Saturday, 31 August 2019

Israelis, Palestinians and ‘Love Island’

I have a confession to make: I am one of those few weirdos who never bothered to watch an episode of Love Island.  Which is why my knowledge of this TV show is second-hand at best; and why using this metaphor is – I have to admit – a bit of a cheap trick to get you hooked, dear reader.

I understand the attractions of love – but why on an island?  Perhaps because islands have that strange allure: they are constrained geographies suggestive of enforced isolation from without and imposed intimacy within.

From Gauguin to Attenborough, from Defoe to Swift, we’re all fascinated by islands.  They are world’s quintessential test tubes: riveting experiments in natural and social eccentricity.

With their rich, often over-the-top imagination, ‘pro-Palestinian’ activists could not possibly have missed the metaphoric potential of islands.  They harnessed that potential ‘for the cause’ by portraying the Palestinian Authority-governed areas of the West Bank (defined in the Oslo Accords) as an ‘archipelago’ of small islands in a ‘sea’ of Israeli ‘settlements’.  Such allegoric maps travel far and reach wide; their message is clear: a patchwork of Palestinian ‘islands’ cannot be turned into a viable state.

Not satisfied with the mere allegory, some activists are shouting that message in full-throated, indignant, moralising voice: it is too late for the two state solution.  Often, they blame Netanyahu and ‘his settlements’; but Seumas Milne (a former journalist and currently top courtier to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn) suggested, even 15 years ago, that the two-state solution was no longer achievable.

Among certain ‘pro-Israel’ activists (and even among some Israelis), such suggestions are a source of dread and despair.  In the absence of a Palestinian state, they say, Israel’s choices are grim: either ‘one-state’ in which Jews will be (or will quickly become) a minority; or else an apartheid state – in which the Palestinians won’t possess full political rights.

A recent Jewish Chronicle article quotes Tal Keinan, an American-Israeli businessman and former Israeli fighter pilot, who argues that there are “only three possible endgames” for Israel:
"The first is that Israel could annex the West Bank and give its Arab residents citizenship – which would mean Israel ‘opening itself to the prospect of demographic suicide’. […]
The second option would be to annex the Palestinian territories without granting the Palestinians citizenship – imposing sovereignty on a large number of people without representation. […]
The final option […] is for Israel to withdraw from most of the territories, with or without an agreement with the Palestinians. If the Palestinians build a state, there will be a state, but if not, the West Bank ‘will likely become another rocket base’."

So there you are: the options are oblivion, apartheid or being bombed to smithereens.  As the current British Prime Minister would put it, doom or gloom!

There’s a debate to be had on whether it is indeed too late for the ‘two state solution’; and whether lack of ‘full political rights’ equals ‘apartheid’.  But I do not wish to go there now.  My question is: are those ‘3 choices’ really the only possible ‘endgames’?  Or are the prophets of doom merely demonstrating their own stale thought processes, their own lack of imagination and creativity?

I am fascinated by islands.  They are such interesting places!  Let’s let our minds travel to a few islands – and see what we can learn.

A ‘Great’ Britain with some little ‘dependencies’

To start with, I won’t have to travel too far: I live on the island of Britain, which some (both on and outside it) still sometimes call ‘England’.  But it isn’t ‘England’ – the island of Britain is part of a sovereign state called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  Although it is not formally called a federation, this is in fact a federal state made up of four ‘countries’: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – each of them endowed with a great deal of political, economic and cultural autonomy.  Nonetheless, there are nationalist movements in each of these ‘countries’, aspiring to more autonomy and even to outright secession from the federation. 

I have recently travelled to Scotland, where great efforts are being made to revive and expand the use of Scottish Gaelic.  Upon return to London, I discovered that I still had a pocketful of Scottish banknotes.  The ‘Scottish pound sterling’ is worth exactly as much as the ‘British (not English!) pound sterling’; but the banknotes are underwritten by the Royal Bank of Scotland and bear different images from their ‘British’ counterparts.  Those strange-looking banknotes may be legal tender throughout the UK; but they are, let me tell you, viewed with suspicion by London retailers, many of whom seem to see them for the first time.

Another ‘country’ – Wales – occupies a peninsula in the West of Britain.  Wales is very similar in size to Israel, but it is less densely populated.  The vast majority of its inhabitants speak English and only one in five has Welsh as their mother tongue.  Still, Welsh is an official language in Wales, on a par with English; no expenses are spared – everything (from road signs to court summons) is written in both languages.  And children have to study Welsh in school, whether they have any use for it or not.

But ‘Great’ Britain is not as interesting as some of the smaller islands off its coast.  Take for instance the Isle of Man, a territory just one-and-a-half times the size of Gaza Strip.  The Isle isn’t part of the United Kingdom; nor is it a sovereign, independent state.  It is, instead, defined as a ‘British Crown Dependency’.  If you think that this means ‘owned by the Queen’ – think again: Queen Elizabeth the Second could not sell off that piece of real estate to – say – Donald Trump; even if he was interested and however much Her Majesty wanted to oblige!

Most Isle of Man inhabitants have the status of ‘Manxmen’ (and Manxwomen?)  Manxmen are ‘in principle’ British citizens; in principle only, because they cannot, for instance, vote in UK national elections and are hence not represented in the UK Parliament.  Although decisions made in that Parliament can have a huge impact upon their lives.  For instance, Manxmen could not vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum.  But, although the island is not part of the United Kingdom – and also not part of the European Union – its economy is strongly affected by the trade between the two…

Manxmen do elect the 24 members of the House of Keys – the lower chamber of the local ‘Parliament’, which deals with most internal matters.  Issues pertaining to defence, international relations, as well as the final say on matters of ‘good governance’, however, are the competence of the UK government and parliament.

Fiercely dependent:
Manxmen are proud citizens of a British Crown 'Dependency'
Upon application, Manxmen are issued with specially printed  British passports.  But instead of ‘United Kingdom’, those passports declare their bearers citizens of a strange entity called ‘British Islands – the Isle of Man’.  Such passports allow Manxmen to travel to – for instance – EU countries; but, unlike ‘regular’ British citizens, they are not entitled to work there.  Nor are EU nationals entitled to work on the Isle of Man, although they (still) can work in the UK.

The British Crown possesses also other ‘Dependencies’ – including several islands in the English Channel/La Manche: Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark.  Each island is governed separately, according to its own traditional system, mostly originating in the early Middle Ages.  Their combined population is estimated at around 165,000.  None of the Channel Islands is represented in the UK Parliament and, as a rule, their ‘citizens’ cannot vote in UK national elections and referenda.  Their status is, roughly speaking, similar to that of Manxmen.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark

If we let our mind fly north-west of Britain, across the North Atlantic ocean, we come across Donald Trump’s latest real-estate project: Greenland.  It is the world’s most sparsely populated ‘country’ – with just one inhabitant on average per 10 square miles of territory; but it is also the world’s largest island: circa 10 times larger than Great Britain and 100 times larger than Tiny Israel.

Politically, Greenland is defined as an ‘autonomous region’ of the Kingdom of Denmark – a ‘region’ 50 times larger than Denmark-proper.  Some call it a ‘constituent country’ – similar in principle to the status of Scotland or Wales within the UK.

Happy Greenlanders

The majority of Greenland’s population (circa 88%) belongs to the indigenous Inuit (a.k.a. Eskimo) ethnicity, akin to the natives of North Canada and Alaska.  They speak their own language.  The balance consists of Danish settlers.

Greenlanders elect 2 representatives to Denmark’s parliament, out of a total of 179.  They also elect the 31 members of Greenland’s own parliament, which in turn elects a local government with a high degree of internal autonomy.  However, the Danish government sitting in Copenhagen is responsible for decisions pertaining to defence and international relations; even for those that directly affect the inhabitants of the ‘constituent country’ of Greenland – such as the permission to locate nuclear weapons on the island.

