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Christians and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Read all my posts on this topic

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The persecution of Christians

From the Sunday Times, a survey by Brian Moynahan of the global phenomenon of persecution of Christians. As it contains much valuable information I will try to overlook this observation on the Middle East:-

'At the same time, the start of real problems in the region can be dated back at least to the foundation of Israel in 1948.'

Well, he does include that qualifying 'at least', allowing for the theoretical possibility that the region's Christians already had some problems before 1948, for which it would therefore be a little difficult to blame Israel. There is, after all, the small matter of the 1915 Armenian Genocide.

Did you know that there are at least 50,000 Christians held in labour camps in North Korea? Does the World Council of Churches know? Is there any way of interesting them in the fact, other than by convincing them that the Dear Leader's real name is Cohen?

A letter to a fellow Christian

[A letter to a member of my church who has just returned from a 'tour of duty' with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). If you speak German you can read his statement here.]

Dear C.

I'm glad to know you're safely back from the West Bank, and I've read your statement about your experiences with great interest. Based on our past conversations about the Middle East, you won't be surprised to hear that there is a lot which causes me concern - and I may say that I am not alone in our congregation.

It's a sad truth of human nature that however close up we get we can manage not to see what we don't want to see. I'm afraid the way it looks to me is that you went to Palestine believing in a profoundly one-sided propagandist account of the conflict, you have spent your time there among people who have reinforced that perspective, and you have come back believing in it all the more fervently and primed to spread the word here in Berlin. Well, sorry, but if there's one thing the Middle East doesn't need more of, and one thing less likely to contribute to the making of peace, it's more propaganda. Even if it's propaganda that calls itself 'advocacy'.

I can tell that that's what it is because, like all good propaganda, it makes the world so beautifully simple. This is a world populated by innocent Palestinians and nasty Israelis (apart from a few Good Jews who side with the Palestinians). A neatly symmetrical world where Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is 'comparable at the pyschological level' with the Holocaust - not comparable on any conceivable level of historical fact, but why let facts spoil the satisfaction of calling the Israelis Nazis 'at the psychological level'?

In this world the Israelis 'repress the dark side of their past', but the Palestinians don't have to because they don't have one. So there were no massacres of Jews by Arabs over the two decades before the creation of Israel. There was no Palestinian national leader who flew to Berlin to congratulate Hitler on his treatment of the Jews and help Himmler recruit a Bosnian Muslim SS division. There was no attack on the tiny new-born Jewish state by seven Arab armies, and no 6,000 Jews killed fighting off the invasion. There are Palestinian refugees, but Israel never had to cope with its own massive refugee problem, created by the ethnic cleansing of Jews from their ancestral homes in the rest of the Middle East. No Arab leaders bear any responsibility for keeping Palestinian refugees in misery for their own political purposes.

It's a world where there is no terrorism, no bombs set off inside cafes crowded with teenagers, no women trying to get admitted to hospital so they can blow themselves up on the ward. Where there are racist Jews, but Palestinian elections are not won by fundamentalists who justify their determination to wipe out Israel with anti-Semitic lies straight out of Mein Kampf. Where there is no President Ahmadinejad holding conferences for Holocaust deniers while developing nuclear missiles to point at Israel. Where, when Palestinian gunmen settle scores in a territory which Israel has vacated, the Israelis are still to blame. Where the only 'good' Israelis are anti-government dissenters but 'good' Palestinians aren't expected to care about Israeli victims of violence, or to hold their own leaders to account for their share in the responsibility for their people's misery.

One of the books you displayed when you gave your presentation in church was a Palestinian-produced children's book called 'The Boy And The Wall'. The book presents a Palestinian child as an innocent victim of the security barrier - which of course he is - without making any reference whatsoever to the children who have been innocent victims of suicide bombings, or those who would have been if the barrier had not been there to protect them. I can understand why such a book is produced. I find it harder to understand why you felt it was appropriate to display it in our church.

In the propaganda world the suffering of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis is so uniquely awful that in relation to it even the carnage in Iraq can be viewed positively. You quote someone as saying this:-

'A positive sign is the fact that the situation in Iraq has shown the Americans that the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is urgent for the Middle East.'

So three cheers for al-Qaida, then! I'm left wondering how many of the innocent Iraqis maimed and bereaved by bombs in markets and mosques would find this a consoling thought.

