Thursday, December 4, 2008

In a Nutshell

The confrontational and needlessly abrasive correspondence between myself and Doron Isaacs should not detract from the central issue – finding a way to bring about a sustainable peace between Israel and her neighbours in such a way as to preserve the existence of a viable Jewish State.

It is mistakenly believed that those of us who steadfastly support Israel, in a climate characterised by the stupid extremism of the anti-Israel petitions which appeared in the Mail and Guardian and The Citizen, wish to preserve the status quo there. It is ignorantly thought by our self-appointed moral guardians that we’re blind to the dangers of the status quo or that we have no regard for the rights or suffering of any other than Jews or Israelis.

Such embedded ignorance is difficult to dislodge, but it should not distract us from clarifying the issues involved and acting to promote the kind of resolution which so far as humanly possible is sustainable and just.

I use the word “just” with some caution, since one of the less attractive features of human behaviour is moral grandstanding on the basis of a conveniently selective morality. I do not support Israel because of some grand law of universal justice. I support her mainly because I’m Jewish and, in the context of recent world history, that requires me to support the creation of the Jewish State.

I do not believe that Israel has some absolute right to her present borders, to larger borders or for that matter to any land at all in the Middle East, or indeed elsewhere. Nor do I believe that the Palestinians or any peoples or nations have such abstract rights.

I believe that a consideration of history and human psychology, especially in its collective form, indicates that those collections of people who see themselves as a definable collective almost always seek out land on which they can pursue their collective interests and social-political life. This inevitably brought peoples into conflict with others seeking also to maximise their claim to land and the resources contained on it.

At the risk of stating the obvious, much of history is the story of the conflicts engendered by this process and the various regulatory instruments and norms developed to render the process less destructive, more in keeping with the interests of the ordinary folk most at risk and in maintaining a stable global system.

Putting it this way, takes some of the ideological and moral fervour out of the equation and allows us to seek pragmatic solutions to human needs. There is no simple formula to this. It will inevitably require a rather subtle blend of power, feasibility and basic principles of equity.

In the context of the Middle East, it is generally agreed that the most pragmatic solution (in the sense spelt out above) would be the creation of two states, one Jewish and the other Palestinian, living side-by-side in a state of peace and preferably active cooperation. So what’s stopping it?

One could point to many factors indeed and I have alluded to some of these in previous articles and am reluctant to go over all this ground here. I am not an expert in any event.

Most of them come down to this: it is politically possible to create within Israel a strong majority opinion in favour of just such a settlement provided that genuine peace and security can reasonably be assured.

For good reasons of history and context, “reasonably” in this case means a very high level of assurance. Without that, it is unlikely that a strong peace movement can be sustained within Israel. But with that, as indicated in poll after poll, such a movement undoubtedly could be created and could prevail.

It is this fundamental fact, which is continually missed by the so-called “left”. They believe they can bully or shame Israel into doing the “right” thing as defined by them. They vilify and demonise those who oppose their view and some seek to do the same to Israel as shown in the repugnant adverts taken out in our local newspapers.

The most important actions they could undertake, if indeed the fate of the Palestinians were as an important concern as they claim, would be to drum this fact into the heads of those who currently seek to bully, threaten or destroy Israel. It would be to assure Israel of their loyalty and commitment. It would be to publically defend Israel and to attack those who seek to delegitimise (subtly or blatantly) or undermine her through boycotts, the promotion of single state solutions and a selective and dishonest media focus on Israel’s shortcomings and the “suffering” of her neighbours.

Only when Israel is no longer scared (legitimately scared) that relinquishing strategic resources as part of a peace process will not be met by further hostility, strengthened both psychologically and tangibly by various kinds of strategic gain, can the prospects of a sustainable and reasonably just settlement become a reality. Only then will she be able to realistically confront the maximalists in her ranks playing the high-risk game of a zero-sum outcome.

Why does this argument not apply equally to the other side? For a host of reasons:

• Israel does not threaten its opponents with extinction.
• Israel has an unruly and potentially dangerous settler movement; it does not have tens of thousands of well-armed militants ready to invade or bomb it’s neighbours and undermine its own government.
• Its demographic and geographic position (and other factors) puts it at a serious strategic disadvantage vis-à-vis its neighbours – only offset by a strong military backed up by a strong economy and a committed population and diaspora.
• Its recent and long-term history makes security and top priority.

