The following guest-essay by our Australian correspondent Julius O’Malley is the first installment of a two-part examination of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and one of its most prominent celebrity spokesmen.
Roger Waters and the BDS Movement
by Julius O’Malley
The memories of a man in his old age
Are the deeds of a man in his prime
You shuffle in the gloom of the sickroom
And talk to yourself as you die
— Roger Waters, from “Free Four”, 1972
For some decades now the principal battleground in the 90 year long Arab-Israeli conflict has been in the West — winning the hearts and minds of the populaces of the democracies and, through their governments, bringing pressure to bear on Israel to do certain things such as withdraw from the West Bank. One newish weapon is the 2005-founded Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which aims to bludgeon Israel into doing what the people who founded BDS — said to be from ‘Palestinian civil society’ — want by means of punitive trade, economic and financial measures and cultural, educational, sporting and scientific boycotts. The Ramallah-based BDS aims to achieve what the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel’s Arab neighbours have failed to achieve militarily for more than half a century: destroy Israel as a Jewish state. It has succeeded in damaging Israel’s economy and contributing to the further international ostracism of Israel.
The most prominent Western face of the BDS movement is Roger Waters, the former principal lyricist, composer, bassist and co-vocalist of the famous ’70s rock band Pink Floyd and since a very successful solo artist. In Waters’ words the BDS:
“… aims to end Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, to secure equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and to uphold the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the cities and villages they were violently forced out of in 1948 and 1967.”
Waters’ last point, the “right of return”, is crucially important to understanding the BDS agenda. Its co-founder, Omar Barghouti, has stated that even if Israel withdraws from the whole of the West Bank, i.e. to the 1949 Armistice Lines, the BDS campaign will continue until the “right of return” is fully realized and the returnees are back in “their properties”. Barghouti has stated that Israel should not exist; the BDS openly supports a one-state, not a two-state solution.
Barghouti was born in Qatar in 1964, raised in Egypt and moved to the West Bank after completing his first master’s degree at Columbia University. He obtained his second master’s degree at Tel Aviv University — yes, you read that correctly — and is presently studying for his PhD there. BDS chapters in the UK and the USA campaign vociferously for the severing of all interaction between their tertiary institutions and Israeli ones.
In his 2010 tome “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights”, Barghouti quotes approvingly a South African petition “[which] did not mince words in condemning the complicity of Israeli academic institutions in violating international law ‘While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation’” and also quotes Desmond Tutu (for the umpteenth time) : “It can never be business as usual. Israeli Universities [sic] are an intimate part of the Israeli regime, by active choice”. Ignore the nonsense about active choice, for the time being, so as to stay on track.
Questioned about his apparently hypocritical choice of institution to study at, Barghouti dismissively states that it is a personal matter and refuses to comment. There are seven, Israeli-established, universities in the West Bank — there were none in 1967. A recent petition to expel Barghouti from Tel Aviv University failed. Maybe he planned to write a book about how badly treated he was at TAU by Jews when he did his master’s there, but wasn’t sufficiently oppressed and thus had to enroll in a PhD program. Maybe Barghouti will do a second PhD at TAU after he’s completed the current one, hoping they will summon the good sense to expel him and he can then, having finally attained the victim status denied him by his Qatari-Egyptian background, squeal “racism”, “discrimination” and “apartheid”.
Roger Waters doesn’t just argue for the BDS agenda in public for a. His BDS role trades on his stature as an accomplished and very recognized musician; he publicly berates and criticizes musicians who choose to play in Israel, or more precisely, refuse to cancel gigs at his urging: the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Robbie Williams, Dionne Warwick, Paul McCartney, Alan Parsons and many others. Waters seems to prefer artists to cancel booked gigs rather than simply not booking them in the first place, because this has more PR impact. A dramatic public repudiation of Israel is best. He was over the moon when Stevie Wonder cancelled due to the pressure he applied.
Artists are importuned by Waters to not play Israel on the basis that it is an “apartheid” state. Israel is South Africa Mark II, you see. By drawing an analogy between Israel and South Africa, the BDS movement seeks to appropriate the moral high ground that attached to that cause, and garner the same level of international support. Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys responded evenly to BDS pressure: “I don’t agree with this comparison of Israel to apartheid-era South Africa … In apartheid-era South Africa, artists could only play to segregated audiences; in Israel anyone who buys a ticket can attend a concert.” Which undercuts the facile “apartheid” allegation rather succinctly. Not for Barghouti or Waters though, as Barghouti explains: “apartheid regimes don’t have to be identical”. Hmmm.
