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Seeds of resistance: Palestinian farmers fight against annexation and pandemic

The violent Israeli encroachment and annexation of Palestinian land is compromising the future of the West Bank and putting its residents in an extremely vulnerable position. Palestinians are resisting both annexation and the Covid-19 pandemic by returning to their land and cultivating it, with the support of social justice movements. A concrete example of their contribution to Palestine’s rich agrarian heritage is a seed bank, whose hardy indigenous seeds are feeding people in the short term and protecting the climate and defending territory for generations to come.

Olives in the hand of an old woman
Image Credit: Salena Tramel

It has not been an easy year for Palestinians, if there ever was such a thing. With the turn of a new decade in January, the U.S. administration unveiled the paradoxically branded calling for Israel to unilaterally annex about a third of the West Bank. Then the coronavirus slipped through the checkpoints into Bethlehem in March, sending millions of Palestinians into lockdown. And in April, Israel formed a unity government with an eye on the immediate annexation of the Jordan Valley in direct violation of international law.

The land grab is set to be pushed through this month, and many Palestinians worry that it could go largely unnoticed as the world’s attention is focused squarely on defeating the Covid-19 pandemic and curbing its economic fallout.

Palestine is often presented as an anomaly in global politics. Apologists of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories have been able to effectively present a narrative of exceptionalism by emphasising the relatively small size of this hotly contested corner of the Mediterranean, insisting that there are irreconcilable religious divisions. The fight against Covid-19 points to similar dynamics as the Israeli government has received lavish praise for its response to the pandemic within its own borders while letting it spill over into the occupied territories essentially unchecked.

In the context of crisis that has recently been compounded by the looming annexation plan and the health threats presented by the pandemic, social justice movements in the agricultural sector have elevated their struggles to new levels. Key among these endeavours are the protection of natural resources such as land, water, and seeds, as well as the ongoing struggle for the recognition of multiple forms of Palestinian sovereignty.

“Our response to the coronavirus pandemic has been to urge our people to go back to their lands and cultivate,” said Amal Abbas* of the Union of Agricultural Works Committees (UAWC), a small-scale food producers’ movement representing some 20,000 peasant farmers and fishers in the West Bank and Gaza. This Palestinian version of sheltering in place mirrors UAWC’s broader strategy of resisting occupation and annexation, work that it has been doing since 1986.

Settler colonialism, the invasive process that seeks to replace an indigenous population with an external one, has its own Kafkaesque set of rules upholding it in the Israeli legal system. An important example of this is a law that stipulates that if land is not worked for three years, it automatically becomes [Israeli] state land. The Israeli military has gone to great lengths to fold as much “idle” Palestinian land as possible into the architecture of the state. This law is used in part to justify the establishment and expansion of illegal Israeli settlements by means of violent evictions, home demolitions, the confiscation of cultivated agricultural land, and the separation wall.

Palestinian human rights defenders are working to flip this narrative and the overarching political project it sustains on its head. Farmers and rural workers in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip—just like anywhere else—have been longstanding agents of social change, and for this reason are among the most targeted sectors of Palestinian society.

This slow form of violent encroachment, together with the fast-tracked one of annexation that is on the Israeli parliamentary table with strong U.S. support, puts the future of the West Bank and its residents in an extremely vulnerable position. “The Israeli military has been taking advantage of our current emergency situation and accelerating its actions,” offered Amal.

Some of the most egregious actions taken by Israeli authorities in the current context of pandemic have occurred in the Jordan Valley, which is precisely the area they seek to annex. This area already falls under the classification of Area C, meaning that it is part of the more than 60% of the West Bank that is under full Israeli civilian and military control. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Area C is rich in natural resources such as underground water and fertile growing land. Not only is the Jordan Valley the unequivocal agricultural jewel of Area C, but it is also a strategic border with Jordan and a gateway to the Arab countries of the greater Levant.

Public services are in short supply for the Jordan Valley’s majority Bedouin population. That is why movements of farmers and workers like UAWC are filling that gap, providing basic services like water, sanitation, education, seeds, food, and nutrition. Even these services face relentless and aggressive opposition. For instance in late March, the Israeli military destroyed an emergency coronavirus field clinic that Palestinians were in the process of erecting in the northern Jordan Valley.

Despite these threats, UAWC and other Palestinian grassroots organisations visit elderly people and pregnant women in mobile clinics, distribute educational and protective supplies, and construct rooftop and urban gardens across diverse communities. This coronavirus crisis response work has largely been successful because it is a reflection of the kind of work Palestinian social movements continually engage in throughout the ongoing crises that occur under military occupation.

