Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Power of Imagination

When Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad (today's superstar guest on Channel 4, where he's delivering an 'alternative Christmas broadcast) or Mahmoud Abbas or David Irving or that vast body of soi-disant leftwing anti-Semites play down the Holocaust or deny that it took place or seek to replace it with the falsified narrative of a 'Palestinian Holocaust' or some such fiddle faddle, something is going on that bears strangely little relation to the ideologies to which they separately belong.

Ahmadinezhad and other members of the Iranian regime are all Shi'i Muslims. Abbas is a Sunni and a professed secularist in politics. Irving belongs to the far right, and leftists stand to the left, many to the far left (albeit it with a variety of philosophical, ethical and political takes on everything). Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism/anti-Israelism are great unifiers of the otherwise deeply divided. There are even self-hating Jews in there. Hitler and Stalin both treated their Jews as scarcely human rubbish, even when they were at one another's throats. The broad Islamic position is that, if Jews are not wholly subservient to Muslim rule, bowing beneath the weight of legislation designed to humiliate and control them, they must be dealt with more harshly, for they are the quintessential enemies of the prophets and of Islam. Neither Hitler nor Stalin would have keep a single member of al-Qa'ida or Hamas alive. They would have hunted down and summarily executed Osama bin Laden, and done the same to any Muslim calling for the building of an Islamic state.

Yet Hitler was happy to enter into an anti-Jewish deal with the deeply anti-Semitic Muslim cleric, Hajj Amin al-Husayni. Al-Husayni was eventually listed as a war criminal, yet he cheated the condign punishment that lay in wait for him and was fêted in the Arab world long after the end of World War Two. And today, a large swathe of the left, alongside groups of anarchists, postmodernists, the middle-class chatterati, and many others, thinking themselves champions of the oppressed and guardians of human rights and human dignity, willingly acquiesce in plans for the genocide of Israel. They don't think that's what they're doing, but when they cheer on Hamas or turn a blind eye to Hizbullah, when they cheer on anti-American, anti-Zionist Iran and close their eyes to the horrendous human rights abuses taking place under Mr Ahmadinezhad's nose, and when they forge and bolster lies about Israel, false narratives about the West Bank and Gaza, that is exactly what they endorse. They have lost their moral compass. Utterly.

I won't attempt to try to explain all this in the present blog. Whole volumes have been written in which writers more learned and percipient than myself have hurled themselves at the gates of explanation, often to fall back winded. One part of any explanation must lie here, that those who deny or play down the Holocaust suffer from a severe lack of imagination. Or perhaps it's more that a different kind of imagination is in play. When I was a little boy back in the 50s, somebody tried to persuade me that there was no Santa Claus, that our parents did it all. I, however, being a staunch believer, vigorously defended the beautiful dream, and at one point fancied I could hear the jingling of sleigh-bells in the sky. Later, I learned that one must muster logical arguments, backed by evidence in order to defend what one believes to be truth. And part of that is a willingness to discard what one believes when the evidence shows a different truth.

When I speak of 'a different kind of imagination', I'm not talking about the levels of fantasy used by novelists and film-makers. I mean something less elevated yet essential to any understanding of the human state. What I mean is an emotional insight into the lives and feelings of other people. This ability, which we all have in some measure, is the capacity to imagine another's person's thoughts and feelings. Most of us develop that insight through literature, film, ballet, painting, music, and the other arts. We learn it in childhood via fairy stories, in our teenage years through more adult fantasy, science fiction, horror, and, if we're lucky, good quality ghost stories. Better still, we have our first encounters with Shakespeare, our first ventures into Jane Austen and her perfectly-formed world. Above all, we learn empathy through our close ties to friends and family. As adults, the greatest empathy of all comes in the form of a lasting attachment to another adult — a wife, husband, or partner.

This is why novels, the stage, cinema, and television drama are such a large part of most people's lives: they provide well-imagined characters as props for our empathy. Who has not shed a tear for Anna Karenina or Tess of the D'Urbevilles as they go to their undeserved deaths? Or let fall a little tear of gladness when Colin Firth asks his Portuguese cleaner to marry him, and she says 'Yes' and tells him she'd like that very much? These are invented figures, but the skills of the novelist or the film-maker convey so much of their circumstances, their feelings, and their thoughts that we feel we know them better than all but the best of our friends.

But if that sense of empathy — let's call it the empathetic imagination — is absent or atrophied, we would see no point in fiction, we would never adopt the orphan or feed the hungry or visit the sick or think imaginatively about the lives of our ancestors. It's not optional. Its absence is responsible for all the murders, wars, massacres, pogroms, and genocides in history. On Christmas Eve, a man dressed in a Santa outfit shot an eight-year-old girl in the face when she opened the door to him, and proceeded to kill seven other people. In Israel some years ago, a Palestinian terrorist called Samir Kuntar smashed the skull of a little girl and shot her father. Today, rockets fired from Gaza into southern Israel are timed to take advantage of the 15-minute period during which schoolchildren are walking from home to school in Sderot. We are programmed to protect little children. We don't have to be parents to experience this. I could no more hit or kill a child than I could hit or kill my wife. Yet some people do all that and worse. In many countries, mostly among Muslims, though sometimes in other communities, honour killings are carried out by fathers, brothers, cousins, even mothers in order to regain the family 'honour' by punishing women for 'crimes' as serious as having a boyfriend. That a father will slit his daughter's throat while her mother holds her down runs counter to all we hold sacred. It is an abomination, yet large communities consider the men who do these things to be heroes. Entire cultures have so far abolished empathy that they have carried its absence into the most intimate areas of the family. When a man beheads his wife and slaughters their children, and all because she would not wear a headscarf or wanted to wear jeans, he has breached what should never be breached. That such a man could not imagine the feelings of his own wife and children to the point where salvaging his honour over something trivial became more pressing than his natural instinct to protect them from harm must be the very epitome of an absence of real love and empathy.

The Nazis and those who collaborated with them also lacked love and empathy to an appalling degree. What's worse, they were able to slaughter and torture their fellow human beings, not in the heat of sudden rage, not from a commitment to a distorted sense of 'honour', but routinely, just as so many of us go to work in their offices and factories every day. Despatching someone to a gas chamber seems to have caused no more damage to the conscience than pulling a lever on a car assembly line. We know roughly how it works, of course. Everyone has heard of the probing experiments carried out in 1961 by Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University. Milgram used volunteers to operate a simple switch that delivered increasingly severe electric shocks to unseen individuals. In fact, the shocks were fake and the 'victims' actors. An experimenter in a white coat would order the volunteer to increase the 'voltage', and every time it went up, there would be sounds of pain. A very high number of people were so willing to obey the authority figure that they took the voltage up so high they thought it was causing actual damage. Later replications and a meta-analysis showed that between 61% and 66% of volunteers took the 'voltage' up to its maximum level when ordered to do so by the authority figure, even when the actors banged on the wall or talked of their heart condition. Only one person in Milgram's experiment walked out at a point lower than 300 volts, well below the maximum.

Milgram's experiment explains a lot of things. Primarily, it shows that a high percentage of people anywhere (the replications were spread over several countries) are capable of harming others when under the influence of authority figures. But I think it also shows that, under these conditions, empathy for victims is made subservient to the priorities of whatever belief system the authority figures subscribe to (in Milgram's case, it was 'the advancement of science').

I can't imagine killing another human being under ordinary circumstances, and certainly not when the situation is under my control. If someone was wielding an axe, however, and was about to attack my wife, and if I had a gun, shooting him would be
simple, if my attempts at persuasion had fallen on deaf ears. I've even found it difficult at times to kill off a beloved character in my novels. But in real life to kill a stranger who posed no actual threat to me would be impossible.

To herd frightened, naked children into a gas chamber and then press the button or pull the lever to release the gas is, surely, not simply bestial, cruel and sub-human, actually untermensch. It finally represents a total failure of the imagination, a dee-seated incapacity to put oneself in someone else's shoes, to realize their fear, to share it, or to grasp the ultimate consequences of one's actions both for the victims and for oneself.

Most of us, I am certain, come away from the contemplation of such undiluted inhumanity with a sense of shock and disbelief. When we hear of an unrepentent Nazi (and there have been so many of them), we wonder how they can live with themselves, in the full knowledge of what they have been, of what they have done. I have never met anyone like that, never known someone who would ever commit that sort of evil. But if Milgram's experiment is to be believed, we must be surrounded by such people. We all know how common it is, when someone (our Santa killer, say) has just killed a large number of people, has massacred his fellow students, or been captured and exposed as a serial killer, or has immolated himself on the London tube or elsewhere — we all know that we will very soon hear his friends, room-mates and family tell us what a lovely person he was and how shocked they have been to learn what he has just done. '"He was just the nicest guy," said Jan Detanna, who worked with Pardo [the murderous Santa] as an usher at the Holy Redeemer Catholic Church.' The chances are they are telling the truth. Anyone who has watched the video of Mohammed Siddique Khan, the ringleader of the 7/7 bombers, saying farewell to his baby daughter, sees, not a crazed suicide bomber, but a gentle, loving father expressing genuine love for this tiny person he is about to leave behind. Read all accounts of the four bombers, and you'll see, again and again, that they are described as 'nice boys', popular, keen sportsmen, contributers to the community, and so on. It was not, in a sense, goodness that they lacked, but a proper awareness of what goodness is about. Goodness cannot really be about loving your baby girl yet not giving a damn about the babies who may be on that train when you set out to murder at random. Real goodness is closely linked to real perception, to an insight into our common humanity.

Hannah Arendt set out for us the concept that evil can be banal, that even the masters of genocide were not visibly 'monsters'. I happen to think that that makes the horror much greater than it might be where it otherwise. Someone who is deeply mentally disturbed may be frightening, but my next-door neighbour with a chainsaw in his hand makes me lose hope. I can make some sense of the paranoid schizophrenic, but my neighbour on a rampage has no place at all in my moral universe. Once we humanize our monsters, we no longer know where they get that monstrosity from.

