As a concerned Edinburgh graduate, I write you with a sense of déjà vu, as I have done this before.
I want to restate and expand on my objections to your 2016 motion and resolution to boycott the Jewish state of Israel. Let me put that a little differently: the only liberal parliamentary democracy in the Middle East, one of the very few genuine democracies in the world today. I would like all of you to read this; only your willingness to do so, at least to listen to the arguments of others, will justify your claim to be intelligent young people studying at a world-class university.
At Edinburgh, I qualified with a first-class MA in Persian, Arabic and Islamic History, and went on to Cambridge, where I took a PhD in Persian Studies, dealing with a religious and historical topic in 19th-century Iran. After that, I taught Arabic-English translation and Islamic Civilization at a university in Morocco, then Arabic and Islamic Studies at Newcastle University in the UK. Later I accepted an invitation to join the Gatestone Institute as a Distinguished Senior Fellow. There, I research and write on subjects relating to Islam, the Middle East and Israel. I have written about forty books, think tank reports, and a long list of articles on these topics.
I only write the above to explain that I am adequately qualified to address you on the topic of the Israel-Palestinian struggle. It embarrasses me to say that your grounds for passing a boycott motion are unworthy of anyone who claims to be well educated, intelligent, or well informed. Sadly, the reasons given in your resolution are childish, ignorant, and based on nothing but a series of lies or at best misunderstandings. If you stop reading at this point, I call you out as traitors to the most basic principles of academic work: the need for open dialogue, critical debate, and readiness to change one's opinions in the presence of evidence. If you cannot abide by those principles, you are not fit to be at university at all. If your self-righteousness and your conviction that you are utterly right all the time cannot be changed, you will never understand what it is to take part in any intellectual debate. This is a letter that I hope many of you will read, in the hope that you are not frightened by dissenting opinion.
So, let me begin with some simple points. I assume that most or all of you are feminists, that most or all of you insist on women's rights and equal status for men and women worldwide. Now, as we are in some measure talking about the Middle East and the Islamic world, it is probably not necessary to spell out to you that no Arab country and no Islamic nation gives full rights to women, and that many openly oppress their female citizens. Forced veiling; beatings, floggings or stonings to death; women who have been raped treated as adulteresses and stoned; the legal status of half a man; bans on travel without permission from a man; women forbidden to drive cars, honour killings of women, female genital mutilation (FGM) of young girls, and non-consensual divorce are commonplace.
I would have thought you might pass a resolution about Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Somalia or somewhere similar. But instead, you pass boycott motions about Israel. In Israel, men and women have equal status under law. Muslim women are free to wear veils and many do, but no woman is ever arrested or fined if she prefers not to wear one. Honour killings or FGM are punishable offences under Israeli law, but few take place. Women in Israel -- Christians, Arabs and Jews -- are free to walk on the beach in swimsuits, to go dancing in nightclubs, to live with male or female partners with or without marriage, to serve in the army, navy and air force, and to enter any profession, in or out of the government, for which they are qualified. They receive equal justice under law. They live lives identical to yours in free Western countries. So, if you are feminists, why do you sanction Israel and leave brutal misogynist regimes without a word of criticism? Does that seem like hypocrisy to you? It certainly seems so to me.
You probably all support rights for LGBTQ communities. Perhaps you take part in gay rights parades, no doubt some of you are either gay or have gay friends, and none of you would tolerate psychological or physical abuse directed against people of diverse sexuality. But take a look at Arab countries and Islamic countries. In Gaza and the West Bank, they kill homosexuals by throwing them off roofs or beat them to death. In Iran, they hang them. In Saudi Arabia, they behead them. Under the Islamic State, they also throw them from roofs. Not a single Islamic country gives any rights whatever to gay men and women, to transsexuals or transvestites. In the Middle East, tens of thousands of gay people live in fear. But no one ever marches against these places, writes petitions demanding gay rights, or passes boycott resolutions against them.
In Israel, gay pride marches take place in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. There are no laws forbidding homosexuality. Tel Aviv has been described as the gay capital of the world. The Israeli army does not sanction soldiers who are gay. Israeli law protects people of all sexual orientations -- and it does so because it is a country based on full human rights for all its citizens. This is not "pinkwashing": using gay rights to cover up other abuses. It is gay rights in practice, which is why many Arab and Iranian gay people flee to Israel. Providing such protection only serves to make Israel even more hated by many countries surrounding it and even many farther away. This too is hypocrisy, pure and simple. To attack a country that defends the rights you demand for yourselves and your friends is morally unforgivable.
