As someone who has been engaged in the defence of Israel against the unremitting assault on its legitimacy over the past few decades, I am used to being sent articles for comment. Thus it came as no surprise when I received a letter concerning a piece which had appeared in the South African political website, Polity, entitled “Imploding the Myth of Israel” with the request to respond. I glanced at it and my heart sank: it looked like someone had held a grotesque distorting mirror up to the country I knew and produced a vile caricature so replete with lies and paranoid fantasies that it was unrecognisable.
I put it aside for a moment since at the time I was engaged in an anguished correspondence with a friend, a South African expatriate who had spent most of his life in Israel establishing a reputation for meticulous historical scholarship, with decidedly liberal (in my view unrealistically so) views and scrupulous honesty. Since we were unable to find each other in our correspondence, I sent him the article for his comment and asked whether although overstated and hysterical in tone was he not in basic agreement with the thrust of the accusations being made. This is the reply I received “As for this article it is indeed an abominable, hate-filled tissue of distortions and calumnies. I can’t find words of condemnation strong enough to excoriate it.”
Indeed neither could I, so I started by doing some research on the author, Chris Hedges, and what I found was intensely interesting. Born into a progressive Presbyterian family, he won a scholarship to a wealthy liberal private school where he came into contact with rich classmates, an impact which was to have a profound impact on the rest of his life. In his own words, “I spent time in the homes of the ultra-rich and powerful, watching my classmates, who were children, callously order around men and women who worked as their chauffeurs, cooks, nannies and servants… My hatred of authority, along with my loathing for the pretensions, heartlessness and sense of entitlement of the rich, comes from living among the privileged. It was a deeply unpleasant experience. But it exposed me to their insatiable selfishness and hedonism. I learned, as a boy, who were my enemies.”
And so it was. Blessed with brains and a driving zealotry, Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and entered journalism, in the pursuit of which he spent 15 years with the New York Times as their foreign correspondent – including over 4 years as Middle East Bureau chief, which possibly accounts for their egregiously anti-Israel slant in part. But Hedges was the complete zealot, which meant never having a moment’s doubt about his two-dimensional, Manichean view of the world: the evil rich and successful versus the oppressed poor and minorities. Reality played no or little part in this vision. Facts could be ignored, twisted, distorted and created out of thin air so long as they fitted the moral and paranoid mental universe of the mild-looking Hedges.
These characteristics won him a Pulitzer prize and also a reprimand from the New York Times for “public remarks that could undermine public trust in the paper’s impartiality.” But Hedges is made of sterner stuff. He resigned from the newspaper and continued his crusading career as writer, activist and journalist. His 2007 book “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America” evoked accolades and strong criticism. The latter is worth quoting, (Hedges) “confuses political activism with totalitarian violence. … Like all Americans, conservative Christians have the right to pursue their political objectives through peaceful and democratic means. Which is precisely what they have done….Hedges attacks conservative Christians with the nastiest of slurs, revealing a frightening ignorance.” Elsewhere Hedges claims “And what I’m willing to do, which the mainstream church is not, is to denounce the Christian right as Christian heretics.” And in the same interview he stated “And my great mentor at Harvard Divinity School, James Luther Adams [applause], …(said) that when we were his age we would all be fighting the Christian fascists.”
So by temperament and training, Hedges is a zealot, an inquisitor, a crusader. His opponents are not merely wrong they are evil. They do not act, ever, out of human stupidity or confusion, or prejudice or ignorance or self-interest (all of which are bad enough): they are fascists or proto-fascists engaged in gigantic projects of pillage and dispossession. And to make sure that his vision is seamless and coherent, Hedges makes facts fit the vision and not the vision fit the facts. Brilliant and very ordinary minds are all prone to such paranoid modes of thought. What makes clever people like Hedges so dangerous and destructive is that they are terribly convincing. Their ability to marshal plausible arguments makes rational and careful thought difficult to sustain under the onslaught of fiction and fact and terrifying claims of conspiracy and deliberate evil. But let’s try.
He starts as follows “Israel has been poisoned by the psychosis of permanent war. It has been morally bankrupted by the sanctification of victimhood, which it uses to justify an occupation that rivals the brutality and racism of apartheid South Africa. Its democracy—which was always exclusively for Jews—has been hijacked by extremists who are pushing the country toward fascism.” These are utterly dishonest assertions, unsupported by the slightest evidence. Israel was created specifically to escape the fate of Jew as helpless victim; to create a new Jew capable of taking his own destiny into his hands. Israeli children are sent to Auschwitz not strengthen the idea of Jew as victim but to show the consequences of victimhood and to ensure that Israeli Jews are strong and independent enough to withstand the unrelenting hostility of their neighbours and of Western zealots like Hedges. The claim that Israeli democracy is “exclusively for Jews” is simply a lie. Israeli Arabs have precisely the same civic rights and privileges as Jews. They vote for their own candidates or Jewish candidates freely, serve on Knesset committees and in the Judiciary. Only one party has ever been banned from the Knesset and it was a Jewish party. In fact the Knesset tolerates levels of critical comment from some of its Arab members that borders on sedition, sometimes to the despair of their fellow Jewish citizens.
Let’s take another example: Hedges writes, talking of Operation Cast Lead in response to 8 years of mortar and rocket fire, “This massive aerial and ground assault against a defenseless civilian population that is surrounded by the Israeli army, a population without an organized military, air force, air defenses, navy, heavy artillery or mechanized units, caused barely a ripple of protest inside Israel from the left or the right. It was part of the ongoing business of slaughtering (my emphasis) the other.” In that operation no more than 1500 people were killed, at least 50 % combatants despite the Hamas tactic of using civilians as shields and embedding rocket and mortar sites in schools and residences. Israel used elaborate pamphlet drops, loudspeaker warnings and even small percussion devices to reduce risk to civilians despite every effort by Hamas to provoke such casualties for propaganda purposes. Given the fact that there are 1.5 million Gazans in a confined space and that the Israeli Defence Force had totally overwhelming military firepower, it easily could have killed every Gazan in the space of 3 weeks. The Syrian civil war has claimed close on 150 000 deaths, approximately 100 times the casualty rate Israel inflicted on the Gazans after threats of extinction of the Jewish state and thousands of shells into Israeli civilian areas. The claim is an outrageous lie from beginning to end.
And so it goes throughout the article which was written in support of a fellow demagogue and zealot, Max Blumenthal. I have no doubt that the article and Blumenthal’s book, Goliath, will have considerable currency in certain circles. Both will become part of the poison which is systematically circulated in order to bring down the Jewish state of Israel.
There is also no doubt that Hedges regards himself as a moral man in an immoral world. He occupies the mental universe of the zealot or the fanatic. Messy reality holds little appeal. The zealot requires a moral universe in which good and evil are clear and distinct and if facts get in the way, so much the worse for facts. Such people, especially if they are intelligent and just sufficiently in touch with reality to appeal to the darker side of his fellow humans, are potentially terrifying forces for destruction. The great slaughters of history are brought about in considerable measure by ordinary people swept up in the dark fantasies of zealots possessed by visions of evil and good engaged in momentous struggles for supremacy. It is impossible to have measured debates with such people. There are no gradations. Compromise is cowardly and that right to varying extent may exist on both sides of a conflict is intolerable to such minds.
“Imploding the Myth of Israel” is both evil and dangerous precisely because it is so utterly convinced of its own moral perfection. It, like the book it supports, is wholly contemptible.
Prof Mike Berger