I won't attempt to psychoanalyze Hitler or Himmler or Saddam Husayn: I'm not a psychologist, and it's been done before anyway. But if I had to opt for one thing, I'd say again it all stemmed from an absence of imagination. None of them could internalize their victims to the point where it would have hurt them more to kill than to save. But I think they may also have had an excess of imagination. That faculty worked well for Hitler when it came to picturing the Thousand-Year Reich in his mind's eye. All those plans and diagrams and models by Albert Speer that Hitler so much admired were part of his inner landscape, in the same way that Paris came alive for him once he had conquered it. He could not empathize with a Jew in striped pyjamas, but he could see a new Berlin take shape on paper, beneath the shadow of the swastika.

I seem to have come a long way from Israel here, but Israel is really at the heart of this piece. Israel is not just a living reality, but a land of the imagination, a country two thousand years in contemplation. Theodor Herzl and all the early Zionists imagined a city of Zion in the heart of desert, the first and later yishuvs populated that land in their imaginations, built Tel Aviv in their minds, created the Knesset and the IDF and a united Jerusalem in their hearts. Without those early visions, Palestine would still be desert and marshland. Those dreams have, in one way or another, become reality. It's not important that the Knesset is divided between warring factions or that the IDF didn't defeat Hizbullah or that Ehud Olmert was a bad prime minister. What matters is that there is a Knesset, that Israelis all have the vote, that the IDF won so many wars and will win again, and that Olmert will soon step down and will be succeeded, not be his son or another appointee or an army general, but by a democratically elected Israeli citizen.

Imagination and reality have achieved something amazing in Israel. No other country has been envisioned or moulded in this way. And no other country has been born (nor should any more be born) out of so much suffering. Two thousand years of persecution crowned by the Nazi Holocaust. How dare anyone sneer at this? How dare anyone proclaim there was no Holocaust, or invent a fake Holocaust to replace it, or call Israel's sons and daughters murderers and terrorists? How do terrorists and their fellow travellers denounce Israel as a Nazi state or an apartheid state or a racist state? It's clear to me that they lack all imagination. Not once have I heard from a Palestinian or Arab or Iranian source a dream of Palestine, a vision of prosperity and tolerance and progress. I have heard and read dreams of violence, dreams of genocide, dreams of a God grown so crazed with a lust for blood that he has exiled all other divinities and replaced love and mutual respect as the bases on which human society is to be erected. The G-d of Israel faces a God of the suicide belt, a God with hands lifted, smeared with blood, a God who smiles on child martyrs and gunmen and rockets, and whose face is reflected in the martyr's smile. This Arab God is a false God, even to those who worship him, for he brings them only greater suffering. He is a God without imagination, for he shows no signs of love and understanding for the Jews and Christians.

The world is filled with people who hate Israel. I have to ask, what is their problem? Don't they admire human rights, don't they care for free speech, democracy, the rule of law, a stable culture? Can't they imagine what it was like in the death camps? I was never in one, but the very thought chills me. I know what it is to be cold or hungry or frightened or anxious, because I'm human, and we all experience those things from time to time. However little our suffering when compared to that endured in the camps, it's enough to let us get a glimpse and to construct a more complete image on the strength of it. Can't they use their imaginations to picture what it's like to be a woman or a homosexual or a member of a religious minority or, above all, to be a Jew in modern Israel, and then to shift that imagination to grasp what it is to be any of those things anywhere else in the Middle East? It needs to work the other way around, of course. But, contrary to myth, not that many Israelis want to see the end of any Palestinian state, or a genocide of the Palestinian people. It is more urgent than ever that the Palestinians and other Arabs start to use their imaginations so they can picture what it is like to be threatened with extinction, and not for the first or second time. And there is no excuse for Westerners opposed to Israel not to access the vast imaginative resources of their own culture. Their only imaginative endeavours, like those of the Palestinians, have been focussed on a mythic vision of Israel, in which everything is topsy turvy: a rights-based society becomes an apartheid entity, the survivors and children of survivors of the Nazi genocide are given Totenkopf badges to wear and jackboots to strut in and are told they are the thing they most detest, the most liberal of Middle Eastern countries undergoes a dark change to become the most repressive. All in their imagination. They tell stories about Muhammad Dura and uranium weapons and dead children in Lebanon, and such are their skills at narrative that the world believes them without evidence, or in spite of the evidence. This is imagination on a grand scale, yet it achieves nothing because it tells a false narrative. That is a great fault, for the imagination thrives best on truths. However much they may be fiction, no great stories are untrue. Not a word of Shakespeare is untrue, however fanciful his stories may be, because they are faithful to a level of truth that begins where fantasy ends.

The proper use of the Arab imagination today is to create in minds and hearts a true vision of a Palestine in which all citizens participate in a culture that is far removed from today's culture of death as possible. The Palestinians and their aiders and abettors here in the West must start picturing happy, smiling children to whom they can entrust their futures. No mother should have to imagine handing round sweets to celebrate when her daughter or her son has killed herself or himself. She should instead do what mothers all round the world do, and picture her children being educated, going out to play, making friends, reading, painting and playing music, laughing, growing up, becoming useful and happy citizens of a stable state. Israel has not prevented such a vision from coming into being. The opportunity is permanently there. When will the Palestinian imagination seize it?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Academic fictions

I have just posted the following on the Engage website. It follows several pieces there on a recent talk at Goldsmith's College by a certain Suzanne Weiss, entitled 'From the Warsaw Ghetto to the Gaza Ghetto', in which a false analogy was made between the situation in the Nazi-controlled Warsaw ghetto and that in modern Gaza (a region not controlled by Israel but by cuddly, peace-loving terrorist enterprise, Hamas).

This tiresome series of analogies (Jews=Nazis, Israel=apartheid South Africa) are, in one sense, remarkable. They are manifest fiction, yet large numbers of well-educated academics, writers, intellectuals, and commentators believe in them with an almost religious fervour. This Warsaw/Gaza comparison strikes me as particularly painful. It has also alerted me to where the root of this may lie. If I put on my hat as a fiction writer, I can see it straight away. Putting a plot together can be great fun, especially if you are writing stories that incorporate fact (I write thrillers, but this is true of other genres, notably historical fiction). I may take one fact, then read more about the subject and stumble on another, unrelated, but fictitiously useful fact, then be led to a strange Wikipedia article that draws my attention to something else that can be fitted in. As the plot itself develops during writing (and this is the crucial thing), it acquires richness, and this richness allows me to embed quite disparate information within it. For the purposes of authorship, the writer 'believes' in his characters and plot elements, and as new 'facts' enter the story, the whole thing acquires a believability that makes the novel resonate with readers. More than once, I've had letters from readers declaring how wonderful I am in 'knowing the truth'. It's pure fiction, of course, but if it has been crafted well, there is a verisimilitude that provokes the classic suspension of disbelief.

This happens with conspiracy theories, in which often genuine fact is blended with hearsay (4,000 Jews stayed away from the twin towers) to persuade the gullible to screw up their lives trying to secure 'justice' or retribution for a supposed crime. While some conspiracy theorists may be intelligent, it is rare to find mainstream academics, lawyers, scientists and others among them (I think I'm right in saying that).

But the IDF soldier/Nazi stormtrooper analogy and all the others that cluster around this trope have become the conspiracy theory that has been made respectable by intellectuals and academics worldwide, to the point where patently false history has been allowed to replace archived records as the basis on which political decisions are take. I have worked with historical controversies in the past, and I believe I know how to distinguish between, say, hagiographic accounts and those formulated on the basis of eye-witness statements an do on. The processes that have taken Benny Morris from his earlier positions to his present views (based on a more complete engagement with archive resources) are ones I recognize. Whatever debate emerges from all that is a manageable academic debate. But where can we go when academics stray so far from the standards of debate that they use fantasy to bolster their views, much as religious believers use hagiography?

The most worrying aspect of these analogies is their very deliberate juxtaposition of extreme images. Logic tells us that 'Jew' and 'Nazi' belong at opposite ends of a spectrum. Or that Israel and apartheid South Africa have nothing in common. A balanced approach would say, perhaps, that Israelis sometimes do bad things to Palestinians (how bad depending on debatable emphases) or that anti-Arab discrimination in Israel is a form of racism. But Israel's (or, more plausibly, Jews') detractors are not context with a normal discourse. They must grow perverse. And that perversity extends to making the sufferings of the Palestinians hagiographic, even iconographic (especially in the extreme Christian belief that makes Palestinians the body of Christ, crucified by Jews once more). Large numbers of Palestinians are terrorists who commit dreadful deeds, yet their defenders can only portray them as innocent victims.

Again, this is novelistic. Making the Palestinians victims 'fits' a perverted theology, combining the old view that the Jews killed Jesus with a new dimension, all of which meshes in the believer's mind because it feels somehow 'right'. As a novelist, I can make you believe half a dozen bizarre things before breakfast. But at the end of the book, you should awaken from the fantasy and smile a wry smile and move on to the next story. Our anti-Israel academics seem unable to do this. What academic has not made some sort of journey, from the views adopted for his/her PhD to those in his last article? That journey is made by recognizing our mistakes, whether these be misreadings of factual information or misinterpretations of a text or an experiment. Since the arguments currently being used to demonize Israel are patent falsehoods, what is preventing these academics seeing them for what they are and at least moving on to more rational criticisms? Instead, they give lectures at academic institutions, ennobling their conspiracies and doing untold damage to impressionable students. That is where I believe we should focus: on convincing university authorities that students are being subjected to a level of argument that is not a centimeter above the conspiracy theorists that claim Jews and the CIA destroyed the twin towers. Surely someone has a duty to insist that all such talks come with a health warning at least, or a proper rejoinder at best.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The annihilation of the Jews

Here's the transcript of a clip that appeared recently on al-Aqsa television, a Palestinian channel. It's conventional enough stuff, I suppose. I've certainly heard and seen it all before. But it got me thinking.

