Alan Dershowitz recently wrote an op-ed in the Huffington Post attacking Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). He argues that “radical Islamic students” are behind the event and their sole purpose is to “demonize Israel”. After painting the organizers as “extremists”, Dershowitz (a self-proclaimed “moderate” who supports torture and Israeli war crimes) suggests an alternative week entitled “Middle East Apartheid Education Week”.
The topics addressed during the proposed week should be prioritized on the basis of the so-called principle of the “worst first” whereby “the worst forms of apartheid being practiced by Middle East nations and entities would be studied and exposed first. Then the apartheid practices of other countries would be studied in order of their seriousness and impact on vulnerable minorities.”
He then denounces what he deems the “worst” offenders. Saudi Arabia is predictably first on his list for its treatment of women and other discriminatory practices. Hamas comes second because it “permits no dissent, no free speech, and no freedom of religion.” Jordan, Iran and Pakistan are also not spared. Dershowitz jumbles all of these countries in the same basket emphasizing “Islam” as their common denominator. Presumably only after these countries are dealt with we would be allowed to discuss Israeli apartheid. But according to Dershowitz’s standards “Israel is a vibrant democracy”, so there wouldn’t be anything to discuss.
As expected, Dershowitz reserves some space to regurgitate Israeli propaganda like the outrageous claim that Israel is forced to occupy the West Bank and Gaza because Arafat refused the so-called “generous offer” in the 2000 Camp David meet (see Jonathan Cook’s rebuttal here). No Dershowitz article would be complete without foul cries of “anti-Semitism” and this one is no exception.
The truth is that the tide against Israel is turning and Dershowitz is getting worried. Dershowitz’s assumption that IAW is the work of “radical Islamic students” is not based on factual evidence. He says so to paint the organizers as sectarian and fringe. IAW has grown this year to about fifty cities around the world. As someone who has been responsible for organizing IAW’s in three different countries, my experience has been the complete opposite. One only has to look at the speakers in each city to note that they belong to different ethnicities, religions, political orientations, nationalities including many Jews and Israelis. There is no single dominant grouping. In fact, Muslims are in the minority. But even if IAW has been the work of Muslims, would it be less worthy of one’s time? Can’t Muslims champion just causes? Off course, they can and, off course, they do. Dershowitz is knowingly playing with prejudices to elicit emotional responses and blind people from the facts.
Dershowitz’s key argument is that we shouldn’t oppose Israel’s apartheid and colonial practices against Palestinians because there are “worst” cases out there. There are several things to say about this claim. Dershowitz “worst first” criteria would mean that one can only oppose an injustice when it is relatively judged in relation to other injustices. So to judge whether injustice “B” merits our attention, one has to look at all other comparable injustices and analyse what suffering is “worst”. According to Dershowitz’s logic the evilness inherent in oppression only gains a value (that merits action) when it reaches the top of some hierarchy. The corollary of this principle is the denial of human rights as an absolute value (because those rights would only become meaningful when they reached the level of “worst”). This thinking is not surprising considering his attacks against human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Dershowitz doesn’t tell us how we can measure suffering. Would it be through a survey? Or number of fatalities? His argument stands no ground in the real world. If it was for this criteria, for example, we wouldn’t be allowed to oppose South African apartheid to this day because there were always other crises that could have taken precedence. Indeed this was an argument prevalent in pro-apartheid circles. Would it be wrong to oppose South African apartheid while Chile was under a cruel dictatorship? Off course not and many of people were active in both struggles.
This brings me to my second point. Dershowitz arrogantly assumed that he was scoring a point when he denounced the dictatorships of the Middle East. These are highly unpopular regimes with little support from their own people. The Palestinians know this too well. Every Arab government at some point in the struggle turned their backs to Palestinians, exploiting the cause to divert attention from shortcomings at home. What is Dershowitz trying to say then? Is he implying that those who oppose Israeli apartheid support the tyranny of Saudi Arabia? This assumption shows how blinded and ignorant Israeli supporters are of the growing strength of the Palestine solidarity movement. No wonder they didn’t see Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) coming and are now panicking. The BDS movement has built a respectable reputation for its moral consistency based on international law and universal human rights. They share a vision of justice and equality that is not limited to Palestine/Israel but to the whole region — and many are active in making this vision a reality.Dershowitz fails to take into account the regional dynamics in which Israel is a key pillar when assessing the need for change in the region. American policy on the Middle East is strongly influenced by Israel’s interests. It is in Israel’s interests for neighboring countries to remain weak, anti-democratic and medievalist (in contrast to Israel’s reported liberalism as he tries to demonstrate). Progress in key countries have been stifled through foreign intervention because of the Israel-factor. Egypt is a classic example of this. The U.S. pumps billions of dollars to keep Mubarak’s repressive regime afloat. A democratic Egypt would most probably be hostile to American and Israeli interests, unlike Mubarak’s outright collaboration. Saudi Arabia is tolerated in so far as it does not interfere with Israel’s goals of remaining the indisputable superpower in the region. Those regimes that are hostile to Israel, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or presently Iran, are boycotted, invaded and split up (Jonathan Cook shows in his book that Israel had hatched a plan in the early 80′s to split Iraq into three sectarian states much like what it is happening now, coincidence?). So even if we apply Dershowitz’s “worst first” criteria, Israel would be a strong contender to the first place. Should Israeli apartheid fall, motivations to keep these regimes afloat would diminish.
IAW aims to educate and generate debate about Israeli apartheid practices in university campuses and beyond. This debate has been historically muted or censored. IAW thus fills an important gap. There is a consensus in the West that Middle Eastern dictatorships are “bad” (and often racism against the people of the region). No such consensus exist in relation to Israel despite its belligerent and racist policies and ideology. There are two reasons for this cleavage. First, governments and media in these countries are biased in favor of Israel. This shapes people’s perceptions and attitudes towards Israel. Second, efforts by people like Dershowitz have demonized those who apply universally shared standards to Israel. Israeli exceptionalism, which translates into privileged status the country enjoys in world forums, have to be combated with an exceptional mobilization. It was easy to convince the world about Darfur. It is not easy to break institutional barriers that shelter Israel from accountability overnight. IAW provides a space for this debate.