Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Henry Siegman’s Lies

[Cross-posted at Engage]

Note: I am writing this as someone who opposed the Israeli blockade of Gaza, who opposes the Settler movement in the Occupied Territories, who opposed the Israeli incursion in to Gaza in November which helped precipitate the recent round of conflict, and who was angered at Israeli conduct during the December/January phase of this conflict. I write this also as someone who subscribes to and greatly appreciates the London Review of Books. I write, then, not in support of Israel, but against the taking of sides against Israel, against simplistic thinking, against the attempt to reduce a complex conflict into the battle of good and evil.

The LRB, a key platform for the liberal establishment that dominates British intellectual chatter, consistently takes a stridently anti-Israeli position. A piece, entitled “Israel’s Lies” by Henry Siegman, which kicks off the 29 January issue, is no exception. Like most of what the LRB publishes, it is a fine piece of writing, but, like most of what LRB publishes on this particular topic, is marred by a particular form of intellectual and moral dishonesty. Henry Seigman has form in this area, and it comes as no surprise that, at a time when much of the British left feels the need to take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the LRB would want to publish his lies.

Siegman purports in the piece to take apart a number of Israel’s lies. Among Israel’s purported lies is that Hamastani Gaza has become “a launching-pad for firing missiles at Israel’s population” rather than a step towards Palestinian statehood. Despite the obvious truth of Gaza’s role as a launching-pad for such missiles (1,639 in 2007, 2378 in the first half of 2008, up to 3000 during the recent round of conflict), Siegman purports to refute this notion by claiming this:

“First, for all its failings, Hamas brought Gaza to a level of law and order unknown in recent years, and did so without the large sums of money that donors showered on the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. It eliminated the gangs and warlords who terrorised Gaza under Fatah’s rule. Non-observant Muslims, Christians and other minorities have more religious freedom under Hamas rule than they would have in Saudi Arabia, for example, or under many other Arab regimes.”

If we were to accept what Siegman says here as true, the argument would have the same structure as the following argument: “The notion that Germany under Hitler murdered its Jews is a lie because in fact Hitler made the trains run on time and in any event Stalin killed more people.” Or: “The claim that the My Lai massacre was a war crime is a lie because the American occupation made lots of Vietnamese people rich and anyway Pol Pot did some worse things.” Or “A chicken is not a bird because it’s really a farm animal and anyway a duck is more of a bird than a chicken.”

Quite simply, the extent to which Hamas brought Gaza law and order and religious tolerance is irrelevant to the question of whether it used this orderly and tolerant haven as a launching-pad for rockets. The extent to which the Wahhabi monarchy is a theocratic dictatorship is irrelevant to the question of Hamas’ responsibility for the attempted mass slaughter of Israeli citizens.

But even if we ignore Siegman’s request that we look the other way (at Fatah’s corruption and the Saudi’s religious totalitarianism), we cannot avoid the fact that he is lying about Hamastan. Gaza under Hamas has been lawless: a law and order situation that is summed up in the labyrinth of tunnels beneath its borders, by the persistence of independent terrorism by Islamic Jihad, by the extra-judicial detention, beatings and murder of Fatah activists and other oppositionists, by the naked rule of Hamas-linked warlords on the streets, by the carte blanche given to Hamas client clans such as the Doghmush, by the repression of trade unions including those of journalists and doctors. And, of course, beyond this, Hamas uses densely populated civilian areas as the base for its paramilitary assaults on Southern Israel, thus endangering the lives of the people they are supposedly keep safe.

As for religious tolerance, the period of Hamas rule has not only seen a Holy War against the Zionist entity; it has seen an attempt at the ethnic cleansing of the Christian population. In build-up to the Hamas coup in 2007, 40 purportedly Christian internet cafes and book outlets were bombed in Gaza. Days after the coup, a convent and convent school was bombed. Later in the year, there was the murder of the manager of Gaza’s only Christian bookshop by a Jihadi group (the Righteous Swords of Islam) which Hamas have tolerated. Today, Gaza’s Christians live in fear.

Moving on, Siegman takes on Israel’s next “lie”: that Hamas is a terrorist group. “In fact,” he writes, “Hamas is no more a ‘terror organisation’ (Israel’s preferred term) than the Zionist movement was during its struggle for a Jewish homeland.” Again, even if we accept Siegman’s counterclaim as true, it has the same structure as the refutation above: a chicken is not a “bird” because a duck is a “bird”. Whether or not Zionists committed terrorist atrocities (whether or not a duck is a “bird”) is irrelevant to the question of whether or not Hamas does (whether or not a chicken is a “bird”). The truth is that Hamas most manifestly does commit terrorist atrocities: it constantly fires rockets intended to kill civilians in southern Israel, because it does not see a distinction between civilian and military targets.

