Kamal M. Ali

The normalization of the Israeli apartheid-state by liberal Bangladeshis calls for a revival of revolutionary solidarities and a South Asian politics that champions the Palestinian cause.

On the 159th birthday of Rabindranath Tagore, the Israeli Embassy in India commemorated the late Bengali poet and Nobel laureate by sharing a picture of a street named after him in Tel Aviv. Tagore died in 1941— a few years before the creation of Israel— but it is clear from his correspondences that the poet showed an interest in the nascent Zionist movement. His interest is evident from his letters exchanged with Western colleagues (notably, Immanuel Olsvanger), his political internationalism, and his specific concerns about the state of European politics, including the rise of Nazism.

Yet, despite his interest in Zionism, Tagore’s views frustrated his Jewish nationalist contemporaries. Tagore’s sympathetic statements on Zionism often explicitly refuted the project of a “Jewish state” and would be regarded today, despite their sympathies, as reproaches of the very historical trajectory of the nation-state of Israel. As a forceful critic of nationalism, Tagore imagined instead a “Palestine Commonwealth.” This reading of Zionism was not particular or unique to Tagore. In fact, he regarded his position as following “the same sense as [his] great friend Einstein.” (Fittingly, the aforementioned Tagore Street in Tel Aviv intersects with Einstein Street.) Tagore, therefore, intoned that Palestine could only be a “national home” for Jews if equal inclusion and agency was given to “Arabs in their political and economic program.” In other words, Tagore would not have supported an apartheid state. Having renounced his British knighthood in 1915, in protest of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, one can only imagine how Tagore would have felt about being honored by a political entity founded on the Deir Yassin massacre, the procedural ethnic cleansing of Plan Dalet, the collaborating military support of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, and the systematic erasure of Palestinian life and society under the guise of ‘security’ wars such as Operation Protective Edge.

A Rhetoric of “Strategy”

This rhetoric flows strongly in the writings of “strategic” and liberal-bourgeoisie Bangladeshi columnists. They are, to be sure, negligible in terms of influence and countable on a single hand. Yet, their presence in mainstream discourse makes it imperative to not just meet but also to reject their claims. For instance, consider the story of Sahdman Zaman: a British-Bangladeshi who tours with the Jerusalem-based World Zionist Organization, declares himself “the first Bangladesh national to have visited Israel,” and whose comically exaggerated tale of Zionist enlightenment involves reading a “smuggled” copy of Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel at the age of 12. Zaman is but an example of such discourse. Many others – Khaled Nasir, Mahir Abrar, Mohsin Habib, and the veteran tabloid-Zionist Shoaib Chowdhury – have been writing in a more serious register and for a demand that grows silently.

A recent op-ed written by lawyer and Dhaka Tribune contributor Umran Chowdhury epitomizes this canon. On May 10th, 2020, the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, published an op-ed by Chowdhury entitled “Why Bangladesh Should, Belatedly, Recognize Israel.” Though the intention of Chowdhury’s article is stated clearly enough, his political argument is presented through a series of disconnected and incoherent claims. It is important to read the op-ed closely so as to (a) unpack, criticize, and refute the claims presented therein, and also, to (b) demonstrate the stock arguments presented in such rhetoric. These claims, hollow as they might be, are nonetheless peddled by these writers loudly and often, with an eye towards normalizing their contents. Chowdhury’s article is a bellwether: the op-ed offers a specific political narrative that is increasingly parroted by the aforementioned writers and regularized toward the end of fostering Bangladeshi-Israeli relations. In particular, there are four arguments that I wish to highlight from Chowdhury’s op-ed. I will examine, briefly: (i) Chowdhury’s confused historical readings of Jewish-Bengali entanglements; (ii) his argument that Bangladesh “owes” Israel recognition to reciprocate for the latter’s recognition of Bangladesh in 1972; (iii) Chowdhury’s missing narrative of Bangladeshi-Palestinian solidarities; and (iv) the utterly convoluted claim that both Israel and Bangladesh share “similar independence struggles.”

First, the structure of Chowdhury’s article revolves around a series of disarrayed references to Jews who have “intersected with Bangladesh’s modern history.” These figures include Louis Kahn, the American architect of Bangladesh’s present parliament building; J. F. R. Jacob, the Indian Army officer who negotiated Pakistan’s surrender in 1971; and, of course, Tagore and his Jewish colleagues (in this instance, Dr. Alex Aronson). It is unclear what any of this has to do with why Bangladesh should recognize Israel. At best, Chowdhury’s tokenistic catalogue of Jews who have interacted with Bangladesh is a decorative means of filling space. At worst, the list hinges upon an antisemitic conflation of Jews with Zionism and reduces very different individuals, from different times and contexts, into an amorphous cultural case for Israel.

