Response to Alan Dershowitz’s “Lets Have a Real Apartheid Education Week”

by Ziyaad Lunat / March 19th, 2010

Alan Dershowitz recently wrote an op-ed in the Huffington Post attacking Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW).
He argues that “radical Islamic students” are behind the event and
their sole purpose is to “demonize Israel”. After painting the
organizers as “extremists”, Dershowitz (a self-proclaimed “moderate”
who supports torture and Israeli war crimes) suggests an alternative week entitled “Middle East Apartheid Education Week”.

The topics addressed during the proposed week should be prioritized
on the basis of the so-called principle of the “worst first” whereby
“the worst forms of apartheid being practiced by Middle East nations
and entities would be studied and exposed first. Then the apartheid
practices of other countries would be studied in order of their
seriousness and impact on vulnerable minorities.”

He then denounces what he deems the “worst” offenders. Saudi Arabia
is predictably first on his list for its treatment of women and other
discriminatory practices. Hamas comes second because it “permits no
dissent, no free speech, and no freedom of religion.” Jordan, Iran and
Pakistan are also not spared. Dershowitz jumbles all of these countries
in the same basket emphasizing “Islam” as their common denominator.
Presumably only after these countries are dealt with we would be
allowed to discuss Israeli apartheid. But according to Dershowitz’s
standards “Israel is a vibrant democracy”, so there wouldn’t be
anything to discuss.

As expected, Dershowitz reserves some space to regurgitate Israeli
propaganda like the outrageous claim that Israel is forced to occupy
the West Bank and Gaza because Arafat refused the so-called “generous
offer” in the 2000 Camp David meet (see Jonathan Cook’s rebuttal here). No Dershowitz article would be complete without foul cries of “anti-Semitism” and this one is no exception.

The truth is that the tide against Israel is turning and Dershowitz
is getting worried. Dershowitz’s assumption that IAW is the work of
“radical Islamic students” is not based on factual evidence. He says so
to paint the organizers as sectarian and fringe. IAW has grown this
year to about fifty cities around
the world. As someone who has been responsible for organizing IAW’s in
three different countries, my experience has been the complete
opposite. One only has to look at the speakers in each city to note
that they belong to different ethnicities, religions, political
orientations, nationalities including many Jews and Israelis. There is
no single dominant grouping. In fact, Muslims are in the minority. But
even if IAW has been the work of Muslims, would it be less worthy of
one’s time? Can’t Muslims champion just causes? Off course, they can
and, off course, they do. Dershowitz is knowingly playing with
prejudices to elicit emotional responses and blind people from the

Dershowitz’s key argument is that we shouldn’t oppose Israel’s
apartheid and colonial practices against Palestinians because there are
“worst” cases out there. There are several things to say about this
claim. Dershowitz “worst first” criteria would mean that one can only
oppose an injustice when it is relatively judged in relation to other
injustices. So to judge whether injustice “B” merits our attention, one
has to look at all other comparable injustices and analyse what
suffering is “worst”. According to Dershowitz’s logic the evilness
inherent in oppression only gains a value (that merits action) when it
reaches the top of some hierarchy. The corollary of this principle is
the denial of human rights as an absolute value (because those rights
would only become meaningful when they reached the level of “worst”).
This thinking is not surprising considering his attacks against human
rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Dershowitz doesn’t tell us how we can measure suffering. Would it be
through a survey? Or number of fatalities? His argument stands no
ground in the real world. If it was for this criteria, for example, we
wouldn’t be allowed to oppose South African apartheid to this day
because there were always other crises that could have taken
precedence. Indeed this was an argument prevalent in pro-apartheid
circles. Would it be wrong to oppose South African apartheid while
Chile was under a cruel dictatorship? Off course not and many of people
were active in both struggles.

This brings me to my second point. Dershowitz arrogantly assumed
that he was scoring a point when he denounced the dictatorships of the
Middle East. These are highly unpopular regimes with little support
from their own people. The Palestinians know this too well. Every Arab
government at some point in the struggle turned their backs to
Palestinians, exploiting the cause to divert attention from
shortcomings at home. What is Dershowitz trying to say then? Is he
implying that those who oppose Israeli apartheid support the tyranny of
Saudi Arabia? This assumption shows how blinded and ignorant Israeli
supporters are of the growing strength of the Palestine solidarity
movement. No wonder they didn’t see Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions
(BDS) coming and are now panicking.
The BDS movement has built a respectable reputation for its moral
consistency based on international law and universal human rights. They
share a vision of justice and equality that is not limited to
Palestine/Israel but to the whole region — and many are active in
making this vision a reality. 

© Douglas Minkler

fails to take into account the regional dynamics in which Israel is a
key pillar when assessing the need for change in the region. American
policy on the Middle East is strongly influenced by Israel’s interests.
It is in Israel’s interests for neighboring countries to remain weak,
anti-democratic and  medievalist (in contrast to Israel’s reported
liberalism as he tries to demonstrate). Progress in key countries have
been stifled through foreign intervention because of the Israel-factor.
Egypt is a classic example of this. The U.S. pumps billions of dollars
to keep Mubarak’s repressive regime afloat. A democratic Egypt would
most probably be hostile to American and Israeli interests, unlike
Mubarak’s outright collaboration. Saudi Arabia is tolerated in so far
as it does not interfere with Israel’s goals of remaining
the indisputable superpower in the region. Those regimes that are
hostile to Israel, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or presently Iran, are
boycotted, invaded and split up (Jonathan Cook shows in his book that
Israel had hatched a plan in the early 80’s to split Iraq into three
sectarian states much like what it is happening now, coincidence?). So
even if we apply Dershowitz’s “worst first” criteria, Israel would be a
strong contender to the first place. Should Israeli apartheid fall,
motivations to keep these regimes afloat would diminish. 

IAW aims to educate and generate debate about Israeli apartheid
practices in university campuses and beyond. This debate has been
historically muted or censored. IAW thus fills an important gap. There
is a consensus in the West that Middle Eastern dictatorships are “bad”
(and often racism against the people of the region). No such consensus
exist in relation to Israel despite its belligerent and racist policies
and ideology. There are two reasons for this cleavage. First,
governments and media in these countries are biased in favor of Israel.
This shapes people’s perceptions and attitudes towards Israel. Second,
efforts by people like Dershowitz have demonized those who apply
universally shared standards to Israel. Israeli exceptionalism,
which translates into privileged status the country enjoys in world
forums, have to be combated with an exceptional mobilization. It was
easy to convince the world about Darfur. It is not easy to break
institutional barriers that shelter Israel from accountability
overnight. IAW provides a space for this debate.  

Dershowitz claims that he “strongly opposes censorship”. His actions have
proven otherwise. IAW’s remarkable growth since its inception in 2005
shows that people want this debate. Dershowitz and his cohorts are well
aware that we have reached the point of no return.  The truth is out.
This is one more of his desperate attempts to salvage a broken ship.

Ziyaad Lunat is an activist for the rights of
Palestinians and of other oppressed peoples. He can be contacted at
z.lunat [at] Read other articles by Ziyaad.

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