In this sketch, one character repeatedly asks the same question about the use of white phosphorous by the Israel army. All his questions are met with a series of irrelevant and increasingly hysterical replies from a “Hasbara Operative”. When Michael showed it to me, I suggested was that it was akin to a black man being asked the following series of questions:
Q: Why do black men rape white women?
A: I’m sorry – are you a racist?
Q: No, I’m just interested to know what your views are about black men raping white women.
A: But black women are also raped by white men.
Q: Don’t divert the issue. I’m talking about black men who rape white women.
A: Look, a classic charge of racists against black men, is that they rape white women. This is just outrageous!
Q: I’m only asking about what is going through the heads of black men, when they’re raping white women.
Now, look. There are certainly ways one might discuss, specifically, the social significance of sexual assaults by a member of one cultural group by another: that might consider issues of patriarchy, racism, power imbalances, the sexualisation of difference and violence, and so on. However, bald questions out of the blue about black on white rape, tend to raise understandable suspicions of bigotry and racism.
Here’s another parallel. When I come across a comment on a blog which asks “Why are there so many Muslims in prison” or “Why are all Muslim countries shit holes” (and you’ve all seen those comments here, some of you may had made them), my immediate reaction is – this person is an anti-Muslim bigot.
Which is not to say, again, that you couldn’t make an intelligent observation about the extent to which religious culture contributes to the success or failure of certain social and economic models. Or to discuss the sort of general social failure which results in the development of criminal subcultures within particular cultural groups. However, I generally assume, correctly, that a person who says something like that, holds a host of other anti-Muslim beliefs. I hope you’d agree.
I should say, I also associate the phrase “A Hasbara Operative” with the sort of antisemitism you find in places as various as Mondoweiss, Stormfront, and Socialist Unity. It is an unfortunate phrase: which implies that the speaker is an agent of a foreign country. It contains within it, an accusation of dual loyalty, although I appreciate you won’t have seen that.
Do people who are facing what they believe to be racism, sometimes react in desperate and absurd ways? Of course they do. We’ve all seen it, and many of us react that way ourselves, even while deploring the trait in others. When I see a Muslim friend distressed by a Quran burning, I don’t think it is good sport to tease the raging savage! I think it is absolutely tragic that somebody should feel so vulnerable and attacked, that they barely know what to do. I want to comfort them, not mock them.
Jewish people are living through a particularly trying time. They know that there is likely to be another great war in the Middle East, in their lifetimes, and perhaps soon. They also know that the outcome of that war will be both many deaths, some of them our friends and relatives, and increased opprobrium for Jews at home. Jews just don’t know what to do about it, because there’s nothing they can do about it.
On white phosphorous. White phosphorous is commonly used to create smoke cover in combat. The question around its use turns on the issue as to whether it is being used as an ‘incendiary’. From what I can recall of the debate, it is said to be legal if it is used as an obscurant, but banned if deployed as an incendiary. The question is then: can it even be used in an area containing civilians, even if the primary intention is to create a smoke screen, because of the higher probability of civilian injuries. I don’t know if there is an authoritative view on that, and I can’t be bothered to look it up. Certainly, the US took the view that white phosphorous could be used in Fallujah, although it should also be noted that the US isn’t party to the treaty which bans incendiaries. I doubt Israel is, either.
But here’s the thing. When faced with questions like this, all the time, Jews often feel that they have to have an answer. I don’t think it was always like this: I think I first started getting asked questions about Israeli politics about 10 years ago, by my hairdresser, funnily enough. And the questions are so many and various in nature, and mutate all the time. And after this first question, comes the cut and pasted official opinions from various academics and articles in newspapers, and blogs with statistics and treaties on them, and so on.
I expect, for example – and frankly, hope – that Israel doesn’t use white phosphorous in any future conflict. Perhaps it won’t. But there will be something else that will become the issue du jour, and another round of answering the same question again and again. It does get tiring.
So, that’s what’s going on, really. It isn’t funny. It is tragic.