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A Dear Jon (Voight) Letter About Gaza and the History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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JON VOIGHT
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Dear Jon Voight,

We write to you as admirers of your work for many years. We are also professors of modern Middle Eastern studies, specializing on the history and contemporary realities of Israel, Zionism and Palestine, and between the two of us, we have written and edited over half a dozen books on the country and the two peoples who are destined -- or doomed, depending on your point of view -- to share it.

We have read your open letter to Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and other critics of the latest Israeli bombing and invasion of Gaza, in response to their own open letter condemning Israeli actions during the war. Your passion for defending Israel is clearly as great as your passion for acting. However, behind your passion is a view of Israel's history and current actions that are utterly at odds with the actual history and present-day realities in the country. They are simply dead-wrong, and your belief in them has led you to adopt views that will ultimately -- and at this rate, sooner rather than later -- doom, not defend, Israel. Moreover, while you have laudably said that they or other actors should not face industry sanctions for standing up to Israel, we believe that the intensity of your criticism, coupled with the inaccuracy of the arguments, not only exacerbates the rewriting of the conflict's history in the mainstream media but contributes both to a toxic atmosphere of hatred against Palestinians and to a purported blacklist against them.

Let us begin with your opening argument:

They are obviously ignorant of the whole story of Israel's birth, when in 1948 the Jewish people were offered by the UN a portion of the land originally set aside for them in 1921, and the Arab Palestinians were offered the other half. The Arabs rejected the offer, and the Jews accepted, only to be attacked by five surrounding Arab countries committed to driving them into the sea. But the Israelis won. The Arabs tried it again in 1967, and again in 1973, launching a sneak attack on the holiest Jewish holiday. Each time the Jews prevailed but not without great loss of life. And when Israel was not fighting a major war, it was defending itself against terrorist campaigns.

This is the traditional narrative of Israel's birth, part of what Israeli hisitorian Simha Flapan described as the "myths" surrounding Israel in his famous 1987 book The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities. However, this is a distortion of the actual history, which saw Zionism arrive on the soil of a Palestine that was already in the midst of its own modernization, against which what Israeli sociologist Gershon Shafir describes as a "militant [Zionist] nationalist movement" developed, deploying the "conquest of labor" and then the "conquest of land" to increasingly powerful effect once the British conquered Palestine in 1917.

After three decades of British rule that was legally committed -- through the Balfour Declaration and the Palestine Mandate -- to facilitate the creation of a Jewish "national home" at the expense of fostering Palestinian Arab nationalism, outright civil war became inevitable. When war finally came, the Zionist leadership "accepted" the terms of the 1947 Partition Plan. In reality, they had little intention of actually fulfilling them, and over the next year, through intercommunal conflict and then all-out war, three quarters of a million Palestinians were permanently forced from their homes, and over 500 villages were destroyed.

As for your claims that Israel was attacked by surrounding countries determined to throw it into the sea, this too is belied by the historical record. As Oxford University professors Avi Shlaim and Eugene Rogan demonstrated in their book The War for Palestine, Rewriting the History of 1948, minimal and badly trained and equipped forces were sent; their main goals were to prevent themselves from looking like collaborators and their rival Mufti of Jerusalem from establishing a state, and, where possible, to take whatever territory they could for themselves. Most important here, Jordan -- the one neighbor with an effective, British-run army -- had reached a modus vivendi with the Zionist/Israeli leadership in which it would take over the West Bank and leave Israel the rest of the country. The only exception was Jerusalem, about which the two sides couldn't agree and which therefore became the scene of the worst fighting of the war.

Let's leave aside the fact that you don't mention the 1956 tripartite invasion of Egypt by Israel, France and the UK, which not even Israelis argue was a defensive war. Similar to your description of 1948, your description of 1967 as the "Arab trying again" to destroy Israel is historically inaccurate. There were certainly many threats emanating from Arab capitals in the late spring of 1967, but ultimately it was Israel, not the Arab states, that clearly launched a "sneak attack." The CIA even predicted that Israel could wipe out the combined forces of the surrounding states in roughly five days, which is exactly what happened.

While presented to the world as a war of survival, 1967 was in fact a war of conquest and expansion. How do we know this? Quite simply because that's just what Israel did: It conquered and occupied the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights and proceeded to settle them intensively, particularly in the biblical heartland of the West Bank.

Here, Mr. Voight, it is absolutely crucial to understand that if Israel were really afraid to turn over the West Bank to Palestinians for security reasons -- that is, if the occupation were in fact about security -- it could have maintained a military occupation to this day without violating international law. But instead it began a settlement enterprise that came to dominate Israeli political life, eventually placing well over half a million settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, in clear contravention of international law, which expressly forbids transferring civilians from one country into an occupied territory.

Indeed, Israel today could withdraw civilian settlers from the West Bank at any moment and bring itself into compliance with international law while continuing to occupy the West Bank militarily indefinitely. But of course it will never do that. In fact, as Israeli scholar Meron Benvenisti already argued back in 1987 with his West Bank Database Project, when there were only about 60,000 settlers (one 10th of the present number), by this time the West Bank was already so integrated into Israel that it would never be possible to withdraw from it.

