Tuesday, December 11, 2012

By request

I don't know why I do this. I should leave Israel/Palestine alone because I am tired. I am not alone. For some reason the conflict seems to have been elevated to the defining issue of our age, generating extraordinary passions. A commenter on a previous post, Dave Zeglen, asked for my opinions as to why. So once more I am going to take a deep breath and plunge into the murky waters. This time, I will be more personal. After all, how can I discuss it without saying what attracted me to the subject.

So how did I get into it? Rather unusually, I came to the conflict without an axe to grind. I knew little of it, but I had an uncle who had served in the British army in Palestine and who was always full of stories about his time there. He had many to tell, including the one about the award of the Dickin medal to his dogs who saved his life from a terrorist attack. When I was at university it seemed like a great idea to write on the end of the Mandate for my undergraduate dissertation. I discovered quite quickly that the Foreign Office archives at Kew were a better source than my uncle, but I was hooked. It was simply so interesting, so unique.

I then jumped at the chance to be a volunteer tutor, teaching English to Palestinians in the West Bank. It was an extraordinary experience, but though I developed a profound sympathy for the Palestinian case I was uneasy about some of the opinions I heard. The unease continued when I got back and went to a few meetings organised mainly by left groups. I was appalled at those who appeared to have adopted the Palestinian cause as their own, with scant regard for Palestinians themselves, and were trying to shoehorn it into an ideological box that made no sense and bore little relation to reality. At the same time I was reading some dreadful historical distortions by apologists for Israel, yet when I turned to accounts that were sympathetic to Palestinians they were equally twisted. The two historical discourses were mirror images, each trying to refute the validity of the experience of the other, sometimes denying things that I had seen with my own eyes. It was even more interesting, if perplexing, so I continued to read.

This was the point when I realised that history was being used as a weapon in a struggle, not as an intellectual inquiry. As a corrective, I attempted to pursue research into the British Mandate after World War II and the professor who was supervising it described the era beautifully in the context of the late 1940s as "a crisis of the second rank, but of the first noise." He felt that Bevin's attention was all on the bigger issue of creating NATO, thereby committing the USA to the defence of Western Europe rather than return to isolationism. Palestine was an intractable nuisance. My view was that, contrary to the propaganda lines being spun, the British had done their best to resolve the contradictions that they themselves had created, before a fit of pique and imperial exhaustion led them to refuse to police the UN partition plan that they opposed. The result was another example of the failure of non-intervention as the civil war took hold in the months before the declaration of independence launched the first Arab/Israeli war.

I never completed the research, though I think that I still hold to the view I held then. Instead, I did a taught Masters before changing tack away from international history and into intellectual history. Yet, the interest always remained, as did the "second rank, first noise" label. Clearly the conflict is of the first rank to the protagonists, where it dominates lives and provides far too many premature deaths, but why should it be so to those who are not intimately involved? And why the passion, sound and fury to the exclusion of all else?

I can think of a few reasons, compassion for the victims, the romantic echoes of all those religious studies classes at school, but these are not the main things. There are prosaic reasons such as the simple fact that it is so interesting, but many of the obsessives don't want to see the complexities and ambiguities. Then it is in many ways our crisis, part of the former British Empire, though also haunted by the dark shadows of European history. It is also a great one for the media. The place is so small that you can be reporting from the front line in the morning and be back in a five star hotel for the evening.

None of these really satisfy. Instead, we surely have to see its prominence as part of our troubled relationship with Jewish people. And where do we start with this? Perhaps from an unaccustomed place. There is a deep strand of philo-Semitism within British politics and ideas. Often romantic, influenced by the emphasis placed on the Old Testament by the Protestant Reformation, it attracted a range of prominent figures. Balfour is the obvious example, converted to Zionism through meeting Weizmann in Manchester during his 1906 election campaign. There were others, Lloyd-George certainly and, most notably, Churchill, recently honoured by a monument in Jerusalem. Yet the main philo-Semites were on the political left. Yes, the left. The establishment of a Jewish state was one of the great causes of the left and remained so until the 1960s. In my early years teaching in adult education I taught many of the elderly veterans of that period, people who remembered as children putting a halfpenny in the blue box on the mantlepiece to go towards the Jewish National Fund's purchase of land in Palestine, Labour activists who felt a deep solidarity with their fellow Jewish activists and even one who remembered that 1906 election and the joy in his Liberal household at the defeat of the Tory Balfour, a former Prime Minister. And then there were those whose Eastern European accents were not wholly obscured by Mancunian tones. They were the ones who got out, the survivors. They too were leftists, solid Labour voters every one.

