Challenging claims

Last Wednesday, Joseph Massad, associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, came to Williams College to give a lecture titled “Palestine: Colonialism as Peace.” The event was cosponsored by the Students for Palestinian Awareness, College Council and the Arabic and history departments. Though Massad’s discourse was provocative and well-received, his argument’s many fallacies were too important to be ignored. The following five points struck us as the most problematic.

First, Massad repeated his “unalterable equation” ad nauseam: “peace is colonialism is security; war is anti-colonialism is terrorism.” First, in spite of using “colonialism” as his keynote term, Massad failed to define it. Colonialism is imperial in nature and implies both expansion from a center as well as a desire to subjugate and rule over a conquered populace. This definition is antithetical to the Zionists’ objectives. The Zionist motive is and has always been repatriation of the Jewish people. The Jews resided peacefully in the territory now known as Palestine up until the Ottoman conquest in the early 16th century. The Ottoman expulsion of the Jews led to their Diaspora in Eastern Europe. The subsequent European expulsions and genocidal atrocities, culminating with World War II, led the European Jews to seek political asylum in the only place they could – their original homeland.  In addition, the Zionist intent has never been to rule over the Palestinian people, but rather to establish an autonomous state, which the international community sanctioned through the United Nations vote of 1947. Following the vote, Israel was restored to the Jewish people.

Second, Massad’s characterization of Hamas was extremely deceptive and over-simplified. Most strikingly, he cast Hamas as a “collaborationist” political party that “does the bidding” of the Israeli government. This statement is untrue. In fact, Hamas has violently responded to Israel’s attempts at collaboration. Not three weeks ago, two Hamas members were executed for communicating with Israeli officials. This attitude is built into Hamas’ founding charter, which states that “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.” Massad’s framing of Hamas as a “moderate” and compliant organization misrepresents Hamas’ terrorist ideology as well as the current political atmosphere.

Third, Massad disparaged not only Israeli Jews and Zionists, but also all of Jewish culture. More specifically, he proclaims that Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews are predominantly converts, and that Modern Hebrew is a “modern secular” contrivance unrelated to Biblical Hebrew – both of which are invalid and incendiary claims. Such remarks delegitimize Jewish heritage, and essentially, Judaism worldwide.

Fourth, Massad declared that Israel’s definition of the West Bank’s borders is in defiance of international law. Massad’s counterdefinition relies on the determination of the West Bank’s parameters by Jordanian settlers, who annexed the territory in 1948 and exercised a de facto, internationally unrecognized occupation of the region until 1967. In framing his argument about the West Bank, Massad remained unclear about why he believes that one occupation is legitimate and the other is illegitimate.

Fifth, Massad’s allusion to Hamas’ rocket firings on Israeli noncombatants callously stated that missile attacks had yielded “at best” a few Israeli casualties. In the year 2008 alone, 3278 rockets and mortar shells were fired into Israel across the Gaza Strip. Over a period of 13 months Hamas rocket fire killed or wounded over 289 Israelis. These statistics do not even account for the widespread terror and destruction perpetuated in Israel by these attacks. The psychological trauma suffered by innocent civilians made to live in constant fear is an atrocity of even greater breadth than the shellings themselves.

Massad’s use of terms such as “apartheid” and “racist” and his likening of the refugee situation to “ethnic cleansing” and “concentration camps” belittle the South African apartheid and the Holocaust. These terms imply that racial prejudice is the driving force behind Israel’s actions, when in fact the conflict has always been due to land disputes, matters of self-preservation and national security. Massad’s rhetoric was misleading as to the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which merits its own attention and careful consideration. His commentary on the Palestinian condition raises many valid points; however, his critique holds Israel under far more scrutiny than not only Hamas, but any other nation. Massad’s argument was academically dishonest, separating Israel’s actions from their necessary historical and global context. Contrary to Massad’s beliefs, Israel is a state that has served as a safe haven for Jews worldwide – from Egypt to Russia – who have suffered religious and cultural prejudice. The effects of Massad’s mentality obstruct the already prolonged and complicated peace process.