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Europe’s own ethnic cleansings

The spark for this article was the posting about the murder of Emil Grunzweig State of Israel ‘imposes terror on its citizens’ to keep us quiet


August 2012: People from the Roma community walk along a road after they were expelled by police from their camp in France.Photo by Philippe Desmazes/AFP)

A double standard for Europe and Israel

By Adam Keller
February 19, 2013

Israel does have a law against “sedition” which is inherited from the time of British rule. It has such a wide definition of “sedition” that in practice anything which somebody says or does which could make anyone else angry could be considered sedition. So, if it were applied to the full, there would be very little left of freedom of speech; you could only express opinions about which there is an absolute consensus and to which nobody objects.

If the law against sedition were enforced selectively than it could open the way to very bad abuses against anybody the government wanted to target. So the accepted practice is just not to enforce this law at all or only in very exceptional cases when there is a very clear and manifest danger of a certain action leading to major violence.

It would be very difficult to formulate a law against incitement to violence which would be more specific and intended for use. I am not sure such a law would have helped victims of incitement such as Yitzhak Rabin or Emil Grunzweig, murdered by right-wing Israelis, or that its enactment would prevent such tragedies from recurring in the future . It is more likely that such a law would be used against the Left and particularly against Arab Israelis. It would be easy enough to construe various statements and manifestations of support for the Palestinians as “incitement to violence”.

There is a specific law against racist incitement which is very rarely enforced. It has a loophole which exempts a religious person who quotes from sacred writings that might otherwise be incitement to racism from any indictment. In practice, there is virtually no racism so vile that there can’t be found some quote to support it from the Bible and/or later writings of some Sage.

The law applies only to racist incitement. So, while to call upon people not to rent apartments to Arabs could in principle lead to prosecution, to refuse to actually rent your apartment to Arabs is perfectly legal.

There are very many definitions of “racism” in Israel. By some definitions, racism is a phenomenon of an extreme right minority and most of Israeli society is united against it. For example, when Jerusalem football fans violently oppose the inclusion of Arab or Muslim players in their team, this is strongly opposed by many otherwise very right-wing people. Football fans display crude, working-class, prejudice; confining “racism “ to such manifestations leaves out more subtle – and often far more insidious and dangerous – forms of racism.
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By other definitions, Israeli society is split down the middle between racists and anti-racists. For example, a law enacted in the outgoing Knesset authorizes communities to set up an “admissions committee” which could ban people from coming to live in the community if they “don’t fit the communal social fabric”.It was passed by a clear majority, but with a vociferous opposition from a sizeable minority, and there is reason to hope that in the Knesset produced by our recent election it would not have passed.

These are the “minor” laws that regulate, or don’t regulate, Israeli Jewish behaviour towards non-Jews. But if you take apply your definition of “racism” to such fundamental and defining laws and issues as Israel’s self-definition as the Jewish State or its Law of Return, then you could come to theconclusion that Israel as a country and society is thoroughly racist, with only a tiny minority of anti-racists on the radical left.

So, of course, it is difficult to make and enforce a prohibition on racism when there is no commonly acceptable definition
of what constitutes racism.

About equality – it is quite true that Israel does not have a law ensuring equal treatment of all citizens. I am not sure we can get it enacted in the Knesset. It is more easy to try to get good rulings in the Supreme Court in Jerusalem. This is far from perfect but certainly much better than the executive and legislative branches of government (which is not difficult).

I think the aim which we can hope to achieve (by hard and long struggle) is to implement in Israel the standards now prevailing in Europe, America and the rest of the “Western Democratic World”. Israel wants very much to belong to this club, so it can be asked to abide its rules.

This means that:

1) The West has given up colonialism, so Israel can be asked to give up its “colonies” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip

2) The West had taken up the position that people of different ethnic backgrounds actually living in the country must be treated equally and that discriminatory legislation or practices are illegitimate. Israel can be asked to apply these standards to its Arab citizens.

3) However, a country is free to decide how many people to take in or deny them entry, and it may use ethnic criteria is making such choices. There is, moreover, no clear-cut standard that ethnic cleansings must always be reversed and those expelled allowed to return to their original homes. And as there is no such standard, Israel cannot be pressured to adhere to it.

To substantiate the final point, I would like to cover at some length the relevant points with regard to the practice of European countries.

