Arthur Neslen’s Occupied Mind: Why the Guardian Left can’t take Arab antisemitism seriously

In “Why I met the man who tried to kill me“, Guardian, March 2, Arthur Neslen, (who has written for the Observer, the Guardian, Aljazeera.net, and Haaretz) recounts an incident in May 2009, while covering Gaza to conduct research on a book he was writing on Palestinian identity, involving a Palestinian who tried to kill him.

That day as I crouched, snapping away, a finger tapped my back. I turned and hauled myself up to see a young, trim-bearded man in a red bandanna, smiling from ear to ear. He looked so pleased to see me that I automatically smiled back and said, “Ahlan wa sahlan” (“Greetings”). But the man, whom I will call Khalid, seemed in a trance. Still smiling, he held up a long, red-and-white-handled dagger. Then he unsheathed the blade, raised it above his head and plunged it towards my chest. A split-second of dissonance between the smile and the dagger broke with a jolt as I spun around and sprinted off down the street, yelling for help.

Palestinians are famously welcoming to foreign visitors, sometimes embarrassingly so. But this time, as if in a nightmare, everyone I passed on the street seemed to ripple towards the walls, [emphasis added]

In my initial dash, I had got about 10 yards on Khalid, but he was younger than me, determined, and inexorably catching up. After 200 metres, I stopped at a road junction, unable to run farther without exhausting myself beyond any hope of self-defence.

As I shouted and pleaded for help from frightened-looking strangers, a bearded man..ushered me into a security compound…[and Hamas police] officers spilled out after him, one offering me his pistol as he went – I declined – and Khalid was quickly overpowered and arrested.

Despite my lack of physical injury, I didn’t sleep well after the attack. Death seemed to be everywhere and I would jump at the sound of a banged door

The rumour that Khalid had been released began a week after the attack. Gaza’s Hamas government often let Salafist offenders go, to assuage national-religious sentiments among its members, to convince them it was not going soft on the Islam agenda and to prevent more radical challenges to their authority.

A Gazan journalist I knew went to the psychiatric hospital to inquire about Khalid’s case for a possible story. She was berated by the clinic’s director for her lack of Islamic dress and questioned as to why she was helping a non-Muslim. [emphasis added]

Khalid had already been freed. For a few days after that, I carried a pair of scissors in my back pocket, in case of another attack. 

When the border crossing at Erez reopened a few days later, I made a beeline for the exit, my interviews unfinished, never expecting to return. But the question of who Khalid was, and what circumstances led him to the UN building that day, stayed with me…My political sympathies were definitively with the Palestinians, but the murder in Gaza of the pro-Palestinian activist Vittorio Arrigoni in April 2011 – apparently by would-be jihadists – demonstrated that this was no guarantee of safety. Khalid’s smiling face was a blank canvas on to which I could project orientalist fears.

So I launched my own inquiry

Khalid was a nationalist, not a jihadist, his family said. He was also a schizophrenic, with a story that put the UNRWA events in a wholly different, and more sympathetic, light. When Khalid’s brother Asad eventually told my friend that Khalid would talk to me in a controlled environment, at his home, I agreed, despite my fears

Although I trust my friend’s judgments about the safety of the interview, as Erez’s steel gates clang shut behind me, I am still consumed by fear.

And so, two and a half years after the attack, I find myself at arm’s-length from a shoeless Khalid

“I was born in Libya in 1982,” he says. “We lived in Benghazi and Tripoli, but we moved a lot. My father was a teacher, so he worked in different countries. We were diaspora refugees.” When [Khalid] was 13, his family returned to the Palestinian territories, hoping for an independent state after the signing of the Oslo Accords.

His first contact with Israeli Jews came when the family arrived at the Allenby bridge crossing between Jordan and the West Bank. “We were separated,” Khalid says. “They took my sister and brother aside, and I think they blackmailed them. They wanted them to do things that the Israelis thought were right – but they were wrong. That was an assault on the family. It was a bad thing that they did.”

As the 1990s dragged on, Khalid became politicised by the second intifada/

Khalid’s unaligned political beliefs took on a religious tinge, even if his own prayer patterns were fitful. His primary political motivation was to recover all of pre-1948 Palestine. “I always liked fighting the occupation,” he tells me with bravado.

What is the best strategy, I ask.