Mr. Voight, have you ever visited the Palestinian West Bank or Gaza or spoken with Palestinians who've suffered under decades of Israeli occupation? Had you been forced to suffer their fate, your anger would certainly be directed elsewhere. During the last five decades Palestinians have suffered continuous expropriation of their lands, collective punishment, destruction of their homes, seizures of their agricultural land and destruction of their trees and crops, extrajudicial executions, exile, kidnapping, torture, use of human shields, economic blockade and closure, constant invasions and bombing, denial of the right to education or development, massive exploitation and then closure. And contrary to your assertion that Israel has "always labored for peaceful relations," it not only completely ignored its obligations to support full Palestinian autonomy in the Camp David Agreements but invaded and occupied another sovereign country, Lebanon, for 19 years.

Do you think Israel, which has received hundreds of billions of U.S. tax dollars, should be able to behave like this with impunity? Human Rights Watch has just released a report based on survivors' testimonies demonstrating that Israel shot and bombed fleeing civilians during hostilities, in complete contravention of international law. This is not new, you should know. Israel engaged in similar attacks on fleeing civilians during the 2008-'09 war with Gaza and has in fact killed thousands of Palestinians in this manner. Where is the justice in that? How do such actions make Israel or America safer, freer or more secure?

Similarly, today, Israel did not "give the Palestinians all of Gaza as a peace gesture." To begin with, Gaza was never a gift Israel could "give" to Palestinians. It was not only occupied under international law but legally inseparable from the West Bank. Israel could merely withdraw and then impose a blockade while at the same time intensifying once again its settlements in and control over the West Bank. But that is precisely what then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did: His goal, according to his then-Bureau Chief Dov Weisglass, was specifically to place the peace process into "formaldehyde" and "freeze" it while Israel's hold over the West Bank was made permanent, and there has been no major shift in Israeli policy since then. Mr. Voight, do these policies seem "peaceful" to you?

This is the context to understand why Palestinians elected Hamas in 2006. Even the archconservative New York Post admitted that Hamas was elected not because Palestinians supported terrorism but because Palestinians were completely disgusted with the Palestinian Authority (PA), controlled by Yasser Arafat's Fatah party, which was utterly coopted by and dependent upon Israel and the U.S. and had become hugely corrupt and as brutal as Israel in its treatment of dissent. Hamas did not begin firing missiles into Israel until after it had attempted to remove the newly elected leadership by force in a U.S.- and PA-supported coup. No significant rocket fire occurred until two years after Hamas was elected, during which time Israel continued its siege on Gaza and its ever-tightening stranglehold on the West Bank.

If Hamas rightly deserves scorn and punishment for its war crimes (and mistreatment of Palestinians as well), what do Israel's leaders, guilty of far greater crimes, deserve? If we were to hold Hamas and Israel to the same standards, what would you feel that Israeli leaders should receive for their treatment of Palestinians for half a century? There has been no attempt by any Israeli government to make any peace to which any reasonable person could be expected to agree -- that is, one that would enable the creation of a territorially and economically viable Palestinian state. Nor are Israelis still "attacked by their enemies," as peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and close cooperation with Arab regimes from Morocco to the Persian Gulf make clear.

With respect to the present conflict, you are incorrect to say that Javier Bardem and other critics "have forgotten how this war started. Did Hamas not kidnap and kill three young teenagers for the sake of killing, and celebrated after the killing? What a travesty of justice." Indeed, this is not what happened. Rather, as reported in great detail in the Israeli media, the Israeli government began a series of attacks on Hamas and other Palestinian activists, arresting, shooting and even killing many in response to a unity deal struck between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in preparation for resumed negotiations.

Mr. Voight, there is no way to describe what Israel has done in Gaza other than as a massive crime against humanity. Is it genocide, as the letter that Mr. Bardem and others signed alleges? Given the history of genocide against the Jews -- the very term was invented to describe the Holocaust -- it is tragic that such a characterization can even be considered. But in fact it must be faced, because Israel's actions, which have long been characterized as "politicide" or "spaciocide" by Israeli and Palestinian scholars such as Baruch Kimmerling and Sari Hanafi, have become so intense that one can no longer take such an accusation off the table.

It is undeniable that Israelis have suffered in this present conflict and in the past that led us here, but what is certain is that the suffering that Israel has inflicted upon Palestinians is exponentially greater, and the responsibility for that suffering lies not just with Israel but with the United States, which has, in the words of Jon Stewart, acted as its "drug dealer" while pretending to be a caring friend. If you really care about Israel, you will take the time to understand the actual history and present realities, not myths that have no more accuracy than the Wild West fantasies that used to be taught to schoolchildren in the United States. Otherwise, all your passion and concern for Israel will only lead it closer to the very reckoning that you are desperately trying to avoid.

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter.  Please consider yourself to have an open invitation from the Levantine Center, the largest Middle Eastern cultural center on the West Coast, located in Hollywood, to organize a public forum where these issues can be discussed in a full, thoughtful and respectful manner.

Sincerely,

Gil Hochberg
Professor, Department of Comparative Literature, UCLA

Mark LeVine
Professor, Department of History, UC Irvine and Lund University, Center for Middle Eastern Studies

An earlier and much-abridged version of this letter appeared as a column on Al Jazeera English on Aug. 13, 2014.