Saturday, April 5, 2008

Exchange with M & G

I have decided to post an exchange of correspondence in full (despite its substantial length) between myself and the Chief Editor of the M & G, Ferial Haffajee, and Drew Forrest, a Senior Editor.

I have done so almost unedited so as to convey the full flavour of the exchange and so as not to bias it in any way. Also I will refrain from comment at this point, so that you the reader can form your own opinions.

The original Pilger article can be found here and my letter in response here.

To put the exchange in context (especially in view of some of Drew Forrest's comments), I conducted a small piece of retrospective research on the M & G record of publication on matters broadly pertaining to the Middle East, Israel, Jews and Islam. This is based on a 2 month retrospective survey using the SA Monitoring Service set up by the SA Zionist Federation. The Service is entirely impartial and the selection has nothing to do with the Zionist Federation.

The results out of 10 hits are:

Pro-Israel: 1 letter (mine).
Anti-Israel (West): 4 full-length articles (with photographic image in one) and 2 letters.
Anti-Islamist: 1 brief news report concerning a fatwa out of Saudi Arabia.
Irrelevant or neutral: 2.

Exchange of Correspondence (start at top and read down)

I note that my reply to Pilger's propaganda piece in the previous M & G was not published. On the assumption that the M & G intends publishing responses in the next issue, I have resubmitted an edited version below of the original - sent in haste.

I still retain somewhere the idealistic vision of journalism as a means of enlightenment and, though we often differ, I believe that the M & G shares that somewhat anachronistic notion - though I fail to see how publishing Mr Pilger contributes to that ideal. Forgive me if I say bluntly that in the matter of Israel and the Palestinians, the M & G is seriously on the wrong side of truth, history and morality.

On the assumption that you haven't entirely closed your mind on this matter, I suggest you give me the opportunity to submit an article entitled the "The moral stance and Israel in the Middle East". I look forward to your reply.

Mike Berger

Dear Ferial, Drew

First, I note that you published my response to Pilger in full. While that is to the credit of the M & G, I won't offer thanks since the right to have alternate views expressed (and, in turn, challenged) is the obligation of any newspaper which lays claim to good journalism. Nevertheless, I am pleased that the M & G lived up to its ideals.

At the same time, despite your obvious reluctance (determination?) to engage me in any sort of dialogue, I one again reiterate my request to be accorded space in your newspaper to set out in meaningful context some of the moral issues involved in the "Middle East conflict". So far you have ignored this "offer", along with any attempt on my part to establish some sort of civil contact, by refusing to answer any of my e-mail or telephonic messages.

Nothing I have said or done justifies such an attitude. It can only be attributed to a certain arrogance of power, of the kind you rightly castigate in Government or other powerful corporate entities. Or it reflects a fear to engage in debate on this issue, which implies some deep insecurity on your part regarding the validity of the one-sided position you have adopted vis-a-vis Zionism and Israel. Or, possibly, you are trapped in contractual/ideological obligations to the UK Guardian. Or you have me labelled in some way which precludes you from meaningful engagement.

Whatever the explanation or mix of explanations, your position does not rebound to the credit of the M & G (or yourselves to be frank) and excludes the chance of adding to your paper's significance and relevance in the South African and global context.

So, once again I extend this open-ended offer to engage in a more constructive dialogue and debate. You must be aware that in this age of electronic communication you cannot close off voices you don't approve of. Possibly you may wish to visit my blog, SOLAR PLEXUS (URL -, and receive the brief Newsletter relating to the blog? If so, let me know.

I am keeping this correspondence confidential, but reserve the right to publish it together with any response of your own, should I feel that the situation warrants it. I would prefer not to do so or to do so with your approval.

Mike Berger

Dear Mike

May I respond as follows:

1. In good faith, we published your right to reply as a letter. We run our newspaper as a forum and always encourage a diversity of views.
2. We are not arrogant, merely flooded. Our letters and personal cues receives hundreds of emails a day and scores of article contributions too.
3. We are not soliciting columns at the moment, but welcome your letters and other contributions on our standard publishing practice. Please bear in mind that we can publish only a small minority of contributions pitched every week.

I don't mean to be rude, but point out herewith that my week is revving up from today and so I will not be able to enter into a discussion about this.

Warm regards,
Ferial Haffajee
Editor M & G

Dear Mike,

I'm afraid I was a good deal more irritated by your letter than the editor, so am responding separately.

*Neither we nor any other newspaper has any "obligation" to carry readers' contributions, and it is a misconception that there is a universal "right to reply" there is no such thing. Whether and how fully we publish letters is entirely at our discretion. You might have some moral claim if Pilger's article had attacked you personally, but in fact it was about the actions of the Israeli state. Why should you have a "right of reply" to an article critical of Israel, as if your reputation had been impugned?

*Why should the M&G, a South African newspaper, need a regular columnist on Israel/Palestine? Is there a single newspaper in the country with a regular column on any foreign country? The paper's comment section is overwhelmingly about South Africa, and our small world section uses no regular columnists of any kind.

*If for some strange reason we wanted a columnist on Israel/Palestine, why would we use you anyway? What is your special interest or expertise? If we wanted a regular columnist to give the Israeli perspective, we'd at least use someone who is plugged in to what is going on in the Middle East, like the Israeli ambassador (who has occasionally written for us). In contrast
with your writing on scientific matters, I personally find your views on Israel/Palestine stale and predictable in fact, the same stock arguments one has heard trotted out a thousand times by South African Zionists. It's all knee-jerk defensive stuff, with no evidence of any attempt to rethink the situation or wrestle with the complexities. The underlying attitude n your letter "We'll just go on whacking them until they leave us alone" doesn't take things very far forward, it seems to me.

