Giving the gift of sectarian hatred

Charities and aid-agencies are the glue that holds many societies together. Without them many societies would collapse, largely because of the failure of the state, which may be due to various reasons – ideological, economic status, incompetence and corruption, or war. In acute situations, such as exists in war-zones, charities mediate between life and death for civilian populations. They are the last line of refuge for food, shelter and other basic necessities to sustain life. But such agencies navigate a difficult and often dangerous terrain. Such agencies are the subject of much criticism – from the right-wing for being activists and taking sides; and from the left for not taking political positions and benefitting from the status quo by not questioning the fundamental causes of poverty, inequality and violence. So being in this critical line of work is not only dangerous, but also fair game for criticism.

Aid agencies must not be neutral, they must take sides. However the only side they must take is the side of the oppressed and innocent victims. However in the execution of their work they must minister to all without fear or favour. A friend of mine who heads Islamic Relief in the USA recently told me how they have to fend off sectarian pressures in their work in Syria in order to maintain their neutrality and provide services to all sectors of the population, including fighters from all sides.

Thus it is surprising that one of South Africa’s most prominent charities promotes sectarian interests in Syria. Curiously, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman of the Gift of the Givers Foundation has embarked on a countrywide tour inflaming sectarian hatred, for which I criticized him on Facebook and eliciting varied responses. My point is this: that Syria is a quagmire; the Assad regime and many of its opponents have committed atrocities against local populations. Bashar al Assad, like his father Hafez al Assad is a brutal dictator. Thus one would expect the local populations to support the opposition forces in their fight against this dictator. Therein lays the problem: the behavior of many opposition groups alienated the local populations and weakened them. This, for example, resulted in the Assad forces winning in East Aleppo. So this situation consists of protagonists divided into the bad and the worse, with the civilian population bearing the brunt of this conflict with no clear end in sight. The brutality of Assad is more evident because of his indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas. One cannot also discount the role of the media in framing a particular narrative.

My second and fundamental criticism against Sooliman is where he frames this conflict as a religious conflict – Sunnis versus Shias – and going on his anti-Shia diatribe, even describing Hezbollah as Hizbo-Shaytaan!  What this kind of senseless rhetoric does, is essentialise what is a war against a brutal dictator, to a large extent a civil war, and what has become a geo-political conflict into a religious war. This simplistic rhetoric entirely ignores geo-politics which has brought in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Hezbollah, Russia, the USA and Israel into battle. Moreover this also feeds into the anti-Shia diatribe that has been spewing from our pulpits for decades. But it also ignores the fact that the Syrian army and the opposition have a mixture of Shias, Sunnis and Druze, and attempting to neatly characterize one as Sunni and the other as Shia is analytically flawed.  The flip side of this is that there has been a deafening silence on the atrocities committed by Saudi Arabia (Sunnis) against the Yemeni population into what amounts to war crimes, or the suicide attacks against Shias in Pakistan and Iraq. The sub-text is that Shias are fair game.

Let me provide an example by quoting Imtiaz Sooliman directly:

‘I’m not talking as Gift of the Givers here, nor am I making this a sectarian issue, but the Syrian people – our Sunni brothers and sisters, your Sunni brothers and sisters – are getting massacred, and by whom? The Alawites and the Shi’ah’s. Iran plays this game of the Islamic Revolution; there’s nothing Islamic about Iran. Say it like it is ….when you can cause conflict by sending arms to kill women and children, there is nothing Islamic about you! We think it politically incorrect to mention other names. But they’re not shy. They’re not embarrassed to send weapons to kill Sunnis. So why should we hold back in mentioning their names? What political correctness is this? This is political expediency that has got nothing to do with Islam.”

Sooliman’s claims of being apolitical or neutral are contradicted by this kind of inflammatory rhetoric which demonstrates that he has abdicated any sense of neutrality and has firmly embedded himself into a sectarian discourse that only provides relief to those who gorge themselves on Sunni triumphalism and hubris. While he acknowledges that this Syrian conflict involves ‘political expediency’ and has ‘nothing to do with Islam’, he contradicts himself by pitting Sunni against Shia, thereby characterising as a religious conflict.

My third criticism of Suleman is the quote he uses to express his own opinion that the ‘Israeli’s have more compassion than Assad’. Any such analogy is fraught with problems and should be avoided. But this kind of thinking is what informs people who say that living under apartheid is better than living under the current government. It ignores a whole set of factors while playing into the hands of the white right. Besides being wrong and ignoring the history of massacres and continued ethnic cleansing in Palestine and that many of Assad’s victims are Palestinian refugees, this kind of narrative plays into the hands of the Zionist lobby who counter any criticism of Israel with the claim that Syria is being ignored and focusing on Israel is the result of some inherent anti-Semitism. It undermines the Palestinian struggle.

So if Imtiaz Sooliman and the GOTG want to enter into the political terrain the least we expect is an informed opinion about the conflict – and being on the ground in Syria does not mean that you become an expert. We also expect balance, in that you cannot enter the political terrain in one conflict and remain silent in others. And last, but certainly not least, such organisations should desist from inflaming sectarian hatred lest this inflames the conflict even further and brings it to our shores where all communities live in harmony. It also detracts from the valuable work that GOTG does in providing relief in desperate situations.

However, if the GOTG want to give up their neutrality then they become fair game as well.

Published in Al Qalam, January 2017

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Response to Allan Wolman’s bigotry

The Editor

Cape Argus

It is our tragedy that bigotry blinds us to the truth; yet we unashamedly publicly parade this bigotry as fact – as is the case with Allan Wolman’s letter (Middle East problems not ours, 9/9/2016 SEE BELOW). I attended the event on settler colonialism in Israel, held symbolically at a monument to ethnic cleansing by another settler colonial entity – the District Six Museum. A panel of ‘Palestinian Israeli’s’ – those who live within the borders of the state of Israel, established through violence and ethnic cleansing in 1948 – addressed us from personal and painful experiences not dissimilar to ours, surrounded by memories of District Six. Two of the participants from ADRID, an organisation for internally displaced Palestinians, simply and without rancour recounted how they were forced from their ancestral villages by Zionist militias prior to 1948 and forced to relocate elsewhere. In Lubya, and there were thousands of such villages, over 3000 residents were ethnically cleansed and forced to settle in Gaza, neighbouring countries and a few inside Israel. Nayif Hujjo described how his family had to sleep in the open for months just two kilometers from Lubya, but were prevented from returning by armed militia, and had to live under military curfew for many years thereafter. Many years later when they were allowed to go close to Lubya they noticed newly planted trees obliterating their village.

The Zionist strategy to erase any memory of ethnically cleansed villages was achieved by planting forests over razed villages. Such forests were funded and promoted by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), a quasi-governmental organisation which receives funding from both the Israeli government and Jewish communities around the world, and controls land exclusively for Jewish use. The JNF masks its role in ethnic cleansing under the guise of environmental agency, as it does locally in South Africa. Another symbolism of this meeting was that the forest erasing the village of Lubya is called the South African Forest – where South African Jewry funded ethnic cleansing in Israel.

