Originally from Lebanon, As’ad AbuKhalil is professor of political science at California State University, a well known commentator on Arabic TV stations such as Al-Jazeera, and runs a popular blog, which he writes in English, called The Angry Arab News Service.
He is known for his radical leftist political stances and, in particular, his emphatic support for the Palestinian struggle. However, he has recently received criticism from readers and former fans for his stance on Syria (he is against both the Assad regime and the opposition’s Syrian National Council).
In January, AbuKhalil was in the UK for a speaking tour of university Palestine societies titled “The Case Against Israel”. The day before his first talk at Goldsmiths University, I sat down with the professor in an Edgware Road cafe to discuss his thoughts on the Palestine solidarity movement, the historical significance of the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, the uprising in Syria, as well as other regional developments. I started off by asking him about his speaking tour.
As`ad AbuKhalil: I am going around to speak on making the case against Israel. I’m not going to be making any qualifications, or any disclaimers. I think I am of a generation who have seen too many Arab intellectuals, particularly in the United States, who used to get awkward and nervous whenever, after giving a long talk about the Palestinians, they are faced with a Zionist in the audience who would ask them: “But do you accept the existence of Israel?” And I’ve seen so many famous names dance around that question… I have become influenced by it in a way to be very categorical about it. When I started speaking publicly about Palestine in the United States, in the first few cases I was confronted by these same people who would stand up and say “But do you recognise the state of Israel?” And to that I would answer “Of course I wouldn’t!”
Asa Winstanley: So they don’t bother now?
AA: That never comes [up] anymore! And I felt like: that was so easy, why didn’t they all do that before? Since Oslo there is a trend in the pro-Palestinian community, particularly those with links to the PLO, to make the case for Palestine palatable with a case for Zionism. And that’s why I am here to oppose it.
AW: Why do you think Israel seems to be so sensitive to the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement?
AA: Since I left Lebanon in 1983, I have seen an erosion in the standing of Israel, especially in the eyes of Western liberals. When I left, these were the hardcore supporters… Public opinion in Europe has markedly changed over the last few decades. So much so that in almost all countries, even Germany, there is more support for Palestinians than for Israelis.
In Russia, after the rise of the supposed Islamic fundamentalist threat over there, there has been in fact a rise in the support for Israel, but if you talk about Scandinavian countries, or England, or France, and so on. I mean the public opinion is now, in England, more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israeli when they are asked that question. But now of course that does not translate into the political parties of the House of Commons or places like that.
In America, it has remained the same. It’s still 63 percent for Israel, versus [about] 12 or 13 percent for Palestinians. But what has changed even in America is that the bedrock of support for Israel has shifted from American liberals to hardcore Southern Baptists, Republicans, conservatives. So Israel is aware that they have an image problem, that they did not used to have a few decades ago, and they are particularly sensitive about college campuses… Why? Because they know this is their future generation of leaders, and if this bug gets to spread all around, it’s going to be hurting Israel in the long term. Assuming Israel’s going to be around by the time they reach power. In America, of course, there is such a big gap between college campus activism on Palestine (or any matter) and the very closed, conservative nature of Congress, that Israelis have less to worry about – and yet they seem to be worried.
AW: Why do you think BDS has taken off so much in the last five to six years?
AA: Israel does not do the just thing in the new world after the Cold War. Zionists still operate the way it did back in the 1880s, when they arrived in Palestine. They still use the same brazen and blatant racist resort to war crimes and massacres that they used all along, and I think they realise that it is much more shocking and horrific by the standards of today, and as a result there is an avalanche of reaction against Israel that has been generated in Western countries.
AW: What are the differences between the BDS movement in its modern form, and the more historical Arab boycott of Israel?
AA: The Arab boycott of Israel was much more strict… On the popular level it is [still] extremely strict: refusal of travel to Israel for any purposes – tourism of any form… There are disagreements about the visits, for example, some believe that if you go to Palestinian areas for activism and you can stay in Palestinian areas, spend money there and it’s fine, as long as you boycott any companies who trade with Israel.
The Arab boycott has been extremely effective – the loosening of it has been at the official level. When I was growing up, there was this simultaneous double boycott of Israel. There was the popular level that did not need any instruction, and then there was the official level, which was bad… So the BDS movement is a continuation, I think, of an Arab League official plan.