“Jihad,” he replies instantly and flashes me an eye-to-eye stare. “The best way is through jihad, as the prophet Muhammad ordered all Muslims to do when non-Muslims occupy Muslim land.” 

Tell me about what happened to you during Operation Cast Lead, the 2009 invasion, I ask him.

“On the first day, there were attacks across Gaza and I saw martyrs falling everywhere, including good people who fought the occupation,” Khalid replies. As the bombing increased and the death toll rose, he heard a despairing Gazan on TV pleading for ambulances and political acts of help. When the Israelis came to a nearby neighbourhood on 12 January, “I thought that I must go there and ask them to stop their escalation. The soldiers pointed their guns at me and ordered me to strip. They handcuffed me so tightly that my wrists bled for an entire day. Then they put me inside the entrance of a house they were controlling so that every soldier who entered or left could hit me. They constantly swore, saying bad things about my family, and they beat me with their boots and rifle butts.”

His arresting officer wouldn’t let him eat or rest. 

In the district where Khalid was held, there were widespread accusations of the use of “human shields” –

He remembers being forced by soldiers to march the next day, still blindfolded and handcuffed, and in a state of fear and exhaustion. He was then interrogated, and driven in an armoured vehicle to a detention camp. A pattern of questioning, strip searches, violence and humiliations ensued while he was dragged through Israel’s military and judicial system…When they told me to take my clothes off, I was beaten.”

Finally, in March 2009, he was taken back to the labyrinthine Erez border terminal and pushed through its metallic corridors into a Gaza that was by then 20% rubble. Two months later, I met him in Gaza City.

An Israeli justice ministry spokesperson confirmed the dates of Khalid’s detention and release, and place of arrest.

Neslen evidently never, however, tried to corroborate the charges of mistreatment by Israeli authorities.

As far as the day Neslen was attacked, Khalid says:.

I left home and went to the university that day,” Khalid begins, blankly. “I waited for two hours with the knife. I saw foreigners in Jeeps, and I thought these were people who were participating in wars against us.”

Neslen adds:

One of the things that helped me get over the attack, I told him, was knowing that he never stabbed me in the back when he had the chance. Khalid clucks his tongue [and says] “I was very cautious to make sure that I didn’t do something wrong.” [emphasis added]

Again, Khalid:

“I approached him very closely,” Khalid goes on…When I pulled the knife, he ran away. I didn’t want to warn him. I wanted to see that this was a person who was fighting against us. The person ran away and was crying, ‘Help, help, help’ and there were men who fired in the air and took the knife from me and took me to the police station. Maybe it was you?”

Neslen:

Since my barmitzvah, I had never felt that I looked particularly Jewish. At school in east London in the early 1980s, I was frightened that appearing Jewish would make me a target for attack. More than once, it did. Still, I never denied being Jewish and fought my corner when faced with violent antisemites. 

But I cannot see Khalid as one of those. [emphasis added]

At this, I lean forward and we embrace. As we do, I feel my shoulder blades instinctively tense. I realise that I don’t actually know how I feel towards Khalid. His initial justification to the police after the attack on me had been that he thought I was “a Yahud [Jew] who had come to steal Palestinian land”. Perhaps it was a plea for extenuating circumstances. The only Jews he had ever met were uniformed gunmen who brought with them fears of collaboration, expulsion and death. [emphasis added]

I do not request an apology and none is offered. Khalid has been a diagnosed schizophrenic since 2007 and, Asad says, had never behaved violently before he was arrested during Operation Cast Lead. I can appreciate that his attempt to kill me was nothing personal. [emphasis added]

Khalid has a human face to me again, and I hope that he feels the same way, too. The chain of trauma that linked us has been acknowledged, if not broken. I wish only that I could have told him that I was Jewish.

Khalid admitted that his attack was based on the belief that Neslen was a Jew, but Arthur Neslen doesn’t believe Khalid is an antisemite.  Further, Neslen can appreciate that the Palestinian’s attempt to kill me was “nothing personal”.

Neslen evidently sees it as reasonable that a Palestinian should possess murderous animosity towards Jews, and the wish to pursue violent Jihad to achieve his anti-Jewish political aspirations, due to the fact that his only experience with Jews were “uniformed gunmen who brought with them fears of collaboration, expulsion and death.”

Imagine a similar argument about African-Americans or Muslims.

“Chaim hates Muslims and wants to kill them because, as a soldier in the IDF, the only Muslims he’s experienced are Jihadists and their sympathizers.

