April 30, 2009

Karmi, Simons and Strawson on Ahmadinejad

Sorry to return to this but I just noticed yet another bit of weirdness on the Engage site. What was I doing there? Well I was looking to see if they had any condemnation of the Anti-Defamation League for harassing that academic I did the previous post on but there was nothing. Scrolling down I noticed John Strawson had been enlisted to rubbish two letters that had appeared in the Guardian in response to Ahmadinejad denouncing zionism at the Durban II conference.

Dr Hirsh heads the piece ""Anti-racists" think Ahmadinejad was right" and tries to create the impression that the "anti-racists" he has in mind are agreeing with Ahmadinejad's holocaust denial. The video clip beneath his headline is itself headed, "Iran's Ahmadinejad on the Holocaust". Beneath that are quotes drawn from the letters of Gharda Karmi and Geoff Simons that the Guardian published on Saturday just gone, 25th April 2009.
“…Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s UN speech on 21 April struck many as obnoxious, but in terms of understanding the 1948 roots of the Middle East conflict he was spot on. Vilifying him may feel good, but it is a diversion form the real issue.”

Ghada Karmi, Author, Married to Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine

“However we may deplore the tone of President Ahmadinejad’s speech at the UN conference on racism, it is difficult to deny the principal facts that he presented…”

Geoff Simons, Author, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine

Karmi thinks Ahmadinejad was “spot on” in his understanding of the roots of the Middle East conflict.

Simons agrees with the “principal facts” that he presented.

Neither stops to wonder why it is they agree with a genocidal anti-Jewish racist on the central question concerning Jews in the contemporary world. Perhaps it is just a coincidence? A stopped clock is right twice a day?

But perhaps there are other lessons to be learnt from the fact that they agree with Ahmadinejad.

And why is the Guardian printing this support for the understanding and analysis of the world’s most powerful antisemite on its letters page?

What happened was that Ahmadinejad had brought up the issue of the zionists' colonisation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine. He actually vented the bad analysis that it all happened or at least the west supported it on account of the holocaust. Now as far as that goes, Engage can't complain because David Hirsh also says that Israel exists because of the holocaust and he has even justified the UK Labour Party's call for the wholesale ethnic cleansing of Palestine back in 1944 on account of the holocaust. So Hirsh might just as well ask himself how it is that he is in agreement with Ahmadinejad but I won't hold my breath and wait for that admission.

But look at the extracts from Karmi and Simons's letters or read the letters in full which Hirsh does link to, they're not saying that the holocaust has anything to do with the establishment of the State of Israel and they're certainly not saying that the holocaust didn't happen. They are saying that the root of the problem goes back to the founding of Israel and not its expansion into what we now call the "occupied territories" of Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem.

So why does Hirsh go on to say this?
If people don’t understand what is racist about holocaust denial then they should make use of Deborah Lipstadt’s magnificent website, which is an excellent resource, Holocaust Denial On Trial. http://www.hdot.org/

Holocaust denial is antisemitic firstly because denial was part of the crime itself. Those who were murdered were told that nobody would ever believe that this happened and that nobody would ever know that they even existed. Denial is not a response to the Holocaust but it is part of the Holocaust.

Secondly because Holocaust denial necessarily assumes that the Jews are sufficiently powerful and sufficiently evil to have invented such a horrible lie and to have made believing it a precondition for acceptability in public life. It is antisemitic conspiracy theory.

Hmm, thank you Doctor, but what has that to do with what Karmi and Simons wrote?

So what's John Strawon's beef here?
UPDATE - John Strawson adds:

Karmi and Simons rely on ignorance of history in order to make their case: a case that Ahmadnejad is able to trade on.

“Their” history is that Western guilt for the Holocaust meant that the Jews were given Palestine in order to make amends. Nothing could be further from the truth. Reading the United Nations documents that led to the partition plan – debate in the General Assembly May through November 1947 and the report of United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) – there are no Western expression of guilt whatsoever. The only speeches that linked the creation of a Jewish State to the Holocaust were from the Soviet Union and Poland.

Indeed what is striking is that despite many anti-Semitic remarks, not one Western country rises to object. The partition plan itself explicitly stated that it was plan for the future of government of Palestine and not a solution to the “Jewish question” - the latter formulation being a reference to the survivors of the Holocaust in displaced peoples’ camps. Far from guilt there is indifference bordering on callousness. The Jewish population of between 600,00-650,000 (and 18,000 in detention in in Cyprus) [UN figures]) were of course in Palestine in 1947.

