Bassem Eid, a stocky 58-year-old Palestinian political analyst, stood in front of an audience of about 30 people this June 22 in the law offices of Duval & Stachenfeld in midtown Manhattan. The crowd snacked on stuffed grape leaves and drank red wine from the Northern Galilee region of Israel, eager to hear an exuberant man hold court on the plight of his people.
The Israeli-American Council (IAC), a lobbying organization explicitly dedicated to strengthening the state of Israel, sponsored the event. Eid refused two separate requests for comment, including a set of questions sent to his personal email regarding his speaking fees. Yet the depth of Eid’s hostility towards the very notion of justice for Palestinians was genuinely surprising, as was the total fealty he showed towards the state whose abuses are well-documented.
“Friends,” said Eid, spreading his arms wide, “if you will look today to the Middle East map and the growing Islamic terror in the Middle East, in my opinion, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became the most safe place in the Middle East.” Not once did he criticize the occupation of the West Bank, the blockade of Gaza, or the discriminatory laws passed against Arab citizens of Israel. To him, these were minor details.
His animated diatribes sounded like the inner monologue of a right-wing member of Israel’s Knesset, inveighing against the “thugs and gangsters of the so-called BDS” and decrying Students of Justice in Palestine as a “bullshit group.” His claim that the Arab League is “a rehabilitation center for handicapped people” drew big laughs. (Eid’s preferred rhetorical device is the one-liner, much to the delight of a middle-aged man sitting next to me who responded as though he was witnessing the second coming of Jackie Mason).
The blistering denunciations sometimes gave way to outright misinformation. Attempting to give a veneer of Palestinian legitimacy to the anti-BDS argument, Eid said, “We don’t have, by the way, any BDS member neither in the West Bank nor in the Gaza strip.” In fact, the Palestinian Human Rights Organizations Council (PHROC)’s statement on BDS explicitly supports the boycott and represents organizations like Palestinian Center for Human Rights (based in Gaza) and Al-Haq (based in the West Bank).
Eid’s politics have certainly changed over the years. Raised in a refugee camp, he once monitored Israeli human rights for B’Tselem before sprinting to the right with the gusto of a Reagan-era neocon. At certain points he sounded less like a former activist than a drunken Mossad official. “The activity of these people should have to be monitored and should have to be controlled,” he said of BDS supporters, “because these people are going to be the terrorists of the future.” He alluded to being detained by the PLO, an event that may have set him on the path that led him to the florescent-lit conference room of a Madison Avenue law firm specializing in “acquiring assets out of bankruptcy, as well as addressing the fraudulent conduct of debtors.”
This was not the wishy-washy “gotta hear both sides” equivocation I was was used to hearing at pro-Israel events, but full-throated Orientalism that cast Eid’s own people as incompetent, selfish ingrates rather than subjects of a brutally repressive Israeli regime. Eid spoke as if he believed Palestinians were directly responsible for their own torment and that the physical reality of Israeli occupation (beatings, bulldozers, administrative detention) was a paranoid hallucination.
The function that the Bassem Eids of the world serve is to assuage the guilt of Zionists. It’s not the stereotypical Jewish guilt, but a guilt born of the knowledge of a colonial domination that has always been intrinsic to the Zionist project. For some, this guilt can only be remedied by the presence of a token Palestinian assuring them that it is the occupied, not the occupier, who is ultimately to blame. Just as the not-so-hidden subtext of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Islamophobic arguments is that backwards Muslim countries must be bombed and invaded for their own good, the implication of Eid’s speech was that Palestinians cannot be trusted with their own freedom.
Even his brushes with insight were delivered in bad faith. “96% of the Palestinians believe that their leaders are corrupt,” he said, joking that the remaining 4% must be members of the Palestinian Authority. By decontextualizing this statistic, Eid meant to suggest that this (admittedly real) corruption is related to the PA’s supposedly irrational hatred of Israel, yet the truth is that this popular frustration with the PA has far more to do with Abbas’ willingness to serve as a servile puppet of the Israeli government. By placing blame largely at the feet of Palestinian leaders, particularly Arafat and Abbas, Eid was able to falsely position himself as a man of the people standing up against corrupt bureaucrats.
Journalist Ali Abunimah debated Eid at the 2007 Doha Debates and engaged in a contentious email exchange with him afterwards. In a phone conversation, Abunimah pointed out that IAC, the organization that sponsored the event, is funded by Chairman of the Board Adam Milstein, a Israeli real estate investor who was convicted of felony tax evasion in 2009.
Milstein is “one of the most Islamophobic pro-Israel funders, deeply involved in the anti-Palestinian and anti-BDS movement,” said Abunimah, “so it really has to make you wonder why somebody would be sponsored by such groups and apparently only by such groups—it’s not as if this person has any credibility with any other communities, or certainly with Palestinian communities.” Arguing against the right of return at the Doha debates, for example, is a position which “really has no support” among the population Eid claims to speak for.
The majority of Palestinians now support abandoning the Oslo accords for offering too many concessions to Israel while receiving virtually nothing in return. For Eid, however, the problem with Oslo is that it didn’t lead to jobs. “So why is the international community keeping a blind eye on the economic prosperity for the Palestinians and everybody is focusing on the politics?” he asked. This assessment only makes sense if one ignores the fact the Israeli government has destroyed billions of dollars of Palestinian infrastructure including roads, waterways, seaports, and airports (not to mention the economic impact of endless checkpoints and roadblocks).
It makes sense that Eid’s “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality would gain traction among American audiences. When Eid chalks up underdevelopment to lack of innovation he sounds like Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist who called on Gaza’s residents to build “a Dubai on the Mediterranean.” Eid may not reap the same rewards as Friedman, who was publishing apologia for IDF soldiers back when Eid still viewed them with a critical eye. But he’s making up for all those youthful humanitarian mistakes by embracing Israel with the passion of a young Avigdor Lieberman, even if it means fully alienating himself from the community he claims to represent.
Cornel West’s book Race Matters includes a blistering critique of Clarence Thomas in which he decries the “racial reasoning” that relies on a “ deceptive cloak of racial consensus.” West asserts that Thomas “claims black authenticity for self-promotion, to gain power and prestige.” This “racial reasoning” is the only way to make sense of Eid’s insistence that he was speaking on behalf of the people he spent so much energy maligning; Eid plays the same token role to the IAC as Thomas does to the Republican Party.
The “ordinary Palestinian in the West Bank,” doesn’t care much about politics, according to Eid: “Nobody’s talking about settlements, nobody’s talking about the war, nobody’s talking about the foundation of the Palestinian state.” Instead, this typical Palestinian wants “a job to survive, to secure the education system and the health system.” But when it comes to who, exactly, is making this person’s life impossible, who is denying them jobs and segregating their schools and bombing their hospitals, Eid will not point fingers.