Thursday, September 4, 2008

Prologue to correspondence between Davis and Berger

I am placing on public record below an exchange of correspondence between myself and Judge Dennis Davis. The material is complete and unaltered, save for a couple of notes of brief clarification and one letter of my own which was intended for Judge Davis but was not sent to him on the initiative of Prof Milton Shain (Department of History, UCT and Director of the Kaplan Centre). Prof Shain chairs a smallish, informal discussion group, the Bernard Steinberg Group, comprised of Jewish academics of which both Judge Davis and I are members.

This letter and the full exchange of correspondence is posted to my blog, Solar Plexus (URL:, and will also be included in the distribution list of the Solar Plexus newsletter.

This exchange arose out of a letter of my own (included in the attached record) which was distributed to members of the Bernard Steinberg Group for comment. Three responses were received: two positive, and are thus not included, and one from Judge Davis which led to the exchange reproduced below.

I have decided to make this material more widely available for reasons of public interest. Part of this relates to the climate of open, robust but civil debate which needs to fostered in this country I won’t expand on the other ramiifications here but can do so if so merited.


Over the past 10 years or so, I have written in the general press on two major themes: one is domestic politics and the other pertains to Israel. In the latter role I have attempted to rebut what I perceive as unjust attacks on a State of great emotional significance to the majority of South African Jews. Given the fact that I am generally limited to the Letters Page (since the major newspapers will no longer publish articles of mine dealing with Israel) I am compelled to be more simplistic than my preferences would dictate. For a more complete expression of my views, consult my blog at the following URL:

Within the Jewish community a smallish, broadly leftwing group has allied itself, to a individually variable extent, with those who criticise Israel as a brutal occupying power. This arouses great emotion within the Jewish community since it is perceived as a form of betrayal. There is little love lost between the blocs and debate becomes rapidly polarised.

More specifically, the recent Human Rights Delegation (HRD) to Israel was initiated by a group of young Jewish activists but included a number of non-Jews, some quite prominent and well respected. Most, but not all, of the latter were allied with voices critical of Israel. Judge Davis was part of the HRD.

I amongst others was critical of the HRD for a host of reasons. Prominent amongst these was the fact that despite their claimed sensitivity to the 'sensitivities and anxieties' of the Jewish community a number of them published public pieces on their experiences in which Israel was implicitly or explicitly (sometimes in extremely strong terms) characterised as a brutal occupying power. The major South African media (based on objective criteria) gives considerable prominence to such views and poses enormous obstacles to those of us wishing to offer alternative perspectives. This can of course be documented.

At the same time some of the younger members of the delegation wished to engage with the majority Jewish community in debate. I regarded, and still do, this as double standards and have said so openly.

In the course of this correspondence I was subjected to a slew of ad hominem and gratuitous slurs, a variety of accusations, some of which were accompanied by repeated threats of legal action and a host of mis-assumptions and pejorative labels.

I replied to some of these in the course of the correspondence but some I ignored on the basis of their absurdity and out of sheer exhaustion. Some of them were of the type “state explicitly that you do not beat your wife”. One does not generally reply to that kind of demand.

But since this in the public domain and silence can be interpreted as assent I have attempted to reply very briefly to the more egregious accusations.
1. Judge Davis: “because nothing that you have ever written as ever passed any intellectual muster .It is so laughable for me to read you talk of intellectual coherence when your ‘writings’ reveal nothing of the kind . of course that you were never more than a truly pedestrian academic so I should not expect very much . “ He did later apologise for those remarks. Suffice it to say many others have a different opinion.
2. Judge Davis: “By the way to compare Palestinians to Nazis speaks more eloquently than any of your mutterings of preconceptions . please publish this line in public so that I can lay charge against you in the Equality Court .” That patently false inference and threat of legal action was made repeatedly even after I repudiated it. So for the record let me state I did not make that association simply because to do so would be grossly ignorant and stupid and, contrary to Judge Davis’s opinion, I’m neither. Had I believed it was a reasonable comparison I would have stated it openly.

3. Judge Davis accuses me of hate speech and encouraging hate speech on more than one occasion, and even after he withdraws that accusation he demands that I explicitly state my abhorrence of such behaviour. It’s like demanding that someone explicitly declare their repudiation of serial rape. It is a despicable suggestion that I support such behaviour (including threats made to his family or to other members of the Human Rights Delegation). But for the record I regard hate speech and related behaviour as cowardly and repulsive and it should be prosecuted. I have been subjected to it myself and thus know what it feels like.

