28/06/2022

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palestine,-yes-–-ukraine,-no

Palestine, Yes – Ukraine, No

Michael Lesher

Maybe it’s because I’m a religious Jew and a supporter of Palestinian rights – and because it’s lonely to be both.

Maybe it’s because war hysteria always disgusts me, whether it’s the usual Israeli dehumanization of Palestinian victims or the baying of today’s mainstream media for Russian blood, and I can only shudder when ostensibly decent people take up either of those battle cries.

Or maybe it’s because I’ve always seen the Palestinian cause as a struggle for freedom and dignity – which makes it a religious imperative, too – whereas warmongering over Ukraine is a sinister campaign aimed (in more or less equal parts) at advancing US imperial goals, demonizing Russians, and fostering a political economy increasingly dominated by neo-Nazis whose repressive policies dovetail with the anti-democratic tendencies of the US-led NATO governments.

But whatever the reason, I feel I’ve got to say this: if you are a supporter of Palestine, please, please stop sentimentalizing Ukraine’s war with Russia. You will gain nothing from that sordid cause but the moral contamination of your own. And, on a practical level, you will receive nothing from Ukraine and its puppeteers but contempt for your naïveté.

Yes, I understand the temptation to invoke media outrage over Russia’s occupation of parts of Ukraine as a way to demand similar expressions of outrage about Israel’s occupation of Palestine. After all, the occupation of Palestine has lasted much longer, and has entailed more crimes, than Russia’s recent military actions in Ukraine. I readily agree that the selective condemnation of Russia is hypocritical. And I agree, further, that those of us who quote international law to denounce Israeli brutality in Palestine must likewise acknowledge Ukraine’s right, under international law, to be free from military attack.

But international norms aside, Ukraine is not – repeat, not – Palestine. And we confuse the two subjects at our peril – not only because of the moral distance between them, but because, given that distance, we can only join in pro-Ukraine war fever at the cost of the truth.

To begin with, Ukraine – unlike Palestine – is not the helpless victim of a superpower aggressor. Let’s not even consider the fact that Ukraine largely provoked the Russian attack with its bloody eight-year campaign against ethnic Russians in the Donbas region and its refusal to engage Russian diplomatic initiatives. Let’s just ask ourselves a very simple question: does Palestinian resistance get any support – any at all – from the United States or its allies?

We know that it does not.

Ah, but Ukraine does! Having already flooded the country with weapons, the US (according to The Intercept) is now providing the Ukrainian military with “sophisticated intelligence” in order to help it kill more Russians. That’s not even counting the nearly $14.5 billion worth of “security and humanitarian aid” the US government is about to dispatch to Ukraine, “aid” that will include anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, small arms, machine guns, shotguns, grenade launchers and military drones. Would any Western country dream of backing Palestinian resistance in similar fashion? Even when Israeli forces are on a killing spree in the West Bank – as they are now?

We all know the answer.

In fact, the more closely supporters of Palestine look into the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the less likely they are to sympathize with Ukrainian “resistance.” Is it an accident that Ukraine is rapidly becoming a pons asinorum for militant Palestine-haters? Consider the case of Tzvi Arieli, a “religious” Israeli who has recently been featured in Jewish media for his conviction that killing Ukraine’s enemies takes precedence over the sacred ritual of donning phylacteries.

“If I need to shoot some Russians, timing is really important,” he explained to Forward.

As a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, Arieli participated in Israeli terrorist attacks in the occupied West Bank; apparently he also had a hand in violence against ethnic Russians as far back as 2014. (Forward describes this as “fend[ing] off the separatists” for “the Ukrainian military.”)

But nowadays, Ukraine may actually be a more congenial setting for Arieli’s talents than Israel itself. “Many Ukrainians see Israeli leaders’ refusal to yield to their country’s adversaries as a model for themselves,” noted one admiring press account. And the Ukrainian version of the Israeli “model” enjoys the advantage of being on the blind side of human rights organizations. Amnesty International, which has “investigators” in Ukraine, appears to be focusing all of its attention on Russian conduct – which means that Ukraine can effectively out-Israel Israel and get away with it, as Arieli’s example suggests.

And it isn’t only rabid Zionists who are experiencing a sudden crush on Ukraine. Liberals – the kind who endorse the oppression of Palestine more genteelly than the Arielis of the world, but with greater political effect – are just as smitten. I’ve noted in another column how Jodi Rudoren, chief editor of the leading Jewish liberal daily in the US, has gone lovesick over Ukrainian militants in a way she’d never dream of writing about Palestinians. The New Republic’s Michael Tomasky has also joined the Ukraine war party. Take a quick survey of the liberal Western press (I personally don’t have the stomach for it) and you’ll find dozens just like them.

And – as if the list of Palestine’s enemies cheerleading for Ukraine weren’t already long enough – the world’s Orthodox Jewish leadership is joining up, too. This April, rabbis of the Lubavitch Hasidic sect hosted at least 53 Passover Seders for more than 7,000 guests inside Ukraine. According to Forward, they even assisted with bakeries that “made mini-matzos for soldiers [my emphasis] to ensure that they get a taste of the holiday” – just in case anyone might have imagined the rabbis’ interest was merely humanitarian and religious. How does the same Orthodox Jewish clergy react to Palestinian suffering? Well, when a small group of religious Jews from the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta movement spent a Sabbath in Gaza to show their support for one of the most grievously oppressed populations on earth – in a place the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in Palestine has pronounced “unliveable” – not one prominent Orthodox Jewish organization lifted a finger to help them.

