This is a guest post by Nick D
The other day, I wrote a review for this blog of the Merchant of Venice at the Globe Theatre, performed by the Habima theatre company (who receive state funding from the Israeli government). Review is maybe inaccurate, because the core focus of my article was on the protests that accompanied the performance. One commenter responded fiercely to the article, accusing me, in effect, of being a shill for Zionism and a “useful idiot”, among other epithets denigrating the shallow nature of the piece. While I condemn the ad hominem nature of his attack, viewing it as part of the problem, and utterly reject his characterisation of my politics, I accept that the vicious nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is bound to generate intense anger, as banal as that statement is. There are some serious issues embedded in his attack which merit a response; moreover there is an element of hypocrisy in my description of the protesters as hate-ridden which deserves further comment. There is also truth to his charge that my article was not analytical enough. I hope in the following remarks to open up discussion about a range of issues that we have both touched on.
This critic’s main charge seems to be that I arrived at the theatre with preconceptions that I was determined to fulfill in my experience of the protests that would inevitably occur. This seems to be what he means by accusing me of “Zionist perception”; that I had a particular worldview which sought confirmation in the cherry-picking of facts and the quick rushing to conclusions. There is some truth to this. I’ve been involved in pro-Palestinian activities (as opposed to activism) and have been exposed to the discourse of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the Second Intifada broke out. I was en route to Nahr El-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, in 2006 when Israel started to bomb Beirut. I spent a month teaching in Jalazone camp near Ramallah in 2007 and returned to the West Bank in 2009 to teach music for two years. I have also visited Israel independently of these trips as a tourist. In between, I’ve consumed information about the conflict voraciously and participated in online discussion on a fairly frequent basis. I mention none of this to aggrandize my own actions or claim any moral vantage point but to a) point out that I have sufficient experience to feel justified about reaching certain conclusions about pro-Palestinian activists and expecting to find them confirmed b) deserve the benefit of the doubt when anyone tries to draw inferences about my own politics from one, admittedly provocative (and rushed out) article.
My experience of Palestinian activism is that much of it involves hatred of Israel. I have heard friends of mine- people who I have every reason to want to sympathise and identify with – repeatedly mock Hebrew and express disgust at aspects of Israeli society that have nothing to do with the occupation or conflict. This might be understandable coming from Palestinians with direct experience of oppression, as many of my students and friends in the West Bank had had – although I might reasonably then be accused of the racism of low expectations – but it is not understandable (at least, not in the terms of solidarity with the Palestinian cause) coming from international activists. At least not if their goals have any basis in morality. I have also found, in dialogue, that it is virtually impossible to reason with some activists. I corresponded with the Raise the Banners festival about their extraordinary promotion of the unabashed antisemite and hate-monger Gilad Atzmon, but received either evasive replies or – in the case of one of Atzmon’s supporting musicians – pathetic sarcasm. And I know from the writer of this blog that these experiences are common.
To say that you have built up a certain impression of pro-Palestinian advocacy does not, of course, mean that you have the right to interpret reality in such a way as to confirm these impressions. And if you ask to be heard in good faith, then you should extend to others that courtesy. Reaching conclusions prematurely, on the basis of evidence which happens to correspond with particular patterns of experience, may be understandable, but surely it cannot do anything to further a goal of just co-existence, which, in essence, is all I subscribe to (at the moment I see two states, Jewish and Palestinian, as the only way to achieve this; if I am a Zionist, then I am also a Palestinian nationalist).
If I labour these principles somewhat sanctimoniously, it is to get at the following. In certain respects, my piece was too quick to reach certain conclusions. I engaged directly with three of the activists on Monday. Based on those interactions – except for one instance, I would hesitate to call them conversations – it would not be totally unreasonable to attribute to them some of the characteristics I did. That is, self-righteousness, narcissism, irrationality and, if not hatred, then something which looked very much like it. Perhaps it is unfair to expect people in that situation to give a calm account of their actions and to discuss politics rationally. They were on the verge of being forcibly evicted when I talked to them and must have been nervous. I recognise that there is courage in subjecting yourselves to the opprobrium (and, given the political context, disgust and hatred) of hundreds of people, not to mention the unpleasantness of being removed by security, and I cannot imagine it being the easiest moment to engage in rational dialogue. If I wanted that, then perhaps I should have talked to the protesters outside.
This all said, and perhaps I didn’t make this point clearly enough in my article, or perhaps it sounded rhetorical; I am waiting to be surprised. I would love, in all sincerity, to see a protest which demonstrated more imagination than repeating the same, dogmatic, reductive slogans or showed some wit. And I would love to see protests that acknowledged Jewish as well as Palestinian suffering, without necessarily implying an equivalence, or attributing blame. The animus that went into my article was borne of anger at the futility of the tactics employed by Palestinian advocates and of their failure to make explicit goals which non-partisan people could mobilise around. Sometimes I do think “you people are fucking idiots”, and perhaps this feeling crept into the article, but I didn’t write it to pander to a myopically pro-Israeli viewpoint or the prejudices of people who believe the Palestinians and their supporters to be intrinsically evil. I don’t believe that most advocates of BDS want to eliminate the Jewish presence in Israel, either physically or institutionally, and replace Israel with a Palestinian state that doesn’t recognise Jewish rights. But with things as they are, and in the light of my experiences with Israelis and Palestinians, I can only conclude that the only way right of return will be implemented will be through war. So calling for it is a non-starter, and counterproductive if you want peaceful, just coexistence. It is condescending (to say the least) to the Palestinians to offer solidarity to every position they hold and tactic they employ.
Long-time followers of the conflict, not to even talk about those who have suffered in it, may think that the above is absurdly naïve, perhaps even a cowardly way of retreating from a genuine conviction. I understand why people reach the limits of naivety. But I can’t see much prospect for an end to this destructive mess without finding a way to preserve a certain degree of naivety, or a willingness to proceed “as if” the other wasn’t totally knowable in advance.24 comments