Friday, August 28, 2009

The Land of Mordor

I was sitting in town today, waiting for my wife to return from shopping in Marks & Spencer. To keep things balanced, I now do a second round in Waitrose, so we get the best of both worlds. I was sitting on a bench opposite a window of John Lewis, where they were displaying large-screen televisions, and the televisions were playing clips from films. The first one was that bit during the siege of Helm's Deep, where the Riders of Rohan, led by Gandalf (returned from his fight with the Balrog), charge down upon the massed orcs of the Uruk Hai. Stirring stuff. I first read Lord of the Rings when I was thirteen, forty-seven years ago. It was my first real book, and it gripped me night after night for week after week. It's not great literature, but that's not what JRR Tolkien set out to write. He was a specialist in Old and Middle English. I also specialized in Middle English as part of my first degree. There are great books from that period, but they don't all set out to be literary masterpieces. Many of them, from Gawain and the Green Knight to the Arthurian legends, are about myth, and that's what The Lord of the Rings is about too.

Tolkien's masterpiece tells a myth of great power. In the simp;lest terms, it describes a battle between good and evil, between the Dark Lord Sauron and the forces of good (exemplified by the future king Aragorn, the Elves of Rivendell, and the Hobbits of the Shire). Good wins in the end, as it does in all great myths. The Land of Mordor is ruined and the Shire cleansed. There are echoes here of the Bible, of Arthur, of the Mabinogion.

From the beginning, we know how things stand. There is no mistaking the goodness and strength of Gandalf, the evil of the Ringwraiths. Sauron is evil through and through, as are his orcs, as are the nine Nazgul. The Hobbits epitomize goodness and simplicity, and Aragorn (despite a rocky start) reveals himself as a dedicated enemy of the Dark.

Real life is not as easy, of course. What appears good often turns out to be evil, what seems ill often turns out well. We spend our lives tussling with moral dilemmas, learning who to trust, who to be cautious with. more often than not, people get it wrong. The Germans fell in love with Nazism, learned to hate the Jews, came to put their trust in brute strength and murder. Throughout Europe, communists extolled the People's Paradise of the Soviet Union even as Stalin sent millions to their deaths. Misplaced faith hurts and kills, leads whole nations to commit crimes they will later regret.

I don't have to explain the relevance of this to Israel. Today, millions across the globe self-righteously wish the worst possible harm to befall this small nation. It is not mild criticism, it is a global effort to portray Israel as Mordor, a land whose soldiers, dressed as orcs, march from the Iron Gate to slaughter innocent Palestinians (and harvest their organs). Of course, the myth has been created in reverse. Just as it isn't hard to know who, in The Lord of the Rings, is a good guy or a bad guy, so it should be clear to anyone with a working moral compass who is on the good side or the bad side of the Middle East conflict.

I'm not talking about perfect evil set against perfect good. The real world isn't like that. I'm just looking at the broad picture and our ability as human beings to recognize good and evil within it. When one side uses suicide bombers and bombs set in caf├ęs, buses, and restaurants, rants about how much they want to kill their foe, rejects all forms of peace-making, trains its children in hate, and turns its guns on its own people; and when the other side treats its enemies in its own hospitals, willingly departs from territory, builds a security fence that keeps the bombers out, and supplies its enemy with goods, fuel, and equipment, why is it so hard to tell which side of the border Sauron is on and which Aragorn? When one side has struggled through war and terror to destroy the other, and the other has offered its enemy a state of its own again and again, does it take the brain of a genius to see which way the horses of Rohan are riding?

Tragically, many of the world's finest brains keep failing this moral test. Intellectuals in America, Europe and elsewhere have come and continue to come to the startling conclusion that Israel is the one truly evil state in the world. This astonishing notion marches alongside many other failures of the moral compass. Intellectuals, the media and government are more and more often apologists for radical Islam. Feminists defend female genital mutilation and round on other feminists (like Phyllis Chesler) who condemn it. I recently took part in a TV debate in which one person after another spoke up loudly for a woman's right to wear a full face veil, despite the very obvious disadvantages this has for the woman and the society round her. Just looking at a woman in a burqa or a niqab, it's clear she is being treated as an inferior being, yet plenty in the audience applauded her 'choice'. Intellectuals (rightly) condemn the Transatlantic slave trade, but no voice is ever raised to condemn the larger and longer-lasting Arab and Ottoman slave trade. It has become commonplace to denounce Western empires and colonialism, but when did anyone last speak out about the many Islamic empires and their often devastating impact on countries like India.

Political correctness and multiculturalism have wrought and continue to wreak havoc in our universities and in government. Anti-racists parade their credentials everywhere, but not one of them will ever be seen to condemn Arab and Islamic anti-Semitism. Movements for the establishment or re-establishment of nationalities, from Sri Lanka to Ireland tell us that every people, however small, has right to its own homeland; but the Jews are denied that same right.

During World War II, there was never any doubt where one's loyalties lay. Apart from a few self-serving individuals, like Oswald Mosley and Lord Haw Haw, everyone knew who the enemy was. When bombs were falling every night on British cities, it was hard for anyone's moral compass to swing far off north. The more we knew about the Reich, the more obvious it was that we could not afford to lose the war, because Hitler was a Dark Lord who would enslave or kill us.

And that's the puzzling thing. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn't going on in someone's backyard. It's out there for everyone to see. Hamas rockets fell on Sderot, and any visiting journalist (if any had cared to visit) could have been there when they landed. But when Israel moved in to stop the barrages after many years, the world seemed not to know of any provocation and portrayed Operation Cast Lead as an unprovoked attack. All the photographs and film of destruction in Gaza made the front pages and TV screens; but there were no shots of the Gaza that had not been harmed. We all know about this, about this dishonest reporting that is more interested in keeping wounds open than in telling the truth.

But aren't these the same reporters who have been in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv in the aftermath of a terrorist attack? Don't they look at the walls in Gaza and the West Bank and see the posters making heroes of young people suborned into killing Jews? Don't they ask themselves, who hero-worships a murderer? What mother sends her children to die in this way, and hands out sweets afterwards? Desperation? Devotion to Palestine? Or simply evil? Not the mother, perhaps. But the men (and women) who send children out with bombs round their waists and who put remote controls in the package so they can detonate the vest should the child have second thoughts. Why should anyone experience a moment's hesitation in calling such people evil?

Frodo carried the ring of power to the Crack of Doom, and Gollum's greed finally carried it into the depths of the mountain, where it was destroyed and Sauron's power lost for ever. If only we had a ring like that and a Crack of Doom to throw it into. What we have instead is Israel itself. Whatever its flaws, it's a healthy country. It stands for values like democracy, freedom, human rights, and a balance between secularism and religion. Set beside its neighbours, it stands out. Good amidst evil may be overstating it. But it needs to be recognized for what it is: a land that promotes good and stands against evil.