Barbara McKenzie 06 July 2016
Jeff Halper is an American-born Jew who in 1973 made aliyah (right of return to Israel for Jews). He is a prominent activist for Palestinian rights, being head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. On 29 June he posted an article on Facebook, without title, on some issues facing the pro-Palestine movement. The connection between the issues is tenuous: it’s hard to see how Mahmoud Abbas can influence anti-Zionist groups in the US, but this is afterall Facebook, and in its way the article is groundbreaking.
The Problem of Mahmoud Abbas
Halper rightly sees Mahmoud Abbas as a hurdle in terms of obtaining a just solution for Palestine. ‘Say what you will about Israel, justice for Palestinians will be achieved only after the ineffectual, downright collaborationist regime of Abbas falls, once and for all…. But we who actively support the Palestinian cause … desperately need direction from our Palestinian partners.’
I have sympathy with anyone who criticises Mahmoud Abbas, and I view with trepidation the idea of Abbas negotiating a settlement for Palestine at Camp David with Netanyahu and Hillary Clinton. However Halper appears to be overlooking the fact that Abbas is supported by the American and Israeli government: he represents those parties, not Palestine. He has to be viewed as one of many problems imposed on Palestinians, not as a symptom of Palestinian ‘failure’. As one William James Martin replied to Halper’s post, ‘It is easy to take out one’s frustrations on Abbas. But the problem is Israel and the US, not the Palestinians’.
It is perhaps worth noting that Halper finishes his article by suggesting, ‘For all the success of BDS, unless we begin advocating a vision and program of our own, we will lose’. Which invites the question, who is ‘we’?
Conspiracy theories and antisemitism
Throughout the Palestine movement there pervades a belief that a special concern of Palestinians and pro-Palestine activists should be the fight against antisemitism. Jeff Halper clearly subscribes to this belief, and indeed the bulk of this article is devoted to just this issue. Halper is concerned that without strong leadership ‘the Palestinian issue will deteriorate into crazy and, yes, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories’. Bizarrely, he points to Gilad Atzmon as guilty in this regard. As Atzmon replied to Halper’s post, ‘I argue that there are NO Jewish conspiracies. You people do it all in the open whether it is Goldman Sachs wiping out Greece or Jeff Halper attempting to kosherise the discourse of the oppressed’. And in truth, Atzmon has never concerned himself with the theories that traditionally cause the ire of protectors of Jewish sensibilities, relating to the JFK assassination for example, or 9/11. Nor has he written about the type of ‘conspiracy theories’ that Halper is concerned with here, and which are discussed below.
Atzmon’s sins lie elsewhere. The traditional position of Jewish and Israeli organisations promoting Palestinian rights and ‘the left’ in general is that criticising Israel is not antisemitic, while criticising Jewish elites, or Jewish communities for their support of Israel, or analysing why they do, is exactly that. This is the primary reason for labelling Gilad Atzmon, an ex-Israeli Jew who writes about Jewish power, as an antisemite.
Investigating conspiracy theories which implicate Israel in criminal activities abroad, such as 9/11, is also deemed to be antisemitic, even though this contradicts the professed view that ‘criticising Israel is not antisemitic’. One extrapolates from this that, in the view of the gatekeeping faux left, one may criticise Israel, but only in respect of its treatment of Palestinians, not for its wider activities.
In his article Halper extends the traditional notion of what constitutes an antisemitic conspiracy theory. He cites a recent claim that a settler rabbi endorsed poisoning the wells of West Bank Palestinians. The veracity of the claim is under question, and Richard Silverstein, for one, has written in Tikun Olam that he believes it to be a hoax. Halper is inspired by this story to suggest that it constitutes an ‘antisemitic conspiracy theory’. He goes on to address the problem of the increasing number of ‘conspiracy-peddling hate groups’. Halper is not talking about hate against Jews, but hate against Israel, and his example is an organisation with the self-explanatory and fairly precise title ‘Americans Against Genocide in Gaza’.
