Saturday, August 30, 2008

Going to sea in little boats

The following is a letter I have just written to Angela Godfrey-Goldstein, a leading light in the Free Gaza Movement. I have made a few small corrections.

Angela Godfrey-Goldstein
Media Team
Free Gaza Movement

Dear Angela,

You don’t know me, and perhaps you never will. I’m just a British-Irish writer and academic with a lifetime’s interest in and knowledge of the Middle East. As your small flotilla of boats wends its way back to these islands, I thought I would share with you some of my thoughts on your endeavour. Perhaps you will ignore them, perhaps they will help.

Here in the UK, where I live, we have, as you will know, a proud tradition of sailing small ships into dangerous waters, in times of great danger. The Spanish Armada was brought low by smaller English ships and high winds. Off the northern Irish coast, divers still bring up shining treasure from sunken galleons. Dunkirk was a victory of small boats against the ruthless might of the Nazi state and its military strength. Over in Ireland, we remember the little corracles who plied the high Atlantic waters off the west coast and out of the small fishing islands of Inis Mór and Inis Beg. Many seafaring nations have memorialized their nautical past in prose and verse: the great Lusiades of the Portuguese poet and adventurer Luis de Camoes stands out, Moby Dick is one of the greatest works of North American fiction, Synge’s Riders to the Sea was one of the first realistic depictions of Irish life and death in tiny boats.

In the United States a few years ago, work was started on the rebuilding of the famous slave ship Amistad, and today the ship sails from continent to continent telling the tale of the slave trade and building a community for students and disadvantaged young men and women. Other great ships of historical significance are moored in harbours across the world, telling their stories, educating children and adults in the histories they carry. Others lie in greater numbers beneath the sea, ships sunk in battle or in storm or lost on voyages of discovery.

They are a source of pride, these ships. All those sunken merchant vessels downed by German U-boats while bringing precious cargo to a beleaguered island. Those wooden ships holed below the waterline in wars with France and Spain. Those rusting hulks that once brought my Irish ancestors out of famine to a new life in America. Those little boats that didn't make it on their errand of mercy out of Dunkirk.

There’s one ship, though, that stirs my imagination for the profound symbolism of its voyage and the shame it brings on Britain even after all these years, and that is the Exodus 1947. I’m sure you know the story of this little ship, well past its best days, that set sail from France carrying Jewish refugees, Holocaust survivors for whom Palestine had become a beacon of hope and a promise of resurrection. Boarded by the Royal Navy, the Exodus was towed to Haifa and the refugees sent by force back to Europe, where they were placed in internment camps, mostly in Germany, and enclosed behind barbed wire. That was a day of shame for Britain that the country will always bear.

I know you feel a deep love for the Palestinian people. There can be no harm in that, though I wonder that you seem blind to the deep veins of hatred, rejection of compromise, and genocidal longing that have for so many years perverted the Palestinian leadership and ruined the lives of so many Palestinians. About the time the Exodus left port in France, the Arabs of the Middle East were planning to wipe out any future Jewish state. They planned, not just to turn Holocaust survivors from their shores — a startling inhospitality when set beside the record of France or the UK, countries that have taken millions of refugees from all around the world — but to massacre those who did reach the country of their dreams. The Arabs spoke of massacre and acted in 1948 to commit just that.

If you have no sympathy for those Jews fleeing concentration and internment camps and bringing their skills and energies to a country badly in need of them, if you cannot feel your heart break when you contemplate what they suffered, yet what a great thing they achieved, I find it hard to believe that your compassion for the Palestinians is real. Compassion is a single, an indivisble thing. If you feel for the Palestinians, why do you not feel for the Jews, who have suffered more greatly since the 1930s than the Palestinians ever have? One love does not have to drive out the other. I certainly do not despise the Palestinians simply because I love the Israelis. What I do despise (and it horrifies me that you and other pro-Palestinian activists seem to be in harmony with it) is the vein of terror, the utter ruthlessness that runs through Palestinian history.