Last year members of the SA Jews for a Free Palestine (SAJFP) took about 300 signed letters from South African Jews to the citizens of Lubya apologizing for the role played by South African Jewry in their displacement. This symbolic apology, reminiscent of our own TRC, was also about acknowledging and embracing a painful history. The current visit was in reciprocation of that visit. Needless to say, and not unlike South Africa, Palestinians seek land restitution.

Wolman vilifies SAJFP as ‘an outspoken anti-Israel fringe group’ – rather than a courageous group acknowledging the truth of history and apologizing for their community’s complicity. SAJFP should however take comfort that Jewish anti-apartheid activists were similarly ostracized by their community at the time, but embraced today out of expedience, but also the triumph of truth.

At the same meeting Advocate Myssana Morany from human rights organisation Adalah documented the continued ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Israel where Bedouin communities are being forcibly removed from their ancestral lands in the Negev to make way for exclusive Jewish settlements. Ethnic cleansing did not end in 1948 or begin in 1967 – it is a daily experience of Palestinians.

Our struggles for Palestinian rights, Zimbabwean rights, or the rights of the Baha’i community, for example, do not blind us to our local struggles. We see them all as an undifferentiated struggle for human rights and a just, inclusive and more humane world. We hope that those like Alan Wollman will actively join us in all of these struggles rather than exploit a local issue to mask their support for injustice elsewhere. Lubya is testament to the inter-relatedness of our struggles. I implore your readers to watch the sensitively documented history of Lubya, aptly titled The Village under the Forest by Mark Kaplan and Heidi Grunebaum, which was the winner of the Audience Award for Best South African Film at Encounters Documentary Festival. Readers can view and then judge Wollman’s churlishness (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISmj31rJkGQ).

 

 Shuaib Manjra

Open Shuhada Street

 

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Shuaib Manjra: Nomination to serve on UCT Council

Dear Friends

I have been nominated, and accepted to stand for a position on the UCT Council.

I hope to make a contribution to the future of UCT in these challenging times and request your vote and support  in this election.

My profile, abridged CV and statement of intent (which was restricted to 200 words) is included on the website. My statement of intent is also copied below.

6 candidates will be elected out of a 27 nominated and each person can vote for up to six persons. There are some really worthy candidates.

I apologise if you are not an alumnus of UCT and have received this mail but am sure you know of many whose support you can solicit.

The link  to the profiles and to vote electronically  is given below.

If you are not registered with the UCT Development and Alumni Department (DAD) you may not have received the notice below. However you can email election@uct.ac.za, and request a username and password to participate in the electronic ballot.

I implore you to use this democratic right to contribute to the future of UCT so that we together can bring positive change.

Please call me should you have any queries.

Sincerely

Shuaib Manjra

 

STATEMENT OF INTENT

As an alumnus, staff member, parent of a current student and a conscious, active member of civil society I am acutely aware of the numerous challenges facing UCT within the context of our dynamic society. These include advancing academic excellence, transformation in the broadest sense, granting fair access, fair employment practices and good corporate governance within severe budgetary constraints and rising student and public expectation. Most challenging however is the poor school system in disadvantaged areas which presents the greatest impediment to access, and is largely beyond the control of the university. My commitment is to bring my varied experiences to the collective and find balance in addressing these critical issues in a sustainable way that takes into account the needs and expectations of the university’s various constituencies while maintaining its position as Africa’s premier university. To find the delicate balance between access and excellence is a universal challenge.

I am committed to deconstructing glib terms so that they inform, rather than obfuscate a clarity of vision and purpose: ‘excellence’, ‘access’, ‘transformation’, ‘African university’, ‘race and class’, ‘sustainability’, etc. Also imperative is how UCT produces not only graduants for a market, but conscious citizens and continues to enhance human knowledge.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

UCT Convocation election

Nominations for members of Council elected by Convocation closed on 22 April 2016. Twenty seven nominations were received for the six available seats on Council and an electronic ballot will be held.

View the candidates’ statements and abbreviated CVs

Members of Convocation who have registered email addresses with the UCT Development and Alumni Department (DAD) can vote for up to six of these candidates. Email notifications have been sent to those members of Convocation for whom DAD has email addresses. If you do not have a registered email address with the Development and Alumni Department, please email election@uct.ac.za, and request a username and password to participate in the electronic ballot. Once verified, you will receive a username, password and voting instructions by email within 8 business hours.

Go to the eBallot login page

Voting opens at 08:30 SAST on Monday, 9 May and will close at noon SAT on 22 May 2016.

Note:

Convocation consists of the graduates (i.e. holders of UCT degrees and diplomas, including honorary graduates), Vice-Chancellor, Deputy Vice-Chancellors, professors, emeritus professors, associate professors, emeritus associate professors, senior lecturers, lecturers, assistant lecturers, principal research officers, chief research officers, senior research officers and research officers of the University of Cape Town.

 

 

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

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”.

 

Inclusive societies are the panacea for this world, not ethnic proclivities – A response to Glen Heneck

Choni Davidowitz, a regularly correspondent of the  SA Jewish Report wrote this very week: “the removal of all Arabs who refuse to accept the exclusive, unquestioned Jewish sovereignty over all of Israel is not only logical and normal for any Jew with a modicum of self-preservation; it is also the Jewish halachic obligation. The transfer of Arabs from Israel is not a political or personal view. It is a Jewish outlook based on Halacha. The Torah clearly commanded: ‘And you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the Land from before you… ’”.

Ominously this extreme view is supported by nearly half of Israelis according to a recent Pew survey. Glen Heneck’s call for Israel to be recognized as a Jewish State (Cape Times, March 24), differs from Davidowitz only in nuance. Heneck, a leader of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, attempts a more sophisticated argument – couching his views in liberal discourse and begging questions – but with the same refrain: an appeal to an essentialist and base identity politics coupled with a tired and predictable defence of Israel. The outcome of both positions is unmitigated justification for discrimination against, and/or ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef endorses this when he decreed that Jewish law prohibits non-Jews from living in Israel and that non-Jews live to serve the Jewish population.

The idea of recognizing Israel as a Jewish State seems benign until one begins to deconstruct its meaning. Fundamentally it excludes non-Jews from nationhood and relegates them to second class citizenship. By its very definition it has to keep its populations separated in law so that it would reserve for itself the possibility of discriminating against a “sector” of the population on a quasi-religious-quasi-racial basis. It also has to ensure a constant Jewish majority which can only be sustained by discriminating against minorities – through immigration, citizenship and land ownership laws or through ethnic cleansing by various means. Fifty such laws which discriminate against non-Jews form part of Israel’s legal landscape (see http://www.adalah.org/en/content/view/7771).  These laws give effect to the Zionist ideology of more land with fewer Palestinians. It explains why Israel claims to annex Palestinian East Jerusalem but does not grant its inhabitants Israeli citizenship. Thus the notion of a Jewish State creates a herrenvolk democracy.

Heneck, in keeping with his commitment to ethnic states, supports this idea of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity in Israel, as he supports a ‘Boerestaat’ for Afrikaners (and consequently discrimination against non-Afrikaners in such a state). The arbitrariness of his argument is exposed on the question as to where exactly his ethnic division of South Africa would stop – a state for Zulus, Xhosas, Khoi-San, Coloureds, Pedis?

