Friday, June 12, 2009

Ideologues and Bigots

Ideologues and Bigots.

One of the things that time teaches, if we’re willing to learn, is that human affairs are conducted in a permanent mist of uncertainty and confusion. Such is the complexity of human motivation, the diversity and multiplicity of actors, the unavoidable uncertainty surrounding key psychological, sociological and even material factors and the inherent unpredictability of events, we inevitably operate behind an opaque veil of ignorance.

Except for a relatively small number of genuine experts, such ignorance is compounded by our distance from the issues and personalities involved. Our information is second-hand and frequently distorted by the spin imparted by those responsible for processing the news and analysis. Our own perceptions are heavily skewed by unconscious or poorly understood emotional responses conditioned by our upbringing, our identity, our pervasive modes of cognition and belief systems and by self-interest and social dynamics.

Yet, despite all this, we are compelled to make decisions and form opinions. Most “sensible” people do so with some degree of humility – by that I mean they are aware they may be wrong, that they are willing to learn and to change and that even people with whom one profoundly disagrees may have a point. In the cut and thrust of debate, that realisation may be lost at times, but it is a mark of balance and maturity that sooner rather than later one returns to a measure of humility.

Of course, this can be a recipe for fence-sitting in situations in which such passivity or ambiguity is dangerous or wrong or both. In general, I believe that it important to form, and hold, hard-edged but not immutable opinions. Over the years I have moved from an instinctively leftwing position to a far more centrist and realistic perspective.

It is informed by a belief in the moral values of truth, justice and long-term rationality insofar as humanly possible, but is also conditioned by other beliefs and identities. These include an identification with the broad Jewish community and its history, a secular cosmopolitan predisposition, a somewhat pessimistic view of human nature coupled, at the same time, to a cautiously optimistic belief (or is it hope?) in the possibility of progress. I believe that freedom and democracy is important to all human beings but also in the stabilizing influence of tradition. I have seen that power corrupts and so does powerlessness. I believe that all human beings deserve the dignity of respect unless by their actions they unequivocally forfeit that right. Finally, I believe that we have the duty to fight for our rights and for justice but that extremism and greed will ultimately bring disaster down on the heads of those who go beyond the limits of fairness and a decent respect for other human beings.

All this corncob philosophy brings me to the issue of ideologues and bigots. Clearly, as I have described for myself, none of us come as blank slates to the political arena. But the hodge-podge of broad and often mutually contradictory principles and commonsense the “balanced” person brings to the table, is a far cry from the fixed, obsessive lens through which the true ideologue views the world.

Like pornography it is a question of degree and one can make a mistake. But generally one recognises the ideologue by the utter predictability of their responses, their extremism, their compulsion to revile those who differ from them and their total resistance to contrary facts. Of course, the ideologue and the bigot are kissing cousins. By definition almost, the true ideologue is always a bigot since they dismiss any person or viewpoint which deviates slightly from their own. But bigotry, in my lexicon at least, tends to be prejudice without the support of an intellectualised (religious or secular) belief system which the ideologue uses to support their fixed views.

In my experience, such people almost always respond to disagreement with personal abuse. The greater the public posture of moral sanctimony often the greater the degree of private intolerance and rudeness. It’s a kind of statistical law. I had always expected that from the rightwing and was shocked when I encountered it from the left – but no longer.

In my Quote du Jour on Solar Plexus ( I gave some publicity to comments by Ron Kampeas of the JTA because, though I have some reservations, in broad terms he articulated something which we need as a Jewish pro-Zionist community to get to grips with. Please go and read it and my previous post on the above link

In short, I feel that something needs to be said about some “noisy” Zionists who by their words, and sometimes actions, do almost as much to discredit Zionism as the most fanatical of anti-Zionists. There is no reason to believe that miraculously the Jews, alone amongst the peoples of this world, will be free of stupidity, fanaticism and bigotry. But perhaps it is possible to persuade at least some of them to reconsider their behaviour if only to stop providing ammunition to those who would stigmatise a whole people and Israel itself because of the attitudes of some.

As good a starting point as any is the Cairo speech by Obama. It reflects a major policy initiative and represents a decisive step away from the isolationist and confrontational policy of the Bush years. Every word was carefully calculated and, within the bounds of human capability, it accurately reflects the broad policy strategy to be pursued by the Obama government vis-à-vis the Muslim world.

