A major thing that has attracted my ire is the huge anti-Israel movement on the McGill campus, spearheaded by QPIRG, its working group Tadamon!, and Israel Apartheid Week, which it supports. What upset me was that an organization that claims to be so committed to social justice issues supports these extremely one-sided points of view. Tadamon! supports the Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement, the goal of which is to take a stand against the oppression of the Palestinian people. As Professor Gil Troy would agree, the Middle East conflict is extraordinarily complex, so much so that anyone who is that committed to one side clearly did not take the time to fully explore the issue and all of the factors that come into play. In taking the stance QPIRG takes, by supporting the very limiting bad guys/good guys duality, it is unjustly denying Israel’s right to exist, and supporting events that encourage hatred towards Israel without grasping the ambiguity of the issue. If it did, it would be supporting organizations that foster dialogue, instead of organizations that view the conflict in black and white.
I’m here with Dr. Gil Troy, Professor of History at McGill University. Dr. Troy is also the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. The book has been hailed as a "must read," and the most persuasive presentation of the Zionist case "in decades." It has been released in a third expanded and updated edition, having sold over 25,000 copies.
Dr. Gil Troy: Before I try to answer the individual questions, let’s get two or three key concepts down – which are critical for the rest of the conversation.
First, the word “racism” – I am not just being pedantic – but using that word – and its sister term “apartheid” – is completely offensive to me as a scholar, and in particular as an historian. Zionism was called racism not because it is any more or less racist than any other form of nationalism, but because “racism” was the most devastating and trendiest concept to use against Israel in 1975, when the UN called Zionism racism. The conflict between Jews and Palestinians is a national one, and it is complicated enough without using a word like racism, which implies both a biological determinism and a notion of superiority. Similarly, the term “apartheid,” which makes an explicit comparison between Israeli policy and the now, thankfully, defunct racist South African system, both injects race into the discussion where it doesn’t belong, and compares Israel to a particularly heinous regime that no longer exists. To be an apartheid state, a state would have to discriminate by law on the basis of race and skin color – which isn’t happening in Israel. So anytime someone starts with those terms, I know they are being inaccurate, inflammatory and ultimately exterminationist in intent, because they are hoping that Israel will have the same fate that the racist Nazi and South African regimes suffered.
Second, what is nationalism? Nationalism, which remains the central organizing principle for political entities in the world today, makes somewhat artificial distinctions between human beings, based on other commonalities such as culture, religion, or geography. If you want to debate the right and wrong of nationalism, fine. But the problem with the Arab-Israeli conflict is that it starts with an assumption of the holiness of Palestinian nationalism, and the unholiness of Jewish nationalism, while I say that both Jews and Palestinians have the right to express themselves through national identity, and in national communities.
So, my assumption in answering all these questions is that we accept the validity of nationalism as a concept, and then the question becomes, is the Israeli form of nationalism so much more objectionable, so much less acceptable than other form? And I don’t just grade it by Palestinian or Arab nationalism, but by Canadian, American and European expressions of nationalism too…
Devil’s Advocate: Israel claims that there is separation of "Church" and State, yet it calls itself a Jewish state, and gives immigration preference to Jews. Isn't that discrimination?
GT: In answering this question we get to a third clarification: Jews do not just share a common theology, Jews are a people, meaning a nation. So yes, it is confusing, but when a member of the Jewish people gets national preference in immigration the benefit is a national one, not a religious one. And now to answer specifically, Israel does not have separation of church and state as the US does - neither does Canada (public money goes to parochial schools in Quebec) - and even the US has elements of both God-centered belief and actually Christian belief in its public culture.
When Israel calls itself a Jewish state, 1. it is emphasizing the national dimension – a state for members of the Jewish people - and 2. it is saying yes, just as there is a Church of England, while we don’t have a Church of Israel, we do incorporate certain elements of Jewish religion, of Judaism, into our public culture. We try to balance this with civil rights to others – unlike, say, in Saudi Arabia, where they don’t bother.
So is there discrimination -- in the true sense of the word – of course, all national entities discriminate. But is there discrimination in the sense you are using the term, meaning bigotry, oppression etcetera? No, Israel is well within normal range for democracies, let alone Arab autocracies and theocracies like Iran, in the balance it strikes between individual freedom and public displays of religion.
To be continued in Part 2.