'Following are excerpts from an interview with Palestinian cleric Muhsen Abu 'Ita, which aired on Al-Aqsa TV on July 13, 2008:
Muhsen Abu 'Ita: Naturally, the Koran chapters conveyed to Muhammad in Mecca only rarely deal with the Jews – like in "those who incur Allah's wrath," which appears in the Al-Fatiha chapter. Hence, it is strange to find an entire chapter bearing the name of the Jews, or Bani Israil. It is even more peculiar that this chapter does not talk about the Jews of the Qaynuqa, Nazir, or Qurayza tribes. It talks about the Jews of our times, of this century, using the language of annihilation, the language of grave digging. Note that in this chapter, the Jews were sentenced to annihilation, before even a single Jew existed on the face of the earth. This Koranic chapter talked about the collapse of the so-called state of Israel, before this state was even established. From here stems the importance and oddity of this chapter.
The blessing of Palestine is dependent upon the annihilation of the pit of global corruption in it. When the head of the serpent of corruption is cut off here in Palestine, and its octopus tentacles are severed throughout the world, the real blessing will come. The annihilation of the Jews here in Palestine is one of the most splendid blessings for Palestine. This will be followed by a greater blessing, Allah be praised, with the establishment of a Caliphate that will rule the land and will be pleasing to men and God.'

Before I make the comment I originally wanted to make about Abu 'Ita's remarks, let me do a little Qur'an interpretation here, because that will also be revealing. Take the following: ' the Koran chapters conveyed to Muhammad in Mecca only rarely deal with the Jews – like in "those who incur Allah's wrath," which appears in the Al-Fatiha chapter'. If you have read the first chapter of the Qur'an, which has only seven verses, you will know why this is dangerous nonsense. Here's Sura 1 (my translation):

'In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds. The Merciful, the Compassionate. King of the Day of Judgement. Thee do we worship, and to thee do we turn for help. Guide us upon the straight path. The path of those upon whom Thou hast shown blessings, not those who have incurred thy wrath, and not those who have gone astray.'

Where are the Jews? This is the first sura, so there is no reference to Jews before it. This is a generalized reference, like the one before it and the one after it. Anything else is speculation. The rest of his interpretation is even more bizarre: 'in this chapter, the Jews were sentenced to annihilation, before even a single Jew existed on the face of the earth. This Koranic chapter talked about the collapse of the so-called state of Israel, before this state was even established.

It's bad enough that the Qur'an does have many negative things to say about Jews, but it's beyond toleration to see Muslim clerics glossing every negative remark in the book as 'Jews'. I have a Qur'an right next to me. What's to stop me going through it verse by verse, and every time it refers to 'unbelievers' or 'enemies' or whatever, arguing 'this means the Jews, and it prophecies the fall of Israel'?

That is the level to which discourse has fallen for many Muslims. It makes any attempt to break out of the present impasse well nigh impossible.

But what I wanted to say is this. What if he's right and Israel does succumb? After all, the forces arrayed against her are greater now than they have ever seemed. If Hizbullah, Hamas, and Iran (for starters), aided and abetted by the UN, the Islamic world, and many Western countries achieve their ends, whether by force or by imposing a one state solution, where will that leave things? The Palestinians will, of course, tear themselves to pieces, Hizbullah will take over Lebanon, and Iran will try to conquer Iraq. The Middle East will be in greater turmoil than ever.

And how will that be resolved? With no more Israel to focus on, the Middle East will need someone to take her place. How long will it be before Surat al-Fatiha is re-interpreted? God's wrath will fall upon the Christians and those Jews who live outside Israel. And this will be a different struggle to the present one. If the Islamists can claim a victory over the Jews, their fervour will be picked up everywhere. It will be obvious that God is on their side. After all, didn't God prophesy the fall of Israel in Surat al-Fatiha? And in every other sura. And does he not now prophesy the fall of America or Britain or anywhere else?

None of this is preposterous. There is no rationality here. Islam has no room for reason or freedom or conscience. It could have, but today's clerics have set their faces hard against those things. Reason is profoundly dangerous to an Islam based on heartfelt acceptance of every word of the Qur'an and the Hadith, dangerous to the clergy who survive by presenting a hardline interpretation of the texts.

People ask why Israel has to defend herself by force. This is the reason, that the forces of moderation in the Islamic world are still too weak to serve as a defence for anyone against jihadist extremism, and jihadist extremism derives much of its inspiration from irrational readings of the Qur'an. The Salafis, Wahhabis, Mawdudists, and many others prefer a literal interpretation of scripture above any nuanced or modernizing commentary. In most countries, Britain included, there's a tendency to pretend that the real risk comes from 'violent extremists' (we're not allowed to call them Muslim extremists any more). But it doesn't. It comes from clerics who provide interpretations like the one we've just had, who extol martyrdom, who condemn terrorism while encouraging suicide bombing in 'Palestine', or who just create a hardline Islam that serves as a breeding ground for every kind of crazy hope and unbalanced fear.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Going to sea in little boats

The following is a letter I have just written to Angela Godfrey-Goldstein, a leading light in the Free Gaza Movement. I have made a few small corrections.

Angela Godfrey-Goldstein
Media Team
Free Gaza Movement

Dear Angela,

You don’t know me, and perhaps you never will. I’m just a British-Irish writer and academic with a lifetime’s interest in and knowledge of the Middle East. As your small flotilla of boats wends its way back to these islands, I thought I would share with you some of my thoughts on your endeavour. Perhaps you will ignore them, perhaps they will help.

Here in the UK, where I live, we have, as you will know, a proud tradition of sailing small ships into dangerous waters, in times of great danger. The Spanish Armada was brought low by smaller English ships and high winds. Off the northern Irish coast, divers still bring up shining treasure from sunken galleons. Dunkirk was a victory of small boats against the ruthless might of the Nazi state and its military strength. Over in Ireland, we remember the little corracles who plied the high Atlantic waters off the west coast and out of the small fishing islands of Inis Mór and Inis Beg. Many seafaring nations have memorialized their nautical past in prose and verse: the great Lusiades of the Portuguese poet and adventurer Luis de Camoes stands out, Moby Dick is one of the greatest works of North American fiction, Synge’s Riders to the Sea was one of the first realistic depictions of Irish life and death in tiny boats.

In the United States a few years ago, work was started on the rebuilding of the famous slave ship Amistad, and today the ship sails from continent to continent telling the tale of the slave trade and building a community for students and disadvantaged young men and women. Other great ships of historical significance are moored in harbours across the world, telling their stories, educating children and adults in the histories they carry. Others lie in greater numbers beneath the sea, ships sunk in battle or in storm or lost on voyages of discovery.

They are a source of pride, these ships. All those sunken merchant vessels downed by German U-boats while bringing precious cargo to a beleaguered island. Those wooden ships holed below the waterline in wars with France and Spain. Those rusting hulks that once brought my Irish ancestors out of famine to a new life in America. Those little boats that didn't make it on their errand of mercy out of Dunkirk.

There’s one ship, though, that stirs my imagination for the profound symbolism of its voyage and the shame it brings on Britain even after all these years, and that is the Exodus 1947. I’m sure you know the story of this little ship, well past its best days, that set sail from France carrying Jewish refugees, Holocaust survivors for whom Palestine had become a beacon of hope and a promise of resurrection. Boarded by the Royal Navy, the Exodus was towed to Haifa and the refugees sent by force back to Europe, where they were placed in internment camps, mostly in Germany, and enclosed behind barbed wire. That was a day of shame for Britain that the country will always bear.

I know you feel a deep love for the Palestinian people. There can be no harm in that, though I wonder that you seem blind to the deep veins of hatred, rejection of compromise, and genocidal longing that have for so many years perverted the Palestinian leadership and ruined the lives of so many Palestinians. About the time the Exodus left port in France, the Arabs of the Middle East were planning to wipe out any future Jewish state. They planned, not just to turn Holocaust survivors from their shores — a startling inhospitality when set beside the record of France or the UK, countries that have taken millions of refugees from all around the world — but to massacre those who did reach the country of their dreams. The Arabs spoke of massacre and acted in 1948 to commit just that.

If you have no sympathy for those Jews fleeing concentration and internment camps and bringing their skills and energies to a country badly in need of them, if you cannot feel your heart break when you contemplate what they suffered, yet what a great thing they achieved, I find it hard to believe that your compassion for the Palestinians is real. Compassion is a single, an indivisble thing. If you feel for the Palestinians, why do you not feel for the Jews, who have suffered more greatly since the 1930s than the Palestinians ever have? One love does not have to drive out the other. I certainly do not despise the Palestinians simply because I love the Israelis. What I do despise (and it horrifies me that you and other pro-Palestinian activists seem to be in harmony with it) is the vein of terror, the utter ruthlessness that runs through Palestinian history.

Your recent project to sail two boats to Gaza went badly wrong for one simple reason: you seriously misunderstood the Israelis. You created an image of them as demons, Nazis, ruthless fiends bent on harming the people of the West Bank and Gaza. You also invented notions of international law that anticipated conflict, and perhaps you and your colleagues even looked for a martyrdom of some kind. In the end, the Israelis reacted quite differently, because their history has shown them to be tough when necessary but capable of compromise and more when appropriate. To have blocked the entry of two ships carrying hearing aids and balloons would have been high-handed and pointless. You were allowed through. But somewhere a young Palestinian woman is strapping on a suicide belt; if she gets through the checkpoints, she will head for a restaurant or a hospital or a nursery school, and she will kill the innocent. That’s the sort of thing the Israelis try their hardest to block, and it is morally blameworthy to complain that they do it.

The Jews who set sail on the Exodus 1947 did so out of desperation, just as the first Jewish settlers headed for a backwater of the Ottoman empire, to desert and marshland, not because they were evil Zionists bent on conspiracy, but because they had fled pogroms and massacres in order to reach a promised land. It matters little how they understood that promise. Today, there are Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Punjabis, Jamaicans, Poles, and countless others who have found their promised land in the UK. This country does not threaten to massacre them or to kick them into the sea. We live together, not always comfortably, but in peace.

Hamas and other organizations in Gaza and the West Bank do not think that way. They would not have turned the Exodus back, they would have torpedoed her. Their founding documents — which I suggest you read, for I really can’t believe you have done — describe jihad as the only solution to their problem, and the expulsion or slaughter of the Jews as their proper fate.