In 1973, the Kingdom of Denmark (including Greenland) became a member state of the European Community – precursor to the European Union.  But, using its greater autonomy achieved in 1979, Greenland voted in 1982 to leave the economic block – and completed that exit by 1985.  It is no longer part of the European Union; but it is still part of the Kingdom of Denmark, a member state of the European Union…

Economically, Greenland has long been highly dependent on Denmark.  However, for the past decade or so, the Greenlandic government has worked steadily to gradually reduce the economic dependence, with the ultimate goal of attaining political independence.

The Kingdom of Denmark ‘owns’ also another ‘constituent country’: the Faroe Islands.  Their status is roughly similar to that of Greenland: the Faroese elect 2 members of the Danish Parliament, as well as all 33 members of the local parliament.  Just like in Greenland, there is a local government, led by a Prime Minister; there is also a strong movement demanding political independence.  A separate Faroese Constitution drafted in 2011 has been rejected by the Danish government of the time, as ‘incompatible’ and ‘cannot co-exist’ with the Danish Constitution.

The poor ‘rich harbour’

By now, you probably think that ‘special status’ islands are but vestiges of medieval kingdoms, bizarre anachronisms somehow preserved into modernity.  Well, not exactly: some of them are part of relatively young republics.

One such island is Puerto Rico.  ‘Discovered’ by Columbus, it was incorporated into the Spanish Empire and colonised by (mainly) Spanish settlers, who wiped out the indigenous population and culture.  But in 1898, it was conquered by the United States.

The term ‘colony’ is not en-vogue any more; but Puerto Rico is not a federal US state, nor is it part of a state.  It is, therefore, defined these days as a ‘United States unincorporated territory’.  In this context, ‘unincorporated’ means that the US Constitution does not apply in full: only ‘fundamental rights’ are protected, other constitutional rights are not.  As a consequence, although the Puerto Ricans are ‘in principle’ US citizens (since 1917), they cannot vote in US presidential elections and do not have senators or voting representatives in the US Congress.  Instead, the 3.2 million Puerto Ricans elect a local Governor and a bi-cameral parliament.  However, the head of state is the President of the United States.  The jurisdiction and sovereignty belongs to the United States of America and the ultimate power is vested in the US Congress.  Laws adopted by the latter apply to Puerto Rico by default.  Many US federal agencies (notably the FBI) are active in Puerto Rico.

A very lonely star...
Puerto Rico calls itself Estado Libre (Free State). But it is neither an independent state, nor a US state.

As US citizens, Puerto Ricans can serve in the US military – in fact they were historically forced to serve whenever the US adopted compulsory military draft.  However, Puerto Rico also has its own National Guard, distinct from the US National Guard.  The commander-in-chief of the Puerto Rican National Guard is… the President of the United States.

On average, Puerto Ricans are significantly poorer than the citizens of the State of Mississippi – the poorest of US states.

US controls a few other ‘unincorporated territories’ with roughly similar regimes – and they happen to also be islands: Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa.

And a ‘fragrant’ harbour

I never noticed any particularly pleasant smell when I visited Hong Kong, but many believe that ‘Fragrant Harbour’ (hēung gong in Cantonese) is the origin of the modern name.
Hong Kong consists of the eponymous island, plus an archipelago of some 200 other islands and two small pieces of territory on the coast of Southern China.  In total, it is not much larger than the Gaza Strip – but it is more densely populated: more than 17,500 inhabitants per square mile, compared to Gaza’s 13,000.

How to live on an archipelago:
one can travel among the main islands of Hong Kong by underground train.

In theory, Hong Kong is part and parcel of the sovereign territory of the People’s Republic of China.  But it certainly does not feel that way.  And it’s not just a matter of a different flag, state symbols and anthem.

The official language of China is Mandarin – written with simplified Chinese characters.  In Hong Kong, it is Cantonese, inscribed with traditional characters.  Which render anything spoken or written in Hong Kong unintelligible to most people in China.

Cars cling to the left side of the road in Hong Kong, still following the British tradition; but they are driven on the right in China.

Five years ago, I travelled to China via Hong Kong.  To start with, I had to apply for a Chinese visa; but when I finally got it, was told that it’s not valid in Hong Kong – where one needs a separate visa; or, in the case of my Israeli passport, no visa for Hong Kong, yes visa for China.

Flights from Hong Kong to Beijing are expensive, as they are considered international flights.  I was advised, instead, to buy a seat on one of the many cars and coaches ferrying passengers from Hong Kong Airport to Shenzhen Airport just across the border with China.  I do not use the term ‘border’ lightly: en-route to Shenzhen, my passport was checked twice, within a 50 yards stretch of road: first by the border police of Hong Kong, then by Chinese border officials.

Once at Shenzhen Airport, I boarded a much cheaper, probably subsidised ‘domestic’ flight to Beijing.

I paid for the transfer from Hong Kong to Shenzhen with Hong Kong dollars, but they’re not legal tender in China; so I had to buy the flight ticket Beijing with Chinese ‘renmimbi’, not accepted in Hong Kong.

All this may sound and feel strange, given that Hong Kong is not an independent state.  Officially, Hong Kong is called a ‘Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China’.  But in this case, ‘special’ is an understatement.

As I am writing this, there are widespread protests in Hong Kong against Chinese ‘interference’ – protests triggered by a change in law allowing certain offenders to be ‘extradited’ from Hong Kong to... another part of China’s ‘sovereign territory’.  Go figure!

So what?

By now, I can hear quite a few of you grumbling: what do all these islands have to do with anything?  Israel has occasionally been called ‘an island’ – as in ‘an island of freedom in a sea of tyranny’; but geographically it certainly is no island.

Well, I’m afraid I used the ‘islands’ allegory only as a crafty rhetorical device.  This isn’t just about islands, there are many other, ‘continental’ examples.

The point is that the ‘sovereign state/no state’ paradigm is based on a false dichotomy.  Reality is much more complex than that; there are almost-states, states-within-states, incorporated ‘unincorporated territories’, ‘constituent countries’, ‘special administrative regions’ and a myriad other ‘unconventional’ political constructs.

It may be that none of the existing models described above precisely fits the requirements of a future Israel-Palestinian Arabs accommodation.  But what these ‘islands’ prove is that there’s a huge breadth of possibilities – rather than a binary option.

Human beings are endowed with imagination, creativity and problem-solving abilities.  They are also ‘tribal’ and seek self-determination: the right to control their destiny, while organising themselves along ‘tribal’ identities that both unite and divide.  And, as a result of all that, human communities have evolved and are evolving in many complex, unusual, original ways.  Because no man is an island; not even on the Isle of Man.

The conflict between Jews and Arabs – or between ‘Israelis’ and ‘Palestinians’ – is a conflict between right and right.  Not a dilemma, or even a multiple-choice question; but an art project, a piece of blank canvas.

We live in a world of endless possibilities.  There are no slim choices, just narrow minds; mankind doesn't inhabit rigid, tidy little boxes – only some men do.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

The 'Intelligence squared' debate

Anti-Israel ‘events’ are as numerous as midges in Scotland.  Most are small meetings of like minded ‘anti-Zionists’ vociferously agreeing that the Jewish state is the number 1 source of global evil.  The ‘opposition’ is very rarely represented; after all, the organisers of such ‘events’ typically aren’t interested in democratic debate – and certainly not when it involves ‘Zionists’.

There are rare exceptions: on 17 June 2019, an outfit called ‘Intelligence2’ (intelligence squared) organised a debate with the participation of both sides: the ‘Zionist’ and the ‘anti-Zionist’ camps – each represented by two speakers.  The ‘motion’ proposed to the audience was ‘Anti-Zionism is Antisemitism’.

