How to ignore Israel’s apartheid: Learn from Ursula von der Leyen

Diplomatic tip: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will forgive and forget your country’s outrages and crimes and wish you a happy birthday in return, apparently, for an honorary degree.

That quid pro quo was on blatant and telling display last week when von der Leyen took to social media to congratulate Israel on its 75th birthday.

In lieu of a blue and white cake topped with 75 candles, von der Leyen posted a nearly 90-second video airbrushing Israel’s long, cruel history of theft and violence visited on generations of imprisoned Palestinians. She also praised the apartheid state for its “dynamism” and “ingenuity”.

“Seventy-five years ago, a dream was realized,” she said. “You [Israel] have literally made a desert bloom.”

Her crude revisionism and recycling of a familiar, bigoted trope was condemned instantly and loudly by Palestinians who have not only endured the endless nightmare of Israel’s ruthless occupation, but who have also been invaded, jailed, tortured, killed and had their homes and lands stolen by the dynamic and ingenious birthday boy celebrating Independence Day along with President von der Leyen.

On Tuesday, Palestinian prisoner Khader Adnan was found dead in an Israeli prison after a nearly three-month hunger strike against his incarceration without charge or trial. Don’t expect von der Leyen to utter a word about it. The birthday bash mustn’t be ruined.

While her contentious comments triggered a broad backlash, I remembered that von der Leyen had spouted this historically illiterate, revisionist tripe just months before when she was given a lofty prize at an event imbued with ego-soothing pageantry.

On June 14, a beaming von der Leyen was feted with an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

“Well, how exciting,” the university’s giddy president said before bestowing von der Leyen with the symbolic honour, which was a reflection in part, he added, of their “exceptional” guest’s “long-term commitment to women’s rights”.

Von der Leyen sat in the centre of a raised dais, smiling as a short film tracing her accomplishments and applauding her commitment to promoting women’s interests and equality was shown to the students, faculty and diplomats gathered in a round hall.

Only weeks earlier, veteran Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh was fatally shot in the head by an Israeli sniper while covering yet another early morning raid in the Jenin refugee camp by eager-to-harm soldiers.

Still, von der Leyen couldn’t resist travelling to Israel to get her sash and scroll.

In her effusive 22-minute speech in June, von der Leyen gave more fulsome expression to her blind, unqualified support and affection for Israel.

“I feel honoured and humbled to receive this recognition,” she said. “It seems like a miracle that a German like me is welcomed and honoured here in the state of Israel as a friend among friends.”

Needless to say, von der Leyen did not mention Abu Akleh’s name – if she remembered it at all. Nor did she address, let alone condemn, the murder of a courageous female journalist who had dedicated her life and work to defending the rights and dignity of her sisters – Palestinian girls and women among so many others.

Instead, von der Leyen lauded a rogue nation that was not only responsible for Abu Akleh’s assassination but also the state-sanctioned brutality that Palestinian girls and women in blockaded Gaza, the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem have suffered year after grinding year.

It was a sorry performance by a preening politician more interested in having her vanity stroked and absolving her hosts’ complicity and guilt than confronting Israel’s systemic violation of women and girls whose cause she claims to champion.

Von der Leyen’s at times hyperbolic acceptance speech veered into what can only be described as the surreal.

“Europe is the values of the Talmud: the Jewish sense of personal responsibility, of justice and of solidarity,” she said.

This will come as a surprise, I suspect, to enlightened Europeans who continue to oppose and denounce the failure of iron-fisted Israeli governments and too many obstinate Israelis to accept any measure of responsibility for the litany of injustices the occupiers have forced upon besieged Palestinians.

This will come as a surprise, as well, to the string of human rights groups inside and outside Israel who have concluded – as a matter of international law – that the nation von der Leyen calls a “friend” has, since its inception, pursued a pitiless policy of apartheid towards Palestinians. All with the sinister intent to impose its ethnic supremacy and to crush Palestinians into ghettos with deliberate, inhuman efficiency.

Von der Leyen didn’t devote so much as a syllable to that egregious and exhaustively documented record. She preferred to traffic in stubborn, facts-on-the-ground-allergic rhetoric like this: “Israel is a vibrant democracy. Its resilience is admired worldwide. … Israel is a small slice of land where people of all faiths and born on all continents live together.”

Okey dokey.

Of course, von der Leyen singled out Russia for “its aggression” against Ukraine’s territorial integrity without bothering to note that Israel has launched calamitous ground invasions of Gaza in late 2008 to early 2009 and in 2014 that obliterated homes, schools, hospitals and livelihoods while killing, maiming and traumatising thousands of children, women and men who had no place to hide.

The casualties included Palestinian Nobel Peace Prize nominee Izzeldin Abuelaish’s three daughters and their cousin who were dismembered when two Israeli tank shells were fired into their home as they huddled together on January 16, 2009.

It appears that von der Leyen has forgotten about those girls and women, too.

What she didn’t forget to do was to trot out the odious chestnut that, lately, has caused such an uproar.

“I marvel at how … you have, quite literally, made the desert bloom,” von der Leyen told her appreciative audience.

Beyond erasing the history and presence of Palestinians in that “desert” for centuries, the clear and indeed, racist, implication is that the land was empty or neglected prior to the arrival of Jewish settlers.

Again, I’m convinced that enlightened European parliamentarians and millions of Europeans who side with the Palestinians’ just fight will reject outright the president’s outrageous language and demand she retract her retrograde remarks.

Listening to both speeches, I was taken aback not only by some of what von der Leyen said but how she said it.

The talks oozed with a grating, self-gratulatory quality: the by-product of her evident and overarching aim to please rather than to challenge.

Then there was the smug certainty of von der Leyen’s gooey sentimentalism that betrays a profound misunderstanding of the combustible region and an obliviousness to the hurt that her halting comments were bound to cause to appalled Palestinians and their equally offended allies.

The European Commission’s president should, at the least, apologise. You and I know she won’t. A gift-wrapped bauble, it seems, is more important than the constant struggles, capricious fates and endangered lives of Palestinians.

Shame on her.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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