Sunday, 2 April 2017

European Dis-Union: good Ideas, bad Ideologues

Exhibit A: the Europound
Almost two decades ago (wow!) I was with a small group of colleagues from my MBA class.  We were dissecting UK Government’s refusal to adopt the Euro.  There were plenty of economic arguments and counter-arguments, before the only Brit in the group opined: “Well, we might have adopted it.  All they had to do was allow us to call it ‘the British pound’ and have the Queen on it…”
Because I am such a miserable nitpicker, I had to say that it also needed to be called ‘the Scottish pound’ in Scotland…  He shrugged, as in “ok, so what?”
Exhibit B: Limburg
I had once been offered a job in Dutch Limburg.  I had never been there and knew very little about that small finger of Dutch territory wedged between Belgium and Germany.  So I went over to have a look.  And how does one get acquainted with people inhabiting sleepy villages and small provincial towns?  I stepped into a pub and ordered a glass of the frothy local beer.
As soon as they realised I was a foreigner, everybody talked English to me: the Dutch are proud of their heritage as worldwide traders – speaking ‘international English’ is almost part of the national character.  So I had a bit of light conversation over my glass of beer, before asking, in a more serious tone: “Will I have to learn Dutch?”.  “Nah,” said the tall, blond youngster at the nearby table.  “Everybody speaks English around here…”  “Yes, it’s true,” opined the older barman, “we all speak English.  But if you want to integrate socially…  At home, with friends we don’t speak English, you know.”  “Oh,” I said, “then I will have to learn Dutch.”  The barman scratched his head a bit, as if weighing his reply: “I didn’t say that.  You see, we all speak perfect Dutch and decent English.  But at home, with family and friends, we speak the local language, we call it Limburgisch.  Dutch people north from here don’t understand it.”  “Oh,” I said.  “Then I’d have to learn Limburgisch.  Is it hard?”  “Not hard,” reassured the barman, but then scratched his head again.  “Not our Limburgisch.  See, it depends where you want to live.  The thing is… on this side of the river we speak one kind of Limburgisch, but the villages on the other side use a different kind.  That one’s I think more difficult.  We don’t really understand their Limburgisch, we mostly use Dutch to talk to them…”
Exhibit C: Veneto
Accompanied by our Italian agent, I was visiting customers in Italy and came upon a factory on the outskirts of a small town, not far from Venice.  The manager received us with that special warmth (mixed with quite a bit of relief) reserved in provincial Italy for foreigners who speak Italian.  We soon plunged into pre-business small talk: where Italian males are involved, that always focuses on football, race cars and – once the ice breaks (and it breaks quite easily) – women.  But after a few minutes, we were interrupted by a cheerful ringtone.  “I’ve got to take this” said our host with a disarming smile and proceeded to have three minutes of phone conversation in a foreign language.  So foreign, in fact, that I couldn’t even identify it or assign it to a recognisable linguistic group.  “It was my mum,” the guy said by way of apology, while carelessly placing the mobile phone back on the desk.  “She obviously isn’t Italian,” I ventured, out of sheer curiosity.  “Of course she is” he said, surprised by my remark.  Claudio, our Milanese agent, intervened: “Lots of people in Italy don’t speak ‘standard Italian’ at home.  Around here, they speak ‘Veneto’, the local dialect.”  “Dialect?” I said, “I couldn’t understand a word of it.”  “I know,” replied Claudio, “neither can I.  It’s not Italian, it’s really a different language...”
Exhibit D: Wales
My parents came to visit me on my first stint in England.  I used a short University break to drive them around and happened upon a historic town in North Wales.  My guidebook suggested visiting an ancient church, quaintly incorporated into the town’s defensive wall.  We stepped in, but had to wait for the service to end, before we could visit the place.  As soon as the service was over, the priest came to bid us welcome.  When he learned we were foreigners – my English was heavily accented and my parents had none – he made a point of explaining: “I speak English, as you can hear; but we are not English, we are Welsh.  Among ourselves we speak Welsh, which is my mother tongue and so it is for most people here.  We are an ancient people, with an ancient language of our own…”
Exhibit E: the Idiot
I have gradually learned that these were not exceptions, but rather constituted the rule.  Where I went skiing (quaint little towns and villages in Val di Fassa), everybody spoke to me in ‘standard Italian’; but among themselves they spoke Ladino, a language I could not understand.  A few miles away, on a different Italian valley, they speak a particular German dialect, hard to understand even for Germans.  In Switzerland, even neighbouring villages speak different dialects of Sweitzerdeutsch, French or Romansh.  In Barcelona, locals speak Catalan and various dialects of that language are spoken in parts of France and Italy.  And I could go on and on…  It fascinates me!
This is Europe: a patchwork of cultures, sub-cultures, mini- and micro-cultures, which took centuries to adhere – some still very loosely – to larger ethnic or national groups.  Yes, this is Europe: an eclectic, colourful mosaic, much like the tinted windows that adorn its churches.  Travel just a few miles and hear a different tongue; admire a different architecture; taste a different food; slacken your thirst with a different beverage.
And this is why I love Europe – despite the awful history, despite the genocide, despite the seemingly incurable antisemitism.  Europe is interesting, it’s exciting, it’s beautiful – because it’s so diverse.  Because ‘Europe’ as a concept belongs to physical geography and to foreigners like myself.  Europeans do not feel European – they feel Italian, French, German…  Who would want a grey, uniform, boring ‘Europe’?  Who would want a world resembling Mao’s China?
Mao thought that 'equality' means 'uniformity'
(a common mistake among Ideologues).
Hence, he forced the Chinese to dress in some
sort of uniform. 'Forced', because most people
don't want to.
Some would, it seems.  A few years ago, I heard a talk delivered by a young guy from the Israel Democracy Institute – a self-described ‘progressive’ outfit.  At some point, the speaker referred rather disparagingly to the concept of ‘Jewish state’, or ‘State of the Jews’.  After the talk, I asked him why he thought ‘Jewish state’ was worse than ‘Finnish state’ or, for that matter, ‘Palestinian state’.  He gave me a thin, superior smile.  “I could focus narrowly on your question”, he said, before intoning sententiously, preacher-like, down his nose.  “But the truth is that, for us liberals, this whole notion of ‘nation state’ is wrong.  It belongs to the past.  We need to strive for a world without borders, without states, without identity politics, a world where people are just that – people and nothing else.”
But why, I inquired, why do “us liberals” “need to strive” for such a world?  I got the clear impression that my question both unsettled and annoyed him – in the way adults are unsettled and annoyed when children demand explanations for something very obvious; like ‘why is there a sun?’, or ‘why do people have to die?’
He took a good minute to formulate an answer and finally said (or, rather, proclaimed): “For starters, there would be no wars.”  I pointed out that historically wars preceded by far the formation of nation states.  “Yeah, yeah,” he said, this time visibly annoyed, “but all the recent wars were the result of nationalism.”  Not so, I pointed out.  Word War I was a war of empires – the very opposite of nation states.  War World II erupted because of a racialist, not nationalist world view; one that divided people by animal-like biological characteristics, rather than cultural identity and a sense of belonging.  The Cold War – arguably the most serious threat to mankind’s very survival – had been motivated by ideological, not national differences.
I could have added that some of the bloodiest, most horrific wars had been ‘civil wars’, pursued across no borders and not by nation states.  But by then the Idiot had had enough of my childish questioning and argumentation.  He did not know why his ideology was the ‘correct’ one; he just ‘knew it was’.
The Ideologues
Once, there lived an Idea.  Then came the Ideologues.
There’s nothing wrong with the idea of a European bloc.  The continent had emerged from yet another horrible ‘hot’ war, straight into the throes of a ‘cold’ one.  There’s nothing more conducive of peace and understanding than common interests (other than a common enemy, that is).
First there was a trade agreement.  And the People saw it’s good and liked that.
Then there was a common market.  And the People saw it’s good and liked that, too.
Then there was a political alliance.  And the People saw it’s also good and liked that.
Then the Ideologues decided it’s got to be more, much more; and called it a Union.  The People didn’t like that, but kept quiet.  World was created by words; but not all words will create new worlds.
But the Ideologues set out to actually create a Union.  And not any-old ‘Union’, but an ‘ever closer union’.  Like America, only much better.  But Europe is not America.  It’s different.  Not better or worse, mind you, only different.  Americans descend from those who left in order to be different.  Europeans – from the ones that stayed and found ways to be different.  An ‘ever closer union’?  The People did not think it’s good; and they certainly did not like that.
But the Ideologues wanted to do it anyway, behind People's back.  They knew they were right, they just had trouble ‘persuading the masses’.  But, deep inside, what Ideologue really cares about the backward, unenlightened, non-elite ‘masses’?  Don't adults know better what’s good for the children?  Pursuit of The One & Only Correct Ideology cannot be left to ‘the masses’; it’s the job of "us liberals", of the progressive vanguard.
But the People were angry because Their Will was disregarded.  And there was Brexit.
Nobody really likes the European ‘Union’.  Nobody says it’s good.  Its defenders portray it, at best, as the lesser evil.  Even its staunchest supporters – the ultimate Ideologues – admit that it’s in need of radical change.
Whether Brexit (as opposed to change from within) was the best way to go – I don't know.  It's by now a moot point.  The United Kingdom (or at least an England-dominated federation called ‘United Kingdom’) will survive Brexit.  The European-Union-as-we-know-it will not.  It’s not that other countries will decide to follow the example and exit – not necessarily.  It’s that the tensions caused by negotiating Brexit will further reveal and much accentuate the different (and often diverging) interests of the remaining 27 nations.  They will increasingly remember that they are, in fact, nations.
Contrary to what Ideologues dream, one can write a book about Life; but one cannot force life to follow the Book.  Whether that's the Bible, the Torah, the Qur'an or the Little Red Book.
Contrary to what Ideologues believe, people don't want to be equal – they want to be special and exceptional.  We want equality of opportunities, not equality of outcomes.  That's what drives human progress – the real one, not that of self-proclaimed 'progressives'.
Contrary to what Ideologues think, being an ‘internationalist’ can be much worse than being a nationalist.
Contrary to what Ideologues say, "us liberals" do not "need" to do away with borders, or with nation states, or with our treasured identity.  And We The People certainly do not want to.
Contrary to what Ideologues claim, ‘union’ does not preserve diversity – it destroys it.  Most people like a crusty pizza, or a juicy coq-au-vin, because they enjoy the colour, flavour and texture of the various ingredients.  But put the same stuff in a liquefier and turn it into a grey mush – who would want to eat that?
Contrary to what Ideologues preach, identity does not prevent us from being 'just human beings' – it makes us human beings.  Identity is an anchor; cutting oneself loose does not make one a better person.  It makes one a rudderless ship, drifting in search of ‘a cause’.  Or – truth be told – in search of some meaningful interaction with other human beings.  That is, in search of a new anchor, in search of (some other) identity.
Nobody really wants a European ‘Union’.  The European bloc may survive, but only if rolled back to what it should be – a common market and a political alliance.  Time to save the European Idea from the Ideologues.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Why the settlements?

