[Ed: In response to Gaita’s reply to me, I wrote a private email to him. I sought to set out my objections, in a non-hostile manner, seeking to clarify the issues I felt were at stake. As he has not suggested or asked for or replied to comments on editing my original blog, I have not done so, though here I indicate my dissatisfaction with what I originally wrote, which was rushed and did not use particularly judicious language (though I’m not sure any substantive judgements were mistaken). Gaita replied, on the understanding I would print my letter to him together with his reply in full on this blog. I am happy to do so, though I think there remains a lot to be said. I have also sought comment from Muslim and Arab spokespeople and pundits to see how they react to what Gaita has said. I will comment further in subsequent blogs.]
Dear Dr Gaita,
I’m contacting you, because I hoped to clarify a few things in our controversy. I did not, and do not seek, a furious and non-civil slanging match. I understand that you feel I have misrepresented you. From my perspective, I do not think you have understood my objections to aspects of your speech.
Though it might surprise you, I didn’t actually expect such an angry response from you. Indeed, I’m not sure I expected a response at all.
At the start of one of your comments, you note that people involved with IAJV have been subject to misrepresentation and even villification. Well, I do not ask for your concern or sympathy, but indeed I think this is accurate enough. For example, Labor MP Michael Danby holds that Antony Loewenstein and I are anti-Semitic. The Anti-Defamation Commission has written privately, and now publically, that newmatilda should stop printing things that people like us write which criticise the Israeli government, as such things provoke anti-Semitism. When you say, in light of this, someone like me should write soberly and judiciously, I think this is reasonable. However, I do not feel I am necessarily being inconsistent. I have not responded to accusations of anti-Semitism (and I’ve also been compared to the Nazis by an AIJAC writer) by demanding apologies or anything like that. I have responded with argument, and I expect any honest observer to be able to draw their own conclusions.
In this specific case, I am not convinced that the thrust of what I said was unjustified. If you would prefer I used different language, I would be happy to. But my conclusions, I think, would remain unchanged. So far as I can tell, you take particular exception to two issues: the indigenous inhabitants, and the millions of Muslims. Before I go on to try to discuss these issues, there is another issue. I think that calling Alan Howe your counterpart was unfair. You do not seem to have taken exception to this, yet his views are quite monstrous, and I don’t think I should have made the comparison, and am happy to change this if you would like (before I make any edits, I’d like to know whether you would prefer the original comments intact, or if you would be happy with edits to change wording so that what you disapprove of can go).
1) The indigenous inhabitants of Palestine. Well, you prefaced your remarks by saying that you thought it may be offensive. I think I may be counted as one person who reacted in the predicted manner. You have responded twice, though both times, I didn’t feel that you actually responded to what I said, though it seems that you do think so. To summarise your position as I understand it, it holds that we should not call, or consider, or think about the Palestinians, as the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine. Doing so, in the context of those who call Israel a settler colony, raises questions of Israel’s legitimacy, and so we should not use the term indigenous inhabitants, or use it as an analytical tool, or whatever. Without quoting from you again directly, this seems a more or less accurate approximation of the views you expressed. I find this position extreme.
I will make two analogies, to try to draw out where I think lies my objection. It is not necessarily the case that you will read what I write and agree with me. However, I do hope you can understand my objection. Another point for my comparisons. This is not to compare the actual situations, to compare sufferings, to suggest they are similar or equivalent. They are simply to be taken as illustrations of the locus of disagreement.
So, for example, suppose a woman were discussing Hamas. She notes that there are disagreements over whether Hamas is a terrorist organisation. In the context of the blockade of Gaza on the grounds of Hamas as a terrorist organisation, she says, it is misleading to suggest that Hamas has used suicide bombers and massacred civilians in the heartland of Israel. If you admit that Hamas has committed terrible atrocities, it invites comparisons to other terrorist groups, like al Qaeda. Therefore, it is misleading to talk about Hamas atrocities in the context of the Gaza blockade, as this will play into the hands of those who support the blockade.
Okay, now how would you react to that? I imagine, an ordinary person might react as follows. They would note that Hamas’s atrocities are simply a fact. It may not serve the interests of an opponent of the blockade to acknowledge this fact. However, that does not make it non-true. The view that it is okay to deny such facts in the interests of a political argument is morally shocking. It displays an extraodinary callousness to those whose reality is being denied. Furthermore, if you accept that Jews and Palestinians are equal, and deserve the same rights and considerations, it seems difficult to square this with the view that the factual record should be distorted in the interests of one of the people, at the price of the other.
A second analogy would be similar. It is more closely related to the example you give, though plainly I would think that it would be a more hurtful example. Nevertheless, it shows the same willingness to falsify reality in the interests of political point-scoring, at the cost of truthfulness, and also a disregard for the humanity of a people. So, in this case, suppose a man is discussing the issue of the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state. This man holds that it is misleading in the context of discussion of Israel as a Jewish state to talk about the Holocaust the Jews suffered. Because the Zionist narrative is greatly bolstered by portrayal of Jews as victims of anti-Semitism, Palestinian opponents of Zionism benefit if Jews are simply portrayed as colonisers. This position is made difficult if we include in this narrative the Holocaust, and the extermination of millions of Jews. Therefore, when talking about the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state, the concept of the Holocaust hinders clear thinking.
