On Friday, lecture hopper extraordinaire Josh Mathew took the walk down to St. Mary‘s Episcopal church in Harlem to hear two scholars duke it out on the question of Israel and Palestine.
After making my way past the numerous activists handing out fliers condemning the war in Iraq and the U.S.’s conceivable Iranian escapades, I grabbed a seat in one of the old wooden pews of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on 126th in Harlem.
After recognizing a few familiar faces amongst this unusual congregation, I saw sitting up at the altar Dr. Joseph Massad, Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University, and his cospeaker Dr. Tanya Reinhart, Professor of Linguistics at Tel Aviv University and the University of Utrecht.
Massad and Reinhart’s co-lecture “Channeling Israeli Apartheid” capped off Israel Apartheid Week’s series of lectures, which focused on topics like divestment, marriage laws, and the media.
Although Massad’s lecture began with an acknowledgment of Israel’s “substantive and psychological” desire for peace, he soon added that Israel has simply requested that the world recognize its “right to be a racist state.” Followed by a round of laughter, the phrase became the central rhetorical device of Massad’s speech, serving as the semi-sarcastic tagline to many of his sentences. Massad criticized all existing solutions proposed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as having accepted Israel’s racist nature, racist laws, and system of apartheid. For example, after the 1993 Oslo Accords, the late President of the Palestinian National Authority Yasser Arafat recognized Israel’s “need to be a racist,” and following Arafat’s death, his successor Mahmoud Abbas has also been persuaded to recognize this “right to be racist.” In his conclusion, Massad, rejecting the proposed two-state plan, and recommended a “decolonized, binational state” as the only acceptable solution.
While Reinhart focused more on the anti-apartheid model of resistance, her lecture lacked Massad’s organization. While initially criticizing international demands on the Palestinians to renounce violence and recognize past accords, Reinhart eventually lauded the South African model of anti-apartheid resistance through divestment and sanctions. She considered it the preferable, nonviolent alternative to wiping Israel off the map, the plan Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has endorsed.
I raised an eyebrow at Reinhart’s faith that this anti-apartheid model had ushered in an age of “equality and dignity” for all South African citizens, whites included. Even Massad later countered that Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress were only able to bring about an end to white political domination by surrendering to American demands and accepting continued economic apartheid.
Following the two speeches was a question and answer session during which Massad explained his use of the term “right to be racist.” Expressing distaste for racial theory, Massad questioned the genetic links between 19th century European Jews and the ancient Israelite kingdom. He instead argued that notions of Semitic identity were actually the result of European gentile racism that sought to paint Ashkenazi Jews as foreigners. Citing the example of Germans who trace their ancestry back to the Aryans/Teutons of northern India, Massad noted that even if such a genetic link existed, no one would agree to the Deutschland’s colonization of the South Asian subcontinent.
In his closing statement, Massad’s vehement opposition to an Israeli ethnic state served as a more general criticism of ethnic national identities. However, while Massad posited that this “right to be racist” was a result of perceived Jewish exceptionalism, I wondered what was exceptional about this perceived right considering the global hegemony of ethnonationalism. While I share Massad’s demand for purely civic nationalism, states’ de jure and de facto glorification of specific religions, dialects, races, cultures, etc. marginalize his view into the realm of idealism.
The lecture ended with a short argument between the two professors about the merits of a one- and two-state solutions; however, as expressed earlier, they both believed a continuation of Israel’s policies was, as Reinhart stated, “suicidal” for Israel and that “saving Palestinians is saving Israel.”
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