Monday, December 14, 2009

Open letter to Professor Gil Troy

Dear Professor Troy:

You have by now written two articles naming me personally, and have appeared before the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism to sing the same tune (with reference to me, at least by name, mercifully absent): the "new anti-Semitism," as opposed to the more recognizable Jew-hatred, is directed towards the state of Israel and its policies.

Rather than having the "courage of [your] convictions," you have defined me, a critic of the CPCCA, as an anti-Semite through innuendo and juxtaposition. (Or is that "a new anti-Semite?") You then have the chutzpah to wonder aloud why it is that critics of Israel such as I are concerned about a parliamentary "inquiry" that has all the earmarks of a witch-hunt.

Your articles and submission make my point. After pushing my way through the mountains of straw out of which you have constructed your arguments, I see three themes emerging.

Criticism of Israel must not be "disproportionate." I cannot help but recall Prime Minister Stephen Harper's description of Israel's destruction of Lebanon in 2006 as "a measured response" to a border skirmish. If the displacement of one-quarter of the Lebanese people, the deaths of 1,000 civilians and the wholesale destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure is "measured," I assure you that I shall try to be even more measured in my response to you.

Setting aside the question of who decides what is, or is not, "disproportionate," let me note that the oppressive policies of the other countries you mention--Iran, for example, or Sudan--are not a matter of controversy in Canada. We all see those policies, and the actions that flow from them, exactly as they are. We neither excuse them nor pretend that they aren't there, nor do we minimize the effects on their victims.

But this is not the case with Israel. We do not have a consensus, pro or con, about the slow annexation of the West Bank by settlement and by wall, the often brutal behaviour of both the settlers and the Israeli armed forces who protect them, the human toll and the physical devastation of Gaza and Lebanon, the use of weapons prohibited by international law, collective punishment that is likewise prohibited, and so on. Our own government excuses each and every such move by the state of Israel. When these things are reported, as they are very frequently, heated debates inevitably follow.

It isn't that we are "obsessed" with Israel, or give it "disproportionate" attention. We discuss Israel because the very actions and policies that would be almost unanimously denounced if perpetrated by any other nation are inevitably denied, excused, rationalized and/or defended by government, by strong and effective extra-parliamentary actors, and by various media commentators.

It is unfair, I believe, to denounce participants in what amounts to an on-going debate for even being engaged in it.

"Legitimate" criticism of Israel should be permitted.

This is, by now, a commonplace rhetorical gesture that seeks to make a distinction that is very hard, on closer examination, to pin down. Let me give a personal example.

A senior B'nai Brith figure comments from time to time on my blog. When I expressed implicit agreement with the findings of the recent
Goldstone Report, which indicates that war crimes were committed by the Israel Defence Forces during the Gaza incursion last year, and noted further that the IDF has treated the occupied territory of the West Bank with considerable brutality (a matter of record documented by Israeli human rights groups like B'Tselem), I was called an "anti-Semitic a**hole" by the gentleman in question.

The proposed distinction is blurred by such excesses. But let me go further: I don't believe that there such a thing as "illegitimate" criticism of any nation-state, in the sense of requiring legislation to suppress it. A state and its policies do not constitute a culture, a race or a people.

Casual comments about nuking "Iran," for example, are hateful and wrong-headed, because the people of Iran who would suffer are not the state of Iran, but we hear this kind of comment rather more often than we might like, and no one dreams of constituting a parliamentary inquiry into it. It is generally understood that it is the Iranian government, not the Iranian people, that has displeased us.

By the same token, no one imagines that the sometimes over-the-top criticism of "America" of which even I might occasionally
have been guilty, is an attack on Americans as a people. Ditto "Russia," "China," and so on: everyone seems to be on the same page here, even if we might strongly disagree in our evaluations. But for some reason Israel is once again an exception: any trenchant critique of this nation-state predictably brings forth cries of "anti-Semitism."

What, may I ask, has become of that "higher standard" to which, it is alleged, we hold Israel? What about settling for the
same standard by which we make our various judgments of any other nation-state?

Making things even worse, you declare certain areas of debate off-limits: "comparing Israel to [apartheid] South Africa," for example. And yet
several of the practices of Israel, the nation-state, might legitimately be held to be, at the very least, apartheid-like in character. (Rather than reopening that debate here, I draw your attention to some earlier reflections of mine on the issue.)

I might also point out that, despite those who claim that such comparisons "delegitimize" Israel's existence, I do not recall that those of us in the anti-apartheid struggle, while demanding regime change, ever questioned the right of South Africa to exist.

Finally, our own Prime Minister has stated, unequivocally, that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. He doesn't bother with the distinction you and others have half-heartedly attempted to make. And his government will, at some point, be seized of the report that will be forthcoming from the Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism.

The line that you are encouraging the Coalition to draw--between "honest" criticism on the one hand and "demonization, delegitimization and obsession" on the other--is bound to be subjective. And given the CPCCA's ludicrous bias, one that it makes no attempt whatsoever to hide, and our Prime Minister's straightforward comments, we have every right to feel concerned.

Critics of Israel pretend to care about the Palestinians, but it's just a mask.

