Editor’s note: Below is Part I in a 2-Part Series on ‘Lies in the Cognitive War Against Israel‘. Part 2 will run in our next issue.
Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.
In the cognitive war against Israel, supporters of what historian Bat Ye’or called Palestinianism have come to accept the fact that Israel will not be defeated employing traditional tools of warfare. Instead, the Jewish state’s enemies, abetted by the academic and media elites in the West, have been using different, but equally dangerous, tactics to delegitimize and eventually destroy Israel in a cognitive war.
By dressing up old hatreds against Jews and transforming it into what comprises the “new anti-Semitism,” combined with a purported goal of seeking social justice for the oppressed and repackaging ugly biases as academic scholarship, professors, student activist groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and Israel’s other ideological foes have found an effective, but odious, way to ensure that the Jew of nations, Israel, is still accused of being: a racist, apartheid oppressor of an indigenous people; white European Jews with no historical connection to the Holy Land who are colonial usurpers of Muslim land; the main impediment to Middle East peace; and a brutal military occupier of land on which illegal “settlements” are built as a way of subjugating an existing innocent population in the quest for a Great Israel that will swallow even more territory to which the Jews have no legitimate claim.
This is the current narrative in what Melanie Phillips has called “the world turned upside down,” an inversion of truth and fiction, calumnies and lies targeting the Jewish state in an effort to elevate the Palestinian cause, delegitimize Israel, and make Israel a pariah in the world community. But this narrative, unfortunately, is based on a presentation of lies, a series of repeated tropes about the malignancy and illegality of Israel that has little to do with facts, history, or reason. These lies are repeated promiscuously until they accepted as fact, a Goebbel-esque tradition which creates a new truth through the unrelenting repetition of falsity, disingenuity, and distortions of reality.
What follows are some of the major tropes which together serve to perpetuate the false narrative about Israel:
The Racism and Apartheid Lie
In what has become a perverse, recurring rite of spring, and yet more evidence that universities have become, as Abigail Thernstrom has described them, “islands of repression in a sea of freedom,” on campuses across America and Canada virulent anti-Israel student groups, the brownshirts in the cognitive war against Israel, sponsor what is called Israeli Apartheid Week.
During these hate-fests, students are confronted by mock “apartheid walls,” vitriolic guest speakers who defame Israel, and posters, demonstrations, and other materials in which the actual facts about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict are omitted, contorted, or altered to promote the false narrative about Israel’s (and Zionism’s) fundamental racist ideology, its illegality as a colonial usurper of Palestine, its brutal oppression and occupation, and its ethnic cleansing of an indigenous people.
Even before the death of George Floyd last spring in Minneapolis, campuses were obsessed with the issue of race, and pro-Palestinian groups have been very strategic in positioning the conflict between the Jewish state and the Palestinians as being, at base, about race. Those who called for boycotts against South Africa for its actual inhumane system of apartheid, now draw comparisons between Israel and South Africa, falsely claiming that Israel has constructed an analogous system of racial subjugation.
At the Israeli Apartheid Week events, radical sponsors refer to the Israeli security barrier as an “apartheid wall,” and describe it as if it were a massive, unbroken structure that cruelly divides Palestinian areas, all in order to create a broader misconception about the Palestinians living under a South African-style apartheid regime, disingenuously equating race restrictions that blacks lived under in Soweto with the open society of Israel in which Israeli Arabs have more rights than in any Arab state and are asked only not to murder Jews in their midst. And Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, comprising some one-fifth of its total population, are, of course, able to enjoy all the civil and human rights enjoyed by Jewish citizens, including being able to serve in the Knesset and hold other government and professional posts.
But on university campuses, Jews have been successfully cast as white, and, the slander goes, Zionism itself is fundamentally racist, so that white supremacy and Zionism are conveniently, though disingenuously, conflated. At the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign’s SJP chapter, for example, this hateful ideology was on full display when, in a September 2017 Facebook post, the group announced that since “there is no room for fascists, white supremacists, or Zionists at UIUC,” they had organized a rally called “Smashing Fascism: Radical Resistance Against White Supremacy.”
And this assumption is dangerous because, since it is accepted widely by the hate-Israel crowd, it has meant that, as the UN infamously achieved in 1975, Zionism again will be equivalent to racism, and any supporters of Israel can thereby be condemned and thrown into that ideological bucket of white supremacists, racists, and neo-Nazis that now seem to so animate the imaginations of Democrats, liberals, and marginalized and oppressed minorities.
The Lie that Terrorism Against Israeli Occupation is Justified
Frequently confronted at anti-Israel demonstrations are protestors yelling angry chants, carrying signs, and shouting out the oft-heard slogan, “Free, Free Palestine,” or, as they regularly scream out, “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea.” That phrase suggests the same situation that a rekindled Intifada would help bring about, namely that if the fictive nation of “Palestine” is “liberated,” is free, there will, of course, be no Israel between the Jordan River and Mediterranean—and no Jews.
