I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic
This evening, I faced what I sincerely hope will be my last Gaza: Beneath the Bombs book event in Australia. Those in Sydney and Newcastle were fairly gentle affairs, with the Newcastle audience mainly one of activists and Glee Books in Sydney mainly fielding Palestine sympathisers. Maybe it’s lazy of me to prefer preaching to the converted, but a) they’re more likely to buy books and b) I don’t think I’m the kind of speaker or writer who is going to cause any road-to-Damascus moments amongst the unconvinced but I can shape a decent discussion about aspects of a bigger debate.
So after several weeks of sharp intakes of breath and ‘Oh! Really?’ from various Palestine-related friends at the mention of a Melbourne do hosted by Raimond Gaita at Readings, I was horribly nervous. I’m not a theory person or an in-depth analyst. I have an adequate but far from outstanding brain, and although I can absorb staggering quantities of useless factoids, I’m not mentally quick. I’m the sort of person who suffers from bad cases of esprit d’escalier, revisiting moments in arguments and debates days or weeks late with that final, killer line. So the idea of being faced with an unsympathetic philosopher and supposed intellectual heavyweight was enough to cause me some lost sleep and serious nausea. And it wasn’t helped when, about 2 minutes before we were sat down and introduced to the audience, I actually got to meet Emeritus Professor Gaita and he informed me that’s he’d like to open the evening with ‘something he’s written in response to the book’ and that this would take about ten minutes…
Fearing that he’d put together some unanswerable critiques of the book, it was almost reassuring to find that the first half of Gaita’s statement was a rehearsal of the introductory chapter to his edited volume on the morality and legality of the ‘Operation Cast lead’ attack on Gaza. Much of the rest of the piece revealed a certain level of obsession with Richard Falk, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the ‘occupied territories’, who Gaita seems to have a BIG problem with and insists is a vilifier of (poor, put-upon) Israel. Sharyn and I have, according to Gaita, forfeited our right to be taken seriously as witnesses of or writers on the subject of Palestine and ‘the suffering of the Palestinian people’ by allowing our names to be paired with Falk’s afterword. To do so, argues Gaita, links us with the ‘contentious’ notion of ‘delegitimising’ Israel. What he means by ‘delegitimising’ wasn’t made clear, but the impression was given via other references that he couples this with ideas about ‘driving the Jews into the sea’ and other antiquated comments by Arab leaders. I pointed out that what most people now meant by delegitimising was about questioning Israel’s right to continue as possibly the only ethnically ‘pure’ state in the world; this just attracted further repetitions of his initial point, as far as I could make out. I also pointed out that his concentration on the idea that we had wrecked our credibility as witnesses because of our support (“whether voluntary or conscripted” – because us little women may well have had our purty little heads befuddled into supporting nasty terrorists) was rather dependent on his assumption that arguments like one-state are inherently ‘contentious’ (actually I’m not a one-stater; I rarely engage with my anarchist political foundations but when push comes to shove I’m really a no-stater, and very much looking forward to new Institute for Anarchist Studies-funded work on this idea). I don’t recall any answer on that one being forthcoming. But it did all sound rather like many Israeli soft-lefters who are oh-so-worried about the moral purity of the State of Israel and the effects of doing evil shit in The Territories on the spotless Israeli soul, whilst not really being that concerned about finding a just (as distinct from peaceful, in the quiet and passive sense) resolution.
The second issue I’d raise was Gaita’s insistence (without allowing further debate from me and taking the next question from the audience instead) that ‘he’d written widely on the convention on genocide’ without conceding any right of reply. I only embarked on this issue in the first place because he didn’t like the fact that Falk had raised the term. I don’t like using terms like genocide, Holocaust and ethnic cleansing. They are powerful and in some cases accurate, but in some ways I think that because these terms are so weighted they close down actual debate or dialogue because people can’t get past their resonances.
I do, however, object to Gaita’s rejection of the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ on the grounds that it may be painfully evocative for the Jewish people as Holocaust survivors, because of the way that the Nazis used the term cleansing to refer to exterminating Jewish communities or concentration camp inmates – for example pretending that some of the mass murders in the gas chambers were showers for ‘cleaning’ prisoners who had not been allowed to clean themselves properly for months or years. The term may be painful because of its historical resonances, but it’s a damn sight more painful for the people who’ve been slung off their land for being of the wrong race. His implication that such a term will be hurtful for all Jews also raises the spectre of the irritation that some Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews express at privileging of Ashkenazi narratives as THE Jewish experience, rather than those of specific parts of the Jewish community – those most culturally, politically and economically dominant within the modern State of Israel.
