Michael, reject this invitation

By Dervla Murphy

Thursday, February 09, 2012

In an open letter to Michael D Higgins, author Dervla Murphy , who is writing a book on the Middle East, argues why the president should not visit Israel as a state guest

DEAR President Higgins,

My attention was drawn to a report (Jan 20) mentioning that an invitation to you from President Shimon Peres "would be considered". This greatly alarms me.

Were you, as President, to visit Israel, you would be signalling to all the world that this country approves of a truly vicious regime.

Tony Judt was among many Jewish supporters of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanction) campaign. Not long before his death he repeated his call for the EU to use its "enormous leverage" and say to Israel: "So long as you break international law, you can’t be part of the EU market". He defined our reason for not doing this as "ridiculous self-blackmail". His Dutch and German friends said to him: ‘We couldn’t do that! Think of what we did to the Jews. We can’t use economic leverage against Israel. We can’t be a critic of Israel… Why? Because of Auschwitz…"

Judt continued: "I understand that. Many of my family were killed in Auschwitz. However, Europe can’t live indefinitely on the credit of someone else’s crimes to justify a state that creates and commits its own crimes… Israel should not be special because it is Jewish. Jews are to have a state just like everyone else, it should have no more rights than Slovenia and no fewer.

"Therefore, it also has to behave like a state… furthermore, other countries have to behave towards it the way they would towards any other state that broke international law… the European bad conscience is part of the problem."

The BDS movement acquired a coherent strategy in 2005, following a Palestinian Civil Society call for a global support group that would steadily concentrate on the essential coloniser-colonised relationship at the root of Palestine’s tragedy.

In the words of Lisa Taraki, a co-founder, "the basic logic of BDS is the logic of pressure — not diplomacy, persuasion or dialogue".

As the Israeli-American writer and film-maker Udi Aloni explains: "The local strain of apartheid policy nurtured by Israel is precisely the reason why so many Jews all over the world have joined the BDS campaign, key issue for those who are trying to prevent violence against Israel while simultaneously countering its arrogant and aggressive policies… thus BDS actions do not amount to negative, counter-productive moves, as many propagandists try to portray them… they are actions of solidarity, partnership and joint progress serving to preempt, in a non-violent manner, justified violent resistance aimed at attaining the same goals of justice, peace and equality."

Last November, to my Palestinian friend’s disappointment, we failed to organise a boycott of a four-day, state-funded Israeli film festival in Dublin. The Israeli ambassador to Ireland, Boaz Modai, claimed: "This festival aims to prove that there is more to Israel than the Palestinian conflict. It is not political; we are trying to show the different faces of Israel. But we have found it quite a challenge to present this festival… It became a problem for the Government of Ireland, one about freedom of speech."

Freedom of speech is a tricky one and the pressing of that button gained Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore’s attendance at the opening night.

Perhaps the Government is uninformed about "Brand Israel". This global campaign, also launched in 2005, is funded by various Israeli government agencies and major pro-Zionist international (mainly US) groups. Its primary purpose is to promote Israel as a "normal" country involved in tourism, sports, innovative science, a vibrant youth culture, and so on. On its behalf, all Israel’s consulates and embassies are kept busy.

In 2008, Israeli writer Vitzhak Laor revealed that Israelis accepting foreign ministry funding for taking their culture or artistic work abroad were obliged to sign a contract undertaking to act faithfully, responsibly, and tirelessly to provide the ministry with the highest professional services. The service provider is aware that the purpose of ordering services from him is to promote the policy interests of the state of Israel via culture and art, including contributing to creating a positive image for Israel.

So much for freedom of speech, if the "service provider" disagreed with some of the state’s policies.

Modai’s claim the film festival was non-political should be considered in the light of University of California professor Judith Butler’s thinking on BDS and normalisation: Israelis have the power to oppose the occupation through BDS, the most powerful non-violent means available. Things change the minute you say "we cannot continue to act as normal". To work to the side of the occupation is to participate in its normalisation. And the way that normalisation works is to efface or distort the reality of the occupation within public discourse. As a result, neutrality is not an option.

Many of Butler’s family were holocaust victims. She grew up in the US in a household sympathetic to Israel.

During our film festival fracas, Ireland was accused, in the Israeli press, of being "most anti-Israeli country in Europe".

This brought a frightened squawk from the Department of Foreign Affairs. "We are not hostile to Israel. We are critical of certain policies, particularly in the occupied Palestinian territories."

These are not the same things.

For whatever reason, Ireland’s Government (and most others) choose to "continue to act as normal". To maintain friendly relations as though Israel’s repression of the Palestinians were some isolated error of judgement, when in truth it is central to the state’s existence and has been since 1948.

Therefore, neutrality is not an option. We all have a moral duty to be hostile to a government that deliberately and relentlessly inflicts so much suffering on successive generations of a people who did nothing to deserve the Zionists’ colonisation of their territory.

BDS is the most powerful non-violent means available. If millions say, "we cannot continue to act as normal" while the repression continues, then things would change and everyone would be much closer to binationalism, which is the only solution.

Eight years ago, a large group of Israeli scholars and activists met at Givat Olgo over a period of three weeks for discussions about changing the political discourse in Israel.

On July 25, 2004, they issued the Olga Appeal. It notes: "The state of Israel was supposed to be a democracy; it has set up a colonial structure combining unmistakable elements of apartheid with the arbitrariness of brutal military occupation… We are united in a critique of Zionism, based as it is on refusal to acknowledge the indigenous people of this country and on denial of their rights, on dispossession of their lands, and on adoption of separation as a fundamental principal and way of life. Adding insult to injury, Israel persists in its refusal to bear any responsibility for its deeds, from the expulsion of the majority of Palestinians from their homeland more than half a century ago, to the present erection of ghetto walls around the remaining Palestinians in the towns and villages of the West Bank."

The Olga Appeal seeks to stimulate debate about binationalism: "Coexistence of the peoples of this country, based on mutual recognition, equal partnership and implementation of historical justice."

Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh of Yale University reminds us that: "In South Africa, the co-operation of some whites and blacks with economic pressure from outside was needed to move the country to a post-apartheid state. In the land of Canaan, Jews, Christians, and Muslims working together to make the change need more pressure from outside and are beginning to show some progress."

In One Country, Ali Abunimah, a young Palestinian-American, emphasises a crucially important point: "By talking of a common future and imagining it, we engage in the act of creating it; we introduce a different prospect to endless war. It is only through shattering taboos and articulating a vision that we can move the idea… from the far margins to the centre of discussion. Simply by admitting the notion to the range of possibilities, we change the landscape."

Last June, during my fourth long visit to the land of Canaan, a Palestinian friend said: "Barriers looking insuperable now could quickly come down if we unite to use clever weapon. Our foreign supporters must realise two states were never on the Zionist agenda but served well as a Trojan horse. People must stop calling for a ‘free Palestine’, that’s backing the wrong horse and blocking the only road to peace. They must invite more binationalists to address their rallies and explain the importance of BDS."

For the President of Ireland to visit Israel as a state guest would contribute to block that road to peace. By condoning the actions of a government that consistently flouts international law, you would be betraying the citizens of this country, the defenceless Palestinians and the many non-Zionist Jews who are so deeply ashamed of the state of Israel as present constituted.

I do hope that my alarm is needless and that you have not even considered this invitation.

With all suitable greetings, Dervla Murphy