John Lydon, formerly Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, gave this salty, but apposite response: “I really resent the presumption that I’m going there to play to right-wing Nazi Jews. If Elvis-f*****g-Costello wants to pull out of a gig in Israel because he’s suddenly got this compassion for Palestinians, then good [for] him. But… until I see an Arab country, a Muslim country, with a democracy, I won’t understand how anyone can have a problem with how they’re treated.” Unlike Lydon’s common-sense analysis and willingness to call a spade a spade, Waters and the BDS don’t ever address the absence of democracy or the rule of law in Israel’s Arab-Muslim neighbour states; this is not their concern, Israel is their concern. Waters blithely disregards how an Israel with over five million Arab-Muslim “refugees” stuffed into it would actually turn out. For both Arabs and Jews. If it ended up destroying Israel as a stable, prosperous democracy — as it most certainly would — and created yet another hideous Middle Eastern cesspit of corruption, dysfunction and barbarity — oh well, the most important thing was to get rid of the Zionist entity. Job well done.
The uber-hip metrosexual Moby, who you would expect to be anti-Israel just on the basis of his lefty, vegan, animal rights politics, refused to bow to BDS pressure. And serious pressure it was. It was explained that: “the intensity of the attacks against him before he came to Israel made him suspect that this wasn’t an objective movement that was concerned with people’s welfare, but with something dark and dubious.” Quite so. Good antennae, Moby. Love your work.
Waters personally messages and telephones artists urging them to cancel booked tours. Carlos Santana acquiesced, one surmises reluctantly so, as he was also “hectored by anti-Israel groups” until he did. Nonetheless, Barghouti, in his tedious and poorly written tome — all those degrees haven’t helped — proudly cites Santana as one of five named musicians/bands who have conscionably heeded the BDS call.
Alan Parsons didn’t heed the call. Parsons was the sound engineer on Pink Floyd’s landmark 1973 Dark Side of the Moon album, so had known Waters professionally and personally for over 40 years. If you want to gauge the contribution Parsons made to DSOTM, listen to the original acoustic outtake of Waters’ written and sung “Us and Them”, musically very ordinary, then listen to the Parson’s produced version on the released album. Waters owes Parsons a great deal for helping lift Pink Floyd from a peripheral cult band to an international mainstream supergroup. Every Floyd album before DSOTM, about six of them, barely created a ripple; almost every one after it was a huge hit. DSOTM sold 50 million copies and still charts today as one of the highest regarded albums of all time. Parsons asked Waters to keep private their exchange of correspondence on the issue of Parsons touring Israel; Waters nonetheless made it public. Charming. That’s collegial respect for you.
Alicia Keys didn’t acquiesce to Waters’ pressure and her Facebook page was hacked just before she toured Israel. There used to be jokes about performance artists living in fear of Bob Geldof ringing them up to harass them to do Live Aid concerts. With Waters the harassment is no joke: those that do not heed his public pleas and entreaties are then targeted by others with the same aims, but employing different means in a classic good cop/bad cop routine. Waters publicly identifies them, pressures them and then, if he’s unsuccessful, others then take up the cudgel. In addition to Waters-BDS pressure, Paul McCartney received death threats, one very public, for agreeing to play at Israel’s 60th birthday celebrations. With one late Jewish wife, with whose family he continues to enjoy very good relations, and one current Jewish wife, McCartney was unlikely to be deterred from playing in Israel.
The Rolling Stones didn’t just ignore Waters, they cocked a snook at him and sent out a strong pro-Israel message by having the entire band pose holding up a huge Israeli flag and greeting the audience with Hebrew phrases. This was above and beyond their contractual obligations, one imagines. I suppose when you’re as struggling, unknown and impoverished as the Stones, you have to suck up to audiences and play any gig your agent can find. Unlike the hugely talented Elvis Costello. Name two songs of his. I can just see the very sharp-minded Mick Jagger laughing at Waters’ juvenile political posturing. And Waters disparaging Jagger as being ‘right-wing’.
After complimenting her as an artist, Waters labeled Dionne Warwick as:
“… ignorant of what’s been going on in Palestine since 1947”
and likened Israel to the Jim Crow South of the ’60s to try to bring her around. Given that the New Jersey-born and raised Warwick is 74 years old, it is likely she had direct personal experience of the Jim Crow South: playing segregated venues, unable to find restrooms that admitted blacks whilst on the road, race-barred from hotels and restaurants. Ms Warwick would thus, unlike Waters, be able to do the comparison with Israel for herself, as she’s toured there many times. Ms Warwick would have noticed that in Israel there aren’t any “Jews only” water fountains and “Arabs not admitted” signs. No doubt Warwick found Water’s diminution-by-bogus-comparison of the horrors of Jim Crow galling in the extreme. I would if I were black.
Not deigning to engage directly with Waters, Ms Warwick’s publicist stated curtly that her client:
“…would never fall victim to the hard pressures of Roger Waters …Waters’ political views are of no concern to Ms. Warwick, as she holds her own unique views on world matters … If Ms. Warwick had an objection to performing in Israel, no offer would have been entertained and no contract would have been signed.”