Another deadly chorus often emanates from protestors during these noxious hate-fests: “When people are occupied, resistance is justified.” That is an oft-repeated, but disingenuous and false notion that stateless terrorists have some recognized human right to murder civilians whose government has purportedly occupied their territory. That is not true in Judea and Samaria and clearly not any longer the case in Gaza, where every Jew was removed in 2005 and where there is a blockade in effect to prevent the influx of weapons, but clearly no occupation or, as commonly referred to, a “siege.”
It may be comforting for Israel’s ideological foes to rationalize the murder of Jews by claiming some international right to do it with impunity and a sense of righteousness. Unfortunately, however, as legal experts have inconveniently pointed out, activists expressing this ambition and their terror-appeasing apologists elsewhere are completely wrong about the legitimacy of murder as part of “resistance” to an occupying force. Article IV of the Third Geneva Convention, the statute which defines combatants and legitimate targets in warfare, is very specific about who may kill and who may be killed, and it does not allow for the murder of either Israeli civilians—or soldiers—by psychopathic Palestinian terrorists who wear no identifying military uniforms and do not follow the accepted rules of wars.
So, when pro-Palestinian activists and critics of Israel repeat the claim that Palestinians somehow have an internationally recognized legal “right” to resist occupation through violent means, they are both legitimizing that terror and helping to ensure that its lethal use by Israel’s enemies will continue unabated.
Those who lend their moral support to terrorism, and who continually see the existence of “grievance-based violence” as a justifiable tool of the oppressed, have helped introduce a sick moral relativism into discussions about radical Islam and Palestinianism, not to mention Israel’s right to protect its citizens from being slaughtered. And the notion that Israel cannot, or should not, retaliate against these rocket attacks until a sufficient number of Israelis has been murdered is equally grotesque.
And when anti-Israel activists carelessly refer to “state violence and control” when describing Israel’s behavior toward terrorists and others attempting to murder its citizens, it is possibly the result of decades of Arab terror against the Jewish state, not the so-called occupation or the presence of Jewish settlers in Judea and Samaria. In fact, as historian Efraim Karsh has correctly pointed out, it was not the occupation that caused Arab terrorism against Israel, at all; in fact, historic and chronic aggression toward Israel and the desire to wipe it off the earth and drive all Jews into the sea precipitated the defensive war in 1967 that precipitated the occupation in the first place.
In fact, the checkpoints, the security barrier, a military presence, and other tactical elements of self-defense exist, not because of Israel’s cruelty and desire to be randomly oppressive, but because these measures have been necessitated by, among other things, 20,000 rockets and mortars sent into southern Israeli neighborhoods from Gaza by Hamas over the past decade, psychopaths with suicide vests, knives, stones, guns, and vehicles used as weapons against the IDF and Israeli citizens, and the publicly stated policies by Hamas of a sacred duty to murder Jews wherever they are found and to never accept treaties, peace plans, or Jewish self-determination of any kind.
Lies About the So-Called Occupation and the Settlements
When pro-Palestinians, the UN, and diplomats and other anti-Israel elites make repeated references to the West Bank and Gaza, as well as East Jerusalem, as “Arab” land, they imagine the putative Palestinian state in waiting, encumbered only by Israeli oppression, the dreaded occupation, and those pesky settlers.
This widely held notion that European Jews, with no connection to historic Palestine, colonized Arab land and displaced the indigenous Palestinian population, of course, is a key part of the false narrative against Israel; it serves the perverse purpose of validating Arab territorial rights to Judea and Samaria, portions of Jerusalem, and Gaza, and, more importantly, casts Israelis as squatters who have expropriated land that is not lawfully or morally theirs.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 2019 confirmation of the legality of the settlements served to reverse the faulty historical assumptions and misreading of law that has animated the settlement debate, principally the fact that not only all of the land that comprises current-day Israel, but also Gaza and the West Bank is part of the land granted to the Jews as part of the League of Nations Palestine Mandate, which recognized the right of the Jewish people to “close settlement” in a portion of those territories gained after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.
The Six Day War of 1967, in which Israel recaptured Gaza and the West Bank, including Jerusalem, resulted in Israel being cast in another perfidious role — in addition to colonial usurper of Arab land, the Jewish state was described as a brutal “occupier” of Arab Palestine, lands to which the Jews presumably had no right and now occupied, in the opinion of many in the international community, illegally.
But when did Judea and Samaria, Gaza, and East Jerusalem become Palestinian land? The answer is: never. In fact, when Israel acquired the West Bank and Gaza and other territories in 1967 after being attacked by Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, the Jewish state gained legally recognized title to those areas. In Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, Egypt, it will be recalled, illegally annexed Gaza at the same time Jordan illegally annexed the West Bank — actions that were not recognized by most of the international community as legitimate in establishing their respective sovereignties.