For myself I think that the conflict in Iraq primarily points to the need to resolve the conflict in Iraq. Among those suffering can be counted Iraq's ancient Christian communities, which are vanishing fast as their members vote with their feet and emigrate. But the World Council of Churches doesn't seem to have had the idea of sending people to accompany them, or anybody else in Iraq, just as they are not sending any accompanists to Sudan. Isn't that rather strange? Isn't it at least a very unfortunate coincidence that the Jewish state seems to make the WCC so much more angry than anybody else does?

So, there you are, a nice helping of pro-Israel propaganda from me, and plenty of opportunities for you to say 'yes, but what about...' Can you at least understand that what you're feeling now (if you've made it this far) is exactly what I feel about your report? Like I said, no peace ever came out of propaganda.

The fruits of propaganda are of a quite different kind. And here I'm afraid I can't avoid raising the ugly topic of anti-Semitism. I don't believe that you personally have an anti-Semitic bone in your body. But actions have consequences, unintended as well as intended. One-sided propaganda oversteps the line between legitimate criticism and demonization, creating the totally false impression that Israel is a human rights abuser without parallel anywhere in the world and that its enemies have no share in the responsibility for the violence and the suffering. That brings with it the implication that Jews' attachment to Israel is perverse and immoral. Predictable result: the real anti-Semites feel validated and emboldened. Equally predictable result of that result: rapid growth in the numbers of anti-Semitic incidents across Europe, leaving Jewish communities feeling more vulnerable than they have done for decades.

You close your report with a prayer from the Anglican church of St George's in Jerusalem:-

“God, we don’t pray for the Israelis,
We don’t pray for the Palestinians,
But for ourselves,
That we might hold them together
In our hearts.”

Amen, indeed, but I think that something is missing here (apart from prayers for victims of all the other conflicts around the world which seem to be so much harder for us to remember - we pray for the Israelis and Palestinians an awful lot more often than for the Democratic Republic of the Congo). It's a little like the prayer to be relieved of toothache, to which the answer is 'Help me out, go and see the dentist!' Here we need to do our bit by looking with both eyes, and keeping both ears open to the stories of both sides of this long and bitter conflict. For the way into our hearts leads through our ears, and there will never be a way in for those we are not even prepared to listen to.

Yours in Christ,


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Congo, Darfur, Palestine: the numbers game and the politics of racial blame

It's not every day that someone who's had a book published by the Social Affairs Unit also gets an article published in the Guardian. This distinction has, however, been enjoyed by one Roger Howard, author of What's Wrong with Liberal Interventionism and now of a piece entitled 'Where anti-Arab prejudice and oil make the difference'.

Googling suggests that it is the SAU which is Mr Howard's natural habitat. So what's the pay-off for the Guardian?

The place where anti-Arab prejudice and oil make the difference is Darfur. Howard's thesis is that a simplistic racist narrative of the conflict there is being invoked to serve at least three purposes: firstly to justify an intervention in Darfur actually motivated by western economic interests; secondly to give indirect reinforcement to the racist scapegoating of Arabs for the Israel-Palestine conflict; and thirdly to provide a diversion from the disastrous outcome of the invasion of Iraq. He seeks to prove the point that professed concern over Darfur is hypocritical and self-serving by drawing a comparison between western attitudes to two African conflict zones: Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In a nutshell, in the latter the killing is on a much larger scale, and yet it is almost totally ignored by western media and public opinion. Why? No oil to grab, no Arabs to blame.

There are some fairly obvious problems with this comparison. Crucially, Howard's rigged the evidence by homing in on Darfur rather than looking at the Sudanese regime's record in relation to the country as a whole. Once you add the 1.5 million dead in the 20-year conflict in the South to the 200,000 in Darfur, the contrast with the 3-4 million killed in the DRC isn't so very glaring any more. These are two human rights catastrophes on a massive scale, and using the numbers to play one off against the other is a less than appropriate response - both should be at the top of the international community's agenda.

One might also note that the DRC does actually have rich mineral resources, and that there has in fact been a limited intervention there: a UN peacekeeping force helped enable the holding of a presidential election last year which was successful to the extent that the loser accepted that he had been fairly beaten (there are, of course, no presidential elections in Sudan). Sad to say, the fighting continues regardless.

None of which makes it any less true that the DRC conflict is shamefully ignored. It's hard to disagree with Howard when he explains this by characterizing it as a conflict in which 'black Africans are killing other black Africans in a way that is difficult for outsiders to identify with'. Crudely, one might say that the Right isn't interested because the victims are Africans and the Left isn't interested because the killers are Africans. And it's plainly true that we would hear a lot more if there were any significant great power interests at stake. The typical vicious circle operates where media coverage is concerned. Reporting from the combat zones would be immensely arduous and dangerous. Who wants to take that on just so as to file copy that gets spiked before it has time to settle on the editor's desk, because the DRC is a far away country of which we know little? And the less we are told the less we demand to know more.

