A recent article published in the Daily Maverick sought to provide historical context to the current quagmire that is the Middle East. But as the death toll in Gaza continues to mount, MICAH REDDY feels the article by J. Brooks Spector fails in its stated objectives.
J. Brooks Spector’s attempt in the Daily Maverick to provide the kind of sorely needed context so lacking in media narratives ends up saying a lot more about where the author’s sympathies lie than providing historical context to the carnage in Gaza. His article, “Gaza, the Middle East and Everything: the geometry of death,” written about a week after Israel’s onslaught against Gaza is nothing short of thinly veiled apologia for Israeli aggression.
One of the more risible assertions in Spector’s article is about Jews fleeing turn of the century Europe for countries including South Africa, which offered “a new life freed from societies that made political and economic survival dependent on being of the right ethnic or religious group.” Did he mean to include South Africa, where Afrikaner nationalist leaders parroted their Nazi counterparts in their rabid anti-Semitism?
The real problems with his article however run much deeper.
Spector is keen to draw attention to the very real historical horrors faced by Jewish people—centuries of exploitation, expulsions and pogroms which culminated in the Holocaust. All of this underpins the existential threat that modern Israel senses whenever a missile is launched towards it, the feeling that the country is always on the brink of its “modern Masada moment.”
The more contemporary suffering of Palestinians however is given short shrift.
In Spector’s view of the world, Palestinians are a bunch of bitter rejectionists whose main reason for fighting stems from a dented sense of national pride and an immutable grudge against the West. Having lost its edge over Western civilization since the Middle Ages, and now lagging centuries behind in terms of scientific and economic innovation while still beset by a dogged authoritarianism, the Arab world, in Spector’s eyes, is stuck with a deeply engrained inferiority complex.
As far as he implies, this “deep-rooted sense of despair over Arab weakness,” coupled with resentment over continuous Western meddling since the time of the Crusades, is what really fuels Arab passions these days. The more recent injustices that have unambiguously turned Palestinians into the victims are excluded.
In Spector’s sanitized view of history, the mass expulsions that the creation of Israel entailed, whether by design or otherwise, are hardly factored in, save for a throw-away reference to some Palestinians fleeing their homes, “often as a result of threats or armed attacks.” The author ignores ground-breaking revisionist history that has lifted the veil on ethnic cleansing in the Holy Land. The idea of population “transfer” was always important in Zionist thought, and more than just “coming into a collision with a growing sense of Arab nationalism in the region,” the Zionist political project came into a collision with over a million people it did not want to see there. Spector tells us that “thousands of resident Palestinians did flee.” Thousands? Nearly thee-quarters of a million fled—the bulk of the Palestinian population.
And where is there any mention of the nearly half-century long illegal occupation? Not a single line, not even lip service to the idea that the occupation might just have something to do with the inferno that is Gaza. What sort of attempt to provide context to this conflict would omit what is perhaps the most pressing factor—the occupation? The routine house raids, the checkpoints, the arbitrary arrests and detention without trial, the land grabs and systematic dispossession of an entire people, the killing of innocent protesters including children—these are just some of the things that the brutality of occupation entails. The daily hardship and humiliation that ordinary Palestinians must endure is what animates the distant past and gives potency to the idea that Israel is a recent manifestation of the West’s “thousand-year effort to search out and take advantage of Eastern weakness.”
What matters historically depends on what matters in the present, and Spector fails to show why that past actually means something to those reeling from Israeli aggression now. It is the immense suffering of Palestinians that brings to life the furious memory of a thousand years of Western interference.
And yet, over and over again this suffering is overshadowed by the supposed existential threats facing Israel. It’s one of the cornerstones of Israeli propoganda, but the idea that “little Israel” is fighting a struggle for its very survival against hordes of hostile Arabs looks increasingly spurious with every new settlement built on stolen land in flagrant violation of international law, and with every battering the IDF delivers to the population of Gaza and the massively skewed body count that inevitably entails. What of the existential threat facing Palestinians? Those who are deprived of an independent state of their own, and who are languishing in refugee camps or squeezed off what remains of their land by ever-expanding settlements—what of them?
As for besieged Gaza, Israel controls its borders—land and sea—and its entire life-support system. It has been tightening the noose around the tiny enclave for years now, preventing even the most essential supplies from entering. But for Spector, none of this really counts. Gaza is merely “cordoned off.” What counts above all is the insecurity that Israelis feel. Even the settlements are best understood as “a form of short-term political insurance” against a demographic time bomb, not what they are—illegal under international law and morally indefensible.
It’s all very well to explore the collective anxieties and frustration of Israelis, but Spector’s refusal to acknowledge the extent of Israeli oppression renders his attempt at providing context totally bankrupt. It doesn’t get any better with his rather more subtle insinuation that Palestinians are the obstacle to peace. The sticking points in the seemingly endless series of peace efforts that Spector cites are only those that frustrate Israeli politicians, including the “cessation of hostilities towards.