Creating an ethnic state in an area historically inhabited by a majority indigenous population for centuries, may at a stretch be tolerated; however attempting to do so on colonised land with European settlers, as in South Africa, makes it egregious. Heneck accepts this colonial thesis when acknowledging Palestinian pain at land loss due to “European settlements”, but then forces Palestinians to accept not only a Jewish majority state but one defined by Jewishness and buttressed by force of law. Needless to say this Jewish majority was achieved through violent ethnic cleansing of indigenous Palestinians. The only difference between Davidowitz and Heneck is that one couches his racism in religious idiom and the other in its secular reincarnation. Heneck has this message for those who have been ethnically cleansed and live in squalid refugee camps: ‘get over it’ and accept the Jewish State! Justice, restitution or fairness seem foreign in his quest for ethnic purity. Would one dare to say the same to Holocaust survivors?  Dispossessed Black South African’s are painfully aware of this discourse from white liberals who expect black people to move on from Apartheid without acknowledging its evil, its impact and its multi-generational consequences. For them power and military might should be rewarded rather than contained and held to account.

The problem with identity politics, as supported by Heneck is that it is simplistic, parochial, undialectical and often racist, particularly when discriminating against others. It treats Jewish identity as a reified static entity – a historical and genetic given rather than a constructed identity that is contested. It then attempts to define a state on this arbitrariness. It would more honest to define Jewishness as a confessional entity, which it actually is. But one can but only be surprised, or perhaps not, when a White South African asks why accepting eligibility for citizenship based on ethnicity is problematic? The problem with Heneck and his ilk is that their connection to Zionism is grounded in identity politics that only elites like him, who live in comfort, can indulge in; it is not located in facts on the ground in Israel-Palestine which is a lived nightmare of the colonized. When this identity is challenged by his colonial subjects his pretense to enlightenment and liberalism disappear much like Phil Orch’s song ‘Love Me I’m a Liberal’: “Ten degrees to the left of centre in good times, ten degrees to the right of centre if it affects them personally’.

But Heneck opens himself up to the tu quoque retort. He accepts that the ‘settlements are deeply problematic’, not to say illegal, at the same time denying that the IDF is ‘aggressive or expansionist’. How then does he explain Israel’s continuous confiscation of large chunks of Palestinian land? In 2014 the Israeli government confiscated 988 acres of Palestinian land in the Bethlehem area of the West Bank and continued to do so in 2015 when it dislocated Bedouins from the Negev. Just a few weeks ago over 300 hectares of Palestinian land in an area of Jericho and Nablus were confiscated. If this is not evidence of an expansionist state then what is? The occupation, settlements, land confiscations, the apartheid wall, are all part of the strategy of territorial expansion done under various guises and gives lie to Israel’s so-called commitment to a peaceful settlement.

To disabuse him of the fallacy of Israel’s moral army I implore him to read reports from the Christian Peacemaker Teams who monitor the checkpoints and be outraged by the gratuitous daily humiliation of Palestinians; or of Breaking the Silence where ex-IDF soldiers confess about the systematic atrocities committed by the IDF. These are not isolated incidents but part of a systematic strategy to break the Palestinian spirit. The recent executions by the IDF of helpless Palestinians is further evidence of the mentality that derives from toxic ethnic politics.

While he accuses Shannon Ebrahim of being ahistorical, he is guilty of the same offence in bringing up the tired canard of Hamas’ odious charter. If one considers Hamas as a recent phenomenon, what about the nearly fifty years of Occupation where the Palestinian resistance was led in the vast majority by secular and leftists (with a significant Christian component). The truth is that both the secular and religious Zionists find common ground in not ending the Occupation for entirely different reasons. Interestingly many prominent Zionist leaders sought withdrawal soon after 1967 because they saw continued Occupation as the death of their idealist Zionist dream – which has now become a nightmare. The truth is that Israel has no intention to withdraw from the Occupied Territories as unequivocally stated by its current Prime Minster, Netanyahu. Israel’s smokescreen excuses for not committing to peace with Palestinians changes constantly based on the currency of the time. His examples of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia are also spurious and false since he lacks an understanding of their historical genesis – which is vastly different from the Palestinian reality.

Heneck’s discourse is a stark reflection of the utter failure of liberal Zionism to continue to justify the racial project. Its innovative distractions, hasbara echoes, and cognitive dissonance have become unsustainable in the face of a brutal reality of apartheid and Palestinian dispossession. Thus upon reflection Davidovitz’s discourse and that of Heneck are perversely the same. Heneck in attempting to play a liberal card and taking regular digs at the left continues to defend apartheid and Palestinians dispossession in a discourse lacks truth or any notion of peace based on justice. In Heneck’s worldview as a privileged Jew and White South African he claims more rights to citizenship in Israel and to occupy a house in Jaffa than a Palestinian from a refugee camp who still holds the key to that house and who was ethnically cleansed at the barrel of a gun. That is preposterous and one can only be indignant at such foolishness.

 

Shuaib Manjra

Published 30 March 2016 in the Cape Times

Love, Lies and Loose Emails: Azad Essa and the Daily Vox plumb new depths

My past variance with the Daily Vox (DV) following their ad hominem attack on BDS-SA sometime last year was a distant memory. I had moved on to more important things since I had failed in my attempts at a constructive debate with Azad Essa, the Executive Editor of the DV. The latter was comfortable in listening to his own voice, rather than engage in substantive debate. He quickly epitomized for me the difference between journalism and hackery; those who have the intelligence to substantively engage an issue and those whose only limited skill is the process of writing. Unfortunately this bodes poorly for the DV which has some potential. However a number of issues related to the DV this week got me entangled in the latest imbroglio.

The first disturbing incident occurred last week when I emailed an invitation for a Palestinian solidarity event to a number of people including an associate of the DV. Incredulously she wrote back in response to the invitation accusing me of stalking her!

The second issue that disrupted my week was brought to my attention by others since I admit to not being a reader of the Daily Vox. With limited time and so many quality publications in the market to choose from one has to be discerning.  In his latest attack on BDS-SA, Essa, rekindles my old disagreement with him (see other postings on this blog). I reluctantly enter this spat simply because Essa continues his lie. This what he wrote about me in his latest editorial in the DV (hyperlinked to my original article):

Let’s be clear as well that when we have taken on BDS-SA previously, we were only too happy to allow its supporters to write back and label me a moron, among other things. Never mind the same author, in the comments section, as well in person, told me: “It wasn’t what was said, it was how you said it.” What is this ridiculous insecurity that marks BDS-SA activism that you feel that a handful of critical articles threatens the hard years of work that many of you have put into the movement

Aside from characterising me as insecure – which I can live with – he asserts that I called him a moron. He goes even further: in a leap of faith he declares that my sole gripe with his previous piece on BDS-SA was its tone.  On the first point I admit that I have accurately characterised Essa through a range of descriptors but I deny I ever calling him a moron and I challenge him to prove me wrong. Let me be clear: I am not denying that Essa is a moron; simply that I never referred to him as such!