The pre-debate vote showed 15% of the audience in favour (i.e., believing that ‘Anti-Zionism is Antisemitism’), 59% against and 26% undecided – so it can be inferred that ‘anti-Zionists’ were attending in numbers.  The post-debate poll showed 19% of the audience in favour, 76% against and 5% undecided.  Basically  – a defeat for the ‘Zionist’ side.  I’m one of those who – had I attended the event – would have voted in favour to start with.  So I watched the debate with interest on YouTube – and proceeded, for my many sins, to put pen to paper and tell you what I thought about it.

Before the debate even started, the moderator produced a definition of anti-Zionism:
“[O]pposition to the existence of a Jewish state in the territory defined as the historic land of Israel or Palestine."
That, of course, should have been not the beginning, but the end of the debate.  After all, multiple opinion polls (see this for instance) have shown that, for the vast majority of Jews – to the tune of 80-95% – Israel ‘is an ‘essential’ or at least ‘important’ part of their identity.  In other words, ‘anti-Zionists’ propose to dismantle a major pillar of Jewish identity, while at the same time proclaiming that they are not antisemites.

The moderator also told the audience that
“Now, surveys suggest that Israel is one of the most disliked nations in the world along with Iran and North Korea…"
That was, of course, yet another opportunity to put the debate to bed without any further waste of everybody’s time.  Iran is a theocracy that hangs people for ‘crimes’ like ‘waging war against God’ and ‘spreading corruption on earth’.  North Korea is a Communist dictatorship that – among many other things – operates ‘labour camps’ in which tens of thousands of political prisoners are killed through starvation, exhaustion and exposure.  Israel – warts and all – is a liberal democracy ruled by laws that, by and large, are in line with those of the UK, EU, USA and Canada.  Even according to the United Nations Human Development Index, Israel ranks 22 out of 189 countries – ahead of France (24), Spain (26) and Italy (28).  So what’s the reason for so much ‘dislike’?  Is it a mere coincidence that “one of the most disliked nations” happens to be made up of Jews – the same nation that has been ‘disliked’, berated and hounded for centuries??

Oddly (some would think), at the ‘Intelligence2’ event the Zionist speakers did not use these arguments.  In fact, they treated this public debate as if it were an academic one; they engaged in cogent and sometimes convoluted arguments, with great intelligence, but little flair.  They displayed much intellect but little charisma, lots of logic but few rhetorical sparks.

Here’s a passage from those first of the ‘Zionist’ speakers, journalist Melanie Phillips:
“The Jews are the only extant indigenous people of the land.  Israel was their kingdom more than three thousand years ago, they were driven out when it was occupied, they maintained a continuous presence in the land under the waves of colonialism – Assyrian, Roman, Abbasid, Mamluk, Ottoman and British –, they fought off Arab colonialists to re-establish their state in 1948 and are still fighting off Arab colonialism.  When the Palestine Mandate of 1922 which parcelled out of the former Ottoman Empire, it enshrined their right to settle throughout that land, a right that endures unaltered in international law the law also entitles Israel to hold onto land seized from its attackers…"
This was no doubt a good history lesson; but listing all the ‘colonialists’ who ruled the Land of Israel from early antiquity to modern times was most likely wasted on a non-academic audience.  Add a rather monotonous, colourless delivery and there you have it: a collection of erudite arguments, well-anchored in distant history and complex articles of law – but utterly bereft of oratorical effect and emotional impact.

If lack of eloquence were a capital sin, the Zionists would fortunately not be lonely in hell: the first ‘anti-Zionist’ speaker – Israeli-born Communist politician-turned-historian Ilan Pappé – also produced a rather lacklustre performance:

“For those who claim that anti-Zionism is a refusal to recognize the right of Israel to exist I would say that states do not exist by right, they’re found… they are founded by historical processes and they become a fait accompli.  The debate is about the nature of the state and the regime, we are all entitled to wish for and work for a better, more just and egalitarian state for everyone who lives in Israel, in Palestine and for those who were expelled from there.  In 1975 a vast majority of the United Nation member states defied Zion… defined Zionism as a form of racism and racial discrimination, it was passed with the same majority that passed the 1947 resolution recognizing Israel, the difference was that in 1947 the colonized world was not represented in the United Nations. In 1975 it was there, it was still trying to find its way in the post-colonial world. The third world discuss… equated Zionism with continued colonialism.  Alas neoliberalism corruption in post-colonial politically… in post-colonial political system… a corruption in the post-colonial political system, an aggressive American imperialism have cast it to the sideways of history this impulse and energy but at its height and within it anti-Zionism was part of the wish of the colonized people to build a better and more just world…”

Humour and sarcasm are great persuaders and Pappé did attempt them a couple of times.  Many in the audience would no doubt have laughed sympathetically, had they understood he was trying to be witty; but they didn’t.

Of course, even a humourless and flat-footed Ilan Pappé still has a great advantage as a speaker: a freak ‘anti-Zionist’ Israeli is by definition interesting – it’s the ‘man bites dog’ effect.

By the way, Pappé himself mixed up ‘antisemitism’ and ‘anti-Zionism’ several times during his speech – he had to stop and correct himself.  Yet neither ‘Zionist’ speaker cared to point out – for the sake of the rhetorical effect if nothing else – that this may have been a Freudian mistake…

Pappé was followed by the second ‘Zionist’ speaker – former Member of Knesset turned academic Einat Wilf.  To my surprise (I heard her speak before), the speech owed too much to her current occupation and too little to the former one: this was another presentation heavy on facts and structure and light in emotional effect.  True, her obvious passion did shine through at times; but even then, the language was unnecessarily formal, the logic somewhat convoluted and the delivery unremarkable:
“We now know that antisemitism arose from a deep crisis in the society doing the blaming.  After all, these templates and ways of thinking about my people have been around for millennia; yet they become particularly useful in times of crisis and we are indeed again a species in crisis.  Technology questions the very intelligent of humanity; extreme weather undermines our confidence in our control; inequality undermines our ideal progress, our leaders or lack thereof leave us feeling bereft of a sense there's a steady hand at the helm.  And in times of crisis we desperately crave certainty and there are few greater certainties in this world to grab on than that the Jews are to blame…"
Don’t get me wrong: to me, all this makes sense and sounds familiar; but psychoanalysing antisemitism, even in the context of a bigger point, does little to persuade people that ‘Anti-Zionism is antisemitism’.

Thus far, the debate was, politely speaking, ‘interesting’.  It was about to became ‘exciting’ once Mehdi Hassan – Al-Jazeera journalist and the second speaker for the opposition – jumped into the ring.  Hasan is a pro.  He is naturally articulate, sharp and linguistically agile.  Just as important, he is familiar with this ‘debate’ format.  He knows this is about persuading people; it’s nothing like defending an academic dissertation.  In this type of ‘debate’, sharp rhetoric wins over dull substance – hands down.  In this type of debate, being accurate is hardly a priority – one can get away with twisted facts and iffy comparisons, because there’s just not enough time and span of attention to challenge them.  It’s about stirring emotions, not conveying information.

And because of all that, Mehdi Hasan single-handedly won the ‘debate’.  He didn’t even have to break a sweat: this was an unequal match; it felt like some professional snooker champion (say Ronnie O’Sullivan) was playing amateur pool players picked up from some country pub.