It is hard to imagine now. Everything has changed. Part of this can be explained by an awareness of the displacement of the Palestinians and a growing sympathy with their plight. This was something the philo-Semites either ignored or wished away. Much too is down to the change in emphasis of the far left, turning away from the futility of revolution in the Western democracies and instead seeing the anti-colonial liberation movements as their new vanguard. This move has been beautifully captured by Paul Berman in his best book, Power and the Idealists. In turn, this has led to the expression of a romanticised Arabism, ignoring the deep authoritarianism and regressive politics of the existing Arab states. Perhaps the most astonishing by-product has been the embrace of the Islamist far right by the western far left. But again, this is not the only source of the current passions. Contiguous with philo-Semitism was the persistence of deep, cultural and historic anti-Semitism. It becomes easy to see Jews as an ultimate villain if this is your heritage. And this too penetrated the left.

I have come across anti-Semitic tropes over and over again in my research. The most common is the association of Jews with finance capitalism. This in turn feeds into the idea of a Jewish world conspiracy, of the hook-nosed puppeteer pulling the strings of the hapless politicians, of the cabals of plotters exploiting the workers. And even without considering the descent into the Nazi horrors, we have our own blood-stained history lurking in the background. This is not to say that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, far from it. Instead, the echoes of the past makes a demonisation of the Jewish state intellectually comfortable. There are those who are scrupulous about avoiding stereotypes and racist narratives, but this does not apply to the comments boxes of newspapers' web sites and popular blogs. There Zionism has become a hate word describing an evil that is unmistakably Jewish. Seeing the depth of this hatred is chilling. Would the sheer vehemence of opinions be the same if anti-Semitism had never existed? I doubt it.

And so we have a tendency to look on the conflict as one between heroes and villains of our own making, not between two peoples, each with their own nationalisms, in conflict over land. Nationalism can be an unlovely thing, but it can also be very necessary at times. If there are two people who need the right to national self-determination more than Israelis and Palestinians, I have yet to meet them. And this is what the two-state solution offers, not an end to the histories of these peoples, but a starting point. And who knows what will emerge as the years roll by and settled, democratic nations share cultural links, commercial transactions, environmental protection and trade union solidarities. Perhaps, one day people will look back at today and find the blood letting somehow inconceivable. But most of all, I hope that Jews and Arabs will cease to be heroes and villains in the eyes of the onlookers and simply become human beings, because therein lies the politics of sanity.


Finally, to the people who visit my comments boxes; argue away, but I won't join in. I am tired and am going off to Greece to think profound thoughts about the Eurozone crisis and my neighbour's goats. This has certainly been a discussion of the first noise in a scarcely read blog and I have had enough ... well, until the next time ... perhaps ...


Jim M. said...

A word to the wise... forget the EU and relish the antics of the goats.

Food for the soul!

Enjoy your hols.

Anonymous said...

"And even without considering the descent into the Nazi horrors, we have our own blood-stained history lurking in the background."

Be fair. It's a long time since Rabbi Yom Tov faced those unpleasant decisions - the same faced by many Sikhs in Pakistan in 1947 - more than 820 years, in fact.

188 years before York, the English killed every Dane they could find in the St Brice's Day Massacre - at the command of the King of England, no less. But I don't think I've ever heard it raised in the context of Anglo-Danish relations.


levi9909 said...

I've only just seen that comment from Laban. I wish I'd have thought of it. I'll certainly use it in future.

I just stopped by to drop this link:


Very interesting. Nothing to do with I/P. It's about Obama targeting American citizens with drones.