My Comments


Some of you might have heard that a UN agency, the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, which is based in Beirut, published a report last week entitled ‘Israeli Practices Toward the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid.’

The fact-based document lays out the systematic racism – from different court systems to different roads and schools – experienced by Palestinians living under Israeli control, and urges the UN to restore the Special Committee against Apartheid, and the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid. It also calls on member states to support the BDS movement. The report was written by Richard Falk, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights, and Virginia Tilley, a Political Science Professor at Southern Illinois University.

Predictably, the ink wasn’t dry before the shit hit the fan: within hours, Israeli politicians and their shameful band of apologists began slamming both the report and the ‘anti Israel’ UN. On Friday, after the new UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres signalled the spinelessness that will undoubtedly characterise his tenure by ordering ESCWA to remove the report from its website, the Commission’s Executive Secretary, Rima Khalaf, resigned.

In a world of lousy choices, it was the least worst one. Indeed, Khalaf’s decision to quit brought to mind a talk I attended last year with a middle aged Palestinian date farmer from the West Bank. He recounted how he’d been offered a scholarship to study in Germany in his late teens. When the Israeli authorities made it clear that it was they – not he – who would decide whether he could accept it, he tore up his passport in their faces. Another least worst choice.

It’s bad enough that the UN routinely fails to live up to its own Charter, which claims as its purpose ‘to maintain international peace and security…based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.’ What’s inexcusable is that where the Palestinians are concerned, it routinely does precisely the opposite, providing moral and political cover for the very breaches of human rights and international law it is entrusted to police. It makes you wonder exactly what the organisation is for.

Moreover, as Saree Makdisi wrote in an LA Times Op-Ed entitled ‘Does the term apartheid fit Israel? Of course it does’, ‘”Apartheid” isn’t just a term of insult; it’s a word with a very specific legal meaning, as defined by the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1973 and ratified by most United Nations member states (Israel and the United States are exceptions, to their shame).’

Indeed, the word ‘apartheid’ has been used to describe Israel by many people including Desmond Tutu, John Kerry and Sir Alan Duncan MP, and the ESCWA report does not use it lightly. Perhaps this explains why, as Khalaf writes in her dignified and unapologetic resignation letter below, ‘The evidence provided by this report drafted by renowned experts is overwhelming. Suffice it to say that none of those who attacked the report had a word to say about its content‘ (my emphasis).

Here is the full text of Khalaf’s letter which was published by Jadaliyya. Jadaliyya have also published the report in full here. You can find it on The Electronic Intifada, too. Welcome to the internet, Mr Secretary-General.

Dear Mr. Secretary-General,

I have carefully considered your message conveyed through the Chef de Cabinet and assure you that at no point have I questioned your right to order the withdrawal of the report from our website or the fact that all of us working in the Secretariat are subject to the authority of its Secretary-General. Nor do I have any doubts regarding your commitment to human rights in general, or your firm position regarding the rights of the Palestinian people. I also understand the concerns that you have, particularly in these difficult times that leave you little choice.

I am not oblivious to the vicious attacks and threats the UN and you personally were subjected to from powerful Member States as a result of the publication of the ESCWA report ‘Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid’.

I do not find it surprising that such Member States, who now have governments with little regard for international norms and values of human rights, will resort to intimidation when they find it hard to defend their unlawful policies and practices. It is only normal for criminals to pressure and attack those who advocate the cause of their victims. I cannot submit to such pressure.

Not by virtue of my being an international official, but simply by virtue of being a decent human being, I believe, like you, in the universal values and principles that have always been the driving force for good in human history, and on which this organization of ours, the United Nations is founded. Like you, I believe that discrimination against anyone due to their religion, skin color, sex or ethnic origin is unacceptable, and that such discrimination cannot be rendered acceptable by the calculations of political expediency or power politics. I also believe people should not only have the freedom to speak truth to power, but they have the duty to do so.

In the space of two months you have instructed me to withdraw two reports produced by ESCWA, not due to any fault found in the reports and probably not because you disagreed with their content, but due to the political pressure by member states who gravely violate the rights of the people of the region.

