Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Johann Hari of The Independent kindly responds to my remarks below:
You have, I fear, willfully misread my article. When paraphrasing what I say, you ignore the rather massive if: "IF you don't know about the terrible history of anti-semitism, THEN..." the events of 1948 seem unjustifiable. Of course, all educated people DO know this history. I am a strong defender of the right of the Israeli people to self-determination and safety; I support the creation of a Palestinian state precisely because Israelis will never be safe so long as they are denying Palestinians their safety and freedom.

I have repeatedly argued against English anti-Semitism in print, and taken a hell of a lot of flak for it; I have Jewish relatives and, as a gay man, would have been killed by the Nazis (and, yes, Hamas) myself; and as for having "no evidence" for my criticisms of Israel, I spent over a month on the Occupied Territories this summer. Your accusation of anti-Semitism is disturbing, libellous and extremely upsetting. I hope that on reflection, you will retract it, not least because we cannot expose real anti-Semites (and believe me, there are many) when such foolish accusations are thrown around against transparently non-racist people.

Yours sincerely,

Johann Hari.
The full paragraph in contention:
Of course, if you don't know about the Naqba, Palestinian anger at Israel looks simply like a disembodied, crazy loathing. And if you don't know about the terrible history of anti-Semitism, the creation of the state of Israel looks like unjustifiable wickedness.

You write: "When paraphrasing what I say, you ignore the rather massive if: "IF you don't know about the terrible history of anti-semitism, THEN..." the events of 1948 seem unjustifiable. Of course, all educated people DO know this history." But you don't address your use of the term "wickedness" - the simple implication of what you wrote is that creation of Israel is a kind of sui generis wickedness that only anti-Semitism climaxing in the sui generis Holocaust can justify.

Moreover, you believe that the Naqba explains (and in a partial sense legitimizes) the implacable Palestinian antipathy to Israel. But the term Naqba signifies the events of 1948 in a national-mythical sense, and the relationship between the Naqba and the actual creation of Israel (and flight of refugees) resembles the relationship between the "Jenin Massacre" and the events of Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. So it's really the mythologization of the events that causes the implacability of Palestinian anger. Perhaps your actual view is that it's this Palestinian view of the Naqba that makes the creation of Israel look like unjustifiable wickedness, and not their unawareness of the history of anti-semitism.

Elsewhere in the article you write that in "their desperation to feel safe" the Levantine Jews committed "an atrocity against the Palestinians" - what is intended? Deir Yassin? The refugee problem as a whole? That the Mandate-period British and the Arabs (or the Turks for that matter) committed more frequent atrocities of their own does not justify what happened at Deir Yassin, but clearly reduces its significance as a historical event. If you'd like to discuss the specific events of 1947-49 (eg. UNSCOP declaration, ensuing riots etc.), I'd be pleased to do so - and I'd also be interested in hearing what similar conflicts you believe that the Levantine Jews should have used as their "role models".

I do recognize and appreciate that you are trying to give a just hearing to both sides of the current dispute (and I'm giving short shrift to other points that you make in the column). But this context makes the apparent proposition that Israel's right-to-exist somehow derives from the Holocaust all the more disturbing. There's not much daylight between that approach and the idea that the Palestinians are suffering because Europe dumped the Jewish problem on them. In the basic sense, Jewish national rights should be regarded as legitimate - though I think that in Europe this point is not regarded as at all obvious.

I do sincerely regret having made mention of the term anti-Semitism - both because it has been interpreted as an attack against you and because it detracts from the main issues that we are discussing. You will note that in my original message I stopped short of directly accusing anyone of anti-Semitism, and that my ponderings on that score also had much to do with the audience that you seem to be addressing as well some of the opinions expressed in the British Medical Journal. So perhaps to could modify the description of the "accusations" that I made.

Update: Johann Hari responds that the above is "thoughtful" and "well-argued" but that he disagrees.

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