Letters to The Age in reply to our article

Our Opinion article in the Melbourne Age on Monday March 31st was titled ‘Self-defence or brutal occupation’ – a title devised by the newspaper’s editors, though I had half-seriously suggested it might be titled ‘Two Jews, three opinions’ – according to the familiar joke, and perhaps relevant to the disputes surrounding these issues.  The Age’s heading is a significant indicator of views that have not been often aired in the mainstream press. In this regard, the scrupulous show of ‘balance’ on the Letters page on the following day – 2 letters in favour, and 2 letters against – is a considerable advance on the status quo since it gives our critical position ‘equal time’ with the conventional, popular wisdom.

Although the standard mythology is that the media are biased against Israel, it’s obvious that highly critical pieces like ours are very rare. The publication of our piece, therefore, proves exactly the opposite thesis – namely, that the bias is consistently in the opposite direction and such critical pieces are the exception to the rule. As with the interminable debates about the alleged ‘left-wing’ bias of the ABC, the specious assumption is that the mainstream, taken-for-granted, conventional wisdom is somewhow neutral. The very possibility that the orthodoxy might itself be biased seems unthinkable to most people.

The question of which way the press are biased is easily judged by comparing coverage in our own media with that seen daily in Israel’s own Ha’aretz where our own arguments are not new or suprising. Of course, the reactions to our piece reveal exactly how sheltered the Jewish community and the broader public have been from views which we argue are no longer even controversial.

The letters published on the following day, April 1 2008 are revealing and perhaps deserve a few words of comment which follows after each one below:

With peace, the land grabs will have to stop

April 1, 2008

IT IS refreshing to see the truth about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Opinion, 31/03) discussed in such a dispassionate manner. No emotive rhetoric denouncing the other side’s horrors but conveniently ignoring their side’s horrors, but simply the facts as they really are. Here is some more startling truth: the Israeli Government does not want peace with the Palestinians, at least not yet. By previously playing Hamas against Fatah, and now playing Fatah against Hamas, the Government has been able to proceed with the unfettered building of more settlements in the West Bank.

I dread to wonder when this process of claiming Palestinian land will finally stop. It might seem unpalatable for some people that this could be the case, but you need to separate rhetoric from action. The fact is that Israel has been taking Arab land since the declaration of Israel as a state. It would be naive to imagine that this was never the intended outcome.

Paul Gosling, Langwarrin

I remark only on the writer’s judgement that our article was written in a “dispassionate manner” and without “emotive rhetoric”. This is a welcome compliment since we have been vilified for our alleged extremism and “inflammatory” writing, as the following letter shows. We have, indeed, been concerned to maintain an appropriate level of sober reflection on what are extremely disturbing, tragic circumstances of the Palestinians which surely deserve some human, emotional reaction. Nevertheless, the debate about the facts must be conducted in a rational, respectful and cool manner. I can’t resist adding only that the charge of excessive emotionalism on our part has also been levelled by some on the Jewish ‘left’ who share our views. If stating disturbing facts is seen as too emotional, I’m not sure how one can alert people to the enormity of the problems our article was concerned with.

Nothing but more prejudice

WHAT we have to strive for amid the plethora of opinions on Israel is tolerance, moderation and open-mindedness. The last things we need in this raging debate are articles that are extreme and inflammatory.

Peter Slezak and Antony Loewenstein have written such an article. They accuse Israel of “ethnic-cleansing” and of killing innocent civilians. They accuse past leaders and heroes of being bigoted and ruthless, and half the population of being inherently racist. These accusations portray Israel as a bloodthirsty, inhumane and racist nation. This is not only unbelievably false, but it is dangerous and irresponsible.

Israel’s problems and mistakes, although undeniable and regrettable, do not define Israel as a whole, just as suicide bombers do not define Palestinians as a whole.

Primarily, Israel is a vibrant democratic state that upholds concepts of pluralism and freedom, and that is what Slezac and Loewenstein omit from their article. Have they helped us take a step towards tolerance, moderation and balanced dialogue, or have they incited more hatred, created more polarised views and instigated more extremism in a context in which extremism is the root of all evil? The irony of their final plea for “balanced dialogue” is almost palpable.

Oscar Schwartz, Toorak

The misspelling of my name in this letter will undoubtedly please the other Peter Slezak who seems to have suffered great indignities for being confused with me and for being accused of “extreme and inflammatory” views.

This letter-writer doesn’t deny the facts we cite but simply asserts them to be “unbelievably false” or perhaps just “regrettable” “mistakes”. There is no way to adjudicate the justice of such accusations other than to read the important scholarly and journalistic sources we cite. No article or letter can convey the vast, detailed, rich historical narrative that paints the ugly picture we suggest. The letter writers asks whether our article as “helped us take a step towards tolerance, moderation and balanced dialogue” or have we “incited more hatred” and more extremism? It is difficult to see how our plea for open-minded willingness to consider alternative, serious accounts of Israel’s past and present can be an incitement to more hatred and extremism. This writer ridicules our call for balanced dialogue, but surely this must be exactly what we ask – to consider alternative, reputable, indeed, no longer controversial, accounts that are, admittedly unwelcome and uncomfortable. Pehaps a step away from extremism is a willingness to contemplate the possibility that the rosy, benign picture this correspondent holds might be mistaken.

Prescription for conflict

PETER Slezak and Antony Loewenstein claim that speaking honestly about Israelis and Palestinians is fraught, which is probably why they have chosen not to do so. Israeli Arabs have the same rights as Israel’s other citizens, and far more than Arabs in any other Middle East state, yet Slezak and Loewenstein accuse Israel of discrimination and “ethnic cleansing”. They also blame the conflict and occupation on Israel, rather than the constant Palestinian refusal to accept land in return for acceptance of Israel’s right to exist in peace.

Similarly, despite their token condemnation of Hamas and Hezbollah rocket fire, they are far more critical of Israel’s efforts to defend its citizens. To ignore the facts that every aspect of Israel’s conduct they object to is the direct result of Palestinian or Arab terrorism or intransigence belies their claim to be true friends of Israel. It is a prescription for continued conflict, not for peace.

Justin Lipton, Melbourne

Letters such as this one are a predictable recitation of the very dogmas that we tried to dispel by citing some evidence and sources that deserve to be taken seriously. This writer, like other critics, seems incapable of even understanding the literal meaning of our words and somehow construes them as empty rhetoric like his own. We deliberately used our limited space to indicate the rich, reputable literature of Israel Jews and others that must be taken seriously such as the work of Ilan Pappe. The term “ethnic cleansing” was not a gratuitous or arbitrary term of abuse that we used without any justification in the evidence. Such letters are typical of the emotional responses that ignore the shocking factual basis for the literal use of such terms as “ethnic cleansing”. We should understand that culpable ignorance of the awful truth is no excuse. We know that we held those in contempt who protested that they didn’t know what was going on – even if it was true. Israeli journalist Amira Hass has written eloquently of her conception of her role in exposing the horrors committed in our name and her effort to making sure that we can not hide behind the same inadequate excuse that we didn’t know.

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