Not pressures, but hard pressures; a telling extra word. The concluding sentence is very interesting and a none too subtle slapdown of Waters. Ms Warwick correctly inferred that in describing her as he did, Waters was basically stating: “If only she knew better, she wouldn’t tour there”. Condescending, methinks. I’m not sure it was a good idea for a white man to publicly call an older black woman “ignorant”, sorta pushes all the wrong buttons. Own goal, Rog!
Like so many autodidacts who get passionate about an issue in old age, Waters knows better than anybody else. Far better. Even if one shared Waters’ views, the more pertinent time period would be “Palestine since 1921”. Take a different position to his on touring Israel and the artist is ipso facto ignorant. It never seems to occur to him that one could be as or more historically informed on the Arab-Israeli conflict than he is and draw different conclusions to the ones he draws.
Taking into account how the Arabs conducted themselves towards the Jews in League of Nations Mandated, British-run Palestine between 1921 and 1947 — and their responses to various partition plans in the 1930s and the 1940s — is essential to understanding the current circumstances and problems. I’ve noticed this willful fixation on the year 1947 before: there the Palestinians were, happily pursuing their bucolic lives when all of a sudden — in the wake of the Holocaust in Europe — the international community not only dumped a whole bunch of Jews on them, their land seemingly a random selection of territorial receptacle, but also partitioned the country to give the Jews sovereignty over a part of it. A highly tendentious historical narrative if ever there was one, completely ignoring the previous three decades of international involvement, the seven preceding decades of Jewish immigration and the millennia of habitation and religious/cultural attachment.
Waters recently publicly called for Robbie Williams to resign from or be stripped of his UNICEF UK Children’s Ambassador role for having refused to cancel his Israel gig. The children connection? Four boys in Gaza were killed on a beach, apparently by Israeli naval gunfire or artillery fire from inland during the most recent phase of the 90-year war. The Israeli navy denies firing at all on that day. The way Waters puts it, always absent any context, one would think the Israelis sit offshore waiting to fire expensive ordnance at children playing on beaches as a matter of routine military policy. An accident? Faulty intelligence? Never. Such things never happen in war. It’s always the deliberate murder of innocents by the nasty “racist” Israeli “right-wing regime”. Naturally, for people such as Waters, ‘right-wing’ is a synonym for ‘bad’ and ‘left-wing’ a synonym for ‘good’. He often calls it ‘rightwing’.
“Dear Robbie, playing this concert on May 2 would be giving your tacit support to the deaths of over 500 Palestinian children last summer in Gaza …”
Waters wrote. According to Waters, Israel also “arrests” and “abuses” children. According to Waters, Williams’ proceeding with his show would constitute his “chilling indifference to the well-being of Palestinian children”. Nowhere ever does Waters acknowledge that, overwhelmingly if not entirely, those 500 children died because Hamas cynically used them as human shields. And it would have been many thousands if Israel didn’t exercise great caution, according to the British military expert Colonel Richard Kemp. Waters doesn’t grasp that it’s good PR for Hamas that Gazan children are killed by Israeli fire. The disparity in numbers killed allows the leveling of the accusation of a “disproportionate” response by Israel. Supposedly it should be one for one to be fair. That Israel builds bomb shelters for its people, rather than use the courtyards of their homes for missile launch pads, somehow makes the Israelis the bad guys. The wounded children are even better PR because of the juicy photo ops to be beamed to Western TV sets. Gazan woman have an average of 8.9 live births; the more of them that die, the more opprobrium that will be heaped on Israel by the West. And that, which consequently makes Israel cautious about retaliating and causes it to give advanced warnings of where and when they are going strike, is Hamas’ strategy. If anybody is chillingly indifferent to the well-being of Gazan children it is most assuredly Hamas. Flip it around: in what way could it possibly be in Israel’s interests to kill children?
Incidents in which Palestinian children are seemingly killed by Israel are very often staged “Pallywood” productions, such as the famous Muhammad Al-Dura shooting. It is either apparently beyond Waters’ understanding of the universe that his noble Palestinians might fake an atrocity for PR gain, or he knows they do but doesn’t care because it’s all in a good cause. In an earlier Gaza beach death incident, where a daughter claimed her father’s innards were hanging out of his stomach, film footage shot prior to the arrival of the Western media showed her “dead” father lying on the beach with a spotless, intact, white shirt on. Go figure. And men, who somehow happened upon the family picnic, were shown scattering the family’s beach chairs and picnic stuff on the sand where there was, remarkably, no sign of any blast crater.
Hamas rockets falling short or just fired with reckless indifference killed many Gazans in the last phase of the war and Hamas blamed Israel for these casualties. As it always does. And heaven help any Western journalists who critically report on this or take film footage that depicts Palestinian wrongdoing.