Your recent project to sail two boats to Gaza went badly wrong for one simple reason: you seriously misunderstood the Israelis. You created an image of them as demons, Nazis, ruthless fiends bent on harming the people of the West Bank and Gaza. You also invented notions of international law that anticipated conflict, and perhaps you and your colleagues even looked for a martyrdom of some kind. In the end, the Israelis reacted quite differently, because their history has shown them to be tough when necessary but capable of compromise and more when appropriate. To have blocked the entry of two ships carrying hearing aids and balloons would have been high-handed and pointless. You were allowed through. But somewhere a young Palestinian woman is strapping on a suicide belt; if she gets through the checkpoints, she will head for a restaurant or a hospital or a nursery school, and she will kill the innocent. That’s the sort of thing the Israelis try their hardest to block, and it is morally blameworthy to complain that they do it.

The Jews who set sail on the Exodus 1947 did so out of desperation, just as the first Jewish settlers headed for a backwater of the Ottoman empire, to desert and marshland, not because they were evil Zionists bent on conspiracy, but because they had fled pogroms and massacres in order to reach a promised land. It matters little how they understood that promise. Today, there are Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Punjabis, Jamaicans, Poles, and countless others who have found their promised land in the UK. This country does not threaten to massacre them or to kick them into the sea. We live together, not always comfortably, but in peace.

Hamas and other organizations in Gaza and the West Bank do not think that way. They would not have turned the Exodus back, they would have torpedoed her. Their founding documents — which I suggest you read, for I really can’t believe you have done — describe jihad as the only solution to their problem, and the expulsion or slaughter of the Jews as their proper fate.

Jews make good neighbours. You really should know that. I’m not a Jew, but a lifetime has taught me that that is true. Israel is a country that attracts tourists and investors. It is a good place to live and work. It is one of the most successful multicultural countries in the world. Minority religions like the Baha’is are given refuge there. Gay men and women from Arab countries go there for shelter. Ethiopians have made new lives there, and Russians, and, most recently Indians. It should be the Palestinian dream to live shoulder to shoulder with the democrats, the entrepreneurs, the inventors, the writers and artists and musicians on the other side of the fence. With Israeli help, a Palestinian state could grow in stature in a matter of years. There would be a peace dividend like no other. Instead, all some Palestinians seem to do is parade and scream and honour men and women whose only achievement was to murder children and survivors of the Holocaust. I don’t believe ordinary Palestinians are really like that at all. I was born in Belfast, and I grew up with bigotry as part of the scenery. Just as left for university, that bigotry exploded into violence and a deeply divided society. Today, that bigotry is receding. And that’s because both sides have learned lessons from the path and have built something new out of compromise. But Hamas and Fatah refuse to compromise. Each wants everything and gets nothing. Where is the sense in that?

Desperation is no excuse for hatred. Those Holocaust survivors had greater desperation than the Palestinians ever have done. They set out to kill no-one, but, as history so very clearly records, they were attacked by five armies and barely survived a second time. Today’s Palestinians do suffer, but they are not defending themselves against genocidal attack. There are no Israelis left in Gaza (though there are plenty of Arabs in Israel). But Hamas builds its arsenal, Islamic Jihad builds another, and every so often Israeli border guards detect and arrest another would-be suicide bomber.

You thought you were taking a risk sailing to Gaza, only to find nobody in Israel was much interested in your stunt. To the extent that you may have believed you would be arrested and imprisoned or worse, I commend your courage. But there are better forms of courage, less negative ones. If only you and your colleagues could sustain the courage to speak to men and women of merit in Gaza, community leaders, even perhaps leaders of Hamas, explain to them how dedicated you are to the Palestinian people and its emergence from the long tunnel it has been in for 60 years and more, and tell them that compromise will bring benefits, that even if they don’t take Israel back (and destroy it with inter-factional fighting) they can have what they were promised all those years ago, and that compromise will result in peace, and that peace will lead to prosperity, and that prosperity will give their children what they never had: a future.

