Thursday, September 24, 2015

24-Sep-15: In the name of human rights, silencing those discomforting voices

Bassem Eid [Image Source]
It's the day after Judaism's Yom Kippur. In some ways, it's a shame the Jewish practice of focusing energy and thoughts on wrong-doings on one long (very long) day once a year - no eating, no drinking - and sincerely repenting for them has not been adopted outside the Jewish world in the way that we Jews do.

Even those not very observant of Judaism's detailed code of conduct do this both as individuals and as a community. Does this make "us" holier than other people? No, of course not, though observant Jews do have a fairly concrete sense of the sacred and what holy means. and strive to bring it into our lives. And are we doing better now that the Day of Atonement is behind us? Only time will tell, but the day does end on a distinctly optimistic note.

We're thinking about this after reading a little-noticed report about a proud, eloquent Palestinian Arab with a passion for human rights and the courage (as we have seen from up close ourselves) to speak out in defence of the values in which he believes even when his audiences are not too sympathetic.

He has just been visiting New Zealand. And according to a seriously disturbing report we have just seen from there, Bassem Eid was treated despicably.

Some readers might be surprised to know that the sharpest of the disgraceful responses to which he was treated came from some of the very people who posture and trumpet themselves as respectful defenders of free, open speech.

His bio says that Bassem Eid spent the first 33 years of his life, starting from birth, in the UNRWA-run Shuafat refugee camp on the edge of Jerusalem. His formative years probably resembled those of hundreds of thousands of other Palestinian Arabs. He went on to work for B'Tselem, an Israeli NGO that claims to "document human rights violations in the occupied territories, combat denial and help to create a human rights culture in Israel". B'Tselem is one of the perennial darlings of the hypercritical "activists" who obsess over Israel's shortcomings. Then he left them to create his own human rights body to advance the interests of his people.

The article [here] by a New Zealand friend of Israel, Miriam Bell, is upfront about the challenge of bringing a man like Eid to the South Pacific. He has a history of being outspokenly critical of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) "movement" "and all that it represents". This, she says at the outset, "may have played a part in the hostility that greeted his recent visit..." The evidence suggests she's right.

The Astor Foundation, named for a prominent New Zealander whom we met in the 1970's, and focusing on human rights issues, sponsored Eid's trip to New Zealand. It's a worthy new body that seeks to promote "human dignity for people of all faiths, cultures and ethnicities", and addresses "issues that threaten the peace and harmony of New Zealand" including "extremism and ethnic and religious hate".

As frequently happens when zealots grab the steering wheel of social movements, the local NZ advocates for the Palestinian Arabs got alarmed at the idea of an independent thinker - even one raised in a Pal Arab refugee camp - and reached for the mute button. What could have worried them?
Eid's perspective on Palestinian affairs is a bit different to most Palestinian activists. He is very critical of the Palestinian leadership - citing corruption as one of the leading causes of ongoing Palestinian suffering - and believes it is wrong to focus solely on the Israeli side of the conflict. These views are not embraced by pro-Palestinian groups. One in New Zealand accused Eid of "hysterical, anti-Palestinian ranting" and of being an "asset for racist, Zionist organisations dedicated to undermining Palestinian rights." [AIJAC, September 22, 2015]
Plainly seeing themselves as the guardians of the Palestinian Arab mission in that far-off island nation, they busied themselves with undercutting, demonizing and silencing the voice of a Palestinian Arab for whom human rights is considerably more than a political slogan. And while they successfully demand for themselves and their cause the right to be heard at every possible opportunity, they had no difficulty pulling insider strings and aggressively hostile rhetoric to silence Eid's unique voice.

Bell quotes Dr. Love Chile, an associate professor of sociology at Auckland University of Technology, a graduate of Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria, and previously a consultant to the New Zealand government's Human Rights Commission. He spoke out against Eid getting an audience because he disagreed "with Eid's philosophical/political position and was not prepared to expose his students to that sort of individual."

We think a person could write a thesis about the condescension and hypocrisy of that viewpoint.

Perhaps the students are supremely grateful for Dr. Chile's fatherly concern. or perhaps AUT, which describes itself as a place where they "challenge routine thinking", a "university for the changing world", "committed to global engagement" with "a culturally diverse community", simply doesn't know how much of an opponent of the right of culturally-diverse people to be heard they have in Dr Love Chile.

