Michael Ignatieff: Intellectual hypocrisy

As Canada’s Liberal leader, the intellectual- turned-politician became an uncritical supporter of Israeli aggression.

Ignatieff came to Canadian politics after a long career as a public intellectual in the UK and US [GALLO/GETTY]

Vancouver, Canada – Under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, Canada has developed a reputation as the most pro-Israel government in the western world.

Three years ago, Canada refused to utter a word of criticism about Israeli war crimes committed during Operation Cast Lead against Gaza. Before that, back in 2006, the first year of the Harper government, Canada insisted that Israel’s attacks on Lebanon were “a measured response” – even after a Canadian family and a Canadian UN peacekeeper were among the victims killed by the intensive Israeli bombing.

So it was no surprise that when, in November, a Canadian boat with the Freedom Waves Flotilla to Gaza was hijacked in international waters by Israel’s navy, there was not a word of concern uttered by the Harper government for the Canadians detained in an Israeli jail. That same month, Defence Minister Peter MacKay met with his counterpart Ehud Barak to announce new military co-operation between Israel and Canada. The Harper government also obliged with some saber rattling and the announcement of new, strengthened sanctions against Iran.

Although Canada never deserved its reputation as a “fair broker” in the Middle East, there has been a marked shift in recent years culminating in loud, explicit support for Israel’s wars of aggression and its occupation. But Canada’s ignominious status as enabler of Israeli occupation on the world stage has also been facilitated by rampant political cowardice among opposition politicians. In many cases they know better, but remain silent for fear of bearing the brunt of an organised and well-funded lobby that defends Israeli policies. 

The case of Michael Ignatieff, who resigned as Liberal leader in May 2011 after a devastating electoral defeat, is exemplary. Ignatieff came to Canadian politics after a long career as a public intellectual in the United Kingdom and the United States. And although he was a high profile supporter of war and empire, prior to returning to Canada his work still featured occasional, but sharp critiques of Israeli occupation.

As Liberal leader, he became an uncritical supporter of Israel, even joining in the now routine attempts by the Harper government to demonise and criminalise Palestine solidarity activism in Canada.

As Liberal leader, he became an uncritical supporter of Israel, even joining in the now routine attempts by the Harper government to demonise and criminalise Palestine solidarity activism in Canada.

Ignatieff’s flip-flopping on Palestine illustrates perfectly his own assessment, found in his short 2003 pro-imperialist book Empire Lite, that “modern imperial ethics can only be hypocritical”.

In March 2009, Ignatieff, having finally been anointed as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, published an op-ed in the National Post in which he traduced the organisers of Israeli Apartheid Week, an annual event in support of Palestinian human rights and critical of Israeli policies that had been growing in size and scope in Canada and beyond. The right-wing Post is normally hostile territory for a Liberal leader, but in this case they were happy to provide the column space.

Charge of racism

Ignatieff started off with some good old bipartisan Canadian bromides – “We respect differences of opinion, nationality, race and creed” – the better to level his accusation. Then, he unleashed a flurry of non-sequiturs.

International law defines “apartheid” as a crime against humanity. Labeling Israel as an “apartheid” state is a deliberate attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state itself. Criticism of Israel is legitimate. Attempting to describe its very existence as a crime against humanity is not.   

He added to this the extremely serious charge that IAW represents “demonisation”, which “targets institutions and individuals because of what and who they are – Israeli and Jewish”. He further went on to assert, without providing any specific examples or testimony, that IAW had left Jewish students intimidated to the point of being “afraid to express their opinions”. The last half of the op-ed was devoted to attacking the Ontario branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees for passing a resolution in favour of the international campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, part of what Ignatieff called a “chorus of denunciation of Israel” which “threatens academic freedom” and “free exchange”.  

In March 2010, Ignatieff again issued a similar denunciation of Israeli Apartheid Week, charging the organisers with “an attempt to heighten the tensions in our communities around the tragic conflict in the Middle East”.

This charge of racism, especially of such a pernicious and historically deadly variety, is most serious indeed. And it is entirely baseless, flowing only from Ignatieff’s own logical fallacy about describing Israel with the word apartheid. Given Ignatieff’s own record, the denunciation was also a display of almost superhuman chutzpah.   

The charge of racism rests first on the equation of the state of Israel with the Jewish people as a whole. This conflation is a transparent, common device used to stifle honest discussion of the Middle East. The second pillar upon which Ignatieff’s allegation rests is the use of the term apartheid to describe the actions of the state of Israel.

Although the analogy is certainly not perfect – it is after all an analogy (where the analogy fails most notably is with regards to the relationships between the oppressed communities in question and the needs of Capital. In South Africa, the ruling white elite needed the labour of the black working class to profit from the country’s massive deposits of gold, diamonds and other minerals. Israel’s economy, in contrast, no longer needs its former Palestinian workforce, the massive influx of foreign workers from Asia and Africa having to a large extent replaced them. What economic impact Israel does feel from its policy of closures and expulsion are easily offset by the largess of overseas zealots and of course by military and financial aid from the US government) – many respected human rights activists, scholars and political leaders have used the term to describe Israel and its actions in the occupied territories.

Apartheid and Israel

Some of the voices who have spoken of apartheid and Israel in the same breath have done so with unquestioned moral authority. These include Ronnie Kasrils, the Jewish South African anti-apartheid fighter and former minister in the post-apartheid government, along with Nelson Mandela and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu themselves. Here is Tutu, from a 2002 article in The Nation:

The end of apartheid stands as one of the crowning accomplishments of the past century, but we would not have succeeded without the help of international pressure–in particular the divestment movement of the 1980s. Over the past six months a similar movement has taken shape, this time aiming at an end to the Israeli occupation… Yesterday’s South African township dwellers can tell you about today’s life in the occupied territories. To travel only blocks in his own homeland, a grandfather waits on the whim of a teenage soldier. More than an emergency is needed to get to a hospital; less than a crime earns a trip to jail. The lucky ones have a permit to leave their squalor to work in Israel’s cities, but their luck runs out when security closes all checkpoints, paralysing an entire people. The indignities, dependence and anger are all too familiar.”

