In ordinary circumstances, Kuala Lumpur would be an unlikely place to find an Israeli historian.
Malaysia and other Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia have long been steadfast in their support for the Palestinian cause and generally refuse entry for Israeli passport holders as part of a policy of diplomatic non-recognition of Israel. Ilan Pappé, however, is no ordinary Israeli historian.
The 65-year-old academic has published over 20 books on the history of the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular and has been labelled a “traitor” by some in his country for his opposition to Zionism, Israel’s national ideology and the explicitly Jewish character of the Israeli state it denotes.
“It is an ideology which believes that as much of Palestine as possible should be a Jewish state, and in it there should be as few Palestinians as possible, to put it simply,” said Pappé in an interview with Asia Times, relaying a central theme of his “Palestine Is Still The Issue” lecture delivered recently in the Malaysian capital.
During his visit, Pappé met privately with veteran politician Anwar Ibrahim, the man widely presumed to become Malaysia’s next prime minister. Anwar wrote afterwards in an Instagram post that Pappé’s books On Palestine (2005) and The Idea of Israel (2014) had “opened my eyes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Like elsewhere in the Muslim world, support for Palestine is articulated by those in the highest positions of government in Malaysia and can often unify otherwise divided political forces. Critics, however, regard such activism as religiosity-infused domestic posturing rather than a broader recognition of human rights.
Even so, Pappé acknowledges Malaysia as being particularly proactive in its recognition of Palestinian statehood and even sees glimmers of a solution in the Southeast Asian nation’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious social compact. That is despite persistent allegations that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad holds anti-Semitic views.
At a summit of Islamic leaders and state representatives held in Kuala Lumpur last month, the 94-year-old premier accused the world of closing “both eyes, and their mouths and their ears” to Israeli aggression against Palestinians and called for Tel Aviv to face justice in an international tribunal.
Analysts regarded the summit – attended by the leaders of Turkey, Iran and Qatar – as underscoring divisions within the Muslim world following criticism of the gathering by Saudi Arabia, the traditional gatekeeper of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which some regard as having quietly cozied up to Tel Aviv in recent years.
Pappé left Israel in 2007 after losing his teaching position at the University of Haifa and has received death threats over his political activism and revisionist historical account of Israel’s creation in 1948. He says his advocacy for the human and civil rights of Palestinians was shaped by the trauma of the Holocaust.
“My parents escaped from Germany in the 1930s before the rise of the Nazis to power, but most of their immediate family were killed. It’s an important factor that shapes my moral position,” said Pappé, who is now a professor at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom and director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies.
The nature of the Israeli state under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he maintains, is one that consciously enforces “an apartheid model”, describing the global divide over Palestine as pitting solidarity-committed activists and civil society groups against political elites aligned with Tel Aviv for strategic, commercial and ideological reasons.
Israel has worked to establish closer military and security ties with Southeast Asia in recent years, becoming a key arms supplier to the Philippines, Myanmar and others. But for the region’s Muslim-majority countries, Israel’s adherence to the two-state solution set out in the 1993 Oslo Accords remains a general pre-condition for diplomatic engagement.
Political currents in Israel, however, are flowing in the opposite direction.
In July, Israel adopted a divisive law declaring the country a Jewish state in which Jews enjoy “an exclusive right to national self-determination”, stoking the ire of Arab lawmakers in the Knesset or parliament who regard the legislation as institutionalizing discrimination toward Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up around 20% of the nation’s nine million population.
Muslim-majority Southeast Asian states are making countervailing moves. In October, Malaysia announced plans to open an embassy accredited to Palestine in the Jordanian capital Amman to better facilitate aid to Palestinians. This followed Tel Aviv’s refusal to grant Malaysian officials access to the West Bank city of Ramallah over what the Israeli foreign ministry called Mahathir’s “extremist anti-Israel and anti-Semitic policy.”
The outspoken 94-year-old Malaysian premier, now in his second tenure after ruling from 1981-2003, is known to brush aside such criticisms. Mahathir famously alleged that Jews “rule the world by proxy” at a 2003 summit of the OIC and refused to walk back his description of Jews as “hook-nosed” in a BBC interview last year.
“I think that in the past he used to generalize about the Jews, which was not helpful,” Pappé remarked.
Nonetheless, in the wake of controversial decisions by the US, Brazil and others to relocate their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the Israeli academic praised Malaysia’s opening of an embassy for Palestinians in Jordan as a move that would help to “re-politicize” the issue.
“An important part of the present coalition against the Palestinians is their attempt to depoliticize the Palestine issue and turn it into an economic issue, and to say that Palestinians have no national rights, no political rights and so on,” he said in reference to the Donald Trump administration’s so-called “deal of the century.”
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, last year unveiled a $50 billion Middle East peace plan aimed in part at lifting the economies of the West Bank and Gaza. The offer was widely panned by Palestinian officials for papering over the political and security dimensions of Israel’s occupation, the resolution of which Palestinians regard as a prerequisite for their prosperity.
“Palestine is still a political issue. It’s an issue of human rights, of civil rights, of collective rights, of self-determination, of the right of return and not an economic problem of poverty or unemployment,” said Pappé. “This aspect of Mahathir’s policy I think is welcome.”
The dissident Israeli scholar also maintains that Tel Aviv has unreasonably leveled accusations of anti-Semitism against critics. For example, Netanyahu last month accused the International Criminal Court (ICC) of anti-Semitism over its chief prosecutor’s plan to pursue a war crimes probe in the Palestinian Territories.
“Israel has weaponized anti-Semitism in order to stifle any criticism and debate because its international legitimacy, its moral standing, has been dramatically eroded,” claimed Pappé, who called for a clear distinction to be made between criticism of Zionism as an ideology and prejudice against followers of Judaism when evaluating anti-Semitic labelling.
“It’s meant to intimidate. It’s meant to stifle people. But it depends a lot about you, whether you’re willing to be intimidated,” he told Asia Times. “From the very beginning of my writing, I have dealt with accusations of betrayal, of treason. If you believe in what you do and you are at peace with yourself, you can withstand even worse than that.”
As a proponent of a democratic bi-national state where Israelis and Palestinians would live as equal citizens under a single flag, Pappé remarked that he found multi-ethnic Malaysia to be “important not just in terms of establishing the solidarity movement, but also in terms of thinking about a solution.”
Malaysia, he said “offers many ways of looking at Islam’s relationship with other religions. The ability of people here to be of different faiths and different religions, both secular people, less secular, more religious – and without claiming this is a love story – it looks on the face of it, and in many parts of it, a good solution.”
While mindful not to overstate the degree to which genuine harmony across racial and religious lines have been realized in Malaysia, Pappé opted to describe its citizens as “a people that have boarded a train headed in the right direction.”
“You haven’t reached your destination, but you have started the journey. You are on the railway. We (Israelis) don’t know where the station is.”