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Barry Rubin: How I learned about courage from Arab Marxist & about cowardice from Western ‘Liberals’


This was written by Barry Rubin

ALVY: Boy, those guys in the French Resistance were really brave….

ANNIE: I don’t know, sometimes I ask myself how I’d stand up under torture.

ALVY: You?  You kiddin’? If the Gestapo would take away your Bloomingdale’s charge card, you’d tell ‘em everything.

– Woody Allen, from Annie Hall

A little man stood on the stage in a British university hall, meticulously dressed, looking just like the scholar that he was. To look at him you would think he was the embodied stereotype of timidity. It was 1980. Iraq had just invaded Iran and I was in Exeter, England, at an academic conference. Though I hadn’t realized it before arriving, the meeting was sponsored by the Saddam Hussein government.

The speaker was Dr. Hanna Batatu, a Palestinian scholar who had spent much of his adulthood in the United States but at the time was living in Beirut. He was a Marxist who had written extensively about Iraq and Syria. His presentation was on Shia opposition groups in Iraq and he spoke about how and why they were opposing the Saddam Hussein dictatorship. Batatu didn’t exaggerate or politicize the subject. He just spoke factually.

This lecture did not meet with great approval in the audience which was, I came to realize, sprinkled with Iraqi security personnel. A few chairs away from me sat a very tall, very powerful looking man wearing bright yellow shoes and a suit the shade of blue that didn’t belong on one. He looked like a man who usually wore clothes designed so that the blood came off in the wash. He towered over Batatu. And in broken English this thug said:

You cannot say these things!

And Batatu responded without hesitation:

I am a free man and I can say whatever I want.

Wow. Batatu was living in Beirut at the time and if the Iraqis wanted to have him assassinated they could easily do so. I never met Batatu on any other occasion but I was truly inspired by that moment. How could I ever do less?

In contrast, most of the Western academics were complete sycophants, flattering Saddam and avoiding giving any offense to the repressive dictatorship. One of them later plagiarized Batatu’s paper word for word in aNew York Times op-ed piece a few weeks later.

I’m telling you this story in part because of a conversation with a colleague today in which he told me a story expressing very well the intellectual mess we are facing.

Someone had written an article in the left-wing British magazine New Statesman, which always bashes Israel sometimes in the nastiest terms, defending Israel’s  2008-2009 Gaza operation called “Cast Lead.” In the article, the writer had gone into great detail to set forth the facts of what happened and to rebut the wild allegations of war crimes and the many outright lies told about these events.

But here’s the relevant part for all of us: my colleague explained that there had been about 300 comments to that article, some positive and most negative. And, he recounted, not a single one of the negative responses cited a single fact. They did not say, for example: “Oh, you’ve gotten the numbers wrong,” or “Here’s a critical point you missed.”

No, the theme of every attack was that “only a fascist would say this” or “you cannot say such a thing.”

What these people were saying is that they don’t have to argue with you or pay attention to what you are saying. They can just close their eyes, put their hands over their ears, and scream: “Liar! Evil person! You have no right to disagree with us or else we will destroy you.”

You can see why this reminded me of the incident with Batatu. And George Orwell, too, for that matter.

My colleague continued by reciting various conversations he had with European officials and academics in which whole areas of discourse were out of bounds. For example, it was forbidden to argue that people in the Middle East might think or react differently from Westerners. But if you don’t do so how could you explain, for example, why almost 80 percent of Egyptian Muslims (and 70 percent of Egyptian voters overall) supported repressive radical Islamist parties? Or why the Palestinian leadership refused to make a compromise peace that would get them a state?

We’re not talking about races or biology here but rather about historical experiences, widely varied society, and prevalent ideas.

More broadly, we cannot live and seek the truth in a world where your facts make no difference.

Read the rest of the essay, here

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16 replies »

  1. “No, the theme of every attack was that “only a fascist would say this” or “you cannot say such a thing.””

    This is simply untrue. The NS article by Jonathan Sacerdoti, a prominent Zionist propagandist, can be found here:
    http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2011/12/israel-gaza-operation-civilian

    The standard of debate in the comments section is generally very high – certainly on a different intellectual plane to CifWatch. The statistics presented by Sacerdoti are not challenged because they are probably true – but importantly they are higly selective, as a number of commenters point out. For example he talks about the civilian/combatant casualty ratio but not about the massive discrepancy between Palestinian and Israeli casualties. He refers to the reduction in Hamas rockets since Cast Lead but omits the fact that there was a virtual ceasefire (broken by The IDF) until shortly before the conflict.

    There are other errors in Rubin’s piece to which I may return. His type of argument relies on the fact that very few people will go back to the original article and check the facts. I challenge CifWatch readers to do just this.

