My speech at Limmud Oz

There is audio up of the whole event. It was recorded by my co-panellist, Larry Stillman, who was sitting next to me, so it captures us whispering sometimes during the q and a and things like that, which is a bit funny.

I’ve written about the leadup – Vivienne and Peter were banned for advocating BDS, and Larry was reluctant to speak, as he didn’t want to be used to illustrate Limmud Oz’s tolerance, when they had engaged in such blatant censorship. I was – and am – very opposed to the bans. However, I don’t think there’s much reason to think I’m less radical or subversive than Vivienne and Peter. I determined that if I were going to be the extreme left of what is permissible at Limmud Oz, I should make Limmud Oz earn any credit they got for hosting me. And so that’s basically what I did. In defending their decision, they explained that BDS call into question Israel’s legitimacy. So in my talk (the audio is above [from 13:19], and Overland blog should feature a written version of it soon), I made a few points. The first was that Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky recognised that Palestinian opposition to the creation of a Jewish state was basically reasonable. Avi Shlaim makes a similar point in his book The Iron Wall – both adopted the philosophy of the Iron Wall, which meant imposing Zionism by force, because they didn’t think the Arabs would ever accept Israel or Zionism. And so I quoted Ben-Gurion from Benny Morris and Simha Flapan, noting him making the same mundane points over and over again. So by the standards of Limmud Oz, if questioning the legitimacy of Israel makes one unsuitable for LO, then perhaps Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky would not have been welcome. The second point I wanted to make is based on a simple point that Slezak made in his speech advocating BDS – who are the extremists? If Peter and Vivienne are beyond the pale, let’s look at who the leading organisations support. So I quote people like Howe calling for Gaza to be bombed back to the stonge age – cited approvingly by AIJAC in the Jewish News. And basically all the major Jewish organisations take stands like this. I conclude by saying – I’m not going to beg anyone, considering Vivienne is bravely going on the flotilla soon, I’d prefer to join her company and be banned too. I said Israel will continue its crimes against the Palestinians, and its rejectionism until Jews start speaking up.

Larry spoke before me. He tried to say that his part of the Left is sane, and criticised the deranged Gilad Atzmon, and also launched a harsh attack on Shlomo Sand. He apparently believes The Invention of the Jewish People is anti-Semitic. I mean, I haven’t read the book, and don’t care about its findings. No one on the left should believe in any nationalisms, so saying the Jews aren’t a people should verge on the trivial, regardless of whether it’s true. However, this seems to me brazenly opposed to classical anti-Semitism, because if the Jews aren’t a people, that rejects racism that posits an Eternal Jew (etc). Before my talk, Angela Budai introduced me by (at my request) listing people calling me anti-Semitic. Mark Baker spoke after me. He advocated that we open up the conversation to include people we disagree with, including Samah Sabawi, as he’s done before.

At about 31:02 he starts talking about me, and says he disagrees with what I said about Jabotinsky and Ben-Gurion (he says I represented them – cheers, “you’re a liar” yelled at me). He then says I’m glad you’re here, and that we’re listening (applause). Baker says other things, some of them seem to me self-contradictory. For example, he goes on about how the left paint themselves as martyrs and call themselves dissidents, even though they’re not from Soviet Russia. He then complains about how he has been “crucified”, and complains about a “witch hunt” against him. Ok Dr Baker.

I think Baker’s position on opening up the discussion is admirable. He spoke quite well on this point, saying that we should not be afraid of disagreements, the Jewish community and passionate Zionists like him should welcome debate, and if their views can’t stand up to scrutiny, they should change their views. But his politics on Israel/Palestine I think are quite dreadful, and I criticised him too. At one point I was asked about the dialogue thing, and apparently the audience didn’t think my answer had any relevance to the question. I got a bit muddled answering. To summarise, my view is that a) you can be a Zionist, and recognise that Israel’s legitimacy can be doubted by people of good faith. BG and J did. (b) Why ban BDS advocates, but welcome someone like Benny Morris? The idea that this is based on opposition to racism is nonsense. (c) the obstacle to dialogue is the right, who censor, and who launch vile attacks on the Left. And I said, part of this should be laid at the door of Dr Baker too. In Gaita’s book on Gaza, Baker has a chapter. On page 90, he says “the anti-Zionist left shares a common agenda with Al Qaeda; while most would scorn Bin Laden’s indiscriminate tactic of mass terrorism and his Islamic credo, they nonetheless share a desire to see American power dressed down and the West held to account for its colonial past.” I think this is pretty dreadful. I mean, doesn’t he oppose Western colonialism? I mean, you can read my thoughts on political Islam and Bin Laden and decide for yourself if I have a common agenda with Al Qaeda. It’s striking that as my debate against political Islam comes into print (in an A grade journal, if Dr Mendes is reading this), the anti-Zionist left (which I suppose I’m part of, even though I think the Left should not be arguing about Zionism) should be accused of sharing a common agenda with Al Qaeda. Baker responded, saying I quoted him out of context – they’re not pro terrorism and not pro-religious extremism (which I acknowledged, and you can hear me acknowledging) [around 40:20 I start talking about Dr Baker]. I mean, the fact is, most of the world is against American imperialism. The idea that this is al Qaeda’s agenda I think reflects a rather insular mentality, that simply doesn’t notice how much of the world (for example) opposed the war on Iraq. I mean, putting al Qaeda into the same sentence as the anti-Zionist left is part of the same problem that Baker otherwise deplores.