Howard's call for this to change would be laudable - if that were what he was saying. But that's not the point at all. In fact the DRC per se doesn't seem to interest Howard very much. He certainly has nothing whatsoever to offer in the way of positive suggestions as to what the rest of the world could do. As per the title of his book, he doesn't believe in 'liberal interventionism', and what is the use of demanding that more attention be paid to a situation we can do nothing to change?

Really the DRC seems only to serve only a rhetorical function in the article. The comparison is drawn not in order to draw attention to the DRC but to draw it away from Darfur. Having served its turn the DRC can be re-consigned to oblivion, as Howard directs our gaze to... wait for it... that most scandalously neglected region of the globe, the Middle East!

Here's the passage in which he makes the switch:-

'In Darfur the fighting is portrayed as a war between black Africans, rightly or wrongly regarded as the victims, and "Arabs", widely regarded as the perpetrators of the killings. In practice these neat racial categories are highly indistinct, but it is through such a prism that the conflict is generally viewed.

'It is not hard to imagine why some in the west have found this perception so alluring, for there are numerous people who want to portray "the Arabs" in these terms. In the United States and elsewhere those who have spearheaded the case for foreign intervention in Darfur are largely the people who regard the Arabs as the root cause of the Israel-Palestine dispute. From this viewpoint, the events in Darfur form just one part of a much wider picture of Arab malice and cruelty.

'Nor is it any coincidence that the moral frenzy about intervention in Sudan has coincided with the growing military debacle in Iraq - for as allied casualties in Iraq have mounted, so has indignation about the situation in Darfur. It is always easier for a losing side to demonise an enemy than to blame itself for a glaring military defeat, and the Darfur situation therefore offers some people a certain sense of catharsis.'

I want to draw attention to some things that are not said here.

Firstly, setting up and implicitly knocking down a straw man of racial prejudice gives Howard a neat way to evade the question whether the particular as-it-happens Arabs who rule Sudan are guilty of malice and cruelty bordering on genocide, and whether the particular as-it-happens Arabs who deliberate in the Arab League are guilty of disgraceful collusion with malice and cruelty through their uncritical support for the Sudanese regime. No, if Darfur bothers you, you must hate Arabs, if it doesn't you're OK. It's a rather extraordinary piece of moral inversion.

Secondly, there's the way Howard has suddenly stopped playing the numbers game. 200,000 civilians dead in Darfur? Chickenfeed compared with the millions in the DRC! So when he turns to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with between 4,000 and 5,000 Palestinians (civilians and combattants) dead since the second intifada began in 2000, he will naturally want to make the point that in comparative terms this hardly registers on the radar at all, and to ask why so much of the world is so obsessed with it, won't he? Strangely, though perhaps not altogether surprisingly, the answer is No. Apparently the rules of the numbers game state that it may be played for the benefit of the Sudanese regime and Arabs generally, but not for the benefit of Israel or the Jews.

Thirdly, consider this:-

'In Israel and Palestine the fighting is portrayed as a war between Arab Palestinians, rightly or wrongly regarded as the victims, and "Jews", widely regarded as the perpetrators of the killings. In practice these neat racial categories are highly indistinct, but it is through such a prism that the conflict is generally viewed.

'It is not hard to imagine why some in the Muslim world have found this perception so alluring, for there are numerous people who want to portray "the Jews" in these terms [...] who regard the Jews as the root cause of the Israel-Palestine dispute. From this viewpoint, the events in Palestine form just one part of a much wider picture of Jewish malice and cruelty.'

Sound familiar? With fiendish cunning, I've changed the names in part of the passage I've just quoted from Howard, which in its pristine form refers to Darfur. The point here is that there are two competing narratives of racial blame and demonization available as explanations of the 'root cause' of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Howard rightly rejects one of them; he could have done so in terms that rejected such racist discourse on principle, affirming instead that this conflict is no less complex and confused than that in Darfur. But he doesn't, and by this omission he leaves open the possibility that a picture of Jewish malice and cruelty provides the correct diagnosis of the conflict's root causes.

I'm not saying he positively endorses this view - he doesn't. But he doesn't explicitly reject it either, although he must of course know that many, many people do indeed think this way, and also that nowadays one cannot assume that such people do not read the Guardian.

