When I do a post for Comment is Free, I like to do a round-up here of pertinent and impertinent comments that appear below it. My piece on Gunter Grass pulled in 298 comments, which is a record for me, but sadly nothing to do with my prose. They are the predictable result of writing anything about Israel – partisans of both sides come out in force. One comment, from fellow Comment is Free contributor David Wearing of the New Left Project, stood out:
The equivalence drawn here with the Habima theatre situation is entirely spurious. The Habima theatre has performed to illegal colonists in the West Bank. Those colonies are maintained through a system of brutal repression (including the denial of many democratic rights, such as free expression) of the indigenous population. Individuals and institutions are 100% entitled, as a matter of conscience, to choose not to work with Habima for that reason, and to encourage others to take a similar position. There is no question of censorship. To decline to associate with someone on moral grounds is a democratic choice. No one has suggested that Jews or Hebrew speakers should be excluded blanket-fashion. The insinuation that this is what the proposed cancellation of Habima amounts to is an outrageous slur. Would anyone object to a performance by a Hebrew speaking theatre group made up of people who had never and would never perform in the illegal colonies? Everyone knows the answer to that. Everyone knows that those calling for Habima to be cancelled would welcome such an alternative performance with absolute delight.
So there is no comparison here to the Grass case, where a state (the one which criminally maintains the colonies mentioned above) has declared an individual persona non grata because he has expressed an opinion that the state disapproves of. That is dictionary-definition undemocratic behaviour.
I think that’s true, and my piece should have taken more care not to draw direct equivalence. I was merely trying to make the point that it should be left to individuals as to whether to engage with any piece of art. User silverchain took issue with Wearing, pointing out that plenty of other languages in the Shakespeare festival are represented by countries such as China and Turkey who also abuse human rights. Continue reading “Comments on Comment is Free: Gunter Grass”
Another piece on Günter Grass and his poem, this time for Comment is Free. On Sunday, the controversy surrounding Günter Grass’s poem Was Gesagt Werden Muss (What Must Be Said) escalated, with Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai confirming Grass was now considered a persona non grata in Israel, which amounts to a travel ban. This is a form of state censorship against an author, purely because of what he has written, which is wrong and an infringement on free speech. Censorship might be legitimate when a writer incites violence or war, but Grass’s poem does neither. His transgression is to write something that many people find offensive and (given his history, as a conscript in the Waffen-SS) deeply insensitive. However, this is no reason for censorship: freedom of expression is meaningless without the right to offend. This is true not just for criticism of Israeli foreign policy, but the criticism and satirisation of other states, religions and individuals too. This is why we in English PEN oppose defamation and blasphemy laws all over the world and have also argued against laws banning Holocaust denial. On this we agree with the philosopher Pierre Vidal-Naquet (whose parents both died in the Holocaust) who said that “confronting a paper Eichmann, one should respond with paper” and Indian Muslim scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, who says that one must “counter a book with a book; a statement with a statement.” If Grass has written a polemical poem, the Israeli literary community should respond with poetry of their own, parodying and picking apart Grass’s offering. Literary dialogue, as opposed to diatribes by official spokespeople, is a far superior way to discuss these thorny issues. In 2009, the US-based Theatre J responded creatively to what they saw as unfair criticism in Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children by commissioning counter-plays. The result was more art, and a genuine attempt to discover some common ground. Individuals, not states, should be free to make up their own minds, and this principle applies to boycotts in the UK, too. Recently, a group of prominent British artists demanded that the Globe Theatre cancel the performance of The Merchant of Venice by Habima Theatre, the national theatre of Israel. The troupe has performed in the West Bank settlements, which are illegal under international law, and therefore, say the signatories, it is disqualified from performing in the UK. While these are legitimate concerns, the result of this would only be to remove the moral choice from theatre-goers, many of whom are understandably excited about seeing a play notorious for its antisemitic characterisations interpreted by a Jewish group. Moreover, the play has been programmed as part of an international celebration of language and Shakespeare, and excluding the Hebrew language would be odd. The issue is nuanced and complex and it is unlikely that either a large arts institution, or a cabal of actors and directors, will get the answer just right. Far better that the choice on whether to boycott is made by the individual audience members. For those who disagree with the performance, there are other ways to express displeasure. Peaceful protests can and should be staged outside the Globe, and new plays can be written in response. Grass may even choose to write another poem, giving us his thoughts. The dialogue will continue afresh. Free speech means no one ever gets the last word.