You have seen first hand that the people of this region are going through a period of suffering unparalleled in their modern history; and that the overwhelming flood of catastrophes today is the result of a stream of injustices that were either ignored, plastered over, or openly endorsed by powerful governments inside and outside the region. Those same governments are the ones pressuring you to silence the voice of truth and the call for justice represented in these reports.

Given the above, I cannot but stand by the findings of ESCWA’s report that Israel has established an apartheid regime that seeks the domination of one racial group over another. The evidence provided by this report drafted by renowned experts is overwhelming. Suffice it to say that none of those who attacked the report had a word to say about its content. I feel it my duty to shed light on the legally inadmissible and morally indefensible fact that an apartheid regime still exists in the 21st century rather than suppressing the evidence. In saying this I claim no moral superiority nor ownership of a more prescient vision. My position might be informed by a lifetime of experiencing the dire consequences of blocking peaceful channels to addressing people’s grievances in our region.

After giving the matter due consideration, I realized that I too have little choice.

I cannot withdraw yet another well-researched, well-documented UN work on grave violations of human rights, yet I know that clear instructions by the Secretary-General will have to be implemented promptly. A dilemma that can only be resolved by my stepping down to allow someone else to deliver what I am unable to deliver in good conscience.

I know that I have only two more weeks to serve; my resignation is therefore not intended for political pressure. It is simply because I feel it my duty towards the people we serve, towards the UN and towards myself, not to withdraw an honest testimony about an ongoing crime that is at the root of so much human suffering. Therefore, I hereby submit to you my resignation from the United Nations.

Respectfully

Rima Khalaf

Here’s an important piece from Peter Larson’s blog which reports on recent research into Canadians’ attitudes towards the Israeli state, and Canadian foreign policy on Israel/Palestine. It includes an interview with the the Green Party’s Dimitri Lascaris, a political hero of mine who is a relentless and committed advocate of Palestinian rights.

In short, a huge majority of Canadians think boycotts are a ‘reasonable’ response to Israel’s unapologetic contempt for international law, and two-thirds also regard government sanctions as reasonable. This is despite an aggressive anti-BDS campaign by Canadian politicians from both main parties, and the Greens’ own leader Elizabeth May attempting to distance herself from her party’s overwhelming support for Palestinian rights, backed up by the usual well-funded smear campaigns orchestrated by B’nai Brith et al.

Naturally, there has been a virtual media blackout on this data in the Canadian press, which remains as willfully out of sync with Canadians as their politicians appear to be. (The only two mentions I could find were on Global News, and in an op-ed by Linda McQuaig in the Toronto Star.)

After the embarrassment of the Harper years during which Canada lost its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council for the first time in our history, a few dreamers held out hope that things would change under Justin Trudeau. Turns out Trudeau’s shameful silence over the Gaza blitz in 2014 was no aberration. On the contrary, it set the stage for his prime ministerial fawning over Benjamin Netanyahu, alongside Canada’s stubborn alliance with a small clutch of international outliers who vote against the most basic rights for Palestinians at the UN, and its dead air on Israel ‘regularising’ its land theft in the West Bank.

Against this sickening display, these research findings will reassure those of us who’d like to believe Canadians’ sense of decency and fair play runs deeper than that of our photogenic prime minister.

Here’s the intro to Peter’s piece:

A few months ago, the UN security council unanimously condemned ALL of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank (including in East Jerusalem) as flagrant violations of international law. So far Canada has done nothing about it.

And here’s the rest: Most Canadians think its “reasonable” to boycott Israel: survey

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Today is the funeral of Yacoub Abu Qian, the Palestinian schoolteacher murdered by Israeli police during the demolition of the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran last week.

Meantime, this: Sir Desmond Swayne accuses Government of ‘significant shift’ on Israel after silence on Bedouin village demolition

Swayne, a decorated former soldier, asked the Government’s spokesperson about the Backbench Business Committee’s decision not to schedule a debate on settlements “and the destruction of Umm al-Hiran,” a Bedouin village.

He said: “Is there a possibility of a Government statement on what appears to be a significant shift in Government policy over recent days as we cosy up to the incoming American Administration in granting complete impunity to Israel?”

