Friday, December 12, 2008

Settler Riots are "Pogroms": an exhange of correspondence

I strongly recommend you read the attached correspondence and that you contribute. If you send me your comments I will publish a selected group to my distribution lists.

Dear Nathan

I'm really at something of a loss on how to respond to you (see Nathan's letter below). On the one hand I could launch into a detailed, and inevitably long-winded, explanation on where I actually come from as opposed to your speculations and assumptions. I could also point out that the settler issue serves for Israel's enemies the convenient instrumental purpose of invalidating the Zionist enterprise in addition to any genuine concern they have for the settler's themselves.

And so on and on. Since your letter was public so mine will be and I hope others will comment - some already have.

On the other hand I want to get beyond the kind of sniping and point scoring which masquerades as debate. I must also publicly congratulate you on writing a letter free of the personal abuse, with which others in your broad camp adorn their comments to me.

So in the hope that my partial answer will serve some useful purpose here goes. First let's deal with the contents of your letter:

1. You (and others in your camp) talk of a "particular system" leading to this "pogrom" and many other "atrocities". These are inflammatory words and accusations designed to promote a particular agenda. There is indeed reprehensible and sometimes criminal behaviour by a small segment of Israeli society in the context of longstanding interethnic conflict which for a host of reasons is extremely difficult to resolve.

I believe they do the Zionist enterprise harm in a number of ways, one of which is that they provide enemies of Israel with another stick to beat Israel with and to impugn the "Zionist" project. The entire field is extremely controversial and is the weak underbelly of Israel at which a great deal of attention is directed. Some of this is based (appropriately or inappropriately) on genuine concerns for human rights and the ethical foundation of Israel itself; much of it arises from a priori hostility to the Jewish State and is part of a campaign of invalidation and demonisation. It is this contamination of motives and agendas which renders the entire topic such a hot potato.

The settler question is tied up with peace negotiations, being used by different groups to advance their interests. Israel, in my view, must exert effective lawful control over its own citizens but faces significant political costs in a climate in which it feels threatened and isolated. This is a key point to which I return later. You are using real incidents and inflated claims to justify the actions of the SAHRD and your ambiguous position vis-a-vis Israel. I won't be part of that campaign but feel free to express personal disgust with bullying, fanatical and criminal behaviour. I believe Israel would benefit from clamping down on such behaviour but that it won't stop her enemies from pressing her on other issues.

2. I do not "unconditionally" support Israel as you assert; I strongly, very strongly, support her - a meaningful difference. My support is not unconditional in two respects:

One is that certain actions would lead me to withdraw support. While I may disagree with specific Israel’s positions or be saddened/disgusted/infuriated by the actions of certain Israeli individuals or groups, none of this has remotely been of such a nature as to deserve a withdrawal of my support. That you suggest otherwise reveals your priorities or a limited historical perspective or both; it says nothing about the reality of the situation.

Secondly, the stance I adopt vis-à-vis Israel is also conditioned by my understanding of the context and my own situation in it. If, for example, I were living in Israel and was more intimately and existentially familiar with the situation there and was also directly involved in the consequences of my choices, my own behaviour may well be somewhat different – and conceivably – more openly critical of certain policies and practices. This would find practical political expression within the context of a practicing democracy.

But I don’t live there and neither do you. We live far from the scene in a media environment which is often venomously anti-Israel (an assertion which can backed up by reams of evidence). This is partly the product of ignorance and disinformation (aka propaganda), partly simply a mutant form of anti-semitism and, significantly, the conscious and deliberate deployment of demonisation and delegitimizing as a component of a global strategy against the “Zionist entity”. The recent advertisements in the M & G and The Citizen are simply part of a larger pattern.

You may not wish it but you contribute to this propaganda project in your public utterances and positions. It has nothing to with the "self-hating Jew" accusation which simply serves to cloud the issues. I won't contribute to that strategy and do my best to thwart it.

3. You somehow claim to know my "version" of the Zionist enterprise which you link to my purported association with the major Jewish communal organisations. I strongly doubt that you have any clue as to my "version" of Zionism or my personal history and you are seriously mistaken in your belief that I work hand in glove with the Jewish leadership. On the contrary, Dennis Davis and for all I know, Doron Isaacs, have a much closer association with them than I have or ever did. Secondly, I suspect that there is quite a substantial degree of diversity of opinion within the Jewish leadership despite, possibly, some commonality on fundamentals.

But briefly regarding my purported role vis-a-vis the BofD and ZF: I had an 8 month association (interim chairman of the Media Committee) with the communal Jewish organisations which came to an end in December 2007 (more-or-less). Other than a small regular column in the Cape Jewish Chronicle (also now come to an end), I have no formal and almost no informal contact with them whatsoever. I suppose there is some commonality of perspective (though sometimes I wonder) and I retain a reasonably amiable (though remote) relationship with some members. So, do you think this myth can now be dispensed with?