And if you get turned down on all sides, or threatened or beaten — and I hope none of those things will happen to you — will you please admit that the Palestinians, or their leadership at least, are bringing their humiliation and poverty on their own heads? Will you make this your new mission? To show solidarity, not with the men of violence who rule Gaza today, but with moderate Palestinians, men and women of good heart, and to show that solidarity means compassion for the people you hope to free, and that freedom for the people of Gaza will come when there is a will towards peace? For if you and other pro-Palestinian organizations persist in support for the status quo, in which violence dictates a life without a future, then lovers of peace like myself will understand you better. And however many boats you sail, however many hearing aids you carry, however many brightly-coloured balloons you distribute, you will never convince the world that you mean anything but the destruction of Israel and the ruination of the Palestinian people.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Denis MacEoin

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Holocaust and its impersonators

I've just finished proof-reading my forthcoming academic book, The Messiah of Shiraz. Weighing in at just under 800 pages (with the index to come) it's going to be sold in hardware shops as a doorstop. Deathless prose it may be, but it's filled with transliterations from Arabic and Persian (dashes over 'a's, 'i's and 'u's, dots under a whole range of consonants), so going through it checking for errors has left me squinting and drawing sharp breaths.

But out of all that verbiage, one thing and one thing only has stuck in my mind. This is a short passage that includes two quotations relating to events that took place after the 1852 assassination attempt on the life of Nasir al-Din Shah, the Iranian monarch who reigned till 1896. George Curzon called him philo-uxorious, meaning that he had a lot of wives. After a trip to Paris, he made his harem dress in tutus and, given that most of these ladies were, shall we say, large of stature, the results were, let's just say, spectacular. But that's not why someone tried to kill him. First suspicions fell on a militant sect, the Babis, who form the main topic of my book. Some Babis were killed, others imprisoned, but a combination of reports by European travellers and diplomats gave rise to the myth that there had been a serious massacre. Later histories by members of the Baha'i religion (who have their roots in Babism) perpetuate this myth. Here's the passage that stood out for me:

According to a later writer, the 1851 killings were ‘a blood-bath of unprecedented severity,’ ‘a holocaust reminiscent of the direst tribulations undergone by the persecuted followers of any previous religion,’and ‘the darkest, bloodiest and most tragic episode of the Heroic Age of the Bahāʾī Dispensation.

This is strong stuff. One wonders why, if it was the equal of the worst things suffered by the followers of any religion, a holocaust no less, an unprecedented severity, we didn't all read about it in our school history books. Actually, the tally of Babi dead was 37. Believe me, I have conducted extensive researches on all cases of Babis killed between 1844 and 1852, and 37 is correct.

Well, this is just exaggeration by a writer who was no stranger to the genre, but in recent years he has found himself in good (or not so good) company. Since the 1980s, the 'Palestinian Holocaust' has become a badge for left-liberals everywhere, a rallying cry for the Islamic world, an internet 'reality' that could have stepped out of Second Life, a cause for much wringing of hands, a matter for public lamentation, a summons for vindication, a justification for 'retaliatory' violence, an explanation for Palestinian intransigence and failure, a texture woven through the cloth of Arab policies, an incantation ringing out in Islamic sermons, on the voices of little children, in the streets and suqs, a banner waving beside the Palestinian flag.

Enough with the purple prose. The Palestinian Holocaust never happened. We are living in the real world. We are, if you like, living in history, and history has no record of a Palestinian Holocaust.

But let me take this beyond mere assertion. The term 'Holocaust' as applied to the Palestinians is derived directly from the same word in English, corresponding to the Hebrew Shoah. Writing in Arabic or Farsi, the word is hulukast (with three of those long-vowel dashes on the vowels, neatly avoiding any Arabic, Persian, or other term that might have been more appropriate.

