Torture is Neither Inevitable nor Endless: A Reply to Gerald Caplan

August 20, 2014

by Dan Freeman-Maloy and Justin Podur

Imagine an anti-racist with decades of work in the struggle writing the following about the popular upheaval and police attacks witnessed this month in Ferguson, Missouri:

Half a century after summer 1964 (when major US ghettos famously erupted in rebellion), we are once again being shown the nature of blacks and whites in the United States. The “wretched blacks,” along with the police attacking them and the whites who cheer, remain trapped in “a classic tragedy where characters cannot escape their nature.” But this is just how conflicts based on “visceral antagonism” go. The basic nature of the peoples involved is to blame, and this can’t be escaped. So why bother to think, say, or do anything about it? Whatever it is, “none of it makes the slightest difference”.

Or, imagine someone who has stood up against extractive industry for decades writing the following about climate change:

“Two hundred years into the industrial era, it is clear that the institutions propelling climate change are too strong, the imperative of extraction and profit too pervasive, for meaningful action on the climate. For thriving corporations, whose minds are full of indifference, it means waiting for a day when the ocean level rises up to the windows of their skyscrapers. For wretched peoples, whose minds are full of nonsense, it means starvation, thirst, and death.”

Or, imagine someone like Gerald Caplan, who has been a rare Canadian voice for decency on the Israel/Palestine conflict, reflecting on this summer’s Gaza massacre in precisely the words used above about Ferguson. In an article this week written for the Globe and Mail and reproduced by, Caplan writes that, in the words of Rabble’s headline, “War between Israel and Palestine” is our “endless, inevitable future”.

Caplan's article quotes an Israeli scholar making a wild guess that “about 25 per cent of each people held genocidal attitudes towards the other”, as if it is these mutual feelings that are propelling the conflict and not monstrous disproportion. With total Israeli control over every detail of Palestinian life and death, Israel/Palestine is not a battle scene. It is a torture scene. Faced with the torturer and the victim, faced with the elaborate instruments for torture and excuses for torture, Caplan's article would have us think, not about how to stop the torture, but about how the torturer and the victim feel about each other.

The article concludes: “For thriving Israelis, filled with hate, it means waiting for the inevitable day when their enemies finally get weapons that can't be thwarted so easily. For wretched Palestinians, filled with hate, it means continuing oppression and humiliation, and in Gaza, more death and suffering for the innocent. This is the future and it cannot be otherwise.”

Cannot be otherwise? An appropriate response, especially from people who respect the writer, might be confusion, or even bewilderment, or sadness that a lifelong fighter seems to have finally given up. Is racism, or climate change, more hopeless than the Israel/Palestine conflict? Did the end of slavery, South African racial apartheid, or colonial rule in most of the world not take decades, or even centuries, to achieve? What kind of activist accepts the idea of eternal conflict, equates oppressor and oppressed, accepts that “hatred” is a cause and not an effect?

Perhaps a strong and inspiring example might be found for Caplan to look to, to help boost his morale and prevent him from giving up. A quarter of a century ago, a rare thing happened: a Canadian public figure with upper-level experience in a major federal party wrote something decent on Palestine. The article appeared in the Toronto Star on May 13, 1990, under the headline “Mindless cheerleaders for Israel? It’s time Canada’s Jewish leaders stopped justifying heinous acts”.

Beginning in 1987, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank had taken centre stage in the struggle over their future. Their popular uprising against Israeli occupation endured for years despite heavy repression and many broken bones.

In the Toronto Star, the author explained that those like him who criticized Israeli abuses were being “rewarded with menacing and abusive midnight phone calls. Why pick on us?” It was the Canadian Jewish leadership that had sided with Israeli land theft and settlement, and with the racism that goes along with it. The author asked, “Is there no limit to what Canadian Jewish leaders will tolerate from Israel? ... Is there any level of iniquity they'll fail to celebrate? Is there a more monstrous Israeli figure than Ari Sharon, chauvinist, authoritarian, ultra-hawk, architect of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon who failed, an Israeli commission of enquiry found, to prevent the bloody massacre by Israel's Lebanese allies of more than 700 helpless Palestinians in the Shatilla and Sabra refugee camps?”

