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”.



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