A war of rhetoric: the Israel-Palestine vortex

A fevered dispute in the media contest over Israel-Palestine is an object lesson in the deformities of internet-fuelled public debate on this issue, says Keith Kahn-Harris.

A current public spat across print media and the blogosphere raises serious issues about the quality and tone of discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and perhaps on contested political matters more generally. 

The spark of the row was a column by Geoffrey Alderman in the weekly Jewish Chronicle which dealt with the murder in Gaza on 14 April 2011 of Vittorio Arrigoni, an Italian member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). Arrigoni had been kidnapped and then murdered by Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, an Islamist group opposed to Hamas's rule in the territory (see Geoffrey Alderman, “This was no ‘peace activist’”, Jewish Chronicle, 13 May 2011).

The column's focus was less the implications of the murder than about Arrigoni himself and what he represents. Alderman opened it thus: “Few events - not even the execution of Osama bin Laden - have caused me greater pleasure in recent weeks than news of the death of the Italian so-called ‘peace activist’ Vittorio Arrigoni.”

Alderman cited Arrigoni’s alleged support for Hamas, and certain anti-Israel cartoons on his Facebook page, to label him a “consummate Jew-hater”; the death of one of these, he argued, “must always be a cause for celebration”.

Harriet Sherwood, the Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent, called Alderman after the column appeared and published a blog-post relating to it on the paper's website. She quotes Alderman as standing by what he wrote: “He was a Jew-hater like Adolf Hitler. Yes, he deserved to die for being a Jew-hater. I rejoiced in the death of a Jew-hater. I have no regrets” (see Harriet Sherwood, “Historian writes of 'pleasure' at murder of pro-Palestinian activist”, 18 May 2011).

Sherwood also quotes Stephen Pollard, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle who responds equally robustly when asked about the decision to publish Alderman's expression of pleasure: "I have no problem at all with publishing it. I don't agree with [Alderman], it's not my view - it's his." Sherwood cites Pollard as "[rejecting] the description of Arrigoni as a ‘peace activist’. ‘He was a member of the ISM, for God's sake. That's not peace activism, that's hard core Palestinian terror'.”

Sherwood quotes comments by the Israeli activist Jeff Halper and by Neta Golan, the founder of ISM, expressing horror at what Alderman wrote and denying strongly that Arrigoni was anti-semitic. Sherwood reflects:

“I never met Arrigoni and I don't know what his views (if any) on Jews, as opposed to his views on Israel, were. Attempts to conflate opposition to Israeli policies with anti-Semitism are not new.

Scenes of Palestinian militants handing out sweets to celebrate suicide bombings or other deadly attacks are familiar - and sickening.

Now, Alderman's rejoicing in the death of a pro-Palestinian activist seems to me a new and repugnant development.”

Stephen Pollard, for his part, blogged about the same conversation on the Jewish Chronicle website. He described it as “utterly bizarre”, and portrayed Sherwood as unable to accept his view that he could publish a piece in the paper without necessarily agreeing with it (see “A call from the Guardian's Israel bureau”, Jewish Chronicle, 17 May 2011).

Pollard originally said that Sherwood had been “screaming” down the phone, but later updated the post to say that she hadn’t screamed after all. This came after he had heard Sherwood’s recording of the conversation, which also allowed him to transcribe it. At the time of their talk, Pollard did not know it was being recorded. He states that Sherwood had technically broken the law, and concludes: “What a fantastic piece of Guardian hypocrisy, to (rightly) lead the charge against phone tapping but then to break the law so casually in recording our conversation.” 

The angry choir

A familiar supporting cast piled in to feast on the Alderman-Sherwood-Pollard materials, with innumerable angry and vociferous denunciations of (according to taste) the Guardian, the Jewish Chronicle, the ISM, Israel and Palestine.

CiFWatch, a pro-Israel blog that “monitors” anti-Israeli bias in the Guardian and routinely attacks Sherwood, vilified her as "hysterical"  and as "an anti-Israel activist posing as a journalist"; another pro-Israel media-monitoring blog, Honest Reporting, accused Sherwood of "going off the deep end". Mehdi Hasan attacked Alderman on his New Statesman blog; Islamophobia Watch also condemend him, as did Jewish anti-Zionist voices.

The exhausted word

This affair highlights some of the worst aspects of the ways in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict routinely spills over into British public life.

The most obvious is the routine resort to extreme and inflammatory language. Geoffrey Alderman may have started this round of bile-filled rhetoric, but it could just as easily have been a pro-Palestinian commentator. For many protagonists in the blogosphere and commentariat, there is seemingly no self-restraint and no sense of civility: no doubt, no ambivalence, no compassion, no compromise and no moderation. Many of their adversaries write about Arrigoni, Alderman, Sherwood and Pollard almost as if they incarnate evil, an attitude that extends to (and even becomes more reductive) when they talk (again according to preference) about Israelis or Palestinians.

This unrestrained rhetorical battlefield is the natural home for those who delight in argument and conflict. It’s not always a bad thing - the world sometimes needs spicy polemics. At his best, Geoffrey Alderman is a courageous scourge of hypocrisy and fundamentalist idiocy in the Jewish community. At his best Stephen Pollard is an entertaining writer who has helped make the Jewish Chronicle a lively read. At her best Harriet Sherwood is an indefatigable journalist with a commitment to high-quality investigative reporting. But this episode shows none of them in a good light.

This is an all too common story: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tempts even the most affable of individuals to fall into a vortex where the worst human emotions are brewed, and even talented writers to resort to cliché, defensiveness, and the tired reiteration of fixed positions. Alderman’s lazy drawing on well-worn formulae about “Jew-hatred” is unworthy of an often brilliant scholar. Pollard’s lazy reference to “Guardian hypocrisy” is simply dog-whistle politics for the right. Sherwood’s comment that “attempts to conflate opposition to Israeli policies with anti-Semitism are not new” is a lazy way of skirting over complex issues regarding the relationship between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel.

The withdrawing roar

What makes all the sound, the fury and the cliché even more regrettable is that they drown out or stifle the room to consider some serious issues. The question of who and what Arrigoni and the ISM are demonstrating “solidarity” with is an important one. Does their commitment to the Palestinians cross over into support for Hamas? The question of journalistic ethics is also important. How far should editors refrain from publishing pieces that express delight in violence? What are the boundaries of responsible writing? How can one be passionate without being uncivil?

No real engagement with these issues will be found amid this latest in a seemingly infinite number of internet-fuelled controversies. The all too frequent narcissism of internet politics limits the openness and modesty from which real discussion has to proceed (see Keith Kahn-Harris & David Hayes, "The politics of ME, ME, ME", 9 January 2009).

All the regular features of such disputes - supercharged emotion, investment of intense personal energies on the narrowest of topics, and obsession with adopting a fixed and absolute position - leave untouched the core reality: a vicious conflict in Israel-Palestine. When those outside the region choose to amplify its divisions and polarise them even further, they also help to strangle at birth the kind of human discourse that all concerned truly need.

About the author

Keith Kahn-Harris is honorary research fellow at the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society, Birkbeck College. He is the author (with Ben Gidley) of Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today (Continuum, July 2010). He has written widely on Israel, Jewish affairs and politics. His website is here

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Keith Kahn-Harris is honorary research fellow at the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society, Birkbeck College. He is the author (with Ben Gidley) of Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today (Continuum, July 2010). He has written widely on Israel, Jewish affairs and politics. His website is here

Also by Keith Kahn-Harris on openDemocracy:

"The seductions of denial" (13 September 2007)

"How to talk about things we know nothing about" (21 February 2008)

"The politics of ME, ME, ME" (9 January 2009) - with David Hayes

"Israeli post-democracy: origins and prospects" (10 June 2010) - with Joel Schalit

"In search of an Israeli left" (22 August 2010) - with Joel Schalit