Chowdhury’s historical “arguments” do not simply miss as arguments. They also fall short of any serious engagement with rigorous historical scholarship. The shallowness and dearth of his historical engagement is spelled out in his very sources. Almost all of his references are gleaned from the Wikipedia entry on the “History of the Jews in Bangladesh,” or from Instagram history pages. Chowdhury’s ‘historical’ engagement does a tremendous disservice to the actual history of Judaism in Bengal and South Asia. One only need look at Ella Shohat’s work on Judeo-Arabic and or the Shalva Weil edited volume on Baghdadi Jewish life in South Asia as necessary counterexamples.

A second historical argument Chowdhury makes is that Bangladesh owes a moral debt to Israel because of Israel’s support for the cause of Bangladeshi independence. What Chowdhury glosses over is how Bangladesh responded by emphasizing the illegitimacy of the Israeli government. In addition, Chowdhury’s piece ignores the nuances behind ostensible Israeli political support for Bangladesh. For instance, Israeli allies in 1971, such as the Nixon-Kissinger administration in the United States, were directly and actively arming Pakistani génocidaires. In addition, Chowdhury’s position is also undermined by the short-lived ‘culture war’ that the 1971 crisis caused in Israeli civil society. Israelis offered charity support to East Bengali refugees along with expressions of skepticism over the recipients of said charity. An example is this 1971 op-ed from an Israeli newspaper, which asks why Israelis should “rally to the cause of a Moslem country” that “supported with word and deed the Arab countries”. These examples suffice to undermine what Chowdhury depicts as a uniform and homogenous support of Bangladesh by Israel.

Third, in addition to historical inaccuracies, there is also a conscious form of historical amnesia in Chowdhury’s article. This is an amnesia about the other half of this story – Palestine. The history and nature of Bangladeshi support for Palestine is summoned and promptly banished away as an inert, bygone curiosity. To Chowdhury, the only pro-Palestine support that exists in Bangladesh is from groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami. The explanation of Bangladeshi-Palestinian solidarity is rendered into a cheap yet selling narrative of “Muslim fundamentalism”. In doing so, the narrative does a grave disservice to the hundreds of Bangladeshis who fought for Palestinian self-determination and are buried in Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) graves in Lebanon. During the 1982 Lebanon War, 400 Bangladeshi fighters were captured by the Israeli military. Fathi Abu al-Aradat, a PLO secretary, estimated around 1000-1500 Bangladeshi fighters were involved in the war. In 1987, the Bangladeshi government estimated that around 8000 Bangladeshi youths had volunteered to fight for the PLO following Arafat’s visit to the country.

It is precisely these revolutionary connections that were immortalized in Chris Steele-Perkin’s photograph of five Bangladeshi fighters in Beirut.  One might ask Chowdhury that if the original identification of the new state of Bangladesh with the Non-Aligned Movement has been lost after five decades following an American-supported coup, reactionary military juntas, and the end of the Cold War, why is the natural response to bury such a legacy and not to re-champion its moral vision for future politics? The first words, or indeed the first silence, of the newly-admitted state of Bangladesh to the United Nations were that of its leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, asking the hall to observe a moment of silence for the martyrs of Algeria, Vietnam, and now, Bangladesh. This kind of internationalism has faded from the rhetoric of mainstream South Asian politics and demands to be remembered, revived, and followed. 

Finally, the most historically convoluted and ethically questionable of Chowdhury’s claims is that both Israel and Bangladesh had “similar independence struggles.” Both, he argues, are nations born of genocide: for Israel, it is the Holocaust and for Bangladesh, it is the 1971 genocide. One notable detail that Chowdhury does not consider is that the historical majority of Israel’s citizen population, Mizrahi Jews, were not universal victims of the Holocaust in Europe. Indeed, many Mizrahi Jews, without disputing the trauma and gravity of the Holocaust, reject the Holocaust as the quintessential “Israeli narrative” and question how it excludes non-European Jews from the hegemonic national imagination. Chowdhury’s suggestion that Bangladesh and Israel have similar independence struggles misrepresents the fact that Israel and Bangladesh have radically opposed histories of national independence. Chowdhury enlists common images shared between state formations in 1948 and 1971: these include ethnic cleansing, refugees, freedom fighters, and so on. The problem is that he has his sides confused. The images he describes of 1971 are what Palestinians endured in 1948, rather than the Israelis. It was the Haganah and various Zionist militas (that later became the IDF) that depopulated entire villages of Palestinians, and remind one of the same acts of genocide, displacement, and collective punishment that West Pakistani and loyalist militias doled out against Bengali civilians in 1971. In opting for an entirely stylistic and cliché turn-of-phrase – “similar independence struggles” –  Chowdhury makes an historical argument equivalent to “1+1=3” and instrumentalizes the painful histories of genocides inflicted on both Jews and his own people to, in effect, run propaganda for an apartheid state.