You probably agree that all people should be free to worship and practise their religion openly, or not, under the protection of the law. And you all probably agree that religious people and atheists also should have the right to live freely, without persecution. No Arab or Islamic state offers that sort of protection. In Iraq and Syria, in Gaza and the West Bank, Christians have been killed in huge numbers or driven out. In Egypt, the indigenous population of Coptic Christians suffers severe persecution and sees its churches destroyed. In Iran, Christians are regularly arrested, and the country's largest indigenous religious minority, the Baha'is, are openly persecuted. Baha'is are hanged, imprisoned, denied access to education, forbidden to work in any profession. Their holy places throughout the country have been systematically bulldozed and sometimes mosques have been built on the sites.
In Israel, the Christian community is the only one anywhere in the Middle East to have grown in numbers since 1948. All the holy places of all religions -- Muslim, Jewish, Christian -- are actively protected under the Law for the Protection of Holy Places. The Baha'i religion has its World Centre (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) in Haifa, and its two holiest shrines there and outside the city of Acco. Pilgrims come from around the world. The Baha'is are among the most hated people for Muslims everywhere. But not in Israel. Yet no one marches to defend the religious rights of Baha'is in the Islamic world; no one brings petitions to the Iranian embassy to protect them or others from persecution; no one holds meetings to call for reform in Islamic states. Instead, people like yourselves pass resolutions condemning the only country that defends those rights for all its citizens and visitors. By siding with the persecutors and sneering at the only country that since its inception has actually implemented all human rights, you show nothing but contempt for those rights. That is not just sad, it is despicable.
You are students, young people with your minds open to new sensations, new information, new questions, a galaxy of differing opinions, learning how to weigh and balance your own assumptions and those of others. You have access to the most amazing technologies and sources of information -- resources that simply did not exist earlier. In order to access all this, you require freedom of speech, a world without censorship, a free press, the right to protest, and to question received opinion. If your government in Scotland or the UK banned books, imprisoned journalists, censored films, or prohibited campus meetings, you would be rightly outraged. You would march to defend those freedoms were there a threat to take them away. You depend on free libraries, uncensored newspapers and journals, and direct access to the Internet.
None of those freedoms exists in any Muslim country. Not in Egypt, not in Jordan, not in Saudi Arabia, not in Iran, not in Pakistan. Censorship is rife, secular views are everywhere condemned. Freethinking bloggers such as Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, several in Bangladesh, and many in Iran have been imprisoned, sentenced (in Badawi's case) to lashes, or (in Bangladesh) assassinated. The majority of newspapers in these countries are state-owned. Books are banned and burned across the region. Television stations are closed down for the pettiest of reasons, as happened recently in Egypt to MP Tawfiq Okasha. There is no freedom of speech in Gaza or under the Palestinian Authority, and those who breach the rules are, as often as not, found with a bullet in their head.
Israel has as much freedom of speech as the UK, France, Germany, Denmark, the United States, Canada, Australia or any other Western democracy. The only restrictions on the press are those relating to national security -- as in all democracies. Anti-Israel NGOs operate freely in Israel, anti-Israel articles appear daily in the press, notably in the left-wing newspaper Haaretz. Arab politicians speak against Israeli policy daily in parliament or in interviews with the press. When arrests are made, Jewish extremists are as likely to be charged as Arabs. Israel is, in every respect, a free society. Yet you choose to condemn it. By doing so, you condemn the very freedoms you yourselves benefit from in your ivory towers in Scotland. And when you support the Palestinians exclusively, you offer support to censorship and state control of expression. You need to think about this carefully, because otherwise you reveal yourselves to be hypocrites of the first order.
Let me take this one step further. Are you aware that your motion is anti-Semitic? I want you to think about this carefully, too. What, you may ask, does boycotting Israel have to do with hating Jews? You are, I do not doubt, fiercely anti-racist, and for that I strongly commend you. Racism is still an ugly feature of modern life, not only in the West, but across a swath of other countries. It is ironic in the extreme, therefore, that your boycott motion was presented by the BME [Black and Minority Ethnic] Liberation Group. Ironic, because anti-Semitism has been and remains one of the most poisonous and genocidal forms of racist hatred. Across Europe, anti-Semitism is growing to levels reminiscent to that of the 1930s. The 2015 figure for anti-Semitic incidents was 53% higher than for 2014. Jews are leaving Europe and taking refuge elsewhere, most of them in Israel.
Fair criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic. But exaggerated, libellous, and false criticism most certainly is. That is not my opinion, but the view of several major bodies dedicated to anti-racist work. At the university level, the Regents of the University of California, along with many other American universities, have just condemned anti-Zionism as anti-Semitic. Another official body you should know and recognize, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, has the following as their working definition of anti-Semitism:
Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.
