Why did the events in Gaza make me think of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's 1970 Nobel Prize acceptance speech? I am uncomfortable with much of its content and it doesn't seem that relevant at first. Actually, it was because of two memorable quotations that he used. First:
One day Dostoevsky threw out the enigmatic remark: "Beauty will save the world". What sort of a statement is that? For a long time I considered it mere words. How could that be possible? When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, uplifted, yes - but whom has it saved?
Beauty? When I look at much of the commentary on Gaza that is flooding social media, I see no beauty. There is a deep ugliness running through much of it.
The least offensive are the endless posts - from both sides - that have a photograph of dubious provenance with a slogan underneath saying that 'this really shows whatever'. Then there are the three-minute YouTube videos that offer you 'the essentials', 'the truth', 'the things THEY don't tell you', 'what you need to know to understand' and so on. And the charts, graphics and maps all purporting tell you something that will make you feel that you were right all along. I want to write under every one, 'No it won't. This is selective, simplistic and distorted. Please go away and read some books. And not ones selected solely because they will confirm your pre-existing prejudices.'
But then there is much worse. There are the 'solutions' being proffered, all horribly final, ranging from mass deportations to mass killings; the denials of the other and of their humanity – 'beasts', 'animals', 'scum'. Or, simply, there are the expressions of rage and hatred – no suggestions, no solutions, just anger. Deeply, deeply, unpleasant - and touching something dark that has refused to go away. It makes me very uneasy.
Some people have shared some good thoughtful articles from both sides, and I am grateful to them, but they have been swamped by a wave of unreflective hatred and attempts to shape the agenda with manipulative propaganda.
So once again, I turn to not so much thinking about the conflict, but as to thinking about how we think about it. Which brings me to Solzhenitsyn's second quotation.
From time immemorial man has been made in such a way that his vision of the world, so long as it has not been instilled under hypnosis, his motivations and scale of values, his actions and intentions are determined by his personal and group experience of life. As the Russian saying goes, "Do not believe your brother, believe your own crooked eye."
There are crooked eyes aplenty.
Israelis hiding in bomb shelters and Gazans under fire will each have a different perspective, but they aren't the people I am writing about. Their fear and heartbreak is beyond my understanding or ability to verbalise. Nor can I write with any authority about policies or the wisdom, justice or otherwise of what is happening now. No, it is those campaigners and commentators, those demonstrators on the streets of European cities that concern me. They are people who are only too keen to fight a cause rather than attempt to solve a problem.
The question that is frequently asked is, why does this conflict alone send everybody crazy? Why, given the worse horrors going on in the world today is it this that mobilises such passions? If what people care about is the lives of Palestinians, shouldn't they have all been on the streets protesting the tens of thousands of Palestinians who have been slaughtered by Assad's forces in Syria and the slow starvation of eighteen thousand people in Yarmouk? It is tempting to mutter that it is because it is Jews that are fighting, but that is too simplistic. What follows is a very tentative proposition, but one of the reasons why I feel that Israel/Palestine so animates the European left, to the exclusion of much else, is that it is our conflict.
By that, I mean that it is deeply tied up with our own history, our own collective narratives and our own crooked eyes. It is our religiosity, our nationalism, our liberation, our imperialism, our anti-Semitism, our genocide, our guilt and our atonement that animates us. For European onlookers, it is a European crisis being played out with other people's lives in the Middle East.
And this is what Solzhenitsyn was critical of. We could no longer rely on a localised crooked eye in a global world. He argued that we needed a holistic, transcendent truth, something that he thought literature could provide. That is the beauty that could save the world. I am more prosaic. I think that we need clear thinking. And that too has its own beauty.
In the endless circular arguments I am struck by a basic failing of historical analysis, one that I used to drum into my students, to distinguish between structural, long-term causes and proximate causes. In general, pro-Palestinians have stressed long-term causation at the expense of the proximate, whilst pro-Israelis have done the opposite. This is not surprising.