His second assertion is as false as the first – and again I dare him to produce evidence of my comment, which he refers to in quotes, to prove his assertion. It would be ridiculous of me to write a 3000+ word riposte to his piece simply because I did not like his tone. Now if I did that it would reveal my insecurity. My frank piece was to expose his vacuity. Of course his article was also insulting. So in effect it was insensitive vacuity.  If Essa would for a moment stop listening to those little delusional voices in his head and read what I wrote he would understand it better. Just in case his attention span does not allow it, I will allow him a summary of what I wrote. The crux of my article –

  • Challenged his aversion to middle-class activism and what he terms ‘career-activism’ as well as his antiquated notions of class and class struggle.
  • Situated the strategy of BDS-SA within a broader framework of political struggle.
  • Challenged his assertions that BDS-SA is not rooted in local struggles, that the movement is not principled, and does not take anti-Semitism seriously.
  • Discusses the Woolworths boycott and outlined victories that are not apparent when one only looks at a single end-point (as he does).
  • Edifies him about BDS-SA’s approach to Cape Union Mart and their long-standing activism against G4S – which he completely misrepresented.
  • Pointed out some of the contradictions in his article and challenged his ‘whataboutery’ that is the hallmark of critics of Palestinian activism.

At least to me, this does not sound like I only took issue with his tone!

Let me reiterate that there were numerous opportunities for Essa to publicly engage me on his article and clarify issues, but he evaded every single one of those.

I must admit that I first met Essa at a social function in December and not to personalise the encounter around his article I endeavoured to engage him on it. However because of the occasion and him being busy with social engagements we could not have a substantive discussion. But I do remember him prompting the question whether my objection was only with the tone of his input rather than the substance of his article. I’ll be dishonest if I say I can remember how I responded. But it does seem that Essa is desperate for validation – particularly that my only objection to his article was its tone. I’m not going to allow him that luxury simply because it is not true however he may rationalise it in his own head. So what Essa writes about me in his latest editorial is patently untrue.

This brings me to his latest typically tabloidy,  triumphalistic editorial in the DV regarding BDS-SA. I think there is significant merit in Steven Friedman’s reflections as well as those of Minhaj Jeenah and both demand substantive engagement by BDS-SA. But timing is everything. Why would DV want to carry articles critical of BDS-SA during the week of its most important campaigns – which align with other such international campaigns? It’s like gate-crashing a wedding and telling the bride how ugly she is.  Without an agenda it would be difficult to explain this timing.

The second question is why would the DV give BDS-SA such limited time to respond to the articles when the DV had them well in advance (as confirmed by Jeenah). Particularly since everyone knows that it was BDS’s busiest period. So Farid Esack was absolutely correct in asking the right questions, though I admit his language was a bit inelegant, but nevertheless understandable.

The third question is why would the DV want to run with Esack’s response in the way it did? How did this contribute to anything except gloating rights for showing up BDS-SA? ‘Gotcha!’  would have been an appropriate headline, since the DV threatened disruption of IAW (see below).

However Essa’s agenda began to unravel when the writer of one of his critical pieces exposed his shenanigans. Here is Minhaj Jeenah’s recounting his experience with Essa and requesting the DV to remove his piece from their website (my highlights):

So, in an attempt to distance myself from this absurd Daily Vox vs. BDS-SA saga, I emailed the DV editors insisting that they remove my op-ed from their website. Seems it’s not happening.

A few weeks ago the executive editor asked me to write an article on Palestine with pre-determined topics, supposedly, aimed at critiquing the current narrative of Palestine solidarity in South Africa.

I did write a piece (which I’m unapologetic about). I unpacked the history of PS in SA, problematised it currently and attempted to critique its current strategy and principle. I was very careful in my approach, as one should be when one is committed to a just movement and is engaging with the movement on a platform external to that movement.

The editor emailed back my piece with heavily edited track changes. Most of which, fundamentally, changed my approach and shifted my argument. Key words were replaced, paragraphs removed, hyper-links were added, and the title implied that I’m arguing that PS in SA is irrelevant. Basically, positions and ideas were imposed on what I had written to suit a pre-determined approach.

Naturally, I just “rejected all track changes in document” (quite a satisfying action) and sent it back. He edited it again, I refused to accept, the original got published.

Oh, the evening before the piece was going to be published (along with Steven Friedman’s piece), Daily Vox and its editor threatened (not sure who), via social media, that tomorrow they are going to “disrupt” (LOL).

Today I found out, through a disgusting tabloid-type editorial, that they emailed my piece before publishing (obviously, with their bogus edits) to BDS-SA asking them to “respond to the commentary on BDS-SA included in these pieces”. Btw, I was never asked if this could be sent before-hand. In fact, I planned on meeting with them and using the article for a broader discussion within the solidarity movement. The pieces were framed as some kind of superficial collective aggression on BDS-SA (the NGO). DV shrewdly tried to squeeze the op-ed into this framing through attempts at reshaping it, emails to BDS-SA and their threats to “disrupt” (LOL). Oh, and remember that politically deficient ad-hominem article about virgin active and what not. Ya.

(Let’s be honest, the DV executive editor having beef with Desai is quite plausible)

And, also, for some strange reason, DV also gave a platform to a Zionist (after claiming to support the PS struggle). Idk. I think I’m, mostly, disappointed because I had faith in the Daily Vox but, on this issue, they’ve proven to be just another media house searching every unprincipled avenue to gain (political) relevance.

Remember that “third force” they were speaking about last year when comrades occupied the Union Buildings? Seems like DV is the third force seeking to undermine the Palestine struggle.

Comrades, yes in our pursuit of justice we need to seriously critique our movements and reclaim them, but this can no longer be done in the presence of lumpen media (and zionists and racists and sexists and and). BDS-SA and the broader PS movement has poor tactic, is plagued by a patriarchal culture and its leaders are problematic, but they are ours and we’ll deal with them.

People of the media variety (who claim to support justice), just like the PS movement in SA: more strategy and more principle. Or maybe I’m overestimating you guys. idk

But you can never write off Essa’s disingenuity or arrogance, except that in this case he exposes himself as he goes into damage control mode. He ascribes his attempt at rewriting Jeenah’s piece as merely editorial changes. His response to Jeenah on Facebook is reproduced below.

Hi Minhaj, I commissioned you to write the piece and I gave you a topic. You were one of 20 people on our commissioning list, so of course we had to make sure certain themes were covered and not replicated. As the commissioning editor, I tried to make the piece more coherent, readable and tried to make your argument more succinct. I passed it back to you with my suggestions and you refused to accept the changes and we eventually published your copy, mostly as is, in the form that you wanted. If you think I was putting words in your mouth, that’s unfortunate, though, that is unimportant now, since we ran with your piece. I am not entirely sure what the gripe is since your article is in the form that you wanted. Furthermore, we passed on your piece to BDS-SA as a courtesy to them, as in we were doing them a favour by giving them advance notice. We didn’t have to inform you of that. If you want to discuss some of the other misconceptions you have, for instance why we ran a lonely Zionist piece out of 20 pro-Palestine pieces, you can ask rather than drawing ill-conceived and embarrassing conclusions. We are a media-house, not an activist group. You are welcome to clarify anything else you wish over email. thanks, azad

 

Interestingly he denies none of the accusations, except to state that eventually it was published in its original form. So there are two narratives here: the writer claims that his piece was edited to fundamentally change some aspects of his argument; while the editor claims it was merely form that he was changing. Of course form, like timing, is significant. Having experience with Essa I know whose narrative I would believe. Perhaps if we have access to Essa’s edits, we can judge for ourselves.

