Opinion: The pursuit of freedom is a righteous cause

Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel Tuesday, May 21.

Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel Tuesday, May 21. Leo Correa/ AP


Published: 05-25-2024 6:00 AM

Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at robertazzitheother.substack.com

Two recent letters in the Concord Monitor, coming from two different perspectives — my writing and thoughts about apartheid and democracy — caught my attention and I invite myself to respond.

I am pleased that over the years my columns have provided some Concord Monitor readers enjoyment. Indeed, I have derived much pleasure, since 2011, writing over 500 columns on culture, religion, sports, travel, and politics, many of them in the Concord Monitor — more words, I believe, than in “Moby Dick” and “Crime and Punishment” combined.

I wish I could continue to do that as freely as before, it was much more fun.

A recent letter invites me to discuss my unyielding focus on the war raging between Israelis and Palestinians not just in occupied Gaza but in the occupied territories of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

I miss writing about other than war and genocide but I refuse to abandon my solidarity with calls for justice and freedom.

It’s unfortunate that some people view my reflections on war and genocide as one-sided but I don’t see a choice. There aren’t two sides to genocide, ethnic cleansing and famine. There aren’t two sides on resistance to apartheid, to administrative detention, to illegal land seizures and annexations, to torture and forced starvation — to calling out racism and bigotry.

There are not two sides to opposing America’s complicity in war crimes against humanity.

Of course, I miss sleeping through the night, miss not having to worry about whose obituary I will find when I wake. I miss writing spontaneously to loved ones, afraid to possibly compromise them.

In my opinion, this is an existential moment. Palestinians are being targeted and attacked because they have, for over 76 years, resisted every attempt, even some by its own leaders, not just to defeat them but to dehumanize them, erase them, marginalize them, delegitimize them, reduce them to footnotes in unread, dusty histories.

Arguing against genocide and ethnic cleansing is not unbalanced, it’s what we are called upon to do, and I will not stand idly by as the settler-colonial state of Israel wages a war of extinction against a people, many of whom I know and love, it occupies and oppresses.

What many defenders of Israel ignore is that while Israel has an obligation to protect its citizens, which it must do, it also has international obligations related to the people it occupies and oppresses. Occupied peoples have a right of resistance, they don’t have a right to kill innocent civilians but they have a right to resist through the use of force.

Israel has a right to go after Hamas, the perpetrators war crimes committed on Oct. 7. It does not have license to commit genocide, ethnic cleansing, and pogroms across its occupied territories.

The college protests and encampments happening today, which I support, are not targeting “the only democracy in the Middle East” — there are no truly democratic states in the Middle East. The student protests and encampments are courageous statements in support of Palestine and the Palestinian people who have been struggling for decades against an entrenched non-democratic, apartheid state.

If Israel’s supporters want to argue that it’s more democratic, at least for its Jewish citizens, than its immediate neighbors — a very low bar, indeed — I will accept that desperate rationalization.

But that’s not good enough because 14,000,000 people share the land between the river and the sea — half Israeli, half Arab — and what matters to one matters to the other.

If they want to argue that Israel is a full-functioning democracy for all its people, especially after the passage of the 2018 Nation-State Law they are wrong.

When Israel passed that law, Israel doesn’t have a constitution, it further changed the character of Israel.

“The Nation-State Law is now once again the subject of public debate, but not because of what it contains,” Prof. Suzie Navot writes for The Israel Democracy Review. “Most of its clauses are important and worthy of inclusion in the State of Israel’s constitution. The problem is what it omits: It leaves out any reference to minorities, equality, democracy, and the Declaration of Independence, and thus undermines the delicate balance between Israel’s twin character as both a Jewish and a democratic state.”

You don’t believe Israel is an apartheid state? Listen, then, to Israelis:

In his memoir, Israeli journalist Hirsh Goodman reports on how he returned home from the 1967 Six Day War to hear Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, speak on the radio. “Israel, he said, better rid itself of the territories and their Arab population as soon as possible,” recalled Goodman. “If it did not Israel would soon become an apartheid state.”

Listen to PM Ehud Barak, who stated in 2010, “If this bloc of millions of ­Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”

Listen to former Israeli Ambassador to South Africa Alon Liel in 2013: “In the situation that exists today, until a Palestinian state is created, we are actually one state. This joint state … is an apartheid state.”

In 2020, Yesh Din – Volunteers for Human Rights, an Israeli organization, published “The conclusion of this legal opinion is that the crime against humanity of apartheid is being committed in the West Bank. The perpetrators are Israelis, and the victims are Palestinians ... The crime is committed because, in addition to colonizing the occupied territory, the occupying power has also gone to great lengths to cement its domination over the occupied residents and ensure their inferior status.”

Btselem, an Israeli Human Rights organization, reported in 2022: “Millions of Palestinians in the West Bank live under Israel’s effective control but cannot participate in the political process, while hundreds of thousands of Palestinians residing in annexed East Jerusalem are “residents” rather than citizens and consequently cannot vote in national elections... Put differently, the democracy that is currently “under attack” from the government in Israel is a democracy only for the Jews.”

Similar findings were reported by Amnesty International (2022) andHuman Rights Watch (2021).

The truth is that one can’t be both a democracy and an apartheid state.

As Joshua Leifer wrote in The Guardian, “[many] mis-recognize Israel as democracy when it is, in fact, a liberal ethnocracy that has maintained a military dictatorship in the West Bank for more than half a century.”

Hateful quotes from Hamas — all of which are real, dangerous and antisemitic — should be fully condemned. That Hamas says them doesn’t make them sentiments that all Palestinians, or the overwhelming number of their supporters, endorse.

Further, I would like to believe that most supporters of Israel — once one of South Africa’s staunch allies during apartheid — reject the hateful, racist, and Islamophobic statements made by Netanyahu’s current Israeli cabinet members Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir and by supporters who are followers of Meir Kahane and Baruch Goldstein.

Further, neither Israel nor anyone else ever produced proof of any complicity by UNRWA in the Oct. 7 attacks and all EU donors have now resumed support for UNRWA. Neither Israel nor anyone else has ever produced any evidence that Gaza’s health ministry is cooking the books on the number of Palestinians murdered, wounded, or missing in Gaza.

“Goodness prevails in the end,” Archbishop Tutu wrote in Ha’aretz in 2014. “The pursuit of freedom for the people of Palestine from humiliation and persecution by the policies of Israel is a righteous cause. It is a cause that the people of Israel should support. Nelson Mandela famously said that South Africans would not feel free until Palestinians were free. He might have added that the liberation of Palestine will liberate Israel, too.”