But despite Gaita’s insistence, I still think that according to the terms of the actual convention on genocide, which many people misunderstand because they mistake it for a basic population numbers game which Israel is losing, Israel is in fact guilt of several of the provisions. Article II of the 1948 UN convention on genocide states:
In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Gaita happily states that he has been attacked by white Australians for accusing Australia of partial genocide on the basis of its transfer of indigenous Aboriginal children away from their families – the ‘Stolen Generations’, under item (e). But he apparently does not recognise points (a), (b) or (c) in Israel’s behaviour in Gaza, the West Bank, the Naqab or the Galilee.
The third and most disturbing element of Gaita’s position was his closing remarks. I didn’t get to demand clarification of these, as they were the last things he said in response to the final question and a quick-witted member of Readings’ staff spotted that I was about to overcome my instinct to hyperventilate and have a proper go at their prized presenter. But his phrasing of the need for ‘creative solutions’ to the region’s problems which should, he feels, ‘involve Jordan’ sound suspiciously to me like some form of population transfer – something more commonly associated with the likes of Avigdor Lieberman – dressed up in liberal niceties by the use of words like ‘creative’.
So apparently, in Gaita’s somewhat confused-seeming logic, it is possible to have an ‘ethical’ and NOT ‘cloud-cuckoo-land’ solution to the situation in which a ‘democratic Jewish state’ is not an oxymoron (because he believes it’s possible to have a state in which a Palestinian minority might be able to field a PM or President, but are still excluded from full involvement in a ‘Jewish state’). And it can remain ethical whilst not only maintaining the status quo of denying Palestinians the right of return to the land they were once driven off, but also by ‘persuading’ (by means of ongoing disenfranchisement and marginalisation) the remaining proportion of the Palestinian population to bugger off to the West Bank or across the Jordan.
A one-state solution, meanwhile, is completely written off as ‘cloud-cuckoo’ in Gaita’s world, because obviously (?) it’s less realistic than this ethnically-specific-but-democratic political entity (in which the West Bank settlements have also been dismantled). His main objection to a one-state solution, he claims, is that he thinks that it is more likely that such an outcome would be dominated by the Arabs which the Israeli mainstream so fears, but by religiously conservative or extremist Jewish groups who would ‘make the Palestinians’ life hell’. A laudable concern, no doubt, but one which simply doesn’t seem convincing in numerical terms; Gaita’s main objections to a one-state solution (which I now find myself banging on about even though I have no particular liking for or faith in it) seem to rest on the assumption that portions of the current Israeli elite would maintain control over parts of the land and state, principally the military and, as mentioned above, a dangerously dominant religious hierarchy. Possibly I’m just being dim here, but surely a one-state solution implies equal weight and power to the Palestinian half (and growing…) of the population, which could itself rapidly become the dominant part of the population, especially if it found common ground with the secular or dissident portions of the Israeli population. Surely this is exactly what is at the root of Israeli hatred of such an idea?
As I may have mentioned, I was petrified about this event. I thought I would be completely out of my depth, confronted with arguments I neither understood nor had answers to. I didn’t get that sense, and certainly the feedback I received didn’t give me that impression. I have nothing much against Raimond Gaita; he seems to be a decent man trapped in a tight spot between an attempt to engage with the morality of a bitter and painful situation and an allegiance to his wife’s ‘love of country’ (which is something which I can relate to but which seems to me has nothing whatsoever to do with statehood, and is often indeed tainted by it) and fear of provoking yet more of the attacks which he’s obviously attracted over their years. Perhaps the spectacle of Goldstone buckling under the weight of Zionist pressure is haunting him. I don’t think Gaita is a bad person, but I certainly didn’t feel like I was confronting the philosophical lion I was led to fear from his weighty CV. I could resort to jibes about Australians and yogurt, or about Gaita’s obvious inferiority complex as regards St Kilda’s other, much better-known, celebrity philosopher, Peter Singer. But actually I think he embodies ways in which the UK is extremely similar to Australia, namely the paucity of genuine challenge, imagination and grasp of reality amongst its so-called leading thinkers.