    • There is now a mass of data, from all sources including Hamas, concerning the makeup of Palestinian casualties during Cast Lead, all negating the original claims that most casualties were civilian non-combatants. This has not prevented many critics of Israel from uttering the “1400 civilians dead” claim over and over again.

      The virtual ceasefire was indeed virtual. Admittedly there was a 98% reduction in rocket and mortar fire from Gaza- 20 rockets and 18 mortar shells fired betwen June and October 2008- but other hostile activity was carried out, such as the tunnel dig thwarrted by the IDF on 4th November with deaths of 6 Hamas operatives, which was Hamas’ excuse to renew massive rocket fire and disregard all warnings from Israel of the consequences of such conduct.

    • “The standard of debate in the comments section is generally very high – certainly on a different intellectual plane to CifWatch.”
      Comments such as the one below;

      ” Pierre
      30 December 2011 at 23:32
      Goebbels couldn’t have written a better piece of propaganda.”

      Very intellectual, at least it may be by your standards. And you deny the claim that ‘only a Fascist would say this’ was made.
      Just to remind you most people, clearly except for you and other Guardian Groupies, regard Goebbels as a Fascist.

      • “And you deny the claim that ‘only a Fascist would say this’ was made.”

        I don’t think so Gerald.

        Your sample of one comment to represent scores perhaps reflects your appreciation of statistics.

        • sencar. I have read the comments below the line on that NS article. The one Gerald quotes is but one of many in which the point made is that the article was de facto wrong because of the religion/political affiliations of the author, without any attempt to offer specific corrections of facts.

          Some commentators did attempt to refer to alternative “interpretations” of the events in Cast Lead, but most of those who did simply used emotive terms like “massacre” “prison camp” etc without justifying these terms with references to any factual or statistical basis for these conclusions.

          So, all in all, the accusation made by Barry Rubin seems to me to be largely justified.

          • “So, all in all, the accusation made by Barry Rubin seems to me to be largely justified.”

            GoonerEll

            It took me about 5 minutes, going through the first couple of dozen comments to find these alternative facts about Gaza and Cast Lead:

            “you fail to highlight the number of civilians injured, or indeed the ratio of civilian vs combatant injuries.
            Regarding the power supply; the IDF destroyed the only power station in Gaza.”

            “Death toll in Cast Lead – 100s times more Palestinians than Israelis. Just one incident defines the operation. A Palestinian family was herded into a house by the IDF. The house was then raised to the ground around their heads. Forty two family members were killed ,including children and women.”

            “the timing of the assault: shortly before noon, when children were returning from school and crowds were milling in the streets of densely populated Gaza City. It took only a few minutes to kill over 200 people and wound 700, an auspicious opening to the mass slaughter of defenseless civilians trapped in a tiny cage with nowhere to flee.”

            ,”Two weeks after the Sabbath opening of the assault, with much of Gaza already pounded to rubble and the death toll approaching 1000, the UN Agency UNRWA, on which most Gazans depend for survival, announced that the Israeli military refused to allow aid shipments to Gaza, saying that the crossings were closed for the Sabbath.”

            “At least the author acknowledges that Israel occupies other people’s land, which is of course the violation of international law”:

            “The author seems to equate the number of rockets fired as the main factor. However although between 2001 and January 2009, over 8,600 rockets have been launched, it has only lead to 28 deaths. Operation Cast Lead, though only lasting less than a month lead to 1387 palestinian deaths, of which 773 were considered civilian non-combatants (179 of which were under age 11).”

            I could have found many more. Your assertion about Rubin’s veracity just doesn’t stand up.

            • Sencar: I am at work, so I don’t have time to go through a detailed response, but some of these examples of “alternative facts” are frankly absurd.

              The allegation that the article didn’t highlight the civilian/combatant ratio, for example, when this was the core point of the article.

              The fifth point – about the legality of Israel’s “occupation” of Gaza – when Israel withdrew from Gaza unilaterally and left it entirely judenfrei. Some occupation.

              In any case, I didn’t say there was NO reasoned argument or that NO alternative data/facts were offered, I simply said that the majority of the comments were unsupported by antyhing approaching evidence.

              I don’t have time to list them all, but frankly what’s the point of cutting and pasting. Must go and do some woork now!

  2. What these people were saying is that they don’t have to argue with you or pay attention to what you are saying. They can just close their eyes, put their hands over their ears, and scream: “Liar! Evil person! You have no right to disagree with us …”

    That refers to a minority of the comments for that article – but to the majority of posters here at CiFWatch.

  3. The PC creed can be summarised in a single slogan:

    “The … is settled. Debate is pointless and only an evil person would attempt to open it”

    Insert: ‘politics’, ‘science’, ‘ethics’ etc