Thursday 25 December 2014

I'll ask this only once: What has Israel ever done to us?

Demonised by many, the embattled state treats Palestinians better than most, says a puzzled Carol Hunt

Published 04/08/2013 | 05:00

CRITICAL FRIEND: Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, in Shanghai, with a sample of Irish seafood, is against cultural boycotts 

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Eamon Gilmore, T.D., with a sample of Irish seafood now available in China. The Tánaiste announced full market access for Irish salmon during his visit to Shanghai.
CRITICAL FRIEND: Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, in Shanghai, with a sample of Irish seafood, is against cultural boycotts

It's a tough one to figure out. So I'll put it out there and all answers on a postcard please.

The Tanaiste was off this week, doing sterling work in China. As I write I'm hearing reports that the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) and Beijing International Airport (BCIA) are now "Sister Airports", UCD announced that they have agreed to establish a new international college with Shenzhen University – in addition to the other collaborations it has with other universities. Eamon Gilmore has stressed how Ireland and China want to strengthen their economic, trade and education ties and how "person to person" interaction between the two countries – such as exchange students – does much to foster better relations all round.

And who can argue with any of that?

Well, defenders of human rights can, one presumes. In an interview last week Gilmore looked decidedly uneasy as the elephant-in-the-room question was put to him regards doing business with China. An unelected regime, let us remember, which executes well over 2,000 of its own people every year and imprisons those who dare to speak against it. And let's not forget – oh, you already have? – China's occupation of Tibet where it's estimated over a million people have died as a result.

To be fair, Gilmore gave a cogent reply, saying that, "doing business with a country strengthens your ability to have dialogue on human rights". And while it's laughable to think China will take a blind bit of notice, the premise of Gilmore's answer has merit.

But see, I'm confused. If encouraging greater trade and academic ties and "person to person" interaction is so great for forging human rights dialogue, then why is Israel, seemingly alone of all countries in the world, singled out for no-holds-barred censure and boycott?

If academic and cultural communication is good, then why did the TUI become the first trade union involved with education and academia in the EU to adopt a resolution calling on its members to "cease all cultural and academic collaboration with Israel"?

'Doing business with a country strengthens your ability to have dialogue on human rights'

If Eamon Gilmore has repeatedly said he is against cultural boycotts (and he showed admirable support for the Israeli Film Festival last year in the face of thuggish intimidation), why does Labour Youth call Israel an "apartheid state" (an insult to all people who have suffered under one) and profess support for BDS (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions)?

"Duh", says everyone I speak to, "it's because of Palestine!"

Really?

You see, I've read all the histories, so I am aware that after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France divided up the Middle East – creating Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. I know that in 1921 80 per cent of what was called the "Palestinian Mandate" was made into (Trans) Jordan (where currently two million Palestinian refugees live yet only 167,000 are allowed citizenship or are eligible for education and healthcare).

I am aware that in 1948 the UN voted to halve the remaining 20 per cent; Israel was born and immediately invaded by five neighbouring Arab countries whose objective was – and still is – to annihilate it. In 1967, when tiny Israel was forced to pre-empt a massive Arab invasion, the West Bank was occupied by Jordan and the Gaza Strip by Egypt. I know that all current facts and statistics show that Palestinians are treated far better by Israel than other Arab nations –where they are subjected to apartheid discrimination. And I'm aware that if I am to be accepted in polite, liberal society I should keep my mouth shut and just agree – Israel bad, Arabs good.

But in all conscience I can't. I need to know why so many Irish politicians and groups are only "pro-Palestinian" "against Israel", as it were, and say, not Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan or the Arab League?

I emailed queries to both the TUI and Labour Youth and, at time of writing, am awaiting a reply. There are, however, a few politicians who are not in the Bash-Israel brigade and I spoke to a couple this week, just to reassure myself that I wasn't completely bonkers.

Labour TD Joanna Tuffy said; "I agree with your premise, Israel is singled out for more than just criticism but demonisation ... I think the right approach is to be a critical friend of Israel, to be an honest broker, supportive of both sides in this conflict, but it's difficult to take that approach with the very polarised debate, driven by the IPSC and their tactics which are stressful to experience." Ambassador Boaz Modai seems to be on the same page as Tuffy as he says: "We have no problem with criticism – every country can be criticised for something – but we are bothered by the fact that Israel alone is all too often singled out, and treated unfairly when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."

In contrast TD Gerald Nash, chair of the large Oireachtas Friends of Palestine Group, rejects the notion "that Israel is alone in being held up to a particular standard of behaviour that we do not apply to other states". "The recent record of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs & Trade challenges that notion", he says. He insists that in his experience he has "encountered a range of views in the Oireachtas and in the media around the issue of Palestine and Israel".

Hmm, FG chairman Charlie Flanagan doesn't think so. "Israel", he told me, "has been demonised by an Irish media slavishly dancing to the Palestinian drumbeat for decades [yet] Israel has a far better and more progressive record on human rights than any of its neighbours." He added: "The truth must be told."

Disturbingly, the truth is that a study conducted in May 2011 revealed that, of those Irish citizens questioned, over 1/5th would deny citizenship to Israelis, with 11.5 per cent stating they would deny Irish citizenship to all Jews, and less than 60 per cent saying they would accept a Jewish person into their family.

Bloody hell – what did the Jews ever do to us? As I said, answers on a postcard please.

Sunday Independent

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