Like any other would-be Grand Inquisitor, you reverse the onus. The default position is that we are "anti-Semites" until somehow we can demonstrate otherwise. In your words,

[T]he hearings should also help us understand the historical pathology of anti-Semitism by highlighting the similarities between today’s targeting of the Jewish state and the traditional targeting of the Jew. Yet we must learn from the modern mutation, too. The way the new anti-Semitism manifests itself, sometimes obscured by its “we’re pro-Palestinian and we’re just criticizing Israel” rhetoric, hides a despicable anti-democratic agenda. This upside-down agenda rationalizes terrorism, romanticizes violence, justifies extremism and perverts justice while purporting to defend it.

We are left, of course, in the impossible position of trying to prove a negative.

In another article, you lead off with unquestionable instances of anti-Semitism in the Arab world, including elements of the text of the Hamas Charter (you omitted, however, the references to Henry Ford's
The International Jew and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion). You raise the equally clear example of the fire-bombing of a Jewish school in Montreal. But that's just to set up for this:

Israel’s critics could distance themselves from these vile expressions but rarely do. And we have learned from the civil rights movement, feminism, and gay liberation, that the moral onus is not on the victim to parse who is criticizing legitimately and who is perpetuating prejudice. If more critics of Israel denounced the anti-Semitism poisoning so much of the Palestinian movement, fueling so much criticism of Israel, there would be no need for Parliamentary inquiries.

I see two obvious problems here. First, as we've seen, the word "anti-Semitism" has become remarkably fluid recently, a floating signifier. A critique of Hamas is one thing--and I think I, for one, have been personally straightforward about it--but if one agrees with Stephen Harper that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic per se, then there is really very little left for us to say.

The second issue is that activism tends to focus and polarize. If there is a demonstration against, say, the Israeli incursion into Gaza, one will quickly discover that the demonstrators carry signs with slogans to that effect, rather than statements dissociating themselves from the present Gaza government. Does that of necessity make them
supportive of a theocratic, anti-Semitic regime? Do opponents of the Afghanistan mission support the Taliban? Some attempt to make such arguments on "objective" grounds, but I get the uneasy feeling, Professor Troy, that you suspect the pro-Palestinian left of being outright anti-Semites in pectore.

Oddly, many of the the recommendations that you append to your CPCCA submission make more sense. You urge the adoption of the EUMC working definition of anti-Semitism, for example--which turns out to be a far cry from the wide net you and other have advocated:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals, and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities."

Who could quarrel with that? The drafters go on to mention Israel, but in such a circumspect manner that it would be hard to find fault. They do, it is true, open a few doors for those who are wont to accuse us, without any basis, of holding Israel to a higher standard, re-phrasing the Blood Libel, and so on. "However," they add, "criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic."

Amen. An occupying power is an occupying power. State-sanctioned brutality is state-sanctioned brutality. Civilian deaths are civilian deaths. Annexation is annexation. War crimes are war crimes.

Other recommendations--community policing and so on--are reasonable as well. But you stray into very dangerous territory indeed when you attempt to make yet another distinction--this time between "academic freedom" and what you call "educational malpractice." Can you not see, as an academic yourself, the dangerous and slippery character of such a vague formulation? Who would decide these questions? Does this not return us to the era of speech codes and other campus straitjackets?

Let me end, in any case, on what I hope is a more conciliatory note. I've always liked this analogy:

A man once jumped from the top floor of a burning house in which many members of his family had already perished. He managed to save his life; but as he was falling he hit a person standing down below and broke that person’s legs and arms. The jumping man had no choice; yet to the man with the broken limbs he was the cause of his misfortune. If both behaved rationally, they would not become enemies. The man who escaped from the blazing house, having recovered, would have tried to help and console the other sufferer; and the latter might have realized that he was the victim of circumstances over which neither of them had control. But look what happens when these people behave irrationally. The injured man blames the other for his misery and swears to make him pay for it. The other, afraid of the crippled man’s revenge, insults him, kicks him, and beats him up whenever they meet. The kicked man again swears revenge and is again punched and punished. The bitter enmity, so fortuitous at first, hardens and comes to overshadow the whole existence of both men and to poison their minds.

You will, I am sure, recognize yourselves (I said to my Israeli audience), the remnants of European Jewry in Israel, in the man who jumped from the blazing house. The other character represents, of course, the Palestine Arabs, more than a million of them, who have lost their lands and their homes. They are resentful; they gaze from across the frontiers on their old native places; they raid you stealthily and swear revenge. You punch and kick them mercilessly; you have shown that you know how to do it. But what is the sense of it? And what is the prospect? --Isaac Deutscher

What indeed is the prospect, Professor Troy, when you and others, appearing before a trumped-up "inquiry" into alleged "new anti-Semitism," insist on demonizing and delegitimizing the critics of Israel while simultaneously demanding that Israel be neither demonized nor delegitimized?

Perhaps we should be trying to figure out how the descendants of both the man in the burning house and the innocent passer-by upon whom he lands might come to some lasting accommodation. In the meantime, the descendants of the man who jumped are even now burning--or bulldozing--the houses of the passer-by's descendants; and some of the latter, exiled, poor, and looking for meaning in their fate, embrace religious fundamentalism and even grasp at the vile myths that led to the original arson.

There can be no solution if those are the only two sides that we are permitted to recognize, locked in their Manichaean embrace. I would suggest, with respect, that there are other sides to this question, sides that are legitimate, honest and constructive. Even setting aside the wider question of freedom of expression in Canada, it would be a tragedy if the weight of the law and of government policy were used to stifle the many critical voices that need to be heard if Canada is someday going to play a useful international role in contributing to a lasting peace in the Middle East.


John Baglow

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