It’s time to talk about anti-Palestinianism as a form of bigotry

Israeli Ambassador, Tzipi Hotovely meets UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in London (Pippa Fowles)

Emad Moussa

Mondoweiss  /  November 23, 2021

Two weeks ago, footage circulated on social media showing Israel’s Ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely, rushing back to her car under close police protection after speaking at a debate about “Perspectives on Israel and Palestine,” hosted by the student union at the London School of Economics. In the background, students who gathered outside the building to protest her visit can be heard chanting pro-Palestine slogans and chiding Israel as “a terrorist state.”

“Aren’t you ashamed?” one of the students shouted at the ambassador.

Defiant, the Israeli Embassy in London said Israel’s diplomats are “undeterred by extremists.” Hotovely stated that “[Israel] will not give in to thuggery and violence,” and that “[it] will send its representatives to every stage.”

The sense of  threat in words like “extremist, thuggery, and violence,” in the above statements falsely suggests that Hotovely was physically harassed, while in reality she delivered the lecture and left unhindered.

The incident expectedly drew condemnations from British government officials and members of the parliament. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss tweeted: “We in Britain believe in freedom of speech,” saying it was unacceptable to attempt to silence the Israeli ambassador.

British Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, described the incident as ”deeply disturbing.”

Key members of the Labour Party, the same party that only a month ago passed a resolution condemning Israel for perpetrating an “ongoing Nakba in Palestine,” didn’t shy away from attacking the protesters. The Party’s leader Keir Starmer and its shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy strongly denounced the incident.

For the most part, British media seems to have joined the anti-protestors chorus, either through attaching distasteful characteristics to their acts or by ignoring Tzipi Hotovely’s ultra-right racist views on Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims, as well as her unapologetic denial of the Nakba.

Hotovely’s departure from LSE was depicted as “fleeing,” suggesting intimidation and threat to her life by the students. The Tory-affiliated newspaper The Spectator described the incident as an “attack;” The Mail claimed Hotovely was “barracked” by the students at the LSE events; and The [Daily] Telegraph described the students as “bullies.”

The Community Security Trust (CST), a charity that protects British Jews from antisemitism and related threats, stated that the ambassador “spoke without significant disruption, completed her talk and left the event as scheduled.” Yet, CST went on to claim, that “the protesters who were outside the building included extremist chanting and created an atmosphere of unacceptable intimidation.”

Here, “extremist chants” can only mean the description of Israel as an apartheid/terrorist state by the protesters, a fact emphasized not only by outside observers but by Israel’s own human rights organization B’Tselem.

But for CST, hyperbole is a pattern. In July, the Trust described the chant by pro-Palestine protesters “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” as “genocidal,” saying it was repeatedly used by figures (notorious to Western audience) like Bin Laden, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, and Saddam Hussein.  They included Hamas in the mix, as if the movement was an external force alien to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not part of the Israel-dispossessed Palestinians.

Jake Wallis SimonThe Jewish Chronicle’s deputy editor, shamelessly drew a comparison between the protests against Israel’s leaders and the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews in Nazi Germany. He seemed to suggest that antisemitism has changed shape, and that “new anti-Semitism” – partly a legitimate term – now includes calling Israel – the collective Jew – an apartheid state. The implication is that standing against Israel’s racist policies is equal to questioning its very legitimacy and the Jewish people’s right to exist.

As such, on their Twitter accountThe Jewish Chronicle shared the LSE incident video with the caption: “On the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a Jew hunting mob on the streets of London.”

It did not seem to matter that Hotovely is a controversial figure whose racist and extreme pro-occupation opinions were also harshly criticized by many British Jews, some of whom on Thursday last week joined a rally of LSE’s staff and students in support of the pro-Palestine students against the smearing campaigns directed at them by the media and government. Haaretz unapologetically described the Israeli ambassador as “an unabashed Islamophobe and religious fundamentalist who denies the existence of the Palestinian people and supports annexation of the entire West Bank and Jewish control of the Temple Mount.”

The student group LSE for Palestine clarified in a statement saying that the protest occurred because “hosting [Hotovely] on LSE’s campus constituted an attempt at legitimizing her openly racist views as somehow up for debate,” describing the protest as “a tremendous demonstration of solidarity with Palestine.”