Chowdhury’s article is not particularly serious, well-researched, or well-argued. Chowdhury is neither a specialist nor a historian in any of the subjects that he is writing about, and the shallowness of his research and the lack of critical thought given to his arguments offer us a clue into something else. His article was not written or published on the merits of its historical, logical, or even ethical arguments. Its laziness and mediocrity tell us that its real value, its attractiveness, lay in a not-so-hidden argument that is strategic in nature.

Imagining an Alternative

There has never been a time when Israel had as material and economic a role in South Asia as it does now. Chowdhury admires the relationship between India and Israel and sees, therein, an opportunity for national self-interest. He locates this opportunity at a time when a “reconsideration” of Israel has international momentum. One only has to consider the rhetorical transformation of Saudi Arabia’s policy with Israel, a relationship alluded to in his article. Saudi nationalists infamously announced “Palestine is not my cause” on social media earlier this year, and now the Kingdom speaks openly of “upgrading” relationships with Israel (even though both states have been connected by clear economic networks and political incentives for decades). While the prospect of state recognition of Israel by Bangladesh is far-off, the prospect of ingratiating Bangladesh further into India’s axis of diplomatic relations and benefitting from more formal (commerce) and informal (civil) networks with Israel is a real possibility.

Chowdhury speaks of Israeli investment in the growing Bangladeshi economy, such as the “Digital Bangladesh” project and textile export, but is elusive about the burning question of “security cooperation.” What Chowdhury sees as strategic national interest, precarious and dissenting groups in both Bangladesh and Israel see as detrimental. The technocratic nature of state repression in Bangladesh was clearly visible (and internationally denounced) during the state’s handling of the 2018 Bangladesh road-safety protests. From shutting down the Internet to mass-surveillance of social media and communications channels to coercion, imprisonment, and intimidation of minor-age protesters, one can only imagine what additional role Israeli defense contractors and consultants would serve for the country. Moreover, Israel, India, and Bangladesh commonly see themselves as ‘security’ regimes that occupy territories seeking their own independence. Bangladesh’s own (arguable) settler colonial project in the Chittagong Hill Tracts – not unlike India in Kashmir or Israel in whole – will only be further militarized if any “security cooperation” was to pan out with Israel. 

Whether Chowdhury is aware of it or not, whether he is indeed (to use a term Lenin coined) “a useful idiot,” his article’s attractiveness for certain groups is self-evident. Immediately upon publication, the op-ed was endorsed and shared by Clifford Smith, the Washington Project Director of the pro-Israel, Daniel Pipes-created Middle East Forum. Prior to right-wing surveillance and harassment platforms like Canary Mission, it was Daniel Pipes and his thinktank that served as the key McCarthyite apparatus that hounded academics and activists in the US. The Middle East Forum’s listed harassment projects include Campus Watch, Islamist Watch, Jihad-Intel, The Counter Islamist Grid, and The Israel Victory Project. Chowdhury seemingly welcomed the endorsement and shared it on his Twitter.

Yet, going beyond Chowdhury and the circulation of Zionist thinktank media, the broader concern that must be recognized is that Bangladesh – which in 2021 will be fifty years old – is incentivized unlike ever before to normalize partial relations with Israel. Few countries are as violently entangled as Bangladesh in the operative demands of global capitalism. Contractors, businessmen, sweatshop owners, immigration dalaals, and national party cadres oversee the collusion of the nation’s resources and labor toward that end. Consequently, the strategic goals of the state and the national bourgeoisie are synchronized: sweatshop productions for the West, natural gas and ecological resources for India, human labor for the Gulf, and every assurance of state support for the stability of the political relations that protect these economic underwritings. It is for this reason that whatever conscious, revolutionary politics remain from a state nominally founded on them, such politics must be protected and championed. We must practice a preventative and total critique of the sly “quiet revolution” in Israeli-Bangladeshi relations that strategic-minded columnists and think-tanks pitch in public discourse.

Bangladeshis, anecdotally speaking, are some of the strongest and staunchest supporters of Palestinian liberation in South Asia that I know of and this plea will hardly need convincing. One does not need to quote one’s passport, nor summon the graveyards of Bengali fighters in Beirut, nor cite the innumerable demonstrations of solidarity that Bangladeshi artists, intellectuals, revolutionaries, and working peoples have expressed with the Palestinian cause. One suffices in finding their moral vision, their affirmation of Palestinian liberation, confirmed in the words of Tagore himself. Rejecting his knighthood from the British Empire, Tagore wrote of the violent “treatment [that] has been meted out to a population, disarmed and resourceless,” the “terribly efficient organisation for destruction of human lives,” and to the agent of such violence—be they in London or Tel Aviv—he challenged: “relieve me of my title.

Kamal M. Ali is a Bangladeshi writer, critic and historian.

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