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


Anonymous said...

Dear friend:
We ask permission to link your link to my blog


Denis said...

Dear Bajur,

Of course you may link to this blog.


Angela Jerusalem said...

Denis, why when you have never met met, do you make so many, many, completely incorrect assumptions? I could spend the whole day correcting all your statements about me and my thinking that are just downright wrong, but honestly and truthfully, I'm just too busy.
Go in peace. Try seeing things from both sides, not just one.

Anonymous said...

Interesting non-response from "angela jerusalem", who is presumably Ms. Godfrey-Goldstein. Do anything but engage....

Dr. MacEoin, thank you for bringing your knowledge, intelligence, sympathy and skill with words to the subject of the Middle East.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

That answer by "Angela Jerusalem" sounds strangely like one of these standard letters where you need to fill the name only.

Great post, Denis!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Denis, your letter is superb.

I suggest you remove the long Atzmon copy-paste above so as not to allow your site to be mis-used to propagate Atzmon's sickness.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. MacEoin,
This letter is superb. Unfortunately, the mind set of your correspondent is igorance and she does not want to be confused by facts.
I am writing to congratulate you on your selection as editor of the Middle East Quarterly. It is a fine publication, and I am confident it willl be in good hands.

Anonymous said...

I participate in many forums dealing with the issues you write about. I am astonished to find a writer, Denis, that can write so utterly the same as my convictions and knowledge, but lack the writing talent that you have. Am I allowed to use some of your texts, ofcourse with mentioning your website bloggers link.

Greatings and shalom, Ilana

Denis said...


Of course you may quote from my material, provided you add an acknowledgement. Thanks for showing an interest.