Sara El-Yafi explains Jon Voight’s dangerous mistakes — mistakes that deter us from resting the conflict in the arms of peace.
Dear Mr. Voight,
People are still bringing up your letter to me from four weeks ago where you condemned Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz to “hang their heads in shame” for standing against Israel’s recent war on Gaza, and this is why I write this letter even a month later. You’ve clearly struck a chord in many people with your passionate castigation of these two anti-war actors — Spanish actors, may I justly add; former colonialists who once occupied then lost an entire continent. Surely, they are jealous of Israel who, unlike them, has lost none of its occupied territories.
Just a joke.
My name is Sara El-Yafi, and I come in peace. I am not here to preach, or to attempt to disqualify an actor from having a controversial opinion about foreign affairs, but I am here to explain what happens when one exploits this difficult conflict with unfounded claims from such a public platform. It hurts everybody.
As much as I am familiar with the Israeli discourse due to my work, I have an issue with your letter, Mr. Voight. The issue is not that it is a pro-Zionist letter, but that it is a pro-Zionist letter that corrupts the dialogue. I’m guessing history is not your strong point because not only was most of your text inaccurate, but you just went all out and falsely exposed a history that even Zionists wish to bury. Ironically, you did a disservice to Israel as you maladroitly equated the pro-Israel stance with that of prejudice and discrimination. This is wrong. I am here to explain these dangerous mistakes that deter us from ever resting this conflict in the arms of peace.
Here is a list of the things you inaccurately depicted and that you should not mention again, if you truly care about Israel’s security and the pursuit of peace:
1. Do not misleadingly talk about the UN Partition Plan because it carries the burdens of illegitimacy. It hurts both sides.
In your letter, you state: “In 1948, the Jewish people were offered by the UN a portion of the land.” “Offered”! I don’t believe you understand the powers of the UN, Mr. Voight. The UN cannot “offer” any portion of land to anybody, as it has no jurisdiction over land anywhere; this would not only be illegal, but completely impossible in international law. The only thing the UN can do is issue “resolutions” through its Security Council or General Assembly recommending actions, but General Assembly recommendations are not even legally binding.
In that spirit, what the UN did in 1947 was adopt a resolution recommending the adoption of the plan proposed by its Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP) to partition Palestine in two. Think of the UN as a couple’s therapist; the therapist can recommend that a couple divorce, but the therapist cannot implement the divorce. And for the divorce to take place, both parties would need to consent to it in the first place.
Thus, for Palestine to have officially been partitioned, both Jews and Arabs had to accept the partition plan, but the Arabs vehemently rejected it, which subsequently rendered the UN recommendation invalid. But the Zionists proceeded to declare the forced independence of the Jewish state in 1948 on Palestinian territory anyway. Thus, Israel was considered an illegitimate state by international law, because the Zionist leaders did not have a legal mandate for their declaration of the existence of the new State of Israel. Israel eventually gained its official legitimacy when it was admitted to the UN as a member state in 1949, but 17% of UN member states did not, and still do not, recognize Israel as a legitimate government to this day. That’s all due to this Partition Plan, thus, it’s best not to quote it.
2. Do not bring up the Balfour Declaration because most of the text has not been respected by Israelis themselves, and there is an Arab “Balfour Declaration” that may undermine it. It hurts both sides.
You said: “[Palestine] was set aside for [the Jews] in 1921.” There are three mistakes in this nine-word sentence, Mr. Voight. First, you got the date wrong; it was 1917. Second, how does one “set aside” a country? Set aside by whom? By Great Britain? What right does Britain have over a land it didn’t even govern in 1917? And by what invested merit can one man “promise” an entire foreign land to a foreign people? None. No respected Israeli spokesperson publicly talks about this to defend Israel, because there are major loopholes in the text that can undermine Israel. Arthur Balfour signed this agreement in 1917 at a time of war to garner the support of Jews in the Allies camp, but the text he wrote states verbatim: “[I]t being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Are you aware that there are non-Jewish communities in Palestine/Israel whose civil and religious rights don’t currently exist? Finally, and more importantly, you should know that Britain also promised full sovereignty on the same land, around the same time to the Arabs. Refer to the “Hussein-McMahon” deal. Double jeopardy. That is how imperial powers function, Mr. Voight.
Nobody, not even the Israelis, uses the phrase “set aside” in reference to that land because even by imperialistic standards, this is too brazen. There is no such thing as “land set aside” for anyone, Mr. Voight.
