Friday, 23 November 2012

The voice of the academic left? Not in my name.


This open letter, condemning ‘the Israeli assault on the defenceless people of the Gaza strip', angered and saddened me so much that it has finally lured me out of my extended blogging hibernation. The letter, sent to the Irish Left Review but no doubt also published in other earnest left-wing journals, is signed by no fewer than 136 academics. Some of them are the usual suspects – the far-left anti-Zionist Ilan Pappe, the Hamas spokesman and suicide bombing apologist Azzam Tamimi – but among the others are one or two people I vaguely know, others whose academic work I admire, and at least one (Judith Butler) whose writing I used to like but whose na├»ve interventions on this particular issue have caused me to re-evaluate everything she’s written.

The letter made me angry because I believe it is wrong on almost every level: every sentence is stuffed with lies and half-truths. And it made me sad because this collection of intellectual worthies seemed to be presenting themselves as the combined voice of the ‘academic left’. I'm an academic – have been for the better part of a quarter of a century. I am also of ‘the Left’, a paid-up Labour member who has never voted for any other party (unless you count a tactical vote for the Liberals in a Tory safe seat thirty years ago), whose political thinking has been shaped by the likes of Ruskin, Morris, Raymond Williams, E P Thompson, plus a smattering of early Marx, feminism and anti-racism. And yet when I read this, the supposed collective voice of the ‘academic left’, I feel nothing but alienation and revulsion, and want to cry out: ‘Not in my name!’

The letter is short, so a line-by-line fisking is in order. Here’s the first sentence:

We the undersigned watch with horror yet another ruthless and criminal Israeli assault on the defenceless people of the Gaza Strip.

You would never know from this that Israel’s ‘assault’ came after a week in which hundreds of rockets were launched indiscriminately from Gaza towards residential areas in Israel. Surely, if anything was ‘ruthless’ or ‘criminal’, it was this series of unprovoked terrorist attacks on innocent civilians. This lack of informing context is, to say the least, surprising from a list comprising so many expert social scientists. And in what way was Israel’s response, carefully targeting terrorist leaders, arms dumps, communication centres, and going out of its way to avoid civilian casualties, ‘criminal’: do states not have a right to protect their people against terrorist attack? ‘Ruthless’ and ‘criminal’ might better describe Hamas’ strategy of siting their military hardware among civilians, using their own people cruelly and cynically as human shields. And ‘defenceless’? What about all that firepower aimed at Israel in the past few weeks, including sophisticated weaponry supplied by Hamas’ paymasters in Tehran? 

Moving on:

The assassination of the Hamas’ military commander, Ahmad al-Jabari, by Israel was intended to disrupt any chance for a permanent cease fire between the two sides and caused the current cycle of violence.

This is quite breathtaking. Remember: before Israel targeted al-Jabiri, there was no two-sided conflict requiring a 'ceasefire', just a one-sided campaign by Hamas and its proxies. It was this series of attacks that ‘caused’ the current cycle of violence: Israel’s careful targeting of one of its masterminds was an attempt to end the violence. Again, it’s astonishing to find academics who spend their professional lives analysing causation wilfully misreading the obvious chain of cause and effect here.

For the last five years al-Jabari had been responsible for limiting rocket attacks on Israel.

Far leftists are often unfairly accused of being implicit apologists for terror – but this is a quite brazen apologia for a known terrorist. As Carlos Tomatis (to whom I'm indebted for the original link to this letter) commented on Facebook: ‘These fine people think that it's okay to attempt to murder random Jews as long as you don't do it too often.’ It’s striking that the signatories to this letter go out of their way to ‘understand’ a jihadist commander like al-Jabiri, but refuse to extend any such understanding to his victims, or to those who seek to curtail his terrorist activities.

The inaction of the Western governments is further proof of their indifference to their electorates’ wish to stop Israel from perpetrating yet another massacre against the Palestinian people.

Again, ‘massacre’ hardly seems the appropriate word for carefully targeted attacks against terrorist infrastructure – and what do they mean by the other 'massacres' implied here? Have these supposedly thoughtful and critical academics bought into the myths of one side? And what ‘action’, exactly, do these signatories want western governments to take? Do they want to stop Israel making any response to Hamas’ provocation - and if so, why?

We call upon our governments, which have stood aloof and indifferent, in the face of Palestine’s  dispossession and colonization since 1948 to take immediate and effective action. No other people in the world has been subjected, for more than sixty years, to such relentless acts of collective punishment and military brutality as have the Palestinian people.

‘Dispossession and colonization’ – these are not the words of people seeking a two-state solution, one in which Israelis and Palestinians live peacefully side-by-side in two legitimate nations. No, this is precisely the language of rejectionists who deny the legitimacy of the Jewish state, who seek to deny the Jewish people, alone in the world, a right to a homeland of their own. This is also the boilerplate rhetoric of the anti-imperialist far left, which seeks lazily to impose a false template, transferred from very different conflicts, on the complexities of the Middle East.

As for the second sentence in this paragraph, it’s a downright, ugly lie. Even if Israel’s admittedly imperfect treatment of the Palestinians could be accurately described using terms such as 'collective punishment' and military brutality' (terms with, one suspects, deliberate and offensive overtones of Nazism and fascism - and by the way, did you see the actual collective punishment meted out by Hamas to suspected collaborators this week? - there's real fascism for you) - how can any sensible person say this is worse than (say) the treatment of the Kurds and Marsh Arabs by Saddam, or the Tibetans by the Chinese, or the East Timorese by the Indonesians? The list could go on indefinitely, and the more examples are adduced, the more absurd and offensive this letter's claim becomes. To accept that Israel's treatment of Palestinians could be compared to these brutal, genocidal campaigns would be to acknowledge that words have lost their meaning - again, surprising for a group of academics whose writings are often concerned with the precise nuances of language.

We call for the removal of the blockade on the Gaza Strip, the free movement of people and goods in and out of the region and a total cessation of lethal attack from the air, land and sea, against a helpless civilian population in one of the most densely-populated areas in the world.

At last, you may think, an end to the rhetorical windbaggery, and something like a measured call for practical action. After all, even 'moderate' voices like Tony Blair have called for a removal of border restrictions between Israel and Gaza. But those voices also recognise, as this letter quite fails to do, the reason for those restrictions: the fact that, as events even this past week have shown, there are some who would abuse an open border to launch yet more terror attacks on Israel. And as for the sea blockade, surely the news this week of a secret Iranian shipment of weapons to Gaza has demonstrated that Israel is absolutely right to maintain this, for as long as Hamas and its backers in Tehran explicitly seek to destroy the state of Israel and call for genocide against the Jewish people. 

The world cannot stand by when Palestine is once more battered to death.

Sorry for resorting to linguistic trivia, but that just isn't English: you can’t be battered to death more than once, any more than you can commit suicide twice. More seriously, it prompts the question: why did 'the world', including this esteemed collection of academics, 'stand by' a couple of weeks ago when Israel was literally being 'battered' by repeated rocket attacks out of Gaza? Where were the letters to the press then? The almost complete silence from the great and the good following that outbreak of violence, when taken together with this letter's complete disavowal of Hamas' role in the 'cycle of violence', not to mention the bloated and offensive rhetoric, might lead some people to wonder about the motivation of the letter writers. How would these academics, many of them skilled in textual analysis, respond themselves to this kind of text in other circumstances - a text so replete with absences and silences, and one which focuses its whole attention on the actions of one party in a conflict to the exclusion of all others? 

By the way, I read that more than 400 Arabs of Palestinian origin have been killed in the civil war in Syria: maybe I haven't been paying attention, but I don't recall seeing any letters to the left-wing press protesting this particular massacre of Palestinians. One might wonder what it is about Israel that, alone of all the nations in the world, spurs such a hasty and vehement response from the combined academic 'left'. Some of those who signed this letter are acknowledged experts in the analysis of racism: I wonder what they would call it, if they came across another text in which one nation, one people, was singled out for such opprobrium, to the exclusion of all others, in defiance of all sense of balance and reason, and in such ugly and contemptuous terms?