But it wasn’t all style and rhetoric – it was also strategy: both Melanie Phillips and Einat Wilf (and, to a certain extent, Ilan Pappé too) played defence.  Hasan demonstrated once again that, in political ‘debates’ just like in military confrontations, one needs to attack if one wishes to win.  He started his address, therefore, by wiping the floor with the motion and its defenders:
“Ladies and gentlemen we have been witnessing tonight a deeply cynical proposition to deliver a farrago of straw men distortions, deflections, false accusations and of course straight-up pro-Israel propaganda.  Then again hearing Melanie Phillips come here and champion the rights of gays in Israel in order to defend Zionism was well worth the entry ticket in and of itself."
Audiences at political debates are not like jurors in a courtroom.  They don’t necessarily ask for evidence – their fickle opinions can often be carried by a strong, passionate, determinate statement.  Of course, Melanie Phillips had mentioned the word ‘gays’ only once in her speech, when she stated that Israel is
“the only country in the Middle East where […] women and gays can live in freedom"
Hardly ‘championing’ anyone’s rights – more like a statement of fact.

Phillips could have (should have?) responded to that ad hominem attack, for instance by pointing out that, in a sermon delivered to the Islamic Unity Society, the oh-so-liberal Mehdi Hasan referred to the “kuffar [the Quranic Arabic term for heretics], the disbelievers, the atheists” as “cattle”.

Instead, she declared:
“I am sure that Mehdi Hasan and Ilan Pappé are deeply honourable men.  I would not presume to say what is in their minds or what their motivation is…"
Courtesy is such a nice thing, ‘innit?  Unfortunately, as Mehdi Hasan proceeded to demonstrate, it is not niceties that win a political debate.

So, back to Mehdi Hasan’s speech.  His next step was to re-state the proposed motion in a way that made it look unreasonable – indeed absurd – to the audience:
“[T]he motion says ridiculously, sweepingly, offensively, ahistorically that anti-Zionism is antisemitism that merely being opposed to Zionism – a political ideology, remember – is inherently, by definition, it's ipso facto antisemitic.  Which is absurd."
Put in this way, the motion does look ridiculous: how can opposing a political ideology equate racism?  Surely people have the right to question, criticise and oppose political ideologies.

Except that Hasan did not ‘interpret’ the motion, he (radically) misinterpreted it.  In fact, he managed to sneak past the largely unsuspecting audience two fundamental untruths.

To start with, Zionism is not a “political ideology”, despite Hasan’s surreptitious characterisation.  He counted (correctly, as it turned out), on people to ‘buy’ that, because of the ‘ism’ suffix.  Of course, many things are called an ‘ism’ (baptism, barbarism, criticism, plagiarism, etc.) – this does not make them political ideologies.

Wikipedia defines the term ‘political ideology’ as
“a certain set of ethical ideals, principles, doctrines, myths or symbols of a social movement, institution, class or large group that explains how society should work and offers some political and cultural blueprint for a certain social order."
But Zionism isn’t concerned with “how society should work”.  It offers no “blueprint for a certain social order” has no global ambitions or implications, it is confined to one people and one (small) piece of territory.  One can be a left wing Zionist, a right-wing Zionist, a liberal Zionist or a conservative Zionist, a profoundly religious Zionist or a militantly atheist Zionist.  The difference between Zionism and ideology becomes self-evident if one considers the Israeli political spectrum: Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Labour leader Amir Peretz and Aryeh Deri (Chairman of the Mizrakhi Ultra-Orthodox party Shas) are all Zionists; yet they advocate radically different (if not diametrically opposed) blueprints of social order.

In fact, in its ‘modern’ version, Zionism can best be described as a national emancipation movement, not fundamentally different from similar tendencies found among other ethnic groups – from the 19th century onwards.

Some may seek to ignore the differences between ‘national emancipation movement’ and ‘nationalism’.  The latter can be construed as an ideology – if one sees it as driving a certain world order.  Consequently, one can be an ‘anti-nationalist’ without being accused of racism.  But, even if one declares Zionism as nothing but the Jewish form of nationalism, this begs the question: why do ‘anti-Zionists’ attack with such venom just one embodiment of nationalism?  Why would one fundamentally object to a Jewish state, but not to an Indian state, a Pakistani state, a Serbian state, a Croatian state, etc.?

Which brings me to Mehdi Hasan’s second untruth: his underlying suggestion that anti-Zionism is nothing but opposition to Zionism – “a political ideology” in his words.  Sounds perfectly plausible – but it’s still utterly false.  Let us remember the definition that was issued at the beginning of the debate – a definition to which all speakers would willingly subscribe.  ‘Anti-Zionism’ is not just opposition to Zionism; it is:
“[O]pposition to the existence of a Jewish state in the territory defined as the historic land of Israel or Palestine."
Contemporary ‘anti-Zionism’ (as opposed to pre-1948 anti-Zionism) does not oppose a future political outcome; rather, it wishes to dismantle an already-constituted nation state.  Or, at the very least, to change its character beyond recognition, contrary to the freely-expressed wishes of the overwhelming majority of its citizens.

And, as indicated already, ‘anti-Zionism’ does not propose to dismantle all nation states – or even a number of nation states.  It takes issue with just one nation state – the Jewish state.

Once Mehdi Hasan’s untruths are exposed, the motion ‘Anti-Zionism is antisemitism’ does not look at all ridiculous or sweeping.

We are still left with ‘ahistorical’, by which – I presume – Hasan means his contention that
“many victims of the Holocaust opposed Zionism; on the other hand many antisemites supported Zionism."

Of course, pre-1948 there were indeed many Jews who opposed Zionism.  But, does that matter?  Every national emancipation movement has its opponents.  It can hardly be claimed that, after World War I, all Arabs supported independence from the Ottoman Empire.  For many – perhaps even for the majority – that empire was the latest embodiment of the scripturally prescribed Islamic Caliphate.  But is that a valid argument for dismantling any of today’s 22 independent Arab states?  Can one seriously try to resurrect the pre-1947 Indian opponents of Gandhi to justify dismantling the state of India?  Or forcibly merging it with Pakistan?

As for “many antisemites supported Zionism”, Hasan would have great difficulty listing those “many” without resorting to ridiculous, Ken Livingston-esque statements like ‘Hitler supported Zionism’.  The best he could do during the debate was to claim – based on one random statement – that Balfour was an antisemite.  But, again: does all this matter?  Even if we accept as given that Balfour was both an antisemite and a supporter of Zionism, so what?  Saying ‘Anti-Zionism is antisemitism’ does not imply that only ‘anti-Zionists’ are antisemites, or that every supporter of Zionism must be free from antisemitic prejudice.  Human beings are complex; one can harbour racist prejudice, even while supporting anti-racist causes.  The fact that Abraham Lincoln and prominent members of the abolitionist movement harboured what would rightly be seen today as racist views cannot be used to justify slavery or to tar the cause of its eradication.

Hasan’s next argument was that denying Jews the right of self-determination isn’t antisemitism, because
“not every national, ethnic group that wants a state gets a state.  Ask the Kurds, ask the Catalans, ask the Scots – there are more than 5,000 ethnic groups in the world today but only 193 member states at the United Nations…"
He then went on to point at the Druze citizens of Israel
“do they have a right of self-determination if they create a Druze state inside of Israel?"
Moreover, Hasan argued:
“It's not racist for the Kurds to aspire to statehood […], but the flip side of that is true as well: the British government, the American government, most of the EU governments do not support Kurdish statehood; does that mean the British government, all of us, are racist towards the Kurds?"
Let’s leave aside the (juicy, but fundamentally dishonest) example of the Scottish independence; the Scots were offered a referendum and a majority of the Scots themselves chose (at least at the time) the current situation (extensive autonomy within a federative state), rather than full independence.  This is not a denial of self-determination – it’s an affirmation thereof.

Let’s also summarily dismiss the Druze case: Druze do not ask for an independent state of their own – not in Israel and not in Lebanon or Syria, in which there are even larger Druze communities.  Indeed, I have been told (by just one Druze man, so I cannot vouch for the statement) that the Druze religion expressly prohibits its adherents from seeking political (as opposed to religious and cultural) independence.

