There are weird people on the Internet. There are weird people in politics. Most weird are those - a recurring subject on this site - who combine the far-Left and far-Right versions of admiration for arbitrary power, and spend lots of time publishing the results on the Internet. I apologise immediately for the trivial and self-referential character of this post, which concerns a recent experience of mine with such people. I post it merely so it's on the record, in case that experience recurs.
When I started this blog in 2003, a longstanding correspondent suggested I cross-post to another site any articles I might write on Middle East politics. The site, based in Canada, was called IsraPundit; it is apparently a focus of many bloggers sympathetic to Israel, and has a substantial readership that relies on it.
I am a friend of Israel, and my political outlook owes much to the writings of some figures prominent in the cause of Labour Zionism, such as the political philosophers Shlomo Avineri and Michael Walzer. So I agreed in principle. When I looked at the site, however, it was clear that its political line was far from mine. It campaigned against the Road Map for peace negotiations in the Middle East, and rejected in principle the notion of a negotiated two-state territorial settlement between Israel and a sovereign Palestine. I therefore posted nothing on the site, and gave it no further thought till this week.
A correspondent has alerted me to some remarks posted on IsraPundit at the end of last month. The editor of IsraPundit, one Ted Belman, reproduced an article by Melanie Phillips about the recent "Clash of Civilisations" conference held in London. Melanie's article refers very briefly to me, and this reference elicited a series of comments from the site's regular contributors. You can read the article and the comments here, if you're so minded. The context of the comments (irrelevantly to Melanie's piece) is the Balkan wars of the 1990s, in which I favoured Western military intervention against the aggression of Slobodan Milosevic.
IsraPundit's contributors, instead of relating factually my position on that issue, refer to me as an "Islamist wolf" who "pretends to be pro-Israel" but is an "enemy of the Jewish people". Beyond these characteristics - which according to these contributors I share with the writer and Canadian Liberal politician Michael Ignatieff, so I am at least in distinguished company - I am supposedly a supporter of "Nazi mass murderers of Jews and Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo" and I defend "genocide and ethnic cleansing".
I wrote to Belman pointing out that there are numerous abusive comments about me on the Internet, some of which would certainly meet the criteria of defamation under English law, and that my unvarying practice is to ignore them. The propositions that he had published, however, and which his contributors would be unable to substantiate with reference to anything I have said in public or in private, went far beyond what I was prepared to let pass without protest. I am a near-absolutist on matters of free speech, and I specifically said that I did not require Belman to remove his contributors' comments from the site. I did request him, however, to make it clear on his site that he deprecated such libels and that there would be no repetition of them.
I stress that these comments were not of the status one finds every day on The Guardian's "Comment is Free" site and that obviously are independent of the newspaper's editorials and the bloggers' opinions. Those who commented on the IsraPundit site are among its regular columnists, and the editorial position of IsraPundit reflects their views. Belman, for example, recently posted that his son had called him 'a holocaust denier because I attempted to whitewash the Serbs and Milosevic and deny the “massacres” they were alleged to have perpetrated. So I started to look for evidence that would debunk the “massacres” and found the Conclusions of Srebrenica Research Group in their study of Srebrenica, The Politics of War Crimes.'
(This is not the place for an analysis of the ludicrous "report" of the misnamed Srebrenica Research Group, headed by Noam Chomsky's one-time collaborator Ed Herman. On the issue of Srebrenica I'd point my readers to a recent article by the writer Peter Lippman on very recent evidence pointing to the scale of the massacre, and also to an article by the Guardian journalist Ed Vulliamy, a close family friend and a courageous reporter of the Bosnian catastrophe, on the tenth anniversary of Srebrenica. For the purpose of this post, however, note merely Belman's approach. Instead of educating himself on the Balkan wars, he goes out of his way, and says he is doing so, to find material that will confirm what he wishes to believe. Even in a more reputable cause than "Srebrenica denial" - and almost every cause is more reputable than that - Belman's approach is most accurately described as bigotry.)
After much casuistry and cavilling, along with affectations of doing research to determine my position (in which I did not assist him), Belman this afternoon posted a sort of retraction at the bottom of the page containing Melanie's article. Without seeking my permission, he posted part of my email to him, and stated that he agrees with me that to describe me as a supporter of Nazi mass murderers is "wrong and unacceptable". (As my readers will infer, these were not the adjectives that I had used about such sentiments.) Belman balances this fatuous remark with such observations as that "Milocovic [sic] was not the monster he was made out to be by the West", and that those of us who supported the position of the British government in the Kosovo war are in effect if not in intent culpbable for "ethnic cleansing and even mass murder of Serbs".
As Belman has no notion of the confidentiality of private correspondence, I see no reason to withhold the information that in his reply to me he declared that he knew very little about the Balkans. And as redundant observations go, that one ranks near the top. There is an odd subculture in fringe politics, which has merely been amplified by the Internet, whereby critical inquiry is crowded out by an all-purpose, eclectic, equal-opportunity, xenophobic, reactionary offensive against knowledge. One facet of that is the way that far-Right Diaspora Zionists form alliances with supporters of the murderous mediocrity Slobodan Milosevic. There are common and recurring themes among these movements, of which two are partiality to conspiracy theory and a visceral anti-Americanism.
I looked recently and in another context at the issue of the Internet and libel law. I remarked that, for my part, I could not conceive of realistic circumstances in which I would threaten legal action against a blogger. But I confess I hadn't considered at all a circumstance in which I might be depicted as a supporter of Nazism, genocide and ethnic cleansing. (IsraPundit also appears to have form with this sort of thing.) Given the recklessness of IsraPundit's charges, the repulsiveness of its politics, and the gracelessness of its non-apology, I did consider the possibility of referring this one for legal advice. On grounds of my belief in free speech and of the evident stupidity of the charges, I am very unlikely to take that course even in this case. Nonetheless, in writing to me this afternoon to alert me to his disingenuous and insulting "apology", Belman hopefully remarked that he trusted it closed the matter - and he should be aware that it does not.
How kind of you, Mr Belman, in your role as custodian of the fortunes of a great and ancient people, to absolve me of the charge of being an enemy of the Jews. I am, however, certainly an enemy of you.