Now, there is substantial evidence that supports the perception that the Israeli government and sections of Israeli society are intent on eliminating Palestinians from their homeland, and if that involves physically exterminating them so be it. The actions of the government in bombing Gaza in 2014, the ongoing blockade of goods that would allow, for example, repair of the sewage system, and therefore safe drinking water, and the large number of extrajudicial shootings of young people all show a breathtaking indifference to Palestinian life. Whether or not this is technically genocide, to refer to it as such is hardly some off the wall antisemitic conspiracy theory.
In the case of the discredited story of the genocidal rabbi mentioned above, Silverstein explains that ‘there is ample past evidence of settlers poisoning Palestinian wells by throwing dead animals and soiled diapers into them’. That one claim may be false does not prove bad faith in those who react, or overreact, to such a story – as Silverstein comments ‘If true, this would be yet another outrageous, racist, even genocidal statement in a long line from such settler rabbis.’ A search on Google will show that such views are commonly expressed by senior Israeli rabbis, and not just on the West Bank. Given that Palestinian concerns are valid in principle, Halper’s approach has to be seen as an attempt to stifle criticism of Israeli treatment of Palestinians.
Another convention popular with the liberal left is that although to refer to ‘Jews’, or even to ‘the Jewish lobby’ may be considered racist, it is acceptable to speak of Zionists or Zionist Jews – ‘anti-Zionism is not antisemitism’ (the mission statement of Jewish Voices for Peace stresses that being Jewish is not synonymous with Zionism). This is another assumption that Halper throws out the window. Halper takes exception to a video entitled What Do Famous People Think of Zionist Jews? I had as much interest in watching this as I had in watching the equivalent produced for the NO side of the Scottish independence referendum, but I trawled through it nonetheless. It turned out to be a fairly substantial production, not without interest – I was particularly moved by Louis Farrakhan’s spirited defense of Kanye West (1:21:07). While most statements were focused on the crimes of Israel, there were indeed one or two which struck me as racist, ie they could be read as implying that all Jews are innately bad. A number of segments would fit the standard faux left definition of antisemitism, in that the speaker talked about Jewish power, such as the influence Jews have in Hollywood, or questioned the facts of the holocaust.
It appears, however, that Halper himself had watched little or nothing of the video – it is difficult to understand otherwise why he sneers at the description of the participants, who include people like Nelson Mandela, Norman Finkelstein, Mel Gibson, Jeremy Corbyn and Malcom X, as ‘famous’. The inescapable deduction therefore is that Halper is not so much concerned with antisemitism as usually defined by the left, but by the very idea of campaigning so specifically against Zionism, and feels no need to inquire further. The view that it is acceptable to criticise Zionists and Zionism is no longer valid. Anti-Zionism is now antisemitic.
Halper exemplifies the ‘soft’ or ‘anti-Zionist’ Zionist, in that he is involved in the Palestinian cause but puts a limit on criticism of Israel and/or the Jewish lobby, and to that end openly declares eradicating antisemitism as a top priority. The effect of this is to suppress criticism of external supporters of Israel. Halper’s outlook is shared by certain non-Jewish organisations and individuals in the Palestine movement, who are unkindly referred to by Gilad Atzmon as sabbos goyim (a sabbas goy being someone who does the work of a Jew on the Jewish Sabbath).
Not content with prioritising the suppression of antisemitism themselves, anti-Zionist Zionists and sabbas goys use their position in the Palestine movement to ensure that Palestine activists and Palestinians do so as well, ignoring the outrage expressed by some Palestinians. Palestinians, despite themselves, find themselves complicit in the campaign to prioritise Jewish sensibilities and to prevent criticism of the external forces dedicated to supporting and furthering the Zionist occupation of their land.
What is more, Halper is taking his gatekeeping to a new level. Forget the mantra, so beloved of anti-Zionist Zionists and the faux left, that ‘criticising Israel is not antisemitic’. Not only is it forbidden to question the activities of Israel and its intelligence services outside of Israel, but it is now apparently unacceptable to use the word Zionist negatively, and even to question the actions of Israel against Palestinians, within Palestine itself, is antisemitic. Halper has closed further the narrow gap between the relative positions of hardline Zionists and the ‘soft’ Zionists of the Palestine movement – criticising Israel IS antisemitic.