Reply to an Indian writer

May 22, 2010

In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict

Dear Dr Finkelstein,
As you know, Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood are recipients of this year’s Dan David Prize. A groups of scholars, writers and activists of South Asian origin wrote a letter to Ghosh urging him not to accept the prize. Ghosh’s response, to say the least, was quite disingenuous. Our rejoinder which, as you can see, is heavily inspired by your tireless scholarship and your dictum ‘Truth and Justice are powerful weapons if we only learn how to wield them‘, is included below. We would be much obliged if you could post it on your website.

Sanjeev Mahajan

Dear Amitav Ghosh,

Many thanks for a detailed and thoughtful response to our original letter to you. We recognize that there are many gray areas in the debate on academic freedom and effectiveness of boycotts, and we do not wish to get involved in a long, protracted debate on this topic. We also realize that honest people can disagree on this matter, and are, for argument’s sake, willing to concede the points you make on the issue.

To us, the main issue is Israel’s brutal occupation of the Palestinian territories, and here we are agreed, although we may disagree on specific strategies to end this occupation. However your response has muddied the waters and obfuscated the issue further by including several red herrings and factual errors. The rest of our rejoinder will elaborate on this assertion.

At several points in your response, you have used the phrase ‘legitimacy of Israel’, for example

the gesture you were asking me to make was one that would have had the import of denying the legitimacy of all Israeli civil institutions and thus of Israel itself

If it is the second option then I invite you to ask yourselves whether any compromise solution
is possible without fully, completely and sincerely accepting the legitimacy of the state of Israel.

impossible to imagine a peaceful, non-catastrophic future for the Middle East without sincerely accepting the legitimacy of Israel;

Whether you yourselves accept the legitimacy of Israel I do not know, but I must say that the tenor and wording of your letter suggests that you do not.

You must be aware that there is no such notion as accepting a state’s legitimacy under International Law. No person or state is required to accept another state’s legitimacy. Would you insist that Mexico accept the legitimacy of the United States? Since you are from India, you may recall that after India’s partition was fait accompli, Mahatma Gandhi said that he would accept the reality of Pakistan, but would never accept the legitimacy of the state of Pakistan. The point here is not whether Gandhi was right or wrong. But is it reasonable to expect a higher level of diplomacy from the Palestinian Leadership than from Gandhi? One cannot certainly in good conscience, ask the Palestinians to accept Israel’s legitimacy, since that would entail legitimizing their own dispossession and displacement. No Palestinian leadership, unless it is suicidal, could ever afford to accept Israel’s legitimacy. In fact, the insistence that Palestinians accept Israel’s legitimacy was first introduced in the wake of "Palestinian Peace Offensive" (in the words of Israeli strategic analyst Avner Yaniv) in 1982. As scholar Norman Finkelstein points out

The main obstacle to Israel’s annexation of occupied Palestinian territory was the PLO.  Having endorsed the two-state settlement in the mid-1970s, it could no longer be dismissed as simply a terrorist organization bent on Israel’s destruction.  Indeed, pressures mounted on Israel to reach an agreement with the PLO’s "compromising approach."  Consequently in June 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon, where Palestinian leaders were headquartered, to head off what Israeli strategic analyst Avner Yaniv dubbed the PLO’s "peace offensive."

It is then that Israel introduced this new innovation, and insisted that Palestinians accept Israel’s legitimacy to ward off the PLO’s peace offensive. It is quite disappointing to us that a writer of your stature would fall for what is patently a propaganda ploy by the Israeli ruling elite. After all the Palestinian Leadership, including Hamas, does recognize the fact of Israel’s existence. Is it then reasonable to up the ante, and ask them to accept Israel’s legitimacy?

You then compound the problem by introducing several red herrings, for example fear-mongering about an Armageddon in the region. If we understand correctly, your argument goes as follows, and please correct us if we have misrepresented you in any way. You argue that Israel is a country armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, that Israelis have lived there for generations, that they have nowhere else to go, and that they will fight to the last. You then rhetorically ask, "Do we want a bloodbath – an Armageddon of the kind that extremists on all sides (including some parts of the left) seem to be hoping for?" This must be, we are sorry to say, one of the most bizarre arguments that we have ever come across. So are you now saying that denial of legitimacy to Israel would lead to an Armageddon in the region? We are also somewhat perplexed by your parenthetical remark. Can you please spell out who the left extremists are(presumably there aren’t any) who are hoping for an Armageddon?