So, three significant omissions. They bother me, but apparently not the folk at the Guardian. And if he'd filled in the blanks, would they still have printed his article? These days narratives of racial blame have their uses, even for the Left.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Wrong kind of killers

Lately some people don't have as much to say as they usually do about Palestinians suffering violent deaths. And, whilst it would be nice to think that they may yet break the mould, as of today's date it looks as if you can add the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel to the list of those whose solidarity with victims of violence is conditional on the perpetrators being Jewish.

As a member of the World Council of Churches my church lends its name to this nonsense. Not good.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Insult of the century?

I don't share Rod Liddle's low opinion of Dickens. True, Frau Grumpy has warned me off the intolerably sentimental Dombey and Son, but they're not all that bad. I must admit, however, that the great man probably never came up with anything quite like this, with which Rod has surely booked his place alongside Dorothy Parker in the dictionary of quotations:-

'Jerry [Hall] is about to bring her timber-clad acting talents to yet another production of The Vagina Monologues and one is tempted to remark that this is indeed about the only part of her which might have an interesting story to tell, were it able to speak for itself.'

Sorry, but we all have our guilty pleasures, don't we?

Monday, May 14, 2007

There and back again

Melanie Phillips has a useful synopsis of Ed Husain's book 'The Islamist', the testimony of a man who made the journey from moderation to extremism and back again.

As MP notes, Tory leader David Cameron has spent two days with a Muslim family in Birmingham, and this now makes him an expert on British Asians (Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, hey, they're all brownish chappies, aren't they?). His expert advice is that we shouldn't use the word 'Islamist' in connection with terrorism at all.

We didn't call the IRA 'Catholic terrorists', you see. Well, that'll be because their declared ideology and aims had nothing to do with Roman Catholicism, Dave - not quite rocket science, I feel. By this logic we shouldn't have called them 'Republican terrorists' either, for fear of offending peaceful Republicans.

I think we should be punctilious about the distinction between 'Muslim' and 'Islamist', but Dave's step beyond this principle is the step that lands us up to our necks in Egyptian river water (gag adapted from Laban Tall's 'so deep in denial she should buy a felucca'). For the relationship between the two is of the 'A includes B' variety. Meaning that A doesn't imply B but B does imply A. As well as the various gradations of not-quite-B along the slippery slope which Ed Husain got stuck on.

I wonder who out of ChamberlainCameron and Husain is the better informed? Here's what Mel thinks:-

'Husain shows that Islam and Islamism are two different things: that it is perfectly possible to be a Muslim who derives spiritual solace from the faith in a way that threatens no-one — and that it is essential to distinguish such Muslims from Islamists and protect the former, along with all of us, from the latter. Muslims like Husain need our support, encouragement and protection. David Cameron’s words instead take the ground from under his feet.'

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Their Son of a Bitch

[update: the view from the Times, Dominic Lawson in the Indie, and Norm with a horrifying quote from a Sunday Times piece]

In which I begin with a synopsis of part of a documentary that was on German TV the other night. Valérie (presumably not her real name) and her parents moved from their home country in central Africa to Germany when she was a child. She was a model pupil at school, learnt perfect German and came away with the top grade in her Abitur - more than enough to enable her to fulfil her dream of studying medicine. Just one problem: her parents are illegal immigrants, therefore so is she, and so she will remain however long she stays, however German she feels, and however dim the memories of her home country become. And you can't enrol to study medicine without any ID.

Well, so far this doesn't reflect too well on Germany, does it? I certainly don't believe in an open door, but there has to be a bit of flexibility and compassion in cases like this. Especially since, in Valérie's case, the country seems to be depriving itself of a model citizen, lively, intelligent, determined and principled.

But now we shift the focus. It would help Valérie to have a passport - any passport. So she goes to the embassy of her home country. After waiting several hours she's told there's nothing doing. There are nine pieces of paper she would need to produce, notably her old passport - which she doesn't have. The atmosphere is distinctly unfriendly and unhelpful. However, Valérie is given a definite impression that all that could change - for a price. But that's not a game she's prepared to play. So she remains paperless.

The programme ended on a cautiously hopeful note. She's enrolled for a psychology course, for which she needed only to produce her Abitur certificate. So if her luck holds and she doesn't get stopped by the police, she can get her degree. Time enough then to think about tackling the obstacles to actually getting a job.

There we leave Valérie with our best wishes, and turn to the world stage. Because it was those sleazebags in the embassy who came into my mind when I read the mind-boggling news that Zimbabwe has been voted into the chair of the UN's Commission on Sustainable Development. Who chose Zimbabwe? The rest of Africa, that's who - including the country represented by Valérie's diplomatic friends.

