Last night, “formally hosted” and “subsidised” by the Student Union, Suzanne Weiss darkened the door of my institution as an invited speaker. She was invited by the Palestine Twinning Campaign to which the officers of the local branch of my trade union, UCU, voted to donate £200 of our subs. The meeting – From the Warsaw Ghetto to the Gaza Ghetto – had been advertised with a monochrome poster juxtaposing images of the Warsaw Ghetto wall and a segment of wall round Gaza. Beforehand the Activities Officer read out a statement to the effect that the opinions expressed that evening were those of the speakers, and not the Student Union. It was hard to reconcile this with the October motion resoundingly passed by the 16-member student assembly which included the statement, if I have it correctly, that “hosting Ms Weiss would be a great honour to the union and what our union ethos incorporates”.
In January 2008 (1) Weiss wrote that Israel deliberately kills Palestinians as part of a genocidal plan. She asserted that
“the Jewish people are the most hated people in the world today – because they are associated with the Zionist policies of Apartheid”.
Rather than resisting any such racism against Jews – fully manifest in the language of extreme hostility to Israel – she acquiesces to it. In August 2008 she wrote an article in Socialist Voice (2) titled ‘The siege of Gaza: Israel uses Hitler’s methods against Palestinians’. In it she writes:
“The Zionists’ aim is to remove Palestine from the world’s family of nations. They hope that the world will forget that a Palestinian people ever existed. That is the Zionist “final solution” for the Palestinians”.
She then pre-empts objections by appealing to ‘Zionist’ duplicity:
“The Zionists misuse the memory of the holocaust to breed and justify new wars in the Middle East”.
Because her comparison between Zionists and Nazis is so dangerous, I and others had simply and without demands written in protest. Free speech and the value of debate had been raised in response. As it turned out, there wasn’t debate. The hall was full to capacity with over 120 people with sufficient overflow for a decision to be made to repeat the presentation. The first presentation was made by a refugee from Gaza, the Exeter academic Ghada Ageel who gave an emotional presentation about the shortages food water and medicine in Gaza and their devastating impact on lives there. She had lost family members to poor healthcare. An uncle with liver failure had been prevented from crossing into Israel after refusing a request to collaborate with the Israeli army. She told of her father’s death from cancer without even aspirin to relieve the pain. Her presentation was about the human toll taken by the occupation.
Then Suzanne Weiss made her presentation, which had the specific purpose of drawing an analogy between the Warsaw Ghetto and Gaza. It began with her sole and spurious claim to authority, “I’m a survivor of the Jewish Holocaust”. It became clear over the course of the evening that many audience members, including twinning organisers, believed that Weiss had survived the Warsaw Ghetto, and that this conferred on her the authority to speak on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her family perished in Auschwitz when she was a baby, however she herself was spared the inside of a camp or a ghetto. She was sent to an orphanage in her native France aged three and adopted by Americans at the age of nine. Her brief sketch of the US was as a racist and war-fevered state. Israel – “religious and ethnic exclusive state” – more so, she contended, ignoring the plurality of Israel’s population and the absence of a category of race in Israeli law. She talked of the great hate provoked by Zionism and vaguely of Israel’s use of methods once employed by Nazis. She said that Zionists did not want to kill all Palestinians but the basic philosophy of Zionism is the “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians “off the face of the earth” so that the world would forget they had ever existed. This she declared, is Israel’s “final solution”. She went on to mention Matan Vilnai’s threat to Gazans – which was already unacceptable enough – confidently interpreting it as an “unmistakeable” threat of a holocaust.
Next came a systematic comparison between the Warsaw Ghetto and Gaza with respect to methods; motivation; resistance, much of which was made up.
“Racism is the ideology of Euro-American colonial settlers”
she said, wrongly leading her audience to believe that Israel is a colony but failing to clear up the mystery of the colonial power. She told us that
“Zionists want their state to expand and dominate the region”.
She made much of the alliance between Europe’s Jews and the socialist resistance movement. But in those drastically polarised times, many who opposed the Fascists aligned themselves with the Communists. Things are different now and there exists a range of different political opinion and space for free and open discussion. The main obstacle for Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are their respective extremists – they both agree that there should be one state and they would wage war on each other for it if there were. The origins of racism apparently lie with “Euro-American colonialist ruling settlers”, not with the Nazis. The “colonialist settler movement” was “hellbent” on depriving the Palestinians of everything. She quoted Avram Burg that “there are two kinds of people coming out of Auschwitz – those who say “Never again” for the Jews, and those who say “Never again” for humanity.” The latter, she declared, was her type, meaning that people like me – people who believe that the persecution of Jews which saw its zenith in the Holocaust justifies a Jewish state, a place where Jews do not have to exist on sufferance – are designated the other type. As if you can’t say “Never again” for Jews and at the same time “Never again for humanity”.
