Monday, July 9, 2012

Just btw . . . my comment on Ian's article

I did post a comment on Ian Thal's Clyde Fitch article some time ago - I believe last Friday. It doesn't seem to have worked it way through "moderation" yet, which has me a little worried; I hope Clyde Fitch hasn't morphed into a thought-control site like Parabasis.

 So just in case the comment never appears over there, here's the text:

Ian, I realize you and I will never see eye-to-eye on Israel; I don’t see concerted political pressure on the West Bank settlements, or on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in general, as inherently anti-Semitic, and I think at bottom you do. Perhaps if I was Jewish I would agree with you – and I admit of course that actual anti-Semites can, and do, operate under the cover of legitimate protest of Israeli policy. So the situation is very fraught and complex, and almost every action in this arena casts a complicated moral shadow. 

Still, I think your piece would be stronger if you could consider, or even mention, at least two points that come to mind in regards to this whole imbroglio. The first is that (legitimate) political pressure like this is often brought to bear more on democracies than autocracies (which tend to shrug off charges in the court of public opinion). Thus Israel may be being targeted not (or not only) because of an anti-Semitic agenda, but also because to its great credit, the country has a civil discourse in which protest can have an impact. 

The second point goes right to the heart of the “nexus of art and politics” that the new Clyde Fitch Report targets – and that is the deep political irony of a Jewish state staging one of the reifying documents of Jewish oppression at a political moment in which it itself is accused of oppressing a minority (well, actually a majority) of the residents under its control. In short, has The Merchant of Venice now been effectively converted by Habima into a new validation of oppression, this time by the Jews themselves? I find it troubling that you would elide this issue – particularly given your obvious hostility to Caryl Churchill’s “Seven Jewish Children,” which makes a similarly ironic point, i.e. that consciousness of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism in turn serves as unspoken justification for the oppression of the Palestinians. 

I don’t think a technical discussion of this or that territory, or this or that application of the Oslo Accords, can really answer this question. But I’d like to hear you give it a shot. 

Thanks, Tom

[Update - And whaddya know, the comment just appeared on the Clyde Fitch Report!  They've got more cojones than Isaac Butler after all!]


  1. (1/2)

    As near as I can tell, the reason your comment did not go through immediately at CFR was because of the weekend where no one was checking the administrative end of the site; it’s not an aspect of the site that I have any input on. I will be posting the following response to CFR as well. In the future, as in the past, you are always welcome to post to my blog.

    While we don't see eye-to-eye on aspects on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict-- your past writings have made it clear to me that you have always attempted to be fair (in fact, your series on My Name Is Rachel Corrie is still the most nuanced analysis of that play and the surrounding controversies-- secondly you've made it clear that you support Israel's right to exist as Jewish homeland-- which despite any ambivalence, puts you on the zionist side of the equation. Despite the fact that sometimes our rhetoric has become overly-heated, I never doubted your interest in fair and honest debate on serious issues.

    I have not seen Habima's production of The Merchant of Venice and so I have no opinion on their interpretation. I was focused on the fact that the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement is not only actively trying to shut down artists because of their nation of origin, but they are doing so with the blessing of prominent British artists. Quite simply, as an artist, I find cultural boycotts of entire nations to be obscene; despite my sympathies with the Kosovar Albanians during the Kosovo war, I would never think of boycotting Biljana Srbljanovic’s Family Stories: Belgrade-- just as those who disagree with certain policies of the Israeli government should not be boycotting plays by Israeli playwrights like Motti Lerner.

    Perhaps I have not been so explicit, since most of what I have written about Israel and Palestine has been through the lens of theatre, but I happen to support the long term goal of Palestinian statehood. However, the more I have tried to become educated about the conflict, the more convinced I am that the obstacles towards Palestinian statehood and peace with Israel are due to decisions made by the Palestinians’ own leaders and those who claim to be their allies; Most notably, the Arab refusal to accept a sovereign Jewish state as a neighbor. As much as I question the wisdom of settlement expansion; blaming the existence of Israeli settlements for a stalled peace process when Israel’s 2005 dismantling of the Gaza settlements was met with years of rocket attacks on southern Israel, or Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to negotiate while a settlement building freeze was in place offends my intelligence; To call Israel the "oppressor," when Hamas has murdered thousands of Palestinians, or when Israel has been closing West Bank checkpoints and gradually relinquishing control of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority more so. In short, if Palestinians are suffering oppression, it is largely at the hands of their own leaders—leaders who do not respect the dignity of the people they claim to lead and leaders who rather lose a war than win a peace.

