Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sam Beckbessinger - Response to Doron Isaacs

This article forms part of the Israel/Palestine: Reflections of South Africans series. It refers to an earlier piece by Doron Isaacs. For guidelines on submitting your own article click here. To read previous contributions click here.

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Firstly, I need to issue a sincere apology for one typo: I attributed the Holocaust comment to you; I had intended “Eseck” but mistakenly typed “Isaacs” (the names sound similar). I understand that this angers you and I will ensure that it is altered on the website immediately, and that a note will be added to the bottom of the article noting the change. This was a mistake and not a malicious attack. I apologise for this.

I do want to defend the rest of my points, however. It hardly seems fair that you get 1800 words to make your point in, and I was allocated 500. Of course it will result in my argument being reductive. I’m going to sneak in a few extra words here in defence of myself against your response.


I can’t help my “nit-picking”. I’m a linguist. Nit-picking over semantics is just what I do. On the topic of semantics, I did not state that the speakers “alleged” that the occupation was a sinister plot to exterminate Palestinians, I said that they were “suggesting” it (i.e. “to imply as a possibility”). In retrospect I should have used the less ambiguous word, “insinuated”, but my point remains. By arguing that the state of Israel was not acting out of concern for its own security, and must therefore be trampling over the human dignity of Palestinians out of a more malicious motive, it seemed to be the logical conclusion of your argument. Of course I do not mean that you literally believe that an explicit genocide is underway; I was trying to make the point that by arguing away Israel’s defensive motives you caricaturise it as an evil, aggressive state. Fareds’ and Pregs’ analogies with the Holocaust underscored that insinuation. I do not believe I radically misinterpreted them – and if I did, then their rhetoric was misleading.


Geoff Budlender


I also contend that I did not misquote Geoff Budlender. If you recall, he broke his speech into 5 discrete observations. Due to the space limitations of my report I was not able to list them. I was quoting from point number four. As I remember (and here I am paraphrasing from my transcript, not quoting):

  1. The first observation was the need to move “beyond the blame game”.
  2. The second was that the Israelis needed to realise that the cost of maintaining control over the area will be enormous – on an economic but also on a human level.
  3. The third was that he sees little hope for the situation than there was for South Africans living under Apartheid, because the imbalance of power is so profound and the people involved have so little prospect of changing things (Fared returned to this point in the Q&A session by talking about the way that Palestinian leadership had been decimated).
  4. The fourth was … and this is where you disagree with me … that he is depressed by the fact that (because of point three above) that nothing short of “cataclysmic violence” (his phrase) will displace Israeli power – which is terrifying “for the Israelis, the Palestinians, and for all of us”. I was not intending to say that Budlender condoned violence in any way (that would be ridiculous to argue about a man like Geoff Budlender). But he did state it as though it were a prediction.
  5. His final point was that it was encouraging to meet Palestinians and Israelis who were working together in the midst of this difficult circumstance.


Budlender did make the point that he saw little hope for the situation, and that he predicted that it would take “cataclysmic violence” to displace Israeli power. It remains my opinion that this pessimistic position is unhelpful, and I would have wished him to offer more thoughtful suggestions for what can be done.


It was impossible, within the word-limit of the article, to fully report on your description of the difficulties for Palestinians within the West Bank, and I am glad that you have done so in your comments. I agree that the reality of life under Israeli military rule in the West Bank urgently needs to be addressed. I would even have liked to have added to your description the fact that the defence barrier is impacting negatively on the environment (blocking natural rainflow and causing springs to dry up) which impacts directly on Palestinian farmers. I also agree with you that the Israeli settlements are largely motivated by a settler ideology and should be removed. Israel’s government has had an ambiguous relationship with these settlements; and has not reacted decisively enough against them.


What I object to is not the accuracy of your reporting or your sincere empathy for the immense difficulties that the Palestinians are facing. Rather it is the nature of your rhetoric. I tried to explain my position on this as best I could. You have every right to be angry about my typo and I will do my best to rectify that error. However, you have not convinced me that I am wrong about my principle point.


Perhaps if I outline my personal experience of the Israel-Palestine issue my opinion will make more sense to you. I too entered UCT considering Israel an oppressive Apartheid state. The left-wing media I had spent my teenage years devouring had reinforced this caricature over and over again, and I never questioned it. I have been to endless talks during my time at University that reinforced this opinion dogmatically. If I had listened to this talk only a few months ago I would have agreed wholeheartedly with the most extreme opinions expressed by Fared and Pregs.


Recently I have been forced to question my assumptions. I have realised that even information from the most well-meaning humanitarian factions can be one-sided. I spent a month in Israel in June and saw the West Bank for myself. I met settlers and Palestinians; ultra-orthodox Haredis and coalition peace groups. I participated in a march against the occupation. What I was exposed to was a plethora of opinions that made all that I had heard in South African human-rights circles seem worryingly blinkered. This discovery has been devastating for me, and disillusioning. It is much more comforting to believe in David and Goliath stories than in a muddled situation where many sides have legitimate, competing claims.


Doron, I am glad that you are doing all you can to aid the peace process. I only wish that, as a young person wanting to be shaped into a moral actor in the world, I had been exposed to balanced, honest accounts during my time at UCT. In 4 years here I had never heard a single word in defence of Israel’s actions. Even though many of them have been wrong, some of them have been understandable. This was essentially my issue. If in the process I offended you, I apologise.


Sam Beckbessinger is completing her BA (Honours) in English literature at the University of Cape Town.

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