Category Archives: Anti-occupation

Why don’t the Abraham Accords look like peace?

It has often been noted that it’s easier to represent war visually than it is to represent peace. When did you last go to see a peace movie? But peace agreements provide photo opps of the signing of peace agreements by leaders who synecdochically stand in for whole nations. This has certainly been the case for previous peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbours under the auspices of the USA.

Consider two previous occasions on which peace agreements were signed at the White House, first in 1979 between Israel and Egypt, then in 1993 between Israel and the PLO. The hands of the leaders portray reconciliation and the relinquishing of weapons in different ways. President Carter demonstrates his mediating role by joining hands with President of Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Begin of Israel, just six years after the two countries fought each other in a bitter war. President Clinton’s outstretched arms and tall stature seem to create through magnanimous power the space in which Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin come together in an allegedly reluctant handshake. Clinton was also there to observe a much warmer handshake between Rabin and King Hussein of Jordan when the two countries signed a peace agreement on their border in 1994.

If this is the simple iconography of peace agreements, it should be straightforward to represent the agreements signed at the White House between the governments of Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain as peace. Yet, it doesn’t look that way to me.

Perhaps its the absence of hand-shaking, which might be attributed to Covid-19 precautions if there were any evidence of such precautions being taken throughout the event. As it is, it looks as if Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan have all just received a certificate of good behaviour from Trump.

This picture of peace is lacking not simply because of an absent iconographic element, but because of what is missing from it as what scholar W.J.T. Mitchell calls an “imagetext.” An “imagetext” is a hybrid of picture and text and the accompanying texts to the pictures of signing these peace agreements are the stories and dramas for which the pictures are culminating events. If a picture is going to speak a thousand words, you have to know the story. In 1979, the story included wars between Israel and Egypt, the media event of Sadat’s surprise visit to Israel in 1977, and the setbacks and breakthroughs of the negotiations at Camp David. The backdrop to the signing of the Oslo accords was the first intifada, revelations about track-two diplomacy behind the scenes, the apparent conversion of two main protagonists, Rabin and Arafat, from men of war of to peacemakers. To some extent then, as many have said, this doesn’t look like a peace treaty because Israel has not been at war with the UAE or Bahrain. So there has been little drama – other than surprise – to provide the text for this image.

There is more to it than that. This doesn’t look like peace because, even while the agreement claims that the normalization of relations between states is intended to contribute towards peace in the region, including a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it does the opposite. Not only is its context the conflict between the Gulf States and Iran, but like its predecessor, Trump’s “Vision for Peace,” it undermines the prospects for a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Normalization of relations with Arab states was one of the diplomatic carrots held out in the 2002 Arab peace initiative for Israel to end its occupation and creeping annexation of the Palestinian Territories. As things stand, the occupation has become normalized by Israel, especially under Trump’s administration. Israel no longer pays any evident price for its relentless and continuing injustices, except perhaps for erosive moral corruption, as remarked by Raja Shehadeh. On the same day that the agreement was signed in Washington, Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that a Jerusalem court had ordered the “eviction of dozens of Palestinian residents from their homes in East Jerusalem. The beneficiaries will be settler associations who argued that the homes belonged to Jews before 1948.” Needless to say, Palestinian refugees who owned property in Jerusalem until 1948 are not eligible to reclaim their homes as they are not Jewish. That is one of the injustices that the “Abraham Accords” sanctions, seemingly taking inspiration not from mythical shared ancestry but from the Biblical story of Abraham’s expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, depicted here by Israeli artist Jakob Steinhardt in 1950, with the refugees of 1948 in mind.

Open letter to Rachel Reeves MP: Why I won’t vote Labour, though I hope for a Labour-led government

Dear Rachel,

You don’t know me but I’m one of your constituents and I wanted to take the time to explain why I won’t vote for you in this election, even though I hope to wake up on Friday morning to a Labour-led government that can implement its manifesto promises. I look forward to a government that will restore the NHS, mitigate the environmental crisis by investing in new energy and cutting fossil fuels, and bring vital services back into public control. I am filled with dread by the prospect of another Conservative government led by Boris Johnson, following his party’s lurch to the right, crashing us out of Europe and further into the social division and inequality that successive Tory governments have exacerbated.

