Saturday, January 3, 2009

Barghouti Bloviates (Old Whine in New Battles)

No, not Marwan. Another member of the clan.

Mustafa Barghouti is well known in Palestinian circles as a physician, parliamentarian, and reformer who has campaigned for a robust civil society and the elimination of corruption in the Palestinian Authority. He gained wider attention when he ran in the campaign to succeed Yasser Arafat as PA President and is still spoken of as a likely candidate for that office. Lately, he has been in the news again, making the media rounds as a commentator on the Gaza conflict--most recently, today in two interviews on CNN.

Unfortunately, what he said--above and beyond the usual platitudes about regret for loss of all human life and the ultimate need for a political settlement--was as callous and disingenuous as it was preposterous:
• Israeli politicians have staged this "bloodbath" in order to bolster their chances in the February elections
• as the world's fourth-largest arms exporter, Israel is using Gaza as a "field for experimenting [sic] their military equipment"
• the ground incursion was “first step of full re-occupation”
• Israel's government "seems not to consider Palestinians equal human beings," for "Israel is conducting this terrible war not on[sic] Hamas, but on Palestinian children"
• therefore, "it's like Warsaw Ghetto" [sic]
As if this were not enough, he attributed this bloodlust to Judaism itself, accusing Israel of hypocrisy for attacking on the Sabbath:
"The Jewish religion says you cannot fix your car on Saturday--but you can kill people."
His anger rises, the façade falls: Yes, those nasty Jews. Not Israel or Zionism (often a euphemism anyway), but "the Jewish religion." The Jews.

In how many was is his statement wrong, deeply offensive, or both?

• First, traditional Judaism makes an exception from the strict Sabbath prohibitions on work and violence for the purpose of saving a human life. The Rabin government lost the support of religious parties and collapsed in 1976 because a delivery of new US fighter planes arrived after the Sabbath had begun: the military need was not a matter of life and death. By contrast, defensive war is therefore permitted. That's how the government of Israel sees the Gaza conflict; Barghouti is at pains to refute that view, but that's not the issue here.

• Second, it is dismaying to see Barghouti step so close to the line of outright antisemitism: the image of the Jew as sinister casuist filled with an ingrained hatred of gentiles is a staple of the discourse from the Middle Ages to the modern Middle East.
His smear is moreover as ironic as it is dismaying, given that the fascist Islamists of Hamas have been concealing weapons in mosques and other civilian sites. And if he finds it hypocritical for Jews to wage war on the Sabbath, then we can recall the October 1973 war, in which Arab armies attacked Israel--in what they regarded as a legitimate war of defensive reconquest--during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. In fact, it's called the "Ramadan War" in the Arab world. There's no fundamental difference on this level--except that the Arabs chose to attack on the holiest day of their enemy, Yom Kippur.

• Third, and finally: the Gaza ground op was actually begun after the Sabbath (bummer, dude; buy a watch).

One's first and charitable reaction would be to dismiss Barghouti's statements as mere words--careless words--spoken in anger. Certainly, they are a disorganized laundry list. (So why did the Israelis decide to engage in difficult urban combat that runs the risk of high casualties and global opprobrium: to win elections, make money, or just kill babies? Who knows? Your guess is as good as mine. The classic antisemitic stereotype has no problem in embracing all: that's the nature of irrational demonization.)

Barghouti's anger may be understandable, but unfortunately, those words were quite deliberately chosen and part of a long-standing pattern of distortion and invective. Words matter.

Less than a week ago--in Palestine's Guernica and the Myths of Israeli Victimhood--Barghouti likened Israel's air campaign in Gaza to one of the notable atrocities of the 20th century on the grounds of high loss of life, which, he claims, was due to deliberate targeting of civilians. To be sure, there is room among thoughtful people for discussion of the military tactics and moral dimensions of Israel's air campaign--but that's just the point: In the case of Guernica, there is no room for debate, so the comparison is obscene.

In order to make the point absolutely clear, let's take a closer look, especially because there seems to be an effort afoot to make Guernica the new preferred analogy of opprobrium (truth be told, that old Warsaw Ghetto comparison was starting to look like a worn-out bedroom slipper).

In the case of Guernica:

Nazi aircraft supporting Franco's forces in the Spanish Civil War attacked the Basque town of Guernica in 1937--a defenseless site without military value (except a bridge, which was not touched)--on a busy market day, in three waves: dropping explosive bombs and hand grenades, maching-gunning the fleeing civilians, and then completing the job with incendiary bombs. It was an early instance of terror bombardment, intended purely to kill and to demoralize. The Luftwaffe used the incident to test new weapons and strategies--so now we know where Barghouti picked up that accusation, though his addition of the commercial interest is an original touch (inadvertently again echoing the old antisemitic stereotype, also found in the Hamas Charter: the Jews "were behind World War II, through which they made huge financial gains by trading in armaments.")