Israel’s many adversaries always refer to Jewish civilian presence beyond the Green Line as ‘the illegal Israeli settlements’.  I have often wondered why they feel the need to stress that ‘illegal’ attribute.  After all, nobody says ‘illegal theft’ or ‘illegal murder’.  Perhaps it’s a case of “the lady doth protest too much”: anti-Israel activists wish to persuade themselves – and others – that the settlements are indeed illegal.  Because that’s not at all obvious.

But even among those who are generally supportive of Israel, the settlements are controversial.  Just recently, over a dinner table, a friend (one who’s a staunch supporter of Israel) has expressed some sharp criticism of Israeli government’s latest bout of ‘settlement construction’.

So, even if legal, are settlements the smart thing to do?  Are they ‘good for the Jews’?  Why the settlements?

For some, the answer is trivial: Netanyahu is either himself an extremist, or is just a political hostage to extremist elements in his coalition.  Unfortunately for its promoters, this facile answer does not withstand serious scrutiny.  In reality, every Israeli government in history (left, right and centre) has expanded settlements.  And not because of ‘pressure from the settler movement’ – not really.  In truth, that movement is far from wielding the political power that some ‘liberals’ appear to attribute it.  Those self-proclaimed liberals often quote the number of ‘600,000 settlers’.  That sounds like a large number, before one realises it includes everybody who happens to live beyond the Green Line: non-Zionist charedim, run-of-the-mill families looking for affordable housing in some Jerusalem suburb, left-leaning Jordan Valley farmers…  600,000 is less than 7% of Israel’s population and ‘ideological settlers’ represent just a fraction of that.  Wanna know how powerful the settler movement really is?  Just look at its utter impotence when it comes to preventing evacuation of settlements: in Sinai in 1982, in Gaza in 2005, in the West Bank in 2017

To starry-eyed ‘internationals’ who view ‘Palestine’ as some sort of primeval, pastoral Middle Earth, the reason for ‘settlements’ is a blatant ‘land grab’ fuelled by typical Jewish greed (shhh – don’t talk like that, say ‘Zionist greed’!)  The Jewish state just wants more land.  But – let's do away with the deliberately misleading numbers produced on request and in return for generous 'grants' by dishonest ‘NGOs’ – settlements occupy (after 50 years of ‘colonisation’) less than 2% of the West Bank.  Hey, that must be the most incompetent land grab in history!  Well, that's only surprising to ignorants and fools.  Sure, Judea and Samaria are cradles of Jewish civilisation; names like Hebron resonate deeply in Jewish consciences.  But most Israelis have never set foot in the West Bank, nor do they particularly wish to.  Kosovo may be the cradle of Serbian nationalism and Southern Slavic Christianity; but these days, it happens to be inhabited mostly by Muslim Albanians!

So why not ‘freeze’ the settlements?  Why continue to build in the West Bank homes (or ‘settlements’, or ‘settlement units’, as the anti-Israel crowd likes to call them), in the face of international opprobrium?

Well, the real answer is easy – just not easy to admit for any of the officials in charge.  The truth is that verbal condemnation of Israel has become an obligatory rite in international politics.  The ‘Arab World’ (nearly 400 million people and most of the global reserves of oil and gas) demands it; the ‘Muslim World’ (nearly a quarter of the global population, more than a quarter of votes at the UN General Assembly) expects it.

For many a third world dictator who happens to be Arab or Muslim, ‘Palestine’ provides a godsend opportunity to channel the population’s pent-up frustrations away from his fat behind and from the sumptuous throne it rests on; for many a politician in the rest of the world, condemnation of Israel is the key to Arab benevolence and to quiet among the growing Muslim minority at home.  Settlements are a win-win proposition for both Arab/Muslim despots and for more-or-less-democratic politicians: the former can point at ‘universal condemnation of…’ as an achievement, as evidence of both zeal and power; the latter can get away with the cheap sacrifice of condemning ‘settlements,’ while cultivating everything else that Israel has to offer.

But why should Israel collaborate in this farce?  Why play a part in that charade, why supply fuel to that fire?  Here’s why: were it not for ‘the settlements’, something else ‘Israeli’ would have to be condemned.  The truth may be disheartening, but it’s still the truth: what extensive parts of the Arab and Muslim population (spurred on by persistent religious incitement) object to is not really Israel’s ‘occupation which began in 1967’, but the ‘occupation and colonisation’ of ‘Muslim land’ which started in the 19th century and culminated with the establishment of the modern Jewish state on what is, doctrinally speaking, Dar al-Islam.  That’s why the need to perform ritual condemnations of Israel did not diminish when Israel evacuated Sinai and Gaza.  That’s why it wouldn’t diminish if Israel stopped ‘settlementing’ altogether, or even if it evacuated every single West Bank settler.  Simply, something else would need to be condemned – and that something is likely to be more harmful, more toxic in practical political terms for the Jewish state’s international standing.