This has been summed up by Bicom in the following terms (shortened by author):
• It is remarkable that in a speech designed to recalibrate relations between the US and the Islamic world, Obama spent significant time challenging anti-Semitism, busting the myth of Holocaust denial, condemning terrorism and emphasising the unbreakable bonds between Israel and the US.
• There was no detailed policy plan, but the speech combined Obama's ideals with a hard-headed, realist view of the US interests. It was a direct challenge to the idea of a ‘clash of civilizations' between the West and Islam.
• The speech was directed at Muslim people, rather than their governments. The US went to considerable length, by flying in journalists, to ensure it was heard by Muslim people around the world.
I would add to that (see the speech in full, the BICOM article and many others) that Obama went to considerable lengths to reassure the global Muslim community of two things: firstly, that the USA both respects the Muslim world and has no desire to set the West up in opposition to Islam and, secondly, that the USA will act decisively against all forms of terrorism, including that coming from Islamic sources.

Of course it included other themes, including specifically the interconnectedness of the global community, but I am mainly concerned with Israel. It was not intended as a detailed blueprint but as a call for imagination and for transcendence of religious, cultural and political differences through a common commitment to humanity.

I thought it was brilliant. It is easy to dismiss this as mere rhetoric signifying nothing, but I would differ strongly. Words are terribly important for both good and ill, and the Obama speech called to the best of our common humanity. It was an attempt to undercut extremists of all stripes and to appeal to the commonsense and decency of the ordinary man in the street.

Who knows whether it will succeed? There are those who are so ideologically wedded to their positions, that they are simply incapable of seeing a wider picture. They immediately focused on a small part of the speech in order to construct a narrative to take issue with. One commentator suggested that Obama drew moral equivalence between the Holocaust and Palestinian suffering. He did no such thing.

Another suggested that Israel did not come into being as the result of centuries of European persecution (as Obama suggested) but because of its unbroken spiritual connection to the land. You could have fooled secular Herzl or the many religious Jews who for decades opposed the creation of a Jewish state…some still do.

All this could be dismissed as plain silliness, except that it is designed to herd Jews into a obdurate fanatical camp who see the conflict in apocalyptic terms of good versus evil. In this they become the mirror image of some of their opponents. A plague on both their camps.

It is, of course, quite reasonable to challenge parts of the Obama speech; for instance his strong stance on the settlements. There are some real inconsistencies in his position and it is difficult to see how Netanyahu can comply fully with the Obama demands without collapse of his fragile coalition. But already Mitchell is softening the harsh rhetoric and Netanyahu understands the symbolic importance of the settlements in undermining extremist positions on the Arab-Muslim-Palestinian and Western leftwing fronts.

We need reciprocity on both sides and Obama is well aware of this and the legitimate Israeli fears over security. What he, and all those who understand the long-term need for accommodation, reject is the use of legitimate concerns to buttress extreme rejectionist attitudes. Unless of course you are one of those who believe that Jews can only survive as an embattled people fighting against enemies – real or created. So at varying levels of sophistication, they insist that the Jews (and/or the West) are engaged in an inevitable, apocalyptic battle against Islam or the latest incarnation of antisemitism. This is dangerous nonsense, but words and actions can make it a reality.

All this is bad enough but there is a significant camp within the Zionist camp who adopt puerile, provocative and derogatory terms when referring to Obama or to Arabs or Muslims. We have them here and elsewhere. There is a truly repulsive video on YouTube ( which has apparently over 100 000 hits already. The bunch of noisy, bigoted, ignorant and profoundly stupid Jews depicted there are of course not representative. But they do exist and there are too many within the pro-Zionist camp, where I locate myself, to be ignored.

We need to insist that Israel can and must be defended with honour and dignity and with the appreciation that we are all part of a common humanity. When members of our camp descend to the levels of the worst of our opponents, we do our cause a profound disservice and lend ammunition to the malicious forces who instigated the HSRC Symposium.

Back to Obama for a moment. His fine words will need to be matched by an equally subtle but realistically toughminded appreciation of the obstacles to moving towards his dream of global peace based on mutual tolerance, accommodation and commitment to a universal humanity. Such an outcome is far too Utopian but genuine progress towards resolution of some of the conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere is possible. Let’s challenge and resist his strategy where appropriate but keep our hearts open to his intent and call to a common humanity.

Let us also hope, for all our sakes, that Obama will succeed with our help.

