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A Correspondence: Shaun de Waal and Mike Berger

I publish here, unedited and unexpurgated, the correspondence between myself and Shaun de Waal – undoubtedly one of the most honourable and informed journalists on the South African landscape. It arose out of his rejection of my article submitted to the M&G – see my previous post “Zimmerman and Israel…”.

Get yourself a cup of coffee, start at the top and read right through. Follow the one link included (it is indirectly part of the narrative). I have given Shaun the last word here but in due course will take up some of the themes which emerge. Your responses will be appreciated.


Mike Berger


To Mike

Thanks for this, Mike, but I won’t be using it. Apart from the Zimmerman  frame, it’s pretty much what you wrote at greater length on politicsweb, was it? The Media Team Israel thing? (It’s also the same thing that the rebarbative Steve Apfel tried to shove down my throat, but that’s another matter.)

I hope this is not now going to lead to a row and accusations of the kind I usually get if I refuse to publish anything pro-Israel (biased, anti-Semitic, etc). But I don’t want to publish this any more than I want to publish a BDS piece saying once again how Israel is evil and reiterating, yet again, why boycotts etc are so necessary.

What I’d really like is something fresh on the prospects for peace, or is it too early in the process?


 To Shaun

I suppose I could be offended at your suggestion that I would be accusing you of anti-semitism; I think I have greater discretion than that. Nor do I think that my piece has anything in common with the standard BDS line and I’m surprised that you do not see the distinction. I would be happy to explain my position on this. And I think the Zimmerman frame does bring a fresh perspective.

But be that as it may, you suggest I do an article on the prospects for peace. Seriously? In the Middle East can anyone seriously think that the Israel-Palestinian issue is at the core of what ails the region and that it is possible to achieve “peace” given the state of the Arab-Muslim world at present? If you are prepared to contemplate a wider frame than the prospects of an Israeli-Pal peace I would be prepared to tackle it.

Please let me know.


To Mike

Mike, I’m sorry to anticipate the kind of response I got from others. I didn’t say there’s no distinction between your views and those of BDS, just comparing two kinds of propaganda from different sides.

I would indeed like a piece on the prospects for Mideast peace, from your point of view. The point you make in your piece, about  the widespread, almost cultural, antisemitism in muslim communities, is important – and of course not acknowledged in the Western anti-Israel discourse. But if you attack on that ground, having asserted without argument that the West Bank settlements, say, are “not illegal”, there’s the danger that you will come across as a mere Muslim-basher. The pro-Israel discourse that focuses on how evil and tyrannical all the Arab countries are begins to look like an attempt to distract attention from Israel’s own issues, besides coming across as racist.


 To Shaun

It is pointless for us to get into a debate here but of course I can make the argument that the settlements are not illegal. That will take up a whole article. Fisk asserts (essentially lies) that Israel steals Palestinian land and he is treated as a respected journalist. I can spend of course my 1000 words doing an egg dance around the difference between Islamist and Islam – a distinction which I make repeatedly (perhaps to excess). Where does Muslim bashing come into my writing unless pointing out hard facts comes across as just too crude for polite society.

Israel’s ‘own issues”???  What precisely do you mean by that? Do you refer, for instance, to the fact that Israel has racists? So does Britain – probably more. Britain also had colonies on which the sun never set and still is in some ways a greedy Imperialist country – see Gibraltar and the Falklands. If you really want to compare Israel and the WB – who do you think comes across as the real colonisers?

Sorry Shaun but I reject your squeamishness when faced with uncomfortable truths. I have seen where that leads and I will not be part of it.

But since you guard the gate to media access I will play by your rules up to a point.


 To Mike

What you take as squeamishness about uncomfy truths is me trying to end up with an article that I can publish. It’s not just me who guards this gate; I have to “sell” this to my colleagues, editor et al! I have to be able to say that we may disagree with the piece, or aspects of it, but it’s cogent and makes a good argument.

I’d love you to read a piece that was online recently and give me your honest views of it, simply as a reader with some sense of political etc polemic and disputation. Then, and this is an important part of this exercise, please tell me why, as far as you can see, I refused to publish it (in the paper; I don’t ”gatekeep” online).

Such an exercise, which should only take a few minutes, will clarify perhaps how I work with these kinds of issues in writing for the M&G.


 To Shaun

I cannot believe that you remotely equate my article with this mishmash of fantasy BS mixed with academic jargon and some post-modern-anti-colonial-anti-white-anti-imperialist language all of its own.(Added – see the link provided by Shaun in the previous note)

My article dealt with concrete FACTS almost entirely. The few “unsupported” opinions ventured (eg. the aims and modus operandi of the BDS project) are indeed supported by their own claims and by extremely powerful supportive indirect evidence.