Settlements are not just a win-win.  They are a win-win-win.  From Israel’s point of view, they perform the function of a lightning rod; they are a relatively benign sacrifice on the altar of international hypocrisy.  The settlement in Hebron may be a sore point on Israel’s public image; but it keeps Tel Aviv, Haifa, the Galilee and the Negev firmly in the realm of international consensus.

Yes, it’s a dishonest charade – but isn’t everything else in international politics?  Stop the settlements?  God no, that’d be a disaster!  Israel will keep ‘settlementing’ – at a slow, measured pace, but with much fanfare.  Settlements will continue to be the focus of lots of righteous indignation from many a holier-than-thou imbecil.  Peace – with all that it entails – will come eventually, when the Arab world gets rid, once and for all, of its real oppressors and of their toxic heritage.  Meanwhile, Israel will continue to develop and prosper.  By all means – criticise the ‘settlements’, folks!  Here’s a piece of ancient Middle Eastern wisdom: ‘the dogs are barking, but the caravan moves on'...

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The President That Didn’t

A youthful promise: Senator Obama
Former US Presidents resemble zombies: physically, they seem alive; but for all practical purposes, they are as good as dead.  That’s why any attempt to sum up their term in office inevitably sounds like an obituary.

About nine years ago, a relatively young, unknown US senator was bursting into the limelight of world’s attention, as presidential candidate.  Although few would admit it, it was – initially at least –the colour of his skin and his unusual name that made him a favourite, not just among African Americans, but also among liberals of every race and nationality, those eagerly seeking oppressed minorities in need of saving.

But Barack Obama was not just another African American candidate.  He was the perfect one: the exact opposite not just of George W. Bush, but also of Jesse Jackson.  He won over large parts of the American mainstream vote, because he was calm and not angry; because his demeanour was cerebral, rather than emotional; because he spoke on behalf of all Americans, not in the name of African Americans.  More than his policies, his charisma, his personal charm and his obvious intelligence carried him to fair and square victory not in one, but in two presidential elections.

Luck was on his side, too: he presided over no major national calamity – no 9/11, no Hurricane Katrina; by the time he took the helm, the worst of the credit crunch was over – and that financial disaster certainly couldn’t be attributed to him.

President Obama's second term job approval percentages

He seemed to hold (no pun intended!) all the trump cards.  And yet… and yet Barack Obama spent the bulk of his second presidential term with negative approval rates.  Why?

To understand the reason, one has to go back in time, to 22 January 2009.  In his second day in office, newly-anointed US President Barack Obama issued his first Executive Order: he directed that the Guantánamo Bay prison camp be closed within a year.

Yes, within a year.  But, eight years later, ‘Gitmo’ is still there – and around five dozen prisoners still linger in geographical and legal limbo.  Obama’s supporters will say that his deep, sincere desire to close down Guantánamo has been not just opposed, but sabotaged at every step.  And perhaps it was.  But that’s no excuse for a man in his position: after all, it was another US President (Truman) who displayed on his desk a sign with the wistful words ‘The buck stops here!’

More than anything else, it is the Guantánamo debacle that characterises Obama’s presidency.  And, more than anything else, that combination of good intentions and little to show for them explains the popular verdict of under-performance.  Because, in the eyes of the most pragmatic nation on earth, he seemed to want a lot, but do very little.  Sure, he was opposed; no doubt, the US political system – designed by America’s Founding Fathers above all to prevent tyranny – strongly curtails presidential power.  And yet, ‘The buck stops here!’  Navigating that difficult political system (not by issuing executive orders, but by cajoling and threatening, by wheeling and dealing) is – or should be – one of the President’s most essential skills.

Nobody gains respect by failing.  And when one is President of the United States of America and fails to implement what is – when all is said and done – an internal American decision, how can that President gain enough respect, how can he gather sufficient clout to implement foreign policy?  To carry with him, by dangling hopes and fears, other leaders – with smaller economic resources, but perhaps larger egos and stronger determination?

On the international scene, where America is either a leader or a scapegoat, Barack Obama just didn’t.

He was ideologically favourable to the Arab Spring and wanted to help – but didn’t; he wanted to save the Libyans – but didn’t: that failed state is no longer a country; nor is Syria – another place where Obama didn’t; Egypt’s anti-Islamist regime now draws succour from the Saudi theocracy, not from the US democracy, whose President just didn’t.

For the first time in a long while, Russia felt its heavy fists free to punch – not just in Ukraine, but in the Middle East.  Secure in the knowledge that the President That Didn’t – wouldn’t.

In 2012, the Obama Administration announced – with quite a bit of fanfare – a dramatic change of foreign policy focus, a ‘strategic pivot to Asia’.  Can someone tell me – without hours of intricate research and scalp scratching – what are the top three moves United States did as part of that new strategy?

That new US strategy was supposed – as everybody understood – to reassert and defend America’s interests in the face of China, with its newly found economic might, political weight and augmented military capability.  I won’t even discuss whether the ‘pivot’ was a sensible decision.  Wisely or not, the US Administration had decided to ‘pivot’.  Only… it didn’t.  Last time I looked, China was still building up its military and civilian presence in disputed South China territories.  Beijing has brushed aside with contempt a UN tribunal’s ruling, which rejected the Chinese territorial claims.  The United States did… exactly nothing.  ‘Pivot’ – my foot!

Not only ‘the enemies’ were contemptuous, however.  Even America’s closest allies were left unimpressed.  In October 2013 (i.e., in the midst of the American ‘pivot’), then British Chancellor George Osborne made a widely publicised visit to China, in search of tighter trade links.  Oblivious of the ‘special relationship’ between the United Kingdom and the (‘pivoting’) United States, Mr. Osborne declared (in a public speech and without even blushing) that the UK and China had "much in common".  That overture was followed less than a year later by the visit to the UK of China’s Prime Minister.  China’s President was given a red carpet reception when he visited the UK in 2015 – and a very thick carpet it was, too!

Israel is another ‘special relationship’ ally.  Soon after being sworn in for his first presidential term, Obama publicly pointed at Israel’s West Bank settlements as the main obstacle to the ‘two state solution’.  Eight years and about 200,000 ‘settlers’ later, Secretary of State Kerry tells us that... they still are.  Little has changed – if one ignores the difference between Obama’s cold, measured delivery and Kerry’s strident ‘gewalt!’

Now, there is much to be said – and much has already been said – on whether ‘the settlements’ are indeed the problem, or whether ‘two states’ is really the solution.  But that’s not the point.  The point is: if Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, believes that they are and that it is; if, moreover, the issue is so hugely important to him as to qualify for the very last gesture of his presidency, then how come he didn’t manage to do a thing about it?  In eight years of being the uncontested leader of the most powerful nation on earth?  Sure, sure, there are mitigating factors: Netanyahu is obstinate… or perhaps the Palestinians are vengeful and intractable…  Whatever: ‘The buck stops here!’  The bottom line is: the President didn’t.

I’ve no idea if Trump will be a better, or a worse President.  Who knows?  I claim no clairvoyance towards the future.  But I can analyse the past and one thing is clear: 2017 finds America with colder friends and bolder enemies than it had in 2009.  As for Barack Obama, he is about to enter history as The President That Didn’t.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Sara Hirschhorn discovers America

American born and schooled, Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn currently lives in Oxford, UK, where she is a low-level academic specialising… no, not in American studies (they are so passé!), but in ‘Israel studies’.  As in ‘the study of Israel’s many sins’.  The State of Israel, that is; not Israel from the story of the Golden Calf.

Dr. Hirschhorn is one of those annoying people who habitually divide mankind into two very distinct categories: ‘liberals’ (a.k.a. ‘progressives’) and ‘the others’.  The former category consists of people who largely think like Sara Hirschhorn; ‘the others’ – well, the others are regarded like some sort of cavemen.  As an academic with scientific methods and ethics, Dr. Hirschhorn extends that clear-cut division into the realm of ideas, behaviours and policies: they are either ‘liberal’ (i.e. ‘good’ in her estimation) or ‘illiberal’ (‘bad’, ‘evil’, ‘right-wing’, ‘conservative’, or any other contempt-filled, offense-sounding name you can think of).  It's a new form of racism, if you ask me: one that judges people not by the colour of their skin, but by the perceived colour of their thought patterns.

