Talk and confrontation with Neil Lazarus, and why the “New Hasbara” is doomed to fail

Neil Lazarus has only posted some of the footage of the confrontations, though there are more.
So last week I went to this talk by this dude, Neil Lazarus, who came to Sussex uni to give an ostensibly ‘comedic’ commentary on the general recent news events. I actually wasn’t planning to do so at all, and was just sitting around in a common room when I heard about people going to it (it was in the same building).
So I go to this talk, honestly in good faith, not with the intention of ‘heckling’. Initially the guy talks about recent events about the Middle East in general terms (few mistakes like saying there’s both Al Qaeda and “Nasara” or something like that (Nusra) in Syria, when they’re the same thing), and appears to be ‘neutral’, not really approaching Israel Palestine yet. And then things start to subtly get slipped in (in the form of jokes). He makes a reference about how something (forgot what it was) was “BS, or BDS as I call it”, in passing. Doesn’t expand on it (this is a pattern which he employs throughout the talk, dropping a political view as a casual, ‘don’t take me too seriously’ witticism).
It soon becomes clear that the ‘drops’ are slowly shaping more and more into a congruent set of talking points. Starts off with Hamas; makes the claim “ISIS and Hamas are like friends with benefits, they’re sleeping together but don’t want to admit it to their friends”. Of course, Hamas and ISIS actually despise each other (as with the rebels, ISIS calls them ‘apostates’), and ISIS members languish in Hamas’ jails (in fact, a Syrian revolutionary once reported hearing an ISIS sheikh declaring that if they entered Palestine, they would fight Hamas before Israel as they are the ‘near apostate’ which is more of a danger than the ‘far away infidel’ – the exact same principle applied when ISIS would attack the rebels and not the regime). Comments on news of Saudi and “Sunni countries” rapproaching with Israel against Iran, and dropping “whilst that’s a good thing”.
Then it becomes much more systematic after that. Compromise on all sides needed one sentence: ‘we need to listen to each other and sit down together and talk, we’re cousins you know!’. A few sentences later asks whether Hamas will be willing to give up its weapons. The apartheid wall: “Believe me, I would be the first to take it down” BUT look at the images of the bombs from the suicide bombers before the wall was built. Another ‘drop’, again in a ‘by the way fashion’, “Palestinians want a state, though of course [“BTW”] historically there was no independent state called Palestine [Drop accomplished], but anyway”. The refugee problem, there will have to be a solution, though [Drop incoming] the only refugees in the world who get refugee status inter-generationally are the Palestinians; a Syrian son of a refugee born in London for instance would not be classified as a Syrian refugee’.
Then the angle just becomes more and more blatantly conventional Israeli talking points (again, keep in mind that the event wasn’t supposed to be a pro Israel event, but just ‘commentary’ on recent events in the Mid East). Israel taking out settlers from Gaza, settlers would even put up their arms in front of the Israeli soldiers to replicate the image of those in concentration camps, but they took them out anyway. Proceeds to show video of Israelis in bomb shelters. No videos of airstrikes in Gaza were followed up (the usual mainstream practice would be to start with a segment of the Hamas rockets, and then follow up with something on the Israeli airstrikes; even if not with the same time given or onus). At this point there was no pretense at all in my mind of ‘neutrality’; in other words, I thought he would be following the ‘liberal’ methodology of showing ‘both sides’ as bad, as mainstream news reporters have recently come to do, but it was clear this wasn’t the case. In other words, any possibility that this was a ‘mainstream’ commentator soft on Israel but still pretending to show both sides was definitively dropped in my mind at this point.
This is confirmed a few minutes later by what was just not even remotely subtle anymore (though initially and vacuously attempted). Israeli airstrikes can be problematic; however, look at this video shot from above by an Israeli warplane showing ‘Hamas terrorists’ getting into an ambulance. This is the situation that Israeli soldiers face. Now he asks a member of the audience; look, they’re getting in the ambulance now, what do you do? They say “I wouldn’t fire”. “OK, but then you’ll have any blood from any consequent rockets on your hands”. Still, “I wouldn’t fire”. And in the most predictable conclusion, the warplane in question doesn’t fire. Why? “Because Israel respects International Law” (that’s a direct quote). This was the culmination of the whole approach. There was no pretense at this point that this guy’s even ‘liberal’ or ‘mainstream’, but he had to go through a gradual process to arrive at it. Finally, he ends up with a map of what Israel ‘offered’ the Palestinians in 2008: “96% of the West Bank, and it was rejected”.
Now the reason I keep emphasising the methodology of his approach, namely that it wasn’t a ‘mainstream’ or ‘liberal’ kind of account was because the speech was clearly structured in a chronological way. There was a clear movement from a starting point of a pretense of ‘objectivity’ to subtle dropping of points to finally just all out conventional Israeli talking points. I don’t think this was coincidental.