For god’s sake – if Mngxitama is really in favour of indigenisation does that mean that the West should immediately export its black and Asian populations back to their homelands and that the Americans should export all their Hispanics, Jews (?) and who knows – Irish and Italian communities back to their respective homelands – including Israel? And so on and on…. It is ridiculous but there it appears as large as life in the M&G.

What he has got hold of is the uncomfortable reality that humans form groups through which struggle for power and resources are waged often disguised of course. This is an issue which at best can be managed – never cured. These grand schemes, totally untethered to any reality, espoused by the likes of Mngxitama are also disguised grabs for power and resources as well as paranoid fantasy dressed up in pseudo-intellectual jargon.  The only “facts” I could find in the article was the mining shares distributions in Zim and the allegation that white queers “attacked” black queers. The rest was a nothing but an undigested stew of fashionable assertions – which remarkably gets plenty of space in the M & G Comment and Analysis page.

Any social psychologist would also point out that his article is riddled with what is called “essentialist” fallacy in which a complex reality is reduced to one unchanging essence. This goes on all the time in politics and to some extent it is inevitable. But if anyone wishes to be serious they need to be deeply aware of the insidious nature of this psychological tendency in human thought and of course, Mngxitama ploughs on in blissful ignorance.

Shaun you wage your battles and I’ll wage mine. But if I have to produce the PC correct BS that you sent me to get into the M&G count me out. I just don’t know how.


PS. Your one serious criticism of my article is that it’s repetitious. But it has to be since the political discourse re Israel is simply a constant recycling of the same tedious distortions, myths, exaggerations and outright lies. In short we are reduced to wiping off the crap deposited regularly on Israel’s doorstep. How can I not be repetitious?

PSS I have 2 black grandchildren whom we adore and likewise adore us. Is that white colonialisation? If so let’s all do it.


 To Mike

Mike, you misunderstand me. Again. I’m not talking about the substantive issues, as such, I’m trying to reach an understanding of what, by me, is publishable in the M&G — as a solid, readable piece of work that stands a chance of being read by people who haven’t taken a side already on the argument, or at least are open to opposing views.

I said to Andile that his piece, as a piece of writing, is derailed by the fact that he says Mugabe is the Great Liberator/Saint. I said that at that point most of our readers will stop reading. If you write about the external obstacles to peace in Israel-Palestine, but you throw in the “fact” that the settlements are “not illegal”, that is where most readers will stop: they will think, as I did, ”Oh, he’s a Zionist, the rest will be the usual.” And you stop reading.

That’s all. I’m trying to make a space for pieces that I might disagree with but can at least buy the argument qua argument. I don’t want to have to stop and retread the whole “settlements are not illegal” debate. I say leave that aside, in your piece, and talk about the rest. Without making it sound like you’re simply excoriating all the Arabs and Muslims for the lack of peace in Israel. Is that too much to ask of a writer?


 To Shaun

I understand you’re trying to help me. But here it is: You say “If you write about the external obstacles to peace in Israel-Palestine, but you throw in the “fact” that the settlements are “not illegal”, that is where most readers will stop: they will think, as I did, ”Oh, he’s a Zionist, the rest will be the usual.” And you stop reading.”

But of course I am a Zionist and I would hope that you’re one too. Fisk repeats over and over that the settlements are “illegal” and Israel is “stealing” Palestinian land and it get published without any obstacle whatsoever.

Why? Is that the certified narrative and thus is the default position? Then tell me how I go about changing it without being labelled as you indicate?

I can devote an article to that issue. Will you print it? If not why should I not conclude that behind all the verbal undergrowth lies the moat of what is considered by the respectable press as OK facts and what facts are simply not OK, even if demonstrably true?

Then what has journalism become and where are your claims (and those of the M & G) to journalistic integrity?

In essence you’re saying I can suggest carefully that Hitler (for instance) is a danger to the “free world” as long as I make sure that I don’t refer to his paranoidal fantasies regarding Jews and racial purity. That would be too much for polite society to contemplate…this leading to the disastrous state of the allies at the start of WW2. So I am not allowed to point out the demonstrably true fact that large swathes of the Muslim world would be happy to contemplate the destruction of Israel and the rest of global Jewry along with them.

And thus we have all the progressive Western outrage against the army coup (and coup it was) but nothing about the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is the root of much of the current Islamist movement and has no democratic credentials or aspirations. Or the fact that they in all likelihood stole the election in the first place. And just where do you think the kind of Western pusillanimity espoused by the M & G leaves the genuinely democratic hopefuls within the Muslim community?


 To Shaun

I would not have written in the depth I have without believing that you are an honourable and intelligent journalist. That is what makes your position so frightening and disillusioning. There are members of the Zionist community who feel that I am wasting my time in this kind of discussion. Play by the “rules” and try at least to provide some counterbalance to the flood of hate literature and propaganda from the anti-Zionist camp, which is deemed to be perfectly acceptable to our media – with some rare and honourable exceptions.

