Posted by: duncanrobinson | February 6, 2009

A need for moderation

The room was jammed. People were even standing at the back to get a glimpse of the speaker. Black and white scarves dominated the room, each wearer showing his or her solidarity with the Palestinian movement. There was a palpable sense of excitement among the crowd, an energy stemming from the feeling that history was occurring around them, and that they – by being here – were going to be part of it.

Had it not been for Israel’s attack on Gaza in December the talk probably would not have been so popular. In the fevered atmosphere, Norman Finklestein – a polemicist and ardent critic of Israel – was a major draw. Finklestein did not disappoint. His contempt for Israel manifested itself in a calmly spoken, but passionately felt condemnation of Israeli actions in the West Bank.

He called Israel a ‘Satanic State’ and asked the audience to remember the ‘incinerated’ children of Gaza, ‘since Israel has made their whole business out of provoking passions from the Nazi holocaust’. The people clapped. He was even given a standing ovation.

But it dawned on me as I was walking out, surrounded by people nodding in righteous anger: what had changed? Hundreds of people had come together and merely had their prejudices confirmed. Those who disagreed with Israeli policy still disagreed, while the few supporters of Israel present shrugged their shoulders at another anti-Israel evangelical. Put simply, the polemical nature of Finklestein’s arguments rendered it useless.

Finklestein had not helped his cause because his argument did not allow moderates with unformed opinions to be taken in. The overly emotive rhetoric left little room for any thoughtful analysis of the situation. Calling Israel a ‘Satanic State’ will cause some to nod in approval and others to anger, but it leaves the rest cold. Finklestein simply preached to the choir, convincing no one other than the already convinced.

With an issue already as heated as the Israel-Palestine conflict, polemics are simply unnecessary. A rant will never convince, it will merely reinforce. A lesson that George Monbiot – an upcoming speaker during U of A’s international week – would do well to learn.

Monbiot, an outspoken environmentalist, does little to help his cause simply due to his penchant for ridiculous, over the top statements that can be dismissed out of hand. In 1999, Monbiot wrote that ‘flying across the Atlantic is as unacceptable, in terms of its impact on human well-being, as child abuse’. Rather than engaging frequent flyers in a debate over the impact of their actions, he compares them to paedophiles.

Statements such as these do nothing to win over sceptics. Even more damagingly they cause those who may agree with Monbiot’s sentiments – that tran-Atlantic flight is unjustifiably damaging to the environment – to actively disengage with the environmentalist movement as a whole, simply because loudmouths such as Monbiot are its most vocal exponents.

The same goes for Finklestein. Israel is not a ‘Satanic State’, and saying so was simply a Reagenesque platitude designed to pander to an anti-Israeli audience. Israel needs to be criticised for many of its actions in the recent conflict, but criticism must be thoughtful, rather than emotive.

Men like George Monbiot and Norman Finklestein should be a credit to their respective movements, but instead they are a liability. They drag the debate to the fringes of the extreme and in doing so leave behind the majority of public opinion. Whereas they could use their intelligence and charisma to engage, they use it to exclude and alienate those less radical than themselves. Some might say that, without men like these, their respective causes might not be heard. These men might be heard, but they are not listened to.

(This originally appeared in The Gateway and has also be published on Lazy Students)

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