The onus is always on Israel to prove it wasn’t culpable when Palestinians are killed. When it manages to, however, the media are supremely uninterested. By then they have moved on to publicize fresh Israeli pseudo-atrocities to feed the anti-Israel sensibilities of the Western public — sensibilities the Western media have largely created since 1967. What miniscule proportion of Westerners understand that if Mohammed Al Dura was shot at all — an open question — it was not with Israeli weaponry or by Israelis? The ballistics prove it beyond any doubt. What tiny proportion of the Western public understands that there was no massacre in Jenin? there were about 50 fatalities on each side. Israel could have conducted the entire Jenin operation by air and suffered no casualties; it refrained from doing so in order to minimize Palestinian Arab civilian casualties.
According to Barghouti, supporting BDS is “not only a moral obligation but an urgent political necessity — first and foremost to avert genocide …” Genocide, no less! Of course the Israelis have the military means to inflict genocide upon the inhabitants of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and have had for decades. Is Barghouti privy to secret Israeli plans? Or is this claim of pending genocide merely hyperbole? Perhaps Barghouti has an understanding of the meaning of the word genocide that differs from the conventionally accepted one. Does Roger Waters believe the BDS is acting to avert genocide, as Barghouti purports to? One hopes not.
For me, this Waters-BDS axis is especially painful, as Pink Floyd’s music and Waters’ many subsequent solo albums were a huge and cherished part of my adolescence and 20s. I have, however, had plenty of time to adjust, for his leading role in BDS has been a slow train coming. In 1992 Waters produced a solo album entitled “Amused to Death”. The album contains the following lyric:
“You don’t have to be a Jew to disapprove of murder…”
Upon first hearing it I asked myself: why would he write that? Jews don’t claim one has to be a Jew to disapprove of murder; quite the opposite: their religion regards everybody as bound by the seven “Noahide Laws” — kind of a distillation of the Ten Commandments with something about not eating live animals thrown in. Few, even atheists such as myself, could disagree with the Noahide laws. What is Waters implying by that lyric? Maybe it’s just a reference to perhaps the most important of the Ten Commandments/Noahide Laws, plus the belief that one doesn’t need religion to have a moral code. And “Jew” works better, lyrically, than “Christian” or “Theist”. What also works equally as well in rhythm is: “You don’t have to go to church to disapprove of murder”. But that’s not what he chose to write: singling out Jews was a thought-through decision rather than a mere lyrical convenience.
The second disturbing lyric from the same 1992 album, however, casts doubt on the hopeful benefit-of-the-doubt part of my preceding reasoning:
“… and the Germans kill the Jews, and the Jews kill the Arabs and the Arabs kill the hostages and that is the news…”
In relation to that I asked myself: does Roger Waters seriously equate the industrial mass-murder of a third of the world’s Jews by the Nazi regime, as part of an avowed genocidal goal, with the deaths of Arabs through the actions of the Israeli army in the Arab-Israeli conflict? Given his wild claims as a BDS talking head, apparently he does. And has done so for well over twenty years. He now has, finally, a polite platform from which to push these long-held beliefs, camouflaged with “human rights”, “anti-racism” and “anti-colonialism” fig leaves. In an attempt to deflect any criticism of himself, Waters laughably invokes the fact his two grandchildren are Jewish. And he “loves them more than life itself”. They are so because Waters’ daughter-in-law was born Jewish and due to the Jewish religious law on matrilineal descent; a circumstance which Waters finds faintly risible. I expect there are lots of candle-lit shabbat dinners at Waters fils’ home and Waters père will no doubt be proudly attending his grandson’s bar mitzvah at the local synagogue in due course. NOT. How richly ironic it would be if the grandson ended up in a yeshiva on the West Bank — it wouldn’t be the first or hundredth time — now, that would test the grandfatherly love, tolerance, understanding, good will to all, etc.
More than once I have heard some glib, historically uninformed idiot say: “Funny thing isn’t it, the first thing the Jews did when they got out of Nazi concentration camps was to put the Palestinians in concentration camps.”
Waters’ second lyric is solidly within the spirit and substance of the above malevolent untruth. The people who repeat this gem think they are being witty and profound. The first time it was said to me, I proceeded on the basis that the speaker was genuinely misinformed and I gently tried to cure his ignorance: ‘Concentration camps? Israel hasn’t put anybody in a concentration camp’. ‘The refugee camps! It doesn’t matter what they call them, Israel is still putting them in camps’. ‘But UNRWA established those camps, not the Israelis. The United Nations funds them and runs them. They’re not in Israel, they’re all outside Israel’. He looked blankly at me at the mention of UNRWA — plainly unaware of the institution. ‘They stole their lands!’ he replied splutteringly. Ah, so it’s land theft now, not concentration camps. ‘Jewish organizations had been purchasing land there since the 1880s.’ This, too, was evidently news to him. When the Israelis built the east-of-Jerusalem suburb of Ma’ale Adumim a few decades ago, an Israeli human rights group claimed that 86.4% of the land was expropriated from private Palestinian owners. The Israeli government said it was on state or public land, not private land, and gave the group access to the relevant official land records. The human rights group, which had just accepted Arab claims at face value, revised the 86.4% down to 0.5%.