Still, it turns out that splitting the world in this manner is an excellent way to make friends, because self-appointed ‘liberals’ style themselves a kind of elite club.  They are tightly bound together – though not so much by mutual empathy, but by disgust with the unenlightened rest of the world.

It’s very difficult to find an exact, agreed and comprehensive definition of what is ‘liberal’ as opposed to ‘illiberal’.  After all, the colour of ideas is less obvious than one's skin complexion.  However, the self-proclaimed liberals appear to know the difference, without a moment’s hesitation and beyond the shadow of a doubt.  This reminds me of another American, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart.  At pains to define what constitutes ‘hard-core pornography’, he resorted to the by-now famous subterfuge: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

Likewise, Dr. Hirschhorn knows ‘illiberal’ when she sees it.  But to see things, one has to look – and her gaze is focused, laser-style, on just one small dot on the world’s map.  I’ve never heard her complain about the treatment of women or gays in the Arab world, in most of Africa and in several non-Arab, but Muslim-majority lands; nor about religious intolerance and supremacism in some of the same places.  Not once did I hear her calling for civil rights in those (many) parts of the world in which dictators rule with iron fists; or even about the many problems that plague democratic Europe and her own homeland – the United States of America.  But I did hear her (many times) raising her voice against that 'decidedly illiberal’ stance of Israel’s government(s) and of the best part of Israel’s society.  Of course, you may say, she is a lecturer in ‘Israel studies’.  But that’s circular logic, friends: she is – because she chose to be.  Sara Hirschhorn knows ‘illiberal’ when she sees it.  And she sees it in Israel; because that’s where she’s looking and that’s what she wants to see.  She is one of those ‘liberals’ obsessed with finding faults in Middle East’s only liberal democracy.

I’ve been aware of all that for a while now – but wasn’t moved to write a blog about it.  True, the arrogance and elitism of self-styled ‘liberals’ is not just vexing, but harmful.  It has unbalanced the political spectrum in many a democracy, because these ‘head-in-the-clouds progressives’ (whether in USA, in Europe or in Israel) have lost touch not just with the reality, but also with the masses they purport to care about; hence, leaving the middle ground and less-bridled power to the ‘illiberals’.  Too impractical and extreme to function as either leaders or effective parliamentary opposition, the self-defined ‘liberals’ increasingly head towards the fringes of the political discourse.  Still, Dr. Hirschhorn is but one small misplaced (and misguided) pawn in this lame cohort – hence my past reluctance to waste any ink on her paltry ‘academic’ activity.

Until recently, that is.  Because recently, Sara Hirschhorn has penned an article in Ha’aretz (an ‘Israeli’ newspaper read mostly in English – and mostly outside Israel).  In it, Dr. Hirschhorn recounts how she… discovered America.  More precisely, she has discovered something we all knew: that in the Golden Diaspora (i.e., in places like USA and UK, where Jews tend to be financially affluent and overt antisemitism can still be swept under the proverbial carpet), there is a growing segment of alienated Jewish youth.  Oh, wow!  The only surprising thing is that it took Sara (an expert in 'Israel studies') so long to make that grandiose discovery.

Her article is titled ‘Liberal Zionists, we lost the kids’ (rather than the more honest ‘Liberal Zionists, we led the kids astray’).  It goes on to diagnose that
“Diaspora Jewish teens' radical dissociation from Israel is not about the settlements or the occupation. They're ashamed to be associated with Zionism.”
No s**t, Sara!  Err… could you please wait here, while I climb to the roof and yell a huge ‘I toooold you so’, at the top of my (admittedly far from impressive) lungs?

Using the ‘anecdotal evidence’ of a recent session she led with 14 to 18-year old Jewish Oxfordians, Dr. Hirschhorn’s article goes on to describe a complete emotional detachment of the ‘sophisticated pluralistic’ Jewish kids from Israel and Zionism.  Which leads her to wail:
“My conclusion?  ‘Ashamnu’ [we are guilty].  We must atone, for we have failed an entire generation.”
Not that Sara sees the reality as it is, even in this 12th hour.  She still entertains the illusion that, while showing signs of “radical dissociation from Israel”, these kids will still remain good Jews:
“they’re conversant in the rituals, festivals, and traditions of Judaism. All had visited Israel at least once (over 80% of British teens have done so) and many had relatives there.  All in all, it would be fair to characterize them as a Jewishly engaged, and well-educated in both secular and religious knowledge…”
The problem is that being “conversant in the rituals, festivals, and traditions of Judaism” means very little.  Being a Jew is not about “religious knowledge” (or any knowledge), nor is it necessarily about ritual.  It’s about Jewish feeling.  Which is sorely missing in these kids, raised to feel British (though usually not ‘English’!) and ‘fit in’ (read: assimilate) in their ‘multicultural society’.  60%, perhaps 70% of them will marry out – which means that only a fraction of their children will be raised Jewish; and even many of those with Jewish partners will grow estranged to the point where they can only be described in honesty as ‘of Jewish descent’.

These kids have typically been born in safety and affluence.  They have been sheltered not just from expressions of overt antisemitism, but also from the knowledge that antisemitism exists.  Even before becoming exposed to Sara and her ‘liberal’ ilk, they have been fed (in school if not in their families) a diet of ‘political correctness’ designed to engineer Utopia – but in reality stifling independent thought.  Sure, they might have flown to Israel for a few days, to visit an uncle; but nobody cared to explain the conflict to them – after all why expose such sweet kids to something as gross as ethnic and religious strife?  But they did learn about the conflict, of course; from the media – and from the ‘liberals’.

So why is Sara Hirschhorn surprised that these assimilated kids
 “don’t feel that there is anything special or desirable about the world's one State for the Jews.”?
But beyond the expression of ‘surprise’ (whether feigned or genuine), what is annoying is that she continues to direct her learned discourse to that elite club of ‘liberal Zionists’; who are, I dare say, neither – except in their own estimation.  And who are among the main culprits, the main ‘architects’ of the disastrous state of affairs she describes.

For years now, Sara Hirschhorn, Yachad, New Israel Fund and their ilk have kept busy bashing Israel’s ‘illiberal’ behaviour; they made a hobby of it and sometimes a profession.  For years, they have denigrated the Jewish state only a notch less than has the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.  They have invited ‘personalities’ from the dark fringes of Israel’s extra-parliamentary far-left to ‘explain’ (read: propagandise) to largely ignorant, inexperienced kids about Israel’s outlandish crimes: occupation, settlements, discrimination… you know the list.  Not a word of praise have they uttered for the Jewish state’s many achievements: for the vibrant culture, for the technology genius, for the obstinate attachment to freedom and democracy, even in the face of berserk hatred and violence.  How self-righteously they magnified every flaw and how thoroughly they ignored all merit!  Frantically they piled opprobrium, as if Israel was the world’s most ‘illiberal’ nation.

Imagine: all that on top of the ‘multicultural education’ British kids get in school – an ‘education’ designed to brainwash them out of identity and culture.  Add to that the ‘liberal’ media’s relentless assault on Israel’s humanity, let alone legitimacy.

From her ivory tower, Sara Hirschhorn herself has been droning away about ‘the settler movement’ – at the very time our kids were told that Jews ‘colonised Palestine’.

She has been preaching about ‘Israeli ultra-nationalism’ – when our kids have been brainwashed into believing that nationalism is nothing but a polite word for fascism.  No wonder that the kids felt that
 “it just wasn’t PC to have your own sovereign entity anymore, especially if motivated by the symbols and values of Jewish particularism…”
Pray tell me, Sara, what did you think?  Did you really believe that you could bash Israel day-in and day-out; that you could relentlessly ‘expose’ her failings – with no comparison, no context and no point of reference; that you could add your voice to that of Israel’s many enemies, while proclaiming your ‘liberal Zionism’.  Did you really think that you could do all that, but still expect the kids to be proud of Israel?  To feel for her?  Did you really think that you could wax lyrical about ‘multiculturalism’, while expecting them to remain Jews?  Did you, Sara?  How stupid!