Jews make good neighbours. You really should know that. I’m not a Jew, but a lifetime has taught me that that is true. Israel is a country that attracts tourists and investors. It is a good place to live and work. It is one of the most successful multicultural countries in the world. Minority religions like the Baha’is are given refuge there. Gay men and women from Arab countries go there for shelter. Ethiopians have made new lives there, and Russians, and, most recently Indians. It should be the Palestinian dream to live shoulder to shoulder with the democrats, the entrepreneurs, the inventors, the writers and artists and musicians on the other side of the fence. With Israeli help, a Palestinian state could grow in stature in a matter of years. There would be a peace dividend like no other. Instead, all some Palestinians seem to do is parade and scream and honour men and women whose only achievement was to murder children and survivors of the Holocaust. I don’t believe ordinary Palestinians are really like that at all. I was born in Belfast, and I grew up with bigotry as part of the scenery. Just as left for university, that bigotry exploded into violence and a deeply divided society. Today, that bigotry is receding. And that’s because both sides have learned lessons from the path and have built something new out of compromise. But Hamas and Fatah refuse to compromise. Each wants everything and gets nothing. Where is the sense in that?

Desperation is no excuse for hatred. Those Holocaust survivors had greater desperation than the Palestinians ever have done. They set out to kill no-one, but, as history so very clearly records, they were attacked by five armies and barely survived a second time. Today’s Palestinians do suffer, but they are not defending themselves against genocidal attack. There are no Israelis left in Gaza (though there are plenty of Arabs in Israel). But Hamas builds its arsenal, Islamic Jihad builds another, and every so often Israeli border guards detect and arrest another would-be suicide bomber.

You thought you were taking a risk sailing to Gaza, only to find nobody in Israel was much interested in your stunt. To the extent that you may have believed you would be arrested and imprisoned or worse, I commend your courage. But there are better forms of courage, less negative ones. If only you and your colleagues could sustain the courage to speak to men and women of merit in Gaza, community leaders, even perhaps leaders of Hamas, explain to them how dedicated you are to the Palestinian people and its emergence from the long tunnel it has been in for 60 years and more, and tell them that compromise will bring benefits, that even if they don’t take Israel back (and destroy it with inter-factional fighting) they can have what they were promised all those years ago, and that compromise will result in peace, and that peace will lead to prosperity, and that prosperity will give their children what they never had: a future.

And if you get turned down on all sides, or threatened or beaten — and I hope none of those things will happen to you — will you please admit that the Palestinians, or their leadership at least, are bringing their humiliation and poverty on their own heads? Will you make this your new mission? To show solidarity, not with the men of violence who rule Gaza today, but with moderate Palestinians, men and women of good heart, and to show that solidarity means compassion for the people you hope to free, and that freedom for the people of Gaza will come when there is a will towards peace? For if you and other pro-Palestinian organizations persist in support for the status quo, in which violence dictates a life without a future, then lovers of peace like myself will understand you better. And however many boats you sail, however many hearing aids you carry, however many brightly-coloured balloons you distribute, you will never convince the world that you mean anything but the destruction of Israel and the ruination of the Palestinian people.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Denis MacEoin

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Holocaust and its impersonators

I've just finished proof-reading my forthcoming academic book, The Messiah of Shiraz. Weighing in at just under 800 pages (with the index to come) it's going to be sold in hardware shops as a doorstop. Deathless prose it may be, but it's filled with transliterations from Arabic and Persian (dashes over 'a's, 'i's and 'u's, dots under a whole range of consonants), so going through it checking for errors has left me squinting and drawing sharp breaths.

But out of all that verbiage, one thing and one thing only has stuck in my mind. This is a short passage that includes two quotations relating to events that took place after the 1852 assassination attempt on the life of Nasir al-Din Shah, the Iranian monarch who reigned till 1896. George Curzon called him philo-uxorious, meaning that he had a lot of wives. After a trip to Paris, he made his harem dress in tutus and, given that most of these ladies were, shall we say, large of stature, the results were, let's just say, spectacular. But that's not why someone tried to kill him. First suspicions fell on a militant sect, the Babis, who form the main topic of my book. Some Babis were killed, others imprisoned, but a combination of reports by European travellers and diplomats gave rise to the myth that there had been a serious massacre. Later histories by members of the Baha'i religion (who have their roots in Babism) perpetuate this myth. Here's the passage that stood out for me:

According to a later writer, the 1851 killings were ‘a blood-bath of unprecedented severity,’ ‘a holocaust reminiscent of the direst tribulations undergone by the persecuted followers of any previous religion,’and ‘the darkest, bloodiest and most tragic episode of the Heroic Age of the Bahāʾī Dispensation.

This is strong stuff. One wonders why, if it was the equal of the worst things suffered by the followers of any religion, a holocaust no less, an unprecedented severity, we didn't all read about it in our school history books. Actually, the tally of Babi dead was 37. Believe me, I have conducted extensive researches on all cases of Babis killed between 1844 and 1852, and 37 is correct.

Well, this is just exaggeration by a writer who was no stranger to the genre, but in recent years he has found himself in good (or not so good) company. Since the 1980s, the 'Palestinian Holocaust' has become a badge for left-liberals everywhere, a rallying cry for the Islamic world, an internet 'reality' that could have stepped out of Second Life, a cause for much wringing of hands, a matter for public lamentation, a summons for vindication, a justification for 'retaliatory' violence, an explanation for Palestinian intransigence and failure, a texture woven through the cloth of Arab policies, an incantation ringing out in Islamic sermons, on the voices of little children, in the streets and suqs, a banner waving beside the Palestinian flag.

Enough with the purple prose. The Palestinian Holocaust never happened. We are living in the real world. We are, if you like, living in history, and history has no record of a Palestinian Holocaust.

But let me take this beyond mere assertion. The term 'Holocaust' as applied to the Palestinians is derived directly from the same word in English, corresponding to the Hebrew Shoah. Writing in Arabic or Farsi, the word is hulukast (with three of those long-vowel dashes on the vowels, neatly avoiding any Arabic, Persian, or other term that might have been more appropriate.

So, the Palestinian 'Holocaust' is modelled on something that happened in Europe, the slaughter of some 6 million Jews by the Nazis before and during the Second World War. Of the reality of the Jewish Holocaust, there can be no doubt. It is recorded lavishly in the memories of survivors, on film, in photographs, and, above all, in mile after mile of German, Russian, Hungarian, Polish, and other archives, archives whose multitudinous files contain vastly more evidence of murder and bestiality than the police records of any country on earth. No other crime or set of crimes have been so meticulously recorded.

In face of this overwhelming evidence, many Muslims -- notably the Iranians -- have joined forces with a much smaller number of right-wing extremists (and not a few on the far left) who flatly deny that the Holocaust ever took place, who insist there were no gas chambers and who would have it that not a single Jew died as a result of Nazi brutality. Or who argue that the Nazis looked after the Jews well, and that it was disease, not lethal gases, that killed them. Better still, never content with one explanation when three or four will do, they argue that the Holocaust was a dastardly Zionist plot, a conspiracy between Nazis and Zionists to imprint the deaths of Jews on the world's conscience in order to guarantee the creation of Israel once the war was over.

This denial -- egregious, sickening and degenerate as it is -- matches claims that there was, that there is, a Palestinian Holocaust. No Jews died, but, hey, look at the slaughter of the Palestinians by the Jews. It also matches the transparent nonsense that Israel is a Nazi state and, what's more, a Nazi state built on that non-existent Holocaust.

It does not need saying that no serious person would fall for any of this, except that so many have. The Palestinian Holocaust, a vast massacre for which not a shred of evidence exists, is passing fare at polite middle-class dinner tables, it is fodder for intellectuals of a certain ilk, it passes for historical fact among well-educated people who find it easier to sneer than read a book of properly-researched history.

Why has this happened? Why has history been stood on its head, and, with it, terminology? If I call Israel a Nazi state, am I not obliged to demonstrate this by reference to Israeli doctrines, policies, and actions that parallel those of the German National Socialist Party? If I pontificate about a Palestinian Holocaust, am I not bound to cite places, dates, and numbers? And since there are no such facts to bandy about, just as there are no Israeli apartheid laws, what do I have to do? All it seems to take is repetition. Say it often enough and people take it in and give it shelter, a lie big enough to choke them.

Some of these moral degenerates, like Ilan Pappé, say they aren't interested in facts, that it's the progressive argument or something, whatever it's called, that counts. But as every criminal knows when he's dragged to court, the facts will grind you down. However much you fudge and cover, slip and slide, a good barrister will wear you out, because there will be demonstrable facts to expose your lies.

Beneath the surface (though not far beneath) is an abiding anti-Semitism, a moral failing that drives its exponents to lies. Far-right groups like Stormfront have no compunctions about being anti-Semitic. They aren't ashamed of it, in fact they're proud to be Hitler's successors. But what about the European and American left? Not all the left, not all the liberals, but a large body who are not really liberal at all. After the Holocaust, it became a shameful thing to speak ill of Jews and, for some time, to condemn Israel. But there gradually came into existence a new kind of left-winger, someone for whom everything Western was anathema. So, America is the devil, the UK is the devil, Israel is the devil, imperialism, colonialism, and all the rest are part of Satan's attack on the poor and wretched of the earth. One problem, of course, for this approach is that you have to turn a blind eye to Islamic imperialism (especially the late, great Ottoman empire), or Arab and Turkish slavery, and all those other things the non-Western world has been responsible for. That means re-writing history, and that's the direction chosen by leftist intellectuals. Israel has been of particularly value for this, allowing liberals to cry 'I'm not anti-Semitic, I'm anti-Israel'.

The antidote to these arguments may be found in a remarkable book by Bernard Harrison, The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism. Harrison's an academic philosopher, and his analysis of this problem about anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism is outstanding. Slowly, painstakingly, he subjects articles, individuals, and arguments to a critique to which they have never been subjected before. His discussion of Tom Paulin alone makes the book worth buying.

Rather than digressing into his complex arguments, I'll leave this post here and possibly return to it another day.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

What to do about Iran?