Mike Berger (SOLAR PLEXUS)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sinister Symposium

This post is largely concerned with an upcoming HSRC Symposium on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It is important to read through this post carefully since every South African Jew (and citizen) should be aware of the activities of anti-Zionist activists in South Africa. By the shrill and extremist nature of the South African dialogue we find ourselves in serious opposition to the pragmatic and conciliatory tone adopted by Obama.

I also respond briefly at the end to some comments by David Zinn - whoever he may be. I don't usually respond to stupid negativity (in the course of a comment on It's Almost Supernatural he called me a liar and/or a gullible fool) but there are a couple of assertions in his post which require some response. In passing, it is quite amazing how often self-styled moralists on the left resort to vicious ad hominim insults. Jung had it right when he talked about the "shadow". Give me an honest sinner any time.

For those who don’t know, the HSRC (or Human Sciences Research Council) is a statutory body (that is, a Government sponsored and funded organisation) whose core function is, in its own words, “…is to conduct large-scale, policy-relevant, social-scientific projects for public-sector users, non-governmental organisations and international development agencies.”

It is worth expanding on this briefly (again drawn from its website at - : “…Our commitment to cutting-edge research which supports development nationally, in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and in Africa…”. “As the national social science council of South Africa, the HSRC wishes to serve as a knowledge hub to bridge the gap between research, policy and action; thus increasing the impact of research. This is achieved through collaboration with key constituencies, including government, other research organisations, multinational agencies, universities, non-government organisations, and donor and development organisations.
“Its four multi-disciplinary research programmes, two cross-cutting research units and three research centres are focused on user needs. The following units make up the HSRC.
Research programmes:
Child, Youth, Family and Social Development
Democracy and Governance
Education, Science and Skills Development
Social Aspects of HIV/AIDS and Health (including the Africa-wide research network, SAHARA)
Cross-cutting units:
Policy Analysis and Capacity Enhancement Unit
Knowledge Systems
Centre for Education Quality Improvement
Centre for Poverty, Employment and Growth
Centre for Service Delivery”