Source: Senior Tory accuses May of giving Israel ‘impunity’

I was relieved to see the backside of 2016, the past few months of which have left a bitter aftertaste of shell shock and death march. While there have certainly been personal joys, the wearying relentlessness of global events, from the election of Donald Trump to terror attacks in Berlin, Baghdad and Istanbul, from the unending humanitarian catastrophes in Syria and Yemen to the (seemingly sudden) deaths of A.A. Gill, Carrie Fisher, George Michael, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Alan Rickman and others, has left me depleted.

Yesterday – just the third day of a whole new year – it was the death of John Berger, the Booker Prize-winning English novelist, art critic and cultural theorist, that greeted me when I awoke. Judging by his intellectual and creative output and the high regard it secured, Berger’s 90 years were well-spent. Still, to those of us weaned on his influential essay collection Ways of Seeing, or the BBC series it spawned, his death was a shock.

Reading about Berger’s life, I was reminded that he was among the first Western intellectuals actively to take up the 2006 call by Palestinian filmmakers, artists and other cultural workers for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel as ‘another path to a just peace’, and to urge his colleagues to do the same. Besides signing a letter to The Guardian in which he and 93 others made the case for solidarity with Palestinians, Berger wrote his own personal appeal which I’m pasting below.

As it happens, his death and the inevitable review of his life that follows coincide with the Modern Language Association’s long-awaited vote on a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, which takes place this weekend.

Indeed, perhaps the most sobering aspect of these artists’ comments is that they were written a full decade ago, yet they might as well have been composed yesterday. The conditions they describe are indescribably worse: record numbers of Palestinian homes demolished and administrative detention orders issued, breakneck colonial expansion against a growing determination to annex Palestinian lands outright, unchecked settler violence, and a decade long siege of Gaza, punctuated by regular military assaults of increasing and experimental viciousness.

Like a canny child with no discernible boundaries who’s grasped that impunity and toothless handwringing constitute the reliably flaccid response to his rampages, the Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu is out of control, beyond the reach of ordinary decency let alone the dictates of international law. It has found an aggressive champion in Donald Trump, whose own pathology is eerily similar. Together they bring to mind Mickey and Mallory Knox, the protagonists in Oliver Stone’s grim crime film, Natural Born Killers, in which the media exalt a pair of monstrous murderers.

Today the case for BDS is more compelling than ever, which is surely why the backlash against it becomes ever fiercer. As the human rights lawyer Jonathan Kuttab pointed out in a speech in Toronto a few months ago, the pro-Israel lobby long ago abandoned putative grassroots campaigns via newspapers’ letters pages and the like, refocusing its formidable resources on persuading governments to defy their own constitutions by outlawing free speech on Israel, while waging a concurrent smear campaign against anyone who advocates for Palestinian rights. And to close the circle, those with the temerity to comment on this bullying at the behest of a foreign power are accused of perpetuating anti-Semitic notions of a ‘global Jewish conspiracy.’

A case in point is Nadia Shoufani, the Ontario schoolteacher who was suspended over remarks she made at an Al-Quds Day rally last July, in which she referred to the Palestinian writer and political activist Ghassan Kanafani as a ‘martyr.’ Kanafani was assassinated by the Mossad in Beirut in 1972. Ms Shoufani’s case was covered by the taxpayer-funded CBC, which did no independent research, preferring to parrot defamatory claims supported by historical distortions that had been circulated by B’nai Brith and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.

Yesterday, the Palestine Festival of Literature posted on Facebook a video of Berger reading Kanafani’s ‘Letter from Gaza’. It’s also embedded below, in honour of Berger and Nadia Shoufani, both of whom refused the complicity of silence.

Here is Berger’s letter:

I would like to make a few personal remarks about this world-wide appeal to teachers, intellectuals and artists to join the cultural boycott of the state of Israel, as called for by over a hundred Palestinian academics and artists, and – very importantly – also by a number of Israeli public figures, who outspokenly oppose their country’s illegal occupation of the Palestine territories of the West Bank and Gaza. Their call is attached, together with my After Guernica drawing. I hope you will feel able to add your signature, to the attached letter, which we intend to publish in national newspapers.

The boycott is an active protest against two forms of exclusion which have persisted, despite many other forms of protestations, for over sixty years – for almost three generations.