It’s not just that he Iranians were faking photos. American experts have now concluded that they may well have fired only one rocket (and multiplied the shot) and that it may have been a Shahab II, about ten years out of date and capable of reaching only about 750 miles. Iranian society is still one in which exaggeration, bluff, and subterfuge go a long way. It’s hard to speak in standard Farsi without using all manner of honorifics and polite phrases (chashm-e shoma, may I be your eye; qurban-e shoma, may I be your sacrifice, Jenab-e ali, your excellency etc.). Ahmadinezhad is a master of cirumlocution. I don’t doubt his intentions when he says they will wipe Israel off the face of the map (echoing, as that does, Ayatollah Khomeini); but I’m very unsure of the immediacy of that, particularly if they don’t really have the capacity even to try.

All the same, I am really sceptical about either the US or Israel starting a war. Iran is too big, too varied in terrain (mountains, desert, poor road and rail infrastructure, unstable borders) to make it a safe place for a ground war. The country has a large population of over 70,000,000, much of it concentrated in and around Tehran, and a standing army, navy, and air force of 420,000, with pasdaran contingents of around 125,000. However, the voluntary militias of the Basij have a claimed membership of over 12 million, with some 3 million combat ready. In addition, they can call on the Lebanese Hizbullah, Iraqi Shi’i forces including the Jaysh al-Mahdi, and volunteers from the jihadi world, including many with combat experience from Chechnya, Bosnia, and Afghanistan.

If I were a commander, I would not want to take troops into that situation, especially since Iraq and Afghanistan are still undecided. The result would be disaster with not even a WMD to show for it.

An air war would be easier to fight, especially since the Iranian Air Force has never recovered in materiel or personnel from the purge that took place in 1979. They would not offer any real resistance to combined US and Israeli forces. But bombing nuclear installations would leave the Iranian armed forces intact (but for the IRIAF), and the consequences could be just as bad if they retaliated in Iraq or cut through northern Iraq (the Kurdish part) and across Syria to attack Israel.

At the same time, stopping them with diplomacy won’t work either. If the world community can’t get its act together to remove Robert Mugabe from his stolen presidency, how much harder it will be to act against a country that has some of the world’s largest oil resources, at a time when shortages of oil are having severe domestic effects in the West.

Some very good compromises have been offered, to allow Iran to build nuclear facilities to be used for internal energy applications, but they have all been turned down. Their talk about centrifuges may just be more bluff (some say they may only have 900, not the 3000 they claim. I still believe they intend to have a nuclear bomb of some kind and that, if they thought they could get away with it, they would nuke Israel (probably just Tel Aviv and maybe Haifa, but not Jerusalem, which would lose them Muslim support) and use Hizbullah to finish off what remained with rockets or even a ground assault.

None of us has a crystal ball, which means any decision about what to do to prevent this eventuality has to be based on very careful thinking about outcomes. But that is the situation as I now see it. Can anyone see a way to move forward?

Friday, June 06, 2008

When academics stray

Every year an assembly of British academics gathers to pass a motion condemning Israel and attempting to introduce a boycott against academics, universities, and colleges in Israel. It never goes off the agenda, not even after last year's fiasco when the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) passed a boycott motion only to be told by their national executive that it would be illegal to implement it. Nothing daunted, they have come back this year with another variation on a tired but increasingly racist theme. Things have been worse ever since the more moderate Association of University Teachers (to which I used to belong) merged with the more left-wing and radical National Association of Teachers in Higher and Further Education, producing the UCU.

This singular evil, this smug, politically-correct hatred of one tiny country has, for reasons I do not fully comprehend, become more serious in the UK than anywhere else in Europe, North America, or Australia/New Zealand. Since the 1960s, when I first attended university, a sea-change has overcome academia across a range of subjects, but mainly English literature, sociology, philosophy, politics, history, geography, anthropolgy: indeed, most areas within the humanities. Several things happened. Many subject areas became politicized as Marxists and feminists (and radical feminists) slowly took over departments. Later, with the decline in support for Marxism, two new sources of radical thought were introduced, post-colonialism and post-structuralism. What characterized these disciplines and philosphical stances — feminism, western Marxism, phenomenology, nihilism, post-structuralism — was criticism of and even hatred for dominant Western philosophy and culture. Alongside this came political correctness, which sided with the view that the ideas of the Enlightenment were contemptible, that Westerners were all racists and colonizers, and that 'victimhood' conferred a status that elevated people above those who were more successful. Edward Said's 1978 book 'Orientalism' started the ball rolling for post-colonial studies. We were all crazy about it at one time. When it appeared, I had just been trained as an orientalist, and like others in my field I read it avidly. We didn't see the flaws in his arguments back then. Like Marx and others, he had sensible things to say. But like Marx and others, he turned his general observations into a form of ideology (which later grew into post-colonialism). Said's ideas were first aimed at the orientalist enterprise of observing and recording the Islamic east, but now they are applied to quite different situations, such as the Spanish/Portuguese conquests of South America or colonial congtrol of Africa.

Significantly, Said, though himself not much of an expert on the Middle East, concentrated on Western portrayals of the Islamic world. He showed how writers distorted the realities of people in Muslim countries, either romanticizing them (mainly in the 18th and 19th centuries) or defining them as irrational, obsessed with sex, or fanatical (particularly in the Middle Ages). He argued that Orientalist painters idealized their subjects, making Eastern scenes colourful and infused with unWestern passions. And that novelists and poets (like Moore) drew on sources like the often-translated Arabian Nights to create fantasies that passed for realism. Well, some of this was true, so we all started looking more critically at our writing, which was, on the whole, a good thing. However, Said's emphasis on the Islamic world or, to be more accurate, the Middle East elevated the region to the status of primary victim of Western imperialism. This was further emphasized in Said's other writings about the Palestinians and his proclamation of himself to be victim number one. Even if 'Our house in Jerusalem' had actually belonged to an uncle, while Said was brought up in Cairo (where his father owned a prestigious business) and educated at an English-speaking school (and went on to use the conqueror's language to forge a successful career for himself within the Western university system), Said manoeuvred his own character as a Palestinian to front stage. And with himself, the Palestinians as the doyens of refugee-hood, passive under the cruel yoke of Israel subjugation, innocent vicitims of the imperialist carve-up of the Ottoman empire. No word of criticism of Ottoman colonialism: the bad boys were the British and French, because they had an agenda, and that agenda was to bring the Crusades back and to take control of the Middle East for ever. Israel was their secret weapon, the ultimate colonializing power.

I think it was through Said and the later success of post-colonial studies, alongside the theories of Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, and other post-structuralists, that gifted the wow factor to modern academic thinking about Israel and the Palestinians. Academics are often sad creatures, not readily sociable, many of them personifiations of nerdiness. English literature was once a domain for the study of obsure and uninteresting texts from the Battle of Maldon to the Book of Marjory Kempe to unreadable modern novels of angst, self-loathing, and social deprivation. Suddenly, in the 1970s, there came from several directions ample opportunity to be interesting and controversial. You could claim that a play by Shakespeare was no different in substance from the telephone diretory; you could apply radical feminist theory to literature and get rid of the canon of DWDs or Dead White Males (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Dryden, Yeats, Blake, Keats, Wordsworth, Dickens, Hardy, Joyce, Lawrence... it went on and on). And with a little extra effort you could get rid of Jane Austen because she didn't make a grovelling apology for slavery in Mansfield Park or write female characters who spurned the attentions of male oppressors right to the end. In fact, you were obliged to look out for every obscure African, Indian, Pakistani, Chinese or Algerian author in order to show your credentials as a right-on postcolonialist. Then, studying texts could be equated with studying film, and film studies got taken on board as another discipline within which to oil all the same prejudices.

There was something else as well. Ideology became more important than the factual basis of the topic under scrutiny. On coould scarcely find a more perfect example of this distortion than in the work of the anti-Zionist Israeli writer (I won't call him an historian) Ilan Pappé. As Janet Levy and DR. Roberta Seid put it: 'Pappe's scholarship is questionable and subject to much criticism by respected historians. He dismisses the legitimacy of historical facts and rewrites history to support his ideologically determined agenda. He has admitted to the predominance of the Marxist worldview in defining conclusions and outcomes, by asserting that "we do [historiography] because of ideological reasons, not because we are truth seekers.' '(Ilan Pappe, Advocate of Israel's Destruction', Front Page Magazine, 24 November 2004). Likewise, Seth J. Frantzman calls Pappé's work "a cynical exercise in manipulating evidence to fit an implausible thesis."

I have come across this sort of thing often enough in the past, not so much with Marxist or post-structuralist writers, but with writers belonging to different religious groups, notably Islam. It is impossible to find a Muslim narrative about the Prophet or Islamic history or religious leaders that does not twist historical fact to fit a 'higher' narrative. Given that much writing about Israel and much condemnation of the Jewish people today comes from Muslims, and given the growing centrality within departments of Middle East Studies of committed Muslims, it is easy to see how new narratives have been written, narratives that blind that very large portion of academia which knows next to nothing about Islam, Judaism, or Middle East history, including the history of Israel.

There's another thing that stands out in much modern academic discourse, infected as it is by the content and style of the French theorists, and that is the obscurantist quality of writing in the humanities. Often, writing is simply impenetrable. And, as Nick Cohen so cogently puts it: 'Writers write badly when they have something to hide'. If you had sat, as I have sat for three years, in a room with a string of undergraduates, postgraduates, and academic staff, you would know that the hardest thing to get across is that you don't have to over-elaborate your writing to get your ideas across, that simple English using short sentences and plain words is much more effective. It's easy to write jargon and its easy to imitate the meaningless bletherings of a Foucault or a Derrida, and it's easy to fool people into thinking what you say makes sense. It's much harder to understand what you want to say and to explain it to someone who knows nothing about the subject. Clarity of thought precedes clarity of diction, muddled thought expresses itself in vague and pretentious language couched in long words and neologisms. Read Derrida and then read someone like Karl Popper. Many regard Popper as the greatest philosopher of the last century, and I would agree. But he was also a great prosae stylist who could explain difficult propositions without getting himself or his readers in knots.

