The pro-Israel lobby? Mostly in Hari's head

By Alex Brummer, May 16, 2008

The Independent columnist says there is a concerted campaign to smear pro-Palestinian advocates

One of the great privileges of columnists is to robustly express your views. Independent writer Johann Hari exercised this right in forthright style in his article marking Israel’s 60th anniversary. Among other things, he accused West Bank settlers of dumping raw, untreated sewage on Palestinian land and poisoning the reservoirs.

The language used by Hari was crude, even for a “right on” tyro writer, and produced a stinging response from Israel’s defenders, including Melanie Phillips in her Spectator blog.

Most columnists would have left the matter there and moved on. But Hari, evidently, is not someone who takes criticism lightly. In a second column on May 8, he took aim at his challengers. He charges that anyone who draws attention to the plight of the Palestinian people is intimidated in order to silence them. Among those cited are the media monitoring groups Honest Reporting and Camera, who he says regard him as “an anti-Jewish bigot”.

He goes on to bracket Professor Alan Dershowitz and Phillips as “the two most prominent figures sent in to attack anyone who disagrees with the Israeli right”, as if these two writers — on opposite sides of the Atlantic — are acting in concert. Most bizarrely, perhaps, he accuses the pro-Israel lobby of hounding the American political scientist Norman Finkelstein from office.

Hari makes no reference to the fact that Finkelstein has described American Jews as “parasites” and calls Holocaust survivors “frauds and hucksters” who have exploited the Shoah for their own gains. Hari suggests Finkelstein was removed from the faculty at De Paul University “simply for speaking the truth”.

All of this proved too much for Hari’s fellow Independent columnist, novelist Howard Jacobson. In a riposte, he takes issue with the suggestion of a concerted campaign to smear pro-Palestinian advocates. He asserts that writers like Phillips and Dershowitz “do not hunt in packs”.

Jacobson argues that it is quite possible for people to think the same way without being part of an organised group. Indeed, much of the pro-Israel emailing which goes on is compiled by individuals with deeply held views. These are honestly held, much like Hari’s own on the Palestinian cause.

The main thrust of Jacobson’s reply is that if Israel’s supporters intend to silence its critics, they have not been very successful. As I noted last week, the revisionist history of Israel’s existence and the Nakba, the catastrophe, has been given much currency in the UK media during the 60th anniversary commemorations.

Jacobson argues: “Whatever the rights and the wrongs of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it cannot surely be argued that the Palestinian cause is not heard.” He notes that Hari is demonstrably not intimidated. In much the same way as Hari finds the smearing of Israel’s critics to be loathsome, so the Jewish state’s friends find the smearing of Israel abhorrent.

Hari clearly feels very strongly about the social and economic condition of the Palestinians, as readers of his body of work can testify. What is harder to justify is Hari’s use of discredited figures like the historian Ilan Pappe and the Holocaust revisionist Norman Finkelstein to justify the positions he takes. Pappe, as Jacobson notes, has been questioned at every turn by fellow historians. Finkelstein’s views have been tested in the High Court in London and found wanting.

In this debate some credit must go to the Independent. It not only allowed Hari to embarrass himself in public, it also found the space for Jacobson’s muscular reply.

Last updated: 3:35pm, May 19 2008