25 February 2007 – Adam and Moodley revisited
Yesterday I revisited Heribert Adam and Kagila Moodley’s 2005 book, Seeking Mandela: Peacemaking Between Israelis and Palestinians. I disliked it when I first read it, and now I dislike it even more. The book tries to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a South African lens. On the one hand, it rejects the Israel-apartheid analogy; on the other, it makes use of it at every turn.
The authors base their analysis on two bad assumptions. The first is that Israel is chiefly at fault, and that Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory as “the central cause of the strife and suffering on both sides.” The second is that Jews are intolerant of criticism of Israel, and can insulate Israel from pressure because of the moral weight of the Holocaust and the power of the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S.
There are innumerable factual “errors”; in many instances, these amount to a thoughtless repetition of anti-Israel canards. For example, the authors claim “only Arabs with different license plates are checked at numerous roadblocks.” (6) In fact, Arabs from Israel have the same yellow-colored license plates as other Israelis. Only Palestinians have different plates—they are from a different country, after all.
Another awful clanger is the following claim: “Most university administrations in North America, from Concordia to Harvard, would like to declare the controversial issue taboo and ban all discussions among activist students and agitated faculty.” (xvi). Huh? At Concordia, it was the “activist students” that shut down debate by rioting when Benjamin Netanyahu was to speak on the campus in 2002.
As for Harvard, the authors take their story from biased and frankly dishonest sources. They quote former Harvard president Larry Summers as saying “Any comparison between South Africa and Israel is implicitly anti-Semitic,” and accuse him of suppressing academic freedom. (20) They rely on a secondary source—Judith Butler, who is a self-declared anti-Zionist. What Summers actually said was:
“Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent . . . . We should always respect the academic freedom of everyone to take any position. We should also recall that academic freedom does not include freedom from criticism. The only antidote to dangerous ideas is strong alternatives vigorously advocated.”
The historical analysis in the book is really sloppy, and describes events in the Middle East as they ought to have happened, rather than as they actually did happen, in order to fit their perpetrator-victim frame of reference. Israelis are likened to Afrikaners, for example, and must wrestle with problems of “collective responsibility,” just like—wait for it—post-war Germany! Palestinians are off the hook.
The authors seem to have taken their ideas and opinions about the conflict from the conferences they attend and the academic colleagues they interact with, rather than from their own research. In the introduction, the authors acknowledge that an early reader of a chapter of their manuscript called their text: “A mixture of sense and nonsense.” (xii) That may, in fact, have been me—and I still have the same impression.
What is interesting is that despite the fact that the authors accept some of the sillier fallacies of the anti-Israel critique, they reject the Israel-apartheid analogy. They do so for six reasons: 1. Israel and Palestine are not, as black and white South Africa are, economically interdependent; 2. Israelis and Palestinians have distinct religious differences, whereas South Africans on both sides were mostly Christian; 3. Third parties intervene more in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than they did in South Africa; 4. Leadership in South Africa was more cohesive on both sides, whereas extremist minorities have disproportionate influence in Israel and Palestine; 5. Relations between the two sides in South Africa were more hierarchical; 6. Suicide bombing was never a feature of the anti-apartheid struggle.
I am not sure I agree with all of these distinctions—especially numbers 3 and 5. The authors also offer lessons of the South African experience for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some of which seem more useful and valid than others (I am paraphrasing here): 1. Don’t insist on that the other side must be “subdued” before negotiation can begin; 2. Don’t insist on a halt to all violence before negotiating; 3. Let each side choose its own representatives; 4. Educate your constituency to prepare for peace; 5. The stronger side should not dictate terms to the weaker; 6.Don’t try to undermine the other side by encouraging internecine conflict; 7. Use gestures of reconciliation to appeal to the public on the other side; 8. Justice is more important than peace; 9. Try to involve extremists in the process; 10. Use truth commissions in transition.
These “lessons” are largely superficial and self-serving. They tell a sort of fairy-tale story about the success of the South African negotiating process and say very little about what would work in the Middle East. The authors set out to provide an alternative to the knee-jerk attitudes to Israel in academic circles, but have tried to appease those attitudes rather than challenging them with new ideas and research.
Adam and Moodley do provide an interesting account of their attempt to persuade Palestinians of the futility of suicide bombing and the importance of non-violent methods of “resistance”: “Our Palestinian audience received this . . . critical vision with polite dismissal. Wishful thinking in place of realistic recognition of power differentials knows no bounds if you believe in the justice of your cause.” (10)
The authors offer little by way of advice in building institutions and national infrastructure—perhaps because this is something the ANC has done rather poorly in South Africa. On Friday night, I met Sapir Handelman, an Israeli post-doctoral fellow here at Harvard, and he agreed with me that the weakness of Palestinian nation-building is at the core of the conflict right now. More on that another time.
Before I close this entry, I’d like to mention some recent links I found that deal with the Israel-apartheid charge: Bradley Burston’s latest blog at Ha’aretz; Michael Kinsley’s response to Jimmy Carter’s book in the Washington Post; and the Jerusalem Post’s coverage of Israel’s submission to an inquiry on discrimination, which was, surprisingly, praised by the investigating panel for its forthrightness.