Recently gracing Australia's shores was American-Israeli Dr Jeff Halper, a retired anthropologist and now full-time activist in charge of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). His last public lecture was Tuesday evening at the University of New South Wales.
His presence in Australia was punctuated by the usual circus of claims and counter claims that happen every time a renowned critic of Israel is in the country. First, a mainstream, pro-Israel Jewish organisation will go through statements previously made by the critic, and then, if they find faults, attack those arguments.
The Israel critic's defenders then jump up and down, claiming the Jewish community is attempting to stifle criticism of Israel. This very course of action has occurred during Halper's visit, played out on the pages of the Australian Jewish News, the Sydney Morning Herald and various angry blogs.
The claims of stifling criticism of Israel are both predictable and unfounded. Indeed, by attacking the arguments of Israel's critics, in this case Halper, the mainstream Jewish community is engaging in discussion, not stifling it. (And by not answering the Jewish community's criticisms, instead simply claiming to be the victim of a conspiracy against free speech, the Israel critic's defenders show the weakness of their central argument ...)
To top it off, most of this is lost to the wider Australian community. All they see is a variant of Monty Python's Life of Brian - where members of the Judean People's Front have it out with the People's Front of Judea.
Halper spoke at universities, parliaments and town halls in most Australian capital cities. As part of his tour he lectured at the University of Melbourne on March 11. As an interested party, and as a doctoral student there, I went along to see what he had to say.
Halper's organisation, ICAHD, protests the demolition of Palestinian houses by Israel, and calls for the houses destroyed to be rebuilt. Palestinian houses have been demolished by Israel for security reasons (though Halper denies this) and because the owners did not have building permits (just as buildings built without permission in Australia are demolished). Needless to add, Jewish Israelis must also have permits to build.
ICAHD's central purpose might sound noble. But far more than build houses, Halper travels the world besmirching Israel as a genocidal regime, intent on destroying not Palestinian homes, but Palestinians themselves. A poster advertising the Melbourne University lecture claimed Palestinians are "under threat of extinction". (This despite the Gazan population's rate of increase being the 19th fastest in the world.)
At the lecture, of which I have a recording, Halper claimed that Israelis don't use the word “Palestinian”, but rather just “Arab”. This allegation is both blatantly wrong and an attempt to paint Israelis as racists, intent on denying Palestinians their identity. Likewise, according to Halper, Israelis "have completely eliminated ... the Arabs from our lives, from our interests, our discussions, [and] our political concerns". He added, "[When] I use the word 'occupation' [in conversations with Israelis] ... people don't know what the hell I'm talking about, or they pooh pooh [the concept]. It's not a part of the discourse." Really? Read any Israeli newspaper, from the hard left to the right and everything in between, and you'll see "Palestinian" and "occupation" written dozens of times every day.
If Halper's central argument is valid, why does he need to resort to such outlandish and easily disproved falsehoods to disparage Israel?
His falsehoods went from ridiculous to outrageous: In the recent Israeli election, he claimed, the two-state solution was a "non-issue". Indeed, "Gaza, the occupation, peace - I don't think were mentioned once by any political party during the entire electoral campaign," he said. This is astounding given Kadima, the party that ended up winning the most votes, made a two-state solution the centrepiece of its campaign.
He went further, that it's accepted policy in Israel that "Arabs are our permanent enemy". Aside from peace treaties with two Arab countries and the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians, Israel's entry to this year's Eurovision song contest is a Jewish-Arab duet singing about peace (chosen, not by an elite, peace-loving minority, but by popular vote: a mass, peace-loving majority). Moreover, the political argument in Israel is not whether there should be a Palestinian state, but when it can be pragmatically established.