Mechanisms of Denial: Justin Podur interviews Ilan Pappe

From the archive (legacy material)

Ilan Pappe and Justin Podur | Zmag | 20 February 2005

lan Pappe is a professor of History at Haifa University in Israel. He is an activist for Palestinian rights. He was in Toronto in February to give the keynote speech at ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ at the University of Toronto. He was interviewed by telephone on February 5, 2005.
Podur: In your book, A History of Modern Palestine (Cambridge 2004) you use what you identify as a ‘humanist’ approach. You contrast the ‘humanist’ version of history with the different ‘nationalist’ versions of history that exist. What’s the difference and why does it matter?
Pappe: The official histories of Israel and Palestine have been loyal either to the Zionist narrative or to the Palestinian nationalist perspective. This is a view from the top: generals, politicians, elites. This history doesn’t deal with the majority, the majority of the people who are not part of this political and military game. But when you try to approach history from the perspective of the majority, the excluded, you see this political game in a different light. You see how manipulative and deliberately deceptive political elites can be. You see the conflict is not the natural result of some collision of peoples, but the result of deliberate human engineering and policy. If you can really understand the past, as I try to, if you can look at it honestly, that’s the only solid basis for trying to build a future.
Podur: You say that you take a humanist approach, but you also admit that you end up telling a story much closer to the Palestinian version of events.
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.
Podur: How would you answer the counter-argument, made by some very effective and tireless proponents of Palestinian rights, that a boycott is not tactical because it will unify Israeli and Jewish opinion behind the most reactionary forces, who will be able to argue that Palestinians and their friends are out to destroy Israel and drive the Jews into the sea? The argument is that the boycott tactic, like advocacy of the right of return, will actually be counterproductive, a gift to reactionaries, that will ultimately hurt Palestinians.
Pappe: Arguing for a boycott or sanctions is heavy and it is particularly difficult for me because I am asking people to boycott me. But I would answer that argument this way: it doesn’t seem to me that the unity of reactionaries depends on what we are doing – they are really quite unified right now and I can’t imagine how much more a change of tactics on our part would unify them. In fact, they are so unified right now that, unlike the 1990s, there is very little hope for change from within. People who think that there is a better way should go ahead and work on it: they should be able to prove it to us. I’m not against two states, or ‘dialogue’. I just think they have failed, and that more failure is increasingly dangerous. We are running out of time, and each day brings more ethnic cleansing, expulsion, and destruction.
Podur: You present some interesting thoughts also on the costs of these mechanisms of denial to Jews.
Pappe: There is a tragic history here of Jewish communities who were living all over the Arab world in relative safety and prosperity who were trapped between Arab Nationalism and Zionism and could not find a way between them. They had a particular way of existing and thriving under the Ottoman Empire. Some were able to solve the problem by going to Latin America or Canada, where they remained Arabs. You know in immigrant communities, there is this balance between what you wear and what you are. But for those who went to Israel, the only thing that unites Jews in an apartheid society is that they are *Not Arabs*. So the Arab Jews had to shed their Arab accents, and much worse and more painful, they had to accept that Arab culture is inferior to all other cultures. This is not good for a human being, to have to hate and fear your own culture for the sake of your own self-estimation. They had to prove themselves, to prove they weren’t secretly Arabs. Now things were much better for them than the Palestinian minority in Israel or the Ethiopian Jews. But it is still a missed opportunity and a tragedy.
Podur: About two years ago, a piece was published in Ha’aretz in which two lifelong Zionists came to the conclusion that a two-state solution was impossible. Jeff Halper has made the same argument. Did you come to your own positions, and the same conclusions, the same way? I ask because I wonder how many different ways there are to come to these conclusions, and I hope there are many.
