Miko Peled was speaking in UK at an event concerning free speech and Israel (organized by Free Speech on Israel), an event that was a side event of the British Labour conference, what the British call a ‘fringe’ event (with no derogatory sense). Here he was saying:
“This is about free speech, the freedom to criticise and to discuss every issue, whether it’s the Holocaust: yes or no, Palestine, the liberation, the whole spectrum. There should be no limits on the discussion”.
He was, perhaps unwittingly, activating several traps.
Now before analyzing what he said and what that caused, let me first mention the many good things Peled is known for. His staunch advocacy for Palestinian rights, his ability to cut through details and make strong, cogent points, his activity in actual protests in Palestine, his down-to-earth work to help Palestinians, as described in his remarkable 2012 book The General’s Son, his continuing research and writings on discrimination of Palestinians also in USA – these are all very strong assets. Miko Peled is not just a black belt in martial arts; he’s an activist-warrior.
But warriors can give a foul punch once in a while, and it can have repercussions that are not necessarily victorious. So let’s look at those words. First of all, his “Holocaust: yes or no” was a major dog-whistle for all kinds of Holocaust deniers and revisionists.
It could not help much, I think, that in the aftermath, Peled clarified to The Guardian that he was not a Holocaust denier himself:
“The Holocaust was a terrible crime that we must study and from which we must all learn”, he wrote in response.
Interestingly, Peled’s subsequent remarks at the Labour fringe event seemed to indicate that he was not a blanket supporter of ‘free speech’:
“It’s about the limits of tolerance: we don’t invite the Nazis and give them an hour to explain why they are right; we do not invite apartheid South Africa racists to explain why apartheid was good for the blacks, and in the same way we do not invite Zionists – it’s a very similar kind of thing”, he said.
So Peled is saying two things here: There is free speech, he wants there to be free speech, but he also wants to determine where that free speech stops: Nazis, and Zionists. At the same time, Peled suggests that this free speech also include “Holocaust: yes or no” – and with that “no”, he is quite clearly whistling to Holocaust deniers. So while he wasn’t inviting Holocaust deniers directly, and while he wasn’t inviting the Zionists or Nazis, he was throwing out raw meat for the sharks at that moment.
Thus, when Ken Loach was interviewed about this by BBC, his answer, “I think history is for all of us to discuss”, only made him part of the same bait for the liberal-Zionist shark Jonathan Freedland.
I don’t think it helped much that Loach afterwards responded to the Guardian, saying, “The Holocaust is as real a historical event as the second world war itself and not to be challenged”.
Because the context is the “Holocaust: yes or no” dog-whistle. That doesn’t go away that fast.
I am reluctant to quote Jonathan Freedland approvingly, but I will do so here, where he writes concerning Loach:
“Remember, Loach had not been asked whether there should be discussion of the meaning of the Nazi slaughter of the Jews. He had been asked about the fact of it happening.”
I think it’s a very serious issue, and I think it would be a mistake to trivlialise this as yet another statement that Israel-apologetics are exploiting disingenuously. Oh, they are exploiting it – but there is substance to it. Peled has provided it.
This is not the first time Miko Peled has come with remarks of this sort.
In September last year, in response to an Israeli celebration of the new 10-year $38 billion package of aid from the U.S., Peled tweeted, “Then theyr surprised Jews have reputation 4being sleazy thieves. #apartheidisrael doesn’t need or deserve these $$”. The Princeton Committee on Palestine canceled his speech at the school, saying the tweet and others that followed were “anti-Semitic and hateful.” Jewish Voice for Peace supported the Princeton committee’s decision, also calling the tweet anti-Semitic. Peled responded that his hosts had succumbed to a quiet campaign of pro-Israel pressure; and he declined to apologize for the tweet. Many members of JVP took on their leadership for its statement, and a week later JVP’s head, Rebecca Vilkomerson, said she had made a mistake and overreached in her criticism, though she maintained that Peled’s original tweet was “reckless and inappropriate.”
In the wake of that, Philip Weiss had a conversation with Peled on this issue, which gave Peled an open and respectful opportunity to clarify his views on these matters and how he thinks about making such statements. Referring to the tweet, Peled opined that the claim that it contains expressions of antisemitism is “nonsense”. In fact, he says about the notion of anti-Semitic expression, “I’m not even sure what that means”. Does Peled really not know what actual anti-Semitic expression means? Asked specifically about anti-Semitism within the Palestine solidarity movement, Peled says “I don’t know what antisemitism means. I think it’s an antiquated term. I don’t know what it means.”
Yet further down, he proves that he does:
“Well the stereotype is there, all the way from Shylock to Fagin in Dickens. The stereotype is there. I talk with Jewish friends, who still remember when they were kids, others would make fun of their people, and talk about money. The stereotype is there, of Jews and money; racism is there in America. I think there’s another facet of that. America is deeply racist, and people are afraid to touch it, because it’s so powerful, and the expression is so deep. This exists, these stereotypes exist, especially about blacks and others—Latinos– exist. They’re ugly, they’re wholly unjustified, wholly inexcusable. At the same time they exist.”
So Peled does know about the stereotypes. How does he then justify his exploitation of them?
