Sometimes it is just time to write about a thing

In Others
February 15, 2011

I don’t know why, really, but Israel seems to be coming up more and more frequently these days in the questions people ask me or the things I hear them say about me.

For example, I heard from a friend, A, that another writer, B, had said they were surprised that A was friends with me, since B had heard I believed that anyone who criticises Israel is an anti-semite. This is not what I believe, and I have never said anything like it.

Then I was asked to appear at a festival. I looked at the line-up of speakers and saw that the strand on ‘Palestine’ contained seven speakers who I know to be strongly critical of Israel and none who take a contradictory or even a middle view. I declined the invitation, saying that the line-up of this strand made me feel uncomfortable. They replied saying “but it’s possible to criticise Israel without being anti-semitic”. As if I had accused them of anti-semitism.

So I would like, first of all, to make it very clear that I don’t think all arguments against Israel are anti-semitic. I do think that sometimes good people who argue against Israel’s policies end up allying themselves with out-and-out anti-semites. I think the same is true of good people who argue against the policies of Palestinian organisations – they sometimes end up allying themselves with people who hate Islam and Muslims. I think you have to be careful who you’re jumping into bed with. Your enemy’s enemy isn’t always your friend.

But if I don’t condemn Israel, if I absolutely do not stand with those who do, it doesn’t mean that I think all criticism of Israel is anti-semitic. It might mean that I disagree with that criticism and/or that I don’t think outright condemnation is ever helpful. Strangely enough, people can disagree with each other without name-calling.

So that’s what I don’t believe. Here’s what I do believe.

I believe that Israel has a right to exist. I believe that the Palestinian people have a right to nationhood, self-determination and a land of their own. I believe that a two-state solution is the only possible way forward. I fear it may be a long time coming.

I don’t believe in evil people, but I believe that there are people on both sides of this conflict who are so stupid, misguided and frightened that they do evil things. Some of those people are leaders, on both sides. I don’t think that either side will do much good by denying that such things have been done by their people. I don’t think finger-pointing, saying “it’s all them, not us”, “all our violence is justified and measured, all theirs is unprovoked and disproportionate” will help this situation improve.

I think the very best thing anyone on either side can do is to seek to understand the other point of view, calmly and respectfully. I don’t believe in one-sided debates. This is why, if you ask me to take part in an event with seven anti-Israel speakers and me, I will decline. If you ask me to take part in an event with seven anti-Palestinian speakers and me, I will decline. If we can’t have balanced discussion on this issue in the cool of North Europe, I don’t see how we can expect people to do that in the midst of battle.

I once heard a man interviewed on the radio about the process of truth and reconciliation commissions. I can’t remember what country he was from – there are so many places it could be – in my memory maybe it was South Africa, but it might have been Rwanda, or Northern Ireland or somewhere else. This man had lost his son to a bullet fired by “the other side”, whichever side that was. But while I can’t remember the details of the conflict, I remember what he said about it.

He said: “you want to know what peace means? Peace means walking into the supermarket and seeing the man there who murdered your son, doing his shopping. Peace means doing nothing, saying nothing, walking out and going home.”

That’s the courage peace requires.

I think that the courage needed not to seek revenge, not to blame and counter-blame, not to re-fight the old war again and again until it’s consumed a hundred times as many lives, I think that courage is far greater than the bravado to keep on fighting. I think we kid ourselves if we suggest for one moment that it’s not incredibly difficult to make and keep peace. That tremendous sacrifices will not be needed on both sides. In a conflict like this, the easy way out is to pick a side. The hard way, the brave way, is to understand that picking sides is the whole problem.

I think we start with ourselves.

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