During this period the state of Israel has consistently excluded itself from any international obligation to heed UN resolutions or the judgement of any international court. To date, it has defied 246 Security Council Resolutions!

As a direct consequence seven million Palestinians have been excluded from the right to live as they wish on land internationally acknowledged to be theirs; and now increasingly, with every week that passes, they are being excluded from their right to any future at all as a nation.

As Nelson Mandela has pointed out, boycott is not a principle, it is a tactic depending upon circumstances. A tactic which allows people, as distinct from their elected but often craven governments, to apply a certain pressure on those wielding power in what they, the boycotters, consider to be an unjust or immoral way. (In white South Africa yesterday and in Israel today, the immorality was, or is being, coded into a form of racist apartheid).

Boycott is not a principle. When it becomes one, it itself risks to become exclusive and racist. No boycott, in our sense of the term, should be directed against an individual, a people, or a nation as such. A boycott is directed against a policy and the institutions which support that policy either actively or tacitly. Its aim is not to reject, but to bring about change.

How to apply a cultural boycott? A boycott of goods is a simpler proposition, but in this case it would probably be less effective, and speed is of the essence, because the situation is deteriorating every month (which is precisely why some of the most powerful world political leaders, hoping for the worst, keep silent.).

How to apply a boycott? For academics it’s perhaps a little clearer – a question of declining invitations from state institutions and explaining why. For invited actors, musicians, jugglers or poets it can be more complicated. I’m convinced, in any case, that its application should not be systematised; it has to come from a personal choice based on a personal assessment.

For instance. An important mainstream Israeli publisher today is asking to publish three of my books. I intend to apply the boycott with an explanation. There exist, however, a few small, marginal Israeli publishers who expressly work to encourage exchanges and bridges between Arabs and Israelis, and if one of them should ask to publish something of mine, I would unhesitatingly agree and furthermore waive aside any question of author’s royalties. I don’t ask other writers supporting the boycott to come necessarily to exactly the same conclusion. I simply offer an example.

What is important is that we make our chosen protests together, and that we speak out, thus breaking the silence of connivance maintained by those who claim to represent us, and thus ourselves representing, briefly by our common action, the incalculable number of people who have been appalled by recent events but lack the opportunity of making their sense of outrage effective.

John Berger

As the Modern Language Association’s annual conference approaches, members committed to pursuing Palestinians’ academic freedom by pushing for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions are increasing their output of compelling advocacy pieces in support of the organisation’s boycott resolution. This is a brief but strong statement from Shirly Bahar, a Mizrahi Israeli doctoral candidate based in New York.

Here’s a short excerpt:

I support BDS as an Israeli whose Jewish-Israeli citizenship marked on her ID card exempts her from the harsh oppression that Palestinians experience on a daily basis. I am not interested in the special privileges and safety that my Jewish identity mark grants me on [sic] the expense of Palestinian lives and basic human rights. Supporting non-violent resistance to occupation and oppression marks a political moral obligation to account for the suffering of others.

Read more: Shirly Bahar’s Statement in Support of a Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

This comes from the Modern Language Association which will vote soon on a resolution to support a boycott of Israeli academic institutions in response to Israel’s ‘systematic denial of academic freedom and education rights for Palestinian scholars and students’. The resolution was submitted by David Lloyd and Rebecca Comay, a philosophy professor at my alma mater, the University of Toronto. (Although I did a minor in philosophy, I never studied under Prof. Comay.) The MLA, which boasts a membership of more than 26,000 in 100 countries, will vote on the resolution at its annual convention on 7th January in Philadelphia.

“On December 23, 2016, the UN Security Council passed UN Resolution 2334 condemning Israel’s illegal settlements, currently home to over 600,000 Jewish settlers. The resolution is an affirmation of international law, and the first resolution the Security Council has adopted on Israel and the Palestinians in nearly eight years. Although not legally binding, it is nonetheless important measure. UN 2334 works in tandem with grassroots organizing by the international community supporting the non-violent Palestinian-led call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions until Israel complies with international law—a movement MLA Members for Justice in Palestine seek to support with an academic boycott resolution that will be presented for a vote this January at the Delegate Assembly.”