Take a good look at yourselves, self-styled ‘liberals’!  You have not just failed a generation – you have failed your own ideals.  You managed to define ‘liberal’ in a way that can really be translated as ‘amorphous’ and ‘devoid of identity’.  You managed to create a contradiction between ‘progressive’ and ‘Jewish’ – forcing your hapless audience to make a choice between the two.  Your unhealthy and (truth be told) very illiberal obsession with bashing the Jewish state – above and beyond all others – for real and imaginary faults has not just failed the kids; it unwittingly supplied ammunition and encouragement to regressive forces creeping out of a dark past.  You found yourselves weirdly 'on the same side' with some of the promoters of the most ludicrous, medieval ideologies: those who persecute gays, belittle women and proclaim the inherent superiority of 'true believers' over 'unbelievers'.  Well done, 'liberals'!

Belatedly, Sara Hirschhorn has now decided to advise her ‘liberal Zionist’ friends that
“Above all, we can’t only catalogue the (many) shortcomings — we must constantly and convincingly express what still makes us proud — in spite of it all — in the State of Israel today.  If we can’t do that in a selfie, a tweet, a Facebook post, an op-ed or a face-to-face discussion, we must take a hard look at how we have not only failed ourselves, but our future.”
Well, I hope they listen; but I won’t hold my breath.  By the way, I scoured Sara Hirschhorn’s own Twitter account, hoping for an expression of “what still makes us proud […] in the State of Israel today”.  I found none.  What I did find made me nauseous.

'Proud of Israel'? From Sara Hirschhorn's recent Twitter feed.

There’s nothing wrong with contrition, when it is genuine; but is it?

Whatever.  It’s still good that Dr. Hirschhorn – in a Yom Kippur article – writes:
“We must atone, for we have failed an entire generation.”
But there’s a reason why Yom Kippur is usually translated as the Day of Atonement – not the Day of Contrition.  Here’s a lesson in Judaism 101, Dr. Hirschhorn: contrition on Yom Kippur atones only for sins between man and God.  For sins against another person (let alone against an entire generation), it is not sufficient to show contrition to God and certainly not to one's own friends.  The sinner has to right the wrong committed, first.  Perhaps you should try doing that – before the next Yom Kippur.  Good luck!

'Proud of Israel'? Sara Hirschhorn's Twitter cover photo
shows 'The Wall' with a Hebrew inscription translating as 'Everything is (not) fine'.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Netanyahu, don’t sell your soul to the Devil!

It is not often that I find myself criticising Israel’s policies.  Not that I agree with everything her governments (left, right or centre) did and do; it’s just that, given the amount of outrageously unfair, obsessively singular and often hate-laden ‘criticism’ directed at the Jewish state, I find Israel more deserving of my support and muzzle my occasional disapproval.  One may admit to failings in one’s own family; but the time to focus on such flaws is not when that family is harassed by hostile strangers with dark intentions.

Yet, even having said all that, the current – off-the-record, but widely-publicised – ‘rapprochement’ between the Jewish state and ‘certain Sunni Arab powers’ makes me uneasy to the point where I feel a need to trigger some debate around it within the Israeli society.

I know that many of my readers will, at this point, raise a quizzical eyebrow: how can a – however unofficial – warm-up in Israel’s relations with the Arab world be anything but a positive development?  Indeed, most people see it as both an achievement and a source of hope.  In his recent address to the ‘United’ National General Assembly, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu implied precisely that:
“… I have to tell you this: for the first time in my lifetime, many other states in the region recognize that Israel is not their enemy.  They recognize that Israel is their ally.  Our common enemies are Iran and ISIS.  Our common goals are security, prosperity and peace.  I believe that in the years ahead we will work together to achieve these goals, work together openly.”
Israel’s eagerness to finally embrace (and be embraced by) her neighbours, even after such a long and bitter conflict, brings credit to its people and its leaders.  Yet both people and leaders need to temper their enthusiasm a notch.

Let us first remember who these neighbours really are; we are not talking, unfortunately, about a reconciliation with the Arab nation; nor, regretfully, about a newly-reached understanding with its democratic representatives.  We are talking about ‘rapprochement’ with a bunch of dictatorial regimes that only represent themselves.  Prominent among them are the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies.  The unofficial leaders of that disreputable pack are the ‘royal’ family of Saudi Arabia – a country rivaling ‘Islamic’ Iran both in medieval practices and in its export of religious intolerance and terrorism.  Why, just the other day, I was reading – avidly – about the beginning of a revolt by Saudi women, who are finally trying to shed their Untermensch status.  The Saudi regime beheads people in the public square, applies amputations and beatings as ‘legal’ punishments, treats foreign workers like slaves – all while plundering and squandering away immense natural resources belonging to their people.  Is this really the kind of ‘ally’ that Israel wants?

Dira Square in the Saudi capital Riyadh. Known locally as "Chop-chop square",
it is the location of public beheadings. 151 people have been executed in 2015
and more than 100 in the first half of 2016. 

Yes, I understand that the ‘Islamic’ regime of Iran threatens both Israel (on several fronts) and the Sunni powers; I get that Western ‘leaders’ are increasingly unable to tell the difference between their arses and their elbows; and I realise that out-of-control, berserk Islamism casts its shadow over the entire region – and beyond.  Yes, I can see an argument that Israel should seek alliances with whoever opposes those immediate dangers – even with the Devil himself.  ‘The enemy of my enemy,’ and all that.  Netanyahu is hardly the first leader to choose ‘the lesser evil’.  Didn’t Roosevelt and Churchill ally themselves with Stalin in order to defeat Hitler?

And, of course, Israel would not be the first democratic country to pursue an ‘alliance’ with detestable dictatorial regimes in the Arab world.  After all, when Saudi and Emirati forces bomb targets in Yemen, they do so using weaponry systems purchased largely from the United States and UK.

But all this proves is that much of the West has lost its way and is wallowing in a foul- smelling concoction of moral relativism and hypocritical moralism.  Why should Israel follow them, rather than – as a true ‘light unto the nations’ – set a better example?

Not a woman in sight -- and no protest, either!

I’m not naïve, believe me.  I understand that often (too often!) it is common interests, not common values, that motivate alliances.  I am not necessarily averse to a bit of ‘real politik’; it’s short sighted politicking I have a problem with.

Even if Netanyahu (like so many democratic leaders) is willing to conquer his disgust, silence his conscience, cover his nose and get in bed with the Saudis – it is unclear what exactly would Israel stand to gain from this very distasteful mating.  Assume, for instance, that things come to a head and Israel needs to attack Iran’s nuclear sites – to prevent the mullahs, in extremis, from getting The Bomb.  How will the Saudi and Emirati ‘allies’ help?  Will Israel mount a ‘joint operation’ with the Saudis?  Very unlikely.  Will the Saudi Royal Airforce (equipped with British warplanes) help Israel in her next war with Hizb’ullah or Hamas?  Yeah, right!

While any putative benefits are doubtful, potential downsides loom large.  Let’s say it bluntly: those hideous dictatorial regimes aren’t going to be around forever.  They may hold on for a while, sure; but they are on the wrong side of history.  Using Middle Eastern tactics, Western weaponry and oil revenues, they might be able to alternately bully and bribe their population for a while – even for a decade or two.  But no lumpenproletariat, however bullied, bribed or indoctrinated, has remained acquiescent forever.  The Middle East is filled to the brim with frustration, simmering in the hearts of two hundred million young Arabs: unemployed, hopeless, maltreated and humiliated.  It is only a matter of time until their anger bursts forth, sweeping away the tyrants – whether ‘secular’ despots or Islamist chieftains – who have robbed them of their future and their dignity.  And when that happens, will Israel want to be perceived as an ‘ally’ of those despicable tyrants?  Or will she want to be found in opposition to them – and hence in a better position to immediately join forces with her natural allies, the forces of modernity?