Essa continues to share gems from his journalistic manual when he claims he was doing BDS a favour by showing them an advance copy! I thought this would be an essential element of fair journalism when attempting to elicit a response.

So if one considers all these incidents – the bizarre response to my invitation to a Palestine solidarity event, Essa’s dishonesty about my article and responses, DV publishing criticisms of BDS-SA during IAW and giving them extremely limited time to respond, and Minhaj Jeenah’s recounting his experience of how Essa attempt to manipulate his article – it clearly points to an agenda on the part of Daily Vox. I haven’t figured out clearly what this agenda is, but the more critical question is what drives this agenda?  Shock and tabloid journalism to increase readership and revenue, score points against adversaries, spurned lovers, unrequited love, secretive weddings, jealousy? I don’t know if any of these are true but having no inkling of Essa’s romantic liaisons I would not be surprised if some of these may be subconsciously haunting him and accounts for his response. But the truth is I don’t know! I am merely a reluctant entrant into this discussion, forced into it by Essa’s continued dishonesty.

Shuaib Manjra

14th March 2016

 

 

 

 

Mbeki and AIDS – Is this the new Lysenko-ism

Thabo Mbeki’s continued defence of his outrageous views and policies on HIV/AIDS took me back to this article which I wrote 10 years ago and was published by the  UKZN Centre for Civil Society. It should be remembered that many in the ANC who have since found their voices remained silent during this period. But their silence they remain complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and those who live with a disease which was preventable!

. . . . .

It has often been asked why a seemingly intelligent man, an international statesman, and the leader of such a noble liberation movement would hold such bizarre views on HIV and Aids. These views would be regarded as iconoclastic in any other society. But in a society which has the highest number of those living with HIV and Aids, it approaches tragedy. Nay it becomes willful neglect. Pushing it to the extreme – it could be seen as being accomplice to mass murder. Sadly, for all his stupendous achievements, Thabo Mbeki will be remembered for his bizarre views on HIV and Aids.

Why he holds such views is debatable and open to speculation. Could it be to assert his independence as a thinker? Or to assert his anti-imperialist (or nationalistic) credentials by viewing the HIV issues as being driven by multi-national corporations and by “western science”? Alternatively could this threat to the African renaissance (or revolution) drive his Aids denialism?

As frightening as Mbeki’s views is the silence of leading ANC and government figures. Instead they support Mbeki’s position, if nothing else, by their silence. Not long ago a senior figure in the ANC Health Desk was castigated for deviating from the ANC view on HIV and Aids by supporting the anti-retroviral campaign. This rebuke came from the Minister herself. This suggests that there is an ANC view on this issue – which remains hidden from the public and the ANC membership. That this ideological position contradicts accepted science has not deterred its adherents sticking to it as a fundamentalist position. Those trained in the natural sciences obviously employ cognitive dissonance to adhere to their scientific training while toeing the contradictory party line.

Historically many world leaders have held iconoclastic views and Mbeki is in illustrious company. United States President, George W Bush holds such views concerning global warming and its impact on the environment. His administration continues to deny these effects despite incontrovertible scientific evidence, including from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – an agency established and wholly funded by the US Government. The evidence from this agency – that global warming exists, is a result of human activity, and has significant public health, economic and other consequences that will affect the lives of millions – is hidden from public view or discounted because it fails to fit in with the ideological position of George Bush – whose commitment to the advancement of capitalist enterprise cannot be fettered by any concerns, including environmental ones. Bush’s response: it’s just a “document put out by the bureaucracy” and he then proceeded to put out the EPA Director, Christie Whitman to New Jersey in virtual exile.  If science does not fit in with Bush’s politics, then the science must be wrong.

However, Mbeki’s most illustrious compatriot is none other than the past hero of the SACP, Joseph Stalin, who also displayed astounding political arrogance and scientific ignorance.

The 1940’s debate concerning nature versus nurture had scientists pitted against each other viewing these as polar opposites. Some scientists believed that genetics alone determines human character and behaviour – a theory supported and propagated, amongst others, by many American racists. On the other hand other scientists believed that the social environment could entirely determine human consciousness and behaviors – a view supported by largely bycommunists. The truth probably lies somewhere between these positions.

Within this context a Soviet agrobiologist, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1989-1976) propounded the theory – which received the support of Josef Stalin –  that Darwin’s theory of evolution and Mendel’s theory of heredity were wrong, represented  “bourgeois science,” and was not fit for a communist state. Lysenko had bought into the quack theory of earlier scientists – Ivan Vladimirich Michurin (1855-1935) and Jean- Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) who first postulated these views. What Lysenko lacked in scientific rigour, he made up for in political savvy – knowing exactly what the Soviet dictator wanted to hear. Stalin’s, whose self-serving brand of communism relied on absolute loyalty and deference,  believed in the absolutist theory that human consciousness was a blank slate that could be totally molded by the social environment.  Lysenko, not being a geneticist applied this social theory to biology by insisting that genetics had no role to play in Soviet agriculture, and that it is environmental conditions that determine the crop type. In other words, organisms are not genetically constrained. In the right environment he claimed, wheat seed can produce rye; winter crops could be grown in the spring, and that similar crops do not compete against each other and therefore could be grown in clusters – “the transformation of nature” was what it was called. Moreover,  he claimed that evolution occurred by acquired characteristics being transmitted to future generations – despite the lack of evidence and the glut of evidence proving the contrary. It seems that both Lysenko and Stalin had the singular capacity to ignore facts that do not suit them – being blinded by the potential that this theory represented for the Soviet Union and for Soviet agriculture. Obviously impressed by this ideologically driven science, Stalin put Lysenko in charge of Soviet science, including the National Academy. Lysenko’s theories were adopted as the pivot of all natural sciences by the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in 1948. Those who disagreed with Lysenko’s theory were purged resulting in the cream of the Soviet scientific community, including the renowned geneticist Nikolay Ivanovich Vavilov (1887-1971), losing their jobs and, in some cases, being sent to the gulag or executed. More importantly however, it had disastrous consequences for Soviet science – where no genetics texts were published nor was it taught to students, for soviet agriculture – with huge crop failures, and for the soviet economy – some of these experiments, such as cluster planting wasted over a billion roubles.

Of course it could be argued, as it is by Robert Young, that Stalin’s position vis a vis Lysenko was not only driven by power and patronage – but by historical circumstance and a conjunction of ideological, political and material conditions. It could be argued, in Stalin’s defence, that it was an attempt to consolidate the October revolution in the scientific arena – as it was being consolidated militarily, culturally and politically (also accompanied by purges that saw heroes of the revolution such as Leon Trotsky sent into exile). These include the pressures to feed an enlarging proletariat, to generate a surplus to fund industrialization, to engender national pride and national soviet science as opposed to the hegemony of western or colonial science, and to present proletarian science as opposed to bourgeoisie science. Lysenko, whose origins lay in the peasantry, also assumed power because he was committed to the revolution and its ideology, unlike the bureaucrats, scientists and technocrats inherited from Tsarist times – who however skilled they were, did not necessarily subscribe to the communist ideal. They however had to be retained because, much to Lenin’s dislike, he had to compromise with these “bourgeois scientists” in order for the revolution to survive. Thus Soviet agriculture required an ideological leader – unswerving in his commitment to the ideology of the ruling party, whatever the consequences. These reasons however noble do not mitigate the catastrophe that ensued.

