Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A week of speeches

Khatami, Halper and Loewenstein ... three public speakers at Australia's main political university, the Australian National University (ANU), in a week.

I went to see them all, and nothing much out of the three surprised me. Many Israeli and Jewish critics of Israeli policy only seem to be repeating what Arabs have been saying for 60 years, but we're never going to convince the Israeli or Jewish public on our own. Indeed, a solution will never be found unless Israelis and Jews participate in finding a just peace.

Mohammad Khatami was eloquent and insightful about his program for dialogue among civilisations, and the need for the various civilisations to respect each other, something which he insists the West does not do vis-a-vis Islam or other cultures of the Third World.

He was able to steer clear of being dragged into discussion about the more controversial issues dominating Iran today, such as its stance towards Israel, the rights of women and minorities in the country etc.

The former Iranian President made the point that dialogue between civilisations had to be conducted by those that represent culture ... artists, scholars, academics, scientists and not politicians. However, he managed the questions as professionally as a politician could. He retorted narrow questions that specified on a certain point by fluffing about grand schemes. For example, several Bahais in the audience repeatedly quizzed Khatami on the rights of the sect in Iran, and Khatami brushed them off as matters of crime and governance.

Having said that, those who posed such political questions could only have expected a political response. Anyone who attended the public lecture (and there were several hundred in the audience) and anticipated a Khatami tirade of his theocratic regime were kidding themselves. Khatami eloquently distanced himself from some of the harsh measures of the theocracy, whilst maintaining its integrity and dignity in his responses.

I enjoyed watching Khatami, it is always enjoyable to watch a statesman at his best, regardless of his political affiliation. Khatami was followed by Australia's own statesman and former conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser - a harsh critic of Israel and Australia's blind support for the country - who welcomed Khatami's initiatives, and urged the West to open its eyes and do away with its superior-inferior complex when it comes to non-Western cultures. Indeed, perhaps their shared ideas of dialogue among civilisations and cultural co-existence might come into fruition some day.

Jeff Halper, the pro-Palestinian rights Israeli academic, was outstanding to say the least. Nothing he mentioned differed very much from the traditional Arab perspective, which is that the Palestinians have no rights, live in hell, and need help. The charismatic academic did well to outline the facts of Israel's colonisation of the West Bank, and its intentions. What he revealed matched everything of what I and others have previously said about Israel's strategy vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

Halper is now championing a one-state solution, something I too have long supported. I never considered the two-state solution to be feasible, essentially because it didn't take into consideration all of the Palestinian concerns, which meant conflict would always result. Even when the Palestinian leadership seemed willing to accept this half-arsed compromise, the Israelis had no intention of giving an ounce of territory to them.

Although Halper did step a bit further by privately stating to me that Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan should move to create a single economic unit that mirrored the historical unit of the Levant. I put the question to him, "you mean a Greater Syria?", followed by a few laughs. An Israeli advocating a Greater Syria? Who would've thought?

His essential point in the lecture was as follows: "For there to be a one-state solution, that would mean an end to the Jewish state. What's wrong with that?"

Exactly! What is wrong with that? Why can't Jews, Muslims and Christians share what is essentially the same country? If we are to approach this conflict from a human rights angle, there is nothing wrong with this proposal at all.

As for Antony Loewenstein, the Jewish-Australian and fellow pro-Palestinian rights activist/blogger/writer, I do feel for this guy. He is relatively young and has devoted an extraordinary amount of talent and effort to stand up to the Zionist powerhouse of his own community. He contributes far more to the Palestinian and Arab cause than do many of our own people. Activists like Loewenstein and Halper really put the Phalangists, Samir Geagea and their likes to shame.

Loewenstein also audaciously mentioned (to the humming of the audience) what is on all of our lips in the West that is seldomly spoken aloud ... our entrenched racism.

A brilliant remark he made, something which even I have dared not mention, was a reference to Western attitudes reflected in the military's treatment of indigenous populations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon/Palestine.

He stated that the horrors of Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Lebanon 2006, and Gaza 2009 were not simply lapses of military discipline, but rather a result of a widespread lack of "rules of engagement". Western militaries, Israel included, have no rules of engagement, and often do not distinguish between occupied civilians and combatants. The recurring abuses and massacres perpretrated by Western armies and Israel is a consequence of our underlying racism, and the fact that - as Loewenstein beautifully put it - the West views the indigenous peoples of these countries as inferior, akin to German perceptions of the inferior and expendable Jew prior to and during WWII.

This ties in with, what I believe was, Khatami's comments today that the West must respect the cultures and civilisations of the Third World, and cease viewing all that is non-Western as inferior.

Discussion on this core matter is virtually non-existent in the West because, as Loewenstein added, we in the West do not dare question our moral right, nor the possibility that we are in fact racist. We like to view ourselves as liberators, the bearers of modern civilisation and democracy, the beacon of human rights ... not as racists.

Well if there was something glaringly obvious to me whilst in Lebanon 2006, it was that too few cared about 1200 civilians getting killed, or the fate of those stuck in the conflict. I recall clearly how there were many in Australia who called on the Howard Government to not send rescue ships to help us, thousands of Australian-Lebanese stranded in the conflict. The arguments ranged from 'we weren't Australian', or 'we were just using the country for its welfare benefits' and so forth.

Indeed, the pro-Bush conservative government at the time acted to the tune of these arguments. I rang the embassy in Beirut, I registered online countless of times, I went down to see them face-to-face, only to be told I couldn't see them. Nothing, there was no news, there was no action, no one from DFAT or the embassy bothered to contact me or my friends. The clear underlying belief from these calls and the subsequent lacklustre behaviour of the Australian Government was that we were inferior Arabs, we weren't white and we weren't worthy of rescuing.

Fortunately, my Australian-Lebanese friends and I organised our own sortie, and drove to Syria in a private vehicle, dodging Israeli warplanes, with two Australian flags on our vehicle. Funny that us so called non-Australians happened to have Australian flags on us at the time.

What appeared so clear to me from these three talks is that we are all speaking the same language. A former Iranian President, an Israeli academic, a Jewish Australian activist/blogger/journalist, me - a Lebanese Australian blogger - and hundreds, if not thousands, of others on the blogosphere, in academia, in refugee camps, are repeating the same lines:

- The Palestinians need to be given their rights, and Israel has to accept their existence and learn to share the land with them.

- The West must equally learn to accept and respect the many civilisations it once colonised. It colonises them no longer, and this century will see its former colonies rise above it.

Whilst all three speakers happened to be coincidentally scheduled in the same week, together they served a serious reality check for those who attended.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well said Antoun,
I missed Lowenstein but the general message from Halper and Khatami was the west must listen to, and treat equally those it once colonised. And equal rights in historical Palestine for all its current and former residents.
It gives me hope that so many diverse voices are speaking on the same level.