April 15, 2009

Clifford May’s Truth Problem

After reading his most recent column in the National Review, I’m simply amazed that people take Clifford May seriously. And I don’t say this to be nasty. I’m genuinely amazed that people take this guy seriously. For it’s clear that he’s either (a) woefully ignorant of history or (b) pathologically dishonest. For charity’s sake, I’ll assume that he’s just ignorant.

The subject of May’s column, “Middle East Caricature,” is a recent cartoon by Pat Oliphant. In the cartoon, Oliphant depicts a headless, knife-wielding soldier pushing a teeth-bearing Star of David and following after a tiny mother and child who are labeled “Gaza.” May claims that, far worse than being anti-Semitic, Oliphant is “encouraging those whose intentions are genocidal.”

Now I would argue that May’s claim here is a matter debate, one which I’m personally not very interested in resolving. What is not a matter of debate, however, are a number of historical claims which May proceeds to make, all under the guise of teaching his readers about “the context for the conflict between Israel and Hamas.”

First, May tells us that “Israel occupied Gaza as a consequence of the 1967 war waged against Israel by Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and other Arab states.” Now I’m not aware of any historian who would accept this claim. It is simply beyond question that Israel started the Six-Day War. Many Israel apologists claim Israel’s air strikes against Egypt were preemptive but that wouldn’t change the fact that Israel struck first. And, oh by the way, there was nothing preemptive in the Israeli attack. First, as the Johnson administration made clear to Israel at the time, there was no evidence that Egypt was planning to attack. Second, as the Johnson administration also made clear, Egypt had arranged for its vice president to meet in Washington on June 7 to discuss a diplomatic solution to the conflict—and yet Israel attacked on June 5 anyway.

Second, May writes that “in 2005 Israel ended its occupation of Gaza.” This claim is equally absurd. In 2005, Israel, while removing its troops, essentially turned Gaza into a giant open-air prison. Israel retained control over Gaza’s borders, territorial waters, and air space. Israel reserved the right to freely enter Gaza for military purposes. Israel continued restricting access to all but a small number of individuals wishing to travel between Gaza and the West Bank. As legal scholar John Dugard notes, the test “for determining whether a territory is occupied under international law is effective control, and not the permanent physical presence of the occupying Power's military forces in the territory in question.” Based on these standards, “it is clear that Israel remains the occupying Power.”

Third, May tell us that Hamas’ “top priority is to wage jihad against Israel.” Which of course is a blatant mischaracterization of a very diverse organization. While it’s true that many Hamas members remain committed to bringing all of Mandate Palestine under Islamic rule, many in the group, including many of its leaders, have expressed a desire for a two-state settlement. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has gone so far as to say that Hamas would be prepared to recognize Israel.

Finally, May writes that Israel’s recent massacre of the Gaza Strip was not only an act of self-defense but that, “far from acting like a headless monster, the Israel Defense Forces took extraordinary efforts to limit civilian casualties.” Even many IDF soldiers have admitted that such was not the case. Speaking at an Israeli college in February, a group of soldiers shared some of their experiences in Operation Cast Lead. And far from emphasizing that the IDF took “extraordinary efforts to limit civilian casualties,” these men made it clear, as Amos Harel of Ha’aretz put it, that “Israeli forces killed Palestinian civilians under permissive rules of engagement and intentionally destroyed their property.” Shortly after this, Ha’aretz’s Amira Haas made public a disturbing note which had been left behind in a house occupied by Israeli forces. Purportedly written by an IDF commander, the note ordered soldiers to fire at rescuers. Still more recently, the UN has reported that one group of IDF soldiers used an eleven-year-old Palestinian boy as a human shield.

And yet, despite all this, despite the mountain of evidence contradicting his claims, people, National Review readers anyway, continue taking Clifford May seriously. The class dunce, after getting straight F’s, is allowed, not only to graduate, but to speak at the commencement ceremony.

If the National Review wants to publish articles defending Israel’s atrocities against the Palestinians, then that’s well within their rights. Hell, they have a long, sordid history of doing that sort of thing. But to publish this heap of lies—or, if we’re going to try to remain charitable—this heap of wrong answers—is inexcusable. Even the evil Bill Buckley might’ve objected.

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