*We are not "trapped" into any contractual obligations to The Guardian in fact, they have shown extraordinary generosity by giving us lifting rights on their excellent world coverage. We share their perspective on Israel, which is pretty much the world consensus outside Israel and the US. Like other readers, you can write us a letter if you feel strongly about something published in the M&G and we will run it if we think it deserves publication. That is exactly what happened last week, and in that context I find it difficult to understand your complaint.


PS The idiom is "redound to the credit" not "rebound to the credit".

Dear Drew

Don't worry about irritation; it is something to be transcended. While I'll be equally frank and address your comments explicitly, I will try not to answer you in the same contemptuous tone in the hope that you will free yourself sufficiently from your preconceptions both regarding Israel-Palestine and myself personally to actually take some note of what I have to say.

  • I don't know about "obligations" but if the M & G wishes to be something more than a propaganda rag then it will certainly publish what I (and others with views which run counter to your own) have to say.
  • Pilger's article attacked a country with which I and other Jews (in the vast majority) feel a strong sense of identification. Both psychologically and morally we have every right to reply. Possibly if you really had some better idea of Jewish-Zionist history (or were capable of feeling any empathy with that history) you would not have written as you have. It may mean more to you if I pointed out that if someone had traduced your family, you would feel obligated, and would be entitled, to respond. Is that so hard to understand?
  • Who said anything about a "regular columnist"? Nevertheless, regular columnist or not, the M & G regularily publishes anti-Israel and anti-Zionst material (I am being euphemistic in my choice of words here), which amounts to the same thing. So get off your high horse; you're on shaky ground.
  • Why would you chose me? Well possibly because I was twice published in the M & G Bedside book during the few years when the editor (who differed from me politically) was prepared to publish my work. Because the enlightened Jewish community (and some non-Jews who have taken the time and effort to contact me) regard my writings highly. Because those who are genuine certified experts believe that I have something pertinant to say and say it well. Because I have taken the time and effort to acquaint myself with the issues, take care with facts and the different point of views and because I am open to rational debate. I could go on but modesty supervenes. Nevertheless, I would be happy to supply you with some references and a CV should you truly be interested.
  • You comment 'The underlying attitude n (sic) your letter "We'll just go on whacking them until they leave us alone" doesn't take things very far forward, it seems to me.' What letter are you referring to? The Pilger one? I have few hundred words to address his mishmash of lies and distortions:, what do you expect? A historical treatise? A "solution" perhaps? I set out to debunk his nonsense which I did effectively - which no doubt offended you, hence the insults. That is also why I have requested a bit more space in which the topic could be dealt with in a way that does at least a modicum of justice to its "complexities", as you so rightly term them.
  • Another of your comments: "We'll (referring to, Israel) keep on whacking them till they leave us alone". No. We'll keep on whacking them (and trying to talk to them and supplying them with the necessities and more) till they stop trying to destroy us. I don't know what fairy stories you tell yourself Drew, but the Jews can't afford them. When people say they want to exterminate us, we've learnt to believe them. When they act as though they wish to destroy us, we certainly believe them. The Jews can't afford stupidity; we're not big and strong enough - though some Jews haven't got the message. But then they mostly don't really want to be Jews.
  • I'm glad to hear that you're not "trapped" in any contractual obligations to the Guardian; you merely share their prejudices. But contrary to your belief that the rest of the world also shares them, you should read a recent Pew global survey on attitudes towards Israel and the Palestinians. It would surprise, and doubtless disappoint, you that the incessant stream of anti-Israel "comment" (how about that euphemism?) has yielded such poor returns - except in the enlightened countries of Western Europe so well known for their fairness and tolerance. And, of course, in the despotisms of the Middle East.
  • I was not "complaining", just challenging. Possibly you're not accustomed to that?
  • The idiom is "redound to the credit" not "rebound to the credit". Wow. Thanks. (Actually, entre nous, I know that.)

In ending let me say that your letter disappoints me. It reeks of prejudice and reflects the sad quality of understanding and thought that underpins so called "enlightened" anti-Zionism. We are sort of inured to the anger and intemperance of zealots (we have them too), but it is when I encounter the shallowness and rage which underlies the anti-Zionism of educated and supposedly "progressive" people that I truly fear for the human condition. We can't learn from that, and what one ultimately desires is for a debate in which the possibility of genuine understanding and personal growth is latent. That cannot be said for your response. I hope that you will take a moment to consider.

I won't comment on Ferial's reply here. Whether it is "sincere" or simply "diplomatic" and "strategic", I have no way of knowing. But, more gently perhaps, it also closes the door. It is to be regretted.

Mike Berger

Dear Mike

I was plain sincere and if you read my response as closing the door rather than pointing out the realities of limited space and still inviting your voice but not at the same rate as you would perhaps like, you are wrong.

Ferial Haffajee
Editor, Mail&Guardian

Dear Ferial

I felt that I had been a trifle churlish in my response to your gentle letter and this gives me the opportunity to correct that. I am reassured to know that you are sincere and I naturally accept that the pressures on your space and time are enormous. So I will take your message to indicate that the door is not firmly shut and will test (bearing in mind your realities) the extent to which it is open.

with kind regards


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