On Friday, February 29th, I sat down with George Deek, a Christian Arab and Israel’s former deputy ambassador to Norway, to discuss the politics of divestment and the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Below is a transcript of my interview, edited for length and clarity.
Claudia Wharton: Stanford’s student senate recently passed a divestment initiative. Why do you think that people have been so receptive to the divestment campaign in recent years?
George Deek: I think this is a campaign bent on being anti to anything Israel does. Now, of course, we have problems, and criticism of Israel is completely legitimate. That’s what we do in Israel itself. But it feels that a lot of people have gotten hooked on a narrative that positions everyone in very black and white positions — as victims and perpetrators, good guys and bad guys, oppressed and oppressors. I think a lot of people are buying into that narrative without looking at the facts on the ground and checking them in a thorough or serious way. The organizers of this campaign are aware that this kind of narrative would get a lot of positive feedback. They’re abusing the discourse of human rights by blaming Israel for everything from Apartheid to genocide in order to lead otherwise good and decent people to question the right of Israel to exist.
I see this as a continuation of the [Arab-Israeli wars] in 1948, 1967, and 1973. People tried to put Israel in a military crisis through wars of annihilation, and they failed. In the seventies, there was an attempt to put Israel in an economic crisis through Arab boycott, and it failed. In 1975, the notorious Durban Resolution equating Zionism with racism tried to put Israel in a diplomatic crisis, and it failed. And now, these BDS attempts are trying to put Israel in a moral crisis, abusing the human rights discourse in a way that people will simply go along with — a simplistic narrative which is not always based in truth and fact.
CW: I think one of the issues that students here have had the most trouble wrapping their heads around is Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and why Israel insists on them despite so much international pressure to remove them. Could you explain the reasoning behind that?
GD: Well, the settlement policy in Israel is a subject of huge debate in Israel itself. If you go from left-wing to right-wing, you hear a lot of different opinions on settlements. But if you want to have peace in the Middle East, you need to try to look at the root cause of the conflict. Look, for example, at Gaza: In 2005, Israel removed all the settlements. Twenty-two thousand people were pulled out of their homes and tens of settlements were completely dismantled. There’s not a single soldier left on Gaza soil. Now, I would expect if settlements were indeed the conflict root cause — the real issue — then removing the settlements would bring a more peaceful reality.
What we see on the ground is that the exact opposite happened — instead of being more peaceful, Gaza became a terror base for launching rockets. So are the settlements preventing us from reaching a peace agreement? With Egypt in 1979, we also had settlements in Sinai, but when the agreement was signed, we took them out, just as we did in Gaza without even an agreement.
There is a joke about the guy looking for his keys under a streetlight in the middle of the night. Someone comes and tries to help him find his keys, and after looking for ten minutes, the new guy asks him, “are you sure you lost your keys here because we can’t find anything.” He says “oh no, I dropped them somewhere else completely.” The new guy says, “then why are we looking here?” He says, “because here the light is much better.”
So it seems to me that people are trying to look for the solution where it’s easier to talk about, where the light is better. Let’s talk about borders and settlements and territory. These are things everyone can relate to. It connects to the whole colonialism discourse people try to put Israel in. But the key to the solution is not under the street light; it’s not where the light is better. It’s exactly in the place where Israel’s character as a Jewish state is being rejected. There is a notion that there isn’t room for Jews in the Middle East. I believe that is a danger, not just for the Jews and for Israel, but for the whole Arab world, because hate that begins with Jews does not end with Jews.
When I see the persecution of Christians like me in the rest of the Middle East — when I see the persecution of the Yazidis and Kurds and Bahá’ís, or Sunnis against Shi’ites and Shi’ites against Sunnis in the Muslim world — it becomes clear that at the end of the day, hate will destroy the hater. I mean, you look at the polls and you see seventy percent of the Arab world says that the Arab world should not recognize Israel, even if there were a peace agreement, and you ask yourself: Why is there such rejection to the idea of a Jewish state? And the reason is that the Arab world, when it asks itself, “do we have room in our midst for a country that is different than us, for people who are different?,” the answer was and remains no. The result ranges from terror to wars to boycott or divestment — these are all manifestations of the notion that the Middle East has no room for Jews.