Karill Rossiyano presents evidence from archival material that Stalin served as Lysenko’s editor – editing his speeches and scientific manuscripts and indeed influenced Lysenko’s thinking on the debates between creationists, geneticists and those who believed in the notion of inheritance of acquired characteristics. Stalin’s behaviour in this realm was simply a reflection on the Soviet regime under him: hierarchical organization being the dominant feature. Stalin in a sense also moved from editing texts to attempting to edit nature itself. His failure is there for all to see.

Coming back to Mbeki – the parallels with Stalin speak for themselves without painfully reiterating them, except to beg the question: is he threading on ground where Stalin failed – both in his political style as well as his intervention in science? Is Manto Tshabalala-Msimang and her coterie of third rate scientists the new Lysenkos? The experiments of Stalin and Lysenko, but more importantly its results, should serve as a dire warning to us all, not least of all to Mbeki  himself. The salient lesson is that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat its failures.

Shuaib Manjra

December 2005

 

 

 

 

 

A FURTHER RESPONSE TO AZAD ESSA – WHOSE FOOLISHNESS KNOWS NO BOUNDS

To misquote Samuel Butler: the truest character of ignorance is arrogance. Paul Tripp in conflating both characteristics labels it ‘foolishness’ – which, he says, is ‘more than being stupid’. I am not going to attribute this to Azad Essa, because I don’t really want to get personal. But he would do well to heed the advice he so freely dispenses to Essa Hlongwane, and get himself a dictionary – where if he looked up the meaning of debate he would come up with something akin to a ‘formal discussion on a particular matter in a public forum in which opposing arguments are put forward. In other words it is a dialectical process where one’s ideas are challenged and where one has the opportunity to challenge the ideas of others. More importantly however, this dialectic of open debate allows the protagonists to sharpen their arguments, if not question their previously held assumptions. This method of argumentation is neither predictable nor controllable, where one is forced to defend his/her position through reasoned argumentation based on fundamental principles, historical antecedents, theory or praxis. It also forces discussants out of their comfort zone by forcing them into unknown territory. It is within this crucible where ideas are best tested – as it was by the Greeks and Indians since antiquity. Of course those who thrive in a sea of mediocrity lack the intelligence or confidence to defend their positions in such a forum, eschewing such opportunities lest their charlatanism be exposed. So it is that Essa’s defence in ducking out of a live radio debate with me, with this meek excuse, just does not cut it:

I accepted two invitations to discuss this matter (one for TV and one radio). Both were canceled at the last moment (once by me for work-related reasons and once by the radio station for running out of time i think)…

Since then I have written around 15 pieces (for Vox/and others) – so while fans of BDS-SA might want to talk about this issue till Kingdom (sic), the rest of us have moved on to more important things.

Essa’s allusion that his solo interviews count as robust debate is both untenable and laughable, even if one credits the interviewer as an intelligent proxy. Writing an article is also far from being a debate. Of course characterizing Essa’s writing as an ‘article’ would be a complement; it is more an assemblage of random, half-baked thoughts masquerading as critique. It would be far more appropriate to characterize it as a troll – lacking any meaningful engagement with the subject, but rather intended for shock and inflammatory value, or to elicit a reaction. In fact the response he refers to with such pride outdoes his original article in puerility.

These trolls allow Essa to hide behind his screeds and screens like a coward – sniping behind cover – allowing him to operate within his own comfort zone and attempting to control, direct and dominate the discourse – too scared to subject his ideas to public scrutiny. Most cowards hide behind a false mask of arrogance. But unlike us all who lead a lumpen existence, Essa has ‘moved on to more important things’ – just like a sniper who does the necessary damage and moves on to a new target. But unlike Essa we take our struggles for human rights seriously and don’t allow hacks to escape so easily. We expect the responsibility that comes with being a critic to publicly defend his/her criticism. At a minimum we expect the responsibility of journalism. How is this quote from the Essa Manual of Journalism:

If BDS-SA want to meet and help us understand their position, we are available to talk. They have a direct line to our staff and they have also been offered right of reply

I would imagine the responsibility of a writer is to ensure accuracy, fairness and an understanding or appreciation of alternate viewpoints, particular of those who are the subject of your writing – and to express them. This would entail getting the alternate viewpoint prior to publication. To put the onus on the subject, rather than the writer to present an accurate picture is a perversion of journalistic principles. But then I do not claim to be a journalist.

More importantly for me however is that Essa’s attack does not only target BDS-SA, but bears reference to other activists involved in other human rights work – who have had to fend off criticism not dissimilar to Essa’s. The labels of ‘career-activists’ and/or ‘middle-class activists’ have been attached to many of them by no less unsavory characters as Rhoda Kadalie. Essa find himself in good company.

Essa’s foolishness, it seems, knows no bounds as it manifests in this delusionary statement:

But knowing there were many questions: I then went on to write a response to the comments/criticism/questions…

As far as I am concerned, I have already addressed most of the points that Shuaib brought up in his piece – even before he brought them up – because they were issues raised by others already. So to have a debate now will only be an attempt to satiate the trolls – who are hardly interested in real debate – as evidenced above. It is not something I will amend my schedule for.

Essa of course is interested ‘in real debate’ and credits himself to answering most of my points even before I brought them up. This of course is a claim to superior intelligence. The truth is that my response to him was written precisely because his follow up troll was more inane and silly than his original piece. For the record he did not adequately address a single point that I had raised.

I have often wondered whether comedy and serious writing can mix; Essa is good at neither and even worse when he mixes them up. It is time to expose the emperor’s nudity as a public service based on that famous quote:

‘When you are dead, you do not know you are dead. It’s only painful and difficult for others. The same applies when you are stupid’.

In curtailing his other annoying characteristic he should remember that telling Arabic proverb: ‘arrogance is a weed that grows mostly on a dunghill’.

Shuaib Manjra

6 September 2015

Like a political virgin, Essa’s writing is not an oxymoron, just moronic

In a strange confluence, both the Daily Vox and Daily Maverick published Azad Essa’s ad hominem attack on BDS-SA. The Daily Vox had the integrity to publish my riposte. The Daily Maverick did not.

(http://www.thedailyvox.co.za/like-active-virgins-bds-sas-activism-is-an-oxymoron)________________________________________________________________________________

The lazy argument

Azad Essa’s attack on BDS (‘Like active virgins, BDS-SA’s activism is an oxymoron’)  reminds me of the observation of the late social and political commentator, Christopher Hitchens: “there are all kinds of stupid people that annoy me but what annoys me most is a lazy argument”. Comical or callow were the first choice words to describe Azad Essa’s piece. Of course, ‘critique’ would be a misnomer since that would entail a position carefully reflected, well-articulated and based on historical antecedents, if not theoretical prescripts. His attempt to look clever, claim a corner as a critical commentator or as a ‘pseudo-radical’ is overridden by his puerility, purposive ignorance or willful dishonesty. That the Daily Vox would afford such prominence to mediocrity is understandable as Essa is the executive editor of this online magazine. But why would the Daily Maverick do so?