Just another quote to give a sense of why I can’t stand Baker’s politics (82-3):

During the Gaza war, the Israelis read from the script exactly as they were meant to. They had auditioned in Lebanon two years earlier, where they learned that restraint leads to humiliation. The provocation of rockets was a lethal irritant that no society could bear. And so they acted with all their might, pursuing Hamas decoys down narrow alleyways, around mosques and into the forbidden territory of a school where victimhood and criminality are symbolically exhibited. The performance was already at centre stage when behind the curtains Israel protested that the media had not verified this event, and others like it, in the UN compound. The damage, however, was done. Israel had written itself into the role of international villain, simultaneously ascribing the part of victim to Hamas. (emphasis added)

Virtually everything about this passage is just shocking. I’ve documented the relevant facts elsewhere – Hamas had basically adhered to the ceasefire which Israel violated, and refused to renew, so the attack wasn’t about rockets. The “lesson” about Lebanon – that Israel was humiliated by its “restraint” is common to Israel’s far right, and reflects, I think, an obscene blindness to the destruction and carnage in Lebanon. There’s no evidence of Hamas “decoys”, unlike the 9 year old 2 Israeli soldiers were convicted of using as a human shield. They got 3 months suspended sentences, with the judge taking into account such factors as the fatigue of the poor soldiers of the most moral army in the world.

Note also how Israel bombs a school, and the only victim that he mentions is Israel, on the occasion the media noticed. I mean, according to the Goldstone Report, Israel bombed at least 280 schools and kindergartens, but presumably because the media didn’t notice the other 279 occasions, there was no damage done. He mocks those who make Hamas the victim – presumably, when Israel bombs a school, only the wilfully naive, fanatical devotees of Hamas think something wrong happened, because otherwise there was no harm (except to Israel’s public image by the evil media which didn’t even verify what happened).

David Knoll – former big shot from the Jewish Board of Deputies – also asked a question. By which I mean, gave a long talk where he talked about the robust debate in the Jewish Board of Deputies, where he hasn’t seen me. Presumably he wants me to join or something. I mean, am I meant to be impressed that (if true) the leaders of the Jewish communal organisation allow strong arguments behind closed doors, that no one else gets to see or hear about? As if to prove himself absurd, his letter to the Jewish News (AJN June 17 2011)

The Nazis tried: “Kauft nicht bei Juden”. The hard left are trying: “Do not buy from Israelis.” It is a little like saying there are some Jews (Not Israelis) we can abide. That is racist. It is hateful, and is being routinely exposed as such.

Ok, so does he want robust debate of racism? Or just robust debate, except for the views he calls racist (and who’s to say BDS advocates as the only people he’d compare to Nazis? Note also how Nazi comparisons for Israel are considered ok, but Nazi comparisons against Israel prove anti-Semitism (Knoll was the President of the NSW JBD)). I think it’s also kind of comical – I specifically attacked the JBD for hosting Benny Morris, when it calls itself anti-racist, and noted the Cambridge University Israel Society disinviting him because they said they “didn’t want to give racism a platform”. He didn’t even notice this criticism (and I quoted Morris at length). So here’s this man, saying the JBD supports robust debate, not even noticing whether they should have support Morris ought to be controversial, but seemingly supporting bans on BDS people, because they’re allegedly racist. I mean, could this double standard be more glaring?

And seeing as how I criticise Mark Baker a lot, I want to say his concluding remarks are very much to his credit. He responds to Knoll, who said how great the JBD is because they bring out Palestinian journalists. Baker said something like – I know exactly who they are, what you’re saying is a joke. When the other side brings out Jews like that, we’re quick to call them anti-Semitic.  “I’m finding increasingly that the representative organisations are stifling debate, that they aren’t allowing the free exchange of ideas.” He then said: “The whole problem is that Jewish life has become one big hasbara campaign, and hasbara and authentic discussion cannot go together.” He said “we’re losing too much” in the fight against delegitimising Israel.

I thought (obviously excepting his axiom that we shouldn’t “delegitimise” Israel) that much of this was admirable, and his scathing attack on the JBD claims was very good.

Postscript 1: I want to give credit to Limmud Oz for letting me talk, it is still way more pluralistic than any other mainstream Jewish organisation I can think of. In light of the criticisms in my talk, and also that the distinction between me and the banned people is arbitrary, I hope they will reconsider it in future.