Waters ostensibly dates his interest in the Palestinian cause and Israel to 2006. Which, given the 1992 date of lyrics quoted above, seems very unlikely. Waters claims that only after he played Israel in 2006, a concert that 50,000 attended, did he then look into the matter and decide that he just had to join the BDS. In 2012 Waters, at 69, was the second highest earning musician in the world: $88 million. He has since 2006 described himself as devoting his time to researching the subject deeply. One can be guaranteed that he won’t have read, and will never read, Conor Cruise O’Brien’s “The Siege” or Ephraim Karsh’s “Palestine Betrayed”. It’ll all be the Electronic Intifada’s approved reading list.
In mid-2013 Waters, ever keen to represent himself as a reasonable man open to changing his mind and not acting out of malice, went on record as admitting to rethinking his call for a widespread boycott of Israel. I was much encouraged by this, as I had not yet given up on the possibility that Waters was amenable to facts and reason. “I am considering my position” he said in an interview with HuffPost Live. “I’m thinking it all through extremely carefully because I care more about the outcome, because I care about the people involved, than I do about the moment.” The moment? Whatever. He’s apparently since completed his comprehensive analysis and gotten more implacable in his hostility to Israel, and consequently doubled down on his dedicated pursuit of BDS aims. No surprises there.
In Salon, Waters recently made the following astonishing assertion:
“I am not singling out Israel.”
But you are, Roger, you are. Very obviously you are. Why even bother denying it? He’s been completely silent on Iran and similarly silent on ISIS — which, if one were genuinely concerned with human rights in the Middle East, simply wouldn’t be the case. And of course he never criticizes Hamas, which just lurrves the BDS.
In fact Waters shills for Hamas. In a 2012 statement of breathtaking mendacity, gullibility or ignorance Waters claimed Hamas was prepared to be at peace with Israel! Hamas is willing, on its terms, to enter into a ‘hudna’ or truce for “20, 30 or even 50 years” according to one Hamas spokesmen. Waters should look up what ‘hudna’ means, its historical precedents in Islam and why a hudna is entered into. It is not peace.
Waters has used as a prop for his stage shows a giant inflatable pig emblazoned with, inter alia, a Star of David. He claims that this is merely protesting Israeli “oppression”. If so, he could have used an Israeli flag instead. A significant difference, as the Star of David is a religious symbol, even if it is also on Israel’s flag. The inflatable pig does not bear the flag of the Communist Chinese regime nor that of the Iranian theocracy. Fans are encouraged to violently destroy the pig at the end of the gigs.
Why do I care whether Roger Waters or any Westerner for that matter, devotes time and energy to excoriating Israel? Well, fairness and intellectual honesty, for starters. Up until 20 or so I had zero interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict. I remember Watergate quite well, but I have no memory of the Yom Kippur War of 1973. None. My geopolitical interests were Germany and the Soviet Union. The reason I finally did become interested in the Arab-Israeli conflict was because at university in the early ’80s the anti-Israel/pro-Palestinian sentiments were so ubiquitous and virulent, so in your face, that I could no longer disregard the issue. Which I guess was the first part of their aim. The organized student groups of Maoists, Socialists, Anarchists, Communists (Moscow Alignment), Trotskyites, as well as the “progressive” Christians, were all vehemently, passionately anti-Israel. It was deeply weird. Anyone would have thought that Israel was the world’s sole hyperpower and Australia, together with most of the rest of world, was living under its brutal yoke.
The Christian activists were regarded as uncool, but they were somewhat redeemed and gained some campus “cred” only with their outspoken “pro-Palestinian” stance. One of their leaders became the Moderator of the Uniting Church of Australia, and in that role devoted a considerable amount of time to “anti-Zionist” activities, forever writing letters to newspapers lambasting Israel and championing the rights and cause of the Palestinians at rallies and so forth. Frankly, if I had been a member of the Uniting Church I would have said to him: could you please tend to church affairs instead of indulging your pet peeve. No doubt a few did. I see he is now a Professor of Theology and the faculty head at a major Australian university. I doubt he hates Jews; he just used the Palestinian issue to broaden his constituency to include the young leftists in his church and so climb his way up the hierarchy. I hope so anyway.