False notions of middle-class activism and ‘career-activists’

In a sweeping condemnation of BDS-SA Essa musters all the trendy banalities he could – including ‘career-activism’ and ‘hackery’. Not only that, he also arrogates to himself a constituency when he pontificates: ‘But Desai and Co must know too that we aren’t fooled’. Granted, he may be using the royal plural. In a Freudian sense Essa projects his own middle-class guilt in condemning middle-class activism as some kind of guilt-balancing act, rather than seeing it for what it substantively is: a commitment by individuals against systemic oppression and promoting human rights and socio-economic transformation. He fetters such individuals by an historical accident wherefrom they inherit their class affiliation. As a simpleton he conflates class affiliation with class consciousness.

Essa is in deserved company amongst a range of liberals and reactionaries who have levelled such attacks against progressive activists using nebulous, but loaded terms such as ‘career activism’ or ‘professional activists’. The subtext characterizes such activists as being self-serving, seeking out causes to prolong their careers, using the subjects of their activism as cannon fodder,  and raising large amounts of money to sustain their activism or bloated salaries. Of course in the main, none of this is true.  In a world of career politicians, career marketing men and women, career lobbyists and even career journalists, why begrudge activists who get paid for what they do – albeit far less than what the market would determine, with financial instability a constant threat, and working under extremely difficult conditions. In confronting the behemoth of capitalism, political power, and its ideological and repressive apparatus, are poor communities supposed to engage these epic battles only with volunteers and amateurism? It is evident that new forms of power demand new forms of resistance. We should rather celebrate our activists who take on causes to advance the cause of the oppressed and marginalized together with many professionals who volunteer their time. Unlike career journalists, who write without responsibility or self-censor to protect their careers.

Essa works up a major sweat about BDS-SA coordinator, Muhammed Desai, exercising his option to a Virgin Active membership. For Essa that is too middle-class for a strugglista – who by Essa’s definition should only be exercising working class options. No bourgeois accouterments accepted (or is it excepted) in Essa’s world. No to temples of capitalism: Virgin Active, Cavendish Square, Sandton Mall, Gateway or even Truth Café. For him it’s probably spaza shops and township culture which pass as working-class proclivities. Many of the most radical and principled activists find no contradiction in visiting such places, unlike the ascetic Essa who harbours juvenile conceptions of progressive politics. In a wonderful essay titled Gramsci and Us, published in Marxism Today in 1987, Stuart Hall characterizes this dilemma in the light of Thatcherism, but whose relevance is evident simply by transposing ‘Capitalism’ for ‘Thatcherism’:

It really is puzzling to say, in any simple way, whom Thatcherism represents. Here is the perplexing phenomenon of a petty-bourgeois ideology which ‘represents’, and is helping to reconstruct, both national and international capital. In the course of ‘representing’ corporate capital, however, it wins the consent of very substantial sections of the subordinate and dominated classes. What is the nature of this ideology which can inscribe such a vast range of different positions and interests in it, and which seems to represent a little bit of everybody — including most of the readers of this essay! For, make no mistake, a tiny bit of all of us is also somewhere inside the Thatcherite project. Of course, we’re all one hundred per cent committed. But every now and then — Saturday mornings, perhaps, just before the demonstration — we go to Sainsbury’s and we’re just a tiny bit of a Thatcherite subject.

The Daily Vox executive editor’s gripe with middle-class activists and activism is not a new phenomenon. Historically those who consider themselves ‘true revolutionaries’ have suffered such ‘infantile disorders’, described as such by none other than that other middle-class activist Vladimir Lenin, who was inspired by another middle-class theoretician, Karl Marx. Part of Lenin’s critique was targeted against those who criticized collaboration with those who they considered to be to their political right, or participation in what they termed bourgeois institutions such as parliament (where ironically workers were in some case voting for right wing parties). The point is that only those not involved in struggle engage in such irrelevant semantics or as that other famous middle-class revolutionary, Leon Trotsky characterized it: ‘‘These creatures are very much inclined to spout ultra-radical phrases beneath which is concealed a wretched and contemptible fatalism’.

An approach to political struggle

Commitment to real change, as demonstrated by a myriad of local activists, requires a broad progressive vision; defining the aims and objectives of political struggle in the attainment of that vision, working out a clear plan for the most effective strategy and tactics, forming broad coalitions with a range of constituencies to advance this struggle, and recruiting activists who have a certain consciousness, commitment and ability to collaborate within a collective. Of course some of these are developed within the crucible of struggle. The class extraction of individuals is meaningless – as conscious and committed activists hailing from middle-classes have led and participated in many, if not most progressive revolutions in the world. On the other hand there is no higher virtue to simply being working class – which has produced its own fair share of reactionaries or who are too engaged in multiple jobs eking out an existence to participate in any of these campaigns. Of course many conscious working class activists have been, and continue to be inspiring leaders. Essa seems to be trapped in an archaic paradigm, confusing class and consciousness, and I recommend he reads Goran Therborn’s insightful exploration of the changing dynamic of class and class struggles in Class in the 21st Century, published in the New Left Review (2012), that old leftist rag.

Political and human rights struggles are a struggle for hegemony – challenging the narrative, the assumptions, and importantly the power that is both concentrated and diffused throughout society –and I daresay throughout the world. The site of this struggle is manifold and multi-levelled, depending on objective conditions –and may include Virgin Active or Woolworths. To assume that there is a one trick pony is a false analysis about the nature of power and consequently the nature of resistance. Anyone engaged in political struggle would understand that it is not a linear process that takes you from one point to the next, without deviations, contradictory impulses, strategic and tactical blunders, successes and failures, and incidents of indiscipline among your ranks. These are part of the dialectic of struggle. But only those disengaged from the dynamics of struggles would remain untainted and can preach any sense of puritanism or self-righteousness. In fact some use their self-righteousness to disengage from the very struggles they pay lip service to. This is pithily expressed by, ironically a bourgeois President, Theodore Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Politics after all is the art of the possible. In deciding tactics struggles are always going to be selective based on practical considerations, the ability to mobilize people, the odds of victory and the impact factor. Universal struggles begin with selective and local struggles. No movement can take on countless struggles without diluting its focus and effectiveness. Unarguably, any struggle must ensure popular participation and participatory democracy.

Moving on from his obsession with class, Essa then inveighs about the limitations of this middle-class agenda with a sweeping statement: “why is an understanding of systemic oppression and a true commitment to political change so limited in middle-class activist circles’.  The question says more about the groups within which Essa fraternizes then about actual activists committed to such struggles. The activists that I have encountered combine political clarity, a superb strategic sense and an amazing sense of commitment, combined with an empowering ethic. Let me provide a simple example: in the quest for safety, security, sanitation, housing and basic services for people living in Khayelitsha, would the cause be advanced any better if we stand on our soap boxes and condemn capitalism and call for a socialist society? Or would advancing the peoples’ cause be better realized by utilizing the instruments available to ensure democratic participation in budgeting processes, for example, and using legal instruments, popular mobilization and local empowerment to achieve a better quality of life for all citizens and holding the government to account on its constitutional obligations. That does not mean that we discount the fact that both capitalism and apartheid have given rise to this skewed social and spatial geography, and the reproduction of poverty. These platforms are used to build social movements which will elevate, enhance and upscale our struggle based on organic leadership.