The writer was someone named Gerald Caplan.

That Gerald Caplan would not have settled for vague, sweeping commentary about Gaza and the “nature” of Arabs, calling Israel's 2014 massacres “just another in the endless violent conflicts between Israelis and Arabs that began when Israel was first created as a nation 66 years ago and has never stopped: 1947-49, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, 1991, 2006, 2008-9, 2012, 2014.”

That Gerald Caplan would not have conflated “Palestinians” with “Arabs”. He would not have generalized about Palestinians based on a seemingly random list of years marking military conflicts: a list that, for example, somehow includes “1991” – when as a sidebar to the Gulf War, a few Iraqi missiles were fired at Tel Aviv, killing a grand total of zero people – while skipping both Palestinian intifadas (the first beginning in 1987, the second in 2000).

That Gerald Caplan would never have written an article that absolves Western governments and leaders of any responsibility for a conflict supposedly rooted entirely in local hatreds. He would surely have understood that even if he were keen to depict Western support for Israel as irrelevant, the West was probably relevant to the Anglo-French assault on Egypt alongside which Israel operated in his “1956”; that the West might have played a role in the Iraq war that framed his “1991”.

That Gerald Caplan would have recognized that it’s not for activists or serious commentators to predict endless, inevitable conflicts, diagnosed based on supposed eternal hatreds, but instead, that people have to look for possibilities even in dire situations; that it’s relations of power that are important, not the unchanging “nature” of peoples playing out their roles, tragic or otherwise.

A few months ago (May 23), Gerald Caplan wrote an open letter to Andrea Horvath, Ontario's NDP leader, expressing concern about the party's rightward shift. The letter led to some ugly attacks on Caplan and other stalwart progressives, accusations that they were “out of touch” with the party's “new” values – “new” values which are not “new” at all, just old, emptied-of-principle, politically bankrupt positions already taken up by parties to the right of the NDP. The attacks on Caplan were unfair. He wasn’t “out of touch” with any values worth being in touch with – he was trying to say that the NDP should look to decent principles, that competition for the structural-adjustment-Ford-Nation vote is best left to others.

What Horvath’s campaign was domestically, Mulcair’s position on Gaza has been for foreign policy. The NDP’s federal leadership under Thomas Mulcair effectively sided with Israel in these massacres, to mixed response. The National Post praised Mulcair’s stewardship of the NDP, under which “pro-Palestinian voices have been remarkably restrained,” a sign of what the CanWest pamphlet deemed improving NDP “maturity”; Le Devoir, under a graphic photo of a die-in in front of Mulcair’s Montreal constituency office, described the public ripping up of an NDP membership card and the broader backlash to the Mulcair government’s perceived complicity with the campaign against Gaza.

With this article, Caplan has positioned himself against the Caplan of the May 1990 article, and, indeed, of the May 2014 letter -- and even against a decent column he wrote the week before. Absolving Western political leaders of responsibility on Palestine is as implausible a ploy as it may be a convenient one. It’s no more credible than the crude psychologizing of Palestinian politics.

Moreover, bluster aside, any credible look at Israeli politics reveals that Israeli decision-makers absolutely are constrained by Western official reactions, and to some extent by Western public opinion. These impose some actual and more potential checks on the scale of Israeli violence; to the extent that these checks are removed, things can be expected to get worse. Public calls for resigned acceptance of Israeli power amount to an aggravating factor in this crisis, not serious analysis.

The hand-wringing, psychologizing, “both-sides” tropes and “eternal hatred” Caplan is a kind of figure depressingly common across the Canadian political spectrum. The old Caplan was much more rare, much more valuable, and much more serious. He should come back.