There were also “Palestinian Christmas Parties” on campus, organized by a female humanities lecturer with a name like Jenny Hamilton. These were well attended by “progressive” Christians and some secular Lefties. The pre-teen son of the lecturer carried around a bucket collecting donations for the Palestinian cause. The fact that the boy was fancy-dressed as a Fagin-type character replete with false hooked nose and beard didn’t seem to trouble anybody. Anybody who attended, that is. It was evidently his regular costume and it was regarded as a hoot. I wonder where those donations went: not on Chrissie presents for the (rapidly declining proportion of) Christian children of Bethlehem and Nazareth, I’d wager. RPGs more likely, or into Arafat’s Swiss bank account. Many years later I read his mother’s pre-emptive denial that there was any anti-Jewish sentiment behind her lifelong devotion to the Palestinian cause: the suggestion was an offensive and standard Zionist smear tactic. Yeah, right. I hadn’t forgotten how she dressed up her nine year old son. My letter to a major newspaper citing that fact was not selected for publication: she was a favorite of that newspaper’s Letters to the Editors for well over a decade, despite all her letters basically stating the same thing. Curiously, those 1970s and 1980s Christmas parties aren’t mentioned in the media at all. I’m certain her son has grown to adulthood with very healthy attitudes towards Jews. Good on ya, Mum.
It was a somewhat surreal experience to have had an Australian-born 20-something year old of distant Irish background — a guest in my student shared house who had been a Roman Catholic seminarian for a while — berate me about Israel. I can’t remember why he selected me; perhaps I’d mildly queried the Israel hate-fest. He was nearly foaming at the mouth as he concluded his 1982 tirade: “If it wasn’t for America, Israel would have gone down the toilet years ago!” It was crystal clear that he very much wished Israel to “go down the toilet”. Why on earth would he want that to happen I pondered? And, boy, was he angry about Israel! When I saw that photo of Rachel Corrie as she burned the American flag in Gaza, her furious facial expression reminded me of his. Unhinged. “Projection”, I think psychologists call it.
Those campus political groups, which included both students and faculty members, were so very focused on demonizing Israel. This was all “locals”; back then there was no organized Muslim presence on campus, and the only Muslim students were from Malaysia and Indonesia. What explained their obsessive focus on little, far away, Israel, given that there were so many terrible regimes in the world doing really terrible things to their own and other people? Pol Pot was much closer. They also harassed Jewish students who were involved in pro-Israel activities.
Jeez, I felt sorry for those Jewish students quietly manning their little information booths and being harangued by brave fellow students with names like Johnson, Bradshaw and O’Malley. I suppose the Jewish students of today would be very grateful if only they were treated like the ones of the early 1980’s. They’d need armed security guards now. That is, if they were permitted by a pusillanimous campus administration — see Brandeis University’s withdrawal under Muslim pressure of its proposed honour to Ayaan Hirsi Ali — to set up Zionist booths in the first place. Brandeis, named after the first Jewish US Supreme Court judge, was established by Jewish philanthropists as an alternative to Harvard for those who were excluded by its anti-Jewish admissions policies. The only Brandeis graduate I’ve ever met was a black Haitian immigrant to Brownsville, New York, who was awarded a full tuition and board scholarship and wound up doing doctoral studies at the Sorbonne. Imagine a Thurgood Marshall University revoking a proposed honour to an activist, born into a Klan family, whose life’s work had been exposing the Ku Klux Klan.
So I investigated independently. And the deeper I dug, the more intriguing it was. As a life-long cartophile I started, on a whim, with my C19th maps of the Levant. I couldn’t find a Palestine in the predecessor states to the Ottoman Empire. In the Ottoman Empire from 1500 onwards, I could only find the “vilayets” — the primary Ottoman administrative division — of Beirut and Damascus. These extended southwards on both sides of the Dead Sea. I noted that the word “Palestine” was written on some Western maps, but as an overlay in the same font as the “Phoenicia” of antiquity. The very southern end of the first of those two vilayets was, in an 1870’s map, reconfigured to the “Mutassafirate of Jerusalem”. This special administrative unit was created under European diplomatic pressure as Christians developed a deepening interest in the Holy Land with missions and the like established. A “Palestine Exploration Fund” was founded in Britain in 1863. I found an 1860’s Baedeker’s Travel Guide entitled “Syria and the Holy Land”. By the 1880’s Baedeker’s had renamed their guide: “Syria and Palestine”. A landlady had given me a full set of 8th Edition Encyclopaedia Brittanica and I looked up “Palestine”. The 1890-written entry was a real surprise: it stated that Palestine was an historical name used to designate the area roughly corresponding to the historical homeland of the Jews. This Palestine lay on both sides of the River Jordan, I noted.
There weren’t any references to “Palestinians” in any publication of that century, and I recall reading in Baedeker’s that “the Arab inhabitants [of the Holy Land/Palestine] speak the Syrian dialect of Arabic”. Then I bought “The Arab-Israeli Conflict: a documentary history”, which was just documents with no commentary. It was an illuminating book. An Arab submission to the 1946 Anglo-American Commission, written by a Lebanese history professor adamantly opposed to further Jewish immigration to the area, vehemently denied the notion of a Palestine or of Palestinians in history.
