McCarthyist intolerance still a bad idea

  • GavinRome
In 1947, during the McCarthy era of anti-communist hysteria and early Cold War paranoia, the so-called Hollywood Ten were subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify about their political beliefs. They were an intrepid band of independent-minded screenwriters and movie directors brought in as alleged communist sympathisers.
by GAVIN ROME | Aug 23, 2018

The Ten were all characterised as unfriendly witnesses. Their unwillingness to co-operate with their anti-communist interrogators led to the committee chair asking one of their members, Ring Lardner, (a then famous director and Oscar Award winner) the following notorious question, “It is a very simple question… are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

Famously Lardner’s defiant and chutzpah-filled answer to this interrogation was, “It depends on the circumstances. I could answer it, but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning”.

The history and the courage of those American filmmakers who remained unbowed during the McCarthy era witch-hunt has contemporary resonance.

It has over the past few years become routine for Shin Bet security officials to interrogate Jewish leftist activists on arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport about their sympathies with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. At home, pressure is building on Limmud not to associate with anyone harbouring BDS sympathies.

About a fortnight ago, the Shin Bet’s increased scrutiny of perceived BDS sympathisers veered into an outright fiasco at the airport with the detention of well-known American Jewish liberal activist Peter Beinart.

Beinart is a best-selling author, a popular pundit, and political analyst. He has been described as one of the biggest names in contemporary American Jewry. He is an observant Jew, and a liberal Zionist, a proponent of a two-state solution, and a harsh critic of the West Bank settlement project and the policies of the Netanyahu government.

Although American-born, Beinart has a close South African connection – both his parents are South African. In the opening chapter of his book, The Crisis of Zionism, he writes that his visits with his bobba at her Sea Point flat (“the most beautiful Jewish ghetto in world”) made him a Zionist.

Beinart recently went to Israel as part of a long-planned trip to celebrate his daughter’s Batmitzvah. Apparently, his name had found its way onto a “list” of Palestinian sympathisers. So, on his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, the Shin Bet detained him for questioning.

Beinart’s detention was headline news, and an Israeli public-relations disaster. In an attempt to dial back the controversy, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu labelled the detention as a simple administrative error.

In spite of the damage control, what emerged is that there is a security policy in place which enables Shin Bet officials to intervene at airport arrivals. They can then detain anyone on a list of suspected BDS sympathisers. As a result of this policy, the list of Jewish “liberals” detained at the airport and then interrogated by the Shin Bet is depressingly long.

Beinart’s liberal critique of Zionism, and some of the positions adopted by him in his book are nothing new. They are but a continuation of views adopted by that branch of Zionism which perceives itself as both Zionist and progressive or social democratic.

Beinart’s writings are in many ways an elegant contemporary reformulation of positions previously articulated in the writings and teachings of left-wing Zionists such as Amos Oz, David Grossman, and David Twersky (to name but a few).

In the absence of any peace process, the radicalisation of the Middle East, and the catastrophes of the first and second intifadas, these dissenting Zionist voices have become muted and vilified within Israel. Conversely, in the diaspora and particularly among the liberal-minded American Jewish community, criticism of Israeli policies has become amplified in volume and tone. This emanates even from people who identify as Zionists.

A policy designed to place critics of the settlement project onto a security list for potential interrogation, detention, and denial of entry, is chillingly undemocratic. It can serve only to entrench divisions. It is also, as the history of McCarthyism proves, designed to stifle democratic dissent.

Closer to home, Limmud South Africa, bowing to pressure, recently disinvited three speakers from attending Limmud Cape Town. What the speakers were to talk about remains obscure. However, what seems to have precipitated certain public and some Jewish media outrage was the three speakers being labelled “well-known BDS sympathisers”.

The term “well known BDS sympathiser” is so vague as to defy meaningful definition. For example, is someone who quietly supports the boycott of products manufactured in the West Bank (but not in Israel proper) “a BDS sympathiser” or a “well-known” one? Is a “somewhat unknown BDS sympathiser” somehow less offensive? In any event, if Limmud’s current critics were to have their way, voices such as those of Peter Beinart would certainly be excluded.

There may be circumstances in which the background of prospective participants is manifestly and expressly discordant with Limmud values. However, the denial or withdrawal of an invitation on the grounds of “well know BDS sympathies” is incompatible both with Limmud’s founding values, and the guarantees of freedom of expression contained in the South African Bill of Rights.

Any policy position that would refuse Limmud participation on the grounds of “well known BDS sympathies”, would, I suggest, be fundamentally unconstitutional.

It should be unthinkable that a precondition of participation in Limmud ought to be a negative answer to the question: “Are you now expressing, or have you ever expressed, sympathies for some of the objectives of the BDS movement?” In the unlikely event that Limmud were ever constrained to adopt such a position, it would, as Richard Lardner warned about 70 years ago, come to hate itself in the morning.

  • Gavin Rome is a senior counsel at the Johannesburg Bar. He has acted as a Judge of the High Court on several occasions.



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