The tired and contrived narrative of Israel’s apologists – a further response to Heneck

Abridged version published in the Cape Times, 18 April 2016.

In a piece published in Counterpunch, Marek Sullivan sagaciously argued that atheist and neuroscientist Mark Harris must live in a “quantum universe” because he habitually makes contradictory statements that he believes are simultaneously valid – not unlike Schrödinger’s cat experiment. Harris believes that “it is obscene, irrational, and unjustifiable to have a state organized around a religion” followed by the claim that “the justification for such a state is rather easy to find…[and] if there were going to be a state organized around protecting members of a single religion, it certainly should be a Jewish state.”

Glen Heneck (Cape Times, April 8) lives in a similar universe where Schrödinger’s cat is both dead and alive! Of course Heneck is forced to make exceptions to the moral rules he follows in the service of a preconceived worldview grounded in the shrill dogma of Zionist ideology, in order to sound reasonable. But behind this claimed reasonableness is a toxic outcome – supporting the idea of an ethnic/religious state in Israel, with an ethnic majority achieved through violent ethnic cleansing, and that discriminates against the indigenous minority that remains. But he goes further and regards ‘peaceful coexistence’ a higher virtue than ‘social justice’. This is an obscene view both in Palestine and South Africa where we grapple with centuries of colonialism and apartheid. The subtext of course is that the poor, marginalised, occupied and oppressed must respectfully submit to their status in this world and submit to unbridled power. For these bigoted views he considers himself a ‘decently-educated, quiet-spoken, semi-intellectual’, which I take as code for ‘civilised’.

On the other hand Heneck characterises me as one who peddles “hate-riddled caricature” – in other words angry and irrational. Besides his characteristic failure to substantively engage even a single point that I raise in my article, this moniker is ascribed to me for a perfectly rational view:  support for inclusive societies based on social justice that treat every individual equally, without regard to or discrimination based on race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or religion; and my support for states that belongs to all of its citizens equally. These universal values define democracies. Such a state of Israel would have my support.

However this perversion of reality is characteristic of the narrative presented on the Palestinian question: those who seek universal freedoms are demonised and those engaged in colonialism, occupation, discrimination and violent repression are celebrated as paragons of democracy and civilised values. Admittedly Heneck may be uncomfortable with my characterisation of Israel because of his cognitive inability to accept that the idealistic utopian Zionism ingrained in his identity in reality has become its ‘hate-riddled caricature’.  This unfortunately is the only logical outcome of exclusive states and societies.

While Heneck claims to attempt a fresh approach to the Middle-East conundrum, in his tortuous articles he says nothing new. He, in fact reconfigures the tired hasbara tropes in ways which seek to further obfuscate the fundamental issues. All the boxes on my card were ticked in my invented game of Bullshit Bingo – which triggers every time one of these tropes is trotted out. These tropes and red-herrings have been frequently debunked by those much wiser than me – but space limits me repeating them. They include:

  • Creating a great complexity to the problem
  • Fear mongering by claiming Israel’s existential threat
  • Proclaiming  an ancient Jewish claim on the land
  • Using ‘whataboutery’ which serves to deflect the fundamental issues by using  obscure, inaccurate and ahistorical examples
  • Invoking ‘the grand delinquency of other governments in the region’
  • Mention the spurned peace offerings by Palestinians (without providing the details of these offerings)
  • Highlight that Israel’s objective is peace (despite all the evidence to the contrary).
  • Claim that this conflict was started by Palestinians
  • Describe Palestinians as uncompromising (although they are negotiating for less than 20% of their historical homeland).
  • If all fails invoke the Hamas Charter.

One also begins to questions Heneck’s legal credentials when he categorically states: ‘any lawyer will tell you that most claims of right are resolved not by way of restitution but rather by way of damages: so why should that modality not be applied in this case?’ Heneck may be right on most civil claims, but any good lawyer with a semblance of knowledge of human rights and restorative justice will tell you otherwise. Restitution is the default mode unless circumstances make it improbable and damages are awarded in lieu – as in land claims in South Africa. This lawyer will also tell you that the choice rests with the victim and not the aggressor. Interestingly Israel’s own actions make restitution perfectly possible, evidenced by the expansion of Jewish settlements and the ‘right of return’.  But more tellingly, why does Heneck fear restitution?  Is it because he fears the loss of a Jewish majority? If the answer to question is in the affirmative he leaves no doubt regarding his support for ethnic cleansing in the achievement of this.

Also intriguing is why Heneck fails to disclose his leadership at the SA Jewish Board of Deputies – which is a cheerleader for Israel’s occupation and brutality.

If Heneck is sincere in seeking solutions he has to move beyond tribal affiliations, hasbara tropes and platitudes and examine a concreate reality against universal values. Otherwise he remains Israel’s apologist. I am also sorry that he takes offence at my robust tone; but I make no apology as I rely on  JK Galbraith’s  wisdom that ‘in all life one should comfort the afflicted, but verily, also, one should afflict the comfortable, and especially when they are comfortably, contentedly, even happily wrong’.

