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May 4, 2001
Imperfect Storm: Israel Shamir and His Critics

by Nabeel Abraham


I was asked by a longtime Jewish friend to offer an opinion on the Abunimah/Ibish statement which circulated on the internet in mid-April under the heading, "Serious Concerns about Israel Shamir." In quick succession, I heard Shamir speak in Toledo, Ohio, received the "research" of Hilda Silveman et al, followed by Shamir's response to his critics. Then came the "Dear Laurie" letter by Abunimah and Ibish. And, now most recently, the screed by Ziad elJishi and Salish Mahameed. The latter ravings only confuse the issues, harking back as they do to the tumultuous final years of the Organization of Arab Students in the 1970s, and should be dismissed entirely.

Polarization within the small community of Americans concerned with peace and justice in Israel/Palestine has already taken place as evidenced by Will Lafi Youmans' letter defending his decision not to cancel Shamir's appearance at Berkeley, and Stanley Heller's decision to drop Shamir from his website, "Demand Justice". There are several stillborn speaking invitations to Shamir, refusals to be published in the same volume with him, all emblematic of underground fault lines in the movement. One has to pinch oneself when consideration is given that all this is coming at a time when the people of Israel/Palestine have already begun their steep descent into the abyss of civil war.

I write not in refutation of the allegations against Israel Shamir for I know him essentially through what I have seen of his writings. For all I know, he may not even be the author of the half-dozen or so essays most of us have seen. I know nothing of his background. And, like his critics, I wondered about his overnight appearance, which renders him enigmatically coming out of nowhere. I write not in defense of Israel Shamir, but in defense of the principles for which I believe in; principles for which his critics, I believe, also stand: for fair and open debate, and against slander, guilt by association, rumor, innuendo, and other forms of defamation and character assassination.

The email titled "`Outing' Israel Shamir -- With the Strangest Imaginable Bedfellows" circulated by Hilda Silverman is a good example of what I see wrong with the approach taken by Shamir's critics. The missive imports wholesale slanders from an organization known as CAMERA, essentially a pro-Israeli government propaganda hit team. And, Silverman knows this, as revealed by the following "disclaimer" in her message: ". . . I have no reason to trust their facts or judgement about anything. Thus everything in the information that follows would have to be independently corroborated." Ponder for a moment the moral value of her statement. If everything is permissible in (love) and war how can we tell the "good" guys (and gals) apart from the "bad" guys? Moreover, if in the end we resemble our enemies, what is the point of the battle?

Hilderman is quick to add, "But some things for which there is already corroboration available do, indeed, check out." Examining the list of corroborated things, one finds little of substance or of "things [which] could be confirmed by other sources." Instead, they center on:

1). Whether or not Shamir is/was a columnist for this or that Russian newspaper (guilt by association);

2). A pointless discussion about how accurately CAMERA cited lines from one of Shamir's articles, "The Acid Test," which is readily available on the internet.

3). Citations of some opinions expressed in the aforementioned essay on the level of Israeli state crimes in comparison to Russian war crimes in Chechnya and Afghanistan, and U.S. crimes in Vietnam, etc. All perhaps worthy of debate, but where are Shamir's crimes? Why all the fuss?

4). Then, there is this little chestnut, always guaranteed to turn a normally controversial writer into a persona non grata in polite left/liberal circles:

"One of the most stunning things in the [CAMERA] excerpts to follow is the allegation of Shamir's link to British Holocaust denier David Irving. I have no independent information about this, but I do know that I found Shamir's statement about Holocaust denial in `Vampire Killers' utterly dumbfounding."

It's one thing to find a writer's opinions "utterly dumbfounding," one can sympathize, even agree with such sentiments. It is quite another thing to willfully spread an unsubstantiated allegation, gleaned from a dubious source to boot, that a journalist, an Israeli Jewish journalist no less, is somehow associated with a notorious Holocaust denier. Such conduct is not only recklessly irresponsible, even illegal, it is morally reprehensible as well. In today's world, such a smear can destroy a person's career, all the more so if the person in question is a journalist.

