Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sinister innocence

I recently attended a report-back meeting given by 4 members of the ‘human rights delegation’ to Israel, which returned a few days ago, to the Cape divisions of the South African Zionist Council and Board of Deputies.

The delegation comprised 23 people of diverse backgrounds with strong credentials in the activist community, in writing and the media and in the legal profession. Their intention was, and I quote, “Rather than attempting to bring solutions, or to spend our time here debating solutions, we came to learn, and to witness first-hand the suffering, pain, anger, human rights abuses.”

Any hope that, limited as those aims were, they at least included the whole human spectrum in Israel, we are told that “We came to support…a new and small movement of Palestinian-Israeli non-violent struggle.”

This makes clear what is quite apparent from both their itinerary and their subsequent communications, that some suffering is more legitimate than others. Less legitimate are the aspirations and concerns of the vast majority of Israelis outside a tiny activist group and the Palestinian population within their circle of moral concern.

In case I’m accused of overstating this, let it be said the delegation did pay a visit to Yad Vashem where some were, reportedly, deeply moved by the experience. The suffering of Jews in Europe is far too sanctified a topic to be ignored by Western “human rights activists”. No such inhibitions apply to real dyed-in-wool Western antisemites or to significant swathes of the Muslim community who scoff at the Holocaust while threatening a new one.

But, having paid their respects to the past our delegation got on with the business of reducing the 60 year struggle for survival of Israel and its 6.5 million Jews (mostly refugees and their descendents from the Holocaust or pre-and post-Holocaust persecution) mainly to an issue of Palestinian “human rights” and suffering. They could now safely ignore the eerie similarity (and purpose) between the pre-Holocaust campaign to demonise and dehumanise Jews and the current propaganda campaign against Israel in Islamic nations and communities and across much of the West.

Thus, while the delegation claims to be “sensitive to the anxieties and perspectives that exist”, that did not stop at least 3 of them from writing publically of their experiences. The reader will have no doubt what the general tenor of these articles were and who emerged the villain. My letter in response to Jonny Steinberg’s article in Business Day was not published (which was no surprise) but can be found on Solar Plexus (www://

To return to the report-back: I left after the meeting had been in progress for about two hours. The first hour, no less, was taken up by presentations from each of the 4 members present. They were heartfelt and articulate – and essentially old hat to anyone who had concerned themselves with Israel. Being “old hat” does not make them irrelevant; humanitarian concerns deserve to be taken seriously. There is good reason to support the efforts of those (including the delegation) who wish to improve relations between peoples in conflict and to alleviate suffering. If that was where it ended, I would applaud their efforts and commitment without reservation.

But that is not where it ends as the 3 highly selective articles and the report-back indicate. In so doing, either knowingly or unwittingly, they have contributed to the systematic propaganda initiative to isolate Israel and to undermine its legitimacy as an independent state. But, on the rather suspect assumption that all dialogue is useful, I will take the delegates commitment to engage…with all our communities and constituencies” seriously.

I start by requesting them to discard the selectively narrow-focus lens they use to justify their position, and to accept that there is no such thing as an “Israeli-Palestinian” conflict in any meaningful sense. They need to start by acknowledging that the conflict in the Middle East has dimensions in both time and space, and in other ways as will become apparent.

At an absolute minimum there is an Israel-Arab/Palestinian/Muslim conflict to which should be added both the USA and the West as a whole. This conflict can be deconstructed further into frontline components like terror groups in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon, supported directly by Iran and Syria, and less overtly across much of the Middle East, significant sections of the global Islamic community and even by elements in the West. Israel is, of course, supported by the USA and more ambiguously by some of the West. Nor is the conflict focussed exclusively on Israel, but is a wider challenge to the legitimacy and hegemony of the West.

Nor did the “conflict” start with the “occupation” of Palestinian territory, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when a desperate Jewish national movement in the Middle East came into direct contact with a newly burgeoning Arab nationalism and Islamic religious revival. It commenced with guerrilla warfare and progressed through large-scale military operations. When this failed, emphasis was laid on terror widely directed against Israel and global Jewry. With the 1948 and, more especially, the 1967 war with the loss of the West Bank and Gaza, the newly emerging national consciousness of the Palestinian Arab population could be put to good use.