Shuaib Manjra

Cape Town

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Glen Heneck responds to me

published in the Cape Times on  8 April 2016

About six months ago Shuaib Manjra and I had tea together. Bourgeois style, at the Waterfront. We’d earlier had a series of angry exchanges, through the op-Ed columns of your newspaper, but our meeting was as cordial as could be. Though we remained at odds on the matter of Palestine and Israel, we found much common ground – the shortcomings of capitalism, struggle politics through the eighties, the joys of cricket – and I walked away enlivened, impressed and encouraged. I thought we’d formed some kind of informal bond, and respectful understanding, and I hoped that we’d meet again before long.

Given that background I was slightly taken aback when I read Dr. Manjra’s article last Wednesday. I appreciate that this is a matter he feels strongly about, and also that my piece he was responding to was less than perfectly even-handed, but it nevertheless felt uncomfortable to see myself described as a one-eyed racist propagandist. I’m too old to feel angry or offended, but I was just a little disheartened. I get solidarity, and I’m never surprised by shows of righteous anger; it’s just that if us two decently-educated, quiet-spoken, far-removed, half-aligned semi-intellectuals can’t even be polite to one another, what chance is there then for peace between the actual antagonists?

Dr. Manjra’s answer to that question would, I’m fairly sure, pay significant attention to the nature of peace itself. I’m no expert on either Islam or socialism, his two lodestars, but I do know that they’re both grounded in the fight against unfairness and oppression. They’re both struggle traditions, in other words, and so peaceful coexistence is not regarded as a “per se” virtue. Social justice is what ultimately matters to adherents of these belief systems, and so the fact that there may be no actual hostilities on the go is neither here nor there. Black South Africans could never be said to be living at peace under Apartheid, and the same holds true, on this analysis, for Palestinians living under the sway of Zionism. A peace deal that left the status quo even partly intact – even if it were accepted by the greater majority of the populace – would be both unacceptable and untenable. It would reflect “false consciousness” and would merit not only scorn but ongoing resistance.

I get the abstract point, completely, including the case for armed resistance, in certain circumstances. What I’m struggling with though is the specific application.

I look at the Palestine Israel conflict and I see great moral complexity (and immense global danger). I feel impelled, accordingly, to seek out commonalities, bridges, explanations, compromises – but that’s not the popular (public) path. Instead the commentators on the right rage on about anti Semitism and terrorism and “the only true democracy in the region”; even while those on the left, who should know better, refuse to give any credence to things like the Hamas Charter, the grand delinquency (and chauvinism and authoritarianism) of other governments in the region and the spurned peace offerings.

That conservatives have a hard time empathizing with the angry youth in Hebron, or appreciating the stupidity of ongoing settlement activity, doesn’t much surprise me. What I do find quite depressing though is that a palpably smart, well-meaning and deep-thinking man like Dr. Manjra is able to reduce the entire struggle to a hate-riddled caricature.

Space precludes me from going into any kind of detailed analysis here. Since all I’m hoping to do though is to trigger some earnest self examination, I’d like to present a four-fold challenge to the good doctor (or to any self-styled progressive who believes that Israel is an immoral outlier).

  1. Why keep peddling the notion that the Israelis are the actual aggressors in the conflict? Surely it’s obvious that what they (mostly) want is peace – in the conservative sense of a cessation of hostilities – and that where their position is liable to attack is in terms of the unsatisfactoriness of the current arrangements?
  2. Why fixate on Israeli Apartheid when a moment’s reflection will show that virtually every country on earth can be tarred with the same brush? Never mind the fact that progressives stayed mute when Yugoslavia got re Balkanized; what is France if not the nation state of the French? What indeed is the nation state (to quote Nassim Taleb) if not “Apartheid without the political incorrectness”? If you’re a true internationalist, why focus on a single, small country in the Middle East; why not agitate for the elimination of all borders, everywhere?
  3. Assuming that the (not quite) original sin was the land appropriation by the settling Jews, why, a century down the line, does this preclude recognition of Israel as a Jewish majority state; complete with security guarantees? Any lawyer will tell you that most claims of right are resolved not by way of restitution but rather by way of damages: so why should that modality not be applied in this case? The more so when the “defendant” party does have a plausible (if ancient) claim on the land.
  4. Are you blind to your own power? Isn’t it obvious that every time a public intellectual renders the contest between the Palestinians and the Israelis as a simple morality play, this fuels the ire of (well armed) fundamentalist fanatics, on both sides? Is the level of actual suffering – and of apocalyptic danger – not such as to compel all thinking outsiders to push hard for compromise? On their side?

I’m grateful to Dr. Manjra for reminding me of Phil Ochs’s acid-addled song about liberals. I’d like in turn to commend him to two more mellifluous tunes by another (Jewish) troubadour, Billy Joel. One is “Angry Young Man” and the other, more pertinently, is “We didn’t start the fire”.