Saturday, December 30, 2006

The new Christmas myth

This Christmas, the international charity War on Want saw fit to print a seasonal greetings card on which Mary, Joseph and the Christ child were depicted as Palestinians subjected to oppressive treatment by Israeli soldiers beneath the shadow of the security 'wall'. I wrote to them, and then submitted a complaint to the Charitiies Commission, who will respond in due course. Here is the text of my covering letter to the CC, followed by the longish letter that went to War on Want.


Covering message:

I'm writing to ask whether the Commission does not agree that a Christmas card produced by the charity War on Want contravenes the Charities Act in respect of politicization. The card shows Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus being subjected to a security check by Israeli soldiers, and seeks to draw some sort of parallel between their plight and that of Palestinians in the West Bank. That such a link can be made I would not quite deny, but I am profoundly conscious of the imbalance such a linkage may create (and doubtless has created) in the minds of the uninformed, in that no context whatsoever is given for the security check. Inasmuch as IDF security checks are aimed at preventing terrorism and, in particular, suicide bombings, it is unlikely that a reasonable person would object to them, even though they do cause hardship to some. The UK has used similar checks for the same purpose, notably in Northern Ireland (where I have experienced them at first hand), but War on Want directs its message against Israel only, without regard for the actions of other countries and without reference to the homicidal nature of Palestinian terror attacks. Nor does the card even hint at the fact that much Palestinian poverty has come from high levels of corruption within the Fatah party when it was in control, or the blockage of funds by the US and EU because the current government of Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, cease violence, or enter peace negotiations. All this and more seem to me to make the political message conveyed by the War on Want card highly controversial and unbalanced. I have covered these and several other points in a letter to Payul Collins at War on Want, a copy of which is attached to this e-mail. Assuming that War on Want still seeks to combat poverty worldwide, their adoption of a biased political agenda rooted in one side of the political spectrum must surely be questioned. It fits, I fear, with War on Want's recent report on the 2006 war in Lebanon, where it is stated that they found no evidence that Hizbullah placed rocket launchers, redoubts, or other military positions within civilian areas — a conceit that has since been exposed as a serious falsehood and one that flies in the face of overwhelming pictorial and testimonial evidence. It seems that War on Want has a political agenda, and that that agenda is to condemn Israel while lending support to a notorious terrorist organization. I trust this troubles you as much as it does me.

Thank you

_____________________________________

Letter to Paul Collins at War on Want:

Dear Mr Collins,

I realize you will by now have seen more e-mails on the subject of
your Christmas card than you would like. I don't know whether you
have any intention of replying to them, or even of reflecting on what
many of them say, but I do hope you will try to take them into
consideration for your future policy in this matter.

I have always admired War on Want and its work, but in recent years
have been disturbed by the growing politicization of the
organization. This is not because I do not make the link between
poverty and politics, but because I think you have in many cases
become one-sided in a way that is not helpful. This refers, in
particular, to your treatment and portrayal of Israel, and is
exemplified in the card you have produced showing the Holy Family
being searched by IDF soldiers. While I do understand what you meant
to convey by this, I cannot be persuaded that the parallel you draw
is anything but factitious and, in the end, meaningless.

The correct parallel is this: Christians, Muslims, Druze, and the
followers of other religions are treated better in Israel than in any
other country in the Middle East. That is a fact (and I say that as
an Arabist/Persianist who has spent some forty years studying the
region). Let me give you a very simple example of what I mean when I
speak of Israeli tolerance. The largest religious minority in Iran is
that of the Baha'is. As you may very well know, they have never been
liked in that country, but since the Islamic Revolution they have
been subjected to severe forms of persecution: some 200 members have
been executed and many others imprisoned and tortured, while their
most sacred shrines have been bulldozed to the ground. They are
forbidden to meet for worship, to hold jobs in teaching or the civil
service, to attend university, and much else besides (receiving
pensions, for example). This same religion is banned in every Muslim
state, and the punishment for membership is, strictly speaking,
execution. Hatred of Baha'is reaches levels that are only surpassed
by hatred of Jews. In Israel, however, not only do Baha'is have full
rights, they have been permitted to build their two holiest shrines
and a string of gardens, terraces, and highly visible religious
buildings right along the front of Mount Carmel, in Haifa. Their
supreme body has its centre there, and pilgrims from all round the
world visit the holy places on a regular basis.

That is, in a nutshell, the difference between Israel and the
countries surrounding her. Complete tolerance in one, total absence
of tolerance in the others.

