Friday, May 30, 2008

A photograph

I have a photograph in my gallery that makes me feel wretched every time I loook at it. It is a poor quality photograph in black and white, taken in the early 1940s. The image is fuzzy, but stark. It shows three figures, etched against a vague background. Three human figures: a woman, whose body is bent at her hips and knees; a small child in her arms, cradled protectively; and, behind them, an SS soldier with a rifle pointed at this helpless pair, ready to fire. The woman and child, if I am right, were Jewish. Well, that doesn't take much guesswork. We don't know for sure what happended in the seconds or minutes after this photograph was taken. But we can all too painfully hear the crack of the rifle, and perhaps a second shot as the soldier despatches the little boy or little girl. It is a photograph to haunt us. It speaks directly to us, because we know only too well the context.

A photograph like this raises a lot of questions. Seeing it, every decent-minded person wishes someone had been there to save the woman and child. In all likelihood, we are witnessing part of a mass killing by an einsatzgruppe, a detachment responsible for killing Jews in the days before mass killings in the camps were developed. There will have been other soldiers present, including officers, and they will have been acting on orders from higher command. No mercy will have been shown to any of the victims. Now, here's the hard bit. Those who disapprove of the use of violence (and they aren't wrong in abhorring the taking of life) would ask permission to negotiate this killing with the soldier or his superior officer. Now, it is far from impossible that is someone — a priest, say — were to speak with the soldier and set out the revulsion with which most men would regard his intended action, the soldier might have a change of conscience and set down his rifle. In doing so, however, he would know that he has added his own life to those already threatened or snuffed out. He might die on the field, or be arrested and sent to headquarters to be hanged. Few men have the courage to adopt such a position. And, admirable as such a sacrifice might be, it would be ineffective. The officer would order another soldier to carry out the deed, or would carry it out himself. Under such circumstances, lives cannot be saved.

Which takes us to the other possibility, that had the einsatzgruppe been surrounded by Allied troops or partisans, they would have been forced to surrender or would have been shot. Shooting men engaged in the taking of innocent life does n ot awaken sentiments of outrage except in the minds of those who are already morally corrupt.

After the war, many Jewish rabbis and intellectuals engaged in a debate focussing on the Hebrew phrase hester panim, which I understand to mean 'the covering of the face of G-d'. The Holocaust presented the world's surviving Jews with a theological dilemma of masssive proportions. How could a loving Creator have allowed his chosen people to go to the gas chambers, yet (apparently) protected Hitler from several suicide attempts? Had God broken with the Jews, severed his covenant with them, abandoned them? I can't answer any of those questions, but I am very aware that the general response among Jews was to re-assert the connection. Two thousand years of persecution had innured them to a sense of abandonment while giving them the strength to find meaning in the indifference or cruelty of the world through which they journeyed.

But something had changed. That something is best expressed in the words of American rabbi and novelist, Chaim Potok, in his history of the Jewish people, Wanderings. Writing of the post-Holocaust era, he writes: 'There are no more gentle Jews'. Now, there are plenty (especially on the left) who take that badly. They don't much like Jews getting uppity, and when they see Jews fighting back against military attack or terrorist assault they take the moral high ground and declare it to be something unnatural. Jews, they seem to think, are G-d's and the world's victims. Whichever, they are born to be victims. To walk to the auto-da-fe reciting the Psalms or to the gas chamber with the Shema on their lips personifies, for many, the Jew of their choice.