It is clear from this self-description, that the HSRC is a research organisation supposedly devoted to issues pertaining to the social and political development of a newly emergent democracy with vast inequalities in the realms of wealth and social development, a contentious and divisive history and numerous challenges in the form of education and skills development, health, crime and corruption, substance abuse and the abuse of women and children and in strengthening and consolidating democracy in a volatile and underdeveloped region.
None of this would seem to have anything to do with the complex and historically rooted issues in the Middle East, but if we go to its webpage dealing with Democracy and Govenance ( we find advertised two new items, namely:
• Conference: Re-Envisioning Israel-Palestine, 12-14 June 2009 , Cape Town
• Report on Israeli Practices released: Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid.
Once again, we search the rest of the page in vain for any indication which suggests that the HSRC has a legitimate concern with such issues. Indeed it explicitly states the following: “...The Democracy and Governance (D&G) programme examines issues that contribute to and constrain democratisation in South Africa and around the African continent.
In short the mandate of the HSRC contains nothing to suggest it has a legitimate interest in Middle Easten issues. But the clue and the (fake) justification comes in the wording of the second item listed above “Report on Israeli Practices released: Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid”. I strongly recommend readers to visit the site for themselves.
Somehow its mandate to research and encourage democracy and good governance in South Africa, specifically, and Africa generally (a region in clear and desperate need of such attention), has now mutated into a obviously partisan polemic against Israel.
This conclusion is further buttressed by the following introduction to the report, “The project was suggested originally by the January 2007 report by eminent South African jurist John Dugard, in his capacity as Special Rapporteur to the United Nations Human Rights Council, when he indicated that Israel practices had assumed characteristics of colonialism and apartheid.”
In short, it is clear not only that this entire exercise has nothing whatsoever to do with the core function of the HSRC but contary to its alleged status of a serious research institutions, has allowed itself to be hijacked to serve the objectives of known ideologues and activists with strongly held and openly voiced anti-Zionist positions – like Dugard himself.
In case one has any doubts the following statement from the same webpage in all its unctuous dishonesty clarifies the position: “... The Middle East Project of the HSRC is an independent two-year project to conduct analysis of Middle East politics relevant to South African foreign policy, funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Government of South Africa. The analysis in this report is entirely independent of the views or foreign policy of the Government of South Africa and does not represent an official position of the HSRC. It is intended purely as a scholarly (my emphasis) resource for the South African government and civil society and the concerned international community.
In summary
• The project is funded by South African taxpayers,
• It is not scholarly as reflected in its clearly biased original terms of reference, its original motivation (by John Dugard), its selective and partisan sponsors (scholars and international lawyers based at the HSRC, the School for Oriental and African Studies (London), the British Institute for International and Comparative Law, the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal (Durban), the Adalah/Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel and al-Haq/West Bank Affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists.) and the equally selective and partisan composition of the research team, headed by Virginia Tilley, a well-known (more appropriately, notorious) shrill and adamant anti-Zionist activist. Her position was sponsored by Stephen Friedman and later by Ronnie Kasrils, both of whom are openly and vehemently hostile towards Israel.
• In no way does the report provide pragmatic and useful guidelines for a foreign policy stance by the South African, but is a pseudo-judicial, one-sided demonisation of Israel using terms deliberately designed to promote ostracism and punitive action by the international community. It has nothing whatsoever to do with impartial research and scholarly activity.
In the Symposium there are 4 theme chairmen/keynote speakers:
1. John Dugard whose anti-Israeli stance is well kn and needs no further explication here.
2. Prof Nadim Rouhana His views in a recent article ( are “For the Palestinian citizens of Israel, life is becoming a collective Kafkaesque experience. For years, their state has been determined to buttress its Jewish identity by legal, constitutional, cultural, and political means, in spite of the fact that one in five of its residents is an Arab. This latest series of bills is just another part of that effort.”
3. Dr Leila Farsakh “I just say that the struggle of our people for achieving an independent state is over. We must start again by resisting the occupation and colonialism, while formulating a new strategy relying upon the concept of citizenship not being fastened any longer to the idea of historical Palestine’s partition. Do forty years of struggle ¬since the occupation of the Territories in 1967 ¬deserve perhaps a State which would be nothing but a set of Bantustans in Israeli territory without any territorial continuity?”
4. Dr Gerhard Mare He is Director, Centre for Critical Research on Race and Identity, University of KwaZulu Natal (Durban, South Africa). As far as I know he has not expressed any views on the Middle East based on my superficial research.
But there is no need – the terms, the sponsors and the other particpants will ensure that Symposium will promote the theme of the Report on which it is based.
This brief review only scratches the surface. We need to ask the following information:
Who (or what group) motivated and promoted this project within the HSRC despite its irrelevance to the core mandate of that body?
Who selected the researchers? What are their credentials in this field and what are their prior positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Was any serious effort made to select researchers with views which ran contary to the apriori terms of reference of the Report?
If the project was an exercise to provide useful information to the South African Department of Foreign Affairs, why is it necessary to hold an open Conference (at considerable expense no doubt) to publicise its finding in an already biased South African media environment? While the Symposium is supposedly designed to promote fresh thinking, the Report is to provide the foundation on which it is structured and will thus frame the entire debate
Where in the report is there a serious attempt to provide the South African government with impartial, scholarly and pragmatically useful information concerning the history of the conflict, the positions of the protagonists and outside powers in the region to help guide the relevant ministry in its dealings with both Israel and the Palestinians?
This entire exercise by a supposedly scholarly, statutory body of the South African Government is nothing but a thinly disguised, pseudo-academic witchhunt, supported by taxpayers, designed to promote the agendas of known anti-Zionist activists. It deserves the widest possible exposure and unequivocal condemnation irrespective of one’s position on the issues in the Middle East.
Mike Berger (SOLAR PLEXUS)

The ink has hardly dried on my previous post but I feel it necessary to follow up with further brief comment. Firstly I would like to thank David Abel for drawing this entire sinister enterprise to my attention in the first place.

Secondly, it should not only be called "sinister" for its modus operandi and objectives, but also SMART. Let us be quite clear: this symposium is NOT some spontaneous cry of moral outrage but a carefully planned, costly, meticulously implemented strategy of demonsisation of Israel in pursuit of a clear political agenda. In case anyone should be in doubt what that is let me spell it out briefly. It is to set the stage for global ostracism and punitive action against Israel with the intention of bringing Ahmadinejad's threat to reality, namely, the elimination of Israel as we know it. This is to be accomplished not through nuclear weapons (Israel can respond effectively to such dangers) but by the cummulative impact of isolation, sanctions, boycotts and moral opprobrium.

