Israel/Palestine,  The Left

The Good Guy – On Peter Tatchell and BDS

This is a guest post by Saul Freeman

Peter Tatchell is perhaps one of the UK Left’s more recognisable characters. A long career as a social and political activist highlighting and challenging repression and human rights abuses has rightly won Peter Tatchell a place in the hearts of many on the Left. I doubt that anyone here needs me to list the causes that Peter has championed and the harm that he has put himself in the way of in the interests of social justice. Peter is clearly one of the “good guys”.

But if there’s one issue that almost never fails to turn the certainties and assumptions of some of us on the Left on our heads it is – of course – the issue of Israel. And here Peter is right on the zeitgeist.

Peter Tatchell is one of the best known proponents and organisers of the BDS movement in the UK. He debated the BDS issue with Alan Dershowitz at the Oxford Union this month and followed it up with an article at IB Times setting out the case for BDS.[1]

Peter starts his piece by pointing out that though he lost the vote at that debate there was more to that outcome than meets the eye: “Dershowitz would have won, though perhaps by a smaller majority, without his family members, Israeli Embassy staff and other allies in attendance”.

On the one hand Peter’s remark might simply be read as the complaint of a sore loser, but I think there is something rather more interesting going on there. Jews, Zionists, Israel are almost never seen as abiding by the standard rules of “fair play”. They are almost always accused (subtly or aggressively) of manipulation, exerting undue influence and control. This is one of the abiding tropes of anti-Semitism that has sustained through centuries of discourse around the Jews in order to invert the definition of a small and persecuted minority from powerless to powerful and therefore legitimate suspicion, hatred and containment. That Peter Tatchell demonstrated this reflexive device at the head of his piece is interesting, though one can of course debate intentionality till the cows go home to Oxford’s Port Meadow.

Peter starts his argument by stating that he supports BDS as a “last resort, made necessary because of Israeli intransigence.” And yet any well informed reading of the history of Israeli-Arab/Palestinian positioning over the establishment of a Palestinian state shows that rejectionism has been a consistent and key strand of Arab/Palestinian stances dating back to 1937 when a 2 state settlement was first proposed by the British. Benny Morris – a left wing Israeli historian – traces the multiple instances of this rejectionism in a recent interview published by Fathom.[2] Now, this is not to claim that successive Israeli governments have always been consistent forces of conciliation and compromise, but it is intellectually lazy and/or disingenuous to identify “Israeli intransigence” as the single explanatory factor for why there is no independent Palestinian state. Only the most ill-educated on the subject could possibly make such a claim with a straight face. Anyone who has been passionately interested in the Middle East for decades, as Peter has been, will know that this is simply not the whole story and might in fact possibly not be a significant part of the story at all. Why then – we might wonder – does Peter Tatchell rely on this as the touchstone for his position?

Peter then goes on to state that: “diplomacy, negotiations, UN resolutions and terror attacks have not secured Israeli withdrawal and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Depressingly, there is no prospect that they will achieve this goal in the foreseeable future.”

Now, if I were Peter I would have been rather more careful about including “terror attacks” in the list of “methods” that have unfortunately – in his view – failed to deliver. Peter here exhibits the UK Left’s appalling habit of legitimating, excusing or just ignoring the reality of Palestinian “resistance”. Instead of including terror in the list of methods, Peter could here have identified the extent and nature of Palestinian terror from the violent secular PLO days through to the Islamist current wave of stabbings, car rammings and shootings and made a strident call against all such acts. I’m not implying here that Peter endorses terror as a justifiable tactic for the Palestinians, but I am clear that the failure to stand firmly and clearly against terror when writing on the issue represents a moral and political failure of catastrophic proportions. It may be a bland truism to state that you are resolutely opposed to terrorism and will not stand with those who employ it, but give me a bland truism any day rather than equivocation, excuses or silence.