Eid's lectures at the University of Auckland were going to be co-hosted by AUT's Mira Szászy Research Centre for Māori and Pacific Economic Development and the New Zealand Fabian Society (that exists to "be at the forefront of education and debate about progressive ideas and policy reforms" though, to be fair, it doesn't specify when):
Then, just two days before the first lecture, the Fabian Society pulled out, citing "the degree of tension in this issue and how the Palestinian view is represented." The Fabian Society's tradition is one of promoting free and open debate. Its vision is "the advancement of New Zealand Society through progressive education and debate." How its actions in this situation support these goals is a mystery. [AIJAC]
Eid's university campus lectures went ahead:
Essentially, his message was that there is absolute corruption within the Palestinian Authority and there is a need for genuine support of the Palestinians - as opposed to the sort of grand-standing and politicising that we currently see. [AIJAC]
But the speaker first had to endure a gaggle of New Zealand protestors who handed out hostile material inside the venue and accused Eid of being a "traitor" and (worse, we assume) a Zionist. Perhaps they also argued with the points he made. If so, we haven't seen those contentions reported. The impression we have is that they ignored his views, preventing them from being heard to the greatest extent possible by intimidation and demonization. Eid's human rights don't seem to be on anyone's agenda.

New Zealand's mainstream media were scarcely more open. An article about the Eid visit, by Sheree Trotter, a Māori New Zealander and advocate for Israel, gives the context:
It is perhaps not surprising that Eid’s visit was largely ignored by the New Zealand media. His message to the international community goes against the grain of the dominant narrative on the Israel/Palestinian conflict. Eid is quick to point out uncomfortable realities, such as the role of UN funded groups in perpetuating the misery of the Palestinians whilst gaining power and money on the backs of their suffering; the bias of a media which has lost its way and become politically motivated; the apartheid lie which can only be explained as yet another manifestation of antisemitism. Bassem Eid identifies proudly as Palestinian. From his perspective identity is not the primary concern for most Palestinians.  They know who they are. At the core of Eid’s message is his concern for the future well-being of his own: “We are people who want to survive. We are people who are looking for a better level of life. We are a people that want to ensure the future of our children. ["A Palestinian voice of realism", September 8, 2015, Times of Israel]
A bookseller's site
We're hardly the first to notice how touchy certain groups can get when they sense their sacred cows are under threat. The inimitable Nick Cohen [his "What's Left: How Liberals Lost Their Way", 2007, is a gem], a columnist and author from the left who not so long ago ran into the full bullying force of Fabian opinion-suppression in the UK, encountered an audience at King's College London some months ago that might have resembled the AUT's:
I’ve argued with racists and Putinists in my time and – to put it as mildly as I can – these little bastions of academia were up there with them in their contempt for basic freedoms. Contempt is perhaps not quite the right word. Most simply did not understand what freedom was, and could not grasp the need for universal human rights. They could not see themselves as others saw them, or understand that by giving up on basic principles, because they are difficult to live with, they had left themselves naked before their enemies... ["Britain's hypocritical universities are naked before their enemies", The Spectator, April 21, 2015"]
It's a growing problem, in case anyone's not noticing.

But all is not lost, as we reminded ourselves this morning. That's when we learned about a YouTube video, originating in Egypt, that has restored some of our faith in the ability of determined individuals, willing to risk what it takes in the pursuit of truth and freedom to speak out and say what they believe to be true.

It's ten and a half minutes long, almost entirely spoken in Arabic, and entitled Why do you hate Israel? But the clip maker, Sherif Gaber Abdelzim Bakr, just 22 years old, provides almost-English subtitles. And for his guts and clear thinking alone, he deserves a wide audience. As we write this, the clip has had 58,000 views since it went up three days ago.

Support probably means something to him since he's currently in hiding after being convicted seven months ago by an Egyptian court on multiple charges that include contempt of religion, spreading immoral values, and abnormal thoughts that provoke and disturb the public peace and the national security of Egypt. (The background is here.)

Bassem Eid is not in hiding, and not in danger of going to jail, at least not in Israel. But (and we have not heard this from him), it might be some time before he willingly exposes himself again to Western (or at least South Pacific) academics or audiences with some specific sub-set of human-rights on their minds, or self-proclaimed advocates of free speech. At a certain point, a person just gets sick of the empty slogans and pines for a world where values and opinions can count on getting a certain degree of respect and exposure.

Ah, you're asking about that optimistic note we mentioned that marks the end of Yom Kippur? Right. The very last words of the day-long prayers are Leshana Haba Biyerushalayim. Next year in Jerusalem. It's not paradise here, but when someone we don't agree with gets up and wants to speak, Israel's very robust democratic spirit pretty much ensures his or her voice will be heard. Anything less would be a sin.

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