Back in the ‘Six, the author Jostein Gaarder caused a bit of a storm with a ranting criticism of Israel that bordered on the anti-Semitic. At the time, I wrote a brace of posts trying to tease out what might the legitimate parts of his argument, from those in which he confused Israel with Jewishness and slipped into a lazy racism. In particular, I wrote about how Israel might be termed an ‘apartheid’ state, an idea which attracted some no small criticism in the comments. Katy Newton led the charge; here’s a flavour:
Robert, you disappoint me. … This is just another example of the typical overstatement that characterises current criticism of Israel. The comparisons with South Africa are not apt here at all. … There is undoubtedly racism and prejudice directed at Israeli-born Arabs but to say that the position of Israeli Arabs is the same as the position of black South Africans under apartheid rule is utter, utter arse. … My patience and goodwill are sorely tried when Jostein Gaardner publishes that sort of “apartheid state” claptrap and when intelligent men like you promote and support it.
After that I conceded that it was a divisive and not entirely analogous term that it was best not to use… and subsequently risked the ire of those on the other side of the debate who thought I was being too timid, too much of a weather vane. It was a good example of a robust online debate that still remained relatively civil (back in my heyday of blogging, when I still had time to argue with all-comers, and before my readership was decimated by a period of downtime). But the legacy was ultimately that I became much more equivocal on all matters Israeli, and much less inclined to use words like ‘apartheid’ in that context. Yet recently, in relatively quick succession, I have happened across three instances of that usage with regards to the Israel-Palestine problem. Its worth bookmarking them here, and perhaps revisiting the argument I had with Katy et al, nearly four years ago. First, I noted back in February that Ehud Barak, former Israeli Prime Minister, no less, broke the “apartheid barrier” in a speech to the Herzliya Conference:
If, and as long as between the Jordan and the sea, there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or non-democratic… If the Palestinians vote in elections, it is a binational state, and if they don’t, it is an apartheid state.
Its important to note that this is a slightly different concept to that discussed earlier on this blog. What K-Newt took issue with was my characterisation of the current state of Israel as practising apartheid within its internationally recognised borders (i.e. not the West Bank, Gaza, Golan &ct):
But Israeli Arabs have a vote, they stand for government – as a result of which there are Arab political parties in the Knesset; they are able to apply for the same jobs as Jewish Israelis, they teach at the universities, some choose to serve in the army, they own property, they are not forced to live in certain areas – they have the same civil rights as Jewish Israelis.
Quite right. There is clearly a chasm of difference in the political rights experienced by Arab Israelis, and the Palestinians of the West Bank/Gaza. If you understand Israel to be a country which excludes these territories, then the country is nothing like apartheid. There may be racism and prejudice, and organisations like Adalah would say that there are institutional biases against the Arab population… but at least everyone has a vote, which is a world away from the arrangements in pre-1994 South Africa. On the other hand, Ehud Barak’s comments refer to the idea of a ‘Greater Israel’ which includes the West Bank and Gaza. He is trying to debunk the idea that a comprehensive Med-to-Jordan state (still the goal of many hard-line Zionists) could be a feasible Jewish state. More recently, John J. Mearsheimer expanded on this idea at a conference with an altogether different ideological starting point, the Hisham B. Sharabi Memorial Lecture (Sharabi was an academic, pro-Paletinian activist and anti-Zionist, while Herzliya was the ideological father of political Zionism). He says that a single state solution is not politically practical, and that there is no political will for establishing a viable two-state solution. The current state of limbo will remain. Unfortunately, this liminal situation denies the Palestinians a share in the political sovereignty over those who wield power over them. The reality is, that their economy, their energy supply, their food supply and their security are all controlled by a government and a parliament for whom they cannot vote. Such power (says Mearsheimer) will never be properly transferred to anyone for whom they can vote. They are destined to be serfs. If we are being honest and practical, words like ‘nation’, ‘state’, ‘country’ or even ‘Authority’ do not describe the West Bank and Gaza. Instead, we are left grappling for words like ‘ghetto’, ‘enclave’ (charitable) or even ‘Bantustan’ to convey the political and social situation of the people that live in these places. Many people claim that the Palestinians brought this on themselves, because they rejected opportunities offered by previous Israeli Prime Ministers in the 1990s, or because they elected the murderous and racist Hamas faction to power. I think such a stance is enormously unsympathetic to ordinary Palestinian people. But even if it were fair; and even if one refused to use the word ‘occupation’ to describe the current reality of the West Bank; one cannot deny that the Israeli government still wields incredible, disproportionate power over these territories. However the decision was made, this is the outcome. And if this power relationship is not counter-balanced with a Knesset vote, then one has a huge civil rights failure in the space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. And