By keeping the Palestinian-Arab population isolated from their kith and kin in the surrounding Arab states and in refugee camps in “the territories”, the war could now be presented as “struggle” against a colonial occupier rather than a war of annihilation against the Jewish state. The Palestinians became simultaneously prime breeding grounds for militant terror groups and symbols of a brutalised, oppressed people.

Together with the emergence of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the economic and military strength of Israel could be offset by fanaticism, small-scale but potent weaponry, by what one commentator calls the “tyranny of close quarters” and by a huge propaganda campaign against the “apartheid state” of Israel. It was also necessary to enlist Israeli Arabs to the side of their ethnic and religious kin and make maximum use of the democratic freedoms enjoyed in Israel to undermine Israeli resistance. The problem was to keep Israel entrapped in the West Bank and Gaza morass.

That turned out to be simple: make sure that any offer to settle, as in 1999/2000, would be rejected, preferably on as many grounds as possible. Ensure that Israelis know that concession of territory is simply a step on the way to ultimate extinction, while going through the pretence of bona fides for the rest of the world. When Israel bails out of Gaza keep the rockets raining down while the world shrugs, but squeal loudly when Israel retaliates by partially closing the border. If Israel does not close the border tightly enough, then attack the border posts so that the Gazans can be presented as real victims. Ensure that there will always be new grounds for grievance, which of course can only be settled by terror disguised as resistance. Maintain a systematic programme of antisemitic indoctrination and glorify Jihad as a cultural ideal.

Such measures are more than sufficient to scuttle any realistic Israeli peace movement and ensure that Israel keeps its military presence in the West Bank.

But propaganda and local tactical violence can only work if the population goes along with it. As the pain of being kept hostage to the idea of liberation and the destruction of Israel bites and realisation seems to remain as far distant as ever, even the most indoctrinated, angry population rebels. The sight of prosperous and largely defiant Israel, while humiliating and infuriating, also poses the question of whether the strategy is working.

Such doubts can be combated by renewed propaganda, by the supportive efforts of Western sympathisers and by terror directed at dissidents, but only to a point beyond which it becomes counterproductive. Victories, even the release of murderers like Sami Kuntar, may temporarily raise the hopes of falterers but without more tangible signs, the whole strategic edifice is vulnerable.

This where the peace initiative may hold out some hope, but it is precarious indeed. Palestinians will not get what they hope for and what propaganda has held out as their right. Israel will not move back to its 1967 borders for totally legitimate security reasons (amongst others). It will not allow the free return of refugees and will certainly think carefully about surrendering sovereignty over even part of Jerusalem. There will be no glorious leap into independence, but a grindingly slow movement towards a Palestinian state still partly dependent on Israeli goodwill. Extremists (on both sides) will do their best to keep the pot boiling.

With the realistic possibility of an Iranian nuclear device the potential to upset any possibility of a peaceful resolution is enormously amplified. This development holds out the prospect of a return to a conventional military threat, magnified by the spectre of a nuclear conflagration. The precarious balance whereby the advantages of demography, geography and fanaticism on the Arab-Islam-Palestinian side are offset by the military technology and skills of the Israelis is seriously destabilized.

Innocence and ignorance in those purporting to speak from positions of moral authority and superior education on matters carrying enormous implications for the lives of others, can be lethal and morally abhorrent – especially when based on wilful denialism. There seems to be little point to serious dialogue with those who simply refuse to seriously acknowledge reality. The result of the articles already published by some delegates is to further demonise Israel and advance the diplomatic-propaganda agenda of her enemies. This will make peace more remote.

Nothing I have said suggest moral blamelessness on the part of Israel. Nor does it imply that Israel has always made the best choices and has not contributed to the present situation. It is unlikely that the current multi-pronged and existential pressure on Israel has come about entirely through the conscious, deliberate actions of a coherent Arab leadership, though undoubtedly conscious planning has played a role. To a considerable extent both “sides” are gripped in a complex Prisoner’s Dilemma in which rational strategy on the part of each guarantees a sub-optimal outcome. Furthermore, given the circumstances, one can reliably predict that Palestinian suffering will continue and that some Israelis will act in a manner which is morally repugnant.

The point of this article is to argue that the kind of reductionism reflected in the writing and actions of the human rights delegation is to Israel is not simply mistaken: it is seriously destructive and morally dubious. If and when this stance is repudiated (even tacitly) it will be possible to search for some common ground. At present this prospect seems fragile.

Mike Berger