In addition, such manifestations could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for "why things go wrong." It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.
Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to:
- Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.
- Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
- Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.
- Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust). Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
- Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
Examples of the ways in which antisemitism manifests itself with regard to the State of Israel taking into account the overall context could include:
- Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
- Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
- Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
- Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
- Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.
Antisemitic acts are criminal when they are so defined by law (for example, denial of the Holocaust or distribution of antisemitic materials in some countries).
Criminal acts are antisemitic when the targets of attacks, whether they are people or property – such as buildings, schools, places of worship and cemeteries – are selected because they are, or are perceived to be, Jewish or linked to Jews.
Antisemitic discrimination is the denial to Jews of opportunities or services available to others and is illegal in many countries.
That definition also forms the basis for the current U.S. State Department definition, with wording almost exactly the same. If you are serious about scholarship, may I suggest you buy or borrow a copy of Kenneth Marcus's book, The Definition of Anti-Semitism, published last year by Oxford University Press. Read chapter 6 in full. Marcus is the Founder and President of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. Formerly, he was Staff Director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and held the Chair in Equality and Justice in America at the City University of New York. He is, in other words, an authority on precisely those human and civil rights issues with which the BME concerns itself. And he agrees that exaggerated and malign criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.
Your resolution is one passed by an anti-racist organization and presented by a group supporting the rights of black and other ethnic minorities. Yet it is, by definition, racist in character and, frankly, racist in intent. Are you proud of that? Can you sleep at night knowing you have joined a chorus of hate against the most persecuted race in human history? I am sure you support the right of self-determination for a thousand national, ethnic, and other groups round the world. Yet you call for an end to Israel, a state created after the genocide of six million Jews so they could to exercise their right to self-determination.
When people march on European streets side by side with far-right Muslim extremists chanting "Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas," surely even you must admit that something is seriously wrong.
Your motion states that "The actions of the State of Israel are in violation of international law," with some supposed examples but not a single piece of evidence. In fact, the State of Israel has an impressive record of full compliance with international law at all levels. Your statement contradicts the opinions of very large numbers of experts in international law, a body of men and women whose knowledge of this subject far surpasses that of undergraduates who spout claims that have no legal or factual or historical backing.
It is often said, for example, that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories is illegal under international law. In fact, the truth is just the opposite. Under the original partition plan advanced in UN Resolution 181 in 1947, Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza was permitted, just as Arab settlement in Israel was permitted. The law has not changed since then.
In 1948-49, Egypt illegally occupied Gaza, and Jordan the West Bank, as a result of a war of aggression against Israel. Those were illegal occupations, yet nobody complained or demanded the removal of Egyptian or Jordanian troops.
In 1967, acting again in a war of defence, Israel displaced the aggressors Egypt and Jordan from Gaza and the West Bank. The occupation was recognized as fully legal by UN Resolution 242 (1967) and 338 (1973). According to the UN today, "Security Council resolution 242, adopted on 22 November 1967, and resolution 338, adopted on 22 October 1973, are considered basic instruments in all subsequent discussions of a Middle East peace settlement."
According to Resolution 242 (which has never been revoked), Israel is entitled to remain in Gaza and the West Bank until secure borders are agreed. As Israel has never forced any of its population into the Palestinian territories, the Fourth Geneva Convention, which you cite, simply does not apply. That is a matter of legal fact, not woolly opinion. Resolution 242 was very carefully worded to indicate that Israel did not have to pull out of "all the territories" -- just some.
In 2005, Israel, at very high cost to its own citizens, pulled lock, stock and barrel out of Gaza. Hamas then killed PLO politicians and took control, and before long launched a series of wars against Israel. Hamas's 1988 Covenant calls for the destruction of Israel and the genocide of Jews worldwide. I hope that is not something any of you support.
Since 1967, Israel has made over half a dozen very serious offers of peace towards the establishment of a Palestinian state, including one offer of 97% of the West Bank and one of 100%. Each one has been rejected by the Palestinians, whose official bodies still demand the creation of a Palestinian state in place of Israel, which would lead to the expulsion or murder of all Jewish Israelis. So much, then, for the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. Your motion suggests that only Palestinians have a right to determine their own futures. That is pure discrimination.