That takes us back to the woman and child. This, when we add it together, is Potok's referrant. The gentle Jews did not, could not save those innocents. A troop of Sayaret Matkal fighters might well have done so. And given the SS a bloody nose into the bargain. The truth is that the Allied troops didn't turn up until it was too late for most of those who had gone through the camps. As we all know, the Allies placed the Jews very low on their list of priorities. Anyone who has read Tom Bowers's A Blind Eye to Murder or The Allies and Auschwitz will have seen in detail how stopping the killing in the camps carried no weight in the eyes of those responsible for prosecuting the war. Now, some of that failure may be set at the gate of anti-Semitism among politicians and civil servants, and some of it may have been due to a sincere belief that the defeat of the Third Reich was the priority, whatever the cost. That's not what concerns me here. Whatever the motives and whatever the correctness of saving all firepower for the Russian or Italian front, the fact is that the Jews could see that it wasn't just G-d who had hidden his face, it was much of humanity. And subsequent British antagonism to Holocaust survivors entering Palestine and the decision to keep survivors in camps on Cyprus brought many up with a jolt. How could those who had fought so hard to bring down the most evil empire in history, knowing now that 6 million Jews had died in death camps, now turn aside from those whom they and their allies had saved, turn their boats back from the shores of the Holy Land, let them drown only a short distance from the one place they had longed to make their homes in?

And then God took the veil away from his face and the state of Israel came into being. I'm not a believer, but I write that with full awareness of how the creation of a Jewish state was seen by a majority of the Jewish people. It was — and perhaps this is pushing things a little — almost a divine reward for the suffering the Jews had just passed through. And one of the many things Israel allowed was the creation of an army, an air force, and a navy. Time and again, when Israel's enemies have attacked her, threatening genocide, they have had their noses bloodied. Many have died, but there has never been a second Holocaust, however much the Arab and Muslim worlds may long for one. A strong Israel is the answer to the horror of that photograph. Today the world whines about the actions Israel takes to defend herself and her people. That same world would have stood next to our woman and child and told her to take it and not complain.

Today, rockets land in Sderot and Ashkelon. Hizbullah and Hamas amass armaments that would pose a threat to any country on earth. Their leaders echo the Nazi-speak of 1930s Germany. Back then, Jews felt powerless, and sat and waited for an indication that the worst was over, that Germans would come to their senses, that the rhetoric would come to nothing, that Der Sturmer was a sick joke at best. Who can blame them? But today, who can blame the Israelis for thinking their lives and their nation are at serious? Who can deny that, once again, the nations will look on, will pass by on the other side of the road, will deny they are anti-Semitic while they shake hands with Hamas and Hizbullah and the rulers of Iran? Today, Israel is a women, bent at the knees and hips, a child in her arms, waiting for the bullet that will pound through her head. But today, she will put the child on his feet and turn to face the SS soldier, and she will hold an Uzi sub-machine gun in her hand. Is it grotesque for that to happen? So many left-wingers, Jews and non-Jews together, say that it is, that Israel has less right to exist than our woman in the photograph. If rockets were landing in their back gardens, they mightg well ring for the police and ask for some sort of action by the military. They would not be supine in the face of an existential threat. But they will not go out there, sniper's rifle in hand, to shoot the SS guards who threaten innocent women and children. That will be their eternal shame.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Myths and Historical Fact

The following was sent recently to the Irish Times in response to a long letter that had appeared there. I don't know if the Times ever published my reply, but it's long enough to fit this blog, so here it is.

Despite Tomas McBride (Letters, 22 May), supporters of
Israel do not need to resort to myth in order to
justify the existence of a modern Jewish state. Let's
leave the Torah to one side for a moment. Israel came
into being, not from a mythical 'Jewish invasion' of
British mandate Palestine, but as the result of a long
political process that started in the late 19th
century as the Ottoman empire drew to its end. After
the second world war and a long debate, the United
Nations voted by a majority for the creation of a
small Jewish state alongside other mandate or
ex-mandate states. In other words, Israel was carved
out of the old empire much as modern Iraq, Lebanon,
Syria, or Jordan. This happened in part because
post-war re-apportionment of land in general is
commonplace, but for the greater part because the UN
was a new way to administer international law and the
necessary adjustments between nations. The nearest
parallel was the resettlement of 2 million people
following the partition of India to create Pakistan
(and, later, Bangladesh) — oddly enough, no Muslim
voices are raised to complain about this.