They constituted a clearly constituted a national community. It is this national identity that the Karmi et al wish to deny. Modern anti-Semitism mainly takes the form of discrimination against Jews as national community - something that the Durban II statement reinforces when it places anti-Semitism between “Islamaphobia” and “Christianophobia.” (draft article 10)

There is no ignorance of history betrayed in their letters. Both of them argue that the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict go back to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

As it happens, having falsely accused two people of ignorance of history by falsely accusing them of invoking the idea that the holocaust was the motivation for Israel's existence, Strawson does steer his comment back to something close to the crux of the matter.

See this again:
They [presumably Jews in Palestine] constituted a clearly constituted a national community. It is this national identity that the Karmi et al wish to deny. Modern anti-Semitism mainly takes the form of discrimination against Jews as national community
This mealy mouthed statement is saying that Jews in most of Palestine had a perfect right to carry out an ethnic cleansing campaign against the native predominantly Arab population. There is no other interpetation since Gharda Karmi probably doesn't care one way or another if Jews are a national community or not. The issue is that Jews in Palestine carried out an ethnic cleansing campaign to establish a state specifically for Jews at the expense of Palestine's natives. Gharda Karmi is a victim of the ethnic cleansing but for Strawson she is being antisemitic for objecting to it.

For John Strawson, it would appear that a national community is not a civic affair but an ethnic one and once it is decided that a community is national then that community has a perfect right to carry out an ethnic cleansing campaign against those that do not belong to the national ethnicity. And to object, even as a victim, is to be racist against the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing.

But Strawson has a strange relationship with Engage and Engage is a strange animal anyway. During "Operation Cast Lead" aka, the assault on Gaza, Strawson co-signed a letter to the Times castigating Israel for its war crimes. At the time, David Hirsh, or you might say Engage itself, was supporting what Israel was doing in/to Gaza. Last I checked, Strawson was on the "editorial board" of Engage and yet his co-signing of a letter to the Times was reckoned by one commenter to be a contradiction of the Engage position on "cast lead".

The letter to the Times noted that Hamas's rocket attacks were illegal acts warranting a "reasonable and proportionate" response from Israel but went on to say:
As things stand, its invasion and bombardment of Gaza amounts to collective punishment of Gaza’s 1.5m inhabitants contrary to international humanitarian and human rights law. In addition, the blockade of humanitarian relief, the destruction of civilian infrastructure, and preventing access to basic necessities such as food and fuel, are prima facie war crimes.
Any casual observer familiar with Engage will see this as quite a profound departure from the usual fare and as I said, one commenter (Keith P) did notice this. It was in a thread to a post where Dr Hirsh had graphically compared a call by Naomi Klein for a boycott of Israel to the nazi boycott of Jewish shops back in the 1930s:
This analysis seems inconsistent in tone, content, and logic to all that presented here and advanced by David in the name of Engage. Are we to assume that Engage’s editorial board is fundamentally divided as to whether what we are witnessing and have been witnessing in Gaza is a war crime or a justifiable act of defence against an existential threat to the lives of Jews?
Now this is where we get an insight into the relationship of Hirsh and Engage's collective existence, if indeed it has a collective existence. Here's Hirsh:
Engage has no collective position on “whether what we are witnessing and have been witnessing in Gaza is a war crime or a justifiable act of defence against an existential threat to the lives of Jews?”

Engage is a campaign against antisemitism, not an Israel/Palestine campaign or discussion group.

I tried to sum up what I feel are some of the central ideas of Engage, but it is only my attempt. Here http://engageonline.wordpress.com/about-engage/

John Strawson is one of the most incisive and committed campaigners against antisemitism that I know. I’m proud that he thinks of himself as being part of Engage.

Well something gave this fellow the impression that the Engage position on "cast lead" was that it was "a justifiable act of defence against an existential threat to the lives of Jews" and that Strawson was bucking what must have been the position of most of the other Engage associates that Hirsh had been linking to at that time. But within a minute of Hirsh's disclaimer, Strawson was on the thread:
Kieth P should read the letter more carefully. It is making a certain legal point - which I have made in comments here. The letter in addition to making it clear that Hamas’s rockets and suicide attacks are war crimes ends by saying

“We condemn the firing of rockets by Hamas into Israel and suicide bombings which are also contrary to international humanitarian law and are war crimes. Israel has a right to take reasonable and proportionate means to protect its civilian population from such attacks. However, the manner and scale of its operations in Gaza amount to an act of aggression and is contrary to international law, notwithstanding the rocket attacks by Hamas. “

Keith P had clearly read the letter and linked to it so the admonition suggesting he hadn't was purely gratuitous if not downright dishonest.

Hirsh then (two minutes later) provides another insight correctly stating that:
Incidentally Keith, I don’t think I’ve written anything at all on the current conflict in Gaza.
That was true at the time. All Hirsh had done was link to various articles supporting Israel in Gaza and denouncing Israel's critics as antisemitic. And he didn't link to the Times letter that Strawson had co-signed.