Why, then, would you choose to portray an intolerant Israel through
the images you chose to put on your Christmas cards? No doubt, you
will say, because IDF soldiers search peace-loving Palestinians at
check-points throughout the year. But your use of Christmas
iconography to make that point is inflammatory and profoundly
misleading in more ways than one. Perhaps there is a message to be
conveyed here, but I find it troubling that, of the messages that
might have been communicated, you have chosen one that lacks context
and uses a deliberately emotive imagery. Why is it more important for
you to tell recipients of your card that IDF soldiers search
Palestinians than to tell the story of Palestinian suicide bombings
that prompt such searches? Bombers have been carried to their
destinations in ambulances, or have dressed as pregnant or veiled
women, or have tried to pass security checks as children. Given that
each successful attempt at penetration by terrorists brings in its
wake death and injury, often on a massive scale, can you please
suggest why the Israel Defence Force should not attempt to police
their borders? Perhaps you would be willing to go on television here
in the UK and announce that you regard all attempts to prevent acts
of terror as something despicable, that you mock the work of our
security forces, that harassing would-be terrorists is somehow
equivalent to maltreating the Mother of God?

There are so many stories you might have chosen, but you chose this
one, distorted and decontextualized fable. You might have told the
story on your card of the abuse of Palestinian children, children
taught in school to hate Jews, children trained to become suicide
bombers and to aspire to the status of martyr from an early age,
children given Kalashnikovs instead of bicycles. Or perhaps you think
that is all something to admire, plucky kids trained by plucky
parents. You might have told the story of how innocent young women
are murdered in the PA territories in honour killings, by their own
mothers, fathers, brothers, and cousins: just holding hands with her
fiancé was enough to end the life of a young Palestinian woman shot
by a Hamas morality patrol earlier this year. Or do you just dismiss
all that as 'tough love'? No doubt passing through an Israeli
checkpoint is many times worse than having to watch every moment in
case you look at the wrong young man in the wrong way and are caught
doing it. You might have told the story about how gay Palestinian men
and women face death and beatings on a regular basis. Or that those
who can flee to Israel, where they are taken in and given protection.
Instead, you chose to say that instituting checkpoints to prevent
terrorist activity is a foul and dishonourable thing. I was born and
brought up in Belfast, and I can still remember having to pass
through military checkpoints just to go shopping. On the other hand,
I remember how my entire family came within inches of being
slaughtered when a bomb exploded beneath a train they were travelling
on. I never once complained about the checkpoints, because, like
everyone else, I didn't want to be in a shop when a bomb went off.

You might, indeed, have told the many stories of Israelis of all
ages, from all walks of life blown to shreds while out shopping,
eating in restaurants, attending bar mitzvahs, having lunch in their
university cafeteria, taking the bus home. The people who planted
those bombs or who turned themselves into bombs were motivated by
hatred, not a love of peace and justice and tolerance. I take it War
on Want condemns killings such as those. Why, then, does it hold up
for contempt an image of peace-keeping soldiers doing their best to
save lives?

There are many other stories you might have told: anti-Semitism
straight from the Third Reich on Arab and Iranian TV screens, calls
for the slaughter of Jews in Friday sermons from PA mosques, the
clauses from Hamas's Charter that describe all efforts at peace-
making, all international conferences, all negotiations, all attempts
to compromise as 'a waste of time'.... Or the story of how Israel is
one of the most racially mixed countries in the world (whereas most
Arab countries are not), or how Israel is one of the most
economically successful countries on the planet, helping the Third
World (remember the Third World) with its technology and medicine....

You need to do some hard thinking, and you need to start by examining
your own heart. I am a liberal, probably very like you, and, also
probably like you, I believe in taking a moral stance in public
matters. We probably want the same things, including a prosperous
future for the Palestinian people. You seem to think that this will
happen if we support Palestinian intransigence, force Israel to
abandon her defences, and maybe even allow Hamas and Hizbullah to
fire rockets onto Israeli towns without hindrance. Maybe you don't
think that, maybe you really would like to see both sides make peace
and live together. If that's so, then please think twice before you
make another card that condemns Israeli security measures and says
nothing about the reasons why they have been put there in the first
place.

Thank you for reading this.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Denis MacEoin

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this valuable lesson to the uninformed!

May God bless you!

Anonymous said...

I would like to emphasize how important this blog is. It boggles the mind that a substantial portion of what we see as the left wing is vehemently against Israel - despite the fact that all of the other domestic causes they support (rule of law, minority rights, numerous freedoms) are strongly represented within Israel. Israel embodies the good in humanity from the pragmatism to the technology. This brings feelings of humiliation from the other side that are externalized in perpetual fatalistic hostility.
The shift NEEDS to come from academia. Inroads into academia will shift the balance further in Israel's favor in the court of world opinion.

Anonymous said...

I would like to emphasize how important this blog is. It boggles the mind that a substantial portion of what we see as the left wing is vehemently against Israel - despite the fact that all of the other domestic causes they support (rule of law, minority rights, numerous freedoms) are strongly represented within Israel. Israel embodies the good in humanity from the pragmatism to the technology. This brings feelings of humiliation from the other side that are externalized in perpetual fatalistic hostility.
The shift NEEDS to come from academia. Inroads into academia will shift the balance further in Israel's favor in the court of world opinion.

Myackie said...

Did you ever get a response?

If so...please print it.

Thanks.