  2. (2/2)

    My "hostility" towards Churchill's "Seven Jewish Children" is because it tells lies about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because it infantilizes the Palestinians in its presentation of them as lacking in agency, because by never dealing with causes of the conflict and never addressing the realities of the conflict, it treats the conflict some post-Holocaust neurosis shared by the entire Jewish people. It's the work of an upper class white English woman writing about a people whose history she has not made the most remote effort to understand—and isn't that the essence of colonialist and racist literature? It neither asks hard questions, present inconvenient truths; it is merely an affirmation of the author’s deeply held prejudices and those of her audience.

    You and I agree that genuine anti-Semites attempt to mask their bigotry under the banner of “criticism of Israel.” We also both agree that no society and no government is above criticism and that criticism is an essential part of a democratic ethos. Where we disagree is just how much “criticism of Israel” is anti-Semitic (or more often, crypto-anti-Semitic.) First and foremost is the double standard by which many anti-Israeli activists in the West hold Israel to: judging it harshly for things that any western democracy would do under similar situations: however much we might believe that the George W. Bush administration botched its war against al-Qaeda, any administration that failed to respond to the September 11th attacks would be seen as having lost its legitimacy on national security; similarly speaking Israel must act when rockets are being fired upon its cities or suicide bombers are blowing themselves up at border crossings and in city centers.

    Secondly, and perhaps more insidiously, is the Orwellian Newspeak used by anti-Israel activists: Settlements like Ariel are declared “illegal” despite their provisional status under the Oslo Accords; Israel is declared an “Apartheid State” when in fact non-Jewish citizens of Israel can vote, attend the top universities in the country, and serve in all branches of government, including elected office-- things that Apartheid regime never accorded black South-Africans. Israel’s responses to attacks on its citizenry are labeled “disproportionate” as if Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s use of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians as human shields, or the poor aim of rockets launched from Gaza or Southern Lebanon speak to Israeli vices and Arab virtue. And when this rhetoric is combined with pseudo-history and double-standards-- we have a noxious mix that is most certainly anti-Semitic and at the same time, works against Palestinian national aspirations.

  3. Hmmm. "Orwellian Newspeak." Somehow I think that term can cut both ways, Ian, so I'd be careful - in particular, I have to point out that the Palestinians are NOT "citizens of Israel," so your claims that the epithet of "apartheid" is inappropriate to Israel are essentially moot, and certainly count as some kind of doublespeak.

    And I guess I'm not sure how I should understand the West Bank settlements. What ARE they, exactly, and how could the Palestinians ever consider them legitimate? The land was conquered by Israel in 1967, yet it remains un-annexed - because, of course, if that were to happen, Jews would suddenly be a minority in Israel. I'm not going to call this "apartheid," but I'd be interested in hearing from you a specific explanation as to why it's not apartheid, just so I can describe it appropriately.

    At any rate, for whatever reason, there is a large population of non-Jewish people under Jewish military control - and then you have these strange "settlements," like frontier towns in Oklahoma Territory, that exist in some sort of diplomatic Twilight Zone (but which are obviously intended as a tactical buffer between Jerusalem, and Israel proper, and any invading army). And this situation - which defies the Geneva Conventions, most other diplomatic accords, and even common sense - has now been going on for almost 50 years.

    This, of course, complicates everything that Israel has endured over the past decades. I don't deny there are Arabs bent on its destruction, and I agree that terrorist actions like suicide bombings paint Israel into a corner. Still, Israel has also crushed uprisings like the Intifada as well - and of course the early Zionists engaged in terrorism, and bombings, to help bring about Israel's creation. The situation has become so tangled morally and politically that I simply cannot share your clarity about it. And I think you have to get used to this moral shadow coloring your idea of what counts as "anti-Semitic."

    As for the delay in my comment appearing at Clyde Fitch - I posted it on Friday, I believe, and by Monday evening it still had not appeared. I felt that was worthy of comment (I also emailed you about this before I put up my own post). But of course I'm glad it has finally seen the light of day.