So question time comes, and I say “You said you wanted for us to understand each other [immediately putting myself on the side of the ‘other side’]. Well, whilst I understand why Jews today who see Israel being criticised when others are ignored can feel singled out, and that I have criticised those who ignore other regimes” – he immediately cuts me off, saying “I want a question”. He knows that there was an explanation about to follow, and a criticism of Israel which tries to allay the sensitivities of the Jews in the room. I was going to proceed to say that whilst I understand why young Jews who see criticism of Israel around them and not other regimes which have committed vast or greater atrocities have a perception of unfairness, this perception is because of their youth; i.e. the fact is that for decades Israel has not had criticism despite its decades long abuses and that the attention now given to Palestine is something that has taken a loooooooong time to be arrived at. Palestinians getting more solidarity than Syrians, whilst perhaps not empirically reflective of the relative suffering at this point in time, is something that cannot be grievanced as it has taken *decades* to build up to reach this point.
Anyway, so a to-and-fro takes place whereby he does not want to give me the room to speak and responds with provocative shitty little rejoinders, I explain that if he was genuine about “talking to each other” etc., than he would be affording me two minutes. He says, no, ‘just one question’. I say if ;you’re genuine about understanding each other, how can there be one question when you’ve said so many points in your presentation, otherwise this is a lecture, not a talk or discussion;. He says ask me what type of claims. So I say ok well lets start off with the map behind you, you mentioned 96%, did you mention the conditions attached to that? That the Palestinian state be demilitarised, without control of its borders, no sovereignty etc etc. (without even mentioning refugees, Jerusalem etc.). This is all punctured by to and fro’s (including some bullshit by him about him “understanding why I was angry as an Egyptian with the dictatorship there” lol, a dictatorship Israel loves). I ask him if he doesn’t want to waste time here, debate me after the Q and A (at this point I’m still largely civil), he just turns away and says “No I won’t debate you”. Eventually (perhaps unfortunately) I lose my temper by his arrogant and bullshit provocative attitude, “keeps saying “Omar, chill, chill, I understand why you’re angry [i.e. al Sisi lol]”. He obviously wanted to paint me as some ‘heckler’ although I wasn’t yet at that point. Eventually though I brought him up on other points (don’t remember if that was during my question or others) which he would consider to be ‘heckling’ (as he addressed, actually didn’t lol, the one question about the map).
And if you’re objective, where’s the video of an airstrike in Gaza? And if Israel respects International Law, why is it criticised as violating it by groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and the UN? He responds just seizing on the UN, saying “don’t talk to me about the UN, it stood doing nothing during the Rwandan genocide”. I said, okay, and what about HRW and Amnesty? He says “Well look, they can have their opinion, I’m just a fat Jew who has his” (his words). I say well no that doesn’t fly, your speech is entirely polemical, where’s the empirical evidence in your speech? Let’s compare the number of Palestinians and Israelis killed in the past few years. He responds at some point by some bs ‘witty’ rejoineder aimed at me and I say well this is your entire lecture, no actual evidence and thinking you can just get through by witticisms.
His claim about Palestinian refugees; did you not think it was appropriate to mention that the reason Palestinian refugees have that intergenerational status is because *they don’t have a state*? He says that he never tried to imply otherwise (what? so why mention it?). Re the “non existence of a Palestinian state”, I ask him and he responds “It’s true”, I said “Egypt didn’t exist as a nation state, that doesn’t mean Egyptians didn’t exist”. He again pretends like he didn’t deny that, though he obviously did. Later on, a Syrian questioner (Munqeth) asks him about what he thought of Israel’s colonisation of Palestine. He responds saying he doesn’t like to use that term because we’re denying the historic link of Jews to the land in “Judea and Samaria”. I interrupt (couldn’t help it) saying “Man, Muslims controlled Spain, do you think that means I can go there and build up a state now?”.¬†Another interruption I offered was when he objected to the term ‘apartheid’, to which I responded ‘two legal systems in the same area isn’t apartheid?’
Unfortunately, I might have lost some in the audience by the later interruptions, but I couldn’t help it and he succeeded in provoking me to that stage. Nonetheless, he did not come out there looking good at all, because it was clear in his responses that he did give that he wasn’t able to rebut the points.
Final note on the guy, I read later a quote of his: Hasbara was not just a duty for the Israeli government, but for “every Jew”. Though it is a cliche, this talk was Hasbara 101, in the sense of being clearly and methodologically propagandist. It was structured well, followed a clear order and was never meant to be challenged (he cut me off before I had time to breathe). Credit must be given to the subtlety of a lot of his ‘drops’, but tbh it was also clear that his claims were largely vacuous on being challenged about them. Furthermore, the simple reality is that the Hasbara line will eventually have to entail an apologistic and unempirical defence of Israel, and here, no matter the tactics, they will always be found wanting (like the ridiculous response he gave to the human rights groups criticising Israel, “they can have their opinion”). The contradiction within this new Hasbara school that Israel’s trying to get off the ground in the West – of the proponent presenting himself as not outwardly aligned per se with Israel but “sympathetic” to it – is unsolvable as the ‘liberal’ approach is no longer sufficient to defend, or more accurately, *rehabilitate* Israel. Thus, an effective rehabilitation of Israel requires both an initial ‘liberal’, ‘both sides’ pretense but also a radical, clearly apologistic one. Lazarus effectively was the manifestation of this contradiction: though he was being presented as not being even a liberal Zionist (but a news commentator), he ended up being far more right wing in his responses (in my eyes) than many liberal Zionists I have encountered. This contradiction is unsolvable. To be rehabilitated, Israel simultaneously requires a strong defence from people who need to initially distance themselves from it.
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