Whenever Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes a public appearance, the airwaves, papers, and Internet become flooded with outraged and self-righteous opinion pieces. He is called everything from “evil,” “racist,” a “blowhard” and a “hatemonger” to “ridiculous,” “ignorant,” “silly,” and a “clown.” His speeches are described as “diatribes,” “rants,” “screeds,” and “tirades.” Whereas this reaction is obvious and expected from those both in the mainstream media and on the Freedom Fries end of the political spectrum, these same epithets and denouncements are often found coming from a most surprising and disappointing source: so-called “liberals” who proudly identify themselves as anti-imperialist progressives.
Many recent critiques of Ahmadinejad’s speech at the Durban II conference in Geneva last week, written by peace activists and left-leaning analysts, have concluded that, even though the president may have uttered some painful and important truths, his understanding of Middle East history was reductionist, his speech poorly timed, and his words were, if twisted the wrong way by faulty analysis, an offensive, anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying incitement to genocide.
This reaction is not new. The character of President Ahmadinejad himself has been consistently caricatured as some sort of Persian court jester by Western progressives: one who may speak truth to power, but who does so crudely and without requisite tact. These same progressives label him as the domineering leader of an oppressive regime and he is therefore deemed unsuited to voice the opinions of the Western anti-imperialist cause. Something about glass houses and stone-throwing follows, perhaps.
Yes, Ahmadinejad condemns Zionism. What is not explained in right-wing harangues or progressive criticism is that he views Zionism as a political ideology separate from Judaism, a distinction all informed people should make as well. He has consistently called for a free and fair referendum to determine the representative political structure of the whole population - a vote by all inhabitants of the land of historical Palestine. There is no call for the return of Palestinian land at the expense of Jews - only that justice be served and self-determination by the residents of the region be respected. He has never threatened Israel with military force or aggression (and isn’t even in a position to make such threats, considering he’s not Commander-in-Chief of the Iranian military). In fact, he attempted to quash constant accusations of the Iranian leadership’s anti-Semitism by telling Larry King last fall, “we don't have a problem with the Jewish people.” Ahmadinejad further clarified his government’s political position towards Israel during a press conference in September 2008: “We are opposed to the idea that the people who live there should be thrown into the sea or be burnt...We believe that all the people who live there, the Jews, Muslims and Christians, should take part in a free referendum and choose their government.”
It should also be made perfectly clear that Ahmadinejad does not condemn Israel for claiming to be a “Jewish” state. He believes that the decision to pick a political system should be left to the people who have to live under that system. He has stated that Iran will recognize and accept any resulting governmental system once it has been voted on openly.
By contrast, Israel has never written or adopted a formal Constitution of any form. Israel’s own unilateral declaration of independence on May 14, 1948, stated that a constitution would be formulated and ratified by the state no later than October 1, 1948. The adoption of a democratic constitution was also a requirement of the General Assembly Resolution 181, which even supported the establishment of a “Jewish” state. Nevertheless, no constitution was ever drawn up, voted on, or adopted. Instead, Israeli constitutional law has been established piecemeal over time by Knesset-approved legislation that gained legal ascendancy by a Supreme Court ruling in 1998. These “Basic Laws,” which establish the roles of various governmental institutions and offices and affirm certain human rights to its citizenry (including the ironically named, “Freedom of Occupation”), have never been subject to popular vote or referendum by the Israeli people, whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. And this is what people call the great democracy in the Middle East?
The Iranian Constitution, on the other hand, established a governmental system that was approved by the overwhelming majority of the population of that country. Iranians were not colonized or made to accept a system with which they disagreed or that would endanger their lives. Did Native Americans or African slaves get a vote regarding the US Constitution, which holds non-whites to be valued as less than a whole person and affirms the continuation of slavery, or Manifest Destiny that saw the genocide of tens of millions of people? I don't believe that Black South Africans voted for Apartheid. As such, progressives should all agree that many laws set up by colonial governments, such as Israel’s “Law of Return,” are, at the core, racist and unrepresentative.
Is Iran a perfect bastion of freedom of expression and human rights? No, certainly not. But to claim that criticism of another country must be in direct proportion to the troubles or issues facing your own country is an absurd concept. Were that the case, Barack Obama, the current embodiment of the US government, shouldn't ever open his mouth regarding anything having to do with a just foreign policy, the rule of international law, or anything else, ever. It is the US that is currently occupying two foreign countries and that has over 700 military bases overseas. It is bankrolling and supporting Israeli aggression, occupation, and continued colonialism and expansionism. Black kettles, anyone?