It is, nevertheless, true that many national groups are still denied a state of their own, despite aspiring to one.  It is no less true that ‘not supporting’ such national aspirations is different from actively opposing them; and ‘not supporting’ aspirations to a future nation state is very different from dismantling an existing one.  And, in any case, two wrongs don't make a right: true, the Kurds – because of unprincipled and self-serving attitudes by the 'international community' – still don't have a state of their own; but how does that justify taking from the Jews a state they have already achieved?

Says Mehdi Hasan, in an attempt to defuse some obvious objections:
“The issue is not whether Jews deserve a homeland or have a historic connection to the land of Palestine -- of course they do -- the issue is whether those historic and religious claims justify creating and expanding a Jewish majority state…"
To put it bluntly, this constitutes speaking with a forked tongue: Hasan manages to affirm in the same sentence that the Jews “of course” deserve a homeland and have a historic connection to the land of Palestine, but also that these are “historic and religious claims”.  The former part of the sentence appears to recognise certain rights; the latter relegates them to doubtful, uncertain claims.  Which is it?

As for the Jewish majority state, Mehdi Hasan is not required to help with (or even approve of) “creating and expanding” it.  It is already created.  Nor is he opposed just to “expanding” it, but – as we have seen – to its very existence, irrespective of size and borders.

Next come the usual accusations.  Mehdi Hasan claims that in Israel
“one ethnic group is privileged over another while another group is permanently disenfranchised dispossessed and subjected to endless military occupation."
Beyond the obvious disagreement on facts (e.g. to what extent any ‘privileges’ awarded to Jews in Israel are unusual, unacceptable or fundamentally different from those awarded the majority population in other countries), I take issue with Hasan choosing to cavalierly ignore the small issue of a 100-year-old conflict.  A bitter series of wars and violent acts, accompanied by political, economic and cultural warfare, as well as continuous attempts to criminalise and deny Israel’s legitimacy.  A conflict that the Jews neither wanted nor initiated, but for which consequences Mehdi Hasan appears to make the Jewish state wholly and uniquely responsible.

Is it really fair to – on one hand – affirm the right of Arabs (including Arab citizens of Israel) to express hostility and rejection to the very existence of the state of Israel and, at the same time, demand from the Jewish state to treat that Arab minority in the most egalitarian and enlightened way possible?  When, in the whole history of mankind, has a state been held to similar standards?

But even if we were to believe (ad absurdum) that Israel and only Israel is responsible for the current situation of inequality and “endless military occupation”, it does not follow that the ‘culprit state’ should be dismantled.  Which nation state has – in the whole history of mankind – been dismantled because it ‘misbehaved’?  Which nation state has been forced to become a bi-national or multi-national state?  Even the Germans did not forfeit their right to their own nation state, despite the German state perpetrating the most hideous crimes in history!

‘Anti-Zionists’ often cite the case of Apartheid South Africa.  But, even if (again ad absurdum) we ignore all the other many, huge and obvious differences, in South Africa whites have always been a minority (less than 20% in the 1960s, less than 8% nowadays); a minority, moreover, that had no “historic connection to the land”, a typical colonial settler population.

Perhaps feeling that he stepped on uncertain ground, Hasan quickly returned to ‘demonstrating’ that the motion was unreasonable.  This time, by claiming that it would force the Palestinian themselves to embrace Zionism.  Voting in favour of the motion, he said
“means to say to that oppressed group the Palestinian people to say to them that you're either a Zionist you either subscribe to the ideology of your oppressor or you're a racist.  What kind of choice is that?"
Just in case anyone missed it, Hasan drove the point home once more during the Q & A session:
“If you vote for the motion tonight you're saying […] we all have to be Zionists otherwise we're racists, we’re bigots, we’re antisemites.  Which, look, wouldn't be the end of the world for me: fine, I'll be a Zionist if you want me to be a Zionist I mean I once almost voted Lib Dem I'm okay with labels – but to ask the Palestinians to not just accept their dispossession, their ethnic cleansing, their ongoing occupation, but to also call themselves Zionists or else… is outrageous, you can't ask Palestinians to be Zionists you just can't, and by the way if they say it's racist to oppose Zionism well it's racist to ask Palestinians not to oppose their own occupiers…"
This is, of course, just another wild spin: the choice is by no means binary.  One is not required to be either a Zionist or an ‘anti-Zionist’ – in fact most people are neither; the Palestinians are not required to support or love the State of Israel – they’re not even required to stop opposing its actions or its policies.  They are required – not by the motion proposed at a random ‘debate’ in London, but by sheer intellectual honesty – to admit that the Jews possess the same right they demand for themselves: the right to an independent nation state of their own.  Such admission would not make the Palestinians Zionists and would not prevent them from protesting or opposing the Israeli actions; but it would indeed take them out of the ranks of ‘anti-Zionists’.  Demanding such admission is not outrageous – it is logical and necessary if peace is to be made.  Most conflicts in mankind’s recent history were not over the actual existence of states – they were conflicts over borders and resources.  Which made them more amenable to resolution by concession and accommodation.

One more – not very sophisticated, but highly effective – parable, oft-used by ‘anti-Zionists’ and recited at the debate by Ilan Pappé:
“The idea that the land of Palestine is the land of Israel always when you hear it think about someone coming to you in the dead of night in London and tells you I used to live in your house 2000 years ago and because of that the house belongs to me and the next day they come with the police who says ‘they have a right, you have to give them half of their house’.”
Except that Pappé’s ‘house in London’ parable strays away from the facts of the real story in too many ‘subtle’ ways and hence cannot in any way serve as a guide to the rights and wrongs of the situation.

Here’s a more honest (if longer) parable:
My maternal grandmother was born somewhere in Eastern Europe.  Her family owned a house there.  They were all killed or made refugees in the Holocaust.  I am what’s left – and I grew up listening to my grandma’s stories, longing, dreaming, praying to be able to live in my ancestral family home.  For many years, I couldn’t: the road was long and dangerous and my persecutors wouldn’t allow it.  One day, I was finally able to go there, to reclaim my inheritance.  That’s how I found out that, as soon as my family was killed and chased away, some Polish neighbours moved in.  As the borders changed, they were also thrown out and Russians moved in their stead.  Next, there were Latvians and finally Ukrainians…  By the time I got there, a few generations of Ukrainians had lived in the house.  The people I found there thought of it as their own home; I thought of it as mine.  Someone said that the only just solution would be to partition the house into two smaller apartments.  My heart ached, but I agreed – at least this way I’d have some of my family home – and a roof over my head.  But the Ukrainians wouldn’t even hear about it and they tried to kick me out…

The Q & A session consisted of just a few questions.  Some were obvious, one or two were stupid.
Somebody asked the ‘anti-Zionists’:
“Why is Israel singled out as a human rights violator – in the United Nations, by the Labour Party, by many other entities— as compared to so many egregious violators of human rights including in the Middle East why is it consistently singled out is that not a form of anti-semitism?"
Mehdi Hasan ‘responded’ to this question by promising to challenge its premise. then he pointed out that, in a previous ‘Inteligence squared’ debate, he had harshly criticised the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  So no 'singling out', he claimed.

Of course, the premise of the question was not that Israel is singled out at the ‘Intelligence2’ debates, but “in the United Nations, by the Labour Party, by many other entities”.  Hasan did not challenge that premise, because it is very difficult to challenge it: for instance, Israel is the only country in the world for which the UN Human Rights Council maintains a permanent agenda item (‘permanent’ meaning that it has to be discussed at every session).  This ensures that resolutions condemning Israel are adopted each time the Council convenes.  In contrast, Saudi Arabia is a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, alongside other human rights stalwarts like China, Iraq, Egypt, Rwanda and Cuba.