I understand the temptation.  But those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  Haven’t we been here before?

In the mid-1950s, besieged by relentless Arab enmity, Israel (under the prime-ministership of David Ben-Gurion) allied itself with Britain and France against Egypt.  The Jewish state wanted freedom of navigation and trade through the Suez Canal – but for the two Western powers this was a last gasp of imperial ambitions.  Ultimately, Israel gained nothing – except a tarnished reputation – from that misjudgement.  In hindsight, it was a mistake for the Jewish state (itself freshly liberated from the British ‘Mandate’) to cooperate with the forces of colonialism – even against a common enemy.

In the mid-1970s, the same keen desire to break the circle of Arab enmity and boycott compelled Israeli leaders to maintain close diplomatic and trade relations with Apartheid South Africa.  Both the late Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin have been involved in those relations – one can imagine the two Jewish leaders had to pinch their nostrils tight to shut off the stench of racism while pursuing that kind of ‘real politik’.  True, at the time most of the democratic world was happily doing business with that racist regime: Israel’s trade with South Africa ($200 million in 1986) was dwarfed by that of USA ($3.4 billion), Japan ($2.9 billion), Germany ($2.8 billion) and UK ($2.6 billion); the Arab world was selling it oil worth circa $2 billion annually.  Be it as it may, ultimately Israel gained very little from its relationship with South Africa at the time; but the perception of ‘friendliness’ between the two is still being used to try and delegitimise the Jewish state.

In late 1970s and early 1980s (mainly under Prime Minister Menachem Begin), Israel forged an alliance with Lebanese Christians (in particular Maronite leaders).  The motivation was similar: both parties perceived a common enemy in the Palestinian terrorist organisations acting on and from Lebanese territory.  From a military point of view, the Maronite militias provided Israel with scant assistance during the war that eventually broke out; but they were to perpetrate the famous Sabra and Shatila massacres, which were again exploited to tarnish Israel’s reputation.

In summary, every time Israel has chosen unsavoury ‘allies’ in the name of some misconceived ‘real-politik’, she has ended up gaining little and instead paying a heavy price in damage to her public image.  Promoters of ‘rapprochement’ with Arab despotic regimes – beware!

But there are also positive lessons that can be learned from the past.  In late 1970s, under Prime Minister Begin, Israel offered asylum to 360 Vietnamese ‘boat people’ – refugees fleeing for their lives from the Communist takeover of their country.  Israel granted them citizenship, full rights and government-subsidized apartments.

In 1993, at the height of the Yugoslavian civil war, Israel (then under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin) offered asylum – and permanent residency – to circa 100 Bosnian Muslims.  They were initially hosted by the kibbutz movement, but Arab Israelis soon became involved in helping them.

Syrian children

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Israel has been helping thousands of Syrian Arabs – with no regard to faith or political opinion – by offering them free medical treatment.  But here is something else that she can do: offer asylum to – say – 500 Syrian children.  And, just so there is no doubt as to Israel’s purely humanitarian intentions, why not entrust them to the care of Israeli families of the same faith as the children – be they Muslim, Christian or Druze?  That – not cuddling up to hateful dictators – is the type of ‘rapprochement’ I would whole-heartedly support.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Non-final ‘solutions’

It’s been already quite a few years since I last sat in a university study room, trying to get my head around complex case studies.  But I remember well a conversation I had with a French colleague.  We had done some work together and, in-lieu of a relaxing break (oh, the irony!) we started to debate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  My colleague was very critical of Israel – everything was the Jewish state’s fault.  Most of all, he opined, Israel was ‘stealing land’ and undermining the ‘two-state solution’.  Negotiations, he said, were just a ruse, a stalling device.  “Why not just give the Palestinians their state and be done with it?” he demanded; “we should force you to do it!”  “Well, it’s not that simple…” I attempted to explain.  “It’s very simple”, he interrupted, with more than a hint of impatience in his voice.  He pulled a block of paper, grabbed a pencil and, with a few quick and decisive lines, sketched the map of Mandatory Palestine ‘from the River to the Sea’.  “That’s the map”, he pronounced, stabbing the roughly sketched elongated pentagon.  Then, with another assertive motion, he drew a horizontal line across the pentagon’s narrow waist, from west to east.  It originated somewhere in the Mediterranean and, I figured, ran through both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, before crossing the Jordan River.  “That’s it”, he declared, satisfied – and stabbed each half of the now divided pentagon, first the top half, then the bottom one.  “Now you guys take this bit and the Palestinians take the other bit.  I don’t give a s**t if you like it or not, you people have got to learn to get along with each other.  That’s it, problem solved!”  He was not joking – he was dead serious.  He spoke with the hauteur of a Louis XIV: he was ‘the state’ (or the ‘international community’); he must have felt like a new Charles de Gaulle, annoyed at having to deal with those pesky Algerians.

The 'Middle East Quartet' met in New York to promote a 'roadmap' for Israel and Palestine.
(photo from a previous meeting in Munich, Germany)

I was reminded of that discussion recently, when French politicians hosted a ‘summit’ aimed at re-starting ‘the Middle East Peace Process’ (which, despite the name, does not deal at all with the Middle East – as in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt or Libya – but only with Israel and the Palestinians).  According to The Guardian,
“The participants [which did not include any Israelis or Palestinians] called on the two sides to genuinely commit to the two-state solution.”
More recently, the Middle East Quartet (which, likewise, isn’t really about the Middle East, but only about Israel and the Palestinians) has met in New York and issued a statement.  Among other things, they say that
“The Quartet principals [i.e. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, United States Secretary of State John Kerry and European Union High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini] were joined by the Foreign Ministers of Egypt and France during the second part of the meeting to brief on their work to support Middle East peace.  All agreed on the importance of close and continuing coordination of all efforts to achieve the common goal of the two-State solution.”
As usual, the bulk of the opprobrium was directed at the Jewish state:
“The Quartet emphasized its strong opposition to ongoing settlement activity, which is an obstacle to peace, and expressed its grave concern that the acceleration of settlement construction and expansion in Area C and East Jerusalem, including the retroactive ‘legalization’ of existing units, and the continued high rate of demolitions of Palestinian structures, are steadily eroding the viability of the two-State solution.”
I was still ruminating on the French (from Louis VII to Napoleon, from George-Picot to President Hollande) meddling 3,000 miles away from Paris, when a friend e-mailed me.  She is a kind-hearted Jewish lady, who cares deeply for both Israelis and Palestinians and would like nothing better than to see those two populations living in peace, on either side of a secure border.  Yet all that talk about the ‘two-state solution’ was clearly getting on her nerves:
“I have always felt uncomfortable with the trope ‘two state solution’ in relation to Israel and the Palestinians.  It isn’t the two state bit which bothers me – it is this idea of a ‘solution’.  To start with, the word has a stark finality about it and this comes with dreadful connotations for Jews, with Hitler combining it with the word ‘final’.  He wanted to obliterate Jews – how did we come to rehabilitate this word when working towards peace with those who have also wanted to obliterate us? 
But there are other reasons to reject the word.  It is such an ahistorical concept.  When in history has there ever been ‘a solution’ to anything?  The moving hand of history weaves complex and varying stories; they change and evolve continuously – each ‘solution’ is but the beginning of a new ‘problem’.  Try putting History and Solution into Google and the fourth, fifth and sixth entries are about exterminating the Jews.  And the first three?  One is about therapy, the second about showing how one solves a mathematical problem and the third refers to an alternative history novel, in which the Axis wins the Second World War.”
My friend’s words got me thinking.  And, as always, I wanted to understand: why is it that the word ‘solution’ is so used and abused in the West?  How come that it is most frequently employed when discussing the Middle East?  And how come that, when discussing the Middle East, Westerners appear not just to desire ‘a solution’, but often to know what the solution should be – only to be suddenly possessed of a desire to impose it upon the people in question?

There’s nothing new in all this, I’m afraid.  The very term ‘Middle East’ is a quintessentially Euro-centric concept: it’s only ‘East’, of course, when seen from Europe, from ‘the West’.  The Middle East is very much ‘Middle West’ when seen from Japan, India or China.  As for America… well, it depends which way one’s looking; but under President Obama, America is looking Europe’s way.
What’s in a name?  There’s nothing new in the West’s desire to – ahem! – civilise the East (i.e., provide ‘solutions’ for the poor hapless ‘natives’).  And – interestingly – it has always been entwined with another, just-as-keen aspiration: that of relieving those same natives of various natural resources that they couldn’t possibly have a use for, themselves.  In past centuries, it was gold and spices.  Nowadays it is oil and gas.  Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!

In 1920, the Western ‘solution’ was to divide the Middle Eastern spoils of war among the victors – the French and British colonial Empires.  The Arab, predominantly Muslim inhabitants of those former Ottoman lands did not think of themselves as residents of separate countries.  True: influenced by contemporary Western ideas, a small minority of intellectuals among them (including, for obvious reasons, a high proportion of Christians) wanted an Arab nation state; as for the vast majority, they showed no signs of wanting to be anything but loyal citizens of the Ottoman Empire-cum-Caliphate.

But the wishes of brown-skinned, primitive natives were of little concern to the new imperial masters.  They had their own economic and political interests – which demanded that the Middle East be partitioned in chunks, along arbitrary borders.

A list of those artificial ‘countries’ reads conspicuously similar to the ‘menu’ of perennial Middle Eastern conflicts.

The League of Nations awarded Mandates for 'Mesopotamia' and 'Palestine' to Britain
 and for 'Syria' and 'Lebanon' to France. 

There was Mesopotamia, a descriptive name invented by ancient Greeks and meaning ‘Land between the rivers’.  That was all Greek to the local inhabitants, who reverted – as soon as they possibly could – to the 7th century Arabic name ‘Iraq’, cousin of the Biblical ‘Erekh’ and grandson of the Sumerian ‘Land of the City of Uk’ (Ur Uk).

Map of Bilad Al-Sham (the Land of the Semites, translated these days as Greater Syria) was a province of the early Islamic Caliphate, before being incorporated in the Ottoman Empire. The province was subdivided into military districts called 'ajnad' (singular 'jund'), of which Jund Filastin (Palestine) was one. Jund Dimashq (the district of Damascus) was the largest and included most of present day Lebanon, Jordan and the southern half of present-day Syria. The Ottomans later changed the organisation repeatedly, redrawing and renaming the provinces. And so did the Western powers after World War I. 

There was, then, Syria – another name that the West inherited from the ancient Greeks, who simply mispronounced the old name Aššūrāyu (Assyria).  After the 7th century Arab Conquest, the province became known in Arabic as Bilad Al-Sham – the Land of the Semites; an apt name, given that its inhabitants spoke Semitic languages, Aramaic and Hebrew.  ‘Sham’, by the way (and not ‘Syria’) is the origin of the second ‘S’ in ‘ISIS’.  Bilad Al-Sham included not just what is currently known (in theory, at least) as the Syrian Arab Republic, but also present-day Lebanon and ‘Palestine’ (another Greek name derived from the Philistines, Hellenic colonists who – sometime in the 12th century BCE – had established a handful of cities on the Mediterranean shore).

Around the 12th century BCE, proto-Hellenic 'Sea People' settled on the shores
 of the Mediterranean (see the red patch on the map). They were called Philistines.
Which is why the ancient Greeks called the area Palestine.
The name stuck especially in the West, which inherited the classic Graeco-Roman culture.

Although earmarked for revival as the old-new Jewish homeland, ‘Palestine’ was partitioned by its British rulers, with the Jordan River becoming a border and its Eastern bank (the lion’s share of the land) fashioned into a ‘royal’ fief for Britain’s local collaborators – the Hashimite clan, which was in the process of being ousted from its native Mecca by a rival clan, the Saudites.  The newly established kingdom was ‘christened’ (ahem!) ‘Transjordan’ – literally ‘Beyond the Jordan [River]’.  Needless to say, that had nothing to do with the will (or lack thereof) of local inhabitants: the land was only ‘Beyond the Jordan [River]’ when viewed from London!

Although part of the League of Nations Mandate of Palestine,
the area east of the Jordan River was detached, prohibited for Jewish habitation
 and made into the Emirate (later Kingdom) of Transjordan.

To complete the ‘menu’, let me add Egypt (at the time a British ‘Protectorate’), Yemen (another British ‘Protectorate’), Somalia and Libya (Italian colonies)…

Not everything is the West’s fault, of course – there’s plenty of guilt to go around.  What the previous (Ottoman) rulers bequeathed the new ones was fairly rotten eggs; the Western colonial powers did a good job at cracking them; and the local ‘kings’ and ‘lifetime presidents’ proceeded to vigorously scramble those ‘eggs’ – hence the rather appalling mess we see today.

Drawn by Western colonial powers, the Middle Eastern borders are being erased.
(Caricature by Dan Nott)

But we live in the 21st century.  And much too little has changed in the approach of some Western politicians – in the almost 100 years that passed since those initial ‘solutions’.

They still bring to the Middle East their quintessentially Euro-centric conceptions of ‘peoples’ or ‘nations’.  In 1920, those were predicated on ‘race’ or ethnicity; these politically-correct, ‘multi-cultural’ days, they centre on the legal concept of ‘citizenship’ or ‘nationality’.  But Middle Easterners have never been divided in ‘races’; and why would anyone care about citizenship of states which – on top of having been invented by foreigners – afford little protection and much oppression?
Clan and tribe are strong elements of identity in the Middle East.  Beyond those, many define that identity along religious and linguistic lines.  The word that best translates the Western concept of people/nation in Arabic is أمة (pronounced ‘umma’).  It derives from the word ‘umm’ (meaning ‘mother’) and is often used in its Qur’anic sense: the ‘Nation’ or ‘Community’ of Islam.  Apart from religion, it is easy to feel a sense of common affiliation with people who speak the same language – or at least who are able to communicate intelligibly using a common idiom, such as literary Arabic.
‘Multicultural’, ‘enlightened’ Westerners may have a hard time coming to terms with this reality.  But unless they do, unless they shed the arrogance of ‘civilising’ the Middle East to their one-and-only understanding of humanity, they have only more blood and tears to contribute.

Take, for instance, the ‘Palestine problem’.  Leaving aside the Western name and the fact that ‘Palestine from the River to the Sea’ is a Western invention, some Westerners have now decided that there are two peoples/nations in that country – and hence there should be a two-state solution; other Westerners want to turn the country into a multicultural heaven in which everyone lives with equal rights ever after – hence a one-state solution.  Note how both ‘solutions’ juggle Euro-centric notions (in italics) and are predicated on the concept of people/nation with its changeable but always Euro-centric meanings: indeed, the ‘two-state solution’ uses the traditional understanding of the term ‘nation’, while the ‘one-state solution’ adopts a more recent meaning, one which a certain Western audience has come to regard as ‘progressive’, ‘modern’ or politically-correct.

As usual, the last thing those Westerners care about is the opinion of the ‘two peoples/nations’ in question.  In fact, they have convinced themselves that both sides in the conflict think and behave like Westerners; that their aspirations are Western aspirations.

Western concepts (whether 1920-style or ‘progressive’) may indeed sound familiar and reasonable to Israeli ears.  After all, the ancient Israelites may have originated as a super-tribal faith community, but centuries of dwelling as isolated islands of otherness have forged for the Jews an identity more similar to Western-style nationhood.

As for the ‘Palestinians’, however, who is to say?  Westerners have decided that Palestinian Arabs are ‘a people’ – mostly because Westerners are familiar and comfortable with that concept.  Make no mistake: I have no problem with Palestinian Arabs declaring themselves a people – if that’s how they feel and that’s what they wish.  But it is a ‘Palestinian’ decision – not an Israeli or Western one.  And the ‘Palestinians’ have yet to speak their collective mind on the matter.

