This was the tweet which I finally put together this evening, after a long time of not knowing how to put my finger on what I felt. A tweet which finally clarified things for me: on a whole host of conflicted feelings about colonial pasts, victimhood, racism and cultural confusion:
At heart, we’re racist. We expect non-Westerners to bomb the hell out of each other; we don’t expect liberal democracies to do the same. :-(
Now as I’ve already suggested on these pages, the supreme dangers of a very real – that is to say, of a latent but all the same rapidly manifesting and evermore visible – anti-Semitism cannot be underestimated in the current context. And so I’ve been writing to understand my own responses; almost certainly disappointing, to date, many of those who still read this little blog – especially from the context of the left of the British political spectrum.
Many terrible things have been written and posted over the past couple of weeks. The pictures and words which impose a continuing sense of violence on those of us who are utterly impotent and yet terrifyingly, permanently, engaged with all the horrors that first troop, then stumble and ultimately totter, break and collapse before us … well, such a sequence of photographic and verbal imagery can be quite unbearable.
Today, I have even read – written in the register of a bitter lifestyle choice – a piece on whether genocide is right for you.
And so it is – after much cogitation – I finally understand my reticence; I finally taste in all its glory the bitter pill I’m having to swallow. I am part Spanish Jew; a very little part it is true, but a part I wish to recognise and be proud of. How then – after the terrible times of the Holocaust, of the legacy my European side must never, nor should ever, forget nor obviate – can I continue to feel a sense of severe unhappiness with the part that Israel is playing in this conflict? How can I be … well … so disloyal – after all the suffering that Jews have undergone?
I suppose, if truth be told, the tweet is right: I, like many of my compatriots, many of my fellow Europeans, am racist: we ignore the vast empty toothless neighbourhoods of destruction where Arabs have committed evil against Arabs, and only concentrate on what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians. Or, indeed (far more occasionally I guess the Israeli government would say), on what the Palestinians are doing to Israel.
Only I also wonder if this is really, or solely, racism on my part. For sure we do guard a strong sense of anti-Semitism, and things like the past month do serve to add a frisson of “There, I told you so!” to our daily interactions. But I’m not absolutely sure, as I dare to explore this train of thought further, whether the real battle is one of racism or ideologies.
The current Israeli government’s position doesn’t half seem to mimic our own government’s behaviour around the time of Iraq when Tony Blair led Labour. The “Arab/Muslim/terrorist threat in general” meme – which has served to coalesce so many positions and postures into singular monocultural points of view – is clearly being used, with evidence from the battlefield I agree, to justify all manner of war crimes in Gaza. But I’m beginning to suspect that, in truth, what certain ideologues are doing – on our side of the walls being built, mind – is to use that meme to hide from the public a more complex reality: that in Arab societies it would be as easy to find people who from our liberal perspectives we could get along with, who we could build bridges towards, who we could engage with at social and cultural levels in order to create shared future, as it would be to find them in countries like Israel. And similarly (perhaps far more importantly, this), that people as ideologically fanatical – as fundamentalist in their world views, I mean – as Hamas or ISIS clearly are can be encountered in positions of power in our European and North American contexts, as well as in Israel itself.
Bombing people and places to smithereens is nothing like allowing the disabled to slowly die as support systems are suddenly removed – but in the black-and-white nature of the worldviews in question, certain conceptual elements are shared. The “I am right, you are wrong” mentality; the “No gain without pain” attitudes (as long as we understand the pain will be yours, not mine); the “If I’m at the top and you’re at the bottom, there’s got to be a God-given reason” assumptions … these are shared by so many of those currently running austerity the world over.
And there’s little difference for these distanced stratospheric makers and shakers – makers and shakers who’ve neither suffered a shrapnel wound in their lives nor had to witness a baby’s blood spatter the concrete before them – between the poverty of action that allows them to gaily crunch spun statistics whilst people starve at the doors of hundreds of food banks, and the poverty of thought that allows governments who say their enemies mix military and hospitals packed to the defibrillators with utterly defenceless human beings, to go ahead and destroy the lives of hundreds of terrified persons.
In truth, we do expect Israel, as a Western democracy, to do better. And in truth, we do expect Arab countries, as non-Western regimes, to do their worst. And in truth, this is highly racist. And in truth, we shouldn’t think like this.
But it’s also – kind of – just as racist to believe that Western democracy means just one thing. And what’s more, one inevitably good thing. At the end of this lovely review in the Financial Times two days ago, on the subject of the Guardian journalist Nick Davies’ new book about the wider pursuit of the recent phone-hacking stories, Davies is criticised for ranting on about neoliberalism. I haven’t read the book, so can’t comment if it’s a rant or not. But I imagine if he does rant, it’s because it’s all too easy for him to fall into the trap of doing so. So much of what we understand to be a latterday Western democracy seems to have been handed over, lock, stock and pork barrel, to those who have professional time on their hands to take over completely the “representative” in “representative democracy”.
I am sure, in the end, that so many of us have more in common with good people of a liberal inclination in many Arab countries, wherever they may find themselves, than we do with some of the right-wing austerity fanatics in the UK – in particular, that bit of the UK we call Westminster! This is not to say that fundamentalism in the Middle East isn’t a threat to be taken seriously. But it does mean that a liberal view of democracy must begin to fight more vigorously to be heard – if for no other reason than to let it be known that good people are to be found everywhere in the world.
And more importantly, as I’ve already indicated, that real poverty of thought may also be found on many of our own doorsteps.
For we are not one in anything – but, rather, multitudes.
As someone far better than me once pointed out …