It avoids the crudities of Durban I with its anti-semitic street theatre or the Ahmadinejads and Hugo Chavezs of this world. By enlisting the support of sympathetic academics, both individuals and organisations, and using the jargon and trappings of genuine scholarly discourse, it provides a thin but superficially effective cover for its sinster political agenda. It is, in a sense, the Cape Town I answer to the emasculation of Durban II under pressure from Western countries. There will be no Ahmadinejad to open the conference and thus give the game away (at least in Western eyes), but there will be a sympathetic Western press in the form of the Independent group, the M & G and others to ensure that its findings and conclusions receive a wide hearing.

This requires wide exposure and concentrated attention. While clever, the motivation and deceptive modus operandi is obvious to careful scrutiny. Equally, the content, despite their academic and quasi-judicial tone, is clearly partisan, selective and falls far short of genuine scholarly standards in order to find in favour of a predetermined verdict.

I trust that the influential academics and commentators amongst the recipients of this newspetter will ensure that this nasty and dishonest anti-semitic and anti-Zionist project is exposed and nullified.

Mike Berger

PS Firstly, my thanks to Steve Magid of It's Almost Supernatural for his own trenchant comments and for reproducing my Newsletter in its entirety.

Now to Zinn.

Zinn comment numero uno: “That Israel is a colonialist, deeply racist and apartheid-style state is plainly obvious to anyone who knows anything about the country and isn't a rabid right wing pro-Israel apologist.” Goodness gracious why on earth do we need a Conference with so much intellectual firepower and at such expense, when our Zinn absolutely knows the truth without any shadow of a doubt? Please write to the HSRC and instruct them to call the whole thing off.

Zinn comment number two: Ahmadienjad doesn’t really wish to eliminate Israel as “we know it” – that is, as a Jewish State. His comments have been misrepresented. Yes folk, you read that right: that’s what the man said. Ahmadinejad supports Hamas, Hizbollah, and other anti-Israel terror groups. He runs a conference (strictly scholarly of course) questioning the Holocaust. He is developing a nuclear weapon as fast as he can. But no, he does not want to eliminate Israel as a Jewish State. But please go and read Zinn’s comment on “Supernatural” and watch how he misrepresents what I said in order to contradict me. And he calls me a liar. But it is too boring to to waste more energy on such rubbish.

Zinn again “I find it interesting that people like John Dugard are described as "ideologues" because they take "anti-Zionist positions", which suggests that to be pro-Zionist one would be free of ideology. This really tells me all I need to know about the sort of mindset that underpins this website.” John Dugard (like Zinn, Virginia Tilley et al) is an ideologue. That’s OK. I don’t really like ideologues with their fixed, selective and shrill opinions, whether of the left or the right. But my gripe is that the HSRC Conference and the Report on which it is based has been motivated for, framed and shaped by ideologues of a particular stripe designed to promote the agendas of those who, like Zinn, hate Israel That is not what the HSRC was designed to do, it is not good use of taxpayer’s money and it is grossly dishonest to represent it as scholarly, impartial exercise.

Zinn weer: “Just because Sudan has a horrendous human rights record does that magically exculpate Israel from any and all abuses against the Palestinians? Ditto for the question of "xenophobic hatred" in South Africa, and on and on.” No Zinny, no-one said it did. But is is a far more suitable subject for our HSRC than the Middle East. Oh, and by the way, Zinny, what about Chechnia, Tibet and Sri Lanka to name just a few spots which could do with a “scholarly conference” - not to mention mass marches, boycotts and threats of “to the gas”.? I do hope you write to the HSRC suggesting it expand its horizons further since Africa does not provide the scope it needs for its wide-ranging moral concerns.

Last word from Zinn: “Instead of fixating on who wrote and funded the HSRC report, why not actually review the report and tackle it on the basis of facts, and not mere ad hominem attacks. Or is this just standard operating procedure for pro-Israel zealots who cannot address factual information and must constantly go on the offensive with smear campaigns against those who disagree with their perspective of Israel as a paragon of purity?” If it were a genuine scholarly project and not one motivated by the same negative obsessions which so captivate Zinn, I would agree. But it is the “fruit of a poisoned tree” (I think that is the legal phrase) and as such does not deserve the attention of genuinely impartial and informed scholars. It is a bit like David Irving – he pushed his deeply anti-semitic treatment of Holocaust history to the point of a legal confrontation against genuine scholars – and came seriously unstuck. But, of course, that did not stop the Holocaust deniers, just as it will not stop the Zinns of this world. So I suppose it will be necessary for busy and intelligent, informed people to waste their time responding to the content, but it will have at most minimal impact. For the whole matter has little to do with external reality but with internal reality – that is, psychological obsessions on which facts have little influence.