The intractability of these issues is what has pushed weary Israeli politicians to the right, says Spector. But in the absence of context, and without giving any space in the article to the long list of Palestinian grievances and demands, starting with the siege and the settlements, the reader would be forgiven for thinking that the Palestinians are largely to blame for the failure of peace talks and perhaps, ultimately, for their own oppression. The inference is that Palestinians are guilty because they have not done what they could have—because they have not recognized Israel’s “right to exist,” because they have not ceased hostilities, because they are the reason Israel’s borders are not secure, and because they have not budged on the refugee question. Forget what Israel could have done, and still can do, to help bring about peace. Israel, unlike the Palestinians, has not been pushed into a corner. In the wider game of give and take, Israel has much more room for manoeuvre.
Since the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993, successive right-wing Israeli governments seem to have done all in their power to scuttle meaningful moves towards peace while pointing the finger at Palestinians. Having relinquished their claim to almost 80 percent of historic Palestine, the Palestinians rightfully feel that they have next to nothing left to offer. Meanwhile, under Netanyahu, who is known for his obstinacy and his blunt opposition to any genuine steps towards Palestinian independence, the expansion of settlements has continued unabated. The more than 350,000 settlers in the West Bank and additional 300,000 beyond the pre-1967 border in East Jerusalem prevent a viable two-state solution from ever getting off the ground.
The status quo, with its endlessly deferred peace, has long suited Israel. But this means nothing to Spector, who would have us believe that Israel’s latest disproportionate use of force was all about retaliation for the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers. Again, where is the context?
The latest peace talks led by John Kerry failed to get anywhere largely because Netanyahu was not interested in offering any constructive suggestions, instead rejecting a withdrawal plan drafted by the Americans that would have guaranteed Israeli security. All the while, settlement expansion continued. As a beleaguered Hamas started moving closer to Fatah, signing a unity accord in April, the Prime Minister was left fuming. We had every reason to believe that the accord would have helped moderate the stance of Hamas, which made significant concessions in handing over power to the western-backed Palestinian Authority. But Netanyahu saw signs of greater Palestinian unity as purely threatening. His callous response was to tighten the siege and punish Hamas economically. Israel’s attack on Gaza must be seen in this context. The abduction of the three boys was a pretext for the major crackdown in the occupied West Bank and an attempt to break the back of Hamas. The collective punishment of the people of Gaza who voted the militant group into power is what followed.
Back to the article and the worst is reserved for last. Spector pulls out that red herring favoured by all Israel’s apologists— he points to a state that has done worse. It’s exactly what defenders of apartheid used to do. In this case, he chooses to deflect attention away from Israel by taking us across the Golan Heights to Syria: “After all, the Syrian catastrophe has driven millions from their homes, caused well over 160,000 fatalities, and inflicted astounding damage to some of Syria.” So why dwell on Israel then?
Well, unlike Israel, Asad is not armed to the hilt by Western powers. The US does not funnel over 3 billion dollars in annual military aid to his regime. His aggression is not cheered on by countries claiming to be guardians of global democracy, and his atrocities are not met with a blind eye. The point about Israel is that public opinion in the West matters in a way that it does in few other cases, precisely because of the West’s total complicity in Israeli crimes. When thousands march in solidarity with the people of Gaza, they are holding their own governments to account and calling politicians out for their blatant hypocrisy. Anti-apartheid activists in Europe and the US condemned their governments for counting the odious regime in Pretoria as a close friend. The case of Israel is no different. And here in South Africa, we of all people ought to be able to recognise apartheid when we see it, and condemn it as such.
As with any protest movement, there will always be those with repulsive views joining in. Indeed there are some tainted with “a garden variety anti-Semitism” and who cite the “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” as if it were something more than a mere fraud, and perhaps they have not been as roundly condemned as they should be. But it’s one thing for Spector to bring attention to the role of anti-Semitism in all this, and to suggest that some protesters probably wish for a Hamas rocket to “even up the scoreboard somehow.” It is quite another thing to do so while completely overlooking the impulses of compassion that push people from around the world, very many Jews included, to stand with the oppressed, and to sometimes risk their lives and freedoms in doing so. The galling implication of what Spector says, and what he leaves unsaid, is that the ranks of the Palestinian solidarity movement are simply filled with boorish anti-Semites.
There is no even-handedness here. In his glaring omissions, Spector only ends up privileging the Zionist narrative in what is supposed to be an attempt to provide context to the conflict in Gaza. Once again, Israel is absolved of its crimes. To pass off an article like this as some sort of attempt at being the neutral observer giving both sides of the story is stunningly disingenuous.
Micah Reddy is a journalist based in Yemen. He recently completed a Masters in African Studies at Oxford University and is currently finishing off a stint as managing editor at the Yemen Times. He can be followed on twitter: @RedMicah