if that civil rights failure is based upon ethnicity (which it is, because Israeli settlers in the West Bank retain their vote), then we are nearing ‘apartheid’. Since some Arab Israelis, living in places like Haifa or Tel Aviv, may retain the vote, then perhaps formal use of the term can be staved off for a while. But the longer the situation continues, the more this label will stick. The fact that people like Ehud Barak have used it (whatever the context) is a tacit admission that the term is legitimate and acceptable. Finally, and perhaps most shockingly, there is the claim that Israel became a key ally of Apartheid South Africa in the 1970s. Max Blumenthal reviewsThe Unspoken Alliance by Sasha Polakow-Suransky, calling it “the most authoritative account to date of Israel’s scandalous dealings with the apartheid regime of South Africa”. Embattled and isolated following the 1973 war, Israel entered into a security pact with South Africa, supplying $200m worth of weapons to its new ally. I don’t think this proves that all along Israeli politicians have been plotting to bring about apartheid in Israel too, but it is a unfortunate, uncomfortable and shameful chapter in Israeli history that lends even more rhetorical weight to the apartheid charge. The tragedy of all this is that Israel as a single secular nation would not be at all bad. The ancient cities would look infinitely more beautiful without the concrete walls snaking through the streets. Tourism would flourish, and Jerusalem could become a cosmopolitan centre that could compete with London or New York. A single state would be a place where the Palestinians were treated as native citizens and not as aliens to be corralled and managed. The hatred and anger they currently show towards the world would dissipate. As we saw in South Africa, there was no widespread massacre of the whites, no settling of scores… and now they’re hosting the World Cup.
My theory was that this was an observational fallacy. We are acutely aware of the depth of our own culture, and also changes and threats to it. Conversely, we fail to percieve nuance and change in other cultures. I was reminded of this mentality just now, when I read a True/Slantarticle on percieved bias in Israel/Palestine coverage. Pro-Israeli and Pro-Arab groups were shown a news report and asked to comment on its bias:
The point is that these groups watched the same news and came to opposite conclusions as to which way it was biased. And each side thought it was biased against their side.
In commenting on my previous post, Conceptual Reality felt that I was debasing the suffering of the Palestinians by describing Israel’s attacks as “lacking imagination”. Its worth making some more notes on this. First, the kind of thinking I am lamenting is nowhere more starkly illustrated, than in yesterday’s Timeseditorial, ‘In Defense of Israel’, where the paper notes that
70 such rockets were launched from Gaza into Israel in December. This was the criminal act that triggered the current crisis
as if the one and only possible response to these atrocities was a military onslaught that the same article labels a “vision of hell”. “Meet fire with fire” is the council. “An Eye for an Eye” is the creed. “Visit each atrocity back on them, ten-fold” seems to be the doctrine. When I lament a lack of imagination, I think its just another way of yearning for some new thinking, an alternative route out of the mire. It seems to me – it has always seemed to me – that there is a virtue in counter-intuitive thinking. That is, doing the opposite of what is expected of you, the opposite of what your gut demands. Maybe even the opposite of what the electorate expects. There is actually great power in turning the other cheek: Just look at Ghandi, who foiled an Empire. Look at Desmond Tutu who averted a blood-feud that could have lasted for generations. Look at Christ! Consider the messy world of Realpolitik: I hate to segue straight from Jesus to Barack Obama, but the manner in which the President-Elect turned his foes attacks against them is worth noting. While all manner of political mud was thrown at him, he ignored each attack. He conspicuously declined to retaliate. In doing so, his opponents were illuminated as the dirty players. Their poor style of leadership, and their lack of solutions, were also thrown into sharp relief. They were portrayed as leading America into a dead-end. Politics in Gaza is more deadly, but has some similarities. The Venn diagramme of possible solutions depends on the opinions of the people, and with imagination, patience and leadership, these can be shifted. But it requires stepping outside the cycle of violence. Whoever achieves this will be a great man or woman. We don’t yet know who they will be, or which country they will be from. Returning to this idea of counter-intuitive solutions: I think perversity is a virtue here. It seems to be important elsewhere in political philosophy. Votaire/Tallentyre’s famous adage that
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it
has a certain perverse quality to it – the words of someone who is willfully and stubbornly putting principle before gut-feeling and common sense. Yet it underpins the principle of freedom of speech. It seems equally perverse for us to be defending the human rights of murderers, terrorists and genocidal maniacs, yet in doing so, we uphold and strengthen those rights for everyone. Transcending the common urge for revenge, the urge to follow the “natural law”, is what makes us better and civilised. But this transcendence requires a leap of the collective imagination. No-one in a position of power is showing any inclination to make that leap at present. How to do so? I note that for the three beacons I mentioned earlier (Ghandi, Tutu, Christ), religion is a common thread…