Jewish Journal


July 22, 2011

Putting Israel on Trial



The philosopher Bertrand Russell made a public appeal in 1966 for an International War Crimes Tribunal to conduct a trial of the United States for its actions in Vietnam.  Russell, an antiwar protester since World War I, accused the U.S. and its allies of imperialism and violations of international law in his book War Crimes in Vietnam.  Over the course of two sessions in 1967, one in Stockholm and the other in Roskilde, Denmark, the tribunal heard “testimony” from dozens of speakers and then found unanimously that the United States was guilty of genocide and aggression.

Now the Bertrand Russell Foundation is convening a new tribunal “to examine the violations of international law, of which the Palestinians are victims, and that prevent the Palestinian People from exercising its rights to a sovereign State.”  This November its jury will gather in Cape Town, symbolically meeting in a district of the city where the homes of blacks were demolished en masse in the 1970s.  Alice Walker, a vocal supporter of the flotilla to Gaza, will be one of the jurors.  The tribunal’s self-appointed task is to judge “whether the policies and practises of the State of Israel fit the international legal descriptions of the crime of apartheid.”  The trial will conclude in New York in 2012.

The members of the tribunal’s Support Committee include prominent journalists, political figures, artists, and of course activists.  The names include the Guardian‘s Tariq Ali, former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, American novelist Russell Banks, South African novelist Breyten Breytenbach, gender theorist Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky (a veteran of the 1967 proceedings), filmmaker Costa Gavras, writer Naomi Klein, British film directors Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, and Israeli academic Ilan Pappe.  These celebrities should help attract attention to what is little more than a staged media event.

It’s doubtful that anything said at the tribunal will change anyone’s mind.  In fact, very little of what’s said is likely to be new or surprising in any way.  It is purely a symbolic event, like the flotilla.  And like the flotilla it presents a dilemma to the media (though the flotilla actually has greater visual interest).  Will they treat it as a bona fide news story that deserves coverage?  Even if it’s not news, will they feel they can’t ignore it for fear of accusations of bias?

Friends of Israel may well wonder, is there any way to respond without legitimizing the proceedings?  In the Forward today, Gal Beckerman writes about a related issue:

Stooping to meet the activists of the BDS movement at their level is the very definition of counterproductive.  Rather than defuse this enemy, they elevate and inflate the threat by engaging it.  What might a better strategy be for dealing with the BDS movement?  How about just ignoring it.

Whether that’s a realistic choice for dealing with the tribunal is the big question for November.


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