To delete or not to delete? Ever since media went online, editors have faced the question as to exactly what limits they will set on the comments attached to articles. The practice has come to so dominate the media-sphere that it’s difficult to remember a time when you could live in blissful ignorance of what people actually thought of your opinions, save for the respectable debate permitted by letters editors.

For a while editors were very keen on a pretty much open slather of comments — even when they insulted the author’s humanity, virility, maternity, hygiene and much much more. I’ve noticed that this policy tends to be tightened soon after the editor in question first gets attacked and realises how creepy it is to have crazies wanting your loved ones to get cancer, hanging permanently from the article.

But the question of acceptable political limits remains. Letters pages could use lack of space to exclude the UFO/fluoride/ZOG crowd — but limitless cyberspace makes choices necessary. We’ve hacked into the Tim Blair and Andrew Bolt comment strings many a time, when their moderators leave various racist bilge online for days or longer — and given that Bolt has taken to assessing people’s aboriginality by checking the blackness of their skin, like a South African racial court of old, it’s kinda hard to think how the commenters can outdisgrace the article proper.

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Crikey’s policy has been to leave some fairly drekkish stuff up, on the grounds that you are no more responsible for the opinions in a comment string than you are for what is said about an article in the pub. The one issue on which this gets everyone everywhere into trouble is in forthright criticism of Israel, because the anti-Zionist basis of the attack also attracts anti-Semites.

Since making anti-Zionist arguments from a progressive point of view has always meant actively rejecting anti-Semitic ones, and keeping such people away from demonstrations, publications, etc, I’ve previously suggested that we should more aggressively weed out the two or three noxious anti-Semites who come out of the wormwood every time one writes on the complex history of Zionism’s entanglement with terrorism, fascism and anti-Semitism, from the 1920s onwards.

Nevertheless, Michael Danby’s attack on Crikey and newmatilda for “unleashing” these comments isn’t really directed at such thoughts from the lower depths — their principle target is any criticism of Israel that is other than mild reproof of its tactics, especially the pretty trenchant critiques offered by Antony Loewenstein and Michael Brull.

You can see this in Danby’s long volley from the coward’s castle of the House of Reps recently — in which the old skool Jew hatred (run the world, driven by nature to, etc,  etc) is all thrown into the same pot with completely legitimate critique of Israel that have become more prevalent in recent years — particularly that it was guilty of ethnic cleansing with regard to the Palestinians and is currently actively dissolving the possibility of them achieving nationhood. Danby is also exercised by the Nazi/Israel comparisons that have floated around.

A couple of pertinent points need to be made:

  • by any definition, the conduct of the war of 1948, with mass planned terror directed at Arab civilians, is arguable as ethnic cleansing. Benny Morris’ work documents more than 30 massacres, all drawn from IDF archive documents — and all with the explicit aim of clearing territory — and this now seems to be a conservative figure. The degree to which that terror contributed to the exodus of Palestinians can be debated. That it was a part of it cannot.
  • In calling Zionists Nazis, no one can outdo other Zionists. From Ben-Gurion’s 1930s remarks that Jabotinsky and then Begin were “Jewish Hitlers” through to remarks in Haaretz about IDF-looking storm troopers, the Israel/Nazi comparison is usually kitschy and exaggerated, but comes from all directions.
  • The relationship between Zionism and Nazism is legitimate to explore, not only because Zionism was largely supported by gentile anti-Semites before the war, but also because the faction that became the Likud party — the Irgun and the Lehi — were fascistic and terroristic in their conception of Zionism. Since the whole settlements policy was pushed forward during the era of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, who were leaders of these groups, it is relevant to ask whether this does not contribute to the pointless, chauvinistic and humiliating way in which the settlements are relentlessly prosecuted today.
  • the focus on Israel’s actions by writers from the Left (and especially from the Jewish Left) is for obvious reasons, to avoid giving silent consent to what is purportedly done in your name, whether that name be Jews, the West, democracy or whatever. Since Israel’s actions are supported by Western military aid, and fawning Western politicians, and is at root, a colonial policy, greater critical attention and energy is going to be paid.

Indeed, it’s because I want those forthright critiques to keep going, that I’d support a more aggressive comments deletion policy. But it’s ridiculous to blame the barbecue for the blowflies. Danby’s anger is directed at the criticism that does make sense and has seen, over the breadth of his public career, Israel go from being uncriticisable in the West, to having its actions scrutinised more sceptically and unsparingly. No wonder he’s pissed off — 30 years of flak catching and the cause has only gone backwards.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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