There is also umbrage taken at Ahmadinejad’s condemnation of the Zionist movement in Palestine - a movement that preceded World War II and the Holocaust by decades. In his Durban speech, critics argue, Ahmadinejad condenses history so as to ignore the anti-imperial elements of the pre-state Zionist militias and assigns blame to the fledgling United Nations for validating Jewish nationalism only after World War II. Personally, I do not believe that President Ahmadinejad arrived in Switzerland with the intent of giving a lengthy history lesson. Nor do I believe that his historical analysis is simplistic or reductionist. Speaking at the UN conference, Ahmadinejad discussed the UN’s role in displacing over 750,000 indigenous people from their land and the immorality and injustice of using the horrors of the Holocaust to justify such deliberate ethnic cleansing. The bombing of the King David Hotel by Irgun occurred after the Holocaust. The 1947 Partition Plan came after the Holocaust. The Deir Yassin massacre came after the Holocaust. The Nakba came after the Holocaust; this is what Ahmadinejad refers to in his speech. Since the Western powers did not support the Zionist cause before World War II, it is clear that pre-State Zionism is irrelevant to Ahmadinejad’s point.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, in his critique of Ahmadnejad’s speech, ascribes reductionism and error to the Iranian President’s truncated description of history. He claims that the Arab aversion to the implementation of Zionism in Palestine was a “misunderstanding,” explaining that “Palestinians saw the Jews as an invading force that would uproot their own Arab society. Yet most Jews coming to Palestine were fleeing oppression, and simply could not understand how Palestinians would view them as agents of a Christian West.” This viewpoint as presented by Lerner clouds the truth, intentionally or not, about Zionist thought from the very beginning.
“We shall try to spirit the penniless population (i.e. Arab) across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our own country.”Israel Zangwill, the sloganeer behind “The land without a people for a people without a land,” also knew full well that Palestine was already inhabited. “There is, however, a difficulty from which the Zionist dare not avert his eyes, though he rarely likes to face it. Palestine proper has already its inhabitants,” he wrote in the Voice of Jerusalem in 1904. “The Pashalik of Jerusalem is already twice as thickly populated as the United States, having fifty-two souls to every square mile, and not 25 percent of them Jews; so we must be prepared either to drive out by the sword the tribes in possession as our forefathers did, or to grapple with the problem of a large alien population, mostly Mohammedan [i.e. Muslim].”
Vladmir Jabotinsky, in his 1923 Zionist manifesto, The Iron Wall, spoke directly to Lerner’s erroneous claims when he wrote,
“…there has never been an indigenous inhabitant anywhere or at any time who has ever accepted the settlement of others in his country…And so it is for the Arabs. Compromisers in our midst attempt to convince us that the Arabs are some kind of fools who can be tricked by a softened formulation of our goals, or a tribe of money grubbers who will abandon their birth right to Palestine for cultural and economic gains. I flatly reject this assessment of the Palestinian Arabs…We can talk as much as we want about our good intentions; but they understand as well as we what is not good for them. They look upon Palestine with the same instinctive love and true fervor that any Aztec looked upon his Mexico or any Sioux looked upon his prairie. To think that the Arabs will voluntarily consent to the realization of Zionism in return for the cultural and economic benefits we can bestow on them is infantile. This childish fantasy of our “Arabo-philes” comes from some kind of contempt for the Arab people, of some kind of unfounded view of this race as a rabble ready to be bribed in order to sell out their homeland for a railroad network.”Jabotinsky continues,
“Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonized…Zionist colonization, even the most restricted, must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population…As long as there is a spark of hope that they can get rid of us, they will not sell these hopes, not for any kind of sweet words or tasty morsels, because they are not a rabble but a nation, perhaps somewhat tattered, but still living. A living people makes such enormous concessions on such fateful questions only when there is no hope left.”To claim that peaceful coexistence was the goal of Jewish nationalism is to rewrite history in order to assuage the consciences of those who regret the consequences of colonialism but insist on justifying it anyway.
Furthermore, in his article regarding the Durban II speech, Steve Weissman writes, “If we follow Ahmadinejad’s logic, as many in Hamas now do, we must fight to undo over 60 years of history, and that will be a fight to the death. The call to eliminate the State of Israel, while not explicitly a call to kill Israelis or other Jews, will sound to them as an incitement to genocide, and they will fight it without mercy.”