At the debate, unfortunately, nobody pointed this out.  Or the obvious fact that no one (or, at least, no one of any consequence) talks about ‘anti-Saudism’ or even ‘anti-Wahabbism’.  The likes of Jeremy Corbyn, Ilan Pappé and Mehdi Hasan may well be using Saudi petrol to drive to ‘Boycott Israel’ demonstrations.

Perhaps the best question was one which was nearly laughed down by an already impatient audience:
“My question is why are we… this is almost masturbatory… you should pardon the expression… what is the solution… we're all thinking, kind people… what is the solution?"
It was asked in a soft voice, with apparent British courtesy – which is perhaps why none of the speakers realised that they have just been called ‘wankers’.  (As if to prove the point, none of them really attempted an honest answer, preferring instead to use the floor to try and score some extra points.)

Jokes aside, I can fully understand why the lady who asked that question referred to the ‘debate’ as masturbatory.  Masturbation may earn us some selfish pleasure – but it doesn’t create anything.  No baby was ever conceived by masturbating.  And that’s what the speakers did: they practised a form of intellectual wanking – Mehdi Hasan more than all the others.

 * * *

Mehdi Hasan won the debate.  But it is a Pyrrhic victory.  It doesn’t help the Palestinians; it doesn’t help anyone.  The entire debate can (and should) be filed under ‘more of the same’: more oil on the fire; more on how not to change anything.  More incrimination that attracts recrimination, that generates counter-recrimination…

82 years ago, when the conflict was still young, the Peel Commission diagnosed it as “fundamentally a conflict of right with right”.  My parable supports that view.

Ilan Pappé’s parable is just more intellectual masturbation – pleasurable for him no doubt, but utterly sterile.  My parable is an invitation to make love and create life.  Perhaps it’s naïve, perhaps clumsy – but at least I’m trying to do it with a partner…

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Give peace a chance!

Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ between Israelis and Palestinians may yet prove to be the Flop of the Century.  But its architects have been amazingly successful at keeping mum: I can’t remember any other political programme that has been kept so secret for so long, in the face of such keen curiosity from journalists, pundits and political adversaries.  Nobody knows what the plan is; no details have leaked, no positions have transpired.  Unheard of!

No wonder, then, that everybody is jittery: Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, left-wingers and right-wingers… Kept in the dark, they are reduced to… well… guessing.

One understands this; it’s human nature.  Guessing is one way to try and gain some control in a world plagued by uncertainty.  But assuming the worst when knowing the least is not mere guessing – it’s something else.

It may be distressing to see the Palestinian Authority rejecting the new peace plan before even knowing what it contains; but a surprise it ain’t: after all, that Authority is made up of people who make a nice living out of the status-quo; from their point of view, any change (whether led by Trump, Obama or Clinton) risks being a change for the worse.

Waaay more surprising is the deluge of negative reactions from the ranks of the self-proclaimed 'progressive', 'pro-peace' camp.  Granted, these people don’t like Trump (I’m being a bit British here: they hate his guts, actually).  But hey: God (or the forces of Dialectical Materialism) moves in mysterious ways.  After all, those same self-proclaimed 'progressive', 'pro-peace' activists like the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty; which was signed not by doves, but by right-wingers Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat.  So why not wait until a few details have been revealed about the Trump plan?  It’s likely to happen in a matter of weeks, if not days.

I find it disturbing to see so many 'pro-peace' activists ranting against a peace plan – any peace plan.  And in particular one that they (along with everybody else) know nothing about.
"Pro-peace" – but only if it's the "correct" peace.
Writing in the Times of Israel, former Knesset Member Ksenia Svetlova attacks the ‘Deal of the Century’ for trying to offer economic benefits, rather than political solutions:
“So what is left of Trump’s peace plan if we take out the whole matter of an independent Palestinian state? Only the ‘economic peace’ that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been talking about for so many years."
Following a well-known activist’s gambit (when your argument is thin or dishonest, bring up a ‘human story’ to stir up readers’ emotions), Ms. Svetlova goes on to describe the plight of… Palestinian ice-cream manufacturers.  Apparently, Israel does not allow one such manufacturer in Gaza to export its products, claiming that “it [i.e. Israel] has not yet set up the required supervisory [i.e. security] mechanisms”.  An excuse that Mr. Svetlova derides:
“The State of Israel, which has pioneered advanced technological and human capabilities to detect whether the mother of an American Jewish tourist has friends in B’tselem, has no technological solutions to enable it to inspect goods from Gaza.”
In fairness, I tend to agree with her: I’m sure a technological solution can be developed, which would allow soldiers to detect explosive material, weaponry or parts thereof frozen inside a box of ice-cream.  What is, however, less clear to me is: why would Israel use its taxpayers’ money to develop and implement such a solution in order to enable exports from a hostile territory – when the most likely outcome would be that the resulting profits (or parts thereof, at least) would end up financing Hamas’s rocket capabilities, tunnels, attempts to break into Israel and other such goals?
But it’s not just Gaza – there are apparently also ice-cream manufacturers in the West Bank.  And, while Israel in principle allows the West Bank to export its products, Ms. Svetlova tells us that in practice
“The owners of the Al-Araz ice cream plant in Nablus would also be happy to reap the economic benefits of peace. But ice cream is a delicate and fragile product, and long waits at the checkpoints do it no good."
Upon reaching that passage, I’m sure that some of Ms. Svetlova’s readers will be wiping a tear: despite their occupation-induced misery, the poor-but-brave Palestinians manage to produce a bit of ice-cream – enough to export even!  But those nasty Israelis make them wait at the checkpoints, causing the ice-cream to melt, along with the readers’ tender hearts.

Except that, in the very next sentence, we learn that the same Palestinian ice-cream manufacturer
“whose ice cream is every bit as good as its Israeli counterparts, markets to the West Bank and to Jordan, and a bit to Dubai."
Now, that’s surprising.  Because, to sell in the West Bank and Jordan, the Palestinian ice-cream has to cross checkpoints manned by the same nasty Israelis.  As for shipping to Dubai (about 1,500 miles away from Nablus), surely that takes longer than crossing even the most vicious Israeli checkpoint?
When the tears are wiped off and the brain gears engaged, one finds more than a hint of dishonesty in Ms. Svetlova’s story: ice-cream is indeed a “delicate and fragile product”; which is why it is always moved around (even in frigid Scandinavia, let alone in the torrid Middle East!) in frigorific road trucks, railway cars and shipping containers – designed to keep that product from melting, whether en-route to Dubai, Jordan, Israel  or South Patagonia.  So, whatever it is that’s preventing Al-Araz from exporting ice-cream to Israel, it is not “long waits at the checkpoints”.

But a closer look at the primary thrust of Ms. Svetlova’s article reveals that it, too, is fatally tainted by dishonesty.  After all, she describes the – yet unpublished and unknown – “Trump’s peace plan” as merely an attempt to bribe the Palestinians:
“It’s supposedly a simple idea. We’ll give the Palestinians financial incentives so that they can develop their economy, create factories and jobs, and in exchange they will cease their military and political struggle and stop dreaming of freedom and sovereignty. In exchange, the economic flourishing will bring stability and quiet to the entire region."
Having ‘established’ that, she goes on to teach us how “real life” works:
“The problem is that in real life, the economic, the military, and the political cannot be separated from one another.”
That’s a cogent argument – if one ignores the fact that it’s based on a lie.  In fact, the new peace plan’s architects have been very clear that, while the plan included economic incentives, those are designed to come alongside – not instead of – political solutions.  In fact, Jason Greenblatt – one of the plan’s main architects and, in consequence, one of the very few people who really know what it contains – made that clear repeatedly; including on 20 May, two days before Ms. Svetlova penned her diatribe.

