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Monday, May 26, 2008

Christian volunteers and neo-Nazis: the Ilan Pappé fan club

The posting's been distinctly sparse and rather unfocussed of late, but here at last is a real back-to-basics piece.

It begins with an anniversary: Pentecost is not far behind us, and it called to mind my experience at Pentecost last year at the church I then belonged to. How, after the celebration of one of the Church's great feasts, recalling the gift of the Holy Spirit, the sacred space was given over to a presentation of Israel-demonizing propaganda given by two volunteers from the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel.

I never did get round to finishing my write-up of this. But I did write this on the reactivation of the ancient anti-Semitic slander of well-poisoning. Also this and this.

Unfair and unbalanced criticism of Israel is a way of defaming the Jewish people. It is the way of defaming the Jewish people that is practised by many and accepted by more in the West today. It is a point of contact between anti-Semites and those who would indignantly deny anti-Semitism. And it nudges the door open for other, more 'classical', more blatant anti-Semitic themes. The poisoning of the wells is one example. More broadly, there is the sense that there must be some kind of conspiracy allowing Israel to 'get away with it'; worse still, the perception of Jews as so depraved that they could quite feasibly have invented the Holocaust. That is not, of course, a respectable point of view, but the boundaries are getting blurred in a way which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. A Holocaust-denying musicians gets regular gigs courtesy of the Socialist Workers Party, whilst Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has plenty of apologists on the left despite his hosting of a Holocaust deniers' conference.

It would be unfair to dwell on the fact that the presentation took place in the city from which the extermination of the Jews was planned and directed, but it certainly intensified my sense of a desecration taking place, and it is legitimate to mention it as being symptomatic of the lack of reflectiveness over this issue in the Church. It's as if we've ticked the 'amends for the Holocaust' box, we can keep things ticking over by inviting a rabbi to church every so often, and can move on to fresher items on the agenda - items taken over directly from the secular left-liberal political agenda.

Others in the congregation agreed with me, but I can't pretend that they are in the majority. My latest visit to that church happened to coincide with the Sunday on which, at the end of the service, a 'commissioning' prayer was said for one of the two volunteers before his departure on another 'tour of duty' on the the West Bank. Well, I'm happy to be asked to pray for my brother in Christ - I do, though not, I fear, in the way he would want. I'm not at all happy to be told that he has a calling from God to do what he's doing. Sorry, but no 'Amen' to that from me. May it prove so - buit it will not if it results in a repeat of that Pentecost propaganda-fest. Not everyone who says 'peace, peace' is actually serving the cause of peace.

Soon after his presentation last year, I had a discussion/argument with Volunteer C in which he urged me to inform myself by reading the Israeli 'New Historian' Ilan Pappé. I had read enough about Pappé to be sceptical of this advice, and my scepticism was not diminished when I discovered that Volunteer C, though well briefed on Israeli atrocities, had never heard of the 1941 Baghdad pogrom, and when he registered surprise at my suggestion that the number of Jews displaced from Arab countries after 1947 was comparable with the number of Palestinians who lost their homes in the 'Nakba'. It didn't sound to me as if reading Pappé promoted a balanced view of the conflict.

Volunteer C's companion contributed to an article for EAPPI's magazine (PDF) listing '40 Ways to End the Occupation'. Item 9 is:-

'Ask your library to order books that show the Palestinian side of the conflict, i.e., Ilan Pappe Ethnic Cleansing'

- as opposed to books attempting to give a balanced analysis of the complexities of the conflict. Spread the word, folks!

If you do, be prepared to find yourself in some very strange company. As it happens, Pappé was in Germany recently. One of the interviews he gave duly appeared... in a notorious neo-Nazi rag.
As David Hirsh of Engage observes, it's one more in a long line of 'whoops' moments. I note in a comment on this that the one that sticks in my memory is when A N Wilson used his Evening Standard column (in 2002 or thereabouts) to plug an Israel-demonizing book by an American neo-Nazi. Wilson didn't realize. Pappé didn't realize. For both, that's all there is to be said.

It does seem extraordinary that Pappé gave a substantial interview without inquiring which paper was going to publish it. If he did ask, you might think that the name 'National-Zeitung' ought to have set alarm bells ringing. A historian with German Jewish parents (they 'emigrated from Berlin to Palestine during the National Socialist period' says the potted biography accompanying the interview, as if they'd just fancied a change of scene) might be expected to know that in Germany the word 'national' carries some very heavy historical baggage. No mainstream paper would dream of including it in its name.

For Pappé's interviewer, he was not the first left-wing 'scalp'. He's also interviewed Luisa Morgantini, an Italian Communist and Vice-President of the European Parliament (German source). She told him that 'Israel practises apartheid'. I don't know what her excuse was for giving an interview to a neo-Nazi.

Well, OK, Pappé made a mistake. It happens. It doesn't make him a Nazi. But is that really all that needs to be said before we draw a line under this unfortunate incident? Pappé fans like Volunteer C would do well to ponder the question posed by one of the commenters at Harry's Place:-

'“I would like to stress that my ideology and moral stance are in total contradiction to what this newspaper represent”

- I wonder why National Zeitung had the opposite opinion?'

And, believe me, the paper's all over him. Here's its introduction to the interview:-

'On 14 May 1948 in the then British Mandate territory of Palestine the "Jewish National Council" unilaterally declared independence in defiance of international law. Simultaneously the expulsion of large parts of the indigenous Arab majority population was started. The same fate also befell the German minority, which had already between 1939 and 1948 been systematically and forcibly resettled in Australia by the British Mandate administration. The events of 1948, which have been comprehensively described for the first time by the Israeli historian Professor Ilan Pappé, spelt the end of the era of a liberal Islam and are at the root of the still continuing Middle East conflict. In conversation with Erhard Düvel of the National-Zeitung the author expressed the view that 14 May 1948 is no cause for celebration for the international community.'

So when Pappé receives this e-mail from German journalist Gudrun Eussner (again from this article, in German but the e-mails are in English), you might think it was a challenge which he ought to take seriously:-

'Whatever you tell now about this unauthorized interview, you don´t adress the fact, that your ideas are so much in harmony with the nazis, that they are welcomed to be published by their media. Professor, you are nazi-compatible, they do love Jews like you. Be proud of it!
'Gudrun Eussner'

Pappé's reply?

'As this my last word to you, i suggest you read your own email, you make a very good Nazi yourself. In fact this is the tragedy of Zionism that it turned people like you to be nazi-compatible. thank god there are other humanist Jews in the world. Otherwise it would have been a terrible Nazi success if we were left only with people like you'

Nyaah, nyaah, nya-nyaah, nyaah, Nazi yourself! Where on earth do you start with an argument like that? Eussner questions how Pappé comes to get himself published in a Nazi newspaper and by that very act shows herself to be the Nazi.

Let us turn to something a little more adult. Courtesy of another Harry's Place commenter, here are links to a review of Pappé's History of Modern Palestine by fellow Israeli historian Benny Morris:-

Morris convicts Pappé of a string of factual errors, but sees something more than sloppiness at work. Here's his 'money quote' from the book:-

'my [pro-Palestinian] bias is apparent despite the desire of my peers that I stick to facts and the 'truth' when reconstructing past realities. I view any such construction as vain and presumptuous. This book is written by one who admits compassion for the colonized not the colonizer; who sympathizes with the occupied not the occupiers; and sides with the workers not the bosses. He feels for women in distress, and has little admiration for men in command.... Mine is a subjective approach....'

Now I'm not equipped to give any kind of definitive evaluation as to whether Benny Morris is a better historian than Ilan Pappé. But I can at least say that, by his own account, he is at least trying to do the job of a historian, which is to find out as nearly as possible 'what happened back then'. And that he is really trying to do this is confirmed by the fact that, though he is a committed Zionist, he does not shy away from uncomfortable truths in the history of Zionism. That is to say, he can tolerate moral ambiguity. Doesn't necessarily mean he likes it, but he can handle it (does this review read like an account of a right-wing Zionist whitewash?). Whereas Pappé gives the decided impression that he cannot, and his appeal is to others who cannot. And I suspect that his rejection of 'objective' history results less from the belief that it is impossible than from the fear that its findings will prove irreducibly morally ambiguous. Better therefore to turn history into a narrative that unambiguously serves the cause of those who are (somehow!) unambiguously the Good Guys.

