Noura Erakat’s speech at Columbia Law School on Oct. 24 was articulate and intelligent, mirroring many students on our campus. The Palestinian American attorney and activist spoke about her new book Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine, in which she examines the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of international law.
But her talk embodied many discussions on our campus in another way: Erakat’s views are quite extreme. While she pines for Palestinian statehood, she does so by proposing unrealistic ideas that spell the destruction of Israel, which simply will not and should not happen. Many of her ideas will inevitably be regurgitated around campus, but it’s important to analyze them further and not take them at face value.
Erakat started her speech with a statement that set the tone for the rest of the lecture. The whole reason she went to law school, she explained, was so that she could obtain the tools and knowledge to sue Israeli generals. Erakat has devoted her life to researching the conflict, trying to understand its history and legal ramifications, and using that research to delegitimize Israel, using nuances in languages of different declarations and charters to challenge Israel’s legitimacy.
While at first glance, delegitimizing Israel may seem like a fair tactic to the uneducated observer, upon examining it a bit further, one can see it has antisemitic roots. No other country in the world has its legitimacy challenged on a consistent basis. Not one; only the Jewish state. Encoding this into a test, Natan Sharansky, a prominent Jewish refusenik and Israeli politician, established the “three Ds” test. Individuals are guilty of antisemitism if they specifically single out Israel for delegitimization, demonization, or by holding Israel to an unfair double standard—a definition that was adopted by the State Department in 2010.
Israel is, of course, by no means above criticism in terms of its politics or individual policies, but singling it out repeatedly for delegitimization is antisemitic. Additionally, trying to undermine Israel’s legitimacy is not going to help the Palestinian people achieve statehood. At the end of the day, Israel exists, and it should exist; it is not going anywhere anytime soon. It is well past due time for the world to recognize that fact and adjust accordingly, working with Israel and other international players to achieve peace.
Erakat also explained that the beginning of the Palestinian struggle—and not the culmination of it—needed to start with the return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland. While many people dream of this reality, this simply isn’t feasible.
When Israel was founded in 1948, it was established as a Jewish and democratic state. To ensure this, there needs to be a Jewish majority in Israel, and while all Israeli citizens—regardless of religion, race, sex or ethnicity—have equal rights, flooding Israel with Palestinian refugees is synonymous with Israel’s destruction as a Jewish and democratic state. It’s something Israel will never accept, can never be forced to accept, and should not accept. By trying to start the Palestinian struggle with the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, in essence Erakat’s idea is doomed to fail before it can even begin because it is simply unrealistic and untenable.
What struck a chord with me the most was the quote she read from the end of her book to finish off her speech: “What possibilities become available when Jewish Israelis are made part of the land and the rest of the Middle East, rather than forming a satellite state merely located in the Middle East?”
There are two enormous problems with this question. The first one, most obviously, is that it ignores history in the region. The Jewish people have been present in the region for thousands of years, but in the more modern era, they have faced violence. In 1929, 67 Jews in Hebron were massacred simply for being Jewish, and that wasn’t the only act of violence Jews suffered. Moreover, after the founding of the State of Israel, almost a million Jews were expelled from Arab countries. Ancient Jewish communities in cities such as Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo were forced to leave their homes, often times with little compensation. Unfortunately, when Jews were “made part of the land and the rest of the Middle East,” it resulted in expulsion, confiscation of land, pogroms, violence and antisemitism. This enhanced the need for a Jewish state, one that would protect its Jewish residents.
Yet perhaps the bigger problem is a result of the first. By denying Jewish and Israeli history—thereby isolating Israel further—Erakat subjects herself to a double standard. How can she, and many other prominent Palestinian and BDS activists, deny history, and then complain that Israel and the world have ignored the Palestinian cause? Many supporters of the Palestinian cause consistently complain that the world has ignored the Palestinians and their history; however, Erakat is guilty of the exact same charge—one that neither side should take lightly. By finishing her book talk with this quote and subjecting herself to this double standard, Erakat clearly denies history or proves that she is missing some key facts and weakens her own position as someone who should be prominently featured when discussing this conflict.
“How can [Erakat], and many other prominent Palestinian and BDS activists, deny history, and then complain that Israel and the world have ignored the Palestinian cause?”
While discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and BDS are commonplace among students, clubs and even student councils, it is important that supporters of both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict recognize that if we ever want to have productive dialogue on campus, we must identify hypocrisy and extremist elements, as well as learn the necessary history for debate to begin at a fair and productive level. Instead of Erakat ending her book talk with a question that puts the onus on Israel, why doesn’t she ask: “What possibilities become available when both sides of the conflict are able to be reasonable and come together to achieve peace?”
Originally published in jns.org.
Contributed by 2019-2020 Columbia University CAMERA Fellow Marc Cohen.