It depends what you mean by ‘state’, ‘Israel’,’right’ and ‘exist’

Kibbutz in Southern Israel

In an Atlantic article about the prohibition of anti-Zionist views at American Universities, this:

One letter signed by more than 130 UC faculty members supported naming anti-Zionism as an expression of anti-Semitism, saying students need guidance on “when healthy political debate crosses the line into anti-Jewish hatred, bigotry and discrimination, and when legitimate criticism of Israel devolves into denying Israel’s right to exist.”

The phrase “Israel’s right to exist” is a common one in debates about Zionism and the hideous disputes between Israel and the Palestinians.  It’s often used as a line in the sand: critics of Israel are often asked whether they support its “right to exist”. Continue reading “It depends what you mean by ‘state’, ‘Israel’,’right’ and ‘exist’”

Our humanity drowns in the Mediterranean

Should the EU act to save illegal immigrants from drowning in the Mediterranean? Superficially, this question sounds a bit like one of those dilemmas presented by moral philosophers: do you switch the path of the runaway train so it kills one old man instead of a family of six?

But in this case, the question is not a like-for-like, life-for-life comparison. Instead, it boils down to whether we

  1. save the lives of dozens, or perhaps hundreds of illegal immigrants; or
  2. try to save a few million Euros of costs incurred by the Italian navy

… and I suppose, a few million more Euros caused by the inconvenience of being stuck with a boat-load of Africans without identity documents.

Students in ‘Introduction to Ethics’ seminars should not find this example particularly troubling. Since we are not weighing up human lives, a few humane heuristics will see us through. One of those is that if its a choice between people and money, you save the lives. When confronted with someone in clear and present danger, and the power to save them, we should not sit on our hands and watch them drown.

Really, what is so hard about that? Continue reading “Our humanity drowns in the Mediterranean”

On the killing of children

The news is hideous. 298 people died when Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot out of the sky over Ukraine, apparently by pro-Russian separatists. Meanwhile, almost as many people have been killed in Gaza by Israeli air strikes, in response to Hamas firing rockets into Israel.

In both cases, the news reports emphasise the number of children killed. It’s a common journalistic practice that we take for granted, which is actually quite curious.

What is being communicated? Is it that a child’s death is somehow more tragic, because they have not had a chance to properly experience life? If so, what about all the dead adults who have still not achieved their potential?

Continue reading “On the killing of children”


Ugh. I just unwhittingly clicked on a YouTube video showing the immediate aftermath of the assasination of Ahmed Al-Jabari in Gaza. A passer-by drags out dead body from the car… and half of it is missing. It is sickening and certainly Not Safe For Work or children. I wonder how long it will remain live on YouTube before the company removes it for being too graphic.

The video is a huge contrast to the clinical black and white footage distributed by the Israeli Defence Force. Ever since Operation Desert Storm there has been discussion of the way in which TV pictures frame our view of war, sanitising the horror. In recent years there has also been much analysis of the ‘gamification’ of war, as soldiers brough-up on video games join the army and begin shooting real people. The two contrasting images of the same incident speak to that dehumanising tendency.

The gruesome, visceral aftermath also provides some understanding of the hatred towards Israel that steams out of Palestine. In the background of the video you can see children observing the scene. I am glad that I never saw such sights in my childhood. Is it any surprise that those who experience such visual traumas grow up to hate those responsible? Time and again, I find my thoughts returning to this 2005 essay by Laurie King on the symbolism of the body in war, occupation and resistance:

These violations [at Sabra and Shatila] of individual bodies were not haphazard or random acts carried out in the heat of murderous rage, but rather, part of a grammar of political exclusivity, a systemic and coherent — though certainly deranged — message that an entire group could be violated, perhaps even eradicated, with impunity. The message of that massacre endures and echoes a quarter of a century later. Its scars are social, physical, and symbolic, and are felt far beyond the scene of the crime.

So what we have here are different methods of dehumanisation. The fact that these people we fight against are our fellow humans is forgotten in the melee and the maelstrom. Some comments psoted below the video of the half-body:

Lol, not much of him left, and nice slug trail to boot (link)

I wish wars still involved swordmanship and valor but now we got this lame no effort shit. Oh well. (link)

Where’s the rest of him? Ah well…One less scum bag polluting the world (link)

These are not the comments of those who see the other side as human.

See also: Twitter and the anti-Playstation effect on war coverage.

