Dear Jon Voight: A letter about Gaza
Does Jon Voight have his facts on Israel and Palestine right?
As the carnage in Gaza reached a crescendo in the beginning of August, Jon Voight, one of Hollywood’s most vocal conservatives, penned a harsh attack on fellow actors Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz in response to a letter they signed condemning the latest Israeli bombing of Gaza in which he accused them of “inciting anti-Semitism all over the world”. Many activists dismiss Voight’s letter as the rantings of an unthinking actor who long ago lost touch with political reality – a poor relation of conservative icon Charlton Heston. But Voight’s vitriol, and the narratives behind them, have for decades been quite effective in silencing criticism of Israel in Hollywood or among entertainers more broadly.
Indeed, they provide the intellectual cover for even more extreme attacks by celebrities like Joan Rivers, who in an “epic rant” worthy of an Israeli Knesset member, declared that Palestinians in Gaza “deserved to be dead”. This level of hatred mirrors the increasingly genocidal discourse against Palestinians within Israeli political and culture.
Yet it also gives cover for a growing blacklist by “top industry executives” against actors like Cruz and Bardem who dare criticise Israel publicly and without the level of deference that has long defined Hollywood’s treatment of the Jewish state.
Like most Hollywood scripts, the narratives on which the views of Voight, Rivers and other Hollywood Israel supporters are based are far removed from the historical and contemporary realities they purport to describe. Yet their power remains secure precisely because they are the same narratives used by the seemingly reasonable mainstream media and political actors – from the New York Times to President Obama – whenever the conflict is discussed.
There are three fundamental “myths”, to borrow a phrase from one of Israel’s founding revisionist historians, Simha Flapan, surrounding Israel’s birth and subsequent history that cohere the traditional narrative Voight is re-voicing. The first surround’s the state’s creation itself: “when in 1948 the Jewish people were offered by the UN a portion of the land originally set aside for them in 1921… The Arabs rejected the offer, and the Jews accepted, only to be attacked by five surrounding Arab countries committed to driving them into the sea… The Arabs tried it again in 1967, and again in 1973.”
|Shujayea: Massacre at Dawn|
Voight’s account is familiar but it is a distortion of the actual history, one that echoes the official Israeli narrative to the letter. In reality, after three decades of increasing intercommunal conflict marked by periodic bursts of violence and growing Jewish immigration, the UN voted to partition Palestine in 1947.
Already by December 1947 a civil had erupted, in which both Zionist and Arab forces engaged in regular attacks and even terrorism, with coordinated Zionist attacks on Palestinian villages aimed at Judaising strategic parts of the country picking up speed by the beginning of spring 1948.
By May 15, the date of Israel’s establishment, tens of thousands of Palestinians had already been forced into exile. As Oxford University professors Avi Shlaim and Eugene Rogan demonstrated in their book The War for Palestine, Rewriting the History of 1948, Arab leaders either sent mostly untrained and badly armed forces whose primary goals were to prevent rather than support the creation of a Palestinian state. Jordan had even secretly agreed to a division of most of the territory (except Jerusalem) with the Zionist leadership.
The second myth surrounds the Six Day War. Voigt’s description of 1967 as the “Arab trying again” is familiar yet similarly inaccurate. There were certainly many threats emanating from Arab capitals in the late spring of 1967, but ultimately it was Israel that launched a “sneak attack”, one in which US and Israeli intelligence agencies correctly assumed would wipe out the combined forces of the surrounding states in roughly five days.
Whatever its motivations, 1967 became a war of conquest and expansion. Israel could have maintained a military occupation indefinitely, if security was its main concern. Instead, it began a process of settlement, which in Jerusalem and the West Bank has intensified without pause to the present day. Gaza, which Voight and other Israel supporters argues was “give[n] the Palestinians… as a peace gesture”. Gaza was never a gift Israel could “give” to Palestinians. It was not only occupied under international law but legally inseparable from the West Bank. What Israel has done was withdraw and then impose a siege while intensifying once again its settlements in and control over the West Bank, both of which violate international law.
The third myth surrounds the Oslo peace process. The traditional narrative, repeated here, is that “Israel has always labored for a peaceful relation with its Arab neighbors.” In reality, Israel violated every agreement with and about Palestinians, beginning with its pledge in the Camp David Accords to enable “full autonomy to the inhabitants” as soon as possible (as we know, instead of robust autonomy Palestinians received half a million settlers and lost control over the vast majority of their land). Israel’s record of abiding by the Oslo-era agreements is no better, and in fact doomed them from the start.
The fourth myth surrounds Hamas. Voight claims that “the Palestinians elected Hamas, a terrorist organization, and they immediately began firing thousands of rockets into Israel.” Even the arch-conservative New York Post recognised that Hamas was elected not because of its terrorism but out of disgust with an utterly coopted, corrupt and brutal Palestinian Authority. More to Voight’s point, Hamas did not begin firing missiles into Israel until after it attempted to remove the newly elected leadership by force in a US and PA-supported coup. No significant rocket fire occurred until two years after Hamas was elected, during which time Israel continued its siege on Gaza and ever-tightening stranglehold on the West Bank.
Finally, Voight claims that his fellow actors “have forgotten how this war started”. But contrary to his assertion, as reported in great detail in the Israeli media, the Israeli government began a series of attacks on Hamas and other Palestinian activists, arresting, shooting and even killing many in response to its unity deal with the Palestinian Authority. This was the context for the kidnap and murder of three settler youth which was not a cause of but rather a link in a much larger chain of events that led to the present disaster.
Have Israel’s actions risen to the level of genocide, as the letter Mr Bardem and others signed alleges? Given the history of genocide against the Jews – the term was invented to describe the Holocaust – it is tragic that such a characterisation can even be considered. But it must be faced, because Israel’s actions, which have long been characterised as “politicide” or “spaciocide” by Israeli and Palestinian scholars, as well as the political and public rhetoric against Palestinians, have become so intense that the genocide accusation can no longer be dismissed out of hand.
It is undeniable that Israelis have suffered in the latest Gaza war, but it’s equally certain that the suffering Israel has inflicted upon Palestinians is exponentially greater, and the responsibility for that suffering lies not just with Israel, but with the United States which has, in the words of Jon Stewart, acted as its “drug dealer” while pretending to be a caring friend. If Israel’s most vocal partisans like Jon Voight really care so much about Israel, they should take the time to understand this historical and political reality. Otherwise, their passion and concern for Israel will only lead it closer to the very reckoning they desperately hope it will avoid.
Gil Hochberg is a professor of Comparative Literature at UCLA. She is the author of “In Spite of Partition: Jews, Arabs, and the Limits of Separatist Imagination” (Princeton University Press, 2007) and is presently finishing a project studying the Visual Politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University. His new book is One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States, co-edited with Ambassador Mathias Mossberg.