Pappe: Hanegbi and Benvenisti were featured in that article, and they came to their conclusions reluctantly as a result of the facts on the ground Israel had built. My own group has been arguing for years that a secular democratic state is the solution. I am a historian of Palestine, and since the 1980s, I have considered myself anti-Zionist. I see the world through universals, as a humanist, not as a nationalist. I had been a part of the Communist party, and this affected my gut reactions to things. I spent four years in England. I have a lot of close Palestinian friends, and they’ve helped me see the world with different glasses. I live in a community that is almost evenly split between Jews and Arabs. I speak and write increasingly in Arabic. I think in some ways the only way to overcome so much indoctrination is to make a connection to people who belie the stereotypes. Once you have a connection like that, it doesn’t mean that you accept everything they say, but you can formulate ideas and make up your own mind. I have had a lot of important friends and guides, like Chomsky and Said, who have been really important to my formation.
Podur: Your position isn’t the majority position in Israel. But how small of a minority is it?
Pappe: It is small, but growing. Here is a litmus test. I convened the first Israeli conference on the Palestinian Right of Return last year, March 2004. Three hundred Jews came to the conference. To do that, they did that knowing that to come to this conference was to show active support for the right of return in principle. The second conference will happen in May 2005, and feature Mizrahi Jews and feminist perspectives. The idea is to highlight different themes at each conference.
Podur: You spoke at the University of Toronto and at York University in Toronto, where the administration brought police to repress, with gratuitous brutality, a demonstration during Bush’s inauguration. You are no doubt aware of what is happening to Ward Churchill at Colorado University in the United States. You have your own experience with academic freedom and the lack thereof at your school, Haifa University. Can you tell the story?
Pappe: I started voicing a strong critique of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians through my academic work in 2000. After the Second Intifada began in September 2000, people doing so started to be treated like traitors. After 2002, with the Jenin massacre, I felt I had to do even more. My own increase in activity coincided with a case of a student, Teddy Katz, who was doing his MA thesis at Haifa University in December 2000. He exposed a hitherto unknown massacre in 1948 at Tantura. His dissertation got the highest possible grade. The veterans of the military unit involved in the massacre actually sued Katz for the content of his thesis. The trial did not materialize. The Israeli courts did not want to go down that road. If they didn’t want to decide whether a massacre had happened in 2002 with Jenin, they surely were not going to want to make that decision about 1948 Tantura. And I do not have too many complaints about the way the court handled the case. But the University found a pretext to disqualify him. They found that his transcription of some of the interviews he conducted as part of the thesis were inaccurate. In no way did this impact the conclusions, but it was a small error, and he was made to rewrite the thesis and resubmit it. He did so. Then the University flunked him. I started a campaign to try to get him reinstated. He hasn’t been reinstated. The other thing I did was to start teaching a course in 2001 called ‘the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948’. It was a 2nd and 3rd year, ‘Advanced BA’ course, an optional course. The administration told me I couldn’t offer the course, but according to the University’s own procedures I could, and I was ultimately allowed to based on that codex.
I was surprised then to get a letter in May 2002 to learn that for the first time in Israeli academic history, a special disciplinary court was being convened to try me. The reason for this court was that I have tenure. Many academics have been fired, but no one with tenure has been fired. The trial was scheduled for June 2002. There was an international uproar and it exposed the University. The University then decided to ‘suspend’ the trial. It has been two and a half years, and the University has been clear that they could re-start the trial at any time.
In the meantime they have been recommending that I not be included in public seminars, that I not be invited to conferences, and so on.
Podur: That sounds almost like… a boycott!
Pappe: Yes, and I can testify that it works. I can also testify that, contrary to what they say, academics not only like to, but are very comfortable with boycotting other academics. And also, that if this is the price that has to be paid to be boycotted, that I am willing to pay it. It is a very small price to pay. But what has been disappointing is that the majority of faculty in Israel did not say a word of support for me publicly. I got some private letters of support. But I told people – I don’t need private letters, I need public letters. I traveled here from New York City, where Joseph Massad, who does not have tenure, is being attacked at Columbia University. The right to interpret reality is in danger, even in countries that cherish free speech. Perhaps particularly so in those countries.
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