Thus it is Israeli security which is the chief issue. When that is understood and implemented, then it will be possible to bring the political process forward. We are not there yet. Though there have been some useful moves forward, with Iran and other extremist entities still very much alive and kicking it is premature to start “pressurising” Israel, the preferred tactic of the left.

Creative ways need to be, and are being, sought to advance the security of the region and with it, Israel. This cannot be achieved overnight, but also should not be put on the back-burner. It requires realistic political nous and the right blend of economic, diplomatic and military incentives – not public posturing.

This, put as simply as possible, is the absolutely central issue. Anything else is simply a call for Israeli surrender with all the enormous risks that would entail. Most of us will never become part of that campaign directly or indirectly. There are ways of conveying real concerns to Israel which do not involve some form of betrayal. If necessary these should be used.

Mike Berger

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Correspondence with Doron Isaacs of the SAHRD

This is the first time I've written to you directly...

You know of course I strongly oppose not only your position and the HRD notwithstanding subsequent clarifications and, in my view, spin. I have spelt out the basis for my position in the CJC and on my occasional blog, Solar Plexus. You have never responded to any of this; you were under no obligation to do so.

While I'm not immune, I suppose, to gossip around people's motivations, agendas and associations I always retain a measure of scepticism preferring to believe in sincerity (even if seriously mistaken sincerity) rather than hidden agendas and motivations - unless established otherwise. Not that "sincerity" is some universal whitewash. It is a word which requires considerable qualification.

However I have read your "debate" with Joel Pollak and some of your other writing. To be honest I find much of it egregious sophistry. Examples abound. You raise issues around the number of hospital beds in Israel to suggest it is not interested in "human rights" - a phrase you seem to regard as a kind of universal moral solvent. One could of course quote longevity and childhood mortality stats to show that Israel's population, both Arab and especially Jewish, have health statistics comparable to the rest of the developed world. But why indeed do you find it necessary to minutely and selectively scrutinise Israel's social and moral shortcomings except to provide a backdrop to your condemnation of her occupation. Who has ever argued that Israel is a perfect society? Surely if you want to cure its real and alleged shortcomings, go and live there as an Israeli citizen and participate in the democratic process available.

You make a point of insisting that Israel does not face existential threats by focussing on selective military shortterm assessments; others would claim otherwise. But, in any case, what does this have to do with the longterm reality of continued anti-Israel and anti-semitic propaganda and activity which of course are existential threats - that is their declared purpose.

You tend to poo poo Israel's security concerns to suggest she is not sincere about ending the occupation. Israel is of course a heterogeneous society and there are elements (not only settlers) who strongly believe that Israel has a right to the West Bank. Have you seriously considered their arguments, not only the more extereme religious ones? For the record I do NOT believe that Israel has a RIGHT to this territory; nor do I believe that the "Palestinians" have an automatic right. I believe that it is mainly a political question to be resolved pragmatically and that Israel's very real security concerns play an enormous role in determining Israeli attitudes towards this issue.

But there are really 3 questions I have of you:

If you truly support the existence of Israel as a Jewish state (as you claim to do), then do you not admit that she has significant enemies who wish for precisely the opposite outcome and who use every means possible (military broadly speaking, economic, diplomatic, propaganda and psychological warfare - depending on circumstances) to advance their aims? If this is true, are the alleged "sins" of Israel in context really of such a magnitude that Jews should provide aid and comfort to Israel's enemies because of their (understandable) concern with aspects of Israel's (or individual Israeli's) behaviour? My answer to that is unequivocally no. What is yours?