There is clearly no position that there should be ethnic equality between people who want to get in and become citizens but are not yet in the country. It is accepted that an EU country can decide how many non-EU immigrants it will take in. Especially,would-be immigrants from Africa and Asia face much tougher restrictions, and it is taken for granted that it is that European countries have the right to impose such restrictions.

Moreover, though freedom of movement within the EU is a matter of law for all EU citizens, with no ethnic discrimination, some EU countries nevertheless try to impose limits on immigration from new EU members in eastern Europe. For example, when France expelled Roma people back to Bulgaria and Romania, this was a popular decision in France (as it would be in most western European countries) though it was censored for it by the European Commission .

Nor is there in the present day Western law and practice a clear rule that past ethnic cleansings must be reversed or that their victims must be granted a Right of Return to their original homes. Rather, European practice in this respect is very incoherent and contradictory. Several major instances can be cited:

1) The Postsdam Conference* in 1945 gave official and explicit sanction to one of the largest – possibly the largest – ethnic cleansings in human history, i.e. the expulsion of millions of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe. This was legitimized by the horrors of Nazi German occupation, though no proof offered or required that each and every ethnic German was complicit in Nazi war crimes. Moreover, the ethnic cleansings of 1945-47 included various other ethnic groups such as Poles from Ukraine, Alanians from north Greeceand Italians from Dalmatia. It is worth noting that it was this which served as Ben Gurion’s direct model and legitimacy for the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948. As is hardly remembered nowadays, Israel in 1948 was a political and military ally of the Soviet Union, and it was Stalin who provided the arms with which Israel won the war while the US at the time imposed an arms embargo. Also after Ben Gurion changed global allegiance during the Korean War, Israel’s arguments for refusing a return of the Palestinian refugees were directly modeled on Soviet arguments for rejecting a return of ethnic Germans.

The order established by the Postsdam-sanctioned ethnic cleansings was accepted as a basic cornerstone in the structure of post-WWII Europe, and essentially remains such also after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is no officially recognized Right of Return for expelled ethnic Germans. True, once Poland and the Czech Republic became EU members, ethnic Germans expelled from there could come back. In practice, economic disparities make far more Poles and Czechs interested in moving westwards than the other way around. What would happen if a substantial number of Germans descended from those who lived in pre-1945 were to try to move to present-day Polish Gdansk, in numbers big enough to change its ethnic character? My guess is that such a move would arouse strong Polish objections, possibly to the point of Poland leaving the EU. But this is likely to remain moot.

2) Ethnic cleansing took place in different parts of Cyprus following the Turkish invasion. Though it also targeted some Turkish Cypriotes, it is the Greek ones who feel the most aggrieved. There is certainly no consensus on a demand for their Right of Return. The UN plan for Cyprus, which failed to get implemented, envisaged only some 10% of those expelled being allowed to return. The adherence of Cyprus to the EU neatly side-stepped the issue, as only Southern Cyprus, below the Green Line, is an EU member. This allows a Greek Cypriot to go and live in London or Paris or anywhere in the EU he wants But he cannot go a hundred meters from his home and live in the Turkish sector of Nicosia or any part of Turkish Cyprus, which is not an EU member – or a recognized state. Last year, a European court rejected an appeal by a Greek Cypriote family to regain property in Northern Cyprus. The court’s ruling, recognizing the post-1974 status quo of possession by Turks, was naturally welcomed by Israeli commentators.

3) The series of wars following the break-up of Yugoslavia involved a series of ethnic cleansings (indeed, it is from these wars that the term “ethnic cleansing” is derived, though the phenomenon existed much earlier). Ethnic cleansing took place in the glare of worldwide publicity, often getting “real time covereage” on international TV networks. It was generally recognized that actual ethnic cleansing was preceded by demagogic incitement to ethnic hatred by Slobodan Milosovic. His eventual indictment at the Hague for war crimes clearly cited incitement to ethnic hatred through the Serbian state-run media “to spread exaggerated and false messages of ethnically based attacks by Bosnian Muslims and Croats against Serbs intended to create an atmosphere of fear and hatred among Serbs living in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina which contributed to the forcible removal of the majority of non-Serbs, mainly Muslims and Bosnian Croats”.