So who, then, were these “Palestinians” that everybody was so obsessed with? Plainly not a people in the sense that, say, the Armenians (that I’d learned about at 17 from an Armenian co-worker) were. Much later, I bought a book called “The Politics of Dispossession” by one Edward Said. I was hoping to get a background on the pre-Mandate history of “Palestinians” and perhaps learn why in the C19th no Western texts made mention of them. Zilch. Nada. The book was not only unreadably turgid, it proceeded on the unstated premise that the Palestinians were a people, an ethnicity, as distinct and venerable as the Dutch or the Irish. I would later learn that Mr Said had his own very personal reasons for not addressing the question of the provenance and longevity of Palestinian identity.
Why was the agency representing the Arabs of British Mandatory Palestine called the “Arab Higher Committee”? Why not the “Palestinian Higher Committee”? Why was it the “United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East”? Why not “Palestinian” instead of “Palestine”? It’s less clunky. Why was it the “Palestine Liberation Organization” and not, as it is often incorrectly referred to, the “Palestinian Liberation Organization”? Why did it take so many years after 1948 for the PLO to be founded? It was not founded until 1963, when the Algerians and Vietnamese were styling their opposition to French colonial rule as “national liberation movements”. Good idea, let’s borrow it. As its name clearly conveys, it wasn’t formed to liberate a people, but to liberate the land of Palestine. From Israel. The overwhelming proportion of the land that had become and/or was later occupied by Jordan didn’t seem, from the media, to be in the PLO’s equation.
How could Golda Meir say with a straight face: “There was no such thing as a Palestinian people”? Why did Yasser Arafat, instead of ridiculing Meir’s seemingly preposterous claim and rebutting it with concrete facts about the undeniable historical existence of “Palestinians”, merely respond many years later: “We’re still here.” One of the attendees of the campus Palestinian Christmas Parties cryptically opined to me that people should be free to choose their own identities and we should respect their choices. I belatedly came to grasp what she was getting at.
Very slowly, after Israel had gained control over the Jordanian-held West Bank and the Egyptian-held Gaza Strip in 1967, the term “Palestinian” first started being used. Because if there was such a thing as the Palestinian people, but no country called Palestine, then somebody else must be wrongfully possessing it. Brilliant! In 1949 three countries possessed it: Israel, Jordan and Egypt; by mid 1967 just the one, Israel. The first US President to refer to the “Palestinians” as such was Jimmy Carter; why didn’t any of his predecessors? Now the name is on everybody’s lips. People who couldn’t identify Korea on a map or name the countries surrounding Israel know all about the Palestinians. And care very deeply about their plight and national aspirations. How come? There’s even an international “Palestinian people” solidarity day, November 29. Quite an achievement when you think about it.
So only after Israel wrested control over — “conquered”, if you prefer Mr Waters — the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 war did anybody begin to assert the existence of a “Palestinian people”. And only very gradually, under pressure from the PLO, did the Arab residents begin to identify themselves as “Palestinians”. In 1977, a top PLO official, Zuhar Muhsein, stated, in an inexplicably candid interview to the Dutch publication Trouw:
“Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people, since Arab national interests demand that we posit the existence of a distinct ‘Palestinian people’ to oppose Zionism.”
Never has a more accurate and truthful statement been made: it’s all about “opposing Zionism”. Saree Makdisi, a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UCLA, nephew of the late Edward Said and a big wheel in the US branch of the BDS movement, has stated, unsurprisingly on the one hand but very surprisingly on the other, that it is more important to eliminate the Jewish state than to create a Palestinian one. That this is the true priority of the Palestinianists has been an obvious truism to any perspicacious observer for the past 30 years. I for one applaud Muhsein and Makdisi for their candour; something glaringly absent from the Palestinianists’ rhetoric and narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
I used to wonder if Waters had ever taken a step back, widened his camera angle and even considered the Muhsein-Makdisi line as possibly only the revealed tip of the iceberg; I don’t anymore. Muhsein went on to state that after the PLO had eliminated Israel: “we won’t wait one minute until we move on Jordan.” The PLO is opposed to the Hashemite monarchy, not that this ever features in the Western media: inter Arab hatreds don’t rate. It’s Israel that’s the problem, Israel that’s the source of regional instability. Things would be just peachy absent Israel.
In another song from “Amused to Death”, Waters, given three wishes (the song’s title) by a genie, wishes “that they were happy in the Lebanon”. Oddly, this wish is prioritized over another of the three: “I wish when I was young, my old man had not been gone” — Waters’ father died at Anzio in 1943 when Waters was five months old. I suppose it is nice that Waters wishes they were happy in the Lebanon, but such sentiments count for absolutely nothing in that very tough, immensely complex and deeply fractious neighbourhood. And demonizing Israel isn’t going to help that wish come true. If the BDS is successful in achieving its aims vis-à-vis Israel, Lebanon will become even more unhappy than it is now. If Waters doesn’t understand that, then he understands nothing about the region. Pace Robert Fisk, whom Waters probably reads and regards as a something of a guru, Lebanon was not destabilized by Israel: the civil war there, with massive Syrian military intervention from the outset, had been raging for three years before Israel first got involved. And continued for four more years until before Israel got involved a second time. If one reads Fisk’s “Pity the Nation” about the Lebanese Civil war, as I assume Waters has, just scanning the chapter headings shows it’s all Israel, Israel, Israel. If it weren’t so insidious, if Fisk weren’t so influential, it would be laughable.