So on what basis does Essa assume that BDS-SA lacks a commitment to ending systemic oppression? On the contrary BDS-SA is one among a few pro-Palestinian advocacy groups, that does not have a membership, but draws its activists from a range of progressive organizations who are committed to local and international struggles and in transforming society.  BDS-SA works in alliance with a number of progressive forces including trade unions, political organizations, progressive churches, and civil society groupings including COSATU, the ANCYL, YCL and COSAS. While we may not agree with the current state of these organizations we cannot discount their organic and progressive roots.

Boycotts, targets and victories

Essa’s third gripe concerns the merits of boycotting Woolworths. Of course this is a vexed issue. However it is a democratic decision arrived at by a broad coalition of Palestinian solidarity organizations after much discussion and debate. The decision is not a random one but one based on an underlying logic, which Essa may be ignorant of. One can certainly question its merits, but it behooves activists and other constituents to advance leadership decisions.  Without that any struggle will lack focus, coherence, leadership and impact; it will become a free for all and defeat the campaign and dent the broader struggle. That is not to suggest in any way that any strategy or tactic is not open to critique and discussion, provided they are done within the appropriate avenues honestly and engagingly – not sniping in a conceited, churlish and condescending way.

Woolworths may well have been an easy target compared to other large retailers. However a focused campaign cannot overwhelm itself by taking on too many targets at the same time. Paradoxically the very reasons Essa cites Woolworths as not being an ideal target, actually makes it one. The reputational damage and disruption that Woolworths faced for procuring such a small part of their merchandise from Israel makes one think whether it was worth their while stocking such products. It tests the credibility of such companies who are wont to project an image of fair-trade, ethical practice and respect for human rights. Woolworths failed that test. Woolworths are obviously in a Gordian Knot: giving in to one constituency would only encourage others, they would argue in their boardrooms; and placating the pro-Palestinian constituency would alienate a large section of their affluent Zionist customer and shareholder base.

However, by simply focusing one issue Essa misses the bigger picture. In political struggle victory is not defined simply by immediately achieving the set objective; in fact in some cases it is anticipated that victory would not be immediate, with preparation for a war of attrition. Boycotts against companies doing business with the Apartheid state in South Africa took decades to be effective. Admittedly the objective of the current campaign is to use these non-violent initiatives to pressure Woolworths to stop supporting Israeli companies and those who benefit from the Occupation in order to weaken the Israeli economy and strip it of any moral veneer. The corollary to this is to support and strengthen local companies and create more jobs in the local economy. This boycott of Israeli produce would hopefully create the necessary pressure to force the recalcitrant Zionist State to the negotiating table and ensure justice, restitution and human rights to Palestinians. However there are other constant and significant victories along the way, which cannot be ignored. Some of these include the fact that this campaign has caught the public imagination and has created a specific narrative that has gone far beyond traditional constituencies. BDS has embedded itself significantly in the South African lexicon and in people’s conscience. Secondly it created a consciousness amongst many where none previously existed. Furthermore it serves as a passive mode of activism for many who lack the appetite for more vigorous activity. It mobilized a new cadre of activists who have played an important part in building the movement. BDS tested its ability to launch, motivate and sustain this campaign- which was one of their first. The role of social media in this campaign gripped the public imagination – particularly the Pharell-Williams spoofs. Importantly, The campaign created a consciousness regarding ethical shopping among communities; and last but certainly not least it changed shopping patterns among middle-class households, who sought out alternate sources of product, and in many cases procured them from smaller shops, hawkers, and street traders – doing exactly what Essa seems to encourage. I speak from personal experience. Furthermore, the action against Woolworths would force circumspection among other companies supporting Israel. Another significant victory cannot be ignored: Woolworths has unequivocally stated that they do not procure products from the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This in itself is a profound commitment.

In one of those statements that at first glance sound profound, but on closer inspection is pure nonsense, Essa claims that the Woolworths boycott is ‘exclusionary by nature because it has no chance of becoming universal’. Boycotting any specific store or product is going to be exclusionary; in fact boycotting Israeli products (Ahava or Soda Stream for example) is exclusionary since few can afford to purchase them. If you shop at store A or use product B, then boycotting them would be exclusionary to those who stop at store X and use product Y. Universality is achieved by creating a consciousness towards ethical shopping and fair-trade including boycotting all Israeli products and institutions. Of course one cannot argue against the need for creating a popular and grassroots momentum for the campaign.

Ironically Essa’s paper, the Daily Vox is exclusionary by its nature because of its language and content and is only accessible to middle-classes with internet access. But that should not detract from its importance as an alternative voice.  In another contradictory impulse, while decrying the BDS boycott of Woolworths, Essa suggests action against Cape Union Mart (CUM) and G4S. CUM of course is a far more niche store than Woolworths and G4S generally protects the wealthy and their corporate assets: would boycotting them not also be exclusionary? Perhaps he is ignorant of the fact that BDS-SA has already issued a statement on the CUM issue indicating that they are evaluating the principles regarding a boycott, and has long and successfully campaigned against G4S, including pressuring government institutions to exclude them from tenders. This does not stop anyone from boycotting any entity or institution as a matter of principle, or for advocating and mobilizing around such a boycott. BDS-SA certainly does not have a monopoly on this form of protest action.

Universal principles and justice

I agree entirely with Camalita Naicker, whom Essa quotes at length, when she says that solidarity with Palestinians “must be rooted in the principles of equality, justice and freedom ….in non-racialism, and in solidarity with all people especially people who face oppression every day”. These principles are essential if our politics is to be driven by ideas, ideology and idealism – not by the politics of partisanship and parochial identity. But her sweeping statement that BDS-SA does not conform to those principles is simply unsustainable, even if Essa chooses to quote her as an authoritative voice. Furthermore the canard of anti-Semitism that detractors seems to attach to BDS, by both its adversaries and its critics is disconcerting. I believe that there is no evidence of any embedded anti-Semitism within BDS-SA despite condemnable actions by individuals hailing from other fraternal organizations (the ANCYL and COSAS)  in putting a pigs head in the food section at Woolworths (in the Halaal section, by the way) or using the slogan ‘dubula i juda’ at Wits. These actions should be unequivocally condemned as being in bad taste and insulting to Jews and others – but I need to be convinced that they are reflective of a broad anti-Semitism – no less than the  slogan ‘shoot the boer’ is reflective of widespread racism within the ANCYL. Others, including comrades, have argued otherwise and I am respectful of their positions.

Another wanton red-herring thrown at Palestinian solidarity is ‘what-about-ery’: what about this struggle, why don’t you take on this struggle, or issue a statement on this. No other struggle has had to endure as much ‘what-about-ery’ as the Palestinian one – simply because it is a convenient distraction. Why can’t we simply engage the Palestinian struggle on its own merits as one of self-determination of a people and the enforcement of their national rights?

Conclusion

There is much more in Essa’s piece that is either patently erroneous or simply irksome, but without getting personal I will conclude with the telling words, ironically of another revolutionary Marx – Groucho – who said: “He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.” That fits in perfectly with Christopher Hitchens abhorrence of the ‘lazy argument’.

SHUAIB MANJRA

Published in The Daily Vox on 31 August 2015