The Battle for Justice in Palestine
by Ali Abunimah
Haymarket Books, 2014
Any book written by Chicago-based writer and lecturer Ali Abunimah will inevitably be overshadowed by the BDS movement of which he is the most persistent and eloquent advocate. That movement – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – is a multi-national move urging all countries to bring concerted economic pressure to bear (the named pressures, aimed at economic life blood) on Israel in order to force Israel to change the way it treats Palestinians. For every inch the BDS movement gains, the condemnations of it grow louder, mainly that it’s an elaborate screen for anti-Semitism, that its real aim is not to force a re-alignment of Israeli policy but to force a re-alignment of greater Judea in order to destroy Israel as a Jewish state.
The arguments are fierce on either side of the BDS divide, and the steady escalation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank continues to enflame those arguments. Only recently, Roger Waters, former leader of Pink Floyd, drew loud condemnation for comparing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews. And more pointedly, the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was pressured to apologize for calling Israel “an apartheid state.” The International Court of Justice has condemned every one of Israel’s West Bank settlements as illegal, but at the same time the Palestinian leadership itself has largely condemned the BDS movement.
Abunimah’s latest book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine, argues the same thing he’s argued in other books, columns, and lecture podiums for years: that any idea of a “two-state solution” in Israel is futile, that the only realistic way forward in the region is to create a single state in which Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs enjoy completely equal rights. As Abunimah puts it, in his typically historically informed way:
The principle of self-determination as it is understood today was enunciated by US president Woodrow Wilson toward the end of World War I. In Wilson’s words, “the settlement of every question, whether of territory of sovereignty, of economic arrangement, and of political relationship” is to be made “upon the basis of the free acceptance of that settlement by the people immediately concerned and not on the basis of the material interest or advantage of any other nation or people which may desire a different settlement for the sake of its own exterior influence or mastery.” Put simply, territories and people could no longer be shifted around between empires and sovereigns like pieces on a chessboard. Any political arrangements – particularly in territories undergoing decolonization – had to enjoy the freely given consent of those would have to live under them. The principle was no sooner enunciated than it was effectively violated in many cases after World War I, particularly in Palestine.
His list of grievances against Israel is very long, very detailed, and very damning. The portrait he paints is one of a repressive, racist, authoritarian regime, one that oppresses Palestinians and steals their lands purely because Palestinians are not Jews; as the father of Israeli political candidate Yair Lapid is quoted in Abunimah’s book, “My father didn’t come here from the ghetto in order to live in a country that is half Arab, half Jewish. He came here to live in a Jewish state.”
In its way, it’s a crucial quote, and not just because it mulishly refuses to admit the Jewish state in question was created by forcibly dispossessing the original inhabitants of their land. It’s a redress of that original wrong that concerns our author, and the fact that he’s less interested in reversal than assimilation is the animating force of his book and the animating force of its critics. The quiet and devastating unspoken in the BDS movement is its ultimate aim: an Israel state in which Jews are but one element in a social makeup – and in which the very idea of an exclusively Jewish state disappears. The chief rhetorical aim of The Battle for Justice in Palestine (with its cannily-chosen cover showing a hoodie-wearing Palestinian teenager raising his hand in a Churchill-style V-for-victory signa, at once visually suggesting both youthful universality – Gaza Spring, as it were – and demographic inevitability) to lay out this case in very intentionally non-inflammatory terms designed to persuade rather than incite. And the chief tactical aim is to reject utterly the idea that peace in the Middle East can ever be achieved through anything resembling the current status quo.
When confronted with recent BBC surveys which show plummeting opinions of Israel in such disparate places as Australia, Canada, India, and Russia, the typical official Israeli response is that of the Prime Minister, as quoted by Abunimah: “It doesn’t matter what we do. Because it’s not about the facts, it’s about the defamation of Israel and our portrayal as peace rejectors, war mongers instead of an enlightened nation that is fighting against aims to destroy us.”
“The prime minister,” he writes, “like many other Israelis, continued to believe that all Israel had was an image problem, and that world publics were just stubbornly refusing to get the message … The United States remained the only Western country surveyed by the BBC with overall favorable attitudes toward Israel, underscoring why the Israel lobby sees it as the main battleground in securing long-term support for Israel.”
In this latest book as in all his earlier work, Abunimah lays out his case with remorseless energy, and anybody who’s visited the Gaza Strip or the West Bank will have seen with their own eyes the grinding iniquities daily perpetrated in such places by the Israelis using brute force and institutionalized discrimination. In describing all this and proposing its alternatives, The Battle for Justice in Palestine strives to strike a tone made up of equal parts outraged passion and unopposable facts – partly, no doubt, out of calculation that such a balance will find more favor with unconvinced readers than would yelling over minutiae, but also partly because this is genuinely the concept with which Abunimah would like to replace the conventional ongoing peace process, which he characterizes as permanently, perhaps even characteristically, stalled. Throughout the book, he insists it’s time for the world – and especially Israel and its undaunted partner, the United States – to “wake up” and acknowledge that a state premised on ethnic discrimination should automatically be a pariah among civilized nations (the author’s pointed allusions to the near-wholesale ethnic slaughter on which the U.S. is founded only underscore his point here).
It’s an argument that could scarcely be put better or more comprehensively than Abunimah puts it in this book (unless he himself tops it in his next book, which is always possible), and if it’s ultimately academic – Israel will never agree to the dilution of its racial unity, and Israel cannot be forced to agree by any method short of military conquest – it’s no less powerful for that. And his solution is the fairest one, for what little that’s worth.