In fact, the same Lubavitch organization that can’t do enough to help Ukrainian soldiers has gone out of its way to defend every Israeli massacre of Gaza’s civilians, blaming the mass murder of men, women and children on a Palestinian “culture of death” – not on Israeli brutality.

Do supporters of Palestine belong in that kind of crowd?

Ukraine itself has made no secret of its alignment with Israel – with all that entails. Don’t be fooled by the rising prestige of Ukraine’s neo-Nazis into thinking that its historically Jew-hating population can’t be on cozy terms with the so-called Jewish State. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has already declared that the Ukraine of the future will be a “big Israel.” In fact, long before his war with Russia, Zelensky ostentatiously removed Ukraine from a U.N. committee devoted to Palestinian rights.

And the Israeli government has returned the compliment. On April 4, Israel’s president granted a full pardon to a convicted cocaine smuggler simply because he claimed to be hankering to return to his native Ukraine “to fight against the Russian invasion.” Why bother about drug laws when there are Russians to be killed and neo-Nazi militias to support?

Incidentally, please note – as this episode illustrates – that the “Jewish State” is entirely comfortable with those Jew-hating militias roving all through Ukraine. Even its new “special envoy to combat anti-Semitism,” an actress-turned-propagandist named Noa Tishby, has declared that her real job is fighting critics of Israel’s occupation – not Ukrainian Nazis.

As long as Ukraine is pro-Israel you won’t hear a peep of protest from Jerusalem, not even about the notorious Azov Battalions that seem to be steadily gaining strength under Zelensky. But you can be sure that Israeli propaganda will go on slandering Palestinian civilians who have the gall to believe they’re entitled to human rights.

Should Palestine activists align themselves with that toxic fellowship?

And what about the United States, where the Israel-boosting Joe Biden occupies the White House? Vice President Kamala Harris has done her share of tongue-clucking over the Russian occupation of Ukraine. (She seemed almost about to cry when she mentioned the “heart-wrenching experience” of Ukrainian refugees during a recent visit to Romania.) But Harris, whose husband is Jewish, was perfectly happy to serve Psagot wine – produced by Israeli “settlers” on stolen Palestinian land – when she hosted the obligatory White House Passover Seder on April 15.

Nor was the symbolism lost on the usual suspects. “Next year,” tweeted David Friedman, former US ambassador to Israel, “I would recommend that the Second Family serve the ‘Friedman’ vintage from the Psagot winery.”

After all, Psagot named that particular wine after the ambassador because of his role in relocating the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in defiance of international law, in 2018 – an act that cost the lives of 55 Palestinian protesters on the very day of the move.

Got that? The White House’s official lovers of Ukraine celebrated Passover with wine made by armed colonists on stolen Palestinian land, at a winery that awards top honors for contributing to mass murder. Can anyone who cares about Palestinian rights dream of joining hands with politicians mired so deeply in hypocrisy and blood?

Remember, finally, that in resisting “Israel,” as conceived by Zionists, we are face to face with something unique: a claim, not a country – a myth, not a history. And it seems to me that this alone sets Palestinian resistance apart from other conflicts. As Steve Salaita put it in a recent essay:

Although Zionists think of Israel as a…timeless and stable geography, in reality they must deterritorialize the state in order to defend it. In other words, they can only defend it as a conceit, not as a tangible project. It has to exist outside of history or else it loses its exceptional character and thus its special claim to adulation. Within the actual world of geopolitics, it becomes just another settler colony, prone to the ugly behavior that imperialism demands of such entities.

Whatever else is true of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, it is (unlike the Israeli war against Palestine) a contest between states, or between a state and a bloc of states (NATO); no one is pretending that Ukrainians do not exist, or that Russia has no geographical limits, or that ethnic Russians anywhere in the world have an inborn right to take Ukraine away from its inhabitants.

So even if you are prepared to dance to pro-Ukraine jingoism (and I’m not), I don’t see how you can harmonize that dance with support for Palestine. The latter cause is a struggle not just for national independence but for the right to pronounce the simple facts that Palestinians exist and that Israel is a settler-colonial enterprise like any other. Nothing of that nature is involved in fighting for Ukraine.

So, when I see Philip Weiss (one of the co-founders of the Mondoweiss blog, a rare place where Palestinian rights are genuinely respected) writing that “Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine and the international response are an opportunity for Americans who care about Palestine,” and concluding with cheerleading for “the American sanctions” against Russia – as if those “sanctions” will somehow help the inmates of Israel’s Gaza prison or the tortured children of the West Bank or East Jerusalem – I have to interject a word of caution.

It is one thing to call attention to the hypocrisy of a Western press that weeps over the occupation of Ukraine while ignoring the cruelty of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. It is quite another to allow ourselves to be swept up into the hysteria celebrating a country that despises us, not to mention a cause built on violence and lies.

Yes, we should support efforts to end the conflict and to protect civilians wherever possible.

But wave the Ukrainian flag? We might just as well start thanking the Israelis for poisoning Gaza’s children, or praising the US for sending billions of dollars annually to Israel to help it kill more Palestinian civilians.

Ukrainian civilians won’t benefit from that. And Palestine deserves much better.

Michael Lesher is an author, poet and lawyer whose legal work is mostly dedicated to issues connected with domestic abuse and child sexual abuse. His latest nonfiction book is Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co., 2014); his first collection of poetry, Surfaces, was published by The High Window in 2019. A memoir of his discovery of Orthodox Judaism as an adult – Turning Back: The Personal Journey of a “Born-Again” Jew – was published in September 2020 by Lincoln Square Books.

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