The accusations around hate speech and the Palestinian-Nazi comparison and threats of legal action were made repeatedly.: “Obviously in your world which equates all Palestinians to Nazis( your words not mine ) people like me are self hating JEWS who would rejoice at its destruction . So go ahead and say so but when remember that when you do so , you cross the line between free speech and defamation and I will be waiting to defend my rights .”

And again: “indeed if you make public your views on Palestinians as Nazis I will consider laying a charge at the Equality Court… And if you defame me or my colleagues , it is equally my right to institute action against you . “

And again: ” How is it that you consider yourself a fair commentator on the Palestinian /Israel crisis when you equate palestinians to Nazis .Note I have given you at least 3 opportunities to withdraw or qualify that which I do regard as hateful speech ie to so write of a whole people “

And again: “To the extent that I accused you of hate speech I WITHDRAW the allegation However, I do find your explanation of the use of the nazi parallel rather unsatisfactory .Why use it in relation to Palestinians ? Does this not fit into a pattern of demonisation of Palestinians”

And again: “While I understand your anger at being linked to a right wing fringe that attacks Doron , it would be helpful for me to know this: do you condemn this kind of ’speech ‘ and will you say so , even in public if necessary . “

I invite the reader to scrutinise the correspondence and judge for themselves where the hate was coming from. If open robust opposition to viewpoints which one regards as misinformed or naïve or politically motivated or malicious is now deemed an incitement to hate speech, then we may as well close down open debate and democracy. I will continue to make such comment openly and reject any attempt to limit my rights.

4. Judge Davis: “But be warned - if you continue tin public to defame any of the group of which I was a part , I will sue you and take it all the way to through the courts. My advice- keep your counsel to yourself .
As for hate , it is not I whose personal attacks in public on individuals has spawned the hate mail on the internet nor is it I who equates all Palestinians to Nazis .”

I have never defamed Judge Davis (indeed, to my recollection, I have never referred to him in print either implicitly or explicitly till now) nor have I defamed members of his group. Once again this suggestion and threat crops up repeatedly. The effect if not the intent is to intimidate me into silence; that will not succeed.

5. Judge Davis: “Small wonder the conspiracy theory lies at the heart of your argument that the world is out to get us” Judge Davis repeatedly imputes to me a belief in some undefined “conspiracy theory”.

If “conspiracy theory” is to have any real meaning – that is, that some group of people are responsible for all the negative comment regarding Israel - then no, I do not believe in “conspiracy theory”. Nor do I believe “that the world is out to get us”.

But I believe on the basis of fairly convincing evidence that the anti-Israel position taken by many (not all) leftwing groups aligns itself conveniently with the diplomatic efforts to isolate Israel by groups opposed to its existence. I also suspect that at least some degree of coordination does occur between individuals and groups. This is a position adopted by many respected commentators – it does not make us conspiracy theorists.

6. Judge Davis: “I look forward to your defence of Doron Isaacs’ right to speak as freely as you should be allowed to speak . In the event that you are prevented unfairly by the media from expressing your position , I would be very happy to defend you and if necessary to assist in any formal complaint to the relevant media authority.”

Since I have never attacked in any way whatsoever, Doron’s (or any other critic of Israel) right to speak I do not see why I should have to defend it. In fact the simple objective evidence clearly shows that they are afforded more than ample opportunity to express their views. I hereby endorse that right.

The shoe is, of course, on the other foot and I invite both Judge Davis and Doron Isaacs to ensure that their critics are afforded the same right and exposure in the public media. I have said this in print and I repeat it here.

7. Judge Davis: “when people like you did absolutely nothing to struggle against apartheid , many of us were defending and promoting the kind of rights that you are now entitled to use in freedom and rightly so .” And again “As for the apartheid record , I do apologise for my impolite and disrespectful comment to you but : the public record against apartheid is important given the widespread criticism of a group of whom I am proud to say that my colleagues on that group all have a proud record of brave defence of human rights in this country and elsewhere .Hence it seems to me that when they are called a ‘so called ‘human rights group , it does open the question -what are your( ie the critic) human rights credentials “

This is, of course, utterly irrelevant but for the record I have ALWAYS opposed apartheid openly and vociferously – sometimes too vociferously. I was one of a small group of Liberal Party students who, along with Ernie Wentzel at a public meeting, urged Helen Suzman – then still a member of the United Party – to leave and at least join the new Progressive Party. She may still remember me for all I know.