AW: What is your opinion of activists, quite often from Europe and America, who go to occupied Palestine?
AA: I have no problems with that whatsoever. I have a distinction made about Arabs who go there – those who have Arab citizenship, even if they have a passport from elsewhere. I am not against Palestinians who hold citizenship in America to go to Palestine, because that’s their home. But as long as Israel is occupying the land, and to abide by the Arab League boycott of Israel, I still believe we should adhere, and that all Arab citizens should not pass through Israeli soldiers’ checkpoints to enter into Palestine. If you do, it’s in areas where you do not have to go through them.
AW: So what’s the material difference there?
AA: That we have an Arab League boycott. The Arab League never did anything good! But they did [make] this plan of boycott of Israel, which I believe is something we should support.
AW: Many activists who go to Palestine are actually from Sweden, Norway, Scandinavian countries.
AA: Amazing. Those countries, when you go there, sometimes if you will stay for a week you will see a demonstration about Palestine somewhere – posters about Palestine everywhere – it’s amazing. Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands – it’s advanced. Over there, being pro-Palestinian is becoming part of the definition of being a leftist. I mean it’s easy to be a leftist against war in general – the John Lennon version. The challenge is to be a leftist in a way that puts real challenge to the powers of government and the super powers around the world, because you can really expose the hypocrisy on the question on Palestine. This is why Palestine becomes more symbolic for many activists. It’s not only about Palestine, it’s about the hypocrisy of the Western world.
AW: I think I read in one interview a Scandinavian activist saying that Palestine had become the Vietnam of our time.
AA: Yes, absolutely. And I’m glad that Jane Fonda is not on our side. Who wants her?
AW: Western activists who go to Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank will quite often come into contact with Israeli activists, some of whom are anti-Zionist. You’ve said on your blog that you’re against any contact with Israelis, basically. Is that a fair understanding of your position?
AA: This is not an easy position, but that is my position. I have taken that position for a while. [Once] I was giving a talk at SOAS here in London and my hosts were sitting with me, and one of them was a graduate student and it was clear that she is one of the activists on Palestine. So suddenly it occurred to me to ask her, based on her accent, I said: “Are you Israeli?” and she said “Yeah, I am”. I said “have you served in the army?” and then she told me yes, that she was an instructor in the Israeli army. And then I had to tell her, “Well, let me tell you my position: I cannot talk to you.” Everyone around her, even her teacher (and one of her teachers is a good friend of mine) are telling me that she’s a wonderful person, that she has made a radical transformation, and I said “But that’s my position.”
And it’s not because of ideological dogmatism that I take this position, at all. It’s really, like, emotional. I mean, I get bothered – I just get bothered. To be sitting and chatting with somebody, and then thinking that this person may have killed a brother or sister… You know, I just can’t do that. Even with Ilan Pappe – I was telling [my wife] Farah – I was with him on a panel once, I didn’t ask that question. He’s done great work, but he served, right?
AW: I read in his memoirs that he did.
AA: Yeah, and as a result I remember I made a conscious effort not to shake his hand. So it bothers me. There is one known Arab here, who has been an adviser to Yasser Arafat and I told him, I said: “Don’t you have a psychological barrier?” Because it’s huge in my case and I don’t want to cross it and he told me “I do, but I feel like I have to cross it for another purpose”… I mean it’s psychological and personal… and for me, I am not for the categorical rejection of anyone. I have elaborated a position which [laughs] which basically…
AW: You wrote on your blog you’re opposed to contact with any Israeli, except where they’ve taken armed resistance against Israel.
AA: … they are resistant against Israel, or if they leave the land. There’s this socialist, anarchist Israeli who keeps sending me email, and he wrote an open letter to me one time. I never responded to him, I couldn’t.
AW: So do you think Westerners who make contact with Israelis are breaking a boycott?
AA: Not necessarily. I’m not dogmatic about that. They have a different experience, and I know their motives are very good, and I’m sure [the activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer] Rachel Corrie, who paid with her life for the cause, had dealt with Israelis, and I’m not in any way going to to delegitimise what she does for that… But this is for me – I’m not in any way saying that this is national or international policy, you know, this is suitable for me, it may not be suitable for someone else. I know many Arabs who disagree with me. Farah disagrees with me on this…
AW: There is a difference between a personal opinion and a general boycott strategy.