Unfortunately, nations in the modern form, modelled on
the concept of the Westphalian state, had never
existed in Islam (though various forms of Arab
nationalism, like Jewish nationalism, were being
advocated in this period). This is why the Arab states
who invaded Israel with the expressed intention of
driving all Jews into the Mediterranean simply refused
to behave like UN member states at all. That Jews had
taken control of even a tiny sliver of Islamic
territory was anathema, giving rise to what was in
essence a religious animus calling for genocide. By
that time too, Palestinian politics had been
irredeemably tainted by association with the Third
Reich. The Reich's leading Arab collaborator, Hajj
Amin al-Husayni, the Palestinian leader, had fled
after the Nazi defeat and was feted in Cairo as a hero
of the Arab people.

To dismiss Jewish longing to return to Israel as
merely a myth-centred nonsense displays an absolute
insensitivity to aspirations, whether religious or
national. All peoples, religions, and nations have
founding myths. The Jews have one of the strongest.
Their belief in a land that was given them by God may
or may not be historically true, but it is a vivid,
enduring, and necessary expression of the significance
Jews have placed in Israel for thousands of years.
Jerusalem is sacred to Jews much as Mecca and Medina
are to Muslims. It is certainly much better attested
than the historically invalid attempt of modern
Palestinians (a hybrid group) to assert Palestinian
occupation of that land for a similar length of time;
or to claim a link between modern Palestinians and the
ancient Philistines; or, most glaringly, that the Jews
have never had a historical connection to the land.
Pull the other one.

For two thousand years, Jews have expressed a daily
hope of return to the Holy Land. That sense of
belonging, that connection to history, are something
greater than myth, though often inspired by it. We do
not mock other religions for holding non-rational
beliefs, we do not try to make political capital out
of national struggles based on a longing for a return
to a Golden Age. The statue of Cuchulainn outside the
General Post Office is there for a reason. Or consider
the opening words of the Proclamation of Independence:
'IRISHMEN AND IRISHWOMEN: In the name of God and of
the dead generations from which she receives her old
tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons
her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.'
Or all those murals of King Billy crossing the Boyne.

Jews trace their origins back as far as that and
further. That is why they chose and were given a
homeland where every town, every hill, every river,
every archaeological excavation, and every stone in
the Western Wall resonates. And given the momentous
horror of the Holocaust and how close mankind came to
witnessing an extermination of the Jewish people, that
resonance could not have been greater. Persecuted
though we may have been by the British occupation, we
were never in danger of being wiped out. Since 1948,
the Palestinian Arabs have increased from 1,700,000 to
2.5 million (with claims of over 3 million). That is
the truth of the 'Palestinian Holocaust', another myth
that is swallowed too readily. If I am to believe in
the right of the Irish people to a homeland where
Cuchulainn may or may not have walked, how can I deny
the Jews their unarguable right to seek refuge for the
first time in two millennia in a land they have prayed
for every day of their lives? By contrast, Jerusalem
has little resonance in Islam: soon after migrating to
Medina, the prophet Muhammad, who had prayed towards
Jerusalem in imitation of the Jews, turned his back on
the city and chose instead to pray towards Mecca, as
all Muslims do today. Jews recite the words of the
Psalm: 'If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right
hand wither, let my tongue cleave to my palate if I do
not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my
highest joy'. The Qur'an doesn't even mention

The Arabs cannot have it both ways. They cannot belong
to the United Nations and work to undermine its very
principles. Their states are dictatorships and absolute
monarchies, they deny their citizens basic human
rights, they reduce women to an inferior status, they
deny religious minorities the freedoms called for in
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet they
denounce Israel, the only country in the Middle East
that implements those rights in a democratic state.
What are we looking for, in the end? Stability,
democracy, the rule of law, rights for everyone
regardless of colour, sex, or creed? Or genocide by
Hamas and Hizbullah, followed by theocratic rule that
will bring executions, stonings, and the minimum of
rights for any remaining religious minorities? Israel
has achieved great things. It has some way to go, but
every time we attack it or snipe at it or give
terrorists succour, we undermine the very things we
claim to stand for.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The stand-bys

