Wednesday, February 23, 2005


Ilan Pappe – Israeli denial

In Znet, Justin Podur has done a fascinating interview with Israeli Historian Ilan Pappe. I am posting just an excerpt of an excellent interview.

Justin Podur’s blog is

Pappe: As a humanist my sympathy is with the victims. If I had written about Jews in Europe, or African Americans under slavery or Jim Crow, I would be accused of being pro-Jewish or pro-African. Since I am writing about modern Palestine, I am accused of being pro-Palestinian. What amazes me is that people who claim to be humanists that don’t come to the same conclusions as I do, people who don’t conclude that Palestinians have been victims of colonization and expulsion, people who don’t have sympathy with them.

Podur: You explained how this can happen last night in your talk. You talked about what you called ‘Mechanisms of Denial’. Can you explain this?

Pappe: The Palestinian case is paradoxical. The people who live there can see the results of 56 years of continuous ethnic cleansing, discrimination, a whole legal and practical apparatus that is the definition of apartheid. And yet within the media, the academy, and even the public consciousness, Israel is ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’. Nothing of this reality seems to reach journalists, academics, and therefore the public. The reason is that our society is very well protected by these mechanisms of denial. Even very good-hearted Israelis who consider themselves to be part of the peace camp live in denial. There are various mechanisms, going back historically.

One of them is physical and has to do with place names. In the original ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that took place in 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled, the names of towns were changed. Towns were physically wiped out and reduced to rubble, and then planted over with European pine trees. The idea was at once to wipe out the past, to make it like it never existed, and simultaneously to change a Mediterrenean, Arab village into a European forest.

Israeli archaeologists were consulted to select names from the Bible that would correspond to the sites. But the names were selected even more deliberately, and even more vindictively, than that. So the Palestinian village of Lubia became the Israeli village of Levi. The names are similar, and they were made that way on purpose. So that children growing up would think only of Levi, but the Palestinians who were expelled would know. They would know, and the name would be close enough to the old name that it would be a reminder.
It was the Jewish National Fund (JNF) that planted these pine trees, to wipe out the memory of the place and Europeanize it. I was bewildered in Toronto, seeing signs for the JNF, asking for support for the JNF as if it was some kind of ecological organization dedicated to protecting whales. It is not. It is a colonialist agency of ethnic cleansing.

And the mechanisms of denial are not only about 1948. They were and are used and re-used to prevent seeing Palestinians. There were Palestinians living in Israel under military rule until 1967. These were the people who experienced the arbitrary rule of the whim of a military officer, whose lives were in the hands of someone who knew or cared nothing about them, long before the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. After that, the denial simply extended to the occupied territories.

An even greater paradox is the denial that has gone alongside the exposure of crimes in the past four years. For the past four years things have gotten ever more horrendous. Daily killings of children, demolition of houses, confiscation of land, the denial of the most basic rights and freedoms. How is it possible that Israel succeeded in concealing that from its own society and from the rest of the world?

Podur: It hasn’t been concealed, but even when it is presented there is no impact.

Pappe: There are incredible examples. Here is one. There is a music show that is on Israeli television, called ‘Taverna’. It is Israeli music, which means it is Greek music with Hebrew lyrics. After the Israeli Army committed the massacre in Jenin in April 2002, the producer – another ‘leftist’ from the ‘peace camp’ – wanted to do a music show in order to give some comfort to the troops in this trying time. So the producers set up a stage in the zone of total destruction in Jenin. If you have been to Jenin or seen films about it, you know there was a hole in the middle of the camp – everything had been destroyed and reduced to rubble, people had been killed, people were buried in the rubble. They set up a stage in the midst of that rubble and had their music show. I talked to the producer afterwards, I asked him – ‘don’t you see a problem with having the stage in the middle of the hole’? He said: ‘no, the stage worked fine’ – as if my question had been about the technical aspects of the stage rather than the macabre scene.

A second example: every so often there is a bold crew of Israeli journalists who will film something. One such crew had heard that some of the Israeli soldiers at the Erez checkpoint (Erez is the highly militarized checkpoint which is the sole entry and exit point to the Gaza strip) were playing a game of roulette with the lives of Palestinians. This was a time when a very small number of Palestinians were being allowed to enter Israel through the checkpoint in order to go to work. The gate at the Erez checkpoint is an electric fence, with interlocking ‘teeth’ that make a complete seal, controlled by remote control. The soldiers would play a game to see if they could catch a Palestinian worker in the gate. One worker had died this way. The film crew investigated and filmed the game being played in secret. When the film was broadcast, the studio got hundreds of letters – protesting that the crew should not have filmed this, that it was helping the enemy and sapping the morale of our soldiers when they need support! This is another way of denial, of not facing the barbarization of society. This is very similar to the American public reaction to what happened in Abu Ghraib.

Podur: You use these examples of denial to argue that there is no basis for trying to make a moral case, no basis for dialogue, because denial is so pervasive and the culture in Israel is so far gone, and hence boycotts and sanctions against Israel are necessary. This is something that many, even those who would agree with much of your analysis, would not accept. Can you explain it further?

Pappe: As in South Africa under apartheid, denial and indoctrination is so powerful that it is not natural to expect that a movement within the society (in South Africa’s case the white society, in Israel’s case Jewish society) will arise that is strong enough to stop it. The consequences go beyond even the atrocities suffered by the Palestinians. I believe what Israel is doing will destroy the Jewish people in the near or distant future as well. Even with 250 nuclear weapons and the support of the world’s only superpower. For the sake of Jews and Arabs, the world has to play a role in dismantling apartheid. The world has to help. And the only way short of violence, which I am against, is pressure. To send a message that there is a price tag attached to apartheid. This is important because self-image is important to Israeli culture. It is very true that sanctions are problematic: they make the poorest and the workers suffer disproportionately, while the wealthy and powerful can escape their effects. But any message that Israelis are not part of the ‘civilized world’, that Israel is a pariah because of its behaviour, can be effective, because it will attach a price tag to apartheid and racism.

It is very true that this might not be enough, since it has not been tried. But it must be better than suicide bombings. I can say after 35 years that we have tried the option from within and it has failed, and in many ways the ‘peace camps’ are the worst: they believe in this ‘dialogue’, that they are so generous because they are offering Palestinians a fraction of 20% of their homeland, but cannot go further and hate Palestinians for not giving up more.


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