The Gaza Merry-Go-Round

I looked back through the archives of this blog, to see what I wrote about the previous military interventions in Gaza.  The comments I offered then seem to work pretty well for the current crisis too.  From 2006:

These events are a tragedy in the strict sense of the word, where the traits of the main characters make certain events inevitable. Sure, Israel didn’t start it. Watch any one of the countless Greek Tragedies that will plague this year’s Edinburgh Festival, and you will see that it is never the protagonist’s fault. Hercules didn’t start it. Electra didn’t start it. Clytemnestra didn’t start it. But at the end of the play, when everyone’s dead, one still thinks “if only you had been different.” Nasrallah is the malevolent deity, nowhere to be found yet omnipresent at the same time. He laughs at how easy it is to provoke this tragedy.

I also wrote:

Another blood feud is created, ready to be concluded in some Tel Aviv pizza parlour in 2012.

That turned out to be right.  In 2009 I wrote about how the asymetric warfare practiced by Hamas and Hezbollah can outmanoever Israel:

If you’re faced with a situation where bombing civilians seems to be the only course of action left open to you, then you’ve already been outmanoeuvered, you have already lost, and the only thing you are playing for is your own soul, your own humanity.

All this seems right for 2012, too.

This statement from President Peres seems to fall precisely into the tragic, circular logic discussed above:

This is ridiculous for two reasons.  First, collective punishment of the Gazans is not the only possible course of action.  This fascinating but depressing article in the New York Times by Gershon Baskin, and Israeli negotiator who helped secure the release of Giliad Shalit, outlines just one alternative course of action that was open to Israel – negotiate a cease-fire with Hamas.  According to Baskin, Ahmed Al-Jabari (the Hamas leader assasinated by Israel last week) was the man best placed to deliver a cease-fire, a project in which he was actively engaged at the time of his death.

Peres’ comment is absurd for a more practical reason – Israel’s “eye-for-an-eye” style retalitory policy has not made its citizen’s safer.  Just the opposite, in fact: the military intervention has actually caused an increase in rocket attacks.  The first Israeli citizens to die from rocket attacks this year were killed last Thursday, after the Government began bombarding Gaza.  So the current military action fails on its own terms.

After the Debate

While I certainly stand behind the broad message of my Oxford Union speech, it is only right to acknowledge that the subject of debate – the impact of social media on social activism – is a little more nuanced and complicated than my bolshy assertions would have you believe. It’s worth acknowledging some of the arguments in favour of the motion, and expanding on some of the issues I was only able to cruise by in my eight minutes at the despatch box.

First, I wrote down a phrase from Mark Pfeifle, where he described social media as enabling “the soft power of democracy”. I thought this was a persuasive point. My speech focused on social activism in the UK and the USA, where there is a long tradition of social activism, and therefore ‘reinventing’ such activism is a very tough proposition. By contrast, those countries plagued by dictatorship have a stunted tradition of social action, so any tool that enables any kind of activism might be seen as a ‘reinvention’.
Continue reading “After the Debate”

Comments on Comment is Free: Gunter Grass

When I do a post for Comment is Free, I like to do a round-up here of pertinent and impertinent comments that appear below it.

My piece on Gunter Grass pulled in 298 comments, which is a record for me, but sadly nothing to do with my prose. They are the predictable result of writing anything about Israel – partisans of both sides come out in force.

One comment, from fellow Comment is Free contributor David Wearing of the New Left Project, stood out:

The equivalence drawn here with the Habima theatre situation is entirely spurious.

The Habima theatre has performed to illegal colonists in the West Bank. Those colonies are maintained through a system of brutal repression (including the denial of many democratic rights, such as free expression) of the indigenous population.

Individuals and institutions are 100% entitled, as a matter of conscience, to choose not to work with Habima for that reason, and to encourage others to take a similar position. There is no question of censorship. To decline to associate with someone on moral grounds is a democratic choice.

No one has suggested that Jews or Hebrew speakers should be excluded blanket-fashion. The insinuation that this is what the proposed cancellation of Habima amounts to is an outrageous slur. Would anyone object to a performance by a Hebrew speaking theatre group made up of people who had never and would never perform in the illegal colonies? Everyone knows the answer to that. Everyone knows that those calling for Habima to be cancelled would welcome such an alternative performance with absolute delight.

So there is no comparison here to the Grass case, where a state (the one which criminally maintains the colonies mentioned above) has declared an individual persona non grata because he has expressed an opinion that the state disapproves of. That is dictionary-definition undemocratic behaviour.

I think that’s true, and my piece should have taken more care not to draw direct equivalence. I was merely trying to make the point that it should be left to individuals as to whether to engage with any piece of art. User silverchain took issue with Wearing, pointing out that plenty of other languages in the Shakespeare festival are represented by countries such as China and Turkey who also abuse human rights.

Continue reading “Comments on Comment is Free: Gunter Grass”

Hit Günter Grass with Poetry, Not a Travel Ban

Liberty Central LogoAnother piece on Günter Grass and his poem, this time for Comment is Free.