In spite of the above, also in the case of the ethnic cleansings perpetrated during the break up of Yugoslavia, the policies of the EU and the International Community fell far short of a clear and unequivocal demand that all ethnic cleansings be reversed and all people expelled from their homes be granted a Right of Return. Three divergent cases can be cited:

3a) Bosnia. There were various cases of ethnic cleansing, targeting at different times and locations members of all three of Bosnia’s three ethnic communities. The 1995 Dayton Agreement, which ended the fighting and established the present rickety, EU-supervised system of Bosnia, provided for a complete Right of Return and reversal of all ethnic cleansings. Eighteen years later, this had been only very partially implemented . Return of refugees often encountered violent opposition from members of a hostile ethnic group which had taken possession of the location. In 1999 emphasis shifted from return to restitution of title to properties, and those who benefitted from such restitution often preferred to sell the property and use the proceeds in their new location, rather than go to live in it.

3b) Kosovo. A massive ethnic cleansing of the Kosovar Albanian population was carried out by Serbian forces during the Kosovo War. It was completely reversed/with Serbia surrendering to the constant bombing by the US and its allies and giving up its rule of Kosovo (except for a few Serb enclaves)/ Return of the refugees immediately followed upon evacuation of the Serbian forces. It could be conjectured that had the war ended differently – for example, with Serbia keeping control of the territory but signing an agreement to let the Albanian refugees return – implementation in practice might have been difficult, especially had Milosevic succeeded in filling the emptied territory with a Serb population.

Return of the Albanian refugees to Kosovo was accompanied by the reverse displacement of Kosovar Serbs, who mostly left all parts of Kosovo except for the enclaves controlled by Serb militias. Serbs considered this as ethnic cleansing; whatever name is given to it, the phenomenon was deplored but essentially condoned by the EU and the International Community.

3c) Krajina. In 1995 Croat forces conquered the mainly Serb-inhabited area of Krajina and carried out an ethnic cleansing of its population (or, as the Croat authorities asserted, the Serbs “fled voluntarily”). In any case, there were no demands on Croatia, the n or later, to let the Serb refugees return, and they remain in exile. Their being uprooted was generally condoned – mainly because the Serb side was conceived as having been the aggressor and the one who started ethnic cleansings (though there is no reason to believe that all Serb inhabitants of Krajina had been complicit in that). The issue of Krajina had not come up in the deliberations towards admission of Croatia to the EU. It could be mentioned, in this context, that the earlier admission of Greece to the EU was not conditional upon Greece recognizing its involvement in past cases of ethnic cleansing or making reparations and allowing a Right of Return.

As can be seen from the above, Europe and the International Community as a whole do not have any clear-cut coherent policy of reversing past ethnic cleansings and allowing those expelled to return. Return is fully implemented in some cases, very partially in others and not at all in still others, depending on circumstances such as how long ago did it happen, did a new population of different ethnicity take up the vacated land and how strongly is that new population opposed to the return of the original inhabitants. Also an important factor is if the expelled group is considered to have been in the right or in the wrong in the conflict which led to their expulsion – an argument first raised with connection to East European ethnic Germans in the immediate post-WWII period and later to ethnic Serbs during the break-up of Yugoslavia. Such arguments in effect impose a collective punishment on all members of an ethnic group for the acts of those who were its political and military leadership during a war.

To sum up: there is an ambiguity and contradictory attitudes about the reversing of ethnic cleansings and the right of expelled ethnic groups to return. Since there is no such commonly-accepted standard with regard to refugees’ right of return in Europe itself, why expect Israel to be at the cutting edge of Progressive behavior when it comes to Palestinians’ Right of Return ?

[*Potsdam Conference, July-August 1945 between Stalin, Roosevelt/Truman and Churchill/Attlee. Amongst many other provisions the agrement included redrawing the borders of Poland/Germany to enlarge Poland. Many millions of East Europeans were subject to authorised (and unauthorised) transfer, from Poland, Czechoslovakia, from the Soviet Union, Hungary, from Romania, and another 1 million from other Eastern European regions. “Expulsion is the method which, in so far as we have been able to see, will be the most satisfactory and lasting. There will be no mixture of populations to cause endless trouble,” declared British prime minister Winston Churchill. “A clean sweep will be made.” BBC News]

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