Sunday, September 14, 2014

On Offensive Speech and Ethnic Sensitivities -- Part Two

When I was growing up in the late fifties and  early sixties, my best friend’s mother was an outspoken Jewish liberal who embraced every progressive cause. She would drag my friend and me to civil rights protests and talk about the issues of the day with great liberal passion.

Once I told her that my older brother was  considering buying a Volkswagen, and she replied,  “I simply cannot buy anything from Germany, certainly not a Volkswagen.”  I pointed out to her that Volkswagen cars were sold in Israel, that Germany had paid reparations to Israel, and that many Germans had volunteered to work in Israeli kibbutzim. But she wouldn’t budge; she could not bring herself to buy anything German, even though this was twenty years after World War II, and it was a different generation.

Her position bothered me at the time, since I had been taught that we shouldn’t blame the children for the sins of the parents. Her personal boycott of Germany and Germany goods didn’t jibe with her liberalism. I never talked to her about it; had I done so, she probably would have  conceded that she was acting from her gut.  But she was my best friend’s mother, a close family friend whom I loved dearly, and so I just kept quiet. Even today I will excuse a holocaust survivor who feels that way.  Still, not buying from the Germans today simply because they are German strikes me as bigoted, and while I may excuse somebody who acts in a bigoted manner because of some extenuating circumstance, I have to understand that it is the only extenuating circumstance, and perhaps the principle of charity, that excuse that person. The bigotry itself is worthy of moral condemnation, though in the greater scheme of things there are worse sins than not buying products from a certain country because of a historical grievance.

Which brings me back to Prof. Salaita’s tweets. Though I was offended by them less than others, I did find some of them coarse, unenhanced, and demeaning for a university professor. I particularly didn’t like the one that wished that all the settlers would disappear like the three kidnapped Israelis had disappeared.  Don’t misunderstand me. I consider the settlement movement a moral abomination;   through the systematic theft of land it not only destroys the lives of particular people, it destroys the life and aspirations of a people. The settlement movement is not merely an “obstacle to peace”; it is a crime against humanity  and to the extent that I am an Israeli citizen, and pay taxes, I am complicit in that crime.

But at the same time, settlers are human beings and cannot be just wished dead. So like Prof. Klug who will not march in the company of somebody carrying a sign equating a Jewish Star with Nazism, so too I will not retweet those tweets that I find offensive, not just to Jews, but to any decent being.

That said -- and said loudly – let us not forget that in the greater scheme of things the crudeness of a few tweets pales behind the enormity of the crime of Israel against the Palestinian people, a crime that ebbs and flows from the banal evil of the day-to-day occupation to the demonic evil of its periodic outbursts where Israel feels it has  to “establish deterrence” by collectively pushing the Palestinian  people into the mud.  (I am sure that I have just offended many of my coreligionists. I have tenure, but I do not plan to tweet that remark, and I ask you you not to retweet it.)

And when a member of the group who has suffered, and continues to suffer, says something that is offensive to the group responsible for that suffering (or who supports the group responsible for that suffering), then by all means call out that person for his offensive remarks – but cut him some slack and get over it. 

The only reason I have spent this much time on the subject is that every month there is a Finkelstein or Blumenthal or Abunimah or Salaita who says something that may strike some Jews as offensive. Instead of rushing to condemn these people, who speak for the victim, perhaps intemperately at times, it would be better to invite them to explain their harsh words.

That was what the President of the University of Illinois should have done at the outset with Prof. Salaita.   Had he been a tenured member of the faculty he would not have been treated in this dismissive manner.  At my university, when professors say something that is considered out of line,  they are given a hearing in the appropriate forum.

That’s what she should still do now. And until she does, the university will suffer the consequences for her insensitivity. 

As for my liberal Zionist friends who have been pummeling Prof. Salaita; may I suggest that they all take a deep breath and keep things in proportion. Reject the tweet, if you like, but try to cut some slack to the tweeter. And invite him to explain his position.

7 comments:

Andreas Rubinstein said...

Dear Jerry Harber,

I have read and appreciated your posts for years. And your final conclusion for this one is very reasonable.

What is not reasonable is your introduction about your childhood friend's mother and her personal boycott of German goods. First of all, I see no connection of this recollection to the second part--and thesis--of your post.

Secondly, the Holocaust is not an historical grievance. It was the largest systematic genocide known to human history, and there are educated, professional Germans to this day who deny its occurrence or minimize it. Given this, and the documented hatred many Germans display toward ethnic Albanians and north Africans, the sins of the fathers are to be visited upon the sons. When the sons and daughters become global leaders in tolerance and support for the "other" then the sins can dissipate--but never forgotten. Also, I'm 51, I was born just 18 years after WWII ended, and my moral/historical clock puts 69 years as yesterday afternoon in terms of human history and its effects (hence our people's irrational hyper dedication to Israel when it is as you aptly say pushing the Palestinian people into the mud). If I feel this way today--and I'm not alone by a long shot--so of course your nineteen sixties family friend felt this way. As another example--albeit imperfect--the only reason why I buy from South Africa is because black South Africans have led the country for 20 years. Amends have largely been made. Whereas--despite what you have listed, Germany has a way to go.

Respectfully,
Andreas Rubinstein

P.S. You've got a typo "jive" instead of "jibe"

pabelmont said...

In this whole discussion there should be room to repeat the old complaint that someone notices the mote in another's eye but is oblivious to the beam in his own eye.

Anyone who complains about the tweets (of an excited moment in history and of a man) but does not complain AS loudly about the war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza, and similar events, adn the settlements-program (1967-present-and-ongoing) should get their eyes adjusted.

Man From Atlan said...

As a long time reader (but not commenting too often) I did get drawn to the contra points raised by Andreas Rubinstein and pabelmont.

I disagree with any attempt to quantify one people's suffering over another, in principle but also the characterization of the Holocaust as the 'largest' etc. Numerically and historically, that might apply to the destruction of the Native Peoples of the Americas but that is a matter for scholars to debate on numbers and categorization, for in my mind, the suffering of a people, be it the Ukrainian Holodomor or Palestinian Naqba or Jewish Holocaust are all, equally sad in the eyes of the Lord, IMHO.

I understand those who might want to not forgive Germans, but forgiveness must begin somewhere, or how can you deserve forgiveness from Palestinians? As a long time campaigner against South Africa's apartheid, I am equally against Israeli apartheid, but, the greatest thing that came out of South Africa was not that blacks got to rule, but the Truth and Forgiveness Commissions that ensued. It is a long path for both sides, but there must be justice, and forgiveness on both sides must come forth.

pabelmont's point was shorter, but still the same problem of quantification of suffering: Jerry Harber made a perfectly valid point about the moral wrongness of Professor Salaita's tweet but also the overreaction of the University. He needs not add editorial comment about the awfulness of the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, he already has, many times, as someone who understands what Judah Magnes and his mentor Ahad Ha-Am had to say, about nationalistic feelings eventually defeating the character of a people.

The fact still remains that until Israel treats the Palestinians with dignity and Israeli Arabs as equal citizens, and withdraws to the 1967 lines, it should not use the Holocaust as political theatre to distract and confuse what is a question of justice: your historical grievances have been more than adequately addressed, the Palestinian people's, have not.

Utopian Yuri said...

who said dead? salaita said he wishes the settlers would go missing.

Richard said...

If you taught at Brandeis University and said anything even mildly critical of Israel (and in a private university listserv, no less), the president would've rapped you on the knuckles and called you a very bad person. So much for asking faculty to explain themselves (at Brandeis).

Geoff Kl said...

something seriously wrong with academia that so many of your ilk have gone so far out of their way to support a man who was not qualified for the position that he was hired for and showed no scholarship on a level to allow for tenure

what a pathetic lot you are

Man From Atlan said...

Helen Thomas suggested they move to Poland and Ben Gurion "we must expel Arabs and take their place". Are we going to compare utopian statements like that forever, Yuri?