Stephen Sizer vs Seismic Shock

Back in September Rev Stephen Sizer posted a blog entry about the blogger “Seismic Shock”. He told us that the blogger was being monitored by “various police authorities”, and that

… Having now identified the author as a recent graduate of Leeds University, the authorities there confiscated his computer and have retrieved all his deleted files. Evidence of breaches to university internet regulations and the misuse of university computer equipment are clear and has, I believe, been passed on to the police.

I wholeheartedly support free speech and legitimate debate on issues such as the Middle East conflict, but not the use of anonymous blogs to incite religious as well as racial hatred or to intimidate and harass those you disagree with.

On my own blog you can read of my attempts to meet with and be reconciled to the author of Seismic Shock through an open letter.

Stephen quoted Seismic Shock’s description of his blog as evidence (links in original):

My starting-point for blogging was discovering the links between Stephen Sizer and sections of the American Far Right, the anti-Zionist hard Left in the UK and hardcore Islamists in Britain and in the Middle East. You can look back over the early posts in order to see this.

…this blog is focused on the political outworkings of anti-Zionist and antisemitic theology, as well as the misuse of Christianity by fascist thugs.

Seismic Shock – now using his real name of Joseph Weissman – did not respond to this or publicise what had happened, but we now know that he was visited by the police in November and agreed to delete his blogspot blog (most of it was backed up to WordPress). The story became public last week, after Stephen warned an Australian Christian Zionist blogger named “Vee” that

You must take a little more care who you brand as anti-semitic otherwise you too will be receiving a caution from the police as the young former student of Leeds did recently. One more reference to me and you will be reported.

“Vee” had linked to Seismic Shock, describing the site as a resource for Christians to learn about anti-Semitism in the Church, including “lots of info on Stephen Sizer and Sabeel”. The author has now amended the link description to “A look at anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism which is found within certain Christian circles.”

Stephen’s comment prompted Seismic Shock then to go public with his side of the story, setting off a small media storm. He explained that he had not in fact received a caution, and, in an interview with Paul Lewis of the Guardian, he tells us that the police came on a Sunday morning:

“I was told to remove the blogspot,” he said. “The whole entire blog. They said Stephen Sizer … objected to being associated with terrorists and Holocaust deniers. I didn’t want to argue with the police. I just wanted to acquiesce. I did say ‘Can you tell me what is specifically the problem?’ He just said he didn’t want to get involved in the argument.”

Lewis adds:

We can’t know what was said, or what wasn’t. But if they were seeking to avoid controversy, the police may now reflect that they could have approached matters differently. Among the many to cover Weissman’s story are the BBC, @bengoldacre, Index on Censorship and, with typical gusto, Melanie Phillips. Loads of others are weighing in, too.

Obviously, for any blogger in the UK this is an alarming story. If there was a legitimate complaint about specific material on the Seismic Shock blog, the police should have been able to explain what it was. And if they couldn’t manage that, it seems to me that all they should have done is to have advised him that a complaint had been made and asked him for his side of the story – and given him time to find a lawyer.

But that’s the process – what about the substance?

First, I should disclose that I have had cordial communication with Stephen over several years, and I have found his studies of Christian Zionism to be useful. It’s also no secret that I too am not a fan of Christian Zionism: its apocalpytic forms consist of preposterous mis-interpretations of Biblical texts that encourage morbid political attitudes, and while I can understand that some Christians support Israel because it accords with their wider religiously-informed political perspective, non-apocalpytic Christian Zionism is often bad news, too: a Biblical template is imposed on the modern conflict in ways that obscure its realities, and there is a romantic stereotyping of Jews and Judaism.

Stephen is not anti-Semitic, nor is he a supporter of Palestinian terrorism. I also understand that he has suffered real-world harassment, either as a result of his views and activism, or as a result of views attributed to him by hostile sources. I can see why he would be annoyed with Vee, and it’s sensible that Vee has amended her link description to something less inflammatory. However, I think that Stephen’s manner of complaint to Vee does not do him credit, appearing as it does to gloat and containing an inaccuracy. It’s also the case that Stephen has undertaken courses of action which are controversial and which were bound to attract critical reaction. He shares platforms with people that I wouldn’t be willing to, and he sometimes cites as sources persons whom it would have been better to have avoided and which cast a shadow over his judgement. I suppose that his visits to Iran are attempts to show Iranians that not all western Christians are anxious for a clash with the Muslim world, but they have brought him into some troubling company. I know he would agree that these are all matters that should be open for free debate and criticism, as he indicates the quote above.

As regards Seismic Shock, he has in the past provided me with some tip-offs concerning the BNP’s Rev Robert West, and he has given me some kind publicity through his blog on the subject of West and on other matters. He has also certainly highlighted some true examples of Christian anti-Semitism. However, he also sometimes overeggs things in a way that is misleading. This post in particular set off alarm bells for me; here’s the headline:

Ben White: the Holocaust is a ‘myth’

What is the reader supposed to make of this, besides that White believes that the story of the Holocaust is untrue? No reader would understand it in any other way. Yet when we read on, here’s what White actually wrote:

…Even more relevantly, given the use of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism as a propaganda tool of Zionist apologists, historian Richard Slotkin has described the process whereby historical events become ‘myth’ thus:

stories drawn from a society’s history that have acquired through persistent usage the power of symbolizing that society’s ideology and of dramatizing its moral consciousness—with all the complexities and contradictions that consciousness may contain.

This is extremely pertinent to the use of the Holocaust, not only in terms of the Western consciousness and relations with Israel, but also in relation to Israel’s national identity…

Now, White’s purpose in his piece – written in 2006 –  was to argue that Ahmadinejad was not a Holocaust denier. It was an unfortunate article, especially as any doubt was removed a few months later when Iran held a Holocaust denial conference; and of course Seismic Shock is within his rights to quote it with some relish. But the headline, while pedantically true, could only have been written to imply, falsely, that White is a Holocaust denier – when he’s clearly not. As for Seismic Shock’s writings on Stephen, we no longer have access to all of these – not all of the early blogspot material was backed up [UPDATE: Modernity Blog points out actually that Google cache still has most of the contents] – but we can see the same strategy here.

It seems to me that the police handled this badly, but that Seismic Shock could have avoided his troubles if he had been more careful with his rhetoric (perhaps he realises this, which is why the story only came out belatedly and why not all the material was carried over to WordPress. He has also made an effort to clarify that Stephen is not a Holocaust denier since the story broke).  However, Stephen has also brought some just censure on himself with his disappointing message to Vee.

(PS: since the police do take some complaints seriously, here’s a case of harassment which certainly should be investigated)

UPDATE: Modernity Blog is annoyed with me; you can read the discussion in the comments here.

UPDATE 2: Stephen’s side of the story can be seen on Harry’s Place.