In the case of Gaza:

Israel--again, whatever disagreements one may have with either the military or moral calculations of the campaign--has not deliberately targeted civilians. That is a fact. One can of course debate the relation between intentions and results. But facts speak loudly. In fact, Israel's armed forces training and Supreme Court decisions have very firmly set limits on what the military can and cannot do. In order to minimize civilian casualties, the Israel Air Force has used the latest low-impact "smart" weaponry and moreover even warns civilians of impending attacks by means ranging from pamphlets, to individual sms and cell-phone calls, and warning shots. Although it is simply not true (pace, Barghouti)--as most reporters and commentators have taken uncritically to repeating--that Gaza is "the most densely populated place in the world" (or words to that effect), it is indeed a very crowded place, and so what should be commanding our attention is not that the casualty rate is so high, but that it is so low: a mere 0.8 fatalities--military and civilian--per air strike. As any scholar of World War II or any other modern war can tell you (here's where historians can earn their pay), this is a striking departure from the historical pattern.

For purposes of comparison: Not only the Nazis bombed civilian populations--though they pioneered the practice in brutal attacks on cities such as Warsaw, Rotterdam, and Coventry. The Allies responded accordingly: nowadays, many would no doubt say, "disproportionately"--or was it, rather, that they responded in a truly "proportional" fashion? Gaza is said to have a population of 1.5 million. In the summer of 1943, Hamburg had a population of 1.8 to 2 million. When Allied bombers attacked in the last days of July in "Operation Gomorrah," they killed 50,000 people (mostly civilians), destroyed 250,00 homes, and left over a million people homeless.

Despite the recent fighting, Israel has allowed humanitarian shipments to enter Gaza. Again, whether it is sufficient is a matter for legitimate debate, but the fact remains: When the Nazis bombed Guernica and liquidated the Warsaw Ghetto, they did not attempt to help the civilian population in any way--for the simple reason that they did not intend for it to survive.

"Myth busted" (as they say on the Discovery Channel). Say what you will, but don't you dare say this is anything like what the Nazis did.

Unfortunately, many myths have long lives.

I myself encountered Mustafa Barghouti here at Hampshire College some five years ago, when he gave the annual Eqbal Ahmad Memorial Lecture. Wags have taken to calling the annual "Eqbal lecture"--as it is familiarly known--"the annual anti-Israel lecture," because that seemed to sum up pretty well the attitude of the event's namesake, organizers, and speakers over the years. The late Eqbal was a brilliant man, an inspiring teacher, and an impeccably courtly personality--he was very kind to me when I got my start in teaching, and we got along very well--but he could see Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East conflict only through the old, narrow, and by this time, increasingly worn and distorting lens of "anti-colonialism" that had formed his early and most enduring political views. Many of the speakers have shared that anti-Israel animus in degree if not kind, whether in the lectures or in their other writings and activities. Nothing wrong with that in itself, of course: it's their right. But the station managers should not be surprised if listeners tune out when the radio keeps playing the same old song.

The first impression that Barghouti makes (I also attended the dinner given in his honor) is a very charming one, and like many similar political figures, he can be charming until one sees that the composition really consists of equal measures of the charming, the ingratiating, and the arrogant.

The charm quickly melted away and revealed the arrogant and worse both on that occasion and today. One could have been forgiven for thinking that the title of his lecture back in 2003--"Civil Society and the Prospects for Peace in the Middle East"--would be a good indicator of its content. In that turbulent period marked by the waning of the Second Intifada and the halting steps toward reform in the PA (the appointment of Salam Fayyad as Finance Minister, and of first Mahmoud Abbas and then Ahmed Qurei as Prime Minister), many of us were eager to hear what a real reformer on the ground--opposed bravely and in principle to both the corruption of Fatah and the Islamist alternative represented by Hamas--had to say about nascent Palestinian democracy. Instead, we were treated to a crude and unsophisticated rant against Israel. The anger was understandable, but the talk wasn't what he had promised, it wasn't scholarly, and it wasn't helpful to the uninformed.

I mention all this by way of context because it is a simple matter to connect the dots between that talk and his remarks today.

Those remarks were carefully prepared (as evidenced by the many accompanying slides), and today's were extemporaneous, but in both cases, the anger predominated, the mask dropped, and history and subtlety were sacrificed to propaganda and name-calling.

We can discern several potent and consistent principles of historical-political distortion:

1) Establish a monocausal, unilinear narrative that elides or deliberately misconstrues historical complexities:
• Eqbal lecture (2003; from the account of a sympathetic attendee and activist):
[The lecture] opened with [. . . ] a brief history of Israel’s 56 year-long land grab which started with a 1947 proposal for 55% of the Palestinian territory, that soon expanded to 78%.
And if Ariel Sharon has his way with an annexed Palestine, Israel will own 91% or more of the original territory with Palestinians living on less than 9% of what had once been Palestine, Barghouthi began.
• CNN (2009):
the Gaza operation is “first step of full re-occupation” because Israelis practice “apartheid” and “now conduct one war after another.”
In this view, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was not a tragic struggle between two just causes (as both early Zionists and modern Israeli peace activists have described it—rare is the public Arab voice that sees two just causes rather than only one [1, 2]), and instead, just the consistent and persistent story of Zionist expansionism. Makes things much simpler, after all.