Having been the victim of smears herself, one would think Silverman would have been more sensitive to wielding such odious weapons. She tells her readers that "I have opposed the right wing organization CAMERA for 15 years or more and have been personally attacked by their members for almost 10 years . . ., so I have no reason to trust their facts or judgement about anything." Not knowing her personally, I can only imagine Silverman got carried away with her opposition to some of Shamir's statements, opinions, and choice of images. This comes out in her opening praise of Ali Abunimah and Hussein Ibish to whom "we all owe . . . a profound note of gratitude for having courageously and publicly acknowledged that which a number of us -- and particularly some of us who are Jewish -- have been privately struggling with for a long while."

Appended to her missive is the research of an unnamed friend-of-a-friend. The research amounts to a web search on Israel Shamir which turned up an "article" on CAMERA's website for which the reader is given the coordinates presumably to check out what she has checked out and copied into her message. Such is the depth of what people call research on the web today, entanglements in webs of deceit and self-deception. There is no point in wading into the muck of CAMERA's webpage. I haven't even bothered to correlate Shamir's response with CAMERA's "revelations." The unnamed friend-of-a-friend's research follows the familiar pattern of disclaimer warning about the source of the information, followed by the damning "information" derived entirely from the suspect source. I thank the heavens that our judicial system doesn't normally operate along these lines.

The Disclaimer: CAMERA "is a right wing pro-Likud website of the Committee for Accuracy in the Middle East Reporting in America, a group that has enough money to take frequent ads out in the New York Times. Its reports are unsigned and I can find no masthead indicating who works on it. So whatever it prints is highly suspect. Nevertheless somebody seems to have done some homework." [Emphasis added.] The writer could have added without further discredit to her research, "somebody seems to have done some homework which supports our campaign to discredit Israel Shamir."

Our researcher discovers CAMERA's disclosures on Shamir are part of a hit on an American writer, Holger Jensen, the international editor of the Denver Rocky Mountain News. CAMERA's apoplexy is over Jensen's claim that Israel mistreats its Arab citizens. Now, we are on the level of debating whether the U.S. has ever mistreated its Black population. One of Jensen's sources is Shamir. In order to discredit Jensen, CAMERA's SWAT team must take out Shamir, dangerous because he is an Israeli insider willing to say publicly what others deny, whisper, or discuss only among insiders. A predictable fusillade follows.

In defense of CAMERA and its anonymous backers, one can say they are fighting a war, a defensive war in their eyes, using all means, mostly ignoble, at their disposal. It is ugly, crude, and savage warfare, but that is what they are paid to do. What is indefensible is people who supposedly know all this, who have even been victimized by CAMERA and its allies the world over, and yet to score a hit borrow from CAMERA'S arsenal. This is indefensible, and I might add cowardly.

I say cowardly because from what I have seen in the bill of indictment against Israel Shamir, putting aside the slander, defamation, and character assassination, amounts to little more than not liking what he says and writes. In short, we are on the battlefield of ideas and opinions. The proper thing under such circumstances is to openly and honestly debate and reflect on the issues. The craven approach is to muzzle those who challenge our pat ideas and political formulations. Lacking state power (jails, courts, and other organs of rule like control of the mass media), some political activists sadly turn to defamation and character assassination, the lazy man's (and woman's) weapons of convenience.

The Charge of Anti-Semitism

No where does Hilda Silverman, her unnamed researcher, or CAMERA's ad hominem screed charge Israel Shamir with anti-Semitism. There is guilt by association with certain Russian language papers that we are told are anti-Semitic; there is his purported connection to Holocaust denier David Irving; there is CAMERA's characterization of him as "anti-Israel," a standard refrain applied to anyone or anything that doesn't support 150 percent whatever the current Israeli government is up to. Not even the tired and worn cliche' of "self-hating Jew" appears in the Silverman/CAMERA research. It's quite possible the discourse will descend another circle of hell and Shamir will be cast in a malodorous swamp reserved for "self-hating Jews."

Curiously, these sources, presumably all Jewish, did not pull out the all-purpose conversation stopper of "anti-Semitism" against Shamir. I suspect for good reason. The word, by historical usage and definition, applies to Gentiles the way the term "racism" in the U.S. applies to white attitudes towards blacks, although Americans are slowly discovering something aptly termed "reverse racism" just as non-Jews are discovering the joys of "reverse anti-Semitism," Shamir's "Jewish supremacy," and what Israel Shahak a generation earlier called "Jewish chauvinism."