* * *


“Mindless cheerleaders for Israel? It's time Canada's Jewish leaders stopped justifying heinous acts”
by Gerald Caplan
13 May 1990
The Toronto Star

Never mind the routine beatings, torture, killings and harassment of Palestinians by Jews. Take the recent move of 150 Israeli fundamentalists, surreptitiously subsidized by the Shamir government, into the old Christian quarter of Jerusalem. The mayor of Jerusalem, a Jew, calls it "stupid and ignorant." The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the principal pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., warns that American Jews may now cut back their financial support of Israel. The director of the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai Brith in the U.S. calls the settlement "provocative and insensitive," while the president of the American Jewish Congress is "appalled" by the move.

Then, there's Canada. The Canadian Jewish Congress issues a statement reaffirming its belief that Jews have a right to live in any part of Israel. The Canada-Israel Committee affirms this same right but with the mealy-mouthed qualification that "the manner in which recent events have unfolded is disquieting."

And worst of all: The Canadian B'nai Brith. A B'nai Brith delegation of 20 Jewish leaders from across Canada, in Israel when the Jerusalem issue explodes, are ready, aye ready, to perform as mindless cheerleaders. "We support," a spokesperson says, "what the duly elected government of Israel does" - a peculiarly witless and uninformed principle.

And to demonstrate the boundless nature of their irresponsibility, the delegation then visits and pays homage at a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank that had been founded by Rabbi Moshe Levinger. Levinger, a fanatical leader of Israel's Jewish settler movement and a bigot who calls Arabs "dogs," was just convicted of killing an unarmed, unthreatening Palestinian shopkeeper.

Is there no limit to what Canadian Jewish leaders will tolerate from Israel? Wrong question. Is there any level of iniquity they'll fail to celebrate? Is there a more monstrous Israeli figure than Ari Sharon, chauvinist, authoritarian, ultra-hawk, architect of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon who failed, an Israeli commission of enquiry found, to prevent the bloody massacre by Israel's Lebanese allies of more than 700 helpless Palestinians in the Shatilla and Sabra refugee camps?

Not ghastly enough, it seems, for the Canadian Friends of the Jerusalem College of Technology, whose board has chosen to invite Sharon to speak at a Toronto fund raising event. What kind of message does this invitation send to Canadians, I asked their official spokesperson. "We're not politically naive or stupid," he replied. "The board weighed all the considerations before deciding. There were lots of considerations involved here."

So the question remains: Is there any act of "the duly elected government of Israel" that will shame the leaders of Canadian Jewry into saying, with Jewish leaders in America and in Israel itself: "Enough is enough. You are despoiling every great historic tradition of Judaisim?"

When Israel renewed diplomatic relations with Ethiopia earlier this year, it was revealed they would also be sending military advisers and arms, including cluster bombs, to Menghistu's demented, murderous regime. Was there a peep of concern, let alone dissent, from the Canadian Jewish establishment for this heinous act? Has there been even an eyebrow raised at the intimate 15-year collaboration between Israel and South Africa, actively promoted by the leaders of both major Israeli parties, involving not only commercial trade but weapons development, military co-operation and joint nuclear research, very possibly including the joint testing of a nuclear bomb.

"Because of their historic experience," writes Irving Abella in A Coat Of Many Colors, his new history of Canadian Jewry, "Jews have tended to be sensitive to oppression and to threats to religious and political freedom." Except, it appears, in Canada and Israel.

Yet, those of us who dare speak out for traditional Jewish values are rewarded with menacing and abusive midnight phone calls. Why pick on us? Why not harass instead those 780 American Jewish leaders who, according to a recent poll by the Israel-Diaspora Institute, are overwhelmingly opposed to the most fundamental Israeli policies of recent years?

* Gerald Caplan is a former national secretary of the New Democratic Party and a public affairs consultant.