Postscript 2: I had to comment on this, one finds it hard to satirise. The former president of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, Robin Margo, now chair of the NIF in Australia, wrote that

The launch of the New Israel Fund in Australia in May sparked some controversy among the 110,000-strong Jewish community on the outer edge of the Diaspora, the majority of whom have heard only the official party line on Israel for years. [emphasis added]

I mean, put aside the claim of “years”, when it should probably be decades. Who are you going to blame for that, oh PAST PRESIDENT OF THE NSW JEWISH BOARD OF DEPUTIES? Does he not think he is criticising himself?

Anyway, some of it is quite interesting. Such as ” It was a venture into a side of Sydney that could have backfired, a fear that was partially confirmed when the original venue cancelled, intimidated by calls from BDS supporters.” (emphasis added) Note how he calls this intimidation. It is not intimidation if an organisation responds to popular pressure. And indeed, it should be acknowledged, this sounds like a major victory for BDS. And it sounds like a dumb victory. Aren’t BDSers meant to distinguish between different Israelis? How left wing do you have to be to be exempt from BDS? I’ve heard that Chazan argued that the siege on Gaza has been proven to not have had a terrible effect on Gaza (something like that). If true, I flat out reject Chazan. I can’t be bothered listening to her boring speech about the boycott at the AJDS website to seek it out. I couldn’t find it in what I heard. Her Drum article about BDS was full of unimpressive cliches.

So then, Margo writes: “more than 100 people crammed into a small hall adjacent to the old Newtown synagogue.”

One courageous woman facing a potentially hostile crowd and arguing against an occupation that is “immoral, undemocratic and un-Jewish” and for a two-state solution.

And despite the fact that she had poured cold water on the boycotts, flotillas and the international campaign to delegitimise the Jewish state – some of the key battlegrounds of BDS supporters – she received rousing applause and acclaim.

Wow – isn’t she brave? She spoke to a synagogue about why she’s opposed to BDS. I’m so dazzled by her political courage. She told progressive Jews (and whatever leftists were ok with crashing a synagogue event against BDS) that she opposes “delegitimising” Israel. And why is she opposed to the flotillas? I mean, that’s appalling too. The flotillas are designed as a non-violent form of direct action to end the siege on Gaza. I cannot think of a more courageous and honourable path for activists to take. That she sides with the Israeli government according to Margo is pretty disgraceful, for the head of the head of the NGOs in Israel. Read the UN report on the flotilla. Even just read the autopsies on the people Israel killed on the Mavi Marmara.

However, it should be stressed:

But what took place in Sydney’s so-called “Inner West Bank” on Tuesday night was a tour de force. One courageous woman facing a potentially hostile crowd and arguing against an occupation that is “immoral, undemocratic and un-Jewish” and for a two-state solution.

This is, by the standards of the Jewish establishment, very good. If Margo does personally adopt (and he seems to more or less endorse) the view that the occupation is immoral (and undemocratic, and un-Jewish, whatever that means), then that would be a good stand (whatever reservations I have for now about how genuine this opposition to the occupation seems to be), and would open up a lot of space for the left within the Jewish community, and also for the broader left to build bridges within the Jewish community against the occupation and for a viable two-state agreement.

With that said, Margo’s apparent stand on the flotilla – and Chazan’s alleged stand on the blockade – seem to me dreadful.

2 Responses to “My speech at Limmud Oz”
  1. Ofir Thaler says:

    Thanks for the post, Michael. I wasn’t able to get to Limud Oz and was wondering how things went in a session that actually included critical voices. From a quick glance at the program, most sessions that looked like they could include any critical discussion of Israeli government policy were presented as obviously leading to the conclusion that the prevailing (i.e. racist) view of the JBD is the correct one.
    In regards to your comment about Naomi Chazan: I was at the Newtown Synagogue for her speech and remember her comment about the Gaza blockade. From what I managed to understand, she was actually arguing against the blockade, saying that it had not managed to bring the Hamas to its knees (as intended) because it did not cause extreme economic damage (and thus was a waste of resources and diplomatic cache). She referenced an ‘economic report’, the name of which I cannot remember, saying that it showed that the economic effects of the blockade have been minimal. It’s an odd argument and can be disproved by pretty much every report about the economic situation in Gaza that I could find.

    Having known her for years (not personally) and voted for her on at least one occasion, I can tell you that her influence (and that of her party, Meretz-Yachad) in Israel is almost negligible. However, it was nice to hear an actively anti-occupation speaker in a mainstream Jewish setting in Australia. Quite rare.

  2. michaelbrull says:

    Thanks for your comments Ofir. I heard roughly similar impresions about her comments on the blockade from other people. Did she criticise the flotillas?

    I think it would be a major development if it became ok for harsh critiques of hte occupation to be voiced within mainstream Jewish organisations. Whether it happens is another story. I have reservations about NIFA, but who knows. I think it was pretty big of Limmud Oz to let me talk. We’ll see if they do again next time it’s in Sydney.

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