The long-term conflict has not gone away, nor has it been resolved. The tensions raised from the early days of Zionist immigration in the 1880s remain. So do the multiple failures to create a Palestinian state, to resolve the issue of the displacement of refugees, to deal with the questions of occupation and settlement and of secure, mutually recognised self-determination. This is the Palestinian case. The broad parameters of a settlement are known; that they have not been implemented is a failure of political leadership that has not been confined to only one side. (Of course, partisans of both put that failure down to malign intent, but that is another argument). However, is this the sole cause of the current violence? Is the war being fought in Gaza the result of the breakdown of the peace negotiations as I have heard suggested by many?
No, the proximate cause is more uncomfortable for pro-Palestinian activists, which is why they seldom mention it. It is the decision by Hamas and its Islamist allies to launch military rocket attacks at civilian centres of population in Israel. Does anyone seriously believe that Israeli forces would be bombing and fighting in Gaza if this had not happened, that it is just an expression of wanton belligerency? Are there any countries that would not have responded in some way to such attacks? Demonstrators rarely even acknowledge the role of Hamas, let alone condemn it along with Israel's action.
Let's look at this more closely. Hamas' seizure of power in Gaza and their consolidation of an authoritarian regime there certainly worried Israel. Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, pledged to destroy Israel and replace it with an Islamic state (solidarity with the 20% of Palestinians who are Christians anyone?). Its founding Covenant opposes all peace deals, talks of religious approval of killing Jews and also indulges in the poisonous idea of a Jewish world conspiracy, claiming that Jews were behind both world wars and organise themselves to rule the world through the Rotary Club! It is far-right lunacy. But such madness is dangerous with power. And once they began practicing what they preached through suicide bombing, Israel had three options. The first, to ignore it and hope it would go away, is not to be recommended. It doesn't and grows stronger. The second, to directly intervene and effect regime change, would be bloody and fraught with danger. So they chose the third option, containment - the strategy that underlay American policy in the Cold War. Containment implies the threat of military action if it is to be tested. Hamas tested it. Deliberately. They knew what the result would be. But then they are wedded to a long-term strategy of attrition and to provoke the very polarisation that we see today.
The current crisis is horrible. Modern warfare is cruel. The proportion of civilian casualties has been rising inexorably in all warfare. There is nothing exceptional about the figures for Gaza. But each number is an individual tragedy screaming out for our compassion. And that compassion lies behind much of the antipathy to Israel, but not all. Though this compassion too has a crooked eye, looking only one way.
Yet, there is something else missing, another structural element to this conflict. This one is not ours though; it is the crisis in the Arab world and its significance is not so instinctively grasped.
It has certainly touched us, as on 9/11 and 7/7. We can see it on our streets through the shocking anti-Semitic rioting in France, but it is not something that we fully comprehend. The Arab Spring collapsed the crumbling legitimacy of Arab regimes, but what was to replace them? The hoped-for democratisation has only partially succeeded in displacing authoritarianism and even those small successes are not secure. And all the time there was a totalitarian movement ready to challenge – the theocratic revolutionary right. Hamas is part of that revolutionary movement.
What we have at the moment is not an Israel/Palestine war, there are plenty of Palestinians who are not in the Islamist camp, we have an Israel/Hamas war. So, by taking up its undifferentiated, partisan position, the left have moved firmly behind the radical right. It posts pictures of a 'free Palestine' and we have no idea what they mean by 'free'. Unthinkingly, some are buying into the vision that it means a Palestine free of Jews, ruled by Hamas. It is a call for a war of annihilation.
It is easy to valorise Hamas as a resistance movement, but to do that is to make a categorical error. We have to ask precisely who is resisting and what they stand for. Pol Pot headed a resistance movement after all. Genocide followed. Hamas are lining themselves up to be the Palestinian people's latest oppressors, not their liberators. Rather than being a symptom of the conflict, and they are part of an ideological, regional power struggle.
To support the Palestinians is not to support Hamas. It is not to engage in ugly anti-Semitic abuse. It is not to raucously echo Islamist sentiments. It is to ensure that those long-term issues remain on the agenda, that a deal remains possible, to support both the Israeli and Palestinian people, if necessary against Hamas, though not uncritically. And it is to continue the long struggle for peace, the small-scale communal, trade union and cultural collaborations, and to struggle for empathy - the understanding of the bitter experiences of both people. It is to straighten our crooked eyes and see that peace is both practical and, yes, beautiful.