As critical Republican elections are approaching, so are increasing shrill statements by Republican contenders over the Middle East situation. Republican candidates are so forcefully trying to show their support for Israel –without even mentioning the Palestinian people and their rights-- that leading Jewish peace activists and academicians have felt the need to give their opinion about the candidates and their position regarding Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians.
Uri Avnery, one of Israel’s leading peace activists and a former member of the Knesset, comments on Newt Gingrich’s assertion that the Palestinians are an “invented” people. Avnery explains that at some point after the founding of the State of Israel, Golda Meir famously said, “There is not such thing as the Palestinian people!” To which Avnery replied in the Knesset, “Mrs. Prime Minister, perhaps you are right. Perhaps there really is no Palestinian people. But if millions of people mistakenly believe that they are a people, and behave like a people, then they are a people.”
In an interview with Haaretz, Deborah Lipstadt, the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Atlanta’s Emory University, says, “You listen to Newt Gingrich talking about the Palestinians as an ‘invented people’ –it’s out-Aipacking AIPAC, it’s out-Israeling Israel,” she said. And she added, “There is something about it that is so discomforting. It’s not healthy. It’s a distortion.”
When referring to the Republican candidates’ assertions regarding Israel Professor Lipstadt described them as “pandering,” “embarrassing” and “unhealthy.” “There is no nuance, no middle ground, it’s taking any shade of grey and stomping on it --and it’s dangerous, for your support of Israel to become a litmus test,” she said.
Equally egregious is the misuse of historical facts such as the Holocaust (Shoah) for contemporary political purposes. When asked about this Professor Lipstadt replied, “It’s a use and abuse of the Shoah. That doesn’t mean there aren’t political lessons to be learned from the Shoah – from anything - but it’s a use and abuse that I think is dangerous, just plain dangerous. Not only dangerous, because that can be debated, it’s a distortion of what Israel is all about, what Zionism is all about.”
When asked about the use of the Holocaust in describing Israel’s present situation, and if this is a form of Holocaust denial Professor Lipstadt answered, “I wouldn’t call it that. I would call it a form of Holocaust abuse or instrumentalization of the Holocaust. That you take these terrible moments in our history, moments that deserve to be treated truthfully, and exactly, without exaggeration, in which the facts should speak for themselves. And you use it for contemporary purposes, and in so doing, in order to fulfill your political objectives, you mangle history, you trample on it.”
In criticizing President Obama’s policy on the Middle East, Michelle Bachmann, one of the Republican contenders said, “It seems as if lately, our President has forgotten the importance of Israel to America and thinks of our relationship only in terms of what we do for Israel. The President is more concerned about Israel building homes in its own land than the threats that Israel and America face in the region…Our policy has confused engagement with appeasement and has inspired Israel’s enemies.”
Framing the conflict in the region as if Israel were the threatened country by the much weaker and still stateless Palestinians doesn’t allow for a fair and balanced discussion of the conflict. History has amply shown that both sides have rights to an independent state where people live side by side with each other. Only recognizing the rights and the humanity of the other will lead to a solution of the conflict. Failure to recognize the existence of the Palestinian people and ignoring their legitimate aspirations does nothing for peace in the region.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.