Peled seems to mock an American ‘political correctness’ and a supposed fear of even dealing with racism, as grounds for being ‘provocative’:
“People do still repeat the negative characterizations of Jews, so that is very deep, as with all minorities. That is always there. Americans don’t deal with it because it’s so deep. That’s why I say something about sleazy Jews, regardless of the context, and boom, something explodes. Oh my god, it’s antisemitism! Let’s shut it down, let’s not talk about it!”
He regards this as somewhat petty, in relation to what is going on in Palestine: “So how can you talk about my little thing compared to this? I don’t want to make it a big thing. The other side is waiting for this kind of stuff, it’s a distraction.”
And Peled seems to believe that this kind of talk is creating a necessary ‘openness’: “Sometimes people feel these things, and are afraid to express them. They get sent somewhere, to Mondoweiss, or I say it, somebody says it, and they think, Now we can all say this, more of us can say this. It’s really out there. That’s how we all feel anyway.”
But I think Peled’s selective ‘freedom of speech’ contains a certain naiveté, which is embodied in his, “I don’t even know what it means” concerning anti-Semitism. Because there are actual anti-Semites out there, and I don’t mean the ones who cynically exploit the term in order to charge it against pro-Palestinians. One of these, who predictably celebrated Miko Peled’s ‘free speech’ at the Labour fringe conference, was Gilad Atzmon. Atzmon the pundit who calls me “the merchant of JVP”, who calls himself both a “proud self-hating Jew”, an “ex-Jew”, and says “I despise the Jew in me…I absolutely detest the Jew in you”. You know, it’s that bona-fide anti-Semitism, really, not the pretend-stuff.
Atzmon says unequivocally: “I do not agree that anti-Semitism exists”, which is ostensibly why he couldn’t possibly be one… So in response to Peled’s recent “Holocaust: Yes or no”, Atzmon celebrated with a blog:
“Unlike the Diaspora Jews who are defined by antisemitism and a chain of holocausts, Miko Peled, myself and Israelis of our generation are defined by the rejection of the Diaspora identity and disassociation from Diaspora past” (emphasis added).
In this supposedly sophisticated form of Holocaust denial, Atzmon doesn’t need to address the Nazi Holocaust itself – he simply trivilialises it as part of a chain of ‘Holocausts’, an assertion which suggests that this is yet another Jewish invention in the tribal saga. This sarcastic notion of ‘repetitive Holocaust’ is what feeds the anti-Semitic podcasts such as ‘Daily Shoah’. Atzmon lines himself up with names such as “Gideon Levy, Israel Shamir, Uri Avnery, Israel Shahak, Schlomo Sand, Miko Peled” who have become “the most vocal critics of the Jewish State and the Jewishness at its core…Needless to mention that a few of the names above, including myself, realised at a certain stage that fixing Jewishness is a futile exercise, we departed from the tribe and stopped being Jews.”
After Peled issued a clarifcation, Atzmon was naturally disappointed, and responded that “Miko Peled is now zigzagging his withdrawal path […] how sad”.
So I think Miko Peled has opened a can of worms here, once again, and it’s not going to be easy to close it again. He has delivered a confusing message concerning freedom of speech: while he spoke of limiting it so as to not provide a stage for ‘Nazis’ and ‘Zionists’, he advocated that it be applied to include Holocaust deniers. And when the Holocaust deniers ask why he’s seemingly backing down from it, it’s hard to explain. And he has provided Israel apologists raw meat, which provides further encouragement to the Blairite assault on Labour’s Corbynite ‘anti-Semitic problem’.
Jonathan Freedland attacks a group of three in one go: trade union leader Len McCluskey, film director Ken Loach and former mayor of London Ken Livingstone. The arguments about McCluskey and Livingstone are terribly weak. For instance, with Livingstone, the words of whom so many love to twist, he essentially makes do with referring to “Livingstone’s toxic claim of ideological solidarity between the Nazis and those German Jews who sought a Jewish homeland”. This ideological ‘solidarity’ (or shall we say ‘dovetailing’) is rather factual, so Freedland is really only voicing his discontent with its portrayal. Freedland is desperate to get some real substance for his accusations, and he gets it from Ken Loach, who defends Peled’s “Holocaust: Yes or no”.
And that’s how Freedland makes his home-run. Peled provided it, and that one remark made at a Labour fringe event now serves as the ultimate proof of the Labour “anti-Semitic problem”.
Now, it’s obvious that many Labour supporters of Corbyn, and many Palestine solidarity activists would reflexively defend Peled’s comments, having been so used to ridiculous and cynical political assaults against Labour in the past couple of years. But I think we need to realize how serious this is. I will not trivialize this as Miko Peled does, saying that “it’s a distraction”. Oh, it IS a distraction, but Peled provided it. Notably, this is not at all the same case as with Moshe Machover, who was recently expelled for his article “Anti-Zionism does not equal anti-Semitism”. The grounds for expelling Machover are spurious and do not even live up to party policy. Machover’s article is sophisticated and nuanced, even when he quotes Heydrich supporting Zionism. He’s not even close to Holocaust denial or any sort of baiting of it. But Miko Peled is. And those seeking to discredit the Palestine solidarity movement and Corbyn, only need the latter to make their bite count.