So, the Palestinian 'Holocaust' is modelled on something that happened in Europe, the slaughter of some 6 million Jews by the Nazis before and during the Second World War. Of the reality of the Jewish Holocaust, there can be no doubt. It is recorded lavishly in the memories of survivors, on film, in photographs, and, above all, in mile after mile of German, Russian, Hungarian, Polish, and other archives, archives whose multitudinous files contain vastly more evidence of murder and bestiality than the police records of any country on earth. No other crime or set of crimes have been so meticulously recorded.

In face of this overwhelming evidence, many Muslims -- notably the Iranians -- have joined forces with a much smaller number of right-wing extremists (and not a few on the far left) who flatly deny that the Holocaust ever took place, who insist there were no gas chambers and who would have it that not a single Jew died as a result of Nazi brutality. Or who argue that the Nazis looked after the Jews well, and that it was disease, not lethal gases, that killed them. Better still, never content with one explanation when three or four will do, they argue that the Holocaust was a dastardly Zionist plot, a conspiracy between Nazis and Zionists to imprint the deaths of Jews on the world's conscience in order to guarantee the creation of Israel once the war was over.

This denial -- egregious, sickening and degenerate as it is -- matches claims that there was, that there is, a Palestinian Holocaust. No Jews died, but, hey, look at the slaughter of the Palestinians by the Jews. It also matches the transparent nonsense that Israel is a Nazi state and, what's more, a Nazi state built on that non-existent Holocaust.

It does not need saying that no serious person would fall for any of this, except that so many have. The Palestinian Holocaust, a vast massacre for which not a shred of evidence exists, is passing fare at polite middle-class dinner tables, it is fodder for intellectuals of a certain ilk, it passes for historical fact among well-educated people who find it easier to sneer than read a book of properly-researched history.

Why has this happened? Why has history been stood on its head, and, with it, terminology? If I call Israel a Nazi state, am I not obliged to demonstrate this by reference to Israeli doctrines, policies, and actions that parallel those of the German National Socialist Party? If I pontificate about a Palestinian Holocaust, am I not bound to cite places, dates, and numbers? And since there are no such facts to bandy about, just as there are no Israeli apartheid laws, what do I have to do? All it seems to take is repetition. Say it often enough and people take it in and give it shelter, a lie big enough to choke them.

Some of these moral degenerates, like Ilan Pappé, say they aren't interested in facts, that it's the progressive argument or something, whatever it's called, that counts. But as every criminal knows when he's dragged to court, the facts will grind you down. However much you fudge and cover, slip and slide, a good barrister will wear you out, because there will be demonstrable facts to expose your lies.

Beneath the surface (though not far beneath) is an abiding anti-Semitism, a moral failing that drives its exponents to lies. Far-right groups like Stormfront have no compunctions about being anti-Semitic. They aren't ashamed of it, in fact they're proud to be Hitler's successors. But what about the European and American left? Not all the left, not all the liberals, but a large body who are not really liberal at all. After the Holocaust, it became a shameful thing to speak ill of Jews and, for some time, to condemn Israel. But there gradually came into existence a new kind of left-winger, someone for whom everything Western was anathema. So, America is the devil, the UK is the devil, Israel is the devil, imperialism, colonialism, and all the rest are part of Satan's attack on the poor and wretched of the earth. One problem, of course, for this approach is that you have to turn a blind eye to Islamic imperialism (especially the late, great Ottoman empire), or Arab and Turkish slavery, and all those other things the non-Western world has been responsible for. That means re-writing history, and that's the direction chosen by leftist intellectuals. Israel has been of particularly value for this, allowing liberals to cry 'I'm not anti-Semitic, I'm anti-Israel'.

The antidote to these arguments may be found in a remarkable book by Bernard Harrison, The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism. Harrison's an academic philosopher, and his analysis of this problem about anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism is outstanding. Slowly, painstakingly, he subjects articles, individuals, and arguments to a critique to which they have never been subjected before. His discussion of Tom Paulin alone makes the book worth buying.

Rather than digressing into his complex arguments, I'll leave this post here and possibly return to it another day.