AA: Yea, yea, of course. This is the suitable position for me. There are Arabs I know who are activists, who deal with Israelis and I don’t reject them in any way, I’m not judgemental like that. But for me, I cannot.
Farah Rowaysati: The BDS [movement] does not call for boycotts against Israelis as persons, it calls for the boycott of institutions.
AA: But I am for super-BDS.
FR: I’m against dealing with Israelis who are Zionists…
AA: One time I gave a talk in Berkley, and this guy came up to me and said, “I’m an Israeli and I really agree with everything you say, I’m going to go back and work for human rights after I finish my law degree for the Palestinians” and I was like “Well, you know I don’t speak to Israelis” and he said “Yeah I know, I understand: I just wanted you to know” [laughs].
I’m happier like this, you know what I’m saying? I have a huge psychological block… We come from South Lebanon, both of us, which is so directly affected. We both grew up in homes that are within a few miles from Palestinian refugee camps.
FR:We’ve experienced several wars.
AW: What do you make of Gilad Atzmon? He is an Israeli saxophonist – a jazz musician who expresses support for Palestinians.
AA: I have declared him an anti-Semitic person based on things I’ve read. And that upset many Western supporters of this guy, and Arabs. I have refused any contact with this guy and, you know me: I’m strict about many things… and one of them is refusing any association with anybody who has the slightest tinge of anti-Semitism. And he has more than a tinge of anti-Semitism – he basically, writes against –
AW: ‘Jewishness’ is what he calls it… He’s a strange character because he keeps cropping up every few years and there keeps being controversy about him. He lives here [in London] by the way.
AA: Oh really? Call me paranoid – I mean that, please do, call me conspiratorial – I know there are genuine anti-Semites who creep into our movement, but I do worry that there are some infiltrators who pose as anti-Semites to stigmatise the movement. I’m not sure which group he belongs to, but either way I don’t want him [around]. It would be funny if he was sitting here in the cafe, right now.
AW: [Laughs] With all this news about Israeli organisations that want to sabotage the “delegitimization” movement [like the Reut Institute], people are getting justifiably paranoid about spies or infiltrators. Especially in London.
AA: It’s legitimate to be paranoid. I have heard enough by people in the United States about their experiences in the 1960s and 70, and many of them tell me that the loudest big-mouths during the 60s and 70s were the ones who turned out to be turncoats, the ones who would say during meetings, you know: “Let’s go and bomb that building!”
AW: You recently commented on your blog about Hamas being “for sale”. What did you mean?
AA: Al-Quds al Arabi had this story on the front page in which [Hamas leader] Khalid Maashal was cited – he was under pressure by the Saudis, that they would not have any dealing with Hamas unless he cuts all ties with Iran. And he was quoted as saying something to the effect that “I would accept that, if Saudi Arabia was providing the same support that I’ve been getting from Iran.”
So to me that indicated that Hamas is up for sale. I have always been suspicious of this guy, and never liked him (I’ve always felt that he is leading the movement on the footsteps of Fatah)… Look how [Hamas Prime Minister in Gaza] Ismail Haniyeh, when he went for his tour recently, asked to stop in Saudi Arabia.
AW: So how do you think those comments are related to the wave of Arab uprising the previous year, and the rise to prominence of the Muslim Brotherhood?
AA: [Many Palestinians] are worried that the Arab uprisings are marginalising the coverage of the Palestinians, and I share that kind of worry. Ismail Haniyeh strikes me as much more sincere than Khalid Maashal despite my opposition to the ideology of the movement and its practices. On the other hand, I think they also want to take advantage of the rise of the horrible Muslim Brotherhood, and I think the lousy Muslim Brotherhood is one of the reasons why I find Hamas to be very problematic.
It is a by-product of the Muslim Brotherhood which has contributed really nothing to the struggle for Palestinians… Look at Rashid Ghanuchi [leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda party], who flies all the way to Washington DC to prostrate and speak before Zionist groups and offer to not include in the new [Tunisian] constitution an article that will ban normalisation with Israel — which tells you that they buy and sell.