The charge of anti-Semitism was hurled at Shamir by Ali Abunimah and Hussein Ibish, two Arab Americans. The allegation appears in their opening paragraph: "From early on, some of Shamir's writings struck us as straying beyond criticism of Israel and Zionism, and crossing into the territory of implicit anti-Semitism." In their concluding paragraph they move from implicit anti-Semitism to something a bit stronger. I want to quote the concluding paragraph in full because it is relevant to their implied mission which I want to discuss:

"Many people have welcomed the contributions of Israel Shamir in good faith, but we feel they may not be paying close enough attention to what he is saying. Perhaps this is because many of us welcome criticism of Israel from someone who appears to be an `insider,' that our hunger for validation from Jewish Israelis sometimes allows us to proceed without the requisite skepticism or overlook excesses we otherwise would not tolerate. Perhaps some are ready to overlook statements that appeal to anti-Semitic sentiments because the person making them identifies himself as a Jew. But the identity of the speaker makes such statements no less odious and harmful. We do not have any need for some of what Israel Shamir is introducing into the discourse on behalf Palestinian rights, which increasingly includes elements of traditional European anti-Semitic rhetoric. [Emphasis added.] Such sentiments will harm, not help, the cause. We urge all our friends in the movement for Palestinian rights to seriously consider the long-term effects this rhetoric will have on the cause, and act accordingly."

It is fairly obvious to my Palestinian-American sensibilities that the "us" in the text is mainly a reference to Arab Americans. The import of the statement is clear as well: Beware of the Pied-Piper Shamir, lest he lead you down the road of anti-Semitism and political ruin. The "we" of the text sounds pretty much like a royal one. The well-intentioned and, crucially, well-informed, Abunimah and Ibish, are taking the initiative to save us from . . . from what? . . . our anti-Semitism? Aside from the old adage that hell is paved with good intentions, one is struck by the level of condescension embedded in this attitude of saving "us" from Shamir's siren song. I will leave to the reader to ponder whether Arab-Americans, long attuned to discerning between criticisms of Israel and blatant back-woods anti-Semitism, make of the implication that they are being led astray by a former Israeli paratrooper's "anti-Semitism."

Like Ali Abunimah and Hussein Ibish I am an Arab American. And, like them, I once labored in the fields of media criticism and in anti-discrimination activism before turning to other pursuits. Although we have never met in person, I have much admired their work. I can appreciate their sense of alarm and urgency in "outing" what they perceive to be a danger to Arab Americans. I had these same impulses in my exuberant youth, and spoke out against public speakers out of fear that their words were lulling fellow Arabs away from the politically correct path. Had the internet been an option in those days, I too might have resorted to it to alert fellow Arab Americans of the "dangers," implicit and explicit, in such-and-such speaker. Through reflection I have paid for my exuberance with feelings of remorse over my youthful excesses.

Not among my excesses was the quick resort to labeling people "anti-Semitic." In fact, I tend to eschew loaded characterizations like "traitor," "self-hater," etc., as dangerous and fanatical, never to be deployed lightly. Even greater care and reserve should be exercised when the person in question is a writer, artist, or playwright, for these are the very people who through their works often seek to make the familiar appear unfamiliar so that others may see the world around them in new ways. By their nature, such endeavors are fraught with danger and controversy. It is, therefore, incumbent on those of us who are politically and socially conscious to defend their (and our) right to free speech and creative expression. And, when we defend the rights of those with whom we disagree and find reprehensible, then our advocacy of free speech will be free from the taint of hypocrisy and self-interest.

In their missive, "Serious Concerns about Israel Shamir," which triggered this storm of controversy, Abunimah and Ibish point to three things on which they draw their conclusion that Shamir is implicitly or explicitly anti-Semitic. One pertains to alleged statements he made at Tufts University, another to statements attributed to him by a newspaper hostile to him. Both can be safely discounted as hearsay since we have no way to corroborate them.