I think these things all join up. A lack of respect for facts, a lack of respect for language, and a lack of respect for simple morality. When academics find it hard to condemn terrorism as terrorism, praise hatred and call it legitimate political expression, and single out for vituperation the only democracy in the Middle East, it's a sure sign they aren't thinking straight. Surely this is the irony of these boycotts, that they should be spearheaded by academics of all people. Academics are supposed to have been taught how to use their minds. A great many do. But a host of left-wing post-structuralists and post-colonialists, who have been taught how not to think by thinkers whoi love obscurity, have forged ahead to be the standard-bearers of a new ignorance. The hatefulness of radical Islam doesn't faze them in the least. Just as Ken Livingstone was able to give the finger to his gay, feminist, and Jewish allies when he decided to embrace the notorious anti-Zionist, anti-gay, and anti-feminist Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, so these hardcore illiberals abandon all pretence to morality and progress. They admire a group like Hamas that would eat them alive if it got the chance. They defend Iran, a country that bans some religious minorities from its universities and calls it freedom. They condemn Israeli actions without once citing the context within which those actions take place. But what do facts matter? They make their minds up, despise open debate, and clamour to break the law against discrimination.

The oddest thing of all is why this is such a British thing. After all, there's plenty of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism on US campuses (see the excellent study Uncivil Society), yet US academic organizations, including the heavily Saidean Middle East Studies Association, have condemned British excesses. The French actually produce the sort of philosopher I've been talking about, and they have a very active left wing, but they haven't called for a boycott. Nor has anyone else in Europe, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. Now, I really can't explain this. If anyone who reads this can, I'd be grateful for their views.

Friday, May 30, 2008

A photograph

I have a photograph in my gallery that makes me feel wretched every time I loook at it. It is a poor quality photograph in black and white, taken in the early 1940s. The image is fuzzy, but stark. It shows three figures, etched against a vague background. Three human figures: a woman, whose body is bent at her hips and knees; a small child in her arms, cradled protectively; and, behind them, an SS soldier with a rifle pointed at this helpless pair, ready to fire. The woman and child, if I am right, were Jewish. Well, that doesn't take much guesswork. We don't know for sure what happended in the seconds or minutes after this photograph was taken. But we can all too painfully hear the crack of the rifle, and perhaps a second shot as the soldier despatches the little boy or little girl. It is a photograph to haunt us. It speaks directly to us, because we know only too well the context.

A photograph like this raises a lot of questions. Seeing it, every decent-minded person wishes someone had been there to save the woman and child. In all likelihood, we are witnessing part of a mass killing by an einsatzgruppe, a detachment responsible for killing Jews in the days before mass killings in the camps were developed. There will have been other soldiers present, including officers, and they will have been acting on orders from higher command. No mercy will have been shown to any of the victims. Now, here's the hard bit. Those who disapprove of the use of violence (and they aren't wrong in abhorring the taking of life) would ask permission to negotiate this killing with the soldier or his superior officer. Now, it is far from impossible that is someone — a priest, say — were to speak with the soldier and set out the revulsion with which most men would regard his intended action, the soldier might have a change of conscience and set down his rifle. In doing so, however, he would know that he has added his own life to those already threatened or snuffed out. He might die on the field, or be arrested and sent to headquarters to be hanged. Few men have the courage to adopt such a position. And, admirable as such a sacrifice might be, it would be ineffective. The officer would order another soldier to carry out the deed, or would carry it out himself. Under such circumstances, lives cannot be saved.

Which takes us to the other possibility, that had the einsatzgruppe been surrounded by Allied troops or partisans, they would have been forced to surrender or would have been shot. Shooting men engaged in the taking of innocent life does n ot awaken sentiments of outrage except in the minds of those who are already morally corrupt.

After the war, many Jewish rabbis and intellectuals engaged in a debate focussing on the Hebrew phrase hester panim, which I understand to mean 'the covering of the face of G-d'. The Holocaust presented the world's surviving Jews with a theological dilemma of masssive proportions. How could a loving Creator have allowed his chosen people to go to the gas chambers, yet (apparently) protected Hitler from several suicide attempts? Had God broken with the Jews, severed his covenant with them, abandoned them? I can't answer any of those questions, but I am very aware that the general response among Jews was to re-assert the connection. Two thousand years of persecution had innured them to a sense of abandonment while giving them the strength to find meaning in the indifference or cruelty of the world through which they journeyed.

But something had changed. That something is best expressed in the words of American rabbi and novelist, Chaim Potok, in his history of the Jewish people, Wanderings. Writing of the post-Holocaust era, he writes: 'There are no more gentle Jews'. Now, there are plenty (especially on the left) who take that badly. They don't much like Jews getting uppity, and when they see Jews fighting back against military attack or terrorist assault they take the moral high ground and declare it to be something unnatural. Jews, they seem to think, are G-d's and the world's victims. Whichever, they are born to be victims. To walk to the auto-da-fe reciting the Psalms or to the gas chamber with the Shema on their lips personifies, for many, the Jew of their choice.

That takes us back to the woman and child. This, when we add it together, is Potok's referrant. The gentle Jews did not, could not save those innocents. A troop of Sayaret Matkal fighters might well have done so. And given the SS a bloody nose into the bargain. The truth is that the Allied troops didn't turn up until it was too late for most of those who had gone through the camps. As we all know, the Allies placed the Jews very low on their list of priorities. Anyone who has read Tom Bowers's A Blind Eye to Murder or The Allies and Auschwitz will have seen in detail how stopping the killing in the camps carried no weight in the eyes of those responsible for prosecuting the war. Now, some of that failure may be set at the gate of anti-Semitism among politicians and civil servants, and some of it may have been due to a sincere belief that the defeat of the Third Reich was the priority, whatever the cost. That's not what concerns me here. Whatever the motives and whatever the correctness of saving all firepower for the Russian or Italian front, the fact is that the Jews could see that it wasn't just G-d who had hidden his face, it was much of humanity. And subsequent British antagonism to Holocaust survivors entering Palestine and the decision to keep survivors in camps on Cyprus brought many up with a jolt. How could those who had fought so hard to bring down the most evil empire in history, knowing now that 6 million Jews had died in death camps, now turn aside from those whom they and their allies had saved, turn their boats back from the shores of the Holy Land, let them drown only a short distance from the one place they had longed to make their homes in?

And then God took the veil away from his face and the state of Israel came into being. I'm not a believer, but I write that with full awareness of how the creation of a Jewish state was seen by a majority of the Jewish people. It was — and perhaps this is pushing things a little — almost a divine reward for the suffering the Jews had just passed through. And one of the many things Israel allowed was the creation of an army, an air force, and a navy. Time and again, when Israel's enemies have attacked her, threatening genocide, they have had their noses bloodied. Many have died, but there has never been a second Holocaust, however much the Arab and Muslim worlds may long for one. A strong Israel is the answer to the horror of that photograph. Today the world whines about the actions Israel takes to defend herself and her people. That same world would have stood next to our woman and child and told her to take it and not complain.

Today, rockets land in Sderot and Ashkelon. Hizbullah and Hamas amass armaments that would pose a threat to any country on earth. Their leaders echo the Nazi-speak of 1930s Germany. Back then, Jews felt powerless, and sat and waited for an indication that the worst was over, that Germans would come to their senses, that the rhetoric would come to nothing, that Der Sturmer was a sick joke at best. Who can blame them? But today, who can blame the Israelis for thinking their lives and their nation are at serious? Who can deny that, once again, the nations will look on, will pass by on the other side of the road, will deny they are anti-Semitic while they shake hands with Hamas and Hizbullah and the rulers of Iran? Today, Israel is a women, bent at the knees and hips, a child in her arms, waiting for the bullet that will pound through her head. But today, she will put the child on his feet and turn to face the SS soldier, and she will hold an Uzi sub-machine gun in her hand. Is it grotesque for that to happen? So many left-wingers, Jews and non-Jews together, say that it is, that Israel has less right to exist than our woman in the photograph. If rockets were landing in their back gardens, they mightg well ring for the police and ask for some sort of action by the military. They would not be supine in the face of an existential threat. But they will not go out there, sniper's rifle in hand, to shoot the SS guards who threaten innocent women and children. That will be their eternal shame.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Myths and Historical Fact

The following was sent recently to the Irish Times in response to a long letter that had appeared there. I don't know if the Times ever published my reply, but it's long enough to fit this blog, so here it is.

Despite Tomas McBride (Letters, 22 May), supporters of
Israel do not need to resort to myth in order to
justify the existence of a modern Jewish state. Let's
leave the Torah to one side for a moment. Israel came
into being, not from a mythical 'Jewish invasion' of
British mandate Palestine, but as the result of a long
political process that started in the late 19th
century as the Ottoman empire drew to its end. After
the second world war and a long debate, the United
Nations voted by a majority for the creation of a
small Jewish state alongside other mandate or
ex-mandate states. In other words, Israel was carved
out of the old empire much as modern Iraq, Lebanon,
Syria, or Jordan. This happened in part because
post-war re-apportionment of land in general is
commonplace, but for the greater part because the UN
was a new way to administer international law and the
necessary adjustments between nations. The nearest
parallel was the resettlement of 2 million people
following the partition of India to create Pakistan
(and, later, Bangladesh) — oddly enough, no Muslim
voices are raised to complain about this.

Unfortunately, nations in the modern form, modelled on
the concept of the Westphalian state, had never
existed in Islam (though various forms of Arab
nationalism, like Jewish nationalism, were being
advocated in this period). This is why the Arab states
who invaded Israel with the expressed intention of
driving all Jews into the Mediterranean simply refused
to behave like UN member states at all. That Jews had
taken control of even a tiny sliver of Islamic
territory was anathema, giving rise to what was in
essence a religious animus calling for genocide. By
that time too, Palestinian politics had been
irredeemably tainted by association with the Third
Reich. The Reich's leading Arab collaborator, Hajj
Amin al-Husayni, the Palestinian leader, had fled
after the Nazi defeat and was feted in Cairo as a hero
of the Arab people.