I too guess that is better than nothing – and apparently the most we can hope for – but in the long run it is going to fail us. So I will continue pushing the envelope while abiding by the rules governing  a grossly unequal playing field.

You are welcome to have the last word if you wish to but nothing I write is confidential unless I have specifically requested it. I trust you are equally ready to stand by your positions in public.

Thus I will await your response but wish to make this exchange public for comment.


 To Mike

Just to respond to some points here, if you really want to have this argument. But clearly we need to take some steps back and clarify our positions here, cos you don’t seem to be going with my views as the editor of a comment section of a newspaper trying to balance different views. Obviously we can’t keep it on the level of what I think is a good piece to publish and what isn’t, so we have to go to the level of “facts” and what we believe to be true.

No, I’m not a Zionist. Why would I be?

My own position is this. Israel was founded as a nationalistic, ethnic and colonial project. It involved the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from many areas. It tried to be a democracy, but it’s an ethnically defined democracy, and it has certainly oppressed the hell out of the Palestinians in the occupied territories since 1967. The settlements in those areas since then are a form of land grab and are generating an “apartheid Israel”. They stand in the way of peace; they are probably the most important ”internal” element in the way of peace in Israel-Palestine.

At the same time, I accept that, how ever Israel was founded, it’s there now and a solution should be found.

External factors, of course, as you point out, militate against peace too: the tyrannies of the Arab countries, the disorder there (Syria), the deep-seated antisemitism of many Muslims. Israel became the whipping boy and their favorite bogeyman, an ideological enemy to unite their people. This is unjust, but Israel didn’t help at all with its various military interventions (Lebanon, Cast Lead, etc), and the settlements are a problem: they kill the two-state solution. (The one-state solution will never fly because Jews don’t want to be outvoted, much like white South Africans under apartheid.) Even my friend Benjy Pogrund in Jerusalem, who spends his life trying to explain why Israel is not an “apartheid state”, says the settlements are “disastrous”.

I thought Mervyn Bennun’s views on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, as published in M&G, were eminently sensible, but they were met with howls of protest — I don’t know if you read the letters. Ben Levitas replied to Bennun in a proposed opinion piece, but what he gave me was the whole ethnic-religious-identity schpiel, all the way back to Abraham, which one’s read/heard before a million times — one could have sent Ben’s piece straight to Schlomo Sand as a perfect example of “The invention of the Jewish people”.

So, if those are my views, are they anti-Israel? Am I then “biased”? I think I’m a pretty independent outsider who’s read a fair amount on the subject, seen the documentaries, discussed it with various people of varying persuasions and identity affiliations, and come to these conclusions — if I am, in fact, forced to take an ideological position here. I try not to, really; I try to keep an open mind, and I try not to fall into the view of my colleague Pat Tucker, who says, when it comes to Israel and Palestine, “A pox on both their houses.” It’s hard, though.

You may say that if those are my views then clearly I’ve been brainwashed by the hate avalanche. (When, by the way, did we publish such hate in the M&G’s opinion pages?)

I don’t like Islam, but then I’m anti-religion in general. Religion as a political mobilizing tool is particularly odious.

You can argue the settlements are not illegal, as has been done, as you know, since 1967. I don’t buy it. The UN doesn’t buy it. And no amount of quibbling about it is going to convince anyone (though obviously it helps justify it to Israelis). I don’t want to read about it any more; it’s same old, same old. Even if the settlements aren’t technically illegal, they are wrong. This is the mainstream position — nothing unusual about that. Fisk says they are illegal because the UN says so. If Israeli settlements in the West Bank are not a land grab, what are they?

I am beginning to suspect that the uncomfortable truth the Zionists won’t face is that they have lost the argument. That’s why they just keep repeating the old ones.



That’s it folk!




2 responses to “A Correspondence: Shaun de Waal and Mike Berger

  1. Bev Goldman August 21, 2013 at 10:33 am

    Like many others who tell you the same thing, Mike, I think you’re waging a losing battle. Your arguments are sound and valid but you’re never going to change Shaun’s mind on anything you say, and merely become more and more frustrated. Leave it alone – it achieves nothing other than giving more ammunition to his point of view which is of course highly regarded because of his position in, and the reputation of, the M&G – Liberal, espousing balance (!) and the favourite of the intellectual elites.



    • Mike Berger August 21, 2013 at 10:53 am

      I certainly take your point Bev, but I’m NOT frustrated and will use my next post (after a photographic trip to the Karoo and a visit to family in JHB and Sondela) to take up some issues. I am not sure that Shaun is as fixed as you say and “converting” someone like Shaun – not necessarily into an ardent Zionist – but into a more balanced and insightful commentator- would be a great achievement. Rightly he carries weight in the media world.

      Not dismissing other approaches of course. In the end simple power counts. Mike


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