Another charge you level at Israel may be found in paragraphs 14 and 16 of your motion. That is the charge of apartheid. Describing Israel as an apartheid state is, as I have noticed, another anti-Semitic libel. It is libellous for the simple reason that there is nothing in Israel that begins to resemble South African apartheid. Clearly, not one of you knows the first thing about apartheid, apartheid laws, and apartheid government in South Africa. If you did, you would be thoroughly ashamed even to suggest that Israel practises apartheid today.
Let me quote a modern South African politician who lived through the Apartheid years. Kenneth Rasalabe Joseph Meshoe, President of the African Christian Democratic Party, lived as a black man through the Apartheid regime. He has this to say about Israel:
"Those who know what real apartheid is, as I know, know that there is nothing in Israel that looks like apartheid. ... [The apartheid claim] is an empty political statement that does not hold truth... There is a widespread allegation, really a slander, that Israel is an apartheid state. That notion is simply wrong. It is inaccurate and it is malicious.
"The BDS movement is a real pain... to us in South Africa who love the truth, BDS movement is not a democratic movement; they are a movement of intimidation, a movement that performs hatred. People who don't believe in hatred should not allow the BDS movement to stop them from doing the right thing."
Meshoe and many other South Africans know what they are talking about. Do any of you? A Muslim friend once told me how he went to Israel to get information on its apartheid policies in order to write a book about it. But for however long he stayed, he could not find a single instance of apartheid. Today, he speaks worldwide on behalf of Israel. And he is right.
There are no apartheid laws in Israel. Arabs (both Muslims and Christians) in Israel have the same voting rights as Jews, have political parties of their own, serve as members of parliament, serve on the Supreme Court and other courts, are diplomats, lawyers, military officers, scientists, academics, and anything else they wish. Arab women win beauty contests and singing competitions. 20% of students in Israeli universities are Arabs because 20% of the population is Arab.
Dr Tarek Abu-Hamed, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, works as Israel's Deputy Chief Scientist. Rana Raslan, an Arab woman, was voted Miss Israel. Omar Barghouti, an Arab founder and leader of the BDS movement, is studying for a PhD at Tel Aviv University. Dr Rania Okby is the first female Bedouin female physician in history and a proud Israeli. Yiytish Aynaw, a black Israeli of Ethiopian origins, was Miss Israel in 2013. The Master of Ceremonies for the 2014 Israel Prize Awards was Shibel Karmi Mansour, a Druze Israeli. Colonel Ghassan Alian, another Druze, is commander of the Israel Defense Force's Golani Brigade. The 2009 Eurovision singer for Israel was Mira Awad, an Arab woman. Israeli Arab Miriam Kabha, an attorney, was selected as the country's National Commissioner for equal employment opportunities. Salim Joubran, a Justice on Israel's Supreme Court, is an Arab. The Acting President of Israel in 2007 was Majalli Wahabi, a Druze Arab.
I could extend this list for pages. You are intelligent. Do your own thinking. Think of blacks in apartheid South Africa. Not a single one could have achieved any of these things.
There is no segregation on Israeli buses, trains or communal taxis. No separate queues anywhere for Jews and Arabs. No segregation at beaches, restaurants, cinemas, bars, shops, theatres -- anywhere. In Israel, Jews and Arabs work together, are friends, intermarry, and attend lectures, concerts, and parties together. There are no segregated places in Israeli hospitals. Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists sleep on the same wards and are treated by a range of nurses and doctors, some Jewish, some Muslim, some Christian, and many atheist. Israel is a secular society, not a theocracy like Iran or Saudi Arabia.
If you want to protest about apartheid, do not look at Israel. Look at Lebanon and other Arab countries, where Palestinian refugees are denied citizenship, refused entry to most professions, forcibly kept in camps, or even banned completely. And please do not bring on the lie that the Jews ethnically cleansed Palestinian Arabs in 1948. Here is what the current Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, had to say about that in 1976, in the official PLO journal Filastin al-Thawra:
"The Arab armies entered Palestine to protect the Palestinians from the Zionist tyranny but, instead, they abandoned them, forced them to emigrate and to leave their homeland, and threw them into prisons similar to the ghettos in which the Jews used to live in Eastern Europe, as if we were condemned to change places with them: they moved out of their ghettos and we occupied similar ones. The Arab States succeeded in scattering the Palestinian people and in destroying their unity."
How many of you have ever been to Israel? I don't mean with guided tours organized by the BDS movement or other hate groups who set out to give you a false impression of life in the country. I mean simple holidays where you can move around freely and experience everyday life, just as you might in India or Thailand or anywhere you have not been before. If you have never been to Israel and seen it at first hand, you have absolutely no right to condemn it or to pass resolutions against it. If you are frightened that going there might shake you out of your prejudgements, then you are cowards. If you actively oppose visits to your campus by Israeli speakers or experts who favour Israel, or if you turn up at pro-Israel events just to shout and disrupt them, you are again cowards. If you cannot bear to listen to the views of the other side, then taking sides in ignorance is cowardly as well as dishonourable.
