Jonathan Cook: Can young Jews in US turn the tide against Israel?
Few books on Palestinian history become bestsellers. But one, titled A History of the Palestinian People: From Ancient Times to the Modern Era, managed to rocket to the top of Amazon’s charts this month.
Its author, Assaf Voll, an Israeli academic, claims to have reviewed “thousands of sources” to explain “the Palestinian people’s unique contribution to the world and to humanity”.
However, when Amazon realised all the book’s 130 pages were blank, it hurriedly excised the title from its site. But not before hundreds of customers paid nearly $10 to enjoy the puerile joke. Speaking on Israeli radio, Mr Voll observed: “Someone needs to tell them [the Palestinians] the truth, even if it hurts.”
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A History of the Palestinian People has famous antecedents. In 1969, Golda Meir, then Israel’s prime minister, declared to the world: “There were no such thing as Palestinians.”
Fifteen years later, a book called From Time Immemorial won acclaim from scholars and newspapers across the United States. It argued that the Palestinians were not the native people of Palestine, but recent economic migrants taking advantage of advances made by the Ottoman Empire.
A talented Jewish doctoral student, Norman Finkelstein, exposed the book as a fraud and it was gradually forgotten.
But Voll’s approach echoes Israel’s popular historical narrative. In Israeli museums, the Palestinians’ presence is obscured with cryptic references to an “Ottoman” period. Like the Romans, Crusaders, Mamluks and British, the Ottomans are presented as temporary occupiers. Israeli politicians and media regularly speak of modern Palestinians as squatters and trespassers.
Israelis have been only too happy to make the Palestinians vanish. Who needs to feel guilty about the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of “Arabs” in 1948, or about Israel’s brutal domination of millions more for half a century in the occupied territories, if they had no right to be there in the first place?
The antidote to Mr Voll’s empty book is a new anthology of essays, including by leading Jewish and Israeli writers, that never forgets the Palestinians’ deep roots in the land and keeps its gaze fixed on the crushing realities of Israel’s occupation.
Last week, Pulitzer prize-winning author Michael Chabon said he had faced a barrage of abuse since the publication of Kingdom of Olives and Ash, designed to warn off others from following in his footsteps.
One can understand why making the Palestinians invisible is the tactic of choice for Israel’s supporters. But a new report suggests that it would be wise for them to keep Israel in the shadows too.
The Brand Israel Group found that the more US college students knew about Israel, the less they liked it. In the six years to 2016, support for Israel among the next generation of Jewish leaders dropped precipitously, by 27 percentage points.
Traditionally, Israel has nurtured bonds to overseas Jews. Over the past 20 years the Birthright programme has brought half a million young American Jews on free summer trips to Israel for an intensive course of indoctrination.
The students are supposed to leave fervent ambassadors for Israel – or better still, devotees who will immigrate to help in a demographic war against the Palestinians.
But organisers are aware that a growing number sneak off afterwards into the occupied territories to discover first-hand a history their elders have kept from them. It can have a profound effect. Many get involved in protests in the occupied territories or become leaders of boycott activism against Israel on campuses back home.
Tellingly, when Israel announced earlier this year it was banning entry to foreigners who support the boycott movement, hundreds coming on this year’s Birthright signed a petition asking whether they would be allowed in.
Signs of Israel’s troubles with the next generation of American Jews are already apparent. They are at the heart of a new project near Hebron in the West Bank of non-violent direct action against the occupation. Sumud Freedom Camp – “sumud” is Arabic for steadfastness – is a project between Palestinians, Israelis and foreign Jews who refuse to turn a blind eye to Palestinian suffering. It offers a new model of joint protest.
These young Jews hope their presence will protect Palestinians trying to reclaim lands stolen by Israel. But the army has repeatedly torn down the camp. One American Jewish participant wrote in the Israeli media of how her experiences had disabused her of the image of Israeli soldiers as “superheroes who’d protect me from harm”.
Increasingly, American Jewry is becoming polarised, between an older generation whose ignorance allows them to advocate unthinkingly for Israel and a young generation whose greater knowledge has brought with it a sense of responsibility. In an ever-more globalised world, this trend is going to intensify.
Young American Jews will have to choose. Will they conspire, if only through their silence, in the erasure of the Palestinians carried out by Israel in their name? Or will they stand and fight, in the occupied territories, on campus, in their communities and, soon enough, in the corridors of power in Washington?
Jonathan Cook is an award-winning British journalist based in Nazareth, Israel, since 2001. In 2011 Jonathan was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. The judges’ citation reads: “Jonathan Cook’s work on Palestine and Israel, especially his de-coding of official propaganda and his outstanding analysis of events often obfuscated in the mainstream, has made him one of the reliable truth-tellers in the Middle East.”