Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Robert Krause - Israel/Palestine: Reflections of South Africans

This article is in response to Anthony Posner's 'Freedom of Expression? Legitimate Criticism?' (9 March 2009). Both pieces form part of QPQ's ongoing dialogue that draws on the perspective of South Africans concerned with the conflict in the Middle East. For more in the series see here.

To crit is legit

By Robert Krause

In suggesting that the bulk of public criticism of Israel in South Africa falls outside the bounds of legitimate criticism, Anthony Posner relies on a number of premises. These can be divided into two groups: contentions of principle (what constitutes legitimate criticism) and factual claims (how the media covers the Israeli-Palestinian issue).

The first issue of principle is whether criticism of Zionism is legitimate. While Posner does not offer an account of what constitutes legitimate criticism of Israel, it is fair to surmise that he does not regard criticism of Israel that includes criticism of its official ideology to be legitimate. It is understandable that partisans of an ideology might want to shield their views from criticism. However in a democratic society no viewpoint should be shielded from criticism. Zionism is no exception.

Furthermore there is a clear tension between Zionism (at least in its present-day varieties) and contemporary ideals of an inclusive democracy (exemplified by the South African constitution). Whereas contemporary democracies identify themselves as belonging to all who reside in them (or at least all citizens) irrespective of ethnicity or religion, Israel defines itself as a state for a particular ethic/religious group, the Jews.

Thus while any Jew, no matter how tenuous their link to Israel, can become a citizen Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war many of whom still posses the keys to their home are still not allowed to return.

Secondly, Posner argues that it is unfair to ‘single out’ Israel when there are other states that have a track record of human rights violations. It should be a truism that regimes are to be held to the same human rights standard. Those, for example, who criticise Israeli abuses while excusing state repression by Zimbabwe or Iran are clearly hypocritical and prejudiced (though not necessarily anti-Semitic).

However the amount of oppression in the world (on the basis of gender, race, nationality etc) is so vast that demanding that one invest an equal amount of energy in opposing each injustice leads to paralysis and inaction (which suits violators of human rights rather than the oppressed).

The intensity and duration of Israeli oppression (its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is in its 42nd year) and the tensions it is fuelling between Islamic societies and the West warrant significant attention being paid to the conflict.

Posner paints a picture of a virulently anti-Zionist South African media, in which human rights concerns are mere covers for an attack on the legitimacy of Israel. The reality, I would suggest, is more nuanced. I agree with Posner that coverage of Israel in South Africa’s printed press is often critical. However criticism of Israeli policy does not automatically equate to criticism of Zionism let alone an endorsement of Israel’s destruction.

As a habitual reader of the mass circulation Cape Times, Sunday Times, Sunday Independent and Mail & Guardian, I’ve found the editorial lines to be critical of Israel’s settlement building and frequent excessive use of force (while also condemning Palestinian attacks on civilians) and supportive of a negotiated, 2-state, solution to the conflict. Of course there are many opinion pieces taking an anti-Zionist position. However, the Cape Times, for example has frequently published opinion pieces by pro-Zionist writers such as Joel Pollak and Milton Shain.

In seeking to present the South African media landscape as grotesquely anti-Israel the author launches a savage attack on the Freedom of Expression Institute (which is not the sole South African organisation committed to defending freedom of expression).

The past position of its Director of Operations in the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) together with its executive directors pro-Palestinian activism in her personal capacity is used, without further evidence, to call the institute ‘simply an adjunct to the Palestine Solidarity Committee).

A browse through their publications and press statements reveals that the institute is currently supporting the campaign against the Film and Publications board’s censorship of a film about an intersexed youth and has published books on topics such as the state of the SABC, media in the SADC region, hate speech and pornography. All in all the output of an organisation concerned with freedom of expression not a front for a pro-Palestine group.

1 comment:

  1. *emailed to me this morning:*





    A sound argument, taken as a whole. Two observations:

    Re your comment "Israel defines itself as a state for a particular ethic/religious group, the Jews":

    If Israel’s definition of itself as a Jewish state is racist, then countries like Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania and Saudi Arabia are likewise racist/exclusivist since they define themselves as “Islamic” states. Several go even further, invoking racial criteria as well. Bahrain, for example, defines itself as “an Arab Islamic State, independent and fully sovereign, and its people are part of the Arab nation”.

    The Palestinians likewise envision a state that exclusively promotes the cause of a particular group. The majority Hamas party defines this in religious terms, viz. those of the Islamic faith. For the Fatah organisation, it is ethnic Arab nationalism.

    Is it not, in other words, unfairly discriminatory to deny Israel’s right to define itself as a “Jewish state” while considering it quite OK for other countries to define themselves in religious and/or ethnic terms?

    Also relevant in this regard is that the idea of a Jewish state is firmly rooted in international law. The UN partition plan of 1947 (accepted by a two-thirds majority of the UN General Assembly) divided Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. It was on this plan on which the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, 14 May 1948 was based.

    Next, regarding the Freedom of Expression Institute, this organisation did indeed pursue a virulently anti-Israel agenda for a number of years (those interested in seeing how are free to contact me - david@beyachad,co,za). Since the beginning of 2007, however, this has fortunately not been the case.