To dismiss Jewish longing to return to Israel as
merely a myth-centred nonsense displays an absolute
insensitivity to aspirations, whether religious or
national. All peoples, religions, and nations have
founding myths. The Jews have one of the strongest.
Their belief in a land that was given them by God may
or may not be historically true, but it is a vivid,
enduring, and necessary expression of the significance
Jews have placed in Israel for thousands of years.
Jerusalem is sacred to Jews much as Mecca and Medina
are to Muslims. It is certainly much better attested
than the historically invalid attempt of modern
Palestinians (a hybrid group) to assert Palestinian
occupation of that land for a similar length of time;
or to claim a link between modern Palestinians and the
ancient Philistines; or, most glaringly, that the Jews
have never had a historical connection to the land.
Pull the other one.

For two thousand years, Jews have expressed a daily
hope of return to the Holy Land. That sense of
belonging, that connection to history, are something
greater than myth, though often inspired by it. We do
not mock other religions for holding non-rational
beliefs, we do not try to make political capital out
of national struggles based on a longing for a return
to a Golden Age. The statue of Cuchulainn outside the
General Post Office is there for a reason. Or consider
the opening words of the Proclamation of Independence:
'IRISHMEN AND IRISHWOMEN: In the name of God and of
the dead generations from which she receives her old
tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons
her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.'
Or all those murals of King Billy crossing the Boyne.

Jews trace their origins back as far as that and
further. That is why they chose and were given a
homeland where every town, every hill, every river,
every archaeological excavation, and every stone in
the Western Wall resonates. And given the momentous
horror of the Holocaust and how close mankind came to
witnessing an extermination of the Jewish people, that
resonance could not have been greater. Persecuted
though we may have been by the British occupation, we
were never in danger of being wiped out. Since 1948,
the Palestinian Arabs have increased from 1,700,000 to
2.5 million (with claims of over 3 million). That is
the truth of the 'Palestinian Holocaust', another myth
that is swallowed too readily. If I am to believe in
the right of the Irish people to a homeland where
Cuchulainn may or may not have walked, how can I deny
the Jews their unarguable right to seek refuge for the
first time in two millennia in a land they have prayed
for every day of their lives? By contrast, Jerusalem
has little resonance in Islam: soon after migrating to
Medina, the prophet Muhammad, who had prayed towards
Jerusalem in imitation of the Jews, turned his back on
the city and chose instead to pray towards Mecca, as
all Muslims do today. Jews recite the words of the
Psalm: 'If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right
hand wither, let my tongue cleave to my palate if I do
not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my
highest joy'. The Qur'an doesn't even mention

The Arabs cannot have it both ways. They cannot belong
to the United Nations and work to undermine its very
principles. Their states are dictatorships and absolute
monarchies, they deny their citizens basic human
rights, they reduce women to an inferior status, they
deny religious minorities the freedoms called for in
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet they
denounce Israel, the only country in the Middle East
that implements those rights in a democratic state.
What are we looking for, in the end? Stability,
democracy, the rule of law, rights for everyone
regardless of colour, sex, or creed? Or genocide by
Hamas and Hizbullah, followed by theocratic rule that
will bring executions, stonings, and the minimum of
rights for any remaining religious minorities? Israel
has achieved great things. It has some way to go, but
every time we attack it or snipe at it or give
terrorists succour, we undermine the very things we
claim to stand for.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The stand-bys

We Westerners have become the stand-bys, the people who protest about everything and never actually do anything useful. In Burma, where over a million may die in an epidemic, the government refuses to let aid agencies and aid into the country. Cue photographs of Western diplomats smiling and shaking hands with members of the ruling junta. There is much wringing of hands, but nobody actually does anything. A great crime is being committed, but its perpetrators know all too well that no international policeman will arrive to arrest and imprison them. In Lebanon, Hizbullah threaten to take control from the legitimate government. UN troops, sent there to prevent Hizbullah re-arming, whistle through their teeth as they watch the rockets being shipped in. Hizbullah captures a southern village that gives them a vantage point over northern Israel and thus betokens another war; and the United Nations does sod all. I have just watched a gruelling video of four men being stoned to death in Iran. I had to switch it off. No-one stepped in to prevent this vile act, an act that debases a great nation and all humanity. James Bond did not arrive by plane or supercharged sports car, no-one took a pistol and shot the mullah in charge of the event, I don't think a question was asked in the House of Commons or in Congress, and I don't recall the Iranian ambassador ever being hauled in to explain these or any other deaths.

What are we scared of? World opinion? We are the world, or at least the richest and strongest part of it. What do we care about some two-bit tinpot dictatorship in Africa or the Arab world? Why should they outvote the democracies in the General Assembly or the UN Commission for Human Rights? Robert Mugabe destroys an entire country, its economy, and the lives of its people. We shake our heads because it would be improper to assassinate him or even go in and arrest him. If we apply that logic to Britain or any other country, the police would stand back from arresting drug dealers and criminal masterminds. Israel is the only country that says, if someone is a mass murderer and threatens to kill more innocent people, it is ethical to go in and take him out. If Saddam Husayn has built a nuclear reactor, it is for everyone's benefit to blow it to pieces. If terrorists have taken a plane-load of your people and threaten to kill them, you send hard men in after the terrorists, you kill them, and you rescue the hostages.

It is a mockery of the international system that Israel, a member state of the UN, has fought wars and terrorist attacks for 60 years, yet not one other member state has come to its aid. Nato was founded on the basis that an attack on any member country was to be considered an attack on everyone, and that retaliation would follow from all member states. That is still true. Similar alliances exist elsewhere. Of course, the UN is not a military alliance; but it still makes no sense to me that there can be no role for the UN when Israel is attacked by wholly illegal entities like Hamas or Hizbullah. It's not even a case of asking the UN to send in fighting troops to go into battle alongside Israelis, simply wondering why the UN chooses not to enforce international law when it is so blatantly broken by a group like Hizbullah that was founded and is backed by a regime who record in human rights or in international relations is consistently black. What do you have to do to get the UN, to which you pay your membership dues, to do what it was set up to do?

It matters hugely to the West that Hizbullah does not set the Middle East alight, that Iran and Syria do not take joint control of Lebanon, that they do not use their alliance with Hamas to engage in another war with Israel, and that Syria does not try to drag Jordan into it. But surely this is the point. It is precisely because the West (like the UN) stood aside during the last war in Lebanon, and put heavy pressure on Israel to end the war prematurely, that Hizbullah was able to come out of the conflict ready to re-arm and re-group. thereby creating the present situation. To be honest, if the West (or the UN) had acted years ago, Hizbullah could have been flattened before they got the missiles they now use. The same with Hamas.

Everyone is afraid — and rightly afraid — of starting a war with Iran. Attacking Hizbullah could lead to that. Taking out Iran's nucleaer installations could lead to it. Iran is a big country with difficult terrain and a large population. A war would be foolish and Western troops would get even more bogged down than they are now in Iraq or Afghanistan. US blunders in Iraq have made life easier for Ahmadinezhad and his generals. I cannot suggest the right course of action. Perhaps no-one in the West really cares: if Israel is all that's at stake, no doubt a lot of people can live with that. We don't reward heroism any longer, not if it ruffles feathers in high places. We are politically correct, which means we hate Israel and love the terrorists masquerading as freedom fighters who want to destroy her body and soul. They want to destroy Israel's spirit, and they know no-one out there has a spirit like it, and that no-one dare trespass the laws of 'do not speak', 'do not call on others to speak', 'do not act', and 'do not urge others to take action'. Let us prove them wrong.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Reflections on the Nazi State