4. To paraphrase, you claim that I have "compared Palestinians to Nazis", with the fascinating rider that I do so without realising it. At the same time you coyly desist from revealing to me and your readers exactly what I said and in what context. Please do so immediately or otherwise withdraw this silly and vile accusation.

I am not going to reply on behalf of the Board or the ZF since they can do that for themselves and I have no authority whatsoever to speak for them.

5. Myth 2: Official Jewry supports a two state solution. On the contrary, I strongly suspect that "official Jewry" - if that term has any real content - does indeed support on the whole a two-state solution for pragmatic and moral reasons, but they do not support your moral crusade and don't conveniently discount the serious practical obstacles in the way of that outcome - including the real existential threat to Israel posed by demography, geography/topography, fanaticism (religious and otherwise), anti-semitism and simple pragmatic self-interest and political dynamics.

For a moral crusader such matters seem merely an excuse. But you are seriously mistaken which is why you contribute to the problem rather than to the solution. I discuss this more fully at the end. But once again, I speak for myself not for official Jewry who can formulate their own reply.

6. Your paragraph which starts with "None of this is to forget for a moment the unjustified violent attacks...". I have called this elsewhere the "caveats of expediency". They are easy calls and they lack content and consequence. You do not adequately recognise or act on the implications of the words you use here since you are really pre-occupied mainly with your moral crusade.

So let me end by dealing briefly with certain more general issues as briefly and succinctly as possible.

In general I don't set myself up as a serious participant in the Israeli political process. To do so would require a degree of chutzpah which I don't posses, but apparently you and your "allies" do. I see myself as a defender of the "Zionist Project" in the broadest sense, in the media arena of propaganda warfare outside Israel. Contrary to your implicit depiction of a powerful Jewish Diaspora “unconditionally” supporting Israel, we have been a tiny voice struggling to find expression in a media which is ignorantly, and sometimes maliciously, anti-Israel and which has used every device to stigmatise it as a uniquely evil state. They have turned the Holocaust and Nazism around to use as tools to blacken its name when they aren’t using Apartheid and colonialism for the same purpose.

Where I (and other supporters of Israel) are indeed seriously concerned over certain matters (eg. the settlers) then there exist ways to convey that concern effectively WITHOUT giving aid and comfort to her enemies or undermining commitment within the diasporean Jewish community. The SAHRD failed that test badly and its subsequent explanations and clarifications have not altered that perception. If the reaction to the SAHRD has induced a more critical self-reflection in some members, it would be a good outcome. Is there any evidence for that?

For what its worth my own position, grossly simplified, is as follows:

Israel has real security concerns which justify the security barrier (though not its abuse) and its refusal to return to 1967 borders. I believe in a "two state solution", or variants thereof, but recognise that this is blocked as much by anti-Israel entities regionally and globally as well as by maximalists within Israel and sometimes outside. Israel is a democratic state and shifts in policy necessitate the support of the population. Poll after poll show that a majority for peace and compromise can be built in Israel but that requires considerable (and perfectly understandable) reassurance on the security front.

It is in the perceived interests of the anti-Israel brigade to ensure that this does not occur and that Israel remains trapped in endless conflict, in the hope that via attrition her resolve can be undermined or that a global alliance can be created to bring her down or that her major ally, the USA, can be deterred and so forth. The Palestinians, as well as the Israeli population, are in a sense victims of this strategy. It is the same dynamic which contributes to Israeli failure to deal effectively with rogue elements within the settler population and their supporters.

Given this reality, the tactic (your tactic) of pressurising Israel is singularly misguided. It simply strengthens the maximalists on all sides. The most effective strategy is to forego the dubious pleasures of moral righteousness and deal with the hard and complex political issues on the ground. This means a change of tone and framework of analysis. It means a demonstrable commitment to Israel and a full, not expedient, recognition of the forces with which she needs to contend.

It is only in this way that you can establish credibility within the broader Jewish population at present. While effective in other situations, the "activist" approach to complex issues like the Middle East, especially by outsiders, is misapplied and destructive. Moral crusades are not a universal panacea for all the ills of mankind. The SAHRD junket and the shotgun accusations, broad generalisations and shrill tone of your subsequent writing all suggest a pre-occupation with a narrow moralism rather than a serious engagement with the issues. They don't advance a solution.

Mike Berger

---- Original Message -----

From: Nathan Geffen
To: Solar Plexus
Sent: Saturday, December 06, 2008 4:10 PM
Subject: Re: Hebron settler riots can only be called 'pogrom'

Dear Mike

(This is an open letter which I am distributing widely.)