  4. "Apartheid" isn't applicable for a number of reasons: Gaza is not occupied by Israel (Hamas certainly doesn't think so) and hasn't been occupied by Israel since 2005; the West Bank territories are partially under Israeli administration but have been transitioning to administration under the Palestinian Authority. Ultimately, the civil rights and human rights situation in the Palestinian territories is the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority-- with Israeli Defense Forces only becoming involved when it is a matter of Israeli security. If Israel isn't administering those area, then Israel can't be charged with running an Apartheid system in those areas.

    My point about the settlements is that while some are definitely illegal (such as Migron) others like Ariel are not: whatever the circumstances of their origin, their current status is governed by agreements signed between Israel and the PLO (the PA's predecessor) and so it's a political issue. This is not to say that I consider the settlements existence (both legal and illegal) to be conducive to a peaceful resolution to the conflict; I just don't buy that they comprise the great crime (or even misdemeanor) that most anti-Israeli activists maintain them to be-- after all, most anti-Israeli activists (both in the West and in the Arab world) are really more offended by the continued existence of a sovereign Jewish state (or Jewish people) in the region-- and this is why I regard their stance anti-Semitic. It's not the West Bank they see as occupied by Israel-- it's Israel that they see as occupied by Israel.

    Point is that Israel has repeatedly tried to relinquish control of the territories conquered in 1967 and only sometimes received partners for peace-- the Sinai was returned to Egypt and the peace has been kept for over three decades; Gaza was evacuated by Israel in 2005 and Hamas saw that as an excuse to make rocket attacks that culminated three years later in a war; Israel has been trying to give the West Bank to the PA 1993 in return for security, and the PA can't quite get itself to say "yes, we want our own country and live in peace with your country" and the Assads of Syria can't seem to say "yes" to trading the Golan for peace.

    I don't disagree with you that the circumstances are morally ambiguous at times; but I rather cut through the slogans and get to the facts which are complex and confusing enough as they are.

  5. Again, oh please. 45 years of occupation don't bother you all that much - they're not even "a misdemeanor" - but protests at a handful of Shakespeare performances in London have you up in arms. The horror! Do you have any idea how skewed your sense of moral proportion looks? Actually - never mind; I don't want to hear any more of this, it's just too depressing.

  6. I'm more bothered by the refusal by the Palestinian leadership to end the occupation with a stroke of a pen-- by agreeing to peace where no one-- but I should point out that most of what you do call "occupation" only occurs in the settlements where Israelis live and the checkpoints into Israel-- the places where the Palestinians live are largely administered by the PA. As I said before, I see a leadership that rather lose a war than win a peace.

  7. Ian, you may feel it's not an occupation, but I'm afraid practically the entire non-Jewish world feels otherwise. And I notice you seem unable to provide any sort of legitimate rationale for the settlements- instead you offer various legalistic quibbles over their de facto existence. And you never mention that these Oslo Accords you cling to basically gave much of the West Bank to Israel for military purposes anyway. You likewise seem unable to perceive the near-self-satire of the perennial offer "I will end this occupation just as soon as you promise no reprisals for this occupation!" Uh-huh. Seriously - I know I can never fully identify with you, because I'm not Jewish, but can't you see how much you sound like a character from "Seven Jewish Children"? (Which is probably why that play bothers you so much!)

  8. "I notice you seem unable to provide any sort of legitimate rationale for the settlements"

    Because I don't support them. (I guess I'm not as "staunch" as you would like me to be.) Though I recognize that some of the settlements are legal under Oslo (while others are clearly illegal and should be removed regardless of negotiations), I don't think they are conducive to the peace process-- a point I have made several times already.

    The Oslo Accords made Ariel legal (at least under a provisional basis-- they are pending "final status negotiations"); I support the peace process, so I support Oslo and the P.A. signed on to Oslo.

    At the same time, I also recognize that the settlements are not the sticking point preventing forward movement in the peace process-- as demonstrated by the response to the dismantling of the Gaza settlements in 2005. In fact, you should note that I have explicitly supported the removal of the Gaza settlements almost every time we have discussed these topics-- even though Hamas never responded with its own good will gesture.

    Essentially, this means I am agnostic on whether settlement removal will do any good-- I just want to see the Israelis and Palestinians to find a compromise that leads to a lasting peace-- if peace requires their removal, it should be done. If their removal just leads to another round of fighting, then what was the point?