But what of his claim that “the Zionist movement” was a “terror organisation”? It is true that the IZL and LHI committed acts of terrorism from 1937. However, IZL (Irgun, the military wing of the right-wing Revisionist minority current) were marginal within the Zionist movement; LHI (the Stern Gang) was even more so. The overwhelming majority of the global Zionist movement and of the Jewish community in Palestine, the Yishuv, condemned LHI and IZL. The 1937-8 terrorist attacks by IZL on Arab civilians (during the second stage of the small-scale civil war known as the Second Arab Revolt) was condemned throughout the Palestinian Jewish press and by the Yishuv’s leadership. There was a brief period of co-operation between the terrorist right and the Haganah, in Autumn 1945, when they jointly carried out operations against British military infrastructure targets like bridges. But for the most part, to quote the source Siegman uses (Benny Morris’ Righteous Victims), “due to its meager resources and manpower, almost consensual Yishuv opposition to anti-British terrorism, and successive, effective British clampdowns, sometimes assisted by tip-offs from the Haganah and IZL, the LHI’s stance was never really translated into action” until 1946, while IZL’s 1946 return to terrorism under Begin’s leadership (targeting buildings rather than people) led to the “Saison”, when Haganah teams attempted to wipe out IZL. IZL’s 1937-38 outrages against civilians and LHI’s brief, spectacular period of full-blown terrorism in summer 1946 – when the King David Hotel was bombed, with 91 casualties, British, Jewish and Arab – were the aberration rather than the rule before the 1947-48 war.

Benny Morris characterises the war as really two wars: a guerrilla civil war between two armed citizenries up to May 1948 followed by a conventional war between the State of Israel and the combined armies of its Arab neighbour states. It was during the second phase of the civil war – after the Jewish community had suffered sustained damage at the hands of Arab guerrillas who initially outgunned them – that the Haganah committed the acts of ethnic cleansing Siegman mentions. Although I would condemn those acts, they cannot be seen as “terrorist”, but as part of a spiralling guerrilla war. They comparable not to Hamas’ ballistic assaults but to some of the phases of KLA action during the Balkan civil wars or to some of the atrocities of the Republican armies during the Spanish Civil War.

To talk of “the Zionist movement” as terrorist in this period, then, is like talking about “the socialist movement” as terrorist because of the brief existence of the Red Army Faction and the Weather Underground. This kind of sloppy totalising narrative, with “the Zionist movement” presented as a single, homogeneous, undifferentiated and eternally unchanging entity plays into the antisemitic narrative of “the Zionist entity” and mirrors right-wing discourse on the inherently terrorist nature of “the” Arabs or “the” Palestinians. In fact, LHI had far less claim to represent “the Zionist movement” as a whole than Hamas has a claim to represent the Palestinian nationalist movement as a whole.

And what of Hamas? Siegman says “it is too easy to describe Hamas simply as a ‘terror organisation’.” True. It is too easy to describe a chicken “simply” as a “bird”, but it is a bird nonetheless.

The terrorist actions of the IZL and LHI were disastrous for the Zionist cause. The 1937-8 IZL anti-Arab bombs turned neutral Arab opinion in Palestine towards the Mufti and his far right Palestinian nationalist movement, making the possibility of the two people sharing the space less possible. The 1946 LHI anti-British bombs halted Churchill’s move towards a workable two-state solution, leading to the zero sum game that the two sides have been playing since 1947, which neither side can win without wiping out the other. Hamas’ rockets have likewise been a disaster for the Palestinian cause, undermining any steps towards meaningful Palestinian freedom. Henry Siegman and the LRB, in seeking to exonerate Hamas, are complicit in this disaster.


Daniel of "Daniels Counter" said...

I hope you have sent this to them. Very well well put commentary.

eamonnmcdonagh said...

saw it on engage. brilliant

bob said...

Thanks Eamon and Daniel.

This article was cross-posted at Engage, where Brian Goldfarb and "Fred" pointed out a couple of inaccuracies in my text, which is a little embarrassing in a text devoted to unmasking someone else's lies and sloppy research. In my defence, I wrote this quickly in anger while off-line, and didn't finecomb it before posting. Siegman, in contrast, was presumably paid money and went thru the LRB editorial process...

Anyway, here's my response to the corrections on Engage:

Thanks for comments. Re Brian, yes I got my timeline wrong! 1946: I was thinking of the assassination of Lord Moyne, a good friend of Churchill's, which was in 1944, at the tale end of Churchill's time. When the Labour government won their 1945 landslide, Bevin took over decision-making about the Middle East. Bevin was mildly antisemitic and strongly pro-Arab. The Moyne assassination (by Lehi) sapped Churchill's desire to sort the situation in a more pro-Zionist direction, leaving the fate of Palestine in Bevin's hands, which was bad for Zionism.

And the King David Hotel bombing was actually Irgun not Lehi, but Lehi were much more active than Irgun in 1946 in this sort of thing, partly because Irgun shrunk away from terrorist activities after the Moyne assassination. The Moyne assassination marked the start of Lehi's "successful" period of terror operations, peaking in '46.

Re Fred and Dogmush: I haven't been following the intricacies closely enough. If it is true that Dogmush switched sides, it is also true that Hamas worked with them. The "restoration of order" in the article you quote is as much political repression and intra-gang warfare as it is a genuine restoration of security. The "disruptive Gaza clans" allied to Hamas rather than Dahlan have maintained considerable autonomy of action.