The point about the Mugabe regime's record of wrecking the development that sustained Zimbabweans' ability to feed themselves is too obvious to need labouring. So here we have a snapshot of a continent-wide kleptocratic elite that simply doesn't give a monkey's about anything except feathering its own nests and sticking two fingers up at whitey. The plight of their starving subjects matters no more to them than Valérie's - both are merely targets for exploitation, as is anyone naive enough to channel development aid anywhere near these people.
A telling detail in the Beeb report is that Mozambique is finally putting the squeeze on Mugabe. Why? Have they seen the light over his human rights record? Nope, it's just that he's not paying his bills. Doesn't that give you a nice, warm feeling? It's no surprise that neo-Stalinist China is steadily increasing its influence in Africa. China's masters have the measure of their African opposite numbers, and they make deals with no questions asked.

As ever, I don't want to minimize the rich world's contribution to Africa's agony. But the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery is predictably proving to be a bumper year for liberal self-flagellation. And to the extent that this lets the kleptocrats off the hook, it doesn't help the wretched of the earth one jot.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Sir Patrick Moore, gender warrior

It must, in at least one respect, be a glorious thing to be an 84-year-old national treasure. You can say what's on your mind without giving a fig for PCness. The BBC's going down the toilet, claims Sir Patrick Moore, and specifically down the Ladies' (or the Female, as we, but certainly not Sir Patrick, prefer to say these days).

Mind you, his proposed solution is as PC as you could wish for. As a TV-watching bloke he feels oppressed and marginalized by the diet of mind-rotting trivia, and like every oppressed minority this one is entitled get its own facilities. So roll on BBC Bloke!

It's a scheme that has potential benefits for women too. Just consider Radio 3. Radio Bloke 3 could inherit all the Vienna Phil CDs, whilst Radio Girlie 3 would be free to have Dame Ethel Smyth as Composer of the Week as often as it liked, thus making classical music accessible to the countless women who feel excluded by the current patriarchal bias. Truly, a win-win scenario.

Better stop there, I might offend somebody.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The People's Inspiration

A couple of posts from Mick Hartley, keeping us up to date with areas of the world which are not faced with a boycott by the National Union of Journalists. First, the state of press freedom (lack of) in Russia. And then... well, see for yourselves.

Friday, May 04, 2007

A concerted effort towards peace

'Oh Allah, vanquish the Jews and their supporters. Oh Allah, count their numbers, and kill them all, down to the very last one. Oh Allah, show them a day of darkness.'

- a prayer from Sheik Ahmad Bahr, acting Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

'The UK government must engage with Palestinian political leaders to end the humanitarian crisis and revive the peace process, following the formation of a national unity government.


'The creation of the national unity government is a concerted effort towards peace that must be matched by the international community.'

- says Christian Aid.

A sense of honour

The sexuality of the boss of BP is a matter of supreme indifference to me and, I would imagine, to most of the British public. However, on reading Matthew Parris's piece on Lord Browne's resignation I reacted exactly as Melanie Phillips does here. The notion that, if you're gay and really, really rich, lying in court is no big deal is the kind of thing that leads to a rising level of irritation with Mr Parris. Lord Browne himself has shown more wisdom: insofar as he had any choice in the matter, it is to his credit that he has acknowledged that he has done wrong and not tried to bluff it out.

NUJ fightback

I'm not managing a lot of posting just lately, but I certainly can't ignore the wonderfully heartening fightback by National Union of Journalists members against the motion to boycott Israeli goods which was narrowly carried by their national conference. ITN, the Observer and a big chunk of the BBC have all come out against. Say what you like about the British media (and, yes, I quite often do like) there plainly still is such a thing as professionalism at its upper levels, and professional journalists understand that their job is to report the news that then enables the rest of us to make decisions about who, if anyone, we want to boycott.

As for singling Israel out for a boycott - a country that's open and democratic enough for this kind of thing to happen - here's a fascinating insight into the kind of company which the kind of people to whom this makes sense (specifically, the by now grossly misnamed Socialist Workers Party) are happy to keep. Based on my past experience of Trot politics I should have known better than to imagine that, just because a handful of these creeps can swing a conference vote, they are remotely representative of the membership.

Talking of Trots, I see that a fulsome endorsement from the Gorgeous One was not sufficient to save Tommy Sheridan's seat in the Scottish Parliament. Never mind, now he'll be able to spend more time with his Scrabble set.

Returning to serious politics, all the links come directly or indirectly from Engage, who are clearly doing sterling work in the fight against the boycott. Much more power to their elbows.