Anna Baltzer’s Talk on Palestine at Kyoto University

Last Tuesday, I was serendipitously told of a talk by Anna Baltzer in Yoshida campus. I remembered seeing her on the Daily Show a while back and was curious to hear her talk in more details about her experience and views on the current Middle East situation.

As it happens, I even ranted not long ago about the lack of rational and moderate discourse, in the neverending clusterfuck™ of a situation that is the Middle East. How timely.

No point copy-pasting Anna’s bio, but the skinny is: as a Jewish-American grown up in the US and backpacking her way through North Africa and Asia, she came by herself to the conclusion that many of the views commonly held by her fellow countrymen and community members with regard to contemporary Israeli politics were perhaps overlooking a few teeny details… In particular: serious human right issues with the current treatment of Palestinians in Occupied Territories.

Of course, her case stands out amongst many pro-Palestinian activists because of her heritage: she did not in any way renounce her religious faith and even considers it a pillar of her moral position for this cause (she is not the only one either). Most importantly perhaps, her background shields her from the despicable habit of shouting anti-semitism at anybody who dares disagreeing with any aspect of Israeli policies1.

While her presentation of present daily-life conditions in Occupied Territories and the myriads cases of infuriating clear-cut human-right abuse she witnessed, were not really news to me, it was still appreciable to hear first-hand accounts of what can too often be dismissed as unverifiable anecdotes. Of course, the issue at hand is not in pinpointing isolated occurrences of abuse, but in that there is a documented pattern of policies aimed at hiding them, when not outright implementing them.

Of course, there is the usual “our security vs. their human rights” argument, which does not stand very long when you look at a map of Israeli checkpoints (the vast majority of which stand inside the West Bank, cutting access from one Palestinian village to another Palestinian village), the Israeli Berlin wall West Bank “Barrier” (which so blatantly snakes beyond officially-recognised borders in order to put all water resources on the Israeli side) or just about any petty segregationist policy implemented with the obvious objective of smothering the local economy.

Say what you will about the justification for racial profiling and severe access restrictions to Israeli parts, if you seriously can defend the principle of blocking ambulances from circulating within the West Bank, we have little to discuss.

An interesting statistics mentioned by Anna (and verifiable in multiple sources online): suicide is currently the leading cause of death in the Israeli army, far above military operations. So much for security.

I am not sure I would agree with Anna Baltzer’s views on pre-1967 Israeli history (which she barely mentioned anyway): Nakba vs. War of Independence… There is a lot more complexity to it than either side would like to pretend. Though there’s a chance we may all agree that Palestinians were sacrificed by other Arab nations at the time to serve their own selfish geopolitical agenda…

The ensuing decades of political play and proxy wars are obviously the heart of the problem… But they are also thoroughly irrelevant when considering the current situation in Occupied Territories. I frankly do not give a fuck about who may have bombed who in the past: when you implement official policies that willfully segregate, humiliate and harm people based on their race, not their actions, you remove yourself from the circle of respectable democracies that can be reasoned with (cue Godwin point).

Call me pessimistic but I do not expect many people to change their long-held views on this issue, no matter how much evidence you were to pile in front of them. Facts have a tendency to disappear, the minute any ounce of emotion shows up in the debate. Which is also why it is always so much easier (and, to be fair, more realistic) to counter emotions with other emotions: pictures of Palestinian babies held at gunpoint at an Israeli checkpoint will convince a thousand more enthusiastic students than any drawn-out speech on the theoretical importance of Human Rights and the danger of compromising other people’s dignity for one’s own security.

This might be the other point where I would humbly disagree with Anna Baltzer’s source of hope for a resolution: she likened current situation in Occupied Territories to that of South Africa in the 80s (a topic I happened to know a little more about). Indeed, there is much parallel to be made, at all sorts of levels (and anybody who is shocked at the implication that the current Israeli situation might have any racist overtones has obviously never heard a single Israeli rightwinger), including in the proposed ways to help put pressure on the Israeli government to curb their policies back onto the right side of the Geneva Convention.

I am afraid the comparison stops there. While the pro-appartheid South African government enjoyed similar levels of tacit or open support from all sorts of geo-political allies (including… guess who), it never held anywhere close to a majority of supporters within its own population. From there, stopping their policies was first and foremost an issue of establishing proper democratic representation. For all its faults, Israel is still a democracy; one with strong authoritarian leanings, but a democracy nonetheless. Arab citizens of Israel do have a right to vote and even assuming you fixed some of the recent anti-democratic directions taken by the Knesset, it is unlikely that this would bring about dramatic improvement with regard to the treatment of people in Occupied Territories.

While dwindling support from their staunchest allies2 might help put pressure on Israel, I cannot picture any meaningful change happening without at least some reversal of political direction from within. Anna’s position seemed to be that previous leftwing Israeli governments of the 80’s/90’s have done just as much against Palestinian civilian population and that the Oslo accords did not amount to much, a point I instinctively would tend to disagree with. Unfortunately, I know that the many Israelis I have met, with strong distaste for their country’s current policies, aren’t a very meaningful statistical sample (for them to be living outside of Israel, there had to be a strong chance they weren’t fully happy about the place to start with).

But then again, I am no specialist of Israeli contemporary history: I just hope that she is partly wrong in thinking no manners of change in internal politics can help with the problem, because I cannot see external pressure reaching sufficient momentum within our lifetime… And things obviously cannot stay the way they are.

PS: At some point during the Qs&As, a few Japanese were shocked to learn that a lot of Jewish people held very strong opinions about blood line and matrilinearity (oh, don’t get me started). I nearly imploded under the irony.

PPS: Talk about coincidence, just as I was finishing this post, a friend posted a link to this fiercely anti-settlement Haaretz article. Incidentally, Haaretz: one of the few reasons not to lose all hope in moderate Israeli voices.

PPPS: Yet another arguably unbiased (as much as can be) report of life in the West Bank worth reading.

  1. I have no doubt she has to deal with her fair share of “self-hating jew” drivel, no matter what. []
  2. Not so likely, considering current US political news and the long history of close ties between US neo-cons and Israeli rightwingers. []

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