    Gaza is not under occupation and hasn't been for almost seven years. (Note that Gaza is also where most of the violence comes from) and the occupation of the West Bank has been gradually lessening as more local authority has been passed onto the Palestinian Authority-- sorry, Tom, but those are facts.

    I already presented my reasons for disliking Seven Jewish Children: because it's racist agit-prop; and you have never been able to defend that point.

  9. So you agree with me about the settlements, essentially - or at least you don't "support" them (even if you make various attempts to claim that some of them are "legal" - i.e., condoned post-facto by negotiated settlement).

    The irony of your position, however, is that these same settlements were the crux of the letter you have repeatedly denounced as anti-Semitic. Here's the text:

    We notice with dismay and regret that Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London has invited Israel's National Theatre, Habima, to perform The Merchant of Venice in its Globe to Globe festival this coming May. The general manager of Habima has declared the invitation "an honourable accomplishment for the State of Israel". But Habima has a shameful record of involvement with illegal Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territory. Last year, two large Israeli settlements established "halls of culture" and asked Israeli theatre groups to perform there. A number of Israeli theatre professionals – actors, stage directors, playwrights – declared they would not take part.

    Habima, however, accepted the invitation with alacrity, and promised the Israeli minister of culture that it would "deal with any problems hindering such performances". By inviting Habima, Shakespeare's Globe is undermining the conscientious Israeli actors and playwrights who have refused to break international law.

    The Globe says it wants to "include" the Hebrew language in its festival – we have no problem with that. "Inclusiveness" is a core value of arts policy in Britain, and we support it. But by inviting Habima, the Globe is associating itself with policies of exclusion practised by the Israeli state and endorsed by its national theatre company. We ask the Globe to withdraw the invitation so that the festival is not complicit with human rights violations and the illegal colonisation of occupied land.

    You have insisted this letter is "anti-Semitic" - although it clearly is in alignment with the opinion of many Jewish theatre professionals; in fact, it's even in alignment, roughly, with YOUR OWN opinion. It is an attempt to put pressure on the settlements, pure and simple. There is no "blood libel" here, and no insults to Judaism, no wacky claims of Jewish conspiracies, no race hatred - no nothing, really, except an attempt to force a point of view on this issue with which you agree, at least in principle.

    Now perhaps a letter calling for a boycott on this basis is nevertheless wrong; I'm not sure I would have signed this document. But it is not per se anti-Semitic, and it is certainly nothing like a "blood libel" - indeed, it lies within the parameters of political speech and civil disobedience that one would expect in a functioning democracy.

    Yet you keep insisting that it is driven by hate and racism, rather than its stated aims, only because the same group didn't launch similar letters against, China, or oppressive African regimes. The trouble with that position, however, is that if such letters were indeed written, their targets could simply ignore their actual demands, as you have done, and insist the letters were written in a racist spirit. I've yet to hear the Chinese answer, when criticized over their treatment of Tibet, "Well, what about ISRAEL?" But that is essentially your tactic.

    So you can deploy general arguments against the boycott of Habima, but the anti-Semitic one just won't wash. Likewise your claims that "Seven Jewish Children" is racist is kooky; anyone reading the text (and it's here on the Hub Review) will see in a moment that it includes diverse voices, and actually attempts to conjure an atmosphere of argument and debate. So I'm disappointed to hear you repeating this slur over and over.

  10. "You have insisted this [March 29th] letter is "anti-Semitic" "

    Actually, I did not. I described the March 29th letter as hypocritical since the letter writers a.) are singling out an Israeli theatre company when arguably there are theatre companies from worse countries at the same festival; and b.) once one group of artists decide that it's okay to boycott other artists through tenuous associations, they give sanctions to the sort of disruptions seen at Habima's performance as well as similar boycotts and disruptions of their own work.

    (And for the record, I'm against cultural boycotts against any nationality-- I only boycott theatres for attempting to silence critics or bully actors.)

    Where I see the blood libel, insults to Judaism, and racial stereotypes is in Caryl Churchill's play (not the March 29th letter.) You call this a slur; I see the evidence in the text (as have others) most obvious fault is that Churchill engages in a deliberate misrepresentation of historical events-- but there are several tropes she uses that are precisely fodder for the type of anti-Semite you claim Churchill not to be.