Well now Keith is very confused and so am I and so must you be, dear reader:
Thanks for your replies, David, John.

I did read the letter carefully. I understand that it includes the condemnation of Hamas’s actions as contrary to international law, and i did not for a second mean to imply John had meant to entirely absolve Hamas and entirely fix blame on Israel.

What I was surprised about was the fact that this letter includes clear and unequivocal statements describing the PAST year (+)’s “siege” of Gaza and the CURRENT/RECENT attacks on the Gaza Strip as war crimes. This may or may not be the case - i am not arguing against this on a legal basis (I am unqualified to do so) or suggesting it is false.

But I do think it departs from Engage’s previous posts and comments concerning both the “siege” and the conflict in content and tone. David, I know you say that Engage has shifted its concerns over the years and is less attentive to points on the conflict than it used to be perhaps, but you’ve also conceded that “Engage business overlaps with wider political issues in Israel and in Palestine - so these are editorial decisions and not clear and automatic rules.” (http://www.engageonline.org.uk/blog/comment.php?id=1551) and I think that its clear from your covererage of both Lebanon 2006 and the current violence, that the posts on Engage are either themselves concerned with the conflicts or are selected as ways of directing readers to sources selected from amongst many possibilities; it therefore follows that there is some position being articulated and not a random or ambivalent approach to the way the conflict is parsed here at Engage.

This brings me back to my original comment/question, which is whether or not Engage’s (and if its easier to answer David I would understand if you’d prefer to answer as an individual rather than for the whole campaign) position (unavoidable and implicit in the selection and recommendation of sources on the conflict) is also that the Israeli government and military are presently comitting war crimes and that they have been doing so for at least the last year in the form of the “siege” of Gaza.

I am not suggesting that there needs to be uniformity on the subject across your editorial board, but I am aware of and puzzled by the following:

1. Falk (a co-signatory of John’s) has been condemned quite harshly for “israel-hatred” and in particular for making Nazi-Zionism analogies that Engage has criticised very forcefully. David, I think you have yourself charged him with”being used by antisemites as cover” (http://www.engageonline.org.uk/blog/article.php?id=1806) and have reproduced a “Flesh Is Grass” commentary where he Falk is charged with “publicity-seeking exaggerations and falsehoods” (again I’m for or against Falk - just observing that this appears to indicate a position which departs from the co-signing of statements with someone quite a bit) (http://engageonline.wordpress.com/2008/12/18/flesh-is-grass-on-richard-falks-exclusion-from-israel/)

2. If Engage does agree with the statement a member of its editorial board has signed on the current conflict - then surely it makes sense for it to be reproduced here or linked to in the way some dozens of external reports and commentaries on the current conflict have been linked to over the past fortnight.

3. If Engage does not agree with the statement made by its editorial board, how does it situate this statement published in the mainstream UK press that Israel is, and long has been, engaged in war crimes within its overall context of “defining and defending” the limits of “legitimate criticism” - is John, like Falk, not preparing the ground for demonization? is he lending credence to the arguments as well as the vocabularies of co-signers like Falk? Or is the attribition of war crimes to the Israeli state and armed forces unproblematic in this scheme?

Oh look at the time. I need to set myself a time limit. It's so easy to get carried away. Anyway, no further response from either Hirsh or Strawson was forthcoming.

So what have we learned here? Engage appears to be Dr David Hirsh with people described as contributing editors and editorial board members who are simply well wishers that agree with the central motive of Engage to try to set parameters as to what is permissible in criticising Israel. You might say that the mission is simply to protect Israel and especially zionism from serious criticism. But what of Strawson? He has clearly hooked up with people considered by Hirsh to be beyond the pale and yet Hirsh is proud if Strawson wants to consider himself an Engagenik even though that might not actually mean anything at all in terms of what you do for Engage or what you think about Israel, Jews, zionism, war crimes, Palestinians, Arabs or indeed, er, anything at all.

Is Engage a collective or is it Hirsh with a list of people saying "we like Hirsh, er, broadly speaking"?

And what of Strawson? What's he playing at? He has clearly misrepresented what Dr Karmi and Geoff Simons had to say in their letters, that the ethnic cleansing of Palestine explains the conflict over Palestine but then he comes close to misrepresenting a letter he signed himself when he pretends that it does significantly differ from condemning Israel's war crimes in Gaza during "cast lead" and the on-going war crime over the siege of Gaza.

But on the matter of whether or not Israel's existence is explained by reference to the holocaust, Hirsh's view is a little closer to Ahmadinejad's than the view expressed by Karmi and Simons. That could be better illustrated by the old Engage website but that is down at the moment unless it has been disappeared as happens with Engage posts sometimes.

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