Monday, 2 February 2009

Jeff Halper and Julius Grey Depressed the Standards of Honest Debate

The following was first published in the Quid Novi, and part of it was also published in the McGill Daily.

I attended Jeff Halper's talk at McGill on January 14th and emerged profoundly disappointed at how acceptable it has become to distort and misrepresent facts when the purpose is to denigrate Israel. I wasn't expecting to agree with much of what was said at the Halper event, but (call me crazy) I was not expecting to be subjected to a barrage of unabashed misrepresentations, either. Let me give a few examples of what I mean.

Julius Grey spoke before Halper and proceeded to put on display the ease with which he is able to give spontaneous free reign to a sordid imagination. After positing that "real" human-rights activists are recognised by their engagement with controversial causes, he proclaimed that Israel's attack on Gaza is so morally unjustified as not to be controversial at all. Setting a aside the minor point that by his logic, the events in Gaza do not constitute a worthwhile human-rights issue, I was shocked by the level of rhetorical indirection and innuendo to which this man was willing to descend in order to vilify the Israeli state. He stated, with an ambiguous level of sarcasm, that, while Israel kills hundreds of civilians, that's "ok" because they "got one or two terrorists — maybe." Mr Grey handily concluded that such reasoning is morally indefensible. First, and most importantly, Mr Grey showed himself to be gravely misinformed with respect to the statistical facts. In fact, Hamas combattants, at all times in the recent fighting made up a significant portion, if not a majority of Palestinian casualties in Gaza. Authoritative statistics are hard to come by (in large part because Hamas combattants disguised themselves as civilians), and numbers vary, but there is no real doubt that the number of combattants killed is in the hundreds. Secondly, Grey fudged the fact that Israel targets only Hamas while taking significant measures to minimize civilian suffering: civilians are warned of impending attacks by leaflet and by phone; dozens of injured Palestinian civilians are receiving treatment in Israeli hospitals. Thirdly, Grey omitted the highly salient point (speaking, as he was, of moral justification) that, while Hamas both targets Israeli civilians and uses Palestinian civilians as human shields, Israel builds shelters for its civilians and does everything possible within the constraints of war to avoid harming Palestinian civilians. This is the stuff of arrant vilification, from a man said to enjoy some degree of esteem in Montreal.

Having thus set the stage for chicanery, Grey yielded the floor to the loutish Jeff Halper, whose address stuck to one consistent, and dismally dishonest, theme. Halper's overall approach consisted in projecting the political positions of the Israeli right-wing fringe onto the country as a whole. He presented the notion of the historical "Land of Israel" as if there existed an Israeli concensus in favour of maintaining control over the whole of it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here's a working estimate: of the 120 representatives in the Israeli Knesset (Parliament), approximately nine to 20 stand for ideological attachment to the concept of the "Land of Israel." Some 70 are either willing or eager to make territorial concessions, of varying extent. The remaining number of representatives, perhaps about 35, may or may not favour territorial consessions, depending on various contingent factors. And yet Halper, addressing an audience who, we must assume, is less familiar than he with Israeli politics, depicts the right-wing fringe as representative of the entire country. This is the stuff of calumny; it is simply untrue. The fact, as has been widely covered in the international media, is that Israeli governments of the left, the right, and the centre have been negotiating territorial withdrawal with the Palestinians since 1991 and thus obviously cannot have been guided by the ideological concept of the "Land of Israel."

Halper stated that "in Israel we don't talk about 'Palestinians' — only about 'Arabs'." To call them Palestinians would legitimise them, he explained. He was referring to the Arab citizens of Israel, who, indeed, are generally, though not exclusively, conceived of inside and outside of Israel as "Israeli Arabs." And yet Halper, by leaving his statement unqualified, blithely allowed his audience to conclude that he was referring to the Palestinians at large rather than only to Arab citizens of Israel. The fact is that just about every part of Israeli society, even most of the right-wing fringe with which he would like to identify Israel as a whole, refers to the Palestinians, be they in the West Bank, Gaza, or any other place outside of Israel, as "Palestinians." Yet Halper chose to imply that Israel is some sort of strange place, in denial and disconnected from the world, where the very term "Palestinian" does not exist. Once again, especially when presented to an audience not likely to have travelled to Israel, this is the stuff of calumny.

Halper claimed, in so many words, that "Israel is not a democracy." This is laughable. As "evidence," he pointed to the recent decision of the Knesset Central Elections Committee to bar two parties currently represented in the Knesset from next month's national election. This issue is a difficult and fairly complex one, but nothing about it bodes ill for Israeli democracy. Israeli law provides for the disqualification of parties which negate the Jewish and democratic nature of the state, which incite to racism, or which support Israel's enemies. Of the three Arab parties which currently enjoy Knesset representation, it was determined by the Committee that two should be banned. The ban is aimed at the political acts and positions of these two parties and not at their Arab identity. Indeed, the only party so far ever to have been successfully banned in Israel was Jewish. Furthermore, the decision has yet to undergo judicial review, which may yet prove unfavourable to the ban. None of these highly salient facts was even mentioned by Halper. He clearly prefered to stick to statements made inflammatory by being left either incomplete or entirely inaccurate as "evidence" for a most untenable claim — "Israel is not a democracy." If this is not base vilification, I don't know what is. Irrespective of the outcome of this debate going on in Israeli society, there can be no doubt that it has arisen from, and is being treated in accordance with, democratic principles and the rule of law.

Halper had the effrontery, as part of a most unenlightening discussion of whether or not Israel is a "Western" country, to say that Israel appears to be superficially Western because Israelis are "kinda white." Never mind the various loathesome, illogical, and even nonsensical aspects of such a statement: it is about as accurate as saying that Americans are white. It constitutes yet another example of the cheesy attitude evinced by Halper throughout his talk: he pandered to the lowest instincts of a hapless audience.