Now, of course, the fact is, the Holocaust did happen. This example would plainly be extremely hurtful to Jews, as it would hold that it is okay to deny our suffering, in the interests of a poiltical argument. It does not deal with Jews as humans, and it considers history in instrumentalised terms of “Is it good for the Palestinians?” Such a position is not universalistic, but is based around a preconception of the greater value of Palestinian rights and interests than Jewish rights and interests. (This is again to stress that the Holocaust analogy is not to imply any parity in hurtfulness in the comparison, or that denying the Holocaust is the same as denying the Palestinian people’s indigeneity)
In your response, you’ve commented on other things, such as the dispossession of the Palestinians and so on. Yet this is not relevant to the issue raised. I think there are two premises which I hold. One, that the Palestinians are the indigenous people of Palestine. Two, that it is morally odious to falsify reality for political ends. The other things do not seem to me relevant to my points of contention. I am not sure why you raise them. I should not want to be more presumptuous than you think I have been, but it is almost as though you imply there is a quota of support of Palestinian rights, and once this is surpassed, you no longer should face criticisms for what you have said about the issue of Palestine. Yet I genuinely do find this position quite shocking, and am surprised that you don’t seem to have understood why.
2) Millions of Muslims. I do not have a transcript of your speech, Dr Gaita. If you would be kind enough to send it to me, I would greatly appreciate it, and would also be happy to print it in full on my blog (and I plan on printing your reply in full on my blog too). I have always offered a right of reply to those I criticise, and have also printed Vic Alhadeff and Bren Carlill on my blog at length. On this issue, I wrote that you were an anti-Muslim racist, and you replied with the most outrage at this remark. I found your remark on the video, and you say “literally, millions of Muslims throughout the world hate Jews with what, if one listens to their words, appears to be a murderous ferocity.”
Now, Dr Gaita, you say that you have written against racism for years, including racism against Australian Muslims. I should not want to dismiss this or trivialise it. Yet I think that racism is not simply restricted to people who wear white hoods and burn crosses. I have tried to be vocal in opposition to the crimes of the Israeli government for a while, yet a Palestinian I had some acquaintance with once accused me of being racist. I did not think it was reasonable to respond that I had a wonderful history, or something like that. I think everyone should recognise that anyone – even me (meant to refer to everyone, including but not just me, Michael) – can be racist without realising it, and we should always be open to criticism and self-criticism and self-interrogation, to be sure that we don’t internalise racist (or sexist etc) values. Indeed, I think it is interesting that you cite Ghassan Hage in this instance, because, whilst I would not say my acquaintance with his views is extensive, I recall him writing in the wake of the Cronulla riots (to use the conventional euphemism) that racists are less exotic than we think.
Now, to return to what you said. You say literally millions of Muslims hate Jews with murderous ferocity, as shown by their words. Dr Gaita, have you listened to the words of millions of Muslims? Or are you simply referring to someone like Osama Bin Laden, and extrapolating from him to millions of Muslims? Do you realise that speaking of murderous ferocity is actually a fairly substantive slur? If this were the case, might we not expect more Muslims to have killed more Jews? Where are these murderous Muslims, Dr Gaita? Indeed, the extrapolation from an individual to a group seems to me to be quite precisely what a stereotype is. I don’t think it should take too much imagination to make a comparable – unsubstantiated, and non-proveable – claim about African Americans, or Jews, or indigenous Australians. And I would react with the same disdain for such an expression. Indeed, I find it a little strange that you could say that you’ve written against anti-Muslim racism, yet do not find it problematic to say that millions of Muslims want to kill Jews with murderous ferocity. It seems to me rather as though Paul Sheehan were to say that he had written against anti-Lebanese racism in Australia, yet then went on to write of Lebanese rapists (again), as though this were the only community which had men who assaulted women. I think, for someone opposed to such racism, the obvious sign of this would be to challenge stereotypes, not to perpetuate them.
Now I recognise that you think my language was inappropriate and defamatory. For the reasons I set out, I am not persuaded that my positions are wrong. I am happy to remove the words “anti-Muslim racist”, and I would like to remove the comparison to Alan Howe. But I hold, for the reasons set out, that the thrust of what I said was nevertheless, more or less fair comment. I am happy for you to express disagreement, and would be more than happy to print any and all objections you have or may make to what I have written.
On the subject of an apology – if I am persuaded of error in reasoning or morals, I will apologise. I am not persuaded. IAJV, is another story. I do not represent anyone on IAJV, as the preamble on my blog makes plain. No one speaks on behalf of anyone else, and if someone in IAJV apologised, it would not be on behalf of me, nor the original IAJV signatories. If you like, I could suggest to the people who send out emails that there has been this controversy, and they might circulate a petition calling for the repudiation of what I wrote. In the interest of balance, a counter-petition might also be circulated, in defence of what I wrote. I do not think I would regard this as satisfactory. As it is, it may simply be that individuals who signed IAJV might express their disapproval of what I wrote. Dr Brahm Levey has done so. If other signatories wish to do so, again, I will be happy to print these expressions on my blog.
I’m sorry that this has been written at such great length, but I hope that I have clarified my position and views, even if this doesn’t necessarily mean you will appreciate either as more fair or justified. I may reuse parts of this email (though I should respect your privacy if you reply), as I think in this email I have set out more fully my objections to your expressed views. I hope that you can find the time to reply and explain what you find objectionable in my views, as I do not think that in your replies you have addressed my complaints. And, I should hope that if I remove the particular terms you object to, we could have a more public discussion of disagreements.