AW: I put on Twitter that I was going to interview you, and I got several Syrians angrily Tweeting questions.
AA: On Facebook, if you read Arabic… both sides are very unhappy with me, and the Syrian regime side, they have a lot of supporters. And both sides are unhappy. What can I say? I have nothing to apologise for. If anything, I think the positions taken by the Syrian National Council have reinforced every single suspicion and doubt that I have harboured against them all along. I do believe there is a real conspiracy, and I believe there is an attempt to hijack a legitimate uprising against a repressive regime.
AW: One question on Twitter was: “How does it feel to be called a regime apologist?”
AA: If some intellectual goons of the Syrian National Council think that they can intimidate me or delegitimize what I do, by calling me a “regime stooge” or something like that, of course that’s not going to bother me, because I know myself. I mean, as long as I get a daily barrage of criticisms, and sometimes insults – not as obscene as the ones I get from the other side, but still from the side of the regime – I know where I stand.
When I was opposed to the Syrian regime in 1976 when they invaded Lebanon, to crush a great leftist movement at the time, these people who are criticising me now were not even born. So I don’t need any sermons about the stance against the Syrian regime. Their intellectual method is very clear. It’s quite funny, in fact – you may be opposed to the Syrian regime, you may call for its overthrow, you may support armed rebellion against the Syrian regime. But – if you don’t support the Syrian National Council, you are for the regime. What the fuck is that? It’s absurd. In other words, I want to reassure my enemies that their attacks on me and name-calling do not bother me in the least, and the more they come, the better. I want to make the life of my enemies miserable…
I don’t support the Free Syrian Army. Now I have received information that the Free Syrian Army of Riad al-Assad comes from the background of Hizb ut-Tahrir [a political-religious movement]. No, I don’t support that. I don’t support pawns of Turkish, Islamist intelligence. But the principle: I am in favour of the right of every Arab population to raise arms against its government. Absolutely, and I make no apologies about that.
AW: The Tunisian government as well?
AW: One of your criticisms of Al-Jazeera [the popular Arabic satellite TV channel owned by the royal family of Qatar] is that they now rely on anonymous sources a lot. Someone on Twitter wanted me to ask: “why then do you use anonymous sources on your blog?”
AA: I am not a newspaper. I am not a TV station. I am a blogger who is doing a very personal thing. I share whatever information I have, and even rumours. Sometimes I receive rumours and I share them with people. Sometimes they are true, sometimes they are not – and whenever I am given evidence that something I have put is wrong, I always say that I’m correcting it, and I don’t change it. I have a policy of never re-editing things I have posted after I’ve posted them.
On Al-Jazeera [Arabic], when they used to air Bin Laden’s tapes, they used to put the disclaimer every time: “We have not yet authenticated this statement” — even when it was very clear it’s Bin Laden! [But now] whenever they put various clips from YouTube, they never have any disclaimers…
AW: So don’t you think journalists might have reason to be using anonymous sources in Syria?
AA: I did not in any way oppose the use of anonymous sources in journalism. I was making the point about how Al-Jazeera is now comical. This is like a caricature of propaganda TV in the Arab world…
AW: What accounts for the shift? Is it purely [Qatari] reconciliation with Saudi Arabia?
AA: Absolutely… Basically, Al-Jazeera have become to me much more malleable, much more obedient in its service for the shifts in Qatari foreign policy than I’d expected. But it has become a campaign by Qatar and whatever Qatar represents… It has become so feverish, the campaign is so comical, it’s so lacking in credibility, and therefore lending an undeniable, unwitting hand to the Syrian regime.
AW: A final question on Palestine and Palestinian solidarity: what do you think is the main thing to focus on, strategically?
AA: Non-compromise on the total rejection of Israel. I believe the total rejection of Zionism in Palestine should be in the platform and the plan of every movement. I think all these attempts to reconcile Palestine and Israel, and “let’s live together as Israelis and Palestinians in two separate states” – all that is going to be at the expense of the lives and the cause of the Palestinians. And for me, any movement that does not reject – categorically – Zionism, is akin to a movement against apartheid South Africa that basically wants a reconciliation with apartheid, and there should be no doubt about that part. You know, we should insist on that part.
AW: Thanks for your time.