Paul D said...

I find your article to be sensible, balanced and thoughtfully considered; and reflects in great part my own outlook on this unhappy conflict. Although I did feel Israel had to do something after 8 years or so of ongoing bombardment of rockets which were achieving an ever increased range into Israel, I am not sure that battering Gaza was right and has achieved much. (I approve also of Jonathan Freedland's article in the JC recently).

What has got me, and has led to my taking a much more pro Israeli stance has been the vitriol, hatred and complete obsession by what I call the unthinking left of not Israel and this new world enemy 'Zionism'. I never used to think that being anti Israel as a basic default position made someone in any way anti semitic. However, there is so much evidence of anti semitism appearing all over the blogosphere - much of it perhaps at a low level but there all the same. A good example is at Neil Clark's blog where I have been battling to put forward fair arguments but where my position is not only not listened to but deemed to be beyond the pale. It is hard to think of anyone on that blog who has in any way criticised let alone condemned Hamas in any way. I suppose I should give up. There is worse about (eg Indymedia & Lenin's Tomb.)

On the other side it also doesn't help when in defending Israel against injustice there is a failure to accept any Israeli wrongs (eg Melanie Phillips and her hardline blog posters).

ModernityBlog said...

Dave D,

agreed, but you've got a lot of people that can't process information and don't base their views on reason (which applies to most at lenin's tomb and to Mel's stuff), shame cos so many of them have had a good education, they should know better.

Daniel of "Daniels Counter" said...

Bob it seems there are some real experts out there, for sure on engage. Interesting what Paul D says, I have had a mass of discussion son this point on that liberal conspiracy posting you referred to earlier. I believe there unlike on what Paul says about Neil Clark's blog I believe there was some movement there. But the trend is certainly clear. I even had it in my local caff the other day the idea of all Jews equalling Israeli soldiers is back. Or in other words, because of what the IDF did, fucking bastards for doing that idiotic and cruel kill job (my op), anyone who supports Israel's right to exist, and beyond for many any Jew is also a fucking bastard. And true no word spent on terrorism from the Palestinian camps..

Mike S. said...

Hey Bob,

While I think I'm probably to your "left" in my stance on this latest conflict in Gaza, I think most of what you wrote here is dead on. My one quibble is with this sentence: "Although I would condemn those acts, they cannot be seen as “terrorist”, but as part of a spiralling guerrilla war." I think this amounts to the sort of logical trick you correctly criticize in Siegman's piece: just because these actions took place in the context of a spiraling guerilla war does not mean that they were therefore not "terrorist." By that frame of reference, the methods used by the Shining Path in Peru or by UNITA in Angola during the 1980s would be excluded from the category of terrorism. But that's exactly what they were: terrorist. (And while I'm at it, the KLA was certainly not averse to terrorist methods, before, during or after the "hot" part of the Kosovo war.)

I don't know nearly as much about the pre-1948 conflict as you do (I've been meaning to read Benny Morris and Tom Segev for some time), but the logic of your argument is flawed, to the extent that it seems to base the definition of terrorism on context rather than the content of the actions in question. It would also seem to be just as easily (and wrongly) applied to Hamas' use of rockets, since these were also "part of a spiraling guerilla war," at least from my perspective. I'm in a rush, so I hope this makes some sense.


bob said...

Paul D - I completely agree with what you say. I now avoid the Neil Clarke sphere and am glad you have the energy to stay and fight there! I also agree on those, like Melanie P, who mirror the same stances.

DZ - you are right to point out that Liberal Conspiracy is not homogeneous on this. The existence of that strand of thinking, as well as the continuum that runs from 3WayFight and Shift magazine through the AWL to the Euston manifesto types means we cannot write off "the left" as a whole, as some of my comrades are wont to do!

Mod - it seems that a good education is an impediment to understanding, on this as on so many issues.

Mike - your comment is very to the point. After I wrote the piece (which, as I say, I did in a very short burst of anger) I wondered about that phrase, which rings of semantic quibbling and therefore veers close to what I accuse Siegman of. It would take me longer to flesh out my position properly, but I guess I am saying that what the proto-IDF did in the Nakba can be described as armed civilians in a basically lawless situation committing atrocities against other armed citizens in a fairly symmetrical struggle, fighting for their physical survival as well as for a longer term agenda. I don't think that saying this exonerates them, but it is something different from terrorism. In the case of Hamas (or Shining Path), they committed atrocities aimed at civilians as the core strategy of their campaign, with the intention of creating terror and provoking escalation. One could argue that this is less or more morally reprehensible than the actions of the Israeli side in 1947/8, but I believe it belongs in a different moral category, just as the Nakba belongs in a different moral category from the Shoah and both belonging in a different moral category than the recent Izraeli assault on Hamastan. Siegman uses the 47/8 guerrilla war as a way of letting Hamas off the hook, rather than as a way of illuminating its reality.