Mahmoud Abbas seals his intellectually impoverished legacy

Mahmoud Abbas’s April 30 speech has since become known as his “anti-Semitic speech” acquired an entirely unwarranted and undeserved degree of fame since it was issued. Albeit to a lesser extent, the speech’s absurd sense of self-importance and intellectual poverty also undoubtedly caused offence to those unfortunate enough to witness it.

Palestinians have been long accustomed to the absurdities of a peace process in which the architects of occupation are permitted to adorn themselves in the clothing of peace. However, even their credulity was pushed to the outermost limit as they watched Abbas boast of his extensive reading on the subject before offering a speech laden with distortions and inaccuracies.

As a Palestinian I am not obliged to defend Abbas, his political project (or lack thereof) or intellectual pretensions. In the post-Oslo era, a gulf has emerged between the Palestinian population and its leadership, who are now more accountable to external donors than those they ostensibly represent. The deficiencies of the leadership are considerable in scope and number; as such, it is no coincidence that Palestinians’ commitment to solidarity with international and Jewish activists should have been taken up by the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement rather than the official leadership.

During his most recent appearance, Abbas urged protesting Palestinians not to take part in the demonstrations on Gaza’s border with Israel as he did not want a handicapped generation. He saw no contradiction between this intervention and his role in helping to enforce, and even tighten, the inhuman blockade upon the Gaza Strip. The main impediment to a sustained Palestinian uprising also encountered no contradiction, let alone shame, in presuming to instruct Gazans, upon the appropriate course of revolutionary action.

As Abbas’s performance unravelled, I felt a strong sense of sadness that the (albeit self-appointed and widely discredited) leader of the Palestinian nation should so casually indulge one of the most pernicious of anti-Semitic canards – namely that the victims of genocide should be asked to bear, in substantial part, responsibility for their own persecution and murder. While Abbas did not (at least on this occasion) lower himself to the level of Holocaust denial, his presentation nonetheless recalled its intellectual cowardice, historical selectivity and callous disregard for human suffering in almost every respect

However, Abbas’s abdication of responsibility was more than just purely intellectual. Historically, the Palestinian struggle against occupation was assisted by Jews whose political stance was grounded within an unflinching commitment to humanist principles. By virtue of this commitment, they were often forced to endure extreme hostility from within their community, society and even family. During the first intifada I was an activist and frequently encountered these Jewish activists during protests and solidarity actions. It was only later that I came to understand the full extent of their bravery or what they had endured in the service of their beliefs.

Instead of flirting with anti-semitic tropes, Abbas could also have taken the opportunity to salute those Jews who continue to stand alongside the Palestinians in their struggle for universal rights. Abbas’s political mindset is still encased in negotiating room and the corridors of political power, so I am not sure if he is aware of the anti-BDS legislation that equally impacts Jews and Palestinians by attempting to silence them. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) is one of the groups that have been blacklisted by the Israeli authorities and banned from entering Israel. In 2014, 40 Holocaust survivors and immediate descendants of Holocaust survivors spoke out against the IDF’s onslaught on the Gaza Strip.

Abbas’s speech served to underline his own political irrelevance and also served demonstrate the limited relevance of discourse within the wider context of the conflict. External donors, as the fabricated outrage over Palestinian “incitement” and children’s textbooks continues to reiterate, cling to the illusion that words have the ability to change reality, in apparent defiance of the convoluted experience of a “peace process,” in which words and reality became diametrically opposed and even alien to each other.

Ultimately it is collaborative action that will surmount the limited mindsets and words of discredited politicians with little more to offer than their personal and political prejudices. It is in joint struggle grounded within humanist values that I and others anticipate the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I now belatedly grasp these specks of optimism, doing so in the full knowledge that they sustain me as I reflect upon Abbas’s dismal speech.

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