Gaza August 2014: ‘less pity on school children’
How does one avoid despair at the news these days?
The lunatics are in my hall
The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
And every day the paper boy brings more
It’s been a terrible few weeks: death and destruction in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and Libya, all overshadowed by the appalling events in Gaza. This morning’s Guardian adds to the gloom with news that 40,000 Kurds from a minority sect of Zoroastrians are surrounded by jihadist forces of Isis on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, known in local legend as the final resting place of Noah’s ark. Alongside that is a report by from Israel by Giles Fraser (one-time Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, who resigned during the Occupy encampment there). In it, he paints a picture of an Israel in which there is almost total support for the war in Gaza, newspapers and TV channels are ‘simply cheerleaders for the government line, offering a constant diet of fear and fallen heroes, with little evidence of any of the atrocities going on in Gaza’, and peace activists are fearful of making a public stand.
One of the people to whom Fraser spoke was the writer Amos Oz, ‘Israel’s great literary conscience’. Fraser senses a shift even in Oz’s outlook:
He says something that feels to me like a real shift in his position. Previously he has described the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as a Sophoclean tragedy over land in which both sides have a claim to right on their side; as a battle, as he put it of ‘right versus right’. But now, he says, this is a battle of ‘wrong versus wrong’.
Actually, to me, ‘wrong versus wrong’ seems a more clear-sighted assessment of both the present situation and the historical background than ‘right versus right’. Certainly Oz has always issued side-swipes at well-meaning European liberals who, in his view, fail to understand the complexities of the conflict. The ‘right versus right’ concept comes from a speech Oz made in Germany in 2000, later issued in a little book, How to Cure a Fanatic. This is how Oz began:
Who are the good guys? That’s what every well-meaning European, left-wing European, intellectual European, liberal European always wants to know, first and foremost. Who are the good guys in the film and who are the bad guys. In this respect Vietnam was easy: The Vietnamese people were the victims, and the Americans were the bad guys. The same with apartheid: You could easily see that apartheid was a crime and that the struggle for civil rights, for liberation and equality, and for human dignity was right. The struggle between colonialism and imperialism, on the one hand, and the victims of colonialism and imperialism, on the other, seems relatively simple–you can tell the good guys from the bad. When it comes to the foundations of the Israeli-Arab conflict, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, things are not so straightforward. And I am afraid I am not going to make things any easier for you by saying simply: These are the angels, these are the devils; you just have to support the angels, and good will prevail over evil. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a Wild West movie. It is not a struggle between good and evil, rather it is a tragedy in the ancient and most precise sense of the word: a clash between right and right, a clash between one very powerful, deep, and convincing claim, and another very different but no less convincing, no less powerful, no less humane claim.
The Palestinians are in Palestine because Palestine is the homeland, and the only homeland, of the Palestinian people. In the same way in which Holland is the homeland of the Dutch, or Sweden the homeland of the Swedes. The Israeli Jews are in Israel because there is no other country in the world that the Jews, as a people, as a nation, could ever call home. As individuals, yes, but not as a people, not as a nation. The Palestinians have tried, unwillingly, to live in other Arab countries. They were rejected, sometimes even humiliated and persecuted by the so-called Arab family. They were made aware in the most painful way of their “Palestinianness”; they were not wanted by Lebanese or Syrians, by Egyptians or Iraqis. They had to learn the hard way that they are Palestinians, and that’s the only country that they can hold on to. In a strange way the Jewish people and the Palestinian people have had a somewhat parallel historical experience. The Jews were kicked out of Europe; my parents were kicked out of Europe some seventy years ago. Just like the Palestinians were first kicked out of Palestine and then out of the Arab countries, or almost. When my father was a little boy in Poland, the streets of Europe were covered with graffiti, “Jews, go back to Palestine,” or sometimes worse: “Dirty Yids, piss off to Palestine.” When my father revisited Europe fifty years later, the walls were covered with new graffiti, “Jews, get out of Palestine.”