    Point is that I had different comments regarding different documents-- and you are conflating my opinions on one for my opinions on another.

    I'd also note that the March 29th letter wasn't addressed to Habima, or any other Israeli institution: it was addressed to a London theatre demanding they rescind the invitation to Habima while not demanding similar revoking of invitations to companies funded by far worse regimes-- which is precisely why your argument that a more repressive regime would simply ignore a boycott attempt is not salient.

    Ultimately though, this boycott attempt is because out of the 1500 performances Habima presented last year, two were in a settlement that the Oslo accords recognize as being under Israeli jurisdiction (unless final status negotiations say otherwise.) Yes, I'm not a fan of the settlement movement and question whether it is good for Israel's future, but I am way more concerned about both Israeli and Palestinian lives being lost in a conflict that could have ended decades ago or whether there can be a lasting peace during which both nations can prosper economically and culturally, than about which nationality lives on and which flag is flown over which hill.

  11. Ok, maybe I'm wrong about your directly calling the letter anti-Semitic. But that implication is all over your article(s).

    You do say the letter is an example of "totalitarian group-think," and you call the protestors "hooligans;" you also link the content of the letter to one of its signatories, Caryl Churchill, whose work you say is anti-Semitic "due to its invocation of the blood libel, gross distortion of the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and crude ethnic stereotypes of Jews." Needless to say, I don't think Caryl Churchill or her plays are anti-Semitic; what's more, they don't invoke the blood libel, they don't grossly distort history, and they don't deal in crude ethnic stereotypes of Jews. In fact everything you say in that sentence is objectively false, I'd argue, although I'd be happy to examine any particular passage from "Seven Jewish Children" to see where you've think you see the basis for these claims. (You also later call the play "crude anti-Semitic agitprop," just for good measure.)

    You are also, I'm afraid, very (very, very) close to calling the letter anti-Semitic when you say, "With the March 29th letter, the story had gone from activists attempting to silence artists not because of the content of the work but for their identity." Hmmm - their identity? What identity might that be? This basically says the letter is anti-Jewish in general, rather than directed toward any specific Israeli policy. And I disagree with you on that as well. I also disagree with the idea that the letter would be better based on "silencing artists because of their work;" the letter is clearly designed to block cultural propaganda efforts by Israel, not the work of any specific artists. You may not feel that the performance was a propaganda effort, but I think the signatories did.

  12. Yes: I do think that people who disrupt artistic events because they dislike the country from which the artists hail from are "hooligans", "philistines", and possess a totalitarian mind-set. Guilty as charged!

    I also think that the BDS movement, besides having not improved the lot of Palestinians anywhere and having not furthered the peace process, serves only as a.) a rallying cry for hatred of Israel; and b.) a smokescreen for anti-Semites to gain legitimacy through association with more the politically naïve members of the movement.

    "the letter is clearly designed to block cultural propaganda efforts by Israel, not the work of any specific artists."

    The BDS movement as a whole (and yes there may be members of the movement who take a more nuanced position-- but they appear to be the minority) attempt to block any Israeli culture abroad. Really? A Shakespeare play is Israeli propaganda? A Webern composition is Israeli propaganda? Does all it take is an Israeli performer to make (or at least be suspected of being) Israeli propaganda?

    You really want argue that that is neither anti-Semitic nor totalitarian?

    Sorry, I said the ugly truth about one of your favorite contemporary playwrights. It's hard to hear something negative about a hero.

  13. Caryl Churchill put her finger on the moral quandary Israel faces. What's more, she portrayed Jews as uncertain, or even guilty about, their actions. Hence the chorus of neurotic howling.

    To my mind, the people who wrote the letter opposing Habima's appearance were resisting the deployment of the Western oppression of the Jews as justification for controversial Israel policies. Again, this is a deep moral quandary for Israel's supporters. Hence more howling.

    If people disrupt theatrical performances with political banners and shout back at the stage, perhaps that only means that for once something is truly at stake. As I said, this may be a turning point in the cultural history of "The Merchant of Venice," one in which the Holocaust narrative begins to rub shoulders with the Israel narrative. It will be interesting to see whether Jewish intellectuals will be able to countenance that shift.