You also take issue with the use of the term ‘apartheid’ for Israel’s policies in the occupied territories, and compare it to the abuse of the term ‘anti-Semitism’ by Israeli apologists to bludgeon Israel’s critics into submission and to stifle debate. But a moment’s reflection will show that this is a false analogy. It is a truism that no two historical situations separated in space and time are ever alike. However if, as is true in the case at hand, there are similarities and significant similarities between the two situations, then it would be proper to use the term ‘apartheid’ for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Otherwise, one could never use the term ‘Fascism’ to describe political movements which share significant similarities with Mussolini’s Italy. Besides, the term and its cognates are commonplace in the Israeli media and even among the Israeli political elite. Ariel Sharon had explained at length ( to former Italian Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema that ‘Bantustan model was the most appropriate solution to the conflict‘. Shulamit Aloni, the former education minister of Israel( has openly called Israel an apartheid state. Moral authorities such as Bishop Tutu have also not hesitated to use the term ‘apartheid’ to describe the situation in Palestinian occupied territories. In, Bishop Tutu says that he is "very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa." You must also surely be aware of Jimmy Carter’s bestselling book Palestine Peace, not Apartheid. Unless you think that Sharon, Aloni, Tutu and Carter are all left-wing dupes who wish to stifle debate on the issue, you must admit that drawing parallels between the abuse of the term ‘anti-Semitism’ and the use of the term ‘apartheid’ to describe the situation in occupied Palestinian territories is disingenuous, or is based on ignorance.

We are also not sure of the relevance of bringing up several letters written personally and privately to you from the other side, unless you think that any letter that praises you and your work is relevant to the issue at hand. The writer of the first letter begins by saying


You then ask us to take this rank self-promoter at face value, and rejoin that people like him are doing more for Palestine than any activist in India or the United States. We will leave it for others to decide whether this is an insult to scholars such as Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein and thousands of dedicated American activists who have devoted their whole life to the cause.

You also point out that while in Israel you and Margaret Atwood "spoke about the situation in Palestine and Gaza on every possible occasion: we expressed our outrage at the use of excessive force in Gaza, at the blatant violations of human rights, at the expansion of settlements and so on", and that you were often applauded and cheered for saying these things. We wonder if you ever talked about what the main impediment to the resolution of the conflict is, rather than talk in such woolly generalities. Even the most ardent of cold warriors in the United States were anguished and outraged by the "use of excessive force" in Vietnam, but we do not call these people genuine critics of the US foreign policy unless they also excoriated the US ruling elite for invading South Vietnam and bringing untold death and destruction to millions.

As you well know, an international consensus has now crystallized on how to resolve the Israel/Palestine conflict. This resolution is called the two-state solution and calls for a settlement  along pre-June 1967 borders (with ‘minor and mutual adjustments’). The basic principles of the settlement have been accepted by virtually the entire world, including the Arab states (who go on to call for full normalization of relations), the Organization of Islamic States (including Iran), and relevant non-state actors (including Hamas). The only two notable exceptions have been Israel and the United States, as attested by annual United Nations General Assembly votes for the past three decades. So our question to you is – In your various speeches in Israel, did you ever point out what the documentary record unambiguously shows, that it is Israel backed by the United States, who is the main impediment to peace in the region?

We also find it strange that, although you had several opportunities to speak in Israel, never once did you deem it important to talk about the ‘22 days of death and destruction‘, to quote from Amnesty International’s report in the wake of the Gaza massacre of 2008/2009, that Israel rained on Gaza. Do you really think the emaciated and bland phrase "excessive force" does justice to what really happened in Gaza? Never once did you deem it worthwhile to point out what the very cautious, conservative and comprehensive report by the Goldstone Mission concluded in its findings-that Israel waged “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability.” Never once did you point out that Israeli ruling elite, instead of addressing the contents of the Goldstone Report chose to attack the messenger, and spared no effort in scandalously vilifying a respectable jurist who also happens to be a Zionist. Never once did you point out the effects of the asphyxiating and criminally illegal blockade on the civilian population of Gaza that Israel refuses to lift, and the one responsible for the "destruction of a whole civilization", in the words of Mary Robinson, the erstwhile United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, even before the Israel’s 2008/2009 invasion of Gaza. We wonder how your Israeli audience would have reacted, had you actually mustered up enough courage to tell this bitter truth.

We believe we have addressed all the points you raised in your detailed response to us. If you find our rejoinder a bit harsh at times, we apologize. But we hope you realize that we gave utmost respect that your response deserves and systematically addressed all the issues raised. We further hope that you will reflect on what we have written, instead of wallowing in self-congratulatory pieties.

Concerned South Asians