Steve hates African-Americans because the only ones he’s experienced in his rich suburban neighborhood outside New York City have been petty criminals.

Would such a moral defense of racist stereotypes pass muster, or be perceived as acceptable under any circumstances?

Further insight into the psyche of Arthur Neslen can be gathered by the book he authored titled, “Occupied Minds: A journey through the Israeli psyche”, whose endorsers include Ilan Pappe and Yvonne Ridley, and includes this blurb on the book’s web page at Pluto Books:

Occupied Minds is the story of an [Israeli] national psyche that has become scarred by mental security barriers, emotional checkpoints and displaced outposts of self-righteousness and aggression. 

It charts the evolution of a communal self-image based on cultural and religious values towards one formed around a single militaristic imperative: national security.

But, an even more relevant insight into the political mind of Arthur Neslen can be found in a CiF essay he penned in 2007 called “When an anti-Semite is not an anti-Semite“, subtitled, “A new ‘working definition’ promoted by Israel lobbyists seeks to confuse anti-semitism with anti-Zionism.”

Neslen harshly criticizes the EU Working Definition of Antisemitism,which includes “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavor; Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation; Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis; Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.” 

He writes:

It’s actually a bit shocking to discover that the new definition was largely drafted by a pro-Israel advocates [American Jewish Committee’s Kenneth Stern and Tel Aviv University’s Stephen Roth Institute] who gives talks on how to elide the distinction between anti-Zionism and hatred of Jews.

Neslen becomes even more glib and rhetorically callous in citing a Jewish biblical historical precedent as “evidence” of what he believes is the absurdity of labeling those who don’t believe in Jewish sovereignty as antisemites:

God instructed Moses to tell the Jewish people that “the land is mine; you are but tenants and travellers”. What was this if not denying the Jewish people the right to their self-determination? 

Even more insidiously, Neslen writes:

The terrible irony of all this is that, on its current policy platform, the British National party might have few problems with the working definition. During the Lebanon war, for example, Lee Barnes, the BNP’s head of legal affairs wrote [of his support for Israeli and opposition to Hezbollah during the 2nd Lebanon War].

So Lee Barnes would pass the EUMC test. By comparison, Jewish anti-Zionists (such as myself) [could be] subjected to anti-Semitic campaigns 

Neslen continues:

Certainly, some Palestinians talk about “Yehuds” in a derogatory fashion, cite libellous texts without forethought and make foolish statements about the Holocaust. But that’s what happens to language when you step on someone’s throat. [emphasis added]

The understatement is almost comical. “Some Palestinians” talk about Jews in a derogatory fashion?! Others “cite libelous texts” (such as, presumably,the Protocols of the Elders of Zion) “without forethought” and make statements about the Holocaust (Holocaust denial?) which are “foolish“!

Jew hatred, antisemitic conspiracy theories, and Holocaust denial are not, to Neslen, indicative of ugly racism, but merely the inevitable results of Jews’ villainous behavior.

Devolving into the depths of Academic far-left race theory, Neslen adds:

Black victims of segregation in the Deep South talked about “honkys” and Malcolm X’s Nation of Islam preached that an evil scientist called Yaqub created white people in a test tube experiment that went wrong. This did not make them racists, because racism usually describes a concrete set of power relations, more than it does an abstract collection of prejudices.

Arthur Neslen’s mind, as with so many of his colleagues at the Guardian, will never take Arab/Muslim antisemitism seriously because of a refusal to view such “oppressed”, socially “marginal”, and “powerless” figures as anything beyond abstractions – Palestinians as the eternally oppressed minority dispossessed by Jews, lacking moral agency. Guilt and victimhood, for Neslen, are pre-assigned and immutable. 

Despite the fact that Arabs outnumber Israelis by roughly 300 million to less than 8 million, or that Muslims throughout the world outnumber Jews 1.5 billion to 14 million, Arabs and Muslims are still the oppressed minorities.

Finally, Neslen’s views on Jews and Palestinians can be summed up by the following praise he gave to a particular commentator who had just published a book on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.  

“The author is an unusually measured and thoughtful commentator on the Israel/Palestine question. There aren’t many writers on the region whose work demands attention for the quality of its insight and reliability of its research, but [this author] is one of them.” 

Arthur Neslen was offering such enthusiastic praise to Ben White, upon publication of his book on “Israeli Apartheid.”

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