3. Avoid talking about the 1948 war because the reminder of the injustice that brought it about hurts both sides.
Let me illustrate what happened in 1948 with a simile you might understand, as you brought it up quite incorrectly. Palestine had been “Palestine” for hundreds and hundreds of years where Christians, Muslims and Jews lived side by side. Then, in 1947, due to European Zionist activists, the Jews — the large majority of whom were fresh immigrants from Europe — wanted to “secede” from Palestine.
Now, let’s say the Jews had their own reasons to secede, and let’s say their reasons were valid — that was not even the problem. The problem was they wanted to take eight-times more land than what they owned; all Arab lands. At that time, the Jews owned a mere 7% of the entire land of Palestine/Israel (also please check the official reference of the British Mandate). But under the UN Partition plan, they would receive 55% of the entire land; this means that the Jews would be receiving literally 700% more land than what they owned.
That is the same as saying that Texas (also 7% of US territory) wants to secede from the United States, but instead of just seceding with 7% of its territory, it wants to take half of the entire US territory, but without inhabitants of other states. By what right could Texas do that? Because Britain said so? Your country underwent a brutal civil war because the southern Confederate States wanted to secede, what would your country have done if the southern states wanted to secede with 700% more land?
That is why the Arabs went to war against Israel in 1948, Mr. Voight. I’m sure you understand why. These days the US declares war on other countries just because it dislikes the “idea” of them. What would your country do if a foreign nation took over half of your territory overnight? Not even hypocrisy can sit us out of this one. It’s in the past now so, really, no need to bring this up anymore.
For more information on land ownership and population statistics of Palestine in 1947, please refer to Survey of Palestine, a 1,300-page report prepared by the British Mandate for the United Nations and used in the UNSCOP recommendation. This should also clearly answer to the Zionists who injuriously claim that “Palestine was an empty country” before Israel was established there.
4. Beware of mentioning the 1967 war because that was an Israeli offensive that they openly admitted to and whose unresolved hurt is still widely pending. It hurts both sides.
In your letter, you said the Arabs “attacked” Israel in 1967. Now you’re just spurting out blatant falsehoods, Mr. Voight. In 1967, it is a fact that the war began by Israel launching surprise strikes against Egyptian air-fields, raiding the Jordanian-controlled West Bank and engaging in aerial bombardments over Syria. Within six days, Israel had taken the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, and the Jordanian-controlled West Bank from the Palestinians. Two-thirds of Palestine was captured by Israel in this offensive, which resulted in the expulsion/exodus of 78% of the Palestinian people. Israel ended up expanding its territory by 300% due to an offensive it started. Was it a preemptive strike or an unjustified attack? There are several opinions in the literature, but nobody differs on the fact that Israel started that war, Mr. Voight.
There is no way around this truth: the road to Israel’s security runs through Arab hearts, and the road to Palestinian liberation runs through Jewish hearts.
The UN Security Council unanimously denounced Israel’s actions with Resolution 242, which is legally binding, quoting the illegality and “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war,” and calling for the withdrawal of all Israeli forces from the Occupied Territories, as well as the right of return for refugees. But as with every resolution, Israel did not respect it, and this remains ruthlessly pending until today. There is no debate as to whether Israel attacked first or not, Mr. Voight. The debate is whether Israel attacked with or without the blessing of the US. That is the debate.
5. Only refer to Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East” if you will omit the fact that it is exclusively Jewish.
Let us examine the workings of “the only democratic country of goodwill in the Middle East.” If you moved to Israel, Mr. Voight, you would be a second-class citizen because you are not Jewish. Israel is a Jewish ethnic state, which by definition, means it functions on social layering and ethno-religious categorization. In Israel, the ethno-national model is presented as the preferred exclusive political model; this means precedence goes to the Jews, everywhere. When a country explicitly decides to mostly have one religion populate its territory, and strictly labors to incite only one religion to immigrate to the country, it is easy to call itself a democracy, isn’t it? Where’s the democratic challenge there?
A selective democracy is not a real democracy, Mr. Voight. The real challenge would be for Israel to remain a democracy once it lets the Palestinians back into their lands, disrupt the Jewish-favored bias and live side by side, all equal before the law in one state. If Israel does that then, by all odds and measures, yes, it would be a most formidable democracy. But until then, it remains no different than the social structure of Saudi Arabia or Iran.
6. If resolving this conflict is your end goal, denounce Hamas, but also denounce the Israeli military occupation.
This goes to out you and your colleagues in Hollywood who recently released a couple of statements shunning Hamas under the pretense of standing for peace. I’d like to openly state that I too stand against Hamas because I unequivocally disagree with everything it stands for — from its religious extremism to the violent resistance it preaches.
