Opinion: How not to further the Palestinian cause

The other day at a London Underground station, I saw a man who was visibly distressed. A 50-something Asian gentleman in a suit, he’d been waiting for his wife when a man asked him to move out of the way on a narrow path. Except he hadn’t just asked him to move – he’d abused him racially and pushed against him.

I could see that he was upset, so I stopped and he told me what had happened. Imagine, however, if, instead of expressing sympathy, I had told him that he was in the wrong for having been in someone’s way on the path. Imagine, indeed, if I had adopted the other guy’s case as one to champion in the wider cause of keeping paths clear. If I did that, you would think that I had grotesquely lost all sense of proportion and that (however great the need to keep paths clear) this was an utterly bizarre case for me to be championing. You would consider my behaviour to be both shameful and wrong.

Consider, then, the case of Chanan Reitblat, a Jewish American student who left St Andrews University after two inebriated fellow students came into his bedroom in the middle of the night, urinated in his sink and “jumped on” him (I dread to think what the latter actually means). Mr Reitblat (who is not Israeli and has never been to Israel) had on his bedroom wall an Israeli flag. During the incident just described, one of these two men extracted a pubic hair from himself and rubbed it on Mr Reitblat’s flag; the two men were heard to shout, among other things, that Mr Reitblat was “a Nazi, fascist and terrorist”.

One of these two students, Andrew Donnachie, has been found guilty of what the BBC calls “a racist breach of the peace” (he reportedly plans to appeal) and his university has expelled him. After the trial, Mr Reitblat was booed in court – not the person who had been just been found guilty, but the victim. The case against the other student (who has been suspended from the university for a year) was “not proven”. In his defence, Mr Donnachie told the court:

This was a political statement and not about one individual. By displaying a flag of Israel you are making a controversial statement which invites criticism.

So Mr Donnachie’s behaviour was, apparently, nothing more than an act of “criticism” of Israel. As if behaviour of that sort can count as rational criticism of anything. I am angry about China’s occupation of Tibet, but if I acted similarly in the bedroom of a student with a Chinese flag on his wall, would anyone see it as a legitimate act of criticism of China?

It therefore beggars belief that the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC) has, shamefully, leapt to the defence of Mr Donnachie, saying:

 We call on supporters of Palestinian rights, anti-racists, and supporters of free speech to…support Paul Donnachie.

I am appalled that a major pro-Palestinian organisation imagines that Mr Donnachie’s behaviour deserves to be championed or does anything for the Palestinian cause. I am confident that those Liberal Democrats who most campaign for the rights of the Palestinians will have little truck with the SPSC and its defence of the indefensible. This is another reminder of why the SPSC deserves no support from pro-Palestinian Liberal Democrats.

Matthew Harris was the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate for Hendon at the General Election of 2010. He blogs at http://matthewfharris.blogspot.com/

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  • Sadie Smith 2nd Sep '11 - 3:30pm

    Whatever you think of Israel and Palestine, this is unbelievably dreadful. I am horrified.
    Taking some form of positive line is always more valuable.
    University seems to have taken fairly robust line.
    Is there an evidential problem?

  • Kirsten de Keyser 2nd Sep '11 - 6:27pm

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by ‘hysterical’ – a loaded term which generally imbues its user with a degree of … hysteria.

    One thing is however certain, “dispassionate debate” has so far proved to be a particularly useless instrument in this debate so is it any wonder that frustrations tend to rise to the top?

    In any event, we have no idea whether Reitblat had provoked Donnachie in some way or whatever the backstory might have been, so who are we to judge?

  • Alex Macfie 2nd Sep '11 - 9:02pm

    @Kirsten: There is no suggestion of any provocation by Mr Reitblat, and surely it would have come up in the court case if there had been. and even if there were, I cannot see any justification for such a puerile, spiteful, immature attack on a person in his private quarters. I find it shocking that anyone would seek to defend it as a legitimate political act.

  • Alex Macfie 2nd Sep '11 - 9:39pm

    SMcG: In this case, the Israeli flag was the victim’s personal property. Also the incident also took place in his bedroom. Both these facts mean there is no way the act could be construed as a legitimate political protest, like burning a national flag (which presumably you have bought yourself for the purpose) in a public place would be. (And nor could Mr Donnachie’s lewd behaviour towards an individual ever be considered legitimate political protest.)

  • Kirsten de Keyser 3rd Sep '11 - 1:46pm

    Unfortunately it is often the case that people who live in the region and are directly affected by the conflict get shot at, if they start shouting.

    Hence the need for supporters who live in Britain and other territories to keep up the shouting.

  • ‘Liberals all agreed with the AAM, but unfortunately it was a snake-pit of Trots and prone to extremism’ – hmm never thought of Peter Hain as a Trot – your comment is somewhat of an exaggeration – there might have been a few ‘Trots’ in the AAM but you can find a few extremists in all organisations.

  • Kirsten de Keyser 4th Sep '11 - 4:09pm

    funny that, I never thought of Ethel de Keyser as a Trot either…

  • When will Israel pull down their dreadful racist wall of segregation – for years the Israelis have treated the Palestinians as third class, not even citizens, of a country that they stole from them in 1947. The parallel is with the Communist Berlin Wall and and the Nazi treatment of the Jews by keeping them walled up in a ghetto; this is what Israel is doing to the Palestinians.

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