Of course, there is the PLO, whose leaders must have ‘affirmed’ their peoplehood a zillion times.  But who do those ‘leaders’ represent?  Leaving aside the fact that they lost the only Palestinian elections that could (even superficially) be characterised as ‘free’; leaving aside the fact that they would lose the next ones, if they allowed them to happen; leaving aside all that, the half a million salaried PLO ‘apparatchiks’ and stipended ‘supporters’ are little more than mercenaries; their ‘political opinion’ is based on the bank account, not inner sense of identity.  As for Hamas (which won those ‘free’ elections), they are much more concerned with faith and much less with ‘nationhood’ in the Western sense of the word.

So what do ‘the Palestinians’ really want?  With no freedoms, no plebiscite and an oppressive, taboo-enforcing society, it is really hard to say.  The best we can do, perhaps, is to look at opinion polls.  Granted, those too are often politicised and are generally problematic in the absence of freedom; still, I believe it is useful to look at the latest (June-August 2016) ‘Joint Palestinian-Israeli Opinion Poll’.  It contains some (however mild) criticism of both the PLO/Palestinian Authority and of Hamas – which makes it perhaps a bit more credible in my eyes.

The poll was conducted in Israel by the (strongly left-leaning) Israel Democracy Institute and by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in the West Bank and Gaza.  The European Union supplied the funding, while the German outfit Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung provided ‘partnership and support’.

Predictably, one of the questions was:
“Do you support or oppose the solution based on the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, known as the two-state solution?”
Circa 51% of the 1,270-strong Palestinian sample and circa 59% of the similarly sized Israeli sample expressed support for ‘the two-state solution’.  This is ‘the result’ that the poll authors and the Western funders promoted: a majority of Palestinians and Israelis still support the two-state solution.  But, of course, some would say, the two sides have divergent understanding of the term: Israeli politicians usually say ‘two states for two peoples’, meaning a Jewish-majority state and a Palestinian Arab-majority state; Palestinian leaders, on the other hand, never say ‘for two peoples’ – their ‘two states’ are an 100% Arab ‘Palestine’ and an ‘Israel’ populated by Jews and Palestinian Arabs endowed with equal rights – including the ‘right of return’ for the PLO-estimated 7 million Palestinian refugees.

This time, however, the pollsters asked the question again, using a more precise wording:
“Mutual recognition of Palestine and Israel as the homelands of their respective peoples.  The agreement will mark the end of conflict, the Palestinian state will fight terror against Israelis, and no further claims will be made by either side.  Support or oppose?”
When presented with this version of the question, support among Palestinians dropped to just 40%; 57% declared their opposition to the idea.  Among Israelis, support grew to 68%, with just 24% opposed.

In other words, only a minority of Palestinian Arabs support the ‘two-state solution’ – as understood by Westerners.  Interestingly, that minority dropped to just 20%, when an additional condition was added: that the Palestinian state be devoid of “major/heavy weapons”.  Even the putative deployment in Palestine of “a multinational force” only succeeded in raising the support among Palestinians to 36%.

But then the pollsters did something really interesting: this time they addressed only those who answered ‘opposed’ to the ‘Mutual recognition, etc.’ question and offered them additional incentives to change their mind to ‘support’.

A ‘bribe’ of $30 to $50 billion “to help in settling those refugees wishing to live in the Palestinian state and compensating them” persuaded 31% of the ‘opposed’ Palestinians to change their mind and ‘support’.  Perhaps surprisingly to some (but certainly not to me), the biggest change of mind occurred in Gaza (41%, compared to just 25% in the West Bank).  Gaza, of course, is home to considerably more ‘refugees’, who are likely to benefit personally from the financial windfall.  By the way, that same windfall to the Palestinians (combined no doubt with the idea of settling the refugees in Palestine, not in Israel) persuaded 37% of ‘opposed’ Israelis to swing to ‘support’.

But financial incentives are tricky.  No doubt, they would be welcome; but what happens after they have been paid?  Even more pertinently, what happens when much of the expected windfall is siphoned off by the PLO kleptocracy, while a lot is wasted through the corruption and incompetence of a ‘civil service’ populated by cronies?  What happens when the windfall fails to fulfill those great expectations?

Non-financial (or not-directly-financial) incentives are more interesting.

When offered membership of the European Union for ‘Palestine’, 32% of the Palestinian nay-sayers changed their tune to ‘support’ the proposed two-state deal.

The offer of a confederation with Jordan persuaded 29% of those ‘opposed’ to change their mind to ‘support’.

Now, that’s interesting.  Both joining the European Union and establishing a confederation with Jordan would involve a certain limitation of sovereignty, in comparison to an utterly independent, self-standing state.  With that in mind, perhaps, only 12% of Israelis opposed to the deal changed their mind when offered EU membership.  Yet rather than being put off, the yearning-for-independence Palestinians interpreted those offers as strong incentives.  In fact, within the constraints of the poll’s statistical significance, they reacted much in the same way to the direct financial incentive, to the offer of EU membership and to the idea of a confederation with Jordan.  Now, I can understand that EU membership may hold the attraction of freedom, good governance, rule of law and an indirect, but perhaps more tangible financial windfall.  But none of the above applies to a confederation with the Hashimite Kingdom of Jordan!

This may be surprising to those Westerners who only listen to themselves.  But it is hardly new.  West Bank ‘Palestinians’ have been ‘united’ with East Bank ‘Jordanians’ between 1948 and 1967 – and no ‘intifada’ took place.  They had representatives in the ‘Jordanian’ Parliament, ministers in the ‘Jordanian’ government and carried ‘Jordanian’ passports; in fact they carried them until 1988, when their ‘Jordanian’ nationality was unilaterally (and illegally) rescinded by the Hashimite king.  According to another opinion poll (run by An-Najah University and published in May 2016), 42.3% of Palestinians support the confederation project while 39.3% oppose it.

We do not know what ‘Jordanians’ think of such idea; opinion polls in that country are viewed as ‘a bridge too far’.  But, for whatever that’s worth, former Jordanian Prime Minister Abdelsalam al-Majali, announced (speaking in the West bank city of Nablus) that he personally supported a confederation.  That’s hardly evidence of popular support, of course; but in Jordan’s tightly controlled political environment, such ‘personal’ statements are inconceivable without the monarch’s blessing.

What, then, does all this mean in terms of that beloved Western ‘solution’?  Not much, perhaps.  There are no ‘solutions’ in the Middle East, only processes.  Processes that most Westerners do not understand.  Including the self-described ‘experts’, none of whom managed to predict – or even correctly interpret – a ‘Spring’ that (so far) killed 500,000 people and displaced ten million.

Let us not mince words: the Middle East is still the playground of Western politicians with neo-colonialist instincts.  As ever – they lack any deep understanding of ‘Eastern’ (especially Middle Eastern) issues.  As ever – they try to advance their own interests, with no regard for the unimportant desires and aspirations of ‘the natives’.  As ever – they envisage 'solutions' that involve drawing lines on a map.  As ever – they attempt to allay their own conscience (and dupe their constituencies), by wrapping a mantle of noble intentions around their rather base mindset.  Deep in their hearts, these white neo-colonialists despise what they see as uncivilised, swarthy natives, forever incapable of getting along with each other.  Like adults witnessing a fight among children, they patronisingly command those 'natives' to 'just shake hands and be friends'.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and
EU High Representative Federica Mogherini congratulate each other
in New York. They have finally set the Middle East right! 

In truth, neo-colonialist Westerners have little empathy with Israeli Jews or with Palestinian Arabs – and even less interest in understanding the conflict between them; what they’re really after is a 'solution' to their own worries – one that would provide: a) uninterrupted flow of oil and b) good-old docile 'Gastarbeiter,' rather than vindictive Islamists.

There’s only one short sentence that the Middle East owes these Westerners – and that’s ‘Mind your own business!’