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Free speech and ‘war criminals’ — how democratic am I, deep down?

I’m one of those people who know which side of the fence they’re on on pretty much every topic they’ve come into contact with. So now that I am conflicted, I don’t really know what to do with myself, and it’s rather troubling. And all because of a man called David Benjamin.

David Benjamin is the legal adviser to the Israeli Defence Force. He is a South African, and studied at the same university whose grounds I strolled for four years — UCT. He was the man who, in his own words, was intimately involved in the planning of the siege on Gaza. His exact words were “approval of targets which can be attacked, methods of warfare — it all has gone through us”. This means that he was the man accused of approving the use of white phosphorus, attacks on residential areas and, according to United Nations official John Ging, on universities, UN offices and five UN schools.

There has been a divisive uproar around Benjamin’s speaking appointments at the annual Limmud conference in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg happening this month. Limmud, according to its website, is a “diverse and inclusive forum in which you will experience the full gamut of Jewish opinion and belief”. The debate has even filtered down into the circles of anti-occupation, anti-Zionism and general human-rights activists, with some, like Jonathan Shapiro and Zackie Achmat believing that Benjamin should not be given a voice and others, including Farid Esack seeing access to Benjamin’s words a fundamental step in the road going forward. To be honest, I didn’t really see the problem in Benjamin talking here, I thought it would be like glimpsing the inner workings of the mind of a mafia godfather. I thought it was necessary, and at first, and I’m putting myself on the line here, didn’t see what all the fuss was about.

It was Achmat’s comment as reported in The Times that helped me get started on the arduous path to clarity — he called Benjamin an “architect of the war on the Palestinian people”. Obviously, being as unsubtle as I am, I immediately asked myself if I’d be okay with a society for the enrichment of the Afrikaner people inviting a living Hendrik Verwoerd to talk to them at their annual conference.

Here’s how I worked it out: firstly, it would be offensive, as it would assume that all the people in this community were associated with apartheid. Secondly, and this is where I think I started coming up with a little theory, what could he actually talk about in a monologue that could be of any benefit to the public? It’s not like he’s going to get up there and talk about how sorry he is in retrospect.

A friend, and fearless activist, who attended Benjamin’s session in Cape Town, said she only attended so that she could ask questions at the end, but was not given the opportunity, as the session was a soliloquy of sorts, with about two minutes for questions at the end. A short while after our conversation, I was asked to interview Benjamin and found myself in an argument with myself, and my news editor, around whether, as a journalist, I wanted my newspaper to give a voice to a man who has pretty much been deemed a war criminal. I have the responsibility to put it all out there, but I also have the ability to, to an extent, affect topics of importance in the public sphere. “Why would you want to give a platform to a liar, and a war criminal?” was said in harsher tones than I am used to down the receiver from another activist.

That’s when it became pretty clear — the problem is not that Benjamin has been invited to speak, it’s the platform he’s been given and the ones he’s been protected from. He has not given a single media interview since his arrival and will not give any officially until after his sessions. The only stage he has taken has been one with an audience not given the opportunity to question, probe or clarify. The conference was not open to the general public — it was an event that was not advertised outside of the Jewish community and charged a daily fee of R 180. Had the session been held in an open forum, with an invited media, Limmud could at least have cried healthy dialogue and debate.

A media interview will work as a platform for digging for truths and giving the public enough information with which to decide for themselves. In a media interview, a journalist could ask Benjamin, when he defended the killing of civilians with that all-encompassing term, human shields, what he expected with a population of more than a million in an area 40km long and 10km wide. A journalist could ask Benjamin, when he denied the use of white phosphorus, and talked about how humane and law-abiding his army is, if he ever watched the news.

But the public wasn’t given this opportunity. So I’ve made up my mind — I’m not cool with Benjamin coming to have a one-way dialogue with himself in front of a room of people charmed into taking his word because, he was there. Limmud still has the chance to save face though — media access, public education and open, honest forums are the only way to finding justice and a non-racist, non-discriminatory peace in Palestine.