Monday, 16 November 2009

Shimon Peres and the problem with stupid activists

Shimon Peres and the problem with stupid activists
Wednesday, November 19, 2008 at 12:49am | Edit Note | Delete
If I lived in Tel-Aviv I would want to involve myself with anti-occupation politics. I would attend protests and demonstrations. I would write letters and sign petitions. I would visit the west bank with organizations such as 'Peace Now', to see what goes on there. If I lived in Tel-Aviv I would want to associate myself with the wider movement against the Israeli occupation.

But I live in Oxford, a city where – it seemed tonight, as I attended a talk by Israeli President Shimon Peres – that movement is dominated by activists who are happy to compare Shimon Peres to Adolf Hitler when they heckle, and what’s more, will be applauded for doing so by their supporters. I say this because when one of the evening's many hecklers was shushed by other audience members, she shouted, ‘if Hitler was talking you’d also be shouting’.

Now in principle I’m all for opposing the occupation from afar, here in Oxford. But I’m a Jew, the child of Israelis and the grandchild of holocaust survivors; there’s just no chance I'm ever going to feel comfortable working with the kind of activists I saw tonight; people willing to draw no moral distinction between Hitler and Peres. When someone fails to make such a distinction you have to worry about their capacity for making moral judgements at all.

What’s baffling is how these activists, who are so quick to attack Israel’s supporters for exploiting the memory of the holocaust for political gain, appear to have had no qualms about doing exactly the same themselves. If they can use (or misuse) the evocative power of the holocaust in order to add rhetorical value to their arguments, then it seems they’re willing to do so. They’re not really opposed to what has been called ‘the Holocaust industry’; they just want a piece of it.

What such activists need to realize is that their abrasive, disruptive, holocaust-invoking shouts simply aren’t persuasive. They’re not convincing or impressive. They don’t leave listeners feeling intrigued, thinking ‘you know what, they seem reasonable, maybe they’ve got a point’. What they do is piss people off. They alienate left-wing, anti-occupation Jews, turning them off any desire to associate with anti-occupation groups in the UK. They leave us feeling like even if we wanted to we couldn’t talk with them, and maybe couldn’t even talk to them, but can only be shouted at by them.

The talk that Shimon Peres gave was measured and calm; honest about the costs of peace, truthful about the need for compromise. He acknowledged the mistake that was the establishment and expansion of the settlements, and was supportive of the Palestinians desire for Statehood. There was nothing racist in his talk’s content; nothing Islamophobic in his words. The contrast between the nature of his speech and the vitriolic shouts from protesters both within and outside the Sheldonian Theatre was startling.

With a career full of negotiation, discussion, and peace-making attempts behind him, Peres obviously had a lot to say, but one of his best lines was said in response to a heckler: ‘You have eyes and you have ears as well as a mouth’, he said, ‘sometimes you should give the mouth a rest’.

If they don't want to push left-wing Jews towards the right, those activists who heckled tonight would do well to listen.

Note: Having read the report on Ynet news, I appear to have misheard the protestor. She actually said: ‘If Hitler were here now, he would remain silent as you are silent and listen to Peres’ speech.” Still, the substance of my point remains.

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