Syria, too, is opposed to the Hashemite monarchy, in fact to the very existence of Jordan. The truthful Muhsein was demoted and assassinated shortly thereafter. His denialist statement about Palestinians was vaguely explained as due to his being aligned with the Syrians. No Palestinian, much less a PLO official, has since made Muhsein’s fatal mistake of telling the truth about the Palestinian cause.
It is perfectly true that Israel is situated on a piece of what had been, since the late 2nd century AD or CE, in geographic and cultural terms, south-western Syria. Which is why Syria has, not without justification, regarded both Israel and Jordan as occupying Syrian land. This partly explains the hiatus between 1948 and 1967 and why the Arab League refused to recognize Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank. It is fair to say that a political movement with the goal of liberating the south-western corner of Syria from “the Zionists” wouldn’t have gained quite the same PR traction in the West as one that was built upon the premise of a distinct Palestinian people. If Hill and Knowlton or some other PR outfit had the PLO account in 1964, they’ve certainly done an absolutely stupendous job.
However, this piece of south-western Syria, after ceasing to be Judea in the 2nd century CE, wasn’t homogenously Syrian; it always had a small — and ever fluctuating in size due to periodic pogroms and the like — remnant Jewish minority. Time and time again in the last two millennia there were waves of Jewish migrants making their way to former Judea. And time and time again their numbers were depleted by various depredations under a series of hostile Muslim rulers. Under European consular protection since 1853, this Jewish minority grew to form the largest population group in Jerusalem by 1870 and an absolute majority by 1880. It is often pointed out by Palestinianists that in 1920 Jews formed only a small proportion of the population of what would shortly become Mandatory Palestine; that a great many, perhaps most, of them were expelled by the Ottomans or fled to Egypt in fear of their lives at the outbreak of World War 1 is conveniently overlooked. There were cities like Hebron and Safad with a continual and substantial Jewish presence for centuries — the former right up until the 1929 massacre. No Jews in Hebron — with the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Judaism’s second most holy site — again until 1967. Safad was the doctrinal centre of Judaism for many centuries. I very much doubt whether Roger Waters is aware of any of the above history. And if he did become aware of any of it, I suspect it wouldn’t matter a jot to him.
Jerusalem is the one city in the world where the same language is spoken and the same religion practiced now as were 3,000 years ago. Jerusalem is mentioned by name over a hundred times in the Jewish bible. Not once in the Koran: Mohammed is said in it to have ascended to heaven by a winged horse “from the farthermost place”. This then, belatedly, became the very same place on earth that was already holy to both of the earlier two monotheistic creeds. How convenient for a religion that claims to be the final one.
Yet the “Palestinians” vigorously deny any Jewish connection to the land that Israel sits upon. To the point of absurdity: ‘Go look for the remains of your Temple elsewhere, it’s not here!’ Arafat used to say. If the Western Wall is not a remnant of the 2nd Jewish Temple, how come they’d been praying there for many centuries before Islam even got started? Could the Jews have been mistaken and been praying in the wrong place all that time? That’s why the “Palestinians” have a hissy fit if the Israelis conduct an archaeological dig anyway near the Temple Mount: they’re terrified at the prospect of further archaeological discoveries of Jewish historical connection. You don’t have to be a Jew to be offended by this ludicrous “Palestinian” denial; you just have to be interested in seeing historical truths respected.
No matter which way one slices it, due to the centrality, depth and longevity of the Jewish associations with that contested patch of land, Israeli Jews have a greater right to be where they are than I and 99% of Australians have to be in Australia. Ditto for 99% of Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders and a very high proportion of Central and South Americans. Even the recent Soviet immigrants to Israel have a greater moral right to live there than Roger Waters has to live in the USA. He left the England of his birth quite recently because he didn’t like the increasingly coarsened tone of public discourse. One wonders if the violent, hate-filled, anti-Israel rallies in London, with their “We are all Hamas now”, “Behead those who insult the prophet” and “Hitler was right” placards accord with Waters’ standards of decorum.
|1.||For those who wish to quibble, the 90-year period embraces both Israel and the “Yishuv”, the name given to the “Zionist entity” predecessor of Israel, 1918-1948.|
|2.||UNRWA does not in fact run the refugee “camps” because there is nothing to run as such. They are not fenced or administered as one would be forgiven for assuming; they are urban areas physically indistinguishable from the towns and cities they adjoin. UNWRA, 99% of whose employees are locals, merely provides services: education, health, cash hand-outs and loans; to the inhabitants of such areas.
Previous posts by Julius O’Malley:
|2015||Jun||1||Saying the Unsayable|
|4||Italy Has a Problem