Imagine the outrage if Marine Le Pen of France was invited to LSE to deliver a lecture. British media, and many of the seemingly pro-Israel lobbies, would have gone out of their way to condemn, let alone call for the event to be cancelled. Yet wat Hotovely has long voiced against the Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims is more disturbing than did Le Pen against immigrants and other minorities.

Home Secretary, Priti Patel, was particularly zealous in her defence of Hotovely. On her Twitter account, she said that she was “disgusted” by the students’ behaviours, and without any sort of examination linked the protests to antisemitism, saying that “antisemitism has no place in our universities or our country.” What’s more, she went on to associate the protests (and pro-Palestine activism) with the safety of British Jews, and therefore criminalize the protests: “I will continue to do everything possible to keep the Jewish community safe from intimidation, harassment & abuse.”

Anti-Palestinianism

A combination of geopolitical interests and religious/cultural associations with the Jewish state drive the British government’s support of Israel, and in so doing, Palestinian otherness is emphasized.

As such, anti-Palestinian trends emerge as a multi-layered form of prejudice, inseparable from the overall anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment in the West, and not only a result of political disagreements or considerations related to national interests.

This conspicuously makes anti-Palestinianism, subtle as it may be, a form of bigotry. 

It is virulent for reasons that have far more to do with domestic socio-political concerns and biased historical/colonial perceptions of the Middle East and its peoples than anything that is indeed happening in the region at the moment.

But being entwined with the ever more dominant discourses on antisemitism, anti-Palestinianism remains under-expressed and largely unnamed.

Peter Beinart explains that it is difficult to “name” anti-Palestinian bigotry because Western societies are yet to decide (or realize) that until members of a certain group (in this case, the Palestinians) deserve equality, the bigotry that they and their supporters endure(d) generally remains invisible.

Using the history of antisemitism as an analogy, he argues that not until Jews gained civil and political equality in the 1800s did the apposition to their rights become specifically defined as antisemitic bigotry. Before that, treating Jews as inferior and undeserving of equal rights was the norm; and therefore, it didn’t require a special term.

In a similar vein, in the four decades following the Nakba, Palestinians were “deleted” from the public discourse in the Western World. The Palestinian “permission to narrate”, to quote Edward Said, was denied. Because the Jewish state was built on the negation of Palestinians, the Israeli state and its supporters in the West sought to efface Palestinians not only in actions, but also in names. Edward Said in The Question of Palestine (1979) says: “…merely to mention the Palestinians or Palestine in Israel, or to a convinced Zionist, is to name the unnameable, so powerfully does our bare existence serve to accuse Israel of what it did to us.”

Since Said published his book, the Palestinian geopolitical scene changed dramatically and the recognition of Palestinian struggle and history improved significantly in Europe and the United States, particularly in the past two decades. But these changes are yet to facilitate the recognition – and therefore labelling – of some of the anti-Palestinian politics as a form of bigotry.

As it stands, the ideological and physical elements of racism targeting Palestine and Palestinians are well documented, but naming and centring anti-Palestinian racism as a legitimate obstacle to achieving Palestinian rights remains contested.

Therefore, this is a call for Palestinians and their allies to avoid dealing with the accusations of antisemitism in a defensive fashion; for it distracts from the moral objectives of the Palestine problem.

Instead – building on the Palestine solidarity momentum – the focus should be shifted to conceptualizing and promoting a comprehensive definition of anti-Palestinianism as a form of bigotry that transcends the declared political/diplomatic concerns or interests.

Fundamental to this definition is that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian situation is contingent upon the full and unconditional recognition of Palestinians as a distinct and independent identity and the acknowledgment of their historical rights. Failure to do so is and should be deemed a form of bigotry, much like antisemitism. Not least because it denies political and historical facts and, as such, reduces Palestinians from human beings morally entitled to equality and justice to a sheer collective involved in a messy conflict or just an amorphous reflection of an ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Indeed, there are many objective disadvantages to Palestinians that are not racist in nature, but as the debate over Hotovely has shown, these disadvantages are minimal in comparison to the other pro-Israel expressions that are implicitly bigoted.

“Naming the unnameable” will help popularize anti-Palestinianism as a genuine form of racism – in a similar fashion to antisemitism and anti-black racism. It will allow the Western public to de-stereotype the Palestinian struggle and better see the bigotry that has long shrouded much of the Palestinian  suffering and prolonged the conflict.

Emad Moussa is a Palestinian-British researcher, whose focus is the social psychology of mainly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict