South Africa

South Africa

Letter to the Editor: Let us strive for a universal ethic

SHUAIB MANJRA responds to an opinion piece by Glen Heneck, claiming that his idea plays into the polarising and odious politics that currently characterise significant parts of the world.

Read Glen Heneck’s column here.

My most enduring lesson from early readings on literary theory and discourse analysis points to ideology residing at the margins of discourse. Another abiding lesson is that every ideology, however odious, rationalises itself and presents its domination as an expression of general interest and general good. Thus there is a compelling need to uncover hidden motivations that inform any discourse, as its deconstruction allows one to uncover its intended rationalisation.

In reading Glen Heneck’s articles (DM 17 January 2017) – most of which are different iterations of the same ideas – it often is useful to start at the conclusion in order to understand his rationalising discourse, and then wade upwards through his tortuous sophistry. Sometimes one needs to go beyond the text because Heneck’s biography never acknowledges his leadership of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, which is indistinguishable from the SA Zionist Federation. Both have less than salutary human rights records and are uncritical supporters of the Israeli regime, as is Heneck despite his desperate attempts to parade progressive credentials.

Heneck’s muddled arguments intend to make a singular point: the need to accept Israel as a Jewish state, eternally contriving to maintain a Jewish majority. That is both his starting point and his endpoint. According to his bizarre leap of logic, not uncharacteristic of a “rationalising” discourse, Palestinian refusal to cow to this demand gives rise to all other evils, including “the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank”. Of course the idea of a Jewish state seems beguiling until one begins to deconstruct its meaning and consequences. Essentially such a state excludes non-Jews from nationhood and relegates them to second-class citizenship, with a host of discriminatory laws to ensure Jewish dominance.

Fifty such laws currently characterise Israel’s legal landscape – this excludes the Occupied Territories where discrimination is far worse. Moreover, in achieving this majority two actions are necessary, as witnessed in any colonial occupation – ethnically cleansing the indigenous population and replacing them with a select immigrant group. This is where Heneck’s agenda becomes more transparent as he attempts to sanitise events in 1947-8, by claiming that “600,000 Palestinians fled into exile in 1948, in anticipation of war, leaving their homes and most of their possessions behind”. If Heneck had bothered to read Israeli archival material from the period, books such as Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, or Benny Morris’s Righteous Victims, he would have learnt that there was systematic, violent and murderous ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Zionist forces. Those who sought to return to their homes were summarily executed. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but one that fitted into the Zionist logic to cleanse the land of Palestinians.

Like fellow Zionists and colonialists Heneck goes further to deny Palestinians a sense of history, culture and civilisation by his bizarre assertion that “the territory they vacated was arid ….” (Palestine). If he had gone a step further and bothered to read Palestinian history he would have noted their efficient agricultural methods from which early Zionists actually learnt, and their advanced culture. This dehumanisation of the colonial subjects serves as an attempt to promote colonialism as a civilising mission, and is profoundly racist.

This type of identitarian politics that Heneck espouses sees a confluence in his support for Zionism, a white volkstad, and I daresay the alignment of his politics to that of Trump and self-proclaimed “white Zionist” Robert Spencer. It is the logic and consequence that informs the current expulsion of 40,000 desperate African refugees from Israel, in order to prevent them “contaminating” Israel’s Jewishness. Heneck’s ideas play into the polarising and odious politics that currently characterise significant parts of the world. They are an affront to a progressive vision of universality that eschews discrimination, while embracing secular democracy with a common citizenship irrespective of race, religion, or ethnicity.

Paradoxically, Heneck’s discourse is emblematic of everything he disavows: “vulgar form of partisan politicking”, “unedifying”, “inflammatory”, “good for their echo chamber”, “awful for truth” and “terminally, wittingly, blindly partisan”. He claims for himself false neutrality, but also invokes moral and ethical neutrality by vilifying those struggling against injustice. In this he is not unlike Donald Trump, who attempts to create a moral equivalence between the Alt-right movement and those of the intersectional opposition who are committed to political, racial, gender and class justice. One can of course invoke a post-modern moral neutrality to mask a right-wing agenda, except that the former was disruptive of a normalising and normatising discourse in a Foucauldian sense, and which had revolutionary consequences.

Heneck’s anachronistic yearning is anything but progressive or revolutionary. In fact it finds an eerily portentous resonance in Fritz Stern’s description of the rise of Germanic ideology: “the movement did embody a paradox: its followers sought to destroy the despised present, in order to recapture an idealised past in an imaginary future …. they sought a breakthrough to the past, and they longed for a new community in which old ideas and institutions would once again command universal allegiance”.

The liberal hypocrisy of those like Heneck was recently captured by an Israeli academic in a Facebook post (edited): “In most cases I would prefer the wishy-washy liberal hypocrite over the blunt racist (the Clintons over the Trumps). But there is something profoundly infuriating in the discourse of “shooting and crying” as it is known in Israel, and whose perfect representative is Amos Oz. The reason is that acknowledged wrongdoing is accompanied by an impulse to empathise with the perpetrators: they are torn inside, they commit indecent acts but feel they have no choice, they oppress others but it hurts them to do so, they would prefer to be on the beach, their beautiful souls suffer, you know the drill. If you behave like an oppressor don’t seek to capitalise on your useless moral qualms.

While Heneck can ruminate and preach from the perch of privilege, far removed from the site of oppression and struggle which he has never experienced, Arthur Koestler instructs us: “It is true that in the face of revolting injustice the only honourable attitude is to revolt, and to leave introspection for better times.” Not entirely correct, but largely so. DM

Shuaib Manjra is a member of Open Shuhada Street, Palestinian human rights advocacy group


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