Secondly, will you concede that your public stance and the stance of many of those you have associated yourself with, is predominantly critical of Israel specifically. In this context I am well aware that you and others of the Human Rights Delegation (HRD) have also condemned suicide bombings and the like and the "strategy" of Palestinian "resistance" etc. But it seems to me that these are caveats of expediency - like condemning serial rape they're easy calls? The thrust of your public utterances and actions has been directed at Israel. You have never attacked Palestinians to my knowledge on antisemitism, like the glorification of violence and martyrdom, like their utter failure to create a viable political-social structure or to grasp productively real opportunities to advance their alleged aim of 2 peaceful states side-by-side with Israel rather than the extinction of Israel. You have never seriously referred to the fact that Israel faces existential issues arising not only from Palestinian "resistance" but other state and non-state entities regionally and even globally. Even your reading of history downgrades the significance of the Zionist movement, the extent and impact of Arab hostility, Israeli moves towards establishing peaceful relationships and Israeli achievements relative to the prominence you accord to real and alleged transgressions against the Palestinians. In view of all of this, are not your critics entirely correct in their view of you as fundamentally hostile to Israel and thus in their view of you as part of a 5th column?

Finally, is my (and, of course, many others as well) perception correct or incorrect that you are actively engaged in spreading your vision of the ME situation (to use a clumsy shorthand) to the Jewish community, especially its youth, in this country and that you may well be linked to others (like Kasrils) whose clearly venomously anti-Israeli views are well known? Calling this activity "debate" simply serves as a very flimsy camouflage of an essentially political agenda and so I would reject that explanation. This should be a straightforward question to answer. I ask it since many believe that is precisely what you are engaged in under the blanket of a concern for "human rights" which applies mainly to Palestinians and not to Israelis - unless to illustrate Israels' disregard for human rights.

So these are my 3 questions. I would be interested in your answers. Please understand that I'm NOT writing to you in confidence and your reply will also not be regarded as such.

I would only add in passing that your comment that Makhanya's and Madlala-Routledge's statements "do not contain an ounce of prejudice" is frankly unbelievable. Prejudice means making up one's mind without sufficient information or on the basis of dubious information or on the basis of pre-conceptions or being resistent to any argument and information which runs counter to or would mitigate the views one holds. Do you seriously wish us to believe that no prejudice is at work in these utterances?

Mike Berger

Dear Mike Berger,

You are mistaken if you think that you can write to me, impugn my integrity, suggest that I may secretly support suicide bombing, inform me that I tolerate antisemitism, imply that my approach to the world is defined by some anti-Jewish animus, insist that I have hidden agenda, and then expect me to take you seriously.

Your style is more insidious, objectionable, tasteless (and less witty) than your obsessive colleague's.

There are two things I find really fascinating.

The first is that it really doesn't matter what I write, your eyes will fail to see it. It will be there on the page, on almost every page, as clear, distinct and purposefully written as anything else, but you'll miss it. When you do see it you regard it as a propaganda trick, because you've managed to convince yourself that these people who find fault with Israel are actually lying when they say they don't want their Jewish relatives and friends in Israel to die or have their human rights compromised in any way. You need to have magic eyes that see only certain things, and have a special mind that can find hatred where it doesn't exist, because realising that these are just normal people saying though-out things would push over the house of cards on which your miniscule intellectual universe is built.

Here is a challenge. Can you (a) manage to not actually read the next paragraph or (b) find a way to interpret it as one big lie designed to hide a malicious agenda?

I have specifically condemned all the things you mention:
- Antisemitism: "Hamas must be challenged on their antisemitism"
- The glorification of violence and martyrdom: "The reality in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is an indictment on ... the Palestinian leadership for choosing violence to achieve political ends" - Press Conference to announce the Human Rights Delegation. And also "You speak about the problem of martyrdom. We saw this with our own eyes and found it disturbing." -
- Palestinian utter failure to create a viable political-social structure: "I think we should all be critical of them, particularly those who returned with Arafat from exile, for their poor leadership, their corruption, their toleration of and involvement in violence, and their reluctance to champion a truly progressive politics." - and "they must learn. If they want to be supported as the victims of oppression, then they cannot preach oppression" -forthcoming on Supernatural blog.

I could really cite scores of examples.

The second thing I find amazing is how close to classic antisemitism your logic comes. You think that I am part of some secret clique working in the shadows, pulling the strings, with massive influence in the media, a network of power and evil-intent not visible in the public domain. Zionism was meant to free us Jews of such mindsets of permanent persecution, but in your case this is sadly still the pathology. I have met Ronnie Kasrils exactly once in my life, seven years ago, in December 2001, when I chaired a debate he had with Hagai Segal and Joel Pollak.