“Some of the best work that we are doing to fight off the virus and resist the annexation is through our seed bank,” said Amal. UAWC has maintained a seed bank since 2003; in it they safeguard rare heirloom Palestinian seeds that have been carefully passed down from one generation to the next. These seeds and the food sources they produce have a multiplicity of purposes. “Not only do our indigenous seeds make it easier to return to our land and protect it through cultivation,” Amal explained, “they hardly use any water and shield us from climate change.” She added: “And with so many still locked down because of Covid-19, continuous access to seeds allows people to feed their families and neighbours when it is unsafe to access food via the marketplace.”

UAWC insists on the importance of internationalism and solidarity in normalising the plight of the Palestinian small-scale food producers it represents. It is a member of the international peasant movement La Vía Campesina, which has taken a strong stand against colonialism and corporate control of agriculture and is active in 81 countries. Maintaining that important political relationship has allowed Palestinian activists the opportunity to host learning exchanges in their territories and also participate in those that take place abroad.

“Together with La Vía Campesina, we are using this opportunity to prove to the whole world that the global health care and food systems are not working and put forth our solution of agroecology as an alternative to the neoliberal model,” Amal explained.

Our contributions to the food sovereignty movement as Palestinians can help people understand that the occupation is about control over natural resources just like most other land grabs – Amal

Certainly, the militarised Israeli conquest of Palestinian territory has its own history, but it is also indicative of settler colonial processes that have taken place elsewhere, such as in the Americas, Australia, and South Africa. As this next phase of annexation plays out in the West Bank, against the distracting backdrop of the pandemic, these connections are critical. Far from an anomaly of the global politics of natural resources, Palestine has encapsulated them in a microcosm.

* Name has been changed to maintain confidentiality

This article was originally published on Open Democracy and has been reposted with permission of the author.

About the author:

Salena TramelSalena Fay Tramel is a journalist and PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, where her work is centered on the intersections of resource grabs, climate change mitigation, and the intertwining of (trans)national agrarian/social justice movements.

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Misleading narratives distort antisemitism discourses

Bigotry, in all its forms, is steadily rising. Clearly, being non-racist is not enough; we need to be anti-racist to be able to combat race-related bigotry once and for all. This principle should indeed apply to all forms of bigotry, including antisemitism. However, as this article explains, misleading narratives in the documentary film Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations distort our understanding, and even serve as a cover, for other forms of intolerance, which can move us closer to bigotry instead of further away from it.

Ferguson is Palestine
© George Latuff, Middle East Monitor.

Anti-black racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry are on the rise in Europe and elsewhere in the world, according to annual reports of the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance. As a result, people are rising up in protest through #BlackLivesMatter and other movements. The global outcry and calls for change following the police killing of George Floyd vividly reveals just how prevalent racism still is. Yet, it is also clear how some organizations purporting to challenge such hate crimes can use an anti-racist message as “cover” for other forms of bigotry and intolerance, as a recent documentary has also done.

Antisemitism in films and documentaries

In cinematography, antisemitism, like other forms of bigotry, often has been afforded special attention. As a Jewish youth growing up in my congregation, I watched many of these movies dealing with antisemitism—from classics such as Ben-Hur (1959) to the more recent Schindler’s List (1993). One of the most recent and acclaimed documentaries I saw was the bold 2009 film Defamation by Israeli film-maker Yoav Shamir. I was therefore curious about how antisemitism was dealt with in the recently released documentary Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations by the American film-maker Andrew Goldberg. However, I felt very dispirited after watching it. Rather than meaningfully addressing the very real problem of antisemitism in the world, this documentary reproduces misleading narratives that distort discourses on antisemitism.

In this article, I will explain how the film-maker argues that there is a moral equivalence between four different forms or “mutations” of antisemitism and what’s wrong with this conceptualization of it.

Four “mutations” of antisemitism

Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations attempts to show how four different examples of antisemitism manifest in present-day society and the “logics” that purportedly drive antisemitism. The documentary is intended to provide what the film-maker regards as an honest view of antisemitism, but is so unbalanced that it ends up having the opposite effect.

In Part I of the movie, the focus is on the Far Right in the USA. After very moving, personal testimonies by victims of various violent antisemitic attacks, the documentary turns to an interview with a Mr. Walker, who is running for the state legislature in North Carolina. Walker insists that “God likes whites more than blacks”, argues that black persons and Muslims are the same, and finally reproduces a typical antisemitic conspiracy trope that “the Jew was created to destroy white Christian nations”. George Will, a prize-winning Washington Post columnist, then sums up the perverse “logic” behind antisemitism: “In a healthy society that has problems, people ask ‘what did we do to cause this’? In an unhealthy society that has problems, they say ‘who did this to us’? And the Jews are always a candidate.”

