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The accidental Zionist

By Gary Gambill - posted Thursday, 7 September 2017


I was staunchly pro-Palestinian when I arrived at Georgetown University to begin studying for an MA in Arab Studies in the fall of 1995, or at least I thought so.

I had read Thomas Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem in college a few years earlier and accepted the basic conclusion that Israel's unwillingness to compromise had become the primary obstacle to Middle East peace.

If any place might have been expected to shepherd this eager young mind into accepting "progressive" orthodoxy on Israel, it would have been Georgetown's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS).

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There I received a solid grounding in post-colonial theory, revisionist historiography of Israel, and so forth.

Radical though their views may have been, I don't recall many CCAS faculty caring much what I thought of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and few were involved in the kind of campus activism that is de rigueur among academics today. The roster of guest lecturers hosted at CCAS's spacious, elegantly appointed boardroom was another story, however, and notices for anti-Israel events throughout the Washington, DC, area were routinely advertised on the center's bulletin board. Going to them was the cool thing to do, and I attended more than I care to admit.

However, while I remained sympathetic to the Palestinian experience, I found interacting with other sympathizers increasingly intolerable. My immersion into the anti-Israeli movement brought me face to face with peer antisemitism for the first time, primarily among European and American students who shared much the same liberal outlook as myself.

Oddly enough, I don't recall any disparaging talk about Jews (albeit plenty about Israel) from Arab students at Georgetown, some of whom went out of their way to befriend Jewish students and faculty. It was Western students who said the darndest things.

The final straw came when I arrived with friends at an Israeli embassy protest during the September 1996 Western Wall Tunnel riots, when organizers led the crowd in chanting "Bibi, Hitler, just the same / Only difference is the name." I left in disgust, then sent an email to CCAS students and faculty inviting anyone who felt Hitler was no worse than then (and current) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to join me on a visit to the US United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the other side of town. There were no takers, though several students – including two who had enthusiastically participated in the rally – privately applauded the letter.

Truth be told, though, the biggest problem with the pro-Palestinian movement wasn't so much the antisemitism as it was the varying degrees of willful blindness displayed by its foremost advocates both to the suffering of other ethno-sectarian groups in the region (particularly Kurds and Christians) and to Palestinian suffering at the hands of villains other than Israel, particularly those seen as leading the fight against the Jewish state. There was more than antisemitism at work here.

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This blindness owed much to the fact that CCAS and other Middle East studies departments were becoming increasingly inundated with lavish grants from Arab governments.

Having fed their own citizens a steady diet of propaganda blaming all the region's ills on Israel, they now promoted this narrative abroad very effectively.

This was painfully evident when Lebanese human rights attorney Muhammad Mugraby traveled to the United States in November 1997 for a short lecture tour at the invitation of Human Rights Watch. As it often does when hosting guests from the Middle East, HRW asked if CCAS would be interested in hearing Mugraby speak.

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This article was first published in The Jerusalem Post.



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About the Author

Gary C Gambill is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Gary Gambill

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