I participated in marches for academic freedom and, to my astonishment, I received a standing ovation by my class at UCT when I told them that I was cancelling a lecture to join a march. I wrote to the Cape Times supporting the UCT students when they were widely condemned by the liberal press for their unruly behaviour during a lecture by Conor Cruise O’Brian. I also wrote attacking the Tricameral Parliament as a fraud. I joined NAMDA which was part of the UDF and contributed substantially to the legal fund to bring the doctors treating Steve Biko to trial.

But most of all I taught hundreds of black students at the Medical Schools of Cape Town and Natal and tried very hard to instill in them self-belief, a sense of their own worth and dignity – and the high standards which would allow them to fill their rightful place as medical doctors and full citizens of this country.

8. To continue Judge Davis writes repeatedly that I bear him animus and regard him as a “self-hating” Jew. Other than one brief acrimonious encounter at a meeting of the Bernard Steinberg group, I have not exchanged more than 10 or 20 words with him. On the rare occasion we meet, I greet him (generally I take the initiative) but it never goes beyond that. I quite frankly rarely think of him, though this may change following this episode.

9. There still quite a number of imputations and accusations (e.g., ad hominem attacks from my side which given his writing is quite unbelievable and does not merit an answer) which I have not dealt with. Perhaps I should simply mention that, contrary to Judge Davis’s repeated assertion that I judged the DVD Encounter Point without having seen it, I have NEVER judged the DVD and said so in my correspondence which, inevitably, he ignores. Apparently it is good.

What I did challenge was the uncritical and decontextualised manner in which it was recommended for viewing. I could do this at greater length but it is not germane to the issue here.

Finally, Judge Davis intimates, again repeatedly, that I don’t acknowledge the “hurt” done to the Palestinians and the fact that the occupation damages Israel He also claims I don’t admit to a “scintilla” of doubt and refuse to engage intellectually with him.

I have clearly referred to the hurt suffered by the Palestinians if he will simply read what I’ve written. But for the record my deepest feelings at present are for the hundreds of thousands of black Zimbabweans plunged into despair and starvation by the actions of their megalomaniac leader, tacitly condoned by our own President; for the millions of mainly black South Africans living in gross poverty, with all the attendent ills of abuse and violence while the new fat cat politicians whizz about in fancy limousines followed by a flock of smarmy whites on the make; for the poor sick and needy who get scant help from lazy, corrupt and incompetent bureaucrats and for all our victims of crime of any colour.

But yes, the hurt suffered by many Palestinians is real and Israel, through arrogance, brutality and even racism has contributed to it. But what about the Palestinians themselves – their extreme choices, their antisemitism and their violence? What about other extremist groupings all over the Middle East landscape who are only too happy to use the Palestinians as pawns in their genocidal games? What about Western apologists who explain these hateful and disastrous acts as “resistence” when they are nothing of the kind? I could go believe me, but where precisely does Judge Davis think I should be laying the blame in order to satisfy him?

I will quote David Harris of the American Jewish Committee “Still, call me what you will, but I cannot accept those who, in the name of alleged concern for Israel, would tarnish its good name and, however unintentionally, jeopardize its future.” (See for the full article).

As for engaging in debate, just read the correspondence! But yes I’m willing, time and energy permitting.

My own general and not inflexible position on Israel has been outlined in articles in the public media (including the M & G, the Sunday Independent, the Cape Times, Business Day and some others). My blog, Solar Plexus, including the URL, was referred to earlier. I have also written a short column for the Cape Jewish Chronicle for the past few months. All this is open to public scrutiny.

I have been warned by friends and family that to make this correspondence public may lay me open to legal action of some kind. Possibly that is true and I certainly do not seek such martyrdom. But if Judge Davis does sue me for making his own words (and mine) – none of which were written in confidence - public, whatever his possible success in court he will have condemned himself in public opinion.

The reader is invited to read the full correspondence (carefully) and form their own opinion. But I believe Judge Davis owes 3 genuinely sincere and heartfelt apologies.

An unqualified apology to me without any “ifs”’ “buts’ and “maybes” attached, another to his allies to whose cause he has done possibly irreparable harm, and the third to those who saw him as an exemplar of what a Judge should be: lively, interesting but above all balanced and fair in debating with those whose perspectives may differ from his own.

I hope Judge Davis does precisely this since I have no desire (irrespective of what he may think) of harming him. But at the same time let us have our words and actions out in the open so that they may be evaluated openly in the court of public opinion. Only in that way can we all learn from our mistakes.

But judge for your selves.

Mike Berger

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