I’m afraid. Let me try to explain why. I was born four years after the end of the Second World War. Throughout my childhood and early youth, I was taught about why that war had been fought, why it had been essential to defeat Nazi Germany, and why we must never let something like that happen again. Above all, it was instilled in me that we must never allow a second Holocaust to happen. It had been the greatest crime in human history, and the Nazis had been the greatest criminals of all time.
The worst thing about the Third Reich was that it came to power in a modern nation, a nation that prided itself on its culture, its science, its legal system, its religious and social values. This was the horror, that something primitive, bestial, and anti-human came out of what both Germans and their neighbours considered a civilized and progressive people. Even today, when we read or watch newsreels about the Reich, the Nazi Party, the SS, the vast apparatus of that singular evil, we are confronted by a cold-hearted wickedness that has no parallel in modern history. It remains the supreme evil of modern times, despite the emergence of many tyrannies and tyrants since its time.
When we think of German fascism, we think of the ruthlessness of the blitzkrieg, the extermination of villages, the destruction of Warsaw, the mass killings of Jews by einzatsgruppen, the torture and murder refined by the Gestapo, the utter abuse of innocence by a conscious option for evil, and, above all, the death camps. To my generation, the swastika and the totenkopf, the chic black uniforms, the rallies, the goose-stepping formations, the diving stukas, the barbed wire, the piano-wire hangings, the gas chambers, the watchtowers, the jackboots, the Hitlergrüss salutes, the lightning-flash SS badges, the black coats of the secret police, the U-boat packs, and the overweening arrogance all spoke of one thing: an evil so removed from good that it should never be repeated, however long the human race endures.
I began by saying I am afraid. Afraid of what? Of the truth that, just over sixty years after the end of that long and costly war, after the Nuremberg trials that laid bare Germany’s infamy, after the sorrow and grief that consumed Europe and Russia, I hear our understanding of that evil abused. It is as if a new generation has forgotten what Nazism was all about, as if all our common understandings have been twisted until they are no longer recognizable.
In what way? In the repeated statements found among sections of the left and centre that describe Israelis as Nazis, that speak of a ‘Palestinian Holocaust’, that define Israel as the new Reich and its actions on a par with those of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. It is scarcely possible to say how sick and frightened it makes me to read such remarks, not least when I realize that they are often made by seemingly intelligent, well-educated people. What is worse, they have become part of a wider distortion of historical truth that denies the Holocaust, blames the Jews for having provoked Hitler and everyone who ever persecuted them throughout history, and finds an excuse for its anti-Semitism in mealy-mouthed declarations of guiltlessness: ‘I am only anti-Zionist’.
So let’s put some of this to rest. Leaving aside the Suez debacle (in which Britain and France were also involved), Israel has only ever fought defensive wars. Again and again, Israelis have fought, not just for their own lives, but for the life of their nation — a nation created to provide a haven for Jews in a world that had just disposed of six million of them. They have never used the total war tactics of the Nazis, nor have they once envisaged the genocide of the Palestinians. If they had really been Nazis, does anyone imagine they would have left a Palestinian alive? If they really used Nazi military tactics, do you think the death toll in the recent war in Lebanon would have been around 1,000, most of the dead Hizbullah guerrillas?
There’s simply no point in using derogatory terms like ‘Nazi’, ‘genocidal’, or ‘racist’ if they don’t fit. And such language doesn’t fit Israel. Criticize Israel by all means — Israelis do it all the time — but play fair. Too many people on the Left have betrayed their own ideals of honesty and justice by demonizing a people whose only wish is for peace and security. There are things wrong about Israel, and you should take care to identify them and write to your nearest Israeli embassy about them: you’ll find a listening ear, and maybe your criticisms will do real good. But there’s no point in standing on street corners with a megaphone, yelling to the general public that Israelis are Nazis, because only someone as badly informed as yourself will listen to you.
What frightens me more than anything, though, is the hypocrisy. Left-wingers and liberals always had an honourable history of opposition to anti-Semitism. They stood up for Jews, in the same way Jews in the 60s were among the most active figures in the American Civil Rights Movement. Back in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, it was a matter of honour for liberals to defend the Jews in their own countries and Israel abroad. But now? The Left has sold out totally to the lure of anti-Semitism. ‘We only hate Israel, not Jews,’ you say? Then why have so many left-wingers and liberals joined forces with the Palestinians and other Arabs, or with Iranians or Pakistanis, whose cultures are saturated with the most obnoxious anti-Jewish imagery and rhetoric that has existed outside the Third Reich? I’m not talking here about something half-hidden, some dirty secret that you might well not have come across. I’m talking about mainstream TV shows, broadcasts on a variety of national radio stations, children’s cartoons, school textbooks, mosque sermons, and large political rallies.
It’s all there: the hooked noses, the grasping hands, the conspiracies, the sacrifice of Christian and Muslim children, the mixing of their blood with matzo flour, the secret cabals, the sheer Nazi-like horror of the filthy, blood-sucking, world-dominating Jew. If you think you’re a liberal, then what in God’s name induces you to throw in your lot with real Nazism, pour scorn on Jews who have been fighting for their lives for well over sixty years, and then gallingly call those same Jews Nazis?
You say you haven’t seen any of this? Then you really are a fool to give your support to a society you know next to nothing about. You consider Hamas ‘freedom fighters’: have you noticed the salute they give in rallies? You think of Hizbullah as ‘heroes of the resistance’: have you ever seen how they salute? If it was Hitler up on the podium, no-one would be surprised.
This all requires a more detailed discussion. For the moment, I will only say that this link between modern Arab anti-Semitism and the Third Reich variety is not accidental. While Jews were dying in Auschwitz and Buchenwald and Birkenau, the Palestinian leadership was collaborating with the Reich, recruiting troops for the SS, and planning to build a death camp in Hebron. Jew-hating fascism did not die with the overthrow of the Third Reich: it moved to the Arab world where, believe it or not, the world’s liberals now sing its praises, thinking they are fighting for Palestinian freedom. If you are still in any doubt about how sick this is, read the Hamas Charter, which openly calls for the slaughter of all the Jews in Israel, or early documents of Hizbullah, where the same aim is made explicit, or the more recent calls by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, to wipe Israel from the map. They want to finish the job Hitler started. Don’t take my word for it, read any of the books and pamphlets in which just this claim is made. I forgot, you probably don’t read Arabic. I do. Don’t you think that you, as an intelligent and open-minded liberal, might actually base your view of this on something more solid than a couple of articles in The Guardian? I read The Guardian too, but I don’t swallow everything its extraordinarily biased op-eds say about the Middle East.
Where does this leave us? You, the anti-Israel liberal, me, the pro-Israel liberal. At loggerheads, I suppose. But there is a difference: I believe in your inherent goodness because some sort of love of humanity must inform your political options, your love of free speech, of human rights, of the right of all peoples to independence and nationhood. I know you are impelled to support the Palestinian cause because of such imperatives, and I admire your impulse. But I also think — or, rather, know — that you are ignorant, perhaps profoundly so. Otherwise, I cannot in all conscience imagine why you would so freely give your voice and your actions to support a people who seek only genocide, and withhold your support from the very people that has suffered the greatest act of genocide in the last or any other century.
If you believe in the self-determination of peoples, why do you condemn the establishment of the single state of Israel, the only Jewish state in two thousand years? From the very beginning, the people of Israel have sought for the creation of an Arab state next to theirs. Given peace and security, there are few limits to what Israel would do to make a Palestinian state an economic and social success. They have never talked of genocide. The Palestinians talk of little else. Hamas explicitly rejects peace treaties, peace conferences, compromises, and negotiations. Why would a peace-loving liberal extend the hand of greeting to such intransigence and spit on the hand that offers all of that and more? If liberals can support the worst sort of anti-Semitism, doesn’t that open the way to forces that will crush us all, Jews and non-Jews alike?
Now do you understand why I am afraid?

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Israel, the dirty little virus...

Israel, the filthy germ
Denis MacEoin

One of the first things that strikes the visitor to Iran is how polite everybody is. Hands go on chests (male chests anyhow) in a gesture of humility, it is commonplace to address someone as jenab, ‘your excellence’, to call oneself ‘your sacrifice’, and much besides. It’s an old fashioned society in which interpersonal relations are valued at all levels.
But ever since the revolution of 1979, there are more and more ways of insulting anyone perceived to be the enemy of Iran or Islam. Almost the first slogan of that revolution was marg bar-Amrika, ‘death to America’. Later, marg bar-Isra’il was added to the chants after every Friday prayer meeting. Verbal insults were matched by vicious disrespect for the most basic human dignity, in the parading of the US embassy hostages, the broadcasting of film of the US pilots burned in their helicopters during the failed Eagle Claw operation to rescue those hostages, the 2006 exhibition of cartoons mocking the Holocaust and its victims, or the conference on Holocaust denial held later that year.
Now, Ahmadinejad has made a speech in which he describes Israel as ‘a filthy germ’ and ‘a savage beast’. A few days earlier, Muhammad ‘Ali Ja’fari, commander-in-chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards wrote to Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah, saying ‘In the near future, we will witness the destruction of the cancerous germ of Israel by the powerful and competent hands of the Hezbollah combatants’. Clearly, Ahmadinejad’s words are not just the expression of some personal pique. They could even spark a war.
All of this talk of germs and viruses is disturbingly old hat, but none the less vicious for that. In 1942, Adolf Hitler declared that ‘the discovery of the Jewish virus is one of the greatest revolutions that have taken place in the world’. Elsewhere, he says Jews are like ‘tubercles which can infect a healthy body’. You find this everywhere in Nazi discourse. German has been infected by the Jews, their destruction will bring it back to health. Dr. Fritz Klein, one of the infamous Nazi doctors, said ‘The Jew is the gangrenous appendix in the body of mankind’ and continued ‘whether you want to call it an appendix or not, it must be extirpated (exterminated, eradicated: ausgerottet)’
Familiar? On many occasions, Iran’s outspoken president has called for the destruction of Israel. Don’t be misled by attempts to water this down: in one speech he calls on the Islamic nations to ‘exterminate’ Israel (qal’ o qam’ kard). His aim, like that of Hezbollah and Hamas among others, is the total elimination of Israel. Since Hezbollah’s apparent (though only apparent) victory in the 2006 war with Israel, Iran and its allies have grown in confidence. They now think they are only a short time from total success. Yet the international community does next to nothing to prevent a second Holocaust, a second cleansing of the Ewige Jude, the eternal virus.
One might ask some pointed questions. For one thing, in what way does the existence of Israel threaten Iran, whether in the short or long term. In all the years it has existed, there have been no signs of the Israeli virus passing on infection to its surrounding states — quite the contrary, in fact. Some virus. Some threat. Does Israel plan to expand aggressively beyond its current boundaries? If that had been the Israeli scheme, they would have done it many years ago. Israel doesn’t border on Iran, and the countries between them are all hostile to Israel.
The only way Iran would ever benefit from Israel’s death would be to raise its own esteem among the anti-Israeli nations. Given that Iran’s theological position is many football fields away from that espoused by other Muslims except the Iraqi and Lebanese Shi’a, that boost to Iran’s status would be undeniably welcome; but it would do absolutely nothing to expunge the taint of being a Shi’ite country.
But let’s just look at what Ahmadinejad is saying about Israel in another light. The fact is that Israel is the only genuine democracy for a long way about. There is no other country in the Middle East that is a successful multi-party state, that has a democratic system of law, that gives full rights to religious and ethnic minorities, women, and homosexuals; that does not censor its press or book publishers; that has such high numbers of university graduates; that participates so seriously in international aid provision; and that has such an international standing in medical and technological research, producing the most vibrant economy in the region.
If this is indeed a virus, we must surely expect democracy and human rights to spread like a benign plague across the region. In fact, Israel’s Arab (and Iranian) neighbours have proved remarkably resistant to every strain of the virus that has reached them. Surely any decent-minded person should be hoping for the Israel virus to get its teeth into Egypt or Syria or Jordan.
If there is a virus, it has to be the curious one that has infected so many in the West, notably on the left. No matter how strong the moral and rational arguments in Israel’s favour, this benighted group persists in mouthing slogans, calling for boycotts, boosting terror groups like Hamas (freedom fighters even when they are attacking kindergartens), and denying any rights to Israel whatever. And when the Islamic state has been established, and they start stoning women and hanging gays and killing the Baha’is, and imprisoning the socialists, no doubt our brave enemies of Israel will slink off to find another cause. May that day never come.