I read your email below, which you copied me on, in reference to the Haaretz article about the pogrom by settlers in Hebron.

Your response is not strong enough either. You are correct that the perpetrators of the Hebron pogrom should be prosecuted. You are also correct that the settlers' behaviour puts the entire Zionist enterprise at risk. You ignore the crux of the Haaretz piece, which is that the army stood by and let Jewish extremists terrorise Palestinians.

But what you really fail to see is the role of the particular system that has created the conditions that have led to this pogrom and the many other less newsworthy atrocities that take place daily in the occupied territories. The settlers live under the protection of the army, receive housing subsidies, have water, electricity, postal, and road connections provided by the state, and, as has been shown in a comprehensive report by the Israeli NGO Yesh Din, are almost never prosecuted when they attack Palestinians. Much systematic work goes into insulating Israel from criticism of its settlement project. Crucial to perpetuating this project has been the systematic support of an organized part of the Jewish communities around the world. You, as well as the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and the SA Zionist Federation are a small part, but nevertheless a part, of this system. It is not only the settlers that have put the Zionist enterprise at risk; it is the unconditional support for Israel --irrespective of the crimes committed or sanctioned by the state-- by the dominant form of Zionism in the diaspora today. A crucial element of this system is its dehumanisation of Muslims and Arabs. That's what creates the environment for pogroms to take place. We learnt this from Jewish History.

Your particular version of the Zionist enterprise, the dominant version currently, depends on myths for its credibility. These myths are becoming increasingly unsustainable. I shall give a few examples from South Africa, but I am sure similar examples exist in the UK, US, Australia, Canada and elsewhere.

Myth 1: The Board of Deputies seeks better relationships with the South African Muslim community.
Yet, this same Board allows Avrom Krengel of the SA Zionist Federation to bully Habonim into disinviting Farid Esack from speaking at their camp. How can the Board be serious about improving relations if this is the way we treat a Muslim leader who argues vehemently in his own community against antisemitism and engages in good faith with our community?

And the same Board, which rightly criticises people who misuse the Nazi analogy, has defended --in correspondence with me-- its employee, David Saks, for his Islamaphobic remarks and comparison of Palestinians to Nazis (see page 10 of the link). You also compared Palestinians to Nazis (without even realising it). But the Board simply denied to me that you were associated with them. Yet the chairperson of the Cape Board, Owen Futuran, thanked you at the Board's conference for your media work.
What credibility can an institution which tolerates racism have when it comes to combating antisemitism?

Myth 2: Official Jewry supports a two-state solution.
Only lip-service is paid to this view. Doron Isaacs and I are expected to declare our support for the two-state solution – which Doron has publicly supported for years – to have credibility in front of the Board, but this is not expected from those in our community who believe in a greater Israel, donate money to promoting the settler ideology and send their children on pro-settlement tours. Ironically because of this equivocation throughout the diaspora, the two-state solution looks increasingly unattainable, at least not without great suffering.

Myth 3: The "self-hating" Jews who speak critically of Israel are a threat to Israel.
This is essentially the response to the Jews who participated in the HRD, as well as other outspoken Jews. But as you have acknowledged in your email, it is the settlers who have put the Zionist project at risk. My plea to you is to realise that it is not only the settlers, but the current politics of the Board and Zionist Federation too --and their equivalents throughout the world-- that is a much greater danger to Israel than any "Self-Hating Israel Threatening" Jew. Without the support of the Israeli state, and its staunch defenders like you, the settlers would have little power.

In all of this the Board and the Zionist Fed have pandered to the interests, or more accurately the prejudices, of a minority in our community at the expense of the wider community. It is this same pandering that emboldens the prejudice against reform Jews, an example being the restrictions on Netzer's involvement at King David School.

to which Israel has been subjected, nor the real antisemitism that exists today, or the denial of Israel's existence by some. But supporting a policy of settlement in the West Bank does not help us deal with any of these things.

I hope, that if there is anything you and others in the Board and Zionist Fed can learn from the dreadful events in Hebron, it is how misguided the political choices of official Jewry have become.

Nathan Geffen

On Fri, Dec 5, 2008 at 5:09 PM, Solar Plexus wrote:

Dear Anthony

I think a stronger response is called for. Such behaviour is disgusting and puts the entire Zionist enterprise at risk. It has nothing to do with legitimate concerns over is simply fanaticism and the abuse of power.

I would like to see them thrown in jail. Of course, one must always keep somewhere in the back of one's mind there may be more to the story than this, but until that comes out my reaction stands.


No comments: