Monday, December 03, 2012

Losing the plot

Why does the Israel/Palestine conflict send everybody gaga? No other conflict generates quite as much sound and fury. The only thing to rival it for the sheer volume of posts is cats. I get lots of those too. The recent violence in Gaza resulted in my social media and news feeds being overwhelmed by more and more guff supporting one side or the other. Much of it was dismal. At the time of the last major action in Gaza, I wrote a post about the general fallacies to be found in commentaries on the crisis. Everything that I said then could have been repeated ten times over for the latest events - especially about misleading analogies.  Please don't put pictures of Hitler or swastikas on everything. It isn't clever and it isn't funny, just wrong.

This time round there was more. The first thing to say is that I wouldn't criticise comments from those who were actually involved in the events. If you are sitting under a projectile stuffed with high explosives, you have every good reason for hysteria and a very particular perspective. It is the cheerleaders standing on the sidelines that bother me. Both sides have them and they are destructive.

These are the three common fallacies that stood out:

1. The discussion of motives.  Never accept the ostensible reason for something when you can dream up another one. There are two types of fabrication, the Machiavellian and the atavistic.

The Machiavellis have a stock way of arguing. You know the sort of thing: "what this is really about is ..."  Now fill in the blanks to suit your particular outlook: elections, hegemony, revenge, land grabs, internal politics, etc, etc, and that is before we get to all the conspiracy stuff. Most of it is guesswork informed by prejudice. Unless you are knowledgeable, please stop it.

Atavistic commentators tend to attribute motives to the inherent and decidedly unpleasant characteristics of the side that they oppose. I got tired of seeing all Palestinians being conflated with Hamas, as if every Arab was a thuggish, far-right theocrat. But that was as nothing to the anti-Semitism. Sometimes it was chillingly overt, but much of the time it was unconscious. Yet unconscious anti-Semitism is not innocuous, far from it. By absorbing common anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes people can produce a casual, unaware racism that can be pervasive and more dangerous than the ravings of a drooling bigot. So before you are tempted to comment anywhere, please read this excellent guide as to how to avoid it. Steve Bell could certainly have done with it.

Atavism is another way of expressing that reprehensible slogan, much beloved by terrorists through the ages, that "there are no innocents."

2. Moral agency. Most of the cheerleaders spent their time arguing for the innocence of their particular side, denying any responsibilities for their actions. "What choice did we have?" "We have a right to resist/respond." This is a way of dodging the real argument, which is not about whether, but how. The whole discussion should have been about the choice of options facing each protagonist. Once they have chosen a particular route then they know that there are consequences to that choice. That isn't to say that any specific choice may be wrong, merely that the responsibility for that choice and its consequences rests with the people who chose to follow that path.

3. Paranoia. I hate to think of the number of times I saw posts about incidents saying things like, "the mainstream media are not reporting any of this" at the same time as it was plastered all over the headlines and being shown as the main item on TV news. Another popular formula, usually accompanied by a YouTube clip, goes something like, "what they don't teach you in school." Sometimes they are right. They don't teach you that in schools because it is complete and absolute bollocks. I am rather in favour of that as a general educational policy. Sometimes though, they do teach it in schools, but they also include the awkward bits the clip missed out that gives the whole thing a different meaning.

The main way this pathology was expressed was through the constant accusations of media bias, particularly against the BBC - from both sides. There are two points to make here. Some reports were slanted and some downright poor. However, the problem lay with those individual reports, not necessarily with the output as a whole. People were inclined to cherry-pick the items that annoyed them and then use them to say that this 'proves' that the media are institutionally biased against one side or the other. They didn't tend to realise that to show bias of that nature, you have to establish a clear pattern or a consistent preponderance of one type of argument over another. That might be easy enough where the Guardian is concerned, but trickier for the BBC. Given the frequency with which both sides complained of some BBC reports, it seems that the main feature of their output was inconsistency. There is a really lazy argument that says that if you annoy both sides then you must have got it about right. It shows nothing of the sort. It can show that you have got everything incredibly wrong. However, in this case I thought this inconsistency tended to reflect two things. The first was the particular leanings or failings of the reporter, the second was the situation the report was compiled in. The perspective in Sderot will be very different from that in Gaza. What none of them showed was that they were out to get you.

The ceasefire resulted in a pause in the death and destruction. It also seemed to drain the energy of the cheerleaders and the internet subsided into a background hum of communication rather than the crescendo of commentary the violence provoked. And in the relative quiet, voices of sanity and expertise made themselves heard. Here are two, one from each side, not solely talking about the crimes of the other, but reflecting on the faults and dilemmas of their own sides. These exercises in mental honesty are the still, small voice of the solution, heard only in moments of calm. First is Michael Waltzer on Israel's paradox and, secondly from the Arab side, Nasser Weddady calls for "a new resistance movement – to resist being co-opted by Islamists and nationalists whose price for belonging requires betraying core human values." These should be read by everyone, especially the cheerleaders.


levi9909 said...

The guide you recommend to Steve Bell is an obvious exercise in Israel advocacy designed to hinder not help critics and opponents of Israel.

The very first point is bogus. Very few people say that "Jews think any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic" but there are many Israel apologists who say that any criticism of Israel is antisemitic.

The rest of the points are pretty damn bogus too since they may or may not apply to a small minority of Israel's detractors but not to the majority.

Of course it is wrong to conflate Jews, zionists and the State of Israel but since the guide does that in the first point, who's lecturing who here?

The glossing over of what zionism means is intended to justify the ethnic cleansing and other war crimes which the implementation of the zionist project has entailed. It's pointless now getting into what zionism could have meant before the State of Israel was established, except as an academic exercise in which case we might discuss feminism and futurism as early aspects of fascist ideology.

I'm not sure where the guide gets the idea that religious settlers are anti-zionist. Not all frummers are the same. It seems the writer just wants to say zionism is nice and that's that.

The middle part of the document is a self-contradictory mishmash. It correctly states not to get hung up on the ethnic heritage of the Jews and then does so itself by invoking historic or ancient claims.

The last few points appear to be straight denunciations of antisemitism that are routine in Palestine solidarity circles. If the denunciations of antisemitism from anti-zionist sources are genuinely not known about then it could simply be that too much fretting about a marginal prejudice like antisemitism is unseemly up against what the Palestinians have been going through this past several decades.

I don't know why you're so keen to jump through hoops for Israel but your stance doesn't quite tally with your criticism of "cheerleaders" and neither does your recommendation of Michael Walzer.

Anyway, Steve Bell's cartoon was simply an representation of something that actually happened. Netanyahu made a statement about why Israel was attacking Gaza and Blair and Hague repeated what he said, glove puppet style. If reality imitates antisemitic art whose fault is that? Actually I didn't agree with Bell that Blair and Hague were manipulated. Within days they had forgotten Bibi's excuse and were giving it some good old fashioned utterly meaningless "cycle of violence" nonsense while Obama forced Israel to accept Hamas's terms. So I think it's fair to say they knew that they were lying when they first spoke.

If you are truly interested in what happened and why, Norman Finkelstein wrote a very good piece on the attack and its aftermath.

levi9909 said...

Sorry I didn't tick the follow up box.


The Plump said...

Yeah... fine...

Norman Finkelstein, do me a favour ... The cheerleader's cheerleader.

So, a Jewish woman writes about the stereotypes and tropes that are offensive and racist to her. You just contradict her and say they are not racist. Would that have been your response to an Afro-Caribbean or an Asian woman?


If reality imitates antisemitic art whose fault is that?

Well that certainly nails where you are coming from.

I suggest you troll elsewhere in future

levi9909 said...


I have not simply contradicted what I read. I have pointed to the piece's shortcomings, including its essentialising of Jews.

There is much to disagree with about Norman Finkelstein in terms of his attitude but the article I recommended looks eminently credible to me. You only seem to want to read what accords with your own prejudice.

Regarding reality imitating antisemitic art, I should have said, "appears to imitate" but that should have been clear by my criticism of Bell's suggestion that Blair and Hague were manipulated by Netanyahu, when they were not.

I find it sad that you have such a hard time defending your own politics that you accuse a critic of trolling and imply antisemitism on my part. I'm fairly certain you know that I comment in good faith and in all seriousness. I noticed from your post on drones that your worldview is that of an imperialist but from earlier comments of yours I thought you would be happy to discuss the issues in good faith. That was my biggest mistake.

DorsetDipper said...

its the familiar dance of the extremists. The extremists on each side use each other as the justification for their militant stance, but their real target is control over their own people.

Dave Zeglen said...

Thanks as always for your clear thoughts on this matter. I was hoping you'd write something about this, as you did when Operation Cast Lead occurred. But back to your original question in this post: why is it that so much passion and fury gets worked up over this issue? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts, or if you can recommend any reading by anyone who has attempted to tackle this question, I'd be most appreciative. I'm uncomfortable with quantifying suffering, if such a thing can actually be done, and tend to resort to using moral intent as a productive form of analysis, and in my opinion, I find that there are many other human rights and humanitarian issues that are at much more critical stages of oppression and violence than the Israel/Palestine conflict, notably the area I work in, which is the human rights situation in North Korea. Do people feel that since Israel is democratic, they can influence it through protest and fury, unlike the Kim regime? It really does itch at me that there's so much attention given to this area.

The Plump said...

Dave, that is a big question. Cue another post.

The Plump said...

And on the importance of understanding and confronting anti-Semitism read this issue of the Green Anarchist magazine Dysophia:

levi9909 said...

All forms of racism have to be understood and confronted. The only forms of racism that routinely get a free pass in the mainstream - politics and media - are zionism, anti-Arab racism and islamophobia. They are the last bastions of respectable racism.

False allegations of antisemitism don't help to understand or confront the real thing. They do however help the last bastions of respectable racism.

The Plump said...

Only? Free pass?

One account from that magazine I linked to:

The first time I joined the struggle for Palestinian rights was at a rally in Trafalgar Square in 2002. Here was a place that I could be anonymous yet stand up in solidarity for what I believed in. I watched in horror, however, as the reactions unfolded to an Israeli-Jewish peace activist who took the platform. ‘The occupation is terror!’ she said. ‘It breeds despair in the hearts of young Palestinian boys and girls. But the suicide bombings are not helping the Palestinian struggle. Whoever is sending these kids – Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or Tanzim – plays into the hands of Sharon.’
At this, a group of young Muslim fundamentalists, some of them with empty toilet rolls strapped around their stomachs like dynamite, surged forward throwing bottles at the podium and chanting, ‘Scud, Scud, Israel! Gas, Gas, Tel Aviv!’ and in Arabic – ‘Death to Jews’. I was even more horrified to see that woman struggle on with her speech, unsupported. No-one sitting on the platform raised a finger to challenge such blatant racism. When she stepped down, the Chair took the microphone from her, commenting: ‘Well not all of us agree with the last speaker...’
The overwhelming feeling that I got from the mainstream British Left that day was not so much solidarity with the Palestinians as virulent hostility towards Israel, and by extension towards anyone who didn’t express shame to be Jewish or utterly reject a Jewish state.

levi9909 said...

I was at that demo very close to the stage. The woman speaker was appallingly treated for sure but I wasn't aware of antisemitism and I'd guess the rest of the speakers weren't aware of it either. Even if it all happened as this woman describes it hardly amounts to granting antisemitism a free pass in the mainstream.

I notice also that this "green anarchist" can't tell the difference between Zionism and the many forms of nationalism which don't involve colonial settlement and ethnic cleansing. And she seems to conflate those who "utterly reject a Jewish state" with those who chant "death to the jews".

The Plump said...

Nationalisms that don't involve ethnic cleansing. Hmm... Indian and Pakistani nationalism. Only a year before Israel. Around 25 million ethnically cleansed around 500,000 to a million murdered. And it is still going on. Perhaps not those then. Arab nationalism, around 800,000 to a million Arab Jews were expelled or fled from Arab countries in the years following the UN resolution on partition of Palestine. Then again Kurds aren't too fond of Arab nationalism either, genocide was on the cards in Iraq. Nor are they keen on the Turks. Turkish nationalism, there's a gem. The Armenian genocide was theirs wasn't it. Then the ethnic cleansing of Greeks and Turks resulting from their nationalisms. That was another two million people. Serbia? Oh yes they invented the term. And so on ... In fact I can scarcely remember any nationalism creating a new nation state that has not been accompanied by the murder and expulsion of non nationals, the Czech/Slovak split is the honourable exception. Don't think the Scots would do much either if they voted to secede. But as for the rest ... This is the problem with the global phenomenon of creating ethnically based nation states out of multi ethnic entities. In Europe and the Middle East this was mainly the result of the break up of the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires. However tragic, the creation of the state of Israel is rather small scale by comparison. So the question posed above remains. Why Israel?

levi9909 said...

Shame on you, Peter. Having accused me of being a troll you resort to every possible cheap rhetorical trick.

Nothing you have said negates what I said, ie, "many forms of nationalism ... don't involve colonial settlement and ethnic cleansing." And that's without getting into the fact that at least one your examples is plain wrong and I didn't see one - admittedly I skimmed - which involved colonial settlement. Why didn't you lecture me about the similarities between Rhodesia and Israel? Oh of course, you can't stand to admit that Israel is a segregationist state. What about America and Australia? Uh oh, then you might be suggesting that Israel is engaged in genocide.

You've chosen your side. You can't defend it honestly so don't bother trying. Just tell yourself you're morally superior to all these "cheerleaders".

The Plump said...

Oooo, this is getting quite fun. "Oh of course, you can't stand to admit that Israel is a segregationist state."

You are right, I can't, because it isn"t. And the comparison with Rhodesia is not true at all and I know of at least one person who would find it highly offensive.

You really don't read what I say before you go off on one. My position is very clear. My position is that Israel has a right to exist, that its existence is irreversible, that the Palestinians have a right to self determination and the occupation and settlement of West Bank/Gaza/Golan is an act of oppression and an infringement of that right. The only feasible solution in the short term is a two state solution. All the main parameters are known and understood by each side. This has been the formal position of what was then the PLO since 1993 and informally a lot earlier. It was the argument put forward by Palestinian writers such as Edward Said from the 1960s.

I have indeed chosen my side. It is the process of peaceful co-existence, cultural collaboration, trade union solidarity and non-violent conflict resolution (and the conflict is deep) that is the policy of the Palestinian and Israeli left. This is a position that is virulently opposed by the Israeli and Palestinian far right, who combine annexationist desires, theocratic fantasies, atavistic and racist nationalisms with a celebration of indiscriminate violence.

I find it strange that much of the far left has associated itself with the Palestinian far right.

The Plump said...

All of which brings me to your big speech about Islamophobia, which cues an even bigger speech from me. I hate that term (as I hate the word phobia - an irrational fear - being used instead of hatred). I am an atheist and do not like any religions. I tend to divide them into three broad categories - 1. Bonkers but harmless; 2. Bonkers and evil; 3. Bonkers now mainly harmless but used to be evil and need watching in case they go back to being evil again.

Islamophobia is misleading because it applies that a dislike of religion is a form of racism. It is nothing of the sort. It is possible to cross that line though and the EDL certainly does it, as does the likes of Mad Mel Phillips in a slightly less football hooliganish way.

It has be contrasted with Islamism, a far right political movement originating in 1920s Egypt, though with deeper historical roots, that grafted religion onto European fascist doctrines. In this case, phobia is right, because it scares me. It's version of Islam is narrow and simplistic, yet it claims that it exclusively represents a true Islam (and all the others are of course apostates and that is why they kill far more Muslims than anyone else). To hate them and to support other Muslims and Liberals from predominantly Muslim countries oppose them is not Islamophobic.

This is a distinction that much of the far left don't seem to grasp, which is why some (though not me, I don't like the comparison) talk about a red/brown alliance.

In the Palestinian context, that means opposition to Hamas, even though the PA is so awful (the biggest misfortune the Palestinians have had is the dismal quality of their leadership). In a regional context it means opposing the Muslim Brotherhood's regional power grab (the Egyptians seem to be fighting back), the aggressive imperialism of the Pakistani ISI and its little playmates in the Taliban, Iranian theocracy and, most importantly the ideological subversion of Islam by Wahhabi doctrines coming from Saudi Arabia.

Muslims deserve human rights, saying so is hardly "islamophobic."

Rebecca said...

Thanks for this post.

And by the way, Zionism is not racism. Nor is Palestinian nationalism racism. They are both nationalist movements, with the usual flaws of such movements.

I would suggest taking a look at antisemitic images to find out what tradition Steve Bell was making use of. (I'm not saying he is antisemitic, but that his cartoon in this instance makes use of the antisemitic trope of Jews controlling the world like puppet masters).

levi9909 said...

Peter, I'm glad you were only having fun. There are Israel advocates who routinely smear Israel's critics as antisemites, posit bogus analogies and fanciful histories and accuse their interlocutors of trolling when they themselves seem to be trolling in their own comment threads. Thank goodness you're not one of those.

In case you were serious about islamophobia, I think you've over-analysed it and in so doing you've confused etymology with meaning. The same thing happens with the word antisemitism.


Cartoons which make "use of the antisemitic trope of Jews controlling the world like puppet masters" depict fictional Jews as a cabal. Bell's cartoon showed a real man who made a statement as to why Israel was attacking Gaza and had his statement repeated almost verbatim by Blair and Hague who acted like glove puppets.

I don't know which brand of Palestinian nationalism you are comparing to zionism but the zionist project has involved the settlement of Jews from around the world in Palestine, the ethnic cleansing of most of the native non-Jewish population and the establishment of a state specifically for the world's Jews. It resembles various colonial settler projects of the past, especially given its dependence on outside aid, but I don't think there are any current or on-going situations analogous to the State of Israel.

Please have a read of this post on zionist apologetics by my co-blogger, Gabriel Ash.

See in particular where he says "Everything sucks".

Dave Zeglen said...


I don't think criticism of Israel is a priori anti-Semitic, and I also accept that there are certainly some people who respond to legitimate criticism of Israel with the charge that the accuser is being anti-Semitic. However, in this particular case of Steve Bell's cartoon, it is an anti-Semitic cartoon because it invokes an anti-Semitic stereotype for a man who is Jewish. Even if Steve Bell did not intend the cartoon to be racist, the symbolism is clearly racist given how the trope of the Jewish puppet master has been historically used to marginalize Jewish people. Netanyahu should rightly be criticized, but this was not the way to do it. Bell defended his cartoon with the same argument you put forward, that because it depicts a specific individual at a specific moment, it isn't anti-Semitic, but how can you ignore the fact that the person depicted is also a Jew? It's not the same when you invoke a puppeteer trope for a leader who isn't Jewish because there may not be that historical association with a non-Jewish leader. As a corollary, it might be acceptable to draw George W. Bush as a monkey to mock his incompetence, but it would surely be racist to do the same with Obama because of the historical use of such imagery regarding black people, right?

levi9909 said...

Ah now Dave, that is a very good argument. In fact I might tack it on to my own post on the subject. I still don't agree with you though.

Funnily enough I would say that Bell's full explanation of the cartoon came closer to being antisemitic than the cartoon itself. He actually said that Netanyahu was being manipulative re Blair and Hague, which only holds up if B and H were being duped which they clearly weren't. Unless of course he was simply referring to the attack on Gaza giving Israel's (or America's) allies no choice at first but to support Israel simply because that's what they always do in the absence of pressure to do otherwise. Pressure for the latter in the guise of Egypt and Turkey eventually came and so B and H both changed their tune from "Hamas's fault" to "cycle of violence".

But from Israel's establishment to its relentless violence, the most powerful forces on the planet - governments, oppositions and media - support Israel in flagrant breach of their own stated principles. It's no longer enough to demonstrate that something involves the appearance of an antisemitic trope when such powerful actors on the world stage are happy to convey that impression themselves.

Now, regarding the depiction of a specific named black individual (say Obama) as a monkey, that would be racist for the reason you gave together with the fact that however apparently powerful a black individual might appear, we are still dealing with a largely marginalised community all of whom would be depicted in any representation of any individual as a monkey. This marginalisation doesn't apply to Jews. And anyway, the depiction of one Jew in power as simply being powerful is not the same as depicting someone as an animal.

So on various counts I would say the Bell cartoon isn't antisemitic. It depicted the appearance of a current reality and it was clear which individual was being depicted and why. The whole cartoon said that there is an election on the way in Israel, the incumbent PM has gone to war on the natives or neighbours of Palestine, he has offered some excuse about Hamas rockets without mentioning that the score sheet for the year to the start of the attack on Gaza were 78 Palestinians killed by Israel to one Israeli killed by Palestinians, and two western high-ups repeated verbatim Netanyahu's excuse before quietly dropping the excuse. Add to that the fact that Jews are not a marginalised community I think what we have is a legitimate caricature.

I must say that where you have given me pause for thought is that, unlike nearly all of Steve Bell's detractors, you do acknowledge that the false allegation of antisemitism is sometimes deployed. In fact I have seen it more than once in this thread.

Put succinctly (why didn't I think of that earlier?) to depict Obama as a monkey is like saying he comes from a community of monkeys. To depict Netanyahu as powerful says nothing about the community he is from.

Will said...

political correctness gone mad when you can't call an antisemite an antisemite who is an antisemite.

Anonymous said...

"The only forms of racism that routinely get a free pass in the mainstream - politics and media - are zionism, anti-Arab racism and islamophobia. They are the last bastions of respectable racism."
I'm sure that travellers must be relieved to hear that the near-constant smear stories about "gypsies" are all just a figment of their imagination, then.

Anonymous said...

"And anyway, the depiction of one Jew in power as simply being powerful is not the same as depicting someone as an animal...

Put succinctly (why didn't I think of that earlier?) to depict Obama as a monkey is like saying he comes from a community of monkeys. To depict Netanyahu as powerful says nothing about the community he is from."
Not just powerful, but exercising the ability to manipulate and control gentile politicians. Because it's definitely not like there's a history of anti-Semitic imagery depicting Jews as powerful, is there?

levi9909 said...

Yup, anon1, you're right about various traveller communities.

Anon2, I know Jews have been unjustly depicted as powerful and manipulative. But that doesn't mean that this or that Jew cannot be powerful and manipulative. Nor does it make it antisemitic to depict a specific case of a powerful Jew in caricature form. Perhaps you haven't checked the whole thread but this kind of thing got a mention quite early on.