As noted earlier--and is usually the case—it is nowhere explained that the shrinking amount of Palestinian territory might have something to do with Palestinian and other Arab errors of omission and commission: (1) first and foremost, their rejection of the 1947 UN Partition Resolution that would have established a (much larger) Palestinian state living alongside a Jewish one. (2) Jordan’s belated and foolish decision to enter the 1967 War—although that front had been quiet—thereby losing East Jerusalem and the West Bank (territories that it it annexed in 1950--a step that only Britain and Pakistan formally recognized).

2) Decontextuaize your other facts, the better to persuade the uninformed:
Eqbal lecture (2003):
since “the 29th of September 2000 . . . there were 2,654 Palestinians killed”

• CNN (2009):
the Israeli government “seems not to consider Palestinians equal human beings” because “Israel is conducting this terrible war not on Hamas but on Palestinian children.”
In the first case, the narrative conveniently neglects to mention that the figure represents combatant as well as civilian deaths--because the date represents the start of the armed Palestinian Second Intifada.

In the second case, even if one accepts Barghouti’s insistence that Israel rather than Hamas began the current conflict, and acknowledges a toll on civilians that legitimately raises concern, one must flatly reject the notion of deliberate targeting of civilians by the IDF as a canard and a calumny. It is ironic that his charge again inadvertently echoes the Hamas Covenant: "In their Nazi treatment, the Jews made no exception for women or children."

Rather than engaging in a full-blown discussion of war and international law, let us simply refer to Barghouti’s (ill-)chosen but revealing analogy of Guernica, above.

3) Use false and inflammatory analogies in order to generate sympathy for your cause and make that for the opponent unacceptable (helpful hint: if at all possible, involving Nazis—because they’re really bad):

Barghouti's favorite analogy has long been the now-fashionable “apartheid” charge (proponents unabashedly declare that it is the new "gold standard of evil"), though, he did add a new twist to the former:
Eqbal lecture (2003).
“This Apartheid Wall is twice as high as the Berlin Wall and three times as long,” he said ticking off the reasons why it has nothing to do with security but rather land theft. “It makes the Berlin Wall look like a toy in comparison.”
Size isn't everything. I was not aware that the moral character of a wall--or fence (that's actually what this one is in most places)--was determined by its height and length. The Great Wall of China, after all, is twice as tall (on average) and nearly 60 times as long as the Berlin Wall--and had everything "to do with security."

In any case, whatever the legitimate questions concerning the moral or practical wisdom of the fence or its precise route (and there are many): The new analogy is but another attempt to win over a moderate western bourgeois audience (who is going to stand up for "actually existing socialism" nowadays?), but it is ironic to see the Palestinian national movement—which sucked so hungrily at the Soviet teat and got its arms from the KGB and Stasi—suddenly denouncing East Germany and trying to equate Israelis with both fascists and communists. (Whatever works, I guess. Evidently, clutching at straws is as good as setting up straw men.)

Still, some reference to the old pre-Bretton Woods, Nazi "gold standard of evil" is de rigueur, as well:
And if Ariel Sharon has his way . . . the 3.6 million Palestinians will be imprisoned in ghettos, reminiscent of but larger than those in Warsaw prior to Germany’s attempt at a Final Solution.
And in case that is too subtle (what's a Final Solution?), (1) throw in a reference to popular culture (which is where most of us learn our history) and (2) make your analogy even more explicit:
Barghouthi reminded the audience of the ghetto in the movie, The Pianist. “The Palestinians are the victims of the victims,” he said.
 “There is a myth that Israel is the victim and Palestine the aggressor."
• CNN (2009):
“it’s like Warsaw Ghetto” [sic]
It is so obvious to him that he does not even feel the need to explain. That cuts two ways. We have dealt with this one before; no further commentary on this obscenity needed here.

It’s a shame, really: As a physician, Barghouti has seen the casualties of conflict first-hand. He admits that Hamas should not fire rockets into Israel, and I would like to believe him when he says that he regards all loss of life as regrettable. It is a shame, then, that by so egregiously and repeatedly distorting history, he fans the flames of bigotry and generates more heat than light. Words have consequences, and the repeated use of the Nazi analogy by supposedly responsible and respectable figures such as Barghouti only feeds the hatred and inspires the violent acts of those who do not even pay lip service to the ideal of empathy for the other in a tragic conflict. Does he want to take responsibility for those consequences?

There comes a point at which the supposed moderate and man of principle begins to appear as a man of only moderate principle.

It is a shame. For shame.

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