On Sunday, the controversy surrounding Günter Grass’s poem Was Gesagt Werden Muss (What Must Be Said) escalated, with Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai confirming Grass was now considered a persona non grata in Israel, which amounts to a travel ban. This is a form of state censorship against an author, purely because of what he has written, which is wrong and an infringement on free speech.

Censorship might be legitimate when a writer incites violence or war, but Grass’s poem does neither. His transgression is to write something that many people find offensive and (given his history, as a conscript in the Waffen-SS) deeply insensitive. However, this is no reason for censorship: freedom of expression is meaningless without the right to offend. This is true not just for criticism of Israeli foreign policy, but the criticism and satirisation of other states, religions and individuals too. This is why we in English PEN oppose defamation and blasphemy laws all over the world and have also argued against laws banning Holocaust denial. On this we agree with the philosopher Pierre Vidal-Naquet (whose parents both died in the Holocaust) who said that “confronting a paper Eichmann, one should respond with paper” and Indian Muslim scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, who says that one must “counter a book with a book; a statement with a statement.”

If Grass has written a polemical poem, the Israeli literary community should respond with poetry of their own, parodying and picking apart Grass’s offering. Literary dialogue, as opposed to diatribes by official spokespeople, is a far superior way to discuss these thorny issues. In 2009, the US-based Theatre J responded creatively to what they saw as unfair criticism in Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children by commissioning counter-plays. The result was more art, and a genuine attempt to discover some common ground.

Individuals, not states, should be free to make up their own minds, and this principle applies to boycotts in the UK, too. Recently, a group of prominent British artists demanded that the Globe Theatre cancel the performance of The Merchant of Venice by Habima Theatre, the national theatre of Israel. The troupe has performed in the West Bank settlements, which are illegal under international law, and therefore, say the signatories, it is disqualified from performing in the UK.

While these are legitimate concerns, the result of this would only be to remove the moral choice from theatre-goers, many of whom are understandably excited about seeing a play notorious for its antisemitic characterisations interpreted by a Jewish group. Moreover, the play has been programmed as part of an international celebration of language and Shakespeare, and excluding the Hebrew language would be odd. The issue is nuanced and complex and it is unlikely that either a large arts institution, or a cabal of actors and directors, will get the answer just right. Far better that the choice on whether to boycott is made by the individual audience members.

For those who disagree with the performance, there are other ways to express displeasure. Peaceful protests can and should be staged outside the Globe, and new plays can be written in response. Grass may even choose to write another poem, giving us his thoughts. The dialogue will continue afresh. Free speech means no one ever gets the last word.


I’ve been silent on the Gaza issue.  Not because I haven’t been following developments, but because I do not have anything new or interesting to say.  I’ve just re-read my take on the 2006 Israel-Lebanon crisis, and my view on the current catastrophe is very similar – the military response lacks imagination.  If you’re faced with a situation where bombing civilians seems to be the only course of action left open to you, then you’ve already been outmanoeuvered, you have already lost, and the only thing you are playing for is your own soul, your own humanity.  Those who persecute these strikes simply lack an understanding of the mess they’re in.  Either that, or they are waging war for cynical, electoral reasons.

Watching the UN impotently go through their motions, its clear that the tired, tried and tested route through these kinds of crises are futile.  Anything from ‘outside the box’ would be welcome at this juncture.  It is the unexpected gestures that regain the initiative, and provide a solution, a new momentum.

This suggestion from Jeffrey Goldberg caught my eye:

Why not erect a massive tent hospital in Sderot, staff it with Israeli army doctors, and treat the Palestinian wounded there?

A PR stunt, to be sure, but at least its humane.

Valentine's Day in Hebron

These are my hurried notes from the end of a long day, 14th February 2005, after witnessing some horrible things.

Walk through the old city of Jerusalem, from Jaffa Gate to Damascus Gate, and you walk from the first world to the third world. Only on the other side of the old city can you find a bus that will take you into the West Bank.

We take a car from Jerusalem to Hebron, to the south. The geography of the region is surprisingly small. In ten minutes we are outside the city, and passing Bethlehem. Not long after and the outskirts of Hebron appear on the horizon.

We meet G, a Norwegian, and D from Italy. Both work for an international NGO in the city. The peace process is like an ailing phoenix, which rises from ashes and then decends into flames on a regular basis. Back in 1994, a Jewish settler massacred 29 people in the Ibrahim Mosque in the centre of Hebron. The NGO’s mandate is to act as observers and report on the interactions – and conflicts – between the Israelis and the Palestinians here. They operate by trust alone. They are unarmed and can only provide an independent account of the events that transpire here. They hope that their presence has a calming effect on the settlers and Palestinians alike.

