In recent weeks, once again this website has been dominated by polarized debate about the relations between Israel and Palestine. My affinities in this debate are clear, but it has become for me and most others who share my viewpoint a very unproductive process. It reminds me of the sort of venom on display in the Republican primary struggle to select a presidential candidate, and at this point, the secondary struggle to offset the proto-fascist surge of Trump-mania that promises to make the choice of the next American leader a perverse and masochistic form of entertainment. This will be a tragedy not only for America, but for the world, considering the reality of its self-anointed role as the first global state in human history, and the implications this has for who is chosen to lead such a country.
I realize that such a free association is off point. What I want to express is that I have found the many comments contributors supporting Israel, while granting their sincerity, to resemble my experience in South Africa during the 1960s. In 1965 I spent the year in The Hague as an international law advisor to the Ethiopian and Liberian team in the South West Africa Cases being argued at the International Court of Justice. I learned many things, including being impressed and appalled by the skill and dogmatic convictions of the South African legal team in making their moral and legal case for apartheid, which I had previously uncritically viewed as a vicious form of racism that was not worth arguing about. It was not that I found these proponents of apartheid convincing, but it was my first experience of how ideological closure in the defense of a horrible situation can allow decent and intelligent people, pursuing their own social and material interests, to align themselves with what appeared to me to be a depraved structure of power and exploitation.
When I went to South Africa in 1968 to be an official observer at a political trial of activists in South West Africa, now Namibia, this dual experience of confrontation was deepened: with apologists for the apartheid regime and with those being victimized by it. I was told by the apologists a variety of things: “you don’t live here, and have no right to criticize what we do,” “blacks are better off here than elsewhere in Africa,” “it is either us or them, our survival is at stake,” “those who oppose apartheid are terrorists,” “we have brought prosperity and order to South Africa,” and on and on. My experience of the victimization of the African majority told, of course, a different story, one of fear, poverty, degradation, hardship, and the role of law in the service of oppression and degrading double standards.
I am not saying that the reality of Israel/Palestine relations are identical to those of apartheid South Africa, but there are essential similarities, including South African claims at the time of being a constitutional democracy governed according to the rule of law. There are also vast differences of history and circumstances, and the path to a just solution is very different, but the nature of debate between apologists for the status quo and its critics is sufficiently similar to make the comparison relevant and instructive.
While teaching at Princeton I agreed to debate a prominent American apologist for apartheid in an event sponsored by a conservative campus group. My opponent, an editor at the National Review with a Dutch background, made all the familiar pro-apartheid arguments in a cogent, even passionate form, and I angrily countered them, feeling afterwards ashamed that I had lost my poise having become so outraged by the distortions he was telling a mainly uninformed young student audience. It convinced me that such a debate, while sometimes captivating for its fireworks, is not the sort of communication and dialogue that I find worthwhile.
I have reached the same conclusion on several occasions with respect to the comments section of this blog. Over these years I have constantly vacillated between ignoring and engaging with the hostile and dogmatic comments submitted by Israeli apologists, which have frequently included nasty allegation or innuendo questioning my integrity and identity, and demeaning in various ways those who agreed with me. Such a dialogue of the deaf is repetitive, wasteful, hurtful, and initiates an intellectual race to the bottom.
I have been admittedly inconsistent in response, sometimes preferring a laissez-faire approach, sometimes monitoring to keep out personal insults and extremist views. I am a strong proponent of freedom of expression, although I have always found varieties of hate speech, including spurious allegations of anti-Semitism, to be troublesome and damaging. At the same time, while open to a wide divergence of views in the public square, I do not feel any obligation to invite those whose views I abhor to my home. A personal website is neither the public square nor a private dwelling, and that makes the issue messier, and undoubtedly explains why wavering between ‘openness’ and ‘boundaries.’
When a newspaper has opinion pieces and a comments section the case for extending the ethos of free speech is stronger, but not as convincing as it might appear on first glance. The Al Jazeera English comments section is dominated by vituperative and
hostile exchanges, polarizing and irrelevant debate and name calling, and rarely instructive. A personal blog site, even if addressing politically sensitive issues, seems to be justified in seeking to impose certain boundaries on what is acceptable. The goal is ‘productive conversation,’ which ideally would be hospitable to very divergent interpretations. I have always felt that I often learn most from those with whom I disagree, provided that these adversaries exhibit respect for the authenticity of my different experience and understanding.
These reflections leads me to once more adopt a more interventionist approach to comments submitted to this blog site. My goal is ‘productive conversation’ on a range of topics, and not limited to the Israel/Palestine agenda important that this is to me. I have enjoyed and benefitted from comments on a variety of issues, but rarely with respect to polar confrontations between Israel’s apologists and critics. With reluctance, but temporary resolve, I have decided to block comments that are written in a polarizing rhetoric or impugn the motives of Israel’s critics. It is
certain that the regular comment writers who I am categorizing as apologists for Israel will be offended, but I encourage them to go elsewhere. There are a variety of Zionist and pro-Israeli websites that are completely one-sided in ways they would find unproblematic, receiving either no critical comments or filtering out any that are out of tune with the spirit of the website.
On the basis of past experience, I have no illusions that this restrictive turn will work over time to improve the quality of discussion in the comments section, but I feel it is worth a try, and ask those who agree to be active, making it happen, providing that productive conversation on controversial issues is possible and useful.