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Irrational venom trumps logical argument in Middle East debate

Part of the challenge of writing for a wider public is resisting being provoked into knee-jerk responses to attacks on what you have written. Sometimes it is OK to simply let contrary viewpoints go by unchallenged, even when they are palpably ill-founded. At other times, though, remaining silent is not an option, and the latest crude and bludgeoning diatribe by Sentletse Diakanyo, in which I feature prominently, falls very much into that category.

I first locked horns with Diakanyo on Thought Leader about a year ago, when he wrote that disproportionate Jewish influence was a reality that the world needed to deal with. I responded in the same forum. Since then, he has sniped periodically at me and now has used a response I wrote to Alistair Sparks in Business Day to come out with a full-frontal assault on my moral and intellectual integrity in the course of rehashing the usual string of shrill and defamatory canards against the State of Israel.

Writing on the Middle East conflict is a thankless task, and anyone who has read the kind of responses this invariably elicits will understand why. Some readers do try to genuinely engage with the arguments of both sides, but polarised, contradictory and wholly un-nuanced assertions tend to be far more common.

Having been active in this field for many years now, I have long recognised that many people’s prejudices against Israel are so fanatically entrenched as to be impervious to reasoned argument to the contrary. Indeed, far from merely avoiding confronting those arguments, the latest trend has been to impugn, often quite viciously, the moral standing of those who dare to make them.

Sometimes, though, one has to take a stand for what firmly holds to be the truth, even when knowing that in certain quarters, it will not make the slightest bit of difference.

What follows are some of the key arguments I made in my response to Sparks and which Diakanyo cannot bring himself to deal with. For a start, if Israel targeted Palestinian civilians as a matter of deliberate policy during last year’s war in Gaza, why was the final Palestinian death toll so extraordinarily low? One thinks of how an estimated 30 000 civilians in Dresden were killed in a single night of bombing during the Second World War. With the weaponry at its disposal, the Israeli Defence Force could have inflicted at least as much carnage within a few hours against the Gaza population. Indeed, if Israel had adopted the notorious Hamas tactic of seeking to wreak as much death and injury amongst civilians as possible, it could certainly have done so. Instead, after three weeks of intensive fighting in heavily built-up urban areas, Palestinian casualties were a little over a thousand, tragic certainly, but unquestionably a tiny fraction of what they could have been. How would Diakanyo, who insists that Israel clearly set out to cause harm to civilians, account for this indisputable fact? He does not and, of course, cannot.

Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan and someone who therefore knew from first-hand experience what he was talking about, said during the war: “I do not think there has ever been a time in the history of warfare when an army has made more efforts to reduce civil casualties and deaths of innocent people than the Israeli Defence Force is doing in Gaza.” One need look no further than the relatively low Palestinian casualty figure, and compare this with the kind of casualties incurred in similar conflicts around the world to acknowledge the accuracy of this assessment. For example, in the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war, conducted more or less at the same time as the Gaza incursion, an estimated 20 000 civilians were killed.

Looking back at the Gaza tragedy, it is further indisputable that had Hamas not continually bombarded Israeli civilian areas with thousands of lethal missiles over an extended period, no Gaza war would have taken place at all. And if Palestinian “militants” had not carried out its military operations from within densely populated civilian areas, hardly any civilians would have been harmed at all.

It is Hamas, in fact, that must be held responsible for every drop of blood that was shed in that war, whether Israeli or Palestinian. It provoked the confrontation and then used human shields behind which to continue hostilities, knowing very well that deaths amongst its own civilian population would inevitably ensue. The Hamas leadership would seem to be deliberately engineering deaths and injuries amongst its civilian population for propaganda purposes. People like Diakanyo who rush to accord them such propaganda victories in fact make themselves complicit in that profoundly evil strategy.

The difference between the Israeli Defence Force and its Hamas equivalent is that when a military operation results in civilian casualties, Israel conducts an intensive investigation into what they did wrong. By contrast, Hamas will pat itself on the back for getting things right, since harming Israeli civilians is precisely what it seeks to achieve. When Israel finds that members of its military violated the Law of Armed Conflict, whether intentionally or through negligently, it punishes them appropriately. The Hamas reaction is to fete them as national heroes or, if they perished in the operation, as holy martyrs. (Sadly, even the more “moderate” Fatah in the West Bank similarly holds successful terrorists up as role models for the population at large.)

My own view is that Diakanyo, and many others like him, are in reality motivated less by compassion for the Palestinians than by an implacable hatred of Israel. What confirms this for me is how I believe I would react if the situation were reversed — that is, if Israelis were in the same situation as the Gaza Palestinians and were engaging in the same kind of murderous provocation against their much stronger neighbours as the Hamas-led Palestinians are currently doing. My anger in that case would not be directed against the Palestinians for inevitably retaliating but against the Israeli leadership for provoking such bloody confrontations in the first place (and then brazenly playing the victim when they get the worst of it).

One final point: it has become commonplace to jeer at Jews for “crying” anti-Semitism in order to shield Israel from legitimate criticism. In certain cases these even have a basis of truth, since certain individuals do indeed rush to unfounded conclusions without proper consideration of what is actually being alleged. Now, however, we are seeing the escalation of a similar type of ad hominem attacks from the other side. Today, merely presuming to contest the standard black-white, good-evil, oppressor-victim narrative that is being propagated about the Middle East conflict with such increasing stridency is enough to have one labelled as a collaborator with Israeli “war crimes”, “atrocities”, “genocide” or what have you. It is an ugly piece of character assassination, not to mention calculated moral blackmail. I, for one, have no intention of yielding to it.


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.