03 September 2007

04 September 2007 - A failed dialogue

The Israeli journalist Tom Segev, writing about the Dershowitz-Finkelstein spat in 2005, observed: “Both are captive to the faith that ascribes supreme importance to the written and spoken word. Therefore, they frequently argue about what they - and others - have written and said, and invest mighty efforts in learned prefaces and footnotes, accusing each other of distortions and fabrications.”

For the past few months, I have had the makings of a similar squabble with Arleman Suleman, a Harvard Law grad who is currently clerking for a federal judge in the Southern District of New York. Suleman is the previous leader of Justice for Palestine here at HLS. Other than our views on the conflict, we seem to have a lot in common. We’re both interested in diplomacy and theater, for example.

Our dispute started back in March, when JFP announced it was hosting a debate on the Israel-apartheid analogy at Harvard. I was actually on my way to South Africa, but wrote a strident op-ed in the Harvard Law Record arguing against the analogy, which concluded: “By indulging the false Israel-apartheid analogy, JFP is siding with the enemies of peace, and standing against real justice for Palestine.”

Suleman wrote an equally strident response in which he defended the event and the analogy. He described the challenge laid down by one of the participants in the debate, Professor Farid Esack, to “name one veteran of the organized liberation struggle in South Africa who visited the OPT and did not then describe the Occupation as either similar to Apartheid or worse than it.”

I reacted angrily to the article—overreacted, I would say in hindsight—particularly because of a phrase in the opening sentence that referred to “uncritical supporters of Israeli policy.” I took that personally and wrote a complaining e-mail to Suleman. He responded in kind, and things began getting out of hand when I suggested that we meet for coffee. Suleman accepted, and things settled down for a bit.

Meanwhile, the exhange in the Record continued. I responded with a second op-ed in which I attempted to answer Esack and Suleman’s challenge by quoting South Africa’s ambassador to Israel, Fumanekile Gqiba: "The accusations are unfounded, the term 'apartheid' is uniquely South African and devalues the struggle of the black population against one of the worst forms of oppression known to man."

My original sources were all secondary, but I subsequently found the original article via a media monitoring service in South Africa. The article included the statement I had attributed to Gqiba, but without actual quotation marks. However, since it is fairly standard practice in South African journalism to indicate even direct quotations without quotation marks, I thought I was on safe ground.

Suleman wrote to me, challenging the quote and asking for the source. In the spirit of our détente, I provided him with the original article. In his next riposte in the Record, he wrote that my representation of the quote was “false and misleading” and quoted Gqiba as referring to the security barrier as an “apartheid wall.” He concluded: “It seems Professor Esack's challenge still stands.”

I found this even more offensive. I didn’t like being accused of dishonesty, especially when I had provided the original source to Suleman in good faith. So I wrote a new letter to the editor: “I stand by my quotation. I also happen to have had the pleasure of meeting Ambassador Gqiba personally in Tel Aviv, so I have some idea of what his views are. He has promised to e-mail me this week, though, to clear up any confusion, so if there's anything new to report I'll make sure the word gets out.”

I did receive a response in two parts from the ambassador, but his answers seemed unclear and noncommittal, so I asked to schedule an interview with him in Israel. In the meantime, Suleman and I decided to try arranging coffee before year’s end. But things fell apart—again over the issue of the Gqiba quote. It seemed he wanted me to admit I was wrong before meeting with me. That irritated me, again.

I had no way of knowing at that time conclusively whether the quote was incorrect—and anyway, that seemed the wrong way to start an open dialogue. I felt he wasn’t really interested in talking and wondered if he was using the quotation issue to find some way out of the meeting. He apparently believes I was the one who called things off—and I suppose, from his point of view, that’s not unreasonable.

To make a long story short: I believe I’ve lived up to my word. I’ve since investigated the Gqiba quote to the fullest extent possible, even going straight to the reported source (the interview will be published in the coming weeks). Gqiba denies having made the statement, which I accept. I was wrong—but I was wrong in good faith. At the same time, Gqiba does not describe the occupation “as either similar to apartheid or worse than it,” and so it seems Esack and Suleman’s challenge is met.

I’m not sure there’s a way to bridge the gap between what I believe and what Suleman believes. Hosting radically anti-Israel historian Ilan Pappé and holding discussions on the Israel-apartheid analogy both seem like provocations, aimed not at generating dialogue but demonization. (Perhaps some of the Alliance for Israel’s past events have provoked similar feelings - if so, I’m hoping to change that this year.)

But Suleman seems to be quite a decent fellow otherwise. I view our exchange as an example of failed dialogue—perhaps because so much of it happened on paper and e-mail, and so little in person. “Perhaps there is a chance for a peace process between the two professors,” Segev wrote, mocking Dershowitz and Finkelstein. I’d like to hope the rest of us can move beyond such bickering. If not, sadly, so be it.

UPDATE: Two excellent articles debunking the Israel-apartheid analogy have come to my attention in the past week: one by John Strawson and the other an interview with Gideon Shimoni. Recommended reading!


At 3:44 AM, Anonymous Mike said...

Joel, what would constitute the organized liberation struggle. Would the IFP or the Progressive Party fall into that category? I don’t understand why the ANC and PAC are give a monopoly on determining what Apartheid is or isn’t.

That said, there are some ANC members who may not endorse the Apartheid analogy. I know that defense minister Lekhota has been to Israel. I don’t think he is a big fan but don’t think he has ever used the A word. I think you should present him with a dossier.

At 6:53 AM, Blogger Joel said...

You're right - if you include the Progs and Buthelezi's people, you have hundreds of examples. I wanted to find an example from the ANC and MK, however, since that fits the narrowest possible definition and would not be contested (as, for example, Buthelezi might be).

At 1:35 PM, Blogger Thermblog said...

On all these issues there are two sides, and even if one side is using false data, who's to prove it? Likewise, who decides which Oracle, Tutu or Buthelezi e.g., is correct?

It might be more productive to ask why it is so important to apply this label. Can no argument be made without it? It is after all a propaganda technique of the kind used by the Nazis - (here I go again). If the anti-Israel argument rests upon proving this point then it is also appropriate to examine the discriminatory practices of the Arab League in general, as they are very much part of the entire picture. Not to do so is .... discrimination.


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