People in Europe keep sending me wonderful invitations to spend a rosy weekend in a delightful resort with Palestinian partners, Palestinian colleagues, Palestinian counterparts, so that we can learn to know one another, to like one another, to drink a cup of coffee together, so that we realize that no one has horns and tails–and the trouble will go away. This is based on the widespread sentimental European idea that every conflict is essentially no more than a misunderstanding. A little group therapy, a touch of family counselling, and everyone will live happily ever after. Well, first, I have bad news for you: Some conflicts are very real; they are much worse than a mere misunderstanding. And then I have some sensational news for you: There is no essential misunderstanding between Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jew. The Palestinians want the land they call Palestine. They have very strong reasons to want it. The Israeli Jews want exactly the same land for exactly the same reasons, which provides for a perfect understanding between the parties, and for a terrible tragedy. Rivers of coffee drunk together cannot extinguish the tragedy of two peoples claiming, and I think rightly claiming, the same small country as their one and only national homeland in the whole world. So, drinking coffee together is wonderful and I’m all for it, especially if it is Arabic coffee, which is infinitely better than Israeli coffee. But drinking coffee cannot do away with the trouble.
But, drinking coffee cannot do away with the trouble. What we need is not just coffee and a better understanding. What we need is a painful compromise. The word compromise has a terrible reputation in Europe. Especially among young idealists, who always regard compromise as opportunism, as something dishonest, as something sneaky and shady, as a mark of a lack of integrity. Not in my vocabulary. For me the word compromise means life. And the opposite of compromise is not idealism, not devotion; the opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death. We need a compromise. Compromise, not capitulation. A compromise means that the Palestinian people should never go down on its knees, neither should the Israeli Jewish people.
In his Guardian piece, Giles Fraser writes of his attempt to ‘come at things sideways’ with Oz by talking about Israeli poetry. Fraser tells him he has always loved a poem by Yehuda Amichai, considered by many to be Israel’s greatest poet, who died in 2000 aged 76. The poem is ‘The Place Where We Are Right’:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, Amichai was invited to read from his poems at the ceremony in Oslo. ‘God has pity on kindergarten children’ was one of the poems he read that day. Less than a year later, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated at a peace rally in Tel Aviv by a right-wing Orthodox Jew who opposed the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. In the weeks just gone there has been no mercy in Gaza even for kindergarten children.
God has pity on kindergarten children.
He has less pity on school children.
And on grown-ups he has no pity at all,
he leaves them alone,
and sometimes they must crawl on all fours
in the burning sand
to reach the first-aid station
covered with blood.
But perhaps he will watch over true lovers
and have mercy on them and shelter them
like a tree over the old man
sleeping on a public bench.
Perhaps we too will give them
the last rare coins of compassion
that Mother handed down to us,
so that their happiness will protect us
now and in other days.
The events of this summer have echoed with chilling synchronicity those of one hundred summers past. As the forces of Isis have swept all before them this summer, determined to eradicate the borders established by the colonial powers in the Middle East at the end of the First World War, we have been made painfully aware of the loose ends left by that war in eastern Europe and the Middle East. In a blog post the other day, Mary Beard wrote about attending the commemorative event at the St Symphorien cemetery near Mons on Monday. Everyone there was given a booklet by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission explaining how many graves the commission looks after and where they are. Flipping through it, Mary Beard discovered with a shock that there are over 3000 graves in Gaza from the Great War. They hold the remains of British soldiers who fought to take Gaza city in 1917. It is a reminder, Beard wrote, ‘of a complicated story of conflict in that region which reaches down a century’.
Deir al-Balah cemetery in Gaza: headstone damaged by Israeli shelling in 2009 (photo by Eva Bartlett)
Coincidentally, on Monday’s Channel 4 News, Paul Mason visited the Deir al-Balah cemetery which had been hit by a couple of Israeli shells. The cemetery, which is in the centre of Gaza, has been maintained by the same Palestinian family for three generations, and was badly damaged by shelling in 2009.
Where can we seek consolation amidst all the ruination? I have no idea. The only hope seems to be to hold onto the vision, offered in another of Yehuda Amichai’s poems, of a weary and tarnished ‘wildpeace ’:
Not the peace of a cease-fire,
not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,
as in the heart when the excitement is over
and you can talk only about a great weariness.
I know that I know how to kill,
that makes me an adult.
And my son plays with a toy gun that knows
how to open and close its eyes and say Mama.
without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,
without words, without
the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be
light, floating, like lazy white foam.
A little rest for the wounds—
who speaks of healing?
(And the howl of the orphans is passed from one generation
to the next, as in a relay race:
the baton never falls.)
Let it come
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.
Deir al-Balah cemetery in Gaza (photo by Eva Bartlett)