We Westerners have become the stand-bys, the people who protest about everything and never actually do anything useful. In Burma, where over a million may die in an epidemic, the government refuses to let aid agencies and aid into the country. Cue photographs of Western diplomats smiling and shaking hands with members of the ruling junta. There is much wringing of hands, but nobody actually does anything. A great crime is being committed, but its perpetrators know all too well that no international policeman will arrive to arrest and imprison them. In Lebanon, Hizbullah threaten to take control from the legitimate government. UN troops, sent there to prevent Hizbullah re-arming, whistle through their teeth as they watch the rockets being shipped in. Hizbullah captures a southern village that gives them a vantage point over northern Israel and thus betokens another war; and the United Nations does sod all. I have just watched a gruelling video of four men being stoned to death in Iran. I had to switch it off. No-one stepped in to prevent this vile act, an act that debases a great nation and all humanity. James Bond did not arrive by plane or supercharged sports car, no-one took a pistol and shot the mullah in charge of the event, I don't think a question was asked in the House of Commons or in Congress, and I don't recall the Iranian ambassador ever being hauled in to explain these or any other deaths.

What are we scared of? World opinion? We are the world, or at least the richest and strongest part of it. What do we care about some two-bit tinpot dictatorship in Africa or the Arab world? Why should they outvote the democracies in the General Assembly or the UN Commission for Human Rights? Robert Mugabe destroys an entire country, its economy, and the lives of its people. We shake our heads because it would be improper to assassinate him or even go in and arrest him. If we apply that logic to Britain or any other country, the police would stand back from arresting drug dealers and criminal masterminds. Israel is the only country that says, if someone is a mass murderer and threatens to kill more innocent people, it is ethical to go in and take him out. If Saddam Husayn has built a nuclear reactor, it is for everyone's benefit to blow it to pieces. If terrorists have taken a plane-load of your people and threaten to kill them, you send hard men in after the terrorists, you kill them, and you rescue the hostages.

It is a mockery of the international system that Israel, a member state of the UN, has fought wars and terrorist attacks for 60 years, yet not one other member state has come to its aid. Nato was founded on the basis that an attack on any member country was to be considered an attack on everyone, and that retaliation would follow from all member states. That is still true. Similar alliances exist elsewhere. Of course, the UN is not a military alliance; but it still makes no sense to me that there can be no role for the UN when Israel is attacked by wholly illegal entities like Hamas or Hizbullah. It's not even a case of asking the UN to send in fighting troops to go into battle alongside Israelis, simply wondering why the UN chooses not to enforce international law when it is so blatantly broken by a group like Hizbullah that was founded and is backed by a regime who record in human rights or in international relations is consistently black. What do you have to do to get the UN, to which you pay your membership dues, to do what it was set up to do?

It matters hugely to the West that Hizbullah does not set the Middle East alight, that Iran and Syria do not take joint control of Lebanon, that they do not use their alliance with Hamas to engage in another war with Israel, and that Syria does not try to drag Jordan into it. But surely this is the point. It is precisely because the West (like the UN) stood aside during the last war in Lebanon, and put heavy pressure on Israel to end the war prematurely, that Hizbullah was able to come out of the conflict ready to re-arm and re-group. thereby creating the present situation. To be honest, if the West (or the UN) had acted years ago, Hizbullah could have been flattened before they got the missiles they now use. The same with Hamas.

Everyone is afraid — and rightly afraid — of starting a war with Iran. Attacking Hizbullah could lead to that. Taking out Iran's nucleaer installations could lead to it. Iran is a big country with difficult terrain and a large population. A war would be foolish and Western troops would get even more bogged down than they are now in Iraq or Afghanistan. US blunders in Iraq have made life easier for Ahmadinezhad and his generals. I cannot suggest the right course of action. Perhaps no-one in the West really cares: if Israel is all that's at stake, no doubt a lot of people can live with that. We don't reward heroism any longer, not if it ruffles feathers in high places. We are politically correct, which means we hate Israel and love the terrorists masquerading as freedom fighters who want to destroy her body and soul. They want to destroy Israel's spirit, and they know no-one out there has a spirit like it, and that no-one dare trespass the laws of 'do not speak', 'do not call on others to speak', 'do not act', and 'do not urge others to take action'. Let us prove them wrong.