The rest is here: UN Security Council Resolution 2334 Condemns Israel’s Illegal Settlements, Justifies Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

The press release below comes from Independent Jewish Voices, ‘a national human rights organization whose mandate is to promote a just resolution to the conflict in Israel and Palestine through the application of international law and respect for the human rights of all parties.’

The statement is in response to the latest aggressive attempt to shut down criticism of the Israeli state and smear supporters of Palestinian self-determination in the form of ‘Motion 36’ which is being debated today in the Ontario legislature. The motion alleges that the BDS movement, which uses non-violent tactics to pressure Israel to respect international law and Palestinian rights, promotes ‘hatred, hostility, prejudice, racism and intolerance’.

Sadly, the Ontario legislature has form, and reflects the stranglehold of Israeli apologists on Canada’s entire political and media establishment.

Just last May, Liberal and Tory MPPs in Ontario put aside their differences to propose a private member’s bill that would have blacklisted those who support boycotts of companies complicit in the denial of Palestinian rights and support for Israeli settlements, whose illegality is ostensibly the position of the Canadian government. Apparently, we’re allowed to call the Israeli government’s behaviour illegal, but doing anything about it constitutes ‘anti Semitism.’ Last week, the Canadian government joined just seven other nations in opposing a UN resolution simply supporting Palestinian self-determination. Wow. In doing so, it found itself in the esteemed company of Narau and the Marshall Islands and Palau, alongside Israel and the US.

Before you get to IJV’s media release here’s a clever and snappy video they posted on Twitter, which provides a bit of context about both attacks on BDS and the role of boycotts as tool of dissent in contemporary history.

Toronto, Ontario— Numerous organizations which support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement are disturbed by MPP Gila Martow’s latest motion. Motion 36 will be debated and voted on at Queen’s Park later today. The private member motion suggests that BDS promotes or encourages “hatred, hostility, prejudice, racism and intolerance” and calls on the Ontario Legislature to “reject” it.

“BDS rejects all forms of discrimination, including antisemitsm,” says Mariam Nokerah, a student activist with the group Students for Justice in Palestine at UOIT/DC. According to the BDS movement’s website, BDS only targets businesses and institutions that are directly aiding in the ongoing violation of Palestinians’ human rights.

“We agree that any action that stands for hatred, hostility, prejudice, racism and intolerance has no place in the province of Ontario,” stated Atif Kubursi, spokespseron for the Canadian Arab Federation. “However, it is defamatory to suggest that those advocating for human rights through non-violent actions stand for hatred.”

“While we strongly condemn antisemitism and any other form of bigotry, the motion’s endorsement of the Ottawa Protocol on Combating Antisemitism is highly problematic,” says Independent Jewish Voices Canada spokesperson Tyler Levitan. “The Protocol’s definition of antisemitism accepts that opposing the historic and ongoing dispossession of Palestinians amounts to a form of Jew-hatred. The definition has been widely discredited and was rejected by the European Union.”

“This motion is based on falsehoods about the BDS movement and serves to whitewash the reality of Israel’s ongoing and systematic mistreatment of the Palestinians,” says Dania Majid of the Canadian Arab Lawyers Association. “Officially condemning a perfectly lawful and legitimate form of protest creates a serious chill on freedom of expression.”

“Rather than rejecting the BDS movement, the Ontario Legislature ought to be rejecting dishonest and defamatory efforts by MPP Gila Martow to demonize Palestinian human rights supporters,” says Thomas Woodley, spokesperson for Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME).

Critics of the motion are calling on MPPs to vote against Motion 36. They want Ontario to uphold the human rights and freedom of expression of all Ontarians; and have equal regard for all forms of racism and discrimination, including Islamophobia, anti-Arab racism and antisemitism.

Statement calling for an end to intimidation of Palestinian rights advocacy in Ontario by over 70 civil society organizations: http://ijvcanada.org/2016/the-ontario-government-must-end-its-intimidation-of-palestinian-rights-advocacy/

For more information:

Tyler Levitan, spokesperson for Independent Jewish Voices Canada, tyler@ijvcanada.org

Dania Majid, spokesperson for Canadian Arab Lawyers Association, info@canarablaw.org

Thomas Woodley, spokesperson for Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, thomas.woodley@cjpme.org

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