Writers' probing puts a modern edge on conflict in the Middle East
Yesterday was the Israel and Iraq double whammy at the Writers & Readers Festival. On Israel was Antony Loewenstein, who claimed that the Jewish state, like the old South Africa, had an apartheid system - only Israel's was worse.
Loewenstein, an Australian journalist, is author of the controversial best seller My Israel Question in which he argues that the Jews' history of persecution ought to make them better able to understand the importance of racial tolerance, and yet these values are anathema in present-day Israel.
He describes himself as a humanist Jew but says his critics have branded him a self-hating Jew for speaking out about Israel's "blatant racism". Yet he points out that the West has every right to comment on Israel "because we're paying for its existence".
Loewenstein was coherent, relaxed and used good-natured sarcasm: "Is [Israel] better than Iran? Well, yes. But is that the comparison?" Boycott, anyone?
The Iraq question went to Michael Otterman, co-author of Erasing Iraq, who was young enough to point out that the foreign press is now just a mouse click away if we care to Google, say, "Iraqi blogs".
Both writers also commented that, despite adverts to the contrary, Barack Obama's foreign policy looks like George W. Bush's.
Otterman, interviewed by Sean Plunket (who just about kept his own ego in check), started with stats: Nearly five million Iraqis have abandoned their homes since 2003 - the largest movement of people in the Middle East since 1948 (when Israel became a state).
He visited Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan to ask: "What do Iraqis think?" He found that, to many minds, the war had been continuous since 1991, in the form of "genocidal sanctions". Iraqi views of Saddam were mixed but views on the American occupation since 2003 ranged from bad to worse.
Otterman said ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq had undergone "sociocide" - "the killing of [their] way of life" - since 2003. He called it "evil".
A session with 24-year-old boy wonder Ben Naparstek was a letdown. He didn't mention most of the literary giants who feature in In Conversation: Encounters with Great Writers, the book of interviews he's plugging.