One can argue against the ‘Trump plan’ (if one is inclined to argue against anything ‘Trump’) without resorting to dishonesty.  It would be more than legitimate to doubt, for instance, whether either economic incentives or political solutions can be delivered in practice, given that both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have already rejected them out of hand.  One can argue that, in the face of that rejection, the ‘Trump plan’ is doomed to fail.

But then, decades of two-state-solution negotiations – including those led by Ms. Svetlova’s own party – have also failed.  It is difficult to see why the same approach that failed umpteen times in the past would succeed this (umpteen + 1) time.  And it is difficult to understand what's to be gained by rejecting a new approach out of hand – before even learning what that approach actually is.

Among the cohort of critics of the yet-unpublished peace plan is the British-Jewish organisation Yachad, which describes itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace”.  The group is so keen to attack that peace plan, that it even promoted an article from Al-Monitor, a ‘news’ website accused of being a mouthpiece for the Assad regime.

Yachad added their own view:

Once I got over my awe at the stentorian tone, I asked myself: how do Yachad activists know what the “Palestinian aspiration“ is?  Beyond the rather neo-colonialist tendency of attributing to other cultures our own ‘way of doing things’?  Of course, the Palestinian Authority/PLO/Fatah screams that aspiration to the entire world.  But what does that count for?  The last (and only) time Palestinians in West Bank, Gaza and E. Jerusalem had something remotely resembling free elections, a plurality voted for Hamas – whose declared goal is certainly not a sovereign state living in peace alongside Israel.

Yachad activists have visited the West Bank and met Palestinians – typically those that are themselves activists on behalf of the same Palestinian Authority/PLO/Fatah.  I have no doubt that, when queried by some starry-eyed Yachad activist, those Palestinians delivered the ‘correct message’.  But, again, what does that count for?

The 'peace activists' will tell you a tale of across-the-board Palestinian rejection of
Trump's plan.  But, as usual, the picture is more nuanced...

As I wrote elsewhere, the Palestinians are certainly entitled to their aspirations.  But what these aspirations actually are, it’s hard to know.  If anything, the more trustworthy opinion polls show them as ambivalent at best on the issue of ‘two-states’.

In fact, I would suggest that, leaving aside the corrupt political class, the Palestinian Arab masses are yet to make up their collective mind as to how their future should look like.  And why would it be any different?  The same can be said about Arab masses at large.  The fact is that Palestinians (like other Arabs) live under dictatorial regimes, with no freedom of speech and political debate.  It does not help that they also live in an ultra-conservative society rife with taboos, in which dissent is frowned upon and worse.

Unlike certain 'peace activists', I do not think Palestinians are stupid.  Why would they 'aspire' to a "sovereign state", if that just means exchanging Israeli occupation for the local brand of corruption-cum-tyranny?  For decades, foreigners and their local allies have tried to tell Palestinian Arabs what they should 'aspire' to: pan-Arabism, Islamism, or perhaps Western-style nationalism...  The one voice we have not heard is that of the Palestinians themselves.  But that does not seem to bother self-proclaimed ‘progressives’ who feel that they know what’s good for ‘the natives’.

Doesn’t it make sense, that, in order to formulate their collective “aspiration”, Palestinian Arab masses (and Arab masses in general) need to have the tools of free expression and the economic wherewithal that would allow them to think beyond tomorrow’s meal?

For decades now, ‘peace activists’ have been yelling at me: “Give peace a chance”.  Well, I listened.  And I did: I supported the two-state solution; the Oslo Accords; the withdrawal from Lebanon; the ‘disengagement’ from Gaza.  I rooted for Barak’s proposal, for Clinton’s parameters, for Olmert’s offer.

“You failed”, I tell the ‘peace activists’.  “But no matter, I will still give peace a chance.”
“Not this one”, they respond.  “This one’s different.  It’s wrong.”
“How the hell do you know?” I blurt, befuddled.  “And what’s ‘wrong’ with ‘different’, anyway?”
“Don’t you understand?” they yell, exasperation growing into shrill hysteria.  “This is coming from TRUMP!!!”
I shrug.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019


My maternal grandmother was born in Poland; but, as a young woman, her parents sent her to Romania, to take care of a sick relative.  She got married there and stayed.  I am the random outcome of that casual fact; because that’s how she survived, while her entire family (her two parents, her six siblings, her God-only-knows-how-many aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces) disappeared. 

During a recent trip to Poland, I was able to find the only physical evidence that my grandmother's family ever existed: a Town Hall record of her birth: next to the flowery calligraphy of the Polish clerk, in the correct column, is my great-grandfather’s scribbled, shaky signature: 'Jozef'.  Jozef Tratner.
They lived in Przemyśl, then a small Polish town bisected by the river San.  On 15 September 1939, the town was occupied by the Wehrmacht; between 16 and 19 September, they rounded up and shot 600 Jews.  Then the Germans withdrew across the river, so that the eastern half of the town could be occupied by the Red Army – as per the Hitler–Stalin Pact (a.k.a. the Treaty of Non-aggression between Nazi Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics).  In the Soviet half of the town, the Jews fared only marginally better: some were shot by the NKVD; thousands were deported to unknown destinations somewhere in the USSR – few were ever seen again; the remainder were killed by the Germans, after they re-occupied the eastern half of the town in 1941.

The river San flows through Przemyśl. In September 1939, it became the border between German- and Soviet-occupied Poland.
As for my grandmother’s family, I carry many of their genes, but know little of their story.  Nobody knows when they died; or where, or how they died: whether at the hands of the Germans, of the Soviets, of Polish or Ukrainian collaborators; perhaps they succumbed to starvation, thirst, cold, disease or just to depression and despair.  I know naught about their death and very little about their life.  That’s why I said that they didn’t just die – they disappeared.  The dead are memories in the souls of the living; all I have is broken branches on a family tree.

And yet, I took no part in the Holocaust Memorial Day.  As a proud Jew, this ‘Memorial Day’ offends me.

The very name ‘Holocaust’ adds insult to injury.  Contrary to popular belief, it is not an English word – it’s Greek.  The Greek translation of the Biblical term ‘burnt offering’, which refers to an animal being sacrificed and then burnt in the Temple as homage to God.  My poor relatives might have been burned, yes; but they were no animals.

Why on earth have we taken to calling our pain by a strange and grossly inappropriate Greek name?  It already has a name: it is  השואהthe Sho’ah.  It is a fitting name, because it’s in Hebrew, not Greek: the language of the prayers that my relatives may have uttered before being murdered (not sacrificed!)  The language in which I pray for their souls.  Sho'ah is a fitting name because it has nothing to do with ‘sacrifice’: it means ‘catastrophe’ or ‘calamity’; it’s what one calls a disaster of unbearable proportions.

We stupidly, bovinely accept the offensive term ‘Holocaust’, just as we once accepted ‘antisemitism’ – a term invented by a Jew-hater intent on putting a ‘scientific’, 'modern' patina on his irrational, age-old venom.

The Sho’ah ended in 1945; but there was no ‘Holocaust Memorial Day’ until 1996, when the Germans (yes, the Germans!) decided to proclaim a Day of Remembrance for the Victims of National Socialism (Gedenktag für die Opfer des Nationalsozialismus); 5 years later, it was adopted by the United Kingdom under the current name.

But, just like our pain already had a name, it already had a Memorial Day: Yom HaSho’ah, marked by Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora since 1949!

So why this new ‘Holocaust Memorial Day’?  If the peoples of the world wish to join us in our pain, why not just adopt Yom HaSho’ah as the Sho’ah Memorial Day?  Oh, don’t be naïve, my friend: the ‘Holocaust Memorial Day’ exists precisely because it is not Yom HaSho’ah: it is a Memorial Day for the Jews, just ‘cleansed’ of any Jewish character and especially (especially!) of any ‘controversial’ association with the Jewish state.  It’s a Memorial Day for the (dead) Jews, not by the (living) Jews!

Well, I resent it.  I cannot stand it.  My relatives were not “victims of National Socialism” – they were Jews murdered because they were Jews, by Jew-haters who may or may not even have known what ‘National Socialism’ is.

And I resent the ‘symbolic’ date: 27 January, a date meant to suggest ‘liberation’ or ‘salvation’ of Jews, rather than their mass extermination by Germans, with the extensive (and occasionally enthusiastic) collaboration by members of practically every European nation. 

27 January 1945 was the date on which the Red Army ‘liberated’ Auschwitz.  Liberated?  The German troops had already fled by then; most of the prisoners had been marched off – many to their death; the few emaciated, tortured human husks that still inhabited the camp had been left to their own devices – not out of belated compassion or remorse, but simply because the Nazi death industry was running out of ‘production’ capacity. 

Sorry to rain on that touching ‘liberation’ parade.  The Red Army ‘liberated’ Auschwitz not because – between September 1939 and January 1945 – it had developed a sudden interest in saving Jews; its aim was to punish those who invaded the Russian soil in 1941 – but also to create a new political reality in Eastern Europe.

But why January 1945?  Why Auschwitz?  The Soviet Army had already encountered death camps during the previous months: on 22 July 1944, for instance, the Red Army had captured Majdanek near Lublin.  Abandoned in panic by the German guards, Majdanek was captured intact – lock, stock and gas chambers.  The extent of the crimes committed was immediately clear: there were survivors, exhumations – there was even an official inquiry report published within weeks.

A crematorium in the death camp of Majdanek
By the end of July 1944, the Red Army – in full offensive and facing increasingly crumbling Wehrmacht units – had reached the outskirts of Warsaw.  In Southern Poland, the frontline passed close to the city of Rzeszow, just 150 miles east of Auschwitz.  But then – suddenly, surprisingly – the Soviet offensive stopped in its tracks; the Red Army remained relatively passive for months, before resuming its advance in January 1945.  Why?  Because on 1 August 1944, the Polish underground Home Army (Armia Krajowa) launched an insurrection against the German occupation. 

With weapons largely stolen or captured from the Germans, the Poles embarked on the symbolic act of liberating themselves – while expecting the Red Army to take advantage and advance.  As it happened, the Polish partisans  managed to take control of most of Warsaw, as well as of Rzeszow (on 2 August) and a few other parts of the country.  But Armia Krajowa was loyal to the Polish government in exile, which resided in London and was pro-Western.  Stalin had other plans for Poland.  

Opened up for research in the 1990s, the Soviet Archives include Stalin's orders halting the Red Army offensive and forbidding it from delivering any assistance to the Polish uprising.

That is the real story behind 27 January 1945: but for Stalin’s ‘overriding’ political considerations, there is little doubt that Auschwitz would have been liberated in August 1944.  Tens of thousands of Jews would have been counted among the survivors.  Unlike in the case of Majdanek, at Auschwitz the SS had time: time to dismantle crematoria and hide evidence; time to ‘liquidate’ many of the prisoners and time to march away others, into the deadly January cold.

But let’s not pick on the Soviets; there’s plenty of guilt to go around.  There’s hardly a nation in Europe and the Americas that did not contribute – directly or indirectly – to the murder of six million Jews.  Some murdered them with their own hands, others ‘just’ handed them over to the Nazis; some closed their borders, others their hearts; some sought ‘diplomatic solutions’ with mass murderers, others deemed ‘a few Jews’ a price worth paying for ‘world peace’.

Few had any interest in ‘liberating’ or saving Jews – and nobody wanted to go to war for them.

Even after the magnitude of the horror became officially known, few managed to muster more than nominal compassion for the survivors.  ‘Recognising’ that most of the surviving Jews ‘could not be reintegrated’ in Europe, the British government was planning to ship them to South America.  Excerpts from a 31 July 1946 contribution to a House of Commons debate, by British Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morisson:
[B]y assisting to reestablish political and economic stability in Europe, we should continue to contribute to the restoration of those basic conditions which will make possible the reintegration in Europe of a substantial number of displaced persons, including Jews. [...]
But, when all that is possible has been done in Europe, it is clear that new homes must be found overseas for many whose ties with their former communities have been irreparably broken.  [...]
Plans are in preparation, in cooperation with the nations concerned, for resettling large numbers of displaced persons in Brazil and other South American countries.

* * *

But those days are gone.  And why wouldn’t they?  It’s all in the past.  Auschwitz is but a museum; the hundreds of thousands of survivors are no longer wondering across Europe; most are no longer around – and nor are the perpetrators; and so the few remaining survivors – the children of Auschwitz, now old and decrepit – can safely be celebrated as “victims of National Socialism”.

‘We’ are oh-so progressive now; so liberal; so determinedly anti-fascist in a world with so few overt fascists.  We are the good guys; so let’s commemorate the ‘Holocaust’, folks!  Or better still, ‘the Holocausts’. 

So what if two thirds of Brits do not know how many Jews were killed in ‘the Holocaust’?  So what if 1 in 20 believes there hasn’t been a ‘Holocaust’ at all?  If 1 in 10 believes that “Jews exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own purposes”?  Sure, sure, we need to deal with this ignorance – education and all that jazz.

But the important, the really important and urgent thing is not to remember just the Jews – there were others who suffered.  What about the Rwandans?  The Cambodians?  The Armenians?  The Bosnians?  Most importantly, what about… what about THE PALESTINIANS??? 

In the name of 'support for the Palestinians', the 'Holocaust Memorial Day' is becoming a 'Jews-Bashing Day' (see  On 27 January 2013, British MP David Ward declared himself "saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza."

What about the trans-Atlantic slave trade?  What about colonialism, imperialism, racism, sexism – what about capitalist exploitation??  No, no, we cannot possibly have a Memorial Day for just one Holocaust; especially not for the Jews – who are, let’s face it – when all is said and done, white privileged persons.  No, we’re going to have a Holocausts Memorial Day, a Genocides Memorial Day; or better, a Human Suffering Memorial Day.  A day in which we remember all those who suffered – throughout history and in all places; a Super-Universal & Über-Politically Correct Day for Remembering Everything & Everybody Who Ever Suffered on Earth & Throughout the Universe!  Without Prejudice & Irrespective of Race, Nationality, Ethnicity, Sexual Orientation & Gender Self-Definition, Of All Faiths or None... (that should cover everything, I hope!)

On 27 January 2011, then Labour Party MP and now leader Jeremy Corbyn proposed that the name 'Holocaust Memorial Day' be changed to 'Genocide Memorial Day – Never Again For Anyone'.

Labour Party activist Jackie Walker (now suspended) claims that Jews are privileged in "a hierarchy of race" and that the Holocaust Memorial Day ignores "other genocides".

Did I say I was a proud Jew?  That was soooo racist of me!  What I am is a proud human being… err… I mean a progressive inhabitant of the Universe, whether human or otherwise, it doesn’t matter now does it??  I swear I'm not Earth-centric, it was just a slip of tongue!

I am so ashamed, please, please forgive my former caveman… err… caveperson mentality!  I abjure, I abjure...  I abjure my heresies: my racist tendency to mourn my relatives, rather than all relatives!  My neo-con reluctance to thank the world for our liberation; my right-wing propensity to burden the world with guilt for just one Holocaust

I abjure my rootless cosmopolitanism, my dangerous nationalism; my bolshevism and my capitalism; my cowardice, my militarism; I confess all those sins.

I abjure Satan, Trump and Netanyahu; I affirm Noam Chomsky, I give myself to Intersectionality.

But please, I beg you: could you find it in your oh-so generous, universalist hearts to forgive me for that particular pain I’m still feeling?