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July 26, 2014
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Marelise van der Merwe is a gifted and morally aware writer as evidenced by her sincerely troubled article in the Daily Maverick titled, “In tolerating Israel-Palestine prejudices, we re-enact our own divisions”. It was a painful read, partly because I am heavily invested in the conflict, partly because the conflict is an existential one for Israel, and possibly in a sense for the Jewish people, but also because despite the author’s undoubted intelligence and goodwill it was so catastrophically off the mark.
Briefly about myself: I started adult (indeed pre-adult) life as a liberal, a passionate idealist, a kneejerk universalist. I abhorred “racism” in any of its manifold disguises (and still do) and, like all of such disposition, believed that magnanimity, empathy and intelligent “commonsense” was all that was needed to set the world to rights. My heart bled for the downtrodden (no irony or hyperbole intended) and I acted on such beliefs. But what I was not aware of was my own intolerant sense of moral and intellectual superiority and abysmal ignorance. That realisation has come slowly and very painfully and the causal chain is worth briefly recounting.
Firstly, I was troubled by the personal ethical failings of many of those whose political views I broadly shared, recognising in them the deficiencies I failed initially to detect in myself. Secondly, I was saved by a passionate involvement with science and deeply respectful of its commitment to hard evidence, rigour and its celebration of the power of theory to productively construct reality. Finally, life itself was an effective teacher, which showed that many of my most treasured assumptions were born of ignorance, idealism untethered to reality and ephemeral and contingent fashions.
From this chastened but wiser and better informed position, I will simply enumerate the missing links and conclusions in Marelise’s article.
To equate Islamophobia with anti-Semitism reflects a degree of moral blindness, absence of historical insight and intellectual rigour only explicable by the distorting effects of an unconscious and unexamined ideology. To take only the most obvious differences: there are 1.4 billion Muslims and 14 million Jews. Muslims are the majority in at least 43 countries (projected to become 50 by 2030), the Jews in one. The countries of the Arab League alone occupy 13.3 million km2. Israel occupies 27 000 km2. The Jews have been subjected throughout the last two millennia to near existential expulsions, exclusion, marginalisation and systematic murder culminating, a bare 7 decades ago, in a determined attempt at genocide in the heart of Europe. Failure to admit into discussion these foundational facts fill the ordinary Jew with rage and despair, for if this reality cannot be recognised and fully acknowledged then how is it possible even to speak about justice and resolution, nevermind reconciliation?
The Jews are part of Western civilisation; indeed they have contributed hugely to it- again a fact which, in many histories, is minimised or ignored altogether. It is this Western story which has produced stable, prosperous democracies, freedom and the elevation of human rights to an elevated status in the ethical pantheon – together with a number of ills which are not directly germane to my argument. Israel is a prime example of the Jewish contribution to the best of the Western ethos along almost any dimension you wish to name. Considering her origins and modern history, this is a remarkable accomplishment. It is possible that you are not fully aware of Israel’s tangible and intangible achievements, which would not be surprising given the media bias, but they are readily ascertainable.
The Islamic world on the whole has not shared in this trajectory. For complex historical and possibly cultural reasons, which I am not equipped to deal with, the Muslim world fares extremely poorly on indices of human rights, human development, political freedom and innovation. This is not a reflection of inherent inability since Muslims generally fare well when integrated into Western societies. The only rational interpretation lies in politics and culture.
But, of course, the story is far worse than a simple failure to keep pace. Islam has taken a catastrophic turn with the rise of the various strains of Islamism which has precipitated huge sections of the Muslim world into violent turmoil and mass destruction. The sheer scale is horrendous and is recorded almost daily in the media; there is no need for conspiracy theories or wild leaps of imagination. This reality has been spelt out recently in The Economist, no friend to Israel, so ignorance is no longer a respectable intellectual position. The rise of nihilist, terror groups like Hamas, addicted to violence and hatred which confers the only true meaning to their lives, is a genuine global threat.
The self-defined “enlightened elite”, of which I was very much a part, and much of the Muslim world itself deals with this uncomfortable reality by well-studied techniques of denial: selective failure to admit this into overt consciousness and certainly not into analysis, refusal to connect the dots, shift of blame to others (the “West” or Israel or tyrannical rulers) or maligning anyone who points to the blindingly obvious as racist. To this array of psychological defense mechanisms must be added “deflection of attention”, especially towards Israel’s alleged transgressions, eagerly abetted by a conformist and cowardly media.
Even when these realities are reluctantly conceded, a new strategy emerges: the elevation of Palestinians to the status of a distinct, national identity, miraculously divorced from the disastrous Arab world of which they are an integral part sharing religion, language, ethnicity and, notably, similar cultural-ideological narratives. In fact, an entire fictional structure has been erected around this newly invented people, the Palestinians, who have thereby acquired an ancient identity grounded in the lands that they never possessed which, nonetheless, have been stolen from them by Jews driven by the racist and exclusivist ideology, Zionism. Thus we have an “Israeli-Palestinian” conflict in some quite astonishing way entirely divorced from the multiple other conflicts in which the Arab-Islamic world is embroiled.
This shameless invention of history has been swallowed and endlessly repeated by supposedly educated populations and implicitly drives the virulent rejection of Israel by sections of the West.
The upshot of these multiple falsehoods is to deny the existential threat to Israel openly and proudly posed by Hamas, to shamelessly use the newly minted, Palestinian people as the battering ram in the struggle against the small, Jewish enclave in the Middle East and to undermine the moral basis of Western society. For what the current calumny amounts to is the sacrifice of Israel to appease the barbarians and to disguise the moral confusion and nihilism of Western elites? For some Black people in South Africa, Israel serves as a surrogate for the hated and envied white population, a role Jews have been assigned repeatedly in history. Thus destructive rage and frustration can be safely channelled towards Israel and the Jews, to the muted and shameful applause of more sophisticated anti-Semites.
This cowardly abdication of moral responsibility represents an abandonment of moderate Muslims and the release of irrationality, fear and rage into the global political sphere. The last time this happened was prior to WW2 and the Holocaust. The lid of Pandora’s Box is being wilfully opened and unless it is rapidly closed again, the Jews will not be the only victims. My only, rather faint, hope is that ordinary people (often denied a voice in our media) and many Western leaders do grasp these realities and will act with sufficient resolution to stem the tide of chaos and violence being loosed upon the Middle East and the world.
Israel was born in fire and blood and will not acquiesce readily in her own destruction. The Jews of the Diaspora stand with her in this time of ultimate need. But I, for one, will never forget the betrayal of the Jews by the supposedly liberal Western elite.