I made a disgusted remark to my neighbour, was overheard and later repeatedly condemned as a racist. It’s not the first time members of this campaign have called me racist because I’m not an anti-Zionist. This kind of thing has put a lot of people off badly. But then, that may be the idea – “Zionists out of the peace movement” and all that. We are repeatedly told, almost like a mantra, that we are welcome at meetings. But somehow there is a vast gulf between being told we are welcome, and feeling welcome. Speakers like Suzanne Weiss occupy that gulf.
It was all so adrenal and so insubstantial. You listen to Ageel and learn compassion but no strategy. You listen to Weiss and learn nothing about the Palestinians, but why it is necessary to reject and condemn Zionists. There is already a big problem with rejecting Jewish nationalism while accepting and promoting Palestinian nationalism – a bigger danger arises with the term ‘Zionist’ being left undefined and being used in such a way that it readily slips between ‘Jew’ and ‘Israeli’. Indeed there is large overlap between the three. Half of the world’s Jews are Israeli, and the overwhelming majority of them believe in the existence of their state – i.e. are ‘Zionists’. It’s a small step from hating Zionists to hating Israeli Jews, and from hating Israeli Jews to hating all Jews who do not condemn Israeli Jews. So, the Hamas Charter wages explicit war on Jews. In their Democratiya review of Al-Qaradawi’s book Fatawa on Palestine, Gardner and Rich observe that Israelis, Zionists and Jews are conflated and the terms freely mixed throughout the book. The anti-Israel graffiti last Nakba Day appeared on the walls of synagogues in the in the ultra-orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Stamford Hill. There is a current of thought which believes, as the erstwhile doyenne of the Socialist Worker Party Gilad Atzmon believes, that
“the Hebraic identity is the most radical version of the idea of Jewish supremacy, which is a curse for Palestine, a curse for Jews and a curse for the world. It is a major destructive force”
“For an Israeli to humanise himself, he must de-zionise himself. In this way, self-hating can become a very productive power. It’s the same sense of self-hating I find, too, in Jews who have given the most to humanity”.
This idea that, while a good Palestinian can be a Palestinian nationalist, Arab nationalist or even an Islamist, a good Jew cannot be a Zionist, is a current of thought which is also familiar in the boycott campaign in UCU which many who oppose it have experienced directly. It is false and corrosive.
Immediately after Weiss had finished the Chair, one of the twinning organisers, attempted to end the event right there. All pretence of debate was abandoned. We were there to be talked at. Protests from the floor persuaded him reluctantly to allow ten minutes for questions. The first few comments permitted from the floor were in criticism of Weiss, and a further question was addressed to the panellists about whether Goldsmiths should twin with an Israeli as well as a Palestinian institution. The panellists were reluctant to answer this, attempting to defer to the chair. Then Ageel was permitted 5 minutes of response before the meeting ended. One audience member rose to her feet, gestured in the direction of the previous commenters and said, “You see, the ones that support Israel have the main power”, urging us to act to counter this in the future.
I left with a colleague, a senior academic whose family died in the Warsaw Ghetto, and who is Zionist, optimistic and left wing. A vigorous debate among maybe 15 students was ongoing in the corridor, which we joined. Students asked my colleague about Zionism and several listened carefully to his responses. Some said they felt that they knew too little about Zionism. There seemed to be a will to find out more. My colleague and one of the twinning organisers swapped details. The activities officer regretted the lack of debate and the imbalanced panel. We objected to the title and poster, which Weiss had chosen and the Student Union had accepted unchallenged.
We carried candles to a vigil on the steps of Deptford Town Hall. There the Chair of the meeting called bombastically for Israel to be subsumed into a single state, and Suzanne Weiss called for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, in order to (her voice rose above the traffic) “force” Israel to submit.
That more or less wrapped things up. One of the organisers told me that we shouldn’t censor such views as Weiss’. I would say in response that the twinning campaign’s invited speakers – and Weiss came to London from Canada specially – defines the character of the twinning campaign. Inviting extremists to paint Israelis as Nazis clearly indicates the priorities of the twinning campaign. Although debate is made much of, only anti-Zionist external speakers have been invited, meaning that what debate there is takes place between privileged official speakers and dissenting Student Union members. And the lack of debate or opportunity for response at this, the most contentious and damaging event to date, with a speaker who controlled the title and publicity, has harmed the reputation of the twinning still further. How does implacable, unopposed hostility to Jewish nationalism help the students at Al-Quds University towards a better education or Goldsmiths students towards a better understanding of the conflict? We need to return to these things and away from bad stories about Israel.
Update (15th November): Two relevant pieces of infomration. What the chair promoted that evening as a “vigil” is he is now retrospectively referring to in a circular email as a “picket”. It was the promotion of the event on Facebook which gave students the false impression that “Suzanne will be speaking about her time in the Warsaw ghetto in Poland as a child and her experiences in the ghettos of the Gaza Strip”.