in which the Palestinians should form a sovereign state.

This is the reality of the situation that Max ignores when he describes Israel as apartheid. The plight of the Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories is an awful human tragedy, and should shame the state of Israel. The occupation must end. But to conflate this with green-line Israel is an astonishing claim. Palestinian citizens of Israel have the same rights as any other Israeli citizen in crucial areas – not least the vote. There is discrimination, sure, but to claim wholesale that Israel is an apartheid state is nothing short of intellectual fraud.

Leak’s fundamental narrative of the conflict is also worrying. In the last paragraph, he states that, ‘If you want to know about that struggle – if you want to know how you can be on the right side of it – come to our events at Israeli Apartheid Week, running Monday to Saturday of 6th week.’

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In my view, precisely the problem with much of the discussion around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that it is an issue of ‘us and them’; two opposing sides and activists on either side must choose one side to place their flag. The idea there is a ‘right side’, that we must all stand with in uncritical solidarity, in a conflict as complex and nuanced as the Israeli-Palestinian one is laughable.

To say that one side is flawlessly moral and just, while the other is a den of racists and colonialists, is simply untrue. There are many problems in Israel, its society and its politics, I don’t deny that, and I’m sure you can learn about them at Israeli Apartheid Week. But Palestinian society and politics is hardly blameless. Israel is currently in a wave of random knife attacks, where elderly women are stabbed to death whilst walking down the street. Mahmoud Abbas was elected to a four year term in 2005 that he’s still serving, and Hamas is designated as a terrorist organisation by the EU and the USA.

Nor is each side monolithic. Many Zionists and Palestinian activists share criticisms of both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. Many on both sides actively campaign for the two state solution. Leak’s conception of the conflict as a zero-sum game of good and evil is a dangerous one that threatens to alienate the moderates on both sides who are genuinely capable of making peace.

We should not restrict ourselves to blindly standing with one camp or the other. Many on both sides do this, including Max Leak. To claim that Israel can do no wrong, like some pro-Israel activists do, is misguided. But the opposite position is equally so. Max paints the conflict as a black and white issue, right vs wrong, justice vs apartheid. This is an unhelpful distortion of the realities of the conflict. I’m not asking anyone to view the conflict in 50:50 terms. But 100:0, in either direction, is ridiculous.

If we want a constructive discourse about the conflict that includes all voices, then it’s imperative to ditch worldviews which force activists into extreme positions. In Oxford, of all places, this is something we should strive for.