It's certainly what an awful lot of people want to hear. In March Pappé's book occupied third place on the non-fiction best-seller list in Germany (source: Gudrun Eusslen, citing the publisher's website). For Johann Hari of the Independent - backed up by a raft of readers' letters this week - Pappé is the infallible, unassailable authority on the 1948 war - Morris, Schmorris! So when Hari comes under fire it can only mean that he is the victim of a vast, malign conspiracy to cover up the truth about Israel - putting him in the company not only of Pappé but also of Norman Finkelstein. Thank God, once again, for the sanity of fellow Indie writer Howard Jacobson.

People like Pappé and his disciples (at least the ones who aren't neo-Nazis) can do great good or great harm. It all depends on whether the cause they embrace is as good as they have decided it is. The problem tends to be that they see their embracing of it as in itself the guarantee that it is good, and that makes reappraisals difficult.

And the interview in the National-Zeitung shows how self-defeating the Pappé approach to history is. He has shaped his historical narrative to serve an ideological cause, but, lo and behold, it turns out that it can serve more causes than one - including one he considers 'in total contradiction' to his own. For, after all, the Deutsche Volksunion is not fussy about historical truth either, nor is it fussy about what kind of 'useful idiots' it presses into service. Even a Jew - no, especially a Jew - will do nicely.

In trying to make history Palestinian-friendly, Pappé has made it Nazi-friendly. In trying to suppress moral ambiguity he has created it.

Conversely, the most reliable way for him to ensure that he doesn't get any more unwanted overtures from this quarter would be to start writing Benny Morris-style history, narrating human affairs as the tangled, messy, warts-and-all business that experience tells us they are. And, trusting that, in the long run, truth will serve the good better than falsehood, to follow John Donne's injunction to 'doubt wisely'.

Back to Volunteer C, for whom my hope is also that he may learn to 'doubt wisely'. He gave me an expensively-produced brochure published by the German branch of EAPPI (equivalent material in English can be inspected here). I could write a very long critique of the bias and distortions in the text - not least the Pappé-esque account of the 1948 war - but perhaps it's the pictures which carry the strongest message. Palestinians appear as civilians trying to go about their peaceful business in nightmarish conditions. Israel is represented exclusively by images of violence and oppression: coils of barbed wire, a watchtower on the separation barrier, gun-toting soldiers, settler children throwing stones. Nothing to hint that Palestinians can ever be the authors of violence or Israeli Jews its innocent victims. The technique is familiar: see what I wrote here about an issue of Christian Aid News.

It does with pictures what Ilan Pappé openly admits that he is trying to do with history. If it had been produced by the Deutsche Volksunion, publishers of the 'National-Zeitung', how different would it look?

Here is a list of the Accompaniment Programme's 'sending organizations'. What these bodies are doing is investing substantial sums of money into the propagation of the Ilan Pappé narrative of Palestinian victimhood and Israeli wickedness. This is not a peripheral spin-off from a worthy peacemaking enterprise; it is central to the whole operation: 'you must commit to doing extensive advocacy on return to your home country', prospective volunteers are advised, and anyone whose advocacy might be 'off-message' is unlikely to welcomed as a volunteer.

So, to round it off, a simple question to Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, Christian Aid, CAFOD, Pax Christi Germany, the United Church of Canada, the Episcopal Church (USA) and all the rest: if this is a project of Christian mission, how come it is so hard to distinguish from the project of the Deutsche Volksunion?

1 comment:

SnoopyTheGoon said...

"It doesn't make him a Nazi." No, just a blathering fool and a voluntary fellow traveler for the Nazis.

Great post was mainly what I wanted to say.