In Part II, the focus is on a smear campaign by the right-wing, nationalist president of Hungary, Victor Orban, aimed at the liberal Hungarian-American businessman and philanthropist George Soros. Classic antisemitic tropes are invoked, presenting clear examples of antisemitism through the use of grotesque cartoons and photoshopped images of Soros with exaggerated Judaic features. Moreover, the Hungarian media juxtaposes images of Muslims entering the country against accusations that they are “inundating your culture” and, moreover, are part of a “Soros plan”. Posters, billboards and television ads all reinforce these patently antisemitic and Islamophobic messages.

I am disgusted. However, something crucial is missing. While examples of antisemitism by Orban and others in his government are well established, paradoxically, as one interviewed professor notes, Orban does not want to be accused of antisemitism. Indeed, “he wants to pose with ‘them’—he even wears the hat”. Why is it, then, that Orban, his political party and the Hungarian government crudely reproduce antisemitic tropes while simultaneously object to being called antisemitic? The film-maker doesn’t address this crucial issue at all, also avoiding Orban’s very public cultivation of diplomatic ties with the State of Israel.

Further omissions are apparent in Part III of the film, which purports to focus on antisemitism among the “Far Left” in the United Kingdom. There is no mention of antisemitism within the Conservative Party. The focus is squarely on the Labour Party. The accusation is that Labour’s alleged antisemitism problem is due to “left-wing extremists” who condemn capitalism, criticize Israel and therefore by definition are antisemitic. This is both highly unconvincing and inflammatory, reinforced by interviews with embittered former Labour members who are also vocal supporters of Israel (and neo-liberal economic policies), such as former Labour leader Tony Blair.

Totally unaddressed are what these so-called “left-wing extremists” criticize, namely Israel’s discriminatory and brutal policies against Palestinians that have been labelled as an “apartheid regime”. While maintaining its thin claims against “leftists”, the film-maker fails entirely to engage with the many critics of these claims, such as Jamie Stern Weiner or Mehdi Hasan. Or with a comprehensive report on distorted media coverage of the Labour Party by Dr. Justin Scholsberg of Birkbeck College and journalist Laura Laker. Or with the book Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, The Party and Public Belief by award-winning journalists and academics Greg Philo, Mike Berry, Justin Scholsberg, Antony Lerman and David Miller. To name but a few.

Part IV focuses exclusively on what the filmmaker describes as “Islamic radicalism” in France. The primary perpetrators of antisemitism, it is claimed, are “Islamic extremists”. Brief reference is made to what is described as “France’s colonial experiment”, which led to hundreds of thousands of Muslims to move to France. The implication is that those suffering from “post-colonialism” have a problem. Rather than acknowledge the country’s expansive Islamophobia, the film-maker plays directly into it, asserting that, based on “surveys”, one-third of Muslims in France are antisemitic, as compared with ten percent of non-Muslims. The suggestion that Muslims are far-more inclined than anyone else to hate Jews is both unsubstantiated, based on anecdotal examples and utterly fails to address the historical context of both antisemitism and Islamophobia.

 Time for a serious discussion about antisemitism

As the film does reveal, there is clearly a problem of antisemitism (as well as Islamophobia, racism and other forms of bigotry and intolerance), deserving of a serious discussion. However, the film is so filled with distortions that it doesn’t help to really understand, let alone combat this problem.

The film’s fatal flaw, noted elsewhere by Michelle Goldberg, is its conflation of criticisms of Israel and antisemitism. Indeed, this becomes a conspiracy theory of its own that “people hate Israel because they simultaneously hate the Jews, capitalism, and Western democracy”. Moreover, by interspersing credible examples of antisemitism with highly questionable examples, the selective treatment of these four “mutations” and the drawing of a moral equivalence between them critically undermine the very important goal of addressing antisemitism.

The need for critical reflection

The global fight against bigotry must be taken seriously. Hence, a serious and balanced documentary about antisemitism would be something different entirely. It would acknowledge the context of antisemitism as being part of a broader pattern of hatred, intolerance and discrimination affecting many persecuted groups. It would include constructive criticism of the film-maker’s assumptions. And finally, it would not make simplistic and distorted assumptions that critics of Israel’s expansionist, colonial and discriminatory regime are de facto antisemitic.

Jeff Handmaker

About the author:

Jeff Handmaker is a senior researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and focuses on legal mobilisation.

He is a regular author for Bliss. Read all his posts here.