Tutu and those who lived through the indignities in Apartheid South Africa’s townships, however, were not the only ones to see an analogy and state it publicly. Here are the opening lines of a Guardian column by Michael Ignatieff, which appeared in 2002, a couple of months before Tutu’s piece:

Two years ago, an American friend took me on a helicopter ride from Jerusalem to the Golan Heights over the Palestinian West Bank… When I looked down at the West Bank, at the settlements like Crusader forts occupying the high ground, at the Israeli security cordon along the Jordan river closing off the Palestinian lands from Jordan, I knew I was not looking down at a state or the beginnings of one, but at a Bantustan, one of those pseudo-states created in the dying years of apartheid to keep the African population under control.”

This was not a one-time flourish, either. In Empire Lite, Ignatieff admits, “[America] is hated both because it is Israel’s mainstay and because even when it supports Palestinian statehood, it gives them no more than a Bantustan.” The “sham state” created by the Oslo process made Palestinian revolt “inevitable”, since it “was divided by roads and settlements, split into the West Bank and Gaza and incapable of effective self-rule and development”.

Speaking to a Toronto audience in 2004, Ignatieff reminded his audience, “Israel must bear some portion of the responsibility for destroying its partner for peace”. He stated the continuing negation of Palestinian rights by Israel would be “a powerful recruiting sergeant for jihadis” in the Holy Land and beyond. Criticising the settlements and the annexation of territory that accompanied the construction of a massive, misnamed “security fence” through the West Bank, Ignatieff presciently saw the writing on the Apartheid Wall.

Guilty of anti-semitism

Although he condemned the violent resistance of Palestinians to their oppression, he nonetheless conceded in his book The Lesser Evil that in the West Bank or Gaza his arguments for non-violence would be heard “as a strategy to keep the weak in submission and confirm the privileges of the strong”. He writes that non-violence at this stage in the game might mean surrendering to Israeli-imposed apartheid: “Calling on Palestinians to return to the path of deliberative non-violence might be to condemn them to a Palestine reduced to the size of a Bantustan”. [P. 90, The Lesser Evil] It should be noted that Ignatieff knew well of the horrors of the original Bantustans in South Africa, and of that apartheid’s systemic segregation and oppression. In 2001, he wrote the introduction to the book Truth & Lies: Stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, published by Granta Books.

It’s not that one can never genuinely change one’s mind, it’s just there is no trace at all of the humility or shame that would normally accompany such an about face.

By Ignatieff’s standards, as laid out in his indictment of Israeli Apartheid Week, he is guilty of anti-semitism by comparing Israel with a regime that he defines as having been guilty of crimes against humanity. In fact, he made his apartheid analogy in the pages of one of the most influential publications in the world, before the designation “Israeli apartheid” had become commonplace even in the milieu of Palestine solidarity organising. If activism around the slogan of Israeli apartheid is racist, then Michael Ignatieff is a trailblazing anti-semite.

Readers of Ignatieff on Palestine are left to wonder if he has any sort of moral centre whatsoever. It’s not that one can never genuinely change one’s mind, it’s just there is no trace at all of the humility or shame that would normally accompany such an about face. This is much like Ignatieff’s 2007 Iraq mea culpa, which on closer reading was no such thing at all. In it, in fact, he as much as openly admitted his own bad faith. Politics is theatre, he asserted, and so politicians are really actors who have to feign indignation and other emotions they do not feel. Academics, for their part, merely play with words and pursue digressions with ideas for their own sake because they are detached from the real world consequences politicians must anticipate. So had he changed his opinion on Palestine close to 180 degrees, or was he just a self-incriminating hypocrite? Or, was it all an act? Did he believe anything he ever said or wrote?

Belief in power    

One thing Ignatieff does believe in is power, and I think that is the best lens for understanding the transformation of his discourse on Palestine. It’s the best explanation for how, in less than a decade, he went from being someone willing to tell hard truths about Israel to someone willing to publicly slander the truth-tellers.   

Back in 2002, Ignatieff tied his support for US invasion and occupation with strong recommendations for an end to Israel’s occupation and colonisation of the West Bank and Gaza, “It is time to say that all but those settlements right on the 1967 green line must go”.

Ignatieff’s preferred two-state solution would not be brought about merely by political or economic pressure; in his view, the “US [must] commit its own troops, and those of willing allies, not to police a ceasefire, but to enforce the solution that provides security for both populations”. In other words, before Iraq, Michael Ignatieff advocated a “coalition of the willing” to invade the occupied territories and to liberate Palestinians from their apartheid-like oppression.

Although his call for US troops on the Green Line is mentioned in Empire Lite, it’s by then moot because Ignatieff has clearly hitched his “humanitarian” wagon to the imperial horse. And on this ride, sadly for the Palestinians and their like around the world, “modern imperial ethics can only be hypocritical”.   

Ignatieff is now gone from Canadian politics, but unfortunately this profile in cowardice is typical. And so it is that Canada and Israel appear set to remain the best of friends for some time to come.

Derrick O’Keefe is a Canadian writer and social justice activist. He has written widely on Canadian and international politics and has written Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil? (Verso Books), and has co-authored with Afghanistan’s Malalai Joya, A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice.

Follow him on Twitter: @derrickokeefe

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

This excerpt is from Michael Ignatieff: The Lesser Evil?

Copyright © Derrick O’Keefe 2011
Published by Verso Books
Reprinted here with permission.