But you cannot, in the name of peace, shun Hamas without shunning the Israeli occupation. It makes no political or humanitarian sense. The illegal Israeli occupation began decades before Hamas was even born and, therefore, saying the Israeli occupation is contingent upon disarming Hamas is hypocritical. The Israeli occupation is not a product of Hamas; it is Hamas that is a product of the Israeli occupation. Peace is not provisional to Hamas’ disarmament; it is provisional to ending the Israeli occupation as well as Hamas’ disarmament. There is no way around it. Preaching peace to Palestinians without mentioning the Israeli occupation is like asking them to stay dry while they sit in a lake. It is physically impossible.
7. Finally … let’s talk peace.
You talk about anti-Semitism as if you understand the dangers of racism, but you have no idea what your uninformed discourse does to the entire conflict in terms of racism. You have no idea how much antagonism you can incite against both peoples as you so hatefully try to efface the Arabs’ humanity with your uninformed bias, and as you so clumsily toss around the extremely dangerous word that is “anti-Semitism” simply because Israeli violence has been denounced. Anti-Semitism is a very, very serious accusation with a very dangerous violent connotation that should never be freely used whenever you feel a tad “irritated,” Mr. Voight.
Most people of the Arab world make a distinct difference between Zionist and Jewish, and many, many of us have Jewish friends. My Jewish friends are some of my favorite people on this planet, but it is because of people like you that I have to term them “Jewish friends” in defense of your disgraceful allegations. Your uninformed discourse forces everybody to get defensive. It is unfair. Most Jews I know are champions of human rights, pioneers of innovation and heroes of equality; none of them are on the side of occupation or racism as you urge them to be. They are all against the occupation, and rightfully believe that Israel will only truly thrive when it ends that occupation. As for Arabs, we’re not all Islamist, and we’re not all supporters of Hamas, just like not all Israelis are Zionists or supporters of Zionism. Zionists are racist, but Jews are not. Islamists are racist, but Arabs and Muslims are not.
I condemn Zionism and Islamism, for both of them thrive on conflict. And mark my words, it is neither Zionists, nor Islamists that will make peace in the Middle East, for neither of them can ever understand the pains of those who look different to them. Rather, it is people like my Jewish and Arab friends who can and will lead their nations to peace, because both condemn all violence without falling prey to racism; both condemn the archipelago of the huge illegal Israeli settlements crisscrossed by Jewish-only access roads regardless of their creed; and both believe that the only way to sustainable peace is when Palestinians and Israelis live as equal citizens together, on the same land with dignity and mutual respect. What’s so extraordinary about this demand, Mr. Voight?
We shouldn’t have to choose between Israel and Palestine. These are not mutually exclusive nations today, Mr. Voight; why are you forcing us to choose? The question is, do you stand for the development and joie-de-vivre of both? If the answer is yes, then, you stand with both and condemn all humanitarian suffering; you condemn the Israeli assault on Gaza; and you condemn the rockets thrown by Hamas. There is no choice to be made in humanity. And when that becomes the true general discourse of both, when both sides and their supporters start dignifying everyone’s life as equally precious, the conflict will end and both nations shall become one.
Watch the transcendental transformation that will occur in the region when they shall unite, and believe me they will. We may not be alive to see it flourish, but Israel and Palestine will become one again and no one will be “driven into the sea,” to contradict your words, Mr. Voight. The Palestinians’ efforts shall be diverted from the exhausting resistance to forging themselves into powerful educated, dignified and academically advanced intellectuals to match their brilliant Jewish compatriots (for proof, examine the greatness of the Arab population of Israel). And the Israelis will finally have the richness of a real culture, the true camaraderie and the national food that we all know they are so desperately trying to find. And only then will the Israelis finally fit in the Arab Middle East. Mark my words.
There is no way around this truth: the road to Israel’s security runs through Arab hearts, and the road to Palestinian liberation runs through Jewish hearts. And such an understanding will only happen once we stop choosing to see a humanitarian crisis based on whether we like the nation that is enduring it or not. There is no ethnicity to suffering. The more we delay this understanding, the more we delay peacemaking and democratic state building. No one wins.
Don’t soil the debate with your misplaced prejudice and skewed understanding of history. Unless you strive to become a learned and humane social reformer, this is not a battle you can win, Mr. Voight.
*[This article was updated on September 7, 2014.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.