CW: Where do you see the biggest differences between the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) narratives about Israel, and the Israeli narrative you know as a Christian Arab living in Israel? What are the biggest lies or omissions you see made when people criticize Israel?
GD: The BDS campaign is not about criticizing Israel. It’s about demonizing and dehumanizing it. For example, you would hear a lot of comparisons between Israel and the Apartheid regime: Israel as a colonialist state; Israel stealing and grabbing land.
Now, there are a lot of politics on the ground that are important to discuss — the issue of borders, the issue of settlements, the issue of refugees in Jerusalem. These are all important topics. Many critics of Israel are interested in finding a solution, not intensifying the problem. They want to find a solution where both Jews and Arabs can live without fear in that region. Meanwhile, the aim of the BDS campaign is to put Israel in a moral crisis. And we have to make sure that people don’t get convinced by a nice slogan and a nice campaign based on a groundless agenda.
People ask me: How do you differentiate between a legitimate criticism of Israel and the kind that is less legitimate, less constructive? I would say the test is the famous “three D” test. The first D is dehumanization; trying to portray Israel as something not human, as something that is sons of apes and pigs, people who are half-demons who are trying to take over the world. The second D is demonization: people who are trying to demonize Israel with claims like, “Israel is controlling world media.” The third D is delegitimization, where people question the right of the Jewish people for self-determination, which is exactly the same right they are asking for the Palestinian people. If you hear people doing any one of those three, you should be very careful when you address that issue.
Also, your criticism has to reflect your values. If you are a liberal person — if you are a person who believes in freedom and free speech and a free economy — you shouldn’t associate yourself with people who believe in the exact opposite. So, when I see people who are true liberals — people who believe in a free society and equality and in good treatment of people whether they are women or gays and so on — and I see them marching side-by-side with elements that oppress their women, that treat them as less than human, people who hang gay people from cranes, it looks to me like black people marching side by side with the KKK. How can you possibly do that; how can you possibly associate yourself with such an ideology? Our criticism should reflect what we truly believe in.
CW: Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, and it seems like it’s a much more tolerant place than the Middle East. What do you think is driving the radicalization of Islam in the Middle East, given the rise of ISIS?
GD: I think the biggest problem of the Arab world is that it is moving from a place of diversity to a place of uniformity. From a place where we had the most ancient cultures — such as the Yazidis and the Kurds and the Christians and the Jews — to a place where people are targeting anyone who is different, anyone who is not like them. Unless the Middle East will someday be a place where Jews have a place and Christians have a place and where Bahá’ís and the Yazidis can be safe and live their life and their culture without fear, then we are all going to end up in an abyss of darkness.
This is the great test of the Middle East — are we able to tolerate people who are different? As long as the answer is no, then at the end of the day, hate will destroy the hater. This is exactly why Israel is so important for the Middle East, and not just for the people in Israel. It sets an example of how a society can live and at the same time be diverse. We have elections coming up in three weeks in Israel, and the judge who is the head of the elections committee — who decides who can run and who cannot run for Israeli parliament — is an Arab judge.
Israel is the place where the Bahá’ís built their biggest and most important temple in the world, and they can practice their faith with all the freedom that is given in Israel. It is the place where Muslim women can wear the hijab anywhere (which is not allowed in France), where Muslims can build minarets to their mosques (which is not allowed in Switzerland). Last month, I was in Israel celebrating Christmas with my family, but I remembered with sadness that across the Middle East, Christmas celebrations have become a rare sight.
That diversity is exactly the key to making Israel a world leader for innovation in every field, from technology to modern dance. The reason why the Arab world has not contributed to the well-being of the world in terms of innovation and technology and culture and literature as much as it should is exactly because when you don’t have room for people who are different, you will not have room for ideas that are different. That is the key. If the Arab world wants to move forward, it has to have room for ideas that are different and, most of all, accept peoples and cultures and faiths that are different.
Claudia Wharton, a junior studying history, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.