We descend into the centre of town. Modern, squat skyscrapers hold apartments and shops selling the light industrial goods that are made around the city. Textiles, shoes, jewelry. Taxis and minibuses clog the streets. We see old men in grey blazers and the old traditional Khafir scarves in red or black, a mirror of their dead leader Arafat, now a poster-boy who adorns the walls of the city, alongside his colleague and successor Abu Mazen. Other election posters are half visible too.

Into the old city. Past a road-block first of all, followed by a checkpoint with a nonchalant and bored IDF sentry lurking alongside it. We take a turning down an alley, and in the half-light we can see more old men outside their stalls – fleeces, food, metal work, and a barbers. G and D say “Salam Aleikum” and so do we. Soon I become confident and say it to everyone who passes, and they respond with a smile and a squint.

Halfway down the alley, we look up to see a Israeli settlement that has been built over the old town. A wire mesh has been stretched over the of the alley to catch the rubbish that falls from the settlement into the souq below.

At the other end of the alley, the souq, we encounter another sentry post. Inside I see the soldier playing a game on his mobile phone. We have arrived at the Ibrahami Mosque, the scene of the massacre a few years ago. While G says that they will wait outside because they are wearing a uniform, we are free to wander into the holy place. Although, we cannot wander straight inside. We must first have our bags searched, and pass through a metal detector. Confronted by the IDF solider who is manning the checkpoint, I am struck first of all by the fact that she is a She… and then by the fact that she is a spotty, plump eighteen year old. Our assertion that we are without religion seems to annoy her, but nevertheless she and her two cohorts (lanky boys, also acne-riddled, also with guns slung over their chests) do their duty and check our bags.


Inside the mosque, all is quiet. Three men with the traditional headdresses sit and read, while a couple of young boys lounge against a pillar. At the back of the chamber we can see the tomb of Abraham, enclosed behind bars. Across the crypt though, we can see some young Jewish men, also standing behind bars, praying at the tomb. After the massacre the tomb was enclosed and split in two, so that the two communities would be able to pray separately at the same place. When we go outside again, we see the Jewish entrace to the same building.

In the plaza in front of the temple I can see more IDF solidiers. A pretty girl stands admonishing her friends lightheartedly. If it were not for their green fatigues, I mght think they were just about to go and hang out in the mall together.

We amble up to higher ground to get a good look at the city from above. We can see the white buildings that coat the hillside like molluscs and barnacles on an upturned fishing boat. A few men are rebuilding a wall that has been bulldozed for some reason. G says that these building are many hundreds of years old.

As we talk about the architecture, the lunchtime silence is shattered by an ambulance that speeds down the road behind us. At the same moment, D’s radio tactlessly blurts out the reason why the ambulance was there. The IDF have just shot dead a twelve year old boy, down at the checkpoints near the Ibrahami Mosque. It is difficult to imagine what possible threat he could have posed that required such lethal force. Down in the city we know a mother will be soon be crying. We know one young man will never send a Valentine card, or feel the rush of his first soft kiss. And we know that another boy or a girl with a gun has become a killer. An eighteen year old has killed a twelve year old. This will not make the morning papers.

Wary of what may happen next, we avoid the mosque and take a back route down into the souq again. There seem to be so many children on the street, teenage girls in groups of three or four, gossiping about the strangers walking through their town. I consider saying Salam Aliekum to them, but now it seems inappropriate. Do they know what has just happened less than two hundred yards away?

If they were unaware of any incident, a grenade goes off, and the explosion echoes around the city. As we descend and retreat to the new town, a voice begins to rant over the mosque speakers. Emerging from the same dark alley at the old town boundary, I see that the IDF sentry has become more alert. No longer playing on his mobile phone, he is leaning against his concrete barricade, and his rifle is aimed directly at us. From this angle it is hard to make out the shape of the gun. I can just see a hole at the top of the barrel. There is nothing to do but ignore the soldier, and find the car that we came in. The local residents seem to ignore him too – an old man steers his donkey and cart past us and the gun, into the souq and towards the Ibrahmi mosque.

Once again, I see for myself the capacity of people on this planet to dehumanise one another. Another glimpse into the eyes of the only devil I believe in.

I don’t feel sick. I feel nothing. G and D take their leave of us, and go to collect information for their report of the incident they could not predict, and did not prevent. We on the otherhand, go back to the new town. We get a cup of sweet Arabic coffee, then buy a couple of beautiful woven shawls in red and green. Pure lambswool, you know.

We were wrong, it was not a twelve year old boy. It was Sabri Fayez Al Rjoub, aged 15.

Intifada Fatalities 2000-2005 (Source: B’Tselem)