Yet I won’t vote Labour because the party, especially its leadership, has utterly failed to deal with the antisemitism that has surfaced in its ranks. At first, this was something I didn’t want to believe was happening. I came back to the UK, to Leeds, after just over a decade in the US in December 2016, happy to be returning to the NHS – though not yet aware how much the years of austerity had reduced it . I was also looking forward to voting in a country with a mass social democratic party with a real chance to govern. Yet I could already sense that the Brexit referendum had let some dark genies out of the bottle, scapegoating various “others” for various wrongs, just as Trump has done. How, though, could such resentful racism have any hold in the Labour Party? I also didn’t want to believe that as a Jew I would be made to feel unwelcome in the party, especially after an earlier decade during which I lived in Israel, where I was very much on the left of politics, critical not only of Netanyahu’s government’s policies but the systemic oppression of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Israel itself. That oppression is shielded in part by pernicious efforts, some of them funded by Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs, to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. So, it seemed too convenient that no sooner did the Labour Party elect a left-winger than the ‘socialism of fools’ – antisemitism – took root in it. Surely it must be the case that anti-progressive politicians and press in both countries, and further afield, had found common cause in amplifying a few marginal cases of antisemitic expression on social media and occasional branch meetings? At first, then, I discounted some of what I heard. I have Israeli friends and know other Jews still in the Labour Party who continue to do so.

But I was learning too much from old friends, some of whom stayed in the party, some of whom left, as well as in regular news reports, to hold out on to my wishful thinking and denial. One friend was very much in the thick of it, trying to counter antisemitic tropes on new media and being constantly abused for doing so. Others were not finding their MPs willing to speak out and some began to find their local branch a hostile environment. Some of what I was told about is reflected in the Jewish Labour Movement evidence submitted to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, an investigation which in itself must cause the Party shame. I do not doubt that there is a concerted right-wing political and media campaign to discredit Corbyn and the Labour Party as much as possible. That’s what they do. But I also do not doubt that a trend has developed among some party members and supporters to substitute a genuine critique of capitalism with conspiracy theories featuring the Rothschilds, George Soros and other “Zios.” There is both antisemitism in the party and coordinated efforts by opponents of Labour and its current leadership to capitalize on it. But if the party really dealt with antisemitism, its opponents would have little ammunition.

Increasingly it became apparent that the party leadership was not interested in challenging the antisemites robustly, taking action that could easily have knocked this issue on the head. What I could justly expect of Jeremy Corbyn – or his staff – would be to call people out on the use of antisemitic tropes as they were posted on social media platforms and spoken at meetings, making it clear that nobody could count themselves as his supporter if they were also a racist. Instead, he hid behind disciplinary processes which have in any case proved inadequate. Of course, to call others out Jeremy Corbyn would have to begin with himself, expressing horror rather than mealy-mouthed “regret” that he had defended Mear One’s antisemitic mural. He would need to admit shame that he had slipped into the worst sort of English “polite antisemitism” by referring to British Jews as Zionists who don’t understand English irony. As a committed anti-racist, he must know by now that we have all been socialized into damaging racist attitudes and that we need to keep working to decolonize ourselves. If Jeremy Corbyn cannot demonstrate political, cultural and intellectual leadership on this issue, why not?

So, sadly I cannot vote for you on Thursday, even though I believe you are a good constituency MP – you’ve written in support of my partner’s PIP appeal – and have an admirable record in Parliament, not least on environmental issues that are close to my heart and current activism. I admit that if your majority were less secure, I would be agonising more on whether to vote for you or the Green candidate. Yet, I expect that you will understand my decision and hope that one day soon you will be able to let me know that the Labour Party is once again a safe political home for progressive Jews.

With best wishes,

Jon Simons