During the four years it took me to complete my PhD, my entire system of beliefs and assumptions was challenged profoundly, and in the end I abandoned many of them. I did that because my research entailed the examination of Persian and Arabic manuscripts in an Iranian archive, which meant that I was exposed to new levels of evidence that turned my assumptions upside down. That is a hard thing to go through, although I have never regretted it.
For you to face challenging facts about Israel and Jews may be equally disturbing. But it will be worth it in the end. You only have to possess the courage to go through with it, to read material that shows you evidence you have dismissed or ignored before. But if you are worth your salt, if you are to play a serious role in the world outside your university enclave, with its "safe space" policies and its political naïveté -- if, in short, you are ever to grow into maturity and leave behind your childish fantasies -- you really need to do this.
Travel to Israel, find Jewish homes to visit and share meals with, meet Israeli Muslims who love their country because it provides them with freedoms they could not hope to enjoy in any Islamic state, see why Israelis are forced to prioritize security, look closely at the security fence, one of dozens in the world, and find out why it was built. Draw your own conclusions. Do not let anyone else, whether anti-Israel or pro-Israel, tell you what to think. But do get out of your comfort zone, ask hard questions of both sides, go through the effort and come out the other side. You have all been conned. Just take the plunge, and in the future vote with integrity.
The Israel you present is a fantasy Israel, an Aunt Sally or Jim Crow invented by prejudiced minds to further the anti-Semitic dream of wiping out the Jewish people, starting with the world's only Jewish state.
If far-left socialist and far-right Islamist and fascist hoaxes of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, of Jewish power and wealth, of a cabal of Elders of Zion were even remotely true, don't you think there would be many Jewish states in the world today? Don't you think the enemies of Israel would have been wiped out in their entirety, given that the Israel Defense Force is one of the most powerful in the world? The Tsarists and the Nazis constructed lies about the Jewish people, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion -- lies that all educated people know for what they are. Today, the Arab states, Iran, Pakistan, and others tell almost identical lies, draw similarly grotesque cartoons, ascribe miraculous sinister powers to Jews and Israelis, and call for another genocide to match the Holocaust. In 2002, the leader of the Iran-backed terrorist organization Hezbollah, Hasan Nasrallah, made the following recorded statement:
"Among the signs [...] and signals which guide us, in the Islamic prophecies and not only in the Jewish prophecies, is that this State [of Israel] will be established, and that the Jews will gather from all parts of the world into occupied Palestine, not in order to bring about the anti-Christ and the end of the world, but rather that Allah the Glorified and Most High wants to save you from having to go to the ends of the world, for they have gathered in one place -- they have gathered in one place -- and there the final and decisive battle will take place."
That is an unambiguous threat to complete what Hitler started. Will you please think about it and look for the many hundreds of Palestinian, Arab, Iranian and other threats to accomplish the same thing? And ask yourself what side you wish to occupy. If you are indeed people of goodwill and humanity, the answer will come swiftly. In my early teens, I watched a teacher roll up her sleeve to reveal tattooed numbers. Not once since then have I veered from my support for the Jews. As a non-Jew, I could shrug my shoulders and say the Jews and Israelis are none of my business. I choose the moral path. Will you continue to shrug your shoulders and will you do even worse and continue to undermine the one country where Jews can take refuge in time of peril?
To get into a university of Edinburgh's calibre means you are clever young people. You have worked hard to get there. You have demonstrated (and, I trust, still demonstrate) academic ability. My criticism is that you are not using your brains well. You pontificate on a matter about which you are clearly poorly informed. You parrot charges that have no substance. You adopt an extreme position without listening to the views of your opponents. You seem not to have read any balanced books or articles about Israel, yet you leap on a very slippery bandwagon to vent hatred against it. Israel is not without its faults, just as Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland are not without their faults.
Israel can and should be criticized in a moderate, balanced manner. But you go farther than that, singling out Israel for boycott while leaving some of the greatest human rights abusers to go free. If you cannot see the iniquity of that, or understand why it is a matter of shame for intelligent, educated people to take such an extreme position, then you are failing your responsibilities to engage with truth in a rational and unbiased manner. One can have no patience with that. Above all, do not pander to your prejudices -- they will kill you morally and emotionally.
Dr Denis MacEoin
Distinguished Senior Fellow, Gatestone Institute