Equally, whilst Peter has been a rare voice on the UK Left prepared to critique both Hamas and the Fatah controlled Palestinian Authority for human rights abuses, he fails to see the contradiction in his campaign for a Palestinian State. Now! At this moment in history who, exactly, does he think is likely to be fighting for and then seizing control of that State or its constituent parts? Once again Peter exemplifies a strong strand of UK Left behaviour that refuses to apply the basic functions of pragmatic, democratic political practice when taking positions on foreign policy. Because if the Left did, then the world would appear less clearly divided into “good” and “bad” and hence taking “progressive” political positions that make us all feel righteous and justified might be rather more difficult.

Peter next sets out the 4 key demands of the BDS campaign:

  • Withdrawal from territories seized in 1967, especially the West Bank settlements;
  • Dismantling of the separation wall;
  • Legal equality and non-discrimination against Arabs living in Israel; and
  • Right to return for Palestinians forced into exile in 1948.

Let’s focus on just 2 of these, though in fact all 4 are clearly rather more complex and nuanced than Peter would care to admit.

Firstly, the call for the dismantling of the separation wall again represents the UK Left’s determination to ignore uncomfortable realities. It clearly cannot admit to itself that the experience of life in a safe, democratic, broadly secular Western democracy may not reflect the entirety of experience on this planet. Again, Peter will be fully aware that the barrier was erected to reduce the number of Israeli civilians killed and injured by suicide bombings. Peter will know that between 1989 and 2008 some 804 Israeli civilians were killed as a result of 168 Palestinian suicide attacks[3] and that more than 3,500 Israelis have been killed and over 14,000 injured by Palestinian terror since the foundation of Israel in 1948.[4] Peter will also know that since the erection of the separation barrier, Israeli civilian casualties have decreased by around 70% for fatalities and 85% for those injured.[5]

UK critics of the separation barrier like Peter will be aware that 56 UK civilians were killed by suicide bombers in London in 2005 but that no other suicide attacks have been successfully carried out in the UK. That’s 1 suicide bombing attack in the UK and 168 in Israel.

Yet Peter and the BDS campaign see fit to demand – from the safety of comfortable middle class lives in a European democracy – that Israeli civilians are once more made even more accessible targets for Islamist terrorists intent on martyrdom using the far more effective method of suicide bombings rather than the inefficient stabbings, shootings and car rammings that have to suffice at present. To argue otherwise would commit Peter and his fellow BDS proponents to engage with the uncomfortable reality that the Palestinian struggle has morphed from a violent secular revolutionary movement into an Islamist movement that celebrates the deaths of infidel Jews and would very happily add to that tally of 168 suicide bombings as soon as you could say “tear down the wall”. To simply “demand” the removal of the barrier is not a rational argument that any intellectually honest person would make. Israel will not, of course, remove the barrier that helps maintain some improved -though clearly not perfect- degree of safety for its citizens. No nation state would in similar circumstances, particularly one that had to answer to an electorate that does not broadly want to die at the hands of a suicide bomber. Therefore the BDS campaign will be able to carry on calling for a continued boycott of the world’s only Jewish state.

Turning to the fourth core and immutable demand of the BDS movement – the “Right to return for Palestinians forced into exile in 1948″ – the logic of Peter’s position unravels spectacularly. Peter claims – and I’m not making this up – that “most” BDS supporters support the existence of a Jewish state. He includes himself in this. And yet the BDS movement will not cease to hound Israel until it admits the now 6-7 million + Palestinian refugees now registered by UNRWA into Israel. Now, maths is far from my strongpoint (if you think I’m poor with words, you should see my arithmetic) but even I can work out that this would place the 6 million Jewish Israelis (out of an Israeli population of 8 million) in a minority. Israel would of course cease to exist almost overnight as the Jewish state. It is not coincidental that at Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, BDS Campaign and Stop the War Coalition demonstrations the chant of “from the river to the sea” is regularly heard. Because this is what this core demand of BDS – the Palestinian right of return – is designed to achieve.