I am not closing the door to you. When you're ready to take me seriously and acknowledge that I, like you, do what I do because I believe in it, and among other reasons belief it to be in the best interests of Israel and Jews, and when you're read to engage me seriously on the issues - vigorously, robustly, as trenchantly as you like - then I will respond to you in kind, as I have done with everyone else who has e-mailed me in that way. Until then, please take good care of yourself.

Doron Isaacs

Dear Doron

My comments were robust and trenchant as you put it. Yours are simply insulting and dishonest - and puerile even to point of referring to my "miniscule intellectual universe", the staple insult of the pea-brains who infest internet talkbacks.

I think you impugn your own integrity: I never implied that you support (secretly or otherwise) suicide bombing or that you tolerate (whatever that may actually mean) antisemitism or that you have an anti-Jewish animus. I did open the question of a "hidden agenda" and gave you the opportunity to put that issue to rest.

In fact you never simply and directly answered ANY of the questions I put to you. Perhaps that is because you have convinced yourself "that it really doesn't matter what I (that's you) write, your eyes will fail to see it." Or because it is a lawyer's trick or whatever. It doesn't really matter, but it's wrong. I do in fact read, carefully, what you and others with whom I may disagree have say and I may be convinced otherwise or I may be confirmed in my previous assessment.

The only paragraph of yours worth serious comment is this one

"I have specifically condemned all the things you mention:
- Antisemitism: "Hamas must be challenged on their antisemitism"
- The glorification of violence and martyrdom: "The reality in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is an indictment on ... the Palestinian leadership for choosing violence to achieve political ends" - Press Conference to announce the Human Rights Delegation. And also "You speak about the problem of martyrdom. We saw this with our own eyes and found it disturbing." -
- Palestinian utter failure to create a viable political-social structure: "I think we should all be critical of them, particularly those who returned with Arafat from exile, for their poor leadership, their corruption, their toleration of and involvement in violence, and their reluctance to champion a truly progressive politics." - and "they must learn. If they want to be supported as the victims of oppression, then they cannot preach oppression" -forthcoming on Supernatural blog.

I could really cite scores of examples."

As I pointed out in my challenge, certain calls are what I called "caveats of expediency" and don't carry too much weight. Amongst these I included such obvious no-nos like suicide bombing as part of the glorification of violence and martyrdom and the violent "strategy" of Palestinian resistance. You repeat them above and add condemnation of Hamas anti-semitism and Palestinian failure to create a viable social-political structure.

Well and good, it is a small step in the right direction. But why only Hamas's anti-semitism? What about the widespread anti-semitism in the region and, in fact, permeating a significant portion of Islam globally? Why not point out the general failure of the Arab states to achieve the basic democratic norms which you so "trenchantly" endorse? And which Israel, by and large, has achieved. It is these failures which point to the heart of the problem which I and many others have with your position - and will come back to shortly.

But first a VERY brief response to your paragraph starting with "The second thing I find amazing is how close to classic antisemitism your logic comes...." BULLSHIT!
But I am glad you have nothing to do with Ronnie K.

However, most of the above is skirting the central issue which you do quite a lot of. The fundamental question is this: where does your heart lie as revealed in the totality of your public writings and actions? You can bluster to your heart's content but there is no room for ambiguity in the context of Israel. Nothing you have said in your letter or in your public position suggests other than that you reveal enormous ambivalence or actual hostility towards the Zionist project with all its warts and imperfections.

Just in case you don't grasp what I'm saying here let me paint a reasonable analogy. In WW2 Great Britain, in particular, was bombing (on somewhat dubious strategic grounds) the hell out of German cities. The sheer death, destruction and suffering to the civilian population this campaign caused outweighed by many orders of magnitude anything Israel has inflicted on her enemies. Let me repeat: enemies. But had a delegation of Englishman left for Germany to report back on English brutality in the midst of this conflict, together with a bunch of people outspokenly - sometimes virulently - sympathetic to Germany and critical of England, it would have been called treason. And it would have been just that.

So until you address (within your own mind and heart as well as publically) my central questions adequately, you will not have laid to rest the suspicions and anger many members of the Jewish community feel towards you and your delegation.

And one more thing. If you ever write to me again in the same bullying and insulting way, you will not only not get a reply, I will never read or trust or reproduce anything you have to say.

Mike Berger