When HL Menken was editor of the New Yorker, he hit upon an excellent way of dealing with the huge number of letters he received every day. Whatever the correspondent said — praise, complaint, advice, insult — he or she would receive the same reply: “Dear Sir (or Madam), You may be right. Yours HL Menken”.
It took me quite a long time to hit on my own way of replying. But now I think I’ve cracked it. Almost everybody, however rude or indignant, gets an extremely polite note. I thank them for the time they have spent composing their email and promise to reflect upon the point they have made and try and learn from it.
Only outright antisemitism, with guff about our worldwide conspiracy (I thought that was secret — one of you has clearly been talking), gets a different reply. “Dear Sir, Thank you for taking time to warn me about the Jews. I will certainly keep an eye out for them. They sound terrible.”
As a social psychologist might have warned me, writing polite emails telling people that you are going to reflect on their points and learn from them has an interesting impact. You begin to do precisely that.
Two weeks ago, I wrote an article in The Times about Israel. I rehearsed my mother’s experience in Belsen and that of Anne Frank and I pointed out that this had happened in living memory. I then argued that Jews had been made wary by such experiences of being the wards of world opinion. And I finished by suggesting that the Palestinians had been offered repeated chances to make peace and have their own land, the latest offer being at Camp David.
As you might expect, quite a few people wrote to me who did not, erm, fully agree. And I learned a lot about those who don’t much like Israel and about the arguments they favour.
A large number of people angrily suggested that I was “using” the Holocaust to excuse Israeli murder in Gaza. My point had been different. I believe the Holocaust is one of the events that justifies the existence of the state of Israel and explains its determination to defend itself. A surprising number of emailers felt sufficiently cross that they suggested that the Holocaust was all a long time ago and we should stop banging on about it.
This led me to conclude that they realise that Hitler makes the case for Israel’s existence in a way that nothing else can.
This was not the only Holocaust point the critics made. The other one was the suggestion that the Holocaust hadn’t been the fault of the Palestinians, so why didn’t they put Israel in Bavaria?
This is a spectacular non sequitur. Israel was not, as I tried patiently to explain, established as a punishment. Jews didn’t return to Palestine as an act of vengeance. In any case, while it’s true that the Holocaust was the worst outrage against the Jews, it was hardly the only one. The need for a state was as much the result of oppression in Muslim countries as in Europe.
The other big inbox filler was email after email disputing my contention that the Palestinians had been offered a state at Camp David. Not true, the critics said. It was a whole series of cantons. They were not persuaded by the comment of Dennis Ross, Bill Clinton’s envoy: “Those who say there were cantons, completely untrue. It was contiguous.”
Again, I think the response indicates that Camp David is a big weak point for Israel’s critics. They simply can’t accept the truth of what happened without it undermining their entire argument.
But I think the most important feature of the correspondence is the point that most of the critics fell back upon. Although almost all of them began with the action in Gaza, within a paragraph or two they were back to 1948.
The critics of Israel’s action over the past few weeks always wandered from the topic. They didn’t agree that Israel had a right to stop the missiles. Why? Because they thought that Israel’s very existence justified the missiles. Often quoting — usually out of context — Israel’s own “new historians”, the critics claimed that Palestine had been a nation and the Jews stole it.
The letters were indeed worth reflecting upon. And I did learn from them. In fact, they were an eye opener. I realise that while we spend all our time arguing about the latest action, this isn’t where our strongest arguments lie. Or their weakest ones.
In reality, they aren’t really arguing about Gaza or the occupation. They are arguing about Israel’s very existence. And that’s an argument I believe we can expose and defeat in the court of public opinion.