Peter says that he and other BDS supporters “support the co-existence of a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one”. Given the obvious results of this core BDS demand, one is forced to wonder aloud where exactly this Jewish state is going to be, as it is clearly not going to be in the geographical area currently known as Israel. From the river to the sea. Peter’s concern for human rights does not appear to have stretched its imagination as far as wondering what the current 6 million Jewish Israelis might need to do once the Jewish state has been dismantled.

Of course, the idea that Israel is going to sign away its existence because Peter Tatchell and a large chunk of the UK Left and student political discourse would like it to is errant nonsense. This means that the BDS position is not only intellectually flawed and disingenuous; it’s also guaranteed to be un-fulfillable. Therefore nothing Israel does or does not do will ever be sufficient and we can all go on calling for a boycott against the world’s only Jewish state for ever.

Now, whilst in this IB Times article Peter states his commitment to a 2 state solution and recognition of the existence of a Jewish state – albeit clearly not in Israel – in other articles Peter Tatchell has been rather more equivocal.

Peter has written of his “sympathy for a one-state solution”. He blames the extremism of Hamas for blocking this “dream” but also the “intransigence of short-sighted Israelis”.[6]

He has elsewhere written that a “single, democratic, secular state” is “probably the best solution” though he accepts that for pragmatic reasons this is “not going to happen in the foreseeable future” [7]

What Peter Tatchell is indulging in here is the exceptionalism regarding Jewish self-determination that David Hirsh amongst others has long identified as a deeply rooted contradiction in the narrative of the Left.[8] A commitment to human rights has self-determination at its core, yet Peter seems unable to see the inherent problems of denying this for Jews. Now granted, his one-state solution could also in a sense be construed as denying this for Palestinians, but in the case of Jews the difficulty with this position is glaringly obvious. Zionism sought – and still seeks – to address the persecution and oppression of Jews through the centuries by creating a safe political, economic and cultural space where Jews have the power of agency that had been denied them till 1948. Peter’s “one-state solution” seeks to remove this historic achievement whereby Jews enjoy the same privileges and security of nation-statehood enjoyed by the hundreds of other ethnicities and societal groups the world over. Without being glib, I do wonder why Peter has not felt compelled to make the case for the dismantling of, say, Switzerland or Venezuela as political nation-state constructs?

Peter decries “short-sighted” Jewish Israelis for failing to embrace his vision. This is certainly an “interesting” perspective on a people who have only enjoyed self-determination for some 67 years and after more than one third of them were exterminated in what is so far the world’s only industrialised genocide.

Lastly, Peter Tatchell fails to recognise that his BDS campaign exists not in Israel – the location of the “bad state” he wishes to “punish” – but here, in the UK. David Hirsh has forcefully made the point that “the exclusion it seeks to set up is here, where the campaign is, not ‘there’ in the Middle East”.[9]

Peter and others on the UK Left refuse to hear the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jews here in the UK identify to varying degrees with Israel, because a majority of Jews do not take the route of “disavowing” Zionism. As Hirsh points out “for most Jews the route of disavowal is too redolent of historic antisemitisms to be a tolerable option.” It is UK Jews who are marginalised, made anxious and excluded by BDS campaigns against Jewish Israeli businesses and University campus Israeli Apartheid Week activities. It is UK Jews who see themselves defined outside the boundary of what is deemed “progressive” and “good” by a UK Left which conducts an obsessive campaign against the world’s only Jewish state.

And so whilst Peter rightly condemns the Stop the War Coalition for its refusal to listen to Syrian voices when formulating positions around the conflict in Syria, he replicates his own version of their failure by his refusal to hear the voices of UK Jews when they challenge him. For Peter, BDS against Israel is an abstract political position. But for UK Jews BDS is a key element in the definition – yet again – of Jews as outside the normative structures of “progressive” culture and discourse.

So, when one of the prominent and vocal “good guys” gets it so badly wrong when it comes to Jews and Israel, you’ll forgive me I hope for both pointing it out and then wondering where exactly we have to look in order to find a UK Left that is able to make any real progressive sense on the issue.