While those seeking Palestinian statehood conveniently overlook the legal rights Jews still enjoy that enable them to occupy all areas of historic Palestine, they have also used another oft-cited, but defective, argument in accusing Israel of violating international law by maintaining settlements in the West Bank, that since the Six Day War, Israel has conducted a “belligerent occupation.” But as Professor Julius Stone discussed in his book, Israel and Palestine, the fact that the West Bank and Gaza were acquired by Israel in a “sovereignty vacuum,” that is, that there was an absence of High Contracting Party with legal claim to the areas, means that, in this instance, the definition of a belligerent occupant in invalid. So, significantly, the absence of any sovereignty in territories acquired in a defensive war—as was the case in the Six Day War of 1967—means that it is incorrect to characterize Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria as an occupation, belligerent or otherwise.
The matter of Israel violating Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention is one that has been used regularly, and disingenuously, as part of the cognitive war by those wishing to criminalize the creation of Jewish neighborhoods in the West Bank and demonize Israel for behavior allegedly in violation of international law. It asserts that in allowing its citizens (the dreaded settlers) to move into occupied territories, Israel violates Article 49, which stipulates that “the occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into territory it occupies.”
The use of this particular Geneva Convention seems particularly grotesque in the case of Israel, since it was crafted after World War II specifically to prevent a repetition of the actions of the Nazis in cleansing Germany of its own Jewish citizens and deporting them to Nazi-occupied countries for slave labor or extermination. Clearly, the intent of the Convention was to prevent belligerents from forcibly moving their citizens to other territories, for malignant purposes — something completely different than the Israel government allowing its citizens to willingly relocate, build neighborhoods for their families, and settle in territories without any current sovereignty, to which Jews have longstanding legal claim, and, whether or not the area may become a future Palestinian state, should certainly be a place where any person could live, even if he or she is a Jew.
Intersectionality and the Lie About Israel Being an Oppressor
The obsession with Israel and its various perceived modes of oppression and brutality toward a weak, innocent victim group is consistent with the worldview of many academics in the humanities and social sciences who increasingly find a linkage as they seek to affirm the rights of the victimized and name the villains responsible for this oppression. The more that seemingly unrelated instances of oppression can be conflated, it is thought, the greater the ability to confront these oppressors and neutralize the negative effect they have on society at large.
This trend is called “intersectionality,” and it has meant that someone who is a gender studies professor, or queer theorist, or American studies expert can, with no actual knowledge or expertise about the Middle East, readily pontificate on the many social pathologies of Israel, based on its perceived role as a racist, colonial oppressor of an innocent indigenous population of Arab victims. For these Israel-haters, to know one victim group is to know any victim group—with Israel being a tempting and habitual target of their opprobrium.
The idea of brutal, militarized oppression by Israel of the wholly-innocent Palestinian victims is, of course, central to the false narrative that propels anti-Israel activism on campuses where SJP and other anti-Israel groups have a presence, and the current obsession with criticizing and dismantling domestic police forces conflates nicely with a discussion about the way Israel’s predations are perceived to be equivalent to the racist, oppressive behavior of white American police officers in their interaction with blacks and other marginalized groups and “people of color.”
The Deadly Exchange campaign, the name Jewish Voice for Peace and other anti-Israel groups have given to these police training programs, takes the accusation of racism one step further, making it part of a global, ongoing campaign to slander and delegitimize Israel by ascribing to it the worst moral characteristics, including, specifically, the one accusation that is the most grievous and unforgivable: racism. And not only does it provide yet another opportunity for anti-Israel activists to trumpet the predations of the Jewish state, to stress once again the alleged racism, apartheid, and ethnic subjugation of Arab Palestinians, it can also smear Israel with another, even more sinister, accusation: not only has Israel perfected its brutality and oppression toward the Palestinians but now, thanks to these cooperative training programs with U.S. law enforcement personnel, Israel now exports its moral depravity and cruelty, and its racism can metastasize itself in minority communities in the United States, too. The placards seen at protests for years now, reading “From Ferguson to Palestine,” echoed that very theme, purporting that the racial injustices experienced by blacks in America are mirrored in the experience of Palestinians who suffer under the similar racism and oppression of Israel.
That Israel has become of the embodiment of evil, that its racism, militarism, and oppression now are so powerful that they cross borders and infect minority communities in America, and that the Jewish state can now be held responsible for bigotry on campuses far from its own borders indicates how powerful the anti-Israel narrative has become, and how the obsessive hatred by activists against the Jewish state ensures that the oldest hatred shows itself in yet another hateful permutation.