A speaker in the sanctuary of the House of Lords should be expected to come up with challenging ideas and original thinking. All that I have to offer by the way of explaining the interlocking fate of Arabs and Jews, particularly Palestinians and Israelis, is that they are jinxed. They suffer from bad luck. I was apprehensive about introducing my bad luck theory until I read under the headline “Bad Luck” a column by Michael Harsch in Newsweek.com. earlier this month.
He said: "Was there any more mind-boggling bit of historic bad luck than what happened after Election Day 2000, when those 537 votes in Florida wobbled, then stayed in George W. Bush's column? Never mind what kind of president Al Gore would have been--he would have been adequate, I suppose, but so would have most Republicans--it is hard now to avoid the conclusion that Bush was precisely the wrong man at the wrong time. Perhaps Bush would have been OK fighting another kind of war, a Jacksonian Battle of New Orleans-type war. But at a moment in history when we faced the most subtle sort of global threat, when we needed not just a willingness to use military force but a leader of real brilliance--someone who would carefully study a little-understood enemy--we got a man who actually took pride in his lack of studiousness. No surprise: Bush never once presided over a grand-strategy session to divine the nature of Al Qaeda, and he ended up lumping Saddam and every Islamist insurgent and terrorist group with Osama bin Laden. He ensured that a tiny fringe group that had been hounded into Afghanistan with no place left to go--one that could have been wiped out had we focused on the task at hand would spread worldwide and become a generational Islamist threat.
"And at a time when we needed a world leader who understood the nuances of burden-sharing in the international system, we got a president who so badly wanted to be a cowboy and not his father (offending even some Texans: 'all hat and no cattle' is the term they use down there) that he proudly declared he doesn't 'do nuance.' Bush stomped around huffily in his first term, talking loudly and carrying a big stick, in the process all but trashing a half century of carefully nurtured American prestige. No surprise: he alienated a world we desperately needed on our side, thus leaving America alone with all the burden and generations' worth of bills to pay. Now we face two serious rising threats, North Korea and Iran. And having squandered our attention, resources and prestige on a trumped-up threat, Iraq, we are simply too weak and friendless to confront them as they should be. That's what I call bad luck."
If bad luck is good enough for Newsweek as a theory explaining the vagaries of history, it is good enough for me.
(Yassir Arafat in Davos 28/01/2001… Saab Ureikat arriving that day from Taba with maps and saying that agreement with the Israelis has been reached. James Wolfenson and Sabih Masri were present with me in Arafat’s hotel suite and heard the chief Palestinian negotiator explaining the deal.)
The Israeli novelist David Grossman who lost his son Uri in the final days of the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah said in a moving article published by the Guardian earlier this month that Israel wasted too many chances to reach a lasting peace. Under the headline “A state of missed opportunities” he said:
Eleven years after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, we look at ourselves, at Israeli society, at its leadership, at the state of the national spirit, at the state of the peace process, and at our place, as individuals, within these great national developments.
This year, it is not easy to look at ourselves. We had a war. Israel flexed its huge military biceps, but at its back its reach proved all too short and brittle. We realized that our military might alone cannot, when push comes to shove, defend us. In particular, we discovered that Israel faces a profound crisis, much more profound than we imagined, in almost every part of our collective lives…
One of the harsh things that this last war sharpened for us was the feeling that in these times there is no king in Israel. That our leadership, both political and military, is hollow. I am not speaking now of the obvious fiascos in the conduct of the war, or of the way the rear was left to its own devices. Nor am I speaking of our current corruption scandals, great and small. My intention is that the people who today lead Israel are unable to connect Israelis with their identity and certainly not with the healthy, sustaining, inspiring parts of Jewish identity. I mean those constitutive parts of identity and memory and values that can give us strength and hope, that can serve as antidotes to the attenuation of mutual responsibility and of our connection to the land that can grant meaning to our exhausting, desperate struggle for survival.
Today, Israel's leadership fills the husk of its regime primarily with fears and intimidations, with the allure of power and the winks of the backroom deal, with haggling over all that is dear to us. In this sense, they are not real leaders. They are certainly not the leaders that a people in such a complicated, disoriented state need. Sometimes, it seems that the sound box of their thinking, of their historical memory, of their vision, of what really is important to them, fills only the tiny space between two newspaper headlines. Or between two police investigations. Look at those who lead us. Not at all of them, of course, but all too many of them. Look at the way they act - terrified, suspicious, sweaty, legalistic, and deceptive. It is ridiculous to even hope that the law will come forth from them, that they can produce a vision, or even an original, truly creative, bold, momentous idea. When was the last time that the prime minister suggested or made a move that could open a single new horizon for Israelis? A better future? When did he take a social, cultural or ethical initiative, rather than just react frantically to the actions of others?
Crossman’s words echoed in my mind and I repeatedly asked myself: Who leads the Palestinians? President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh have failed to agree on a national unity government, a prerequisite to lifting the blockade of Palestinian territories with all the suffering and misery it has caused. I have written about the subject after telephone conversations with both Abu Mazen and Khalid Meshaal, head of the Hamas Political Office. My column about the subject is a watered down version of what I heard, with serious accusations flying in all directions.
Now I want to quote another Arab quoting an Israeli. In an article published in October 1998 Professor Edward Said had this to say:
Some years ago, the Israeli sociologist Yehuda Elkana wrote a remarkable essay on the importance of forgetting. He was of course addressing an Israeli audience at a time when it seemed to him that, as a society and people, Israelis were too haunted by the past. His argument was that so fixated and obsessional an attitude as theirs was a positive hindrance in the present. It produced paranoia and an inability to see reality for itself, instead of as a mere repetition of the traumatic past. Therefore, Elkana concluded, forgetfulness was a necessary good, something to be cultivated and strengthened as a way of living in the present, dealing with it on its own terms. It was clear from what he argued that he was referring to Israeli attitudes to the Arabs generally, Palestinians in particular. For Israelis just to see them as instances of anti-semitism replicating the past was not only wrong, but foolish and in the end self-defeating.
Edward Said continued: Elkana’s argument, though intended in a local situation, has universal application. No society should be in the grip of the past, no matter how traumatic, or allow instances of collective history to determine attitudes in the present.
The way forward
My daily column in Al-Hayat, which is translated into English and can be read on the newspapers web sitehttp://english.daralhayat.com/
provides a barometer of public opinion, mostly of Arab readers, but also of many Israelis who read it in English.
I said at the beginning that you won’t hear any original thinking from me. I am a man of my word and all I can say is that extremists on both sides must be defeated before the two peoples can move forward in peace. Our extremists are the terrorists and their apologists. Jewish extremists are better hidden. They are in the Israeli government. The two peoples suffer from lack of leadership at a time when the need it most; another aspect of their shared bad luck.
Muslim extremists are so extensively covered that I hardly need to talk about them in this august gathering. They kill innocent people in high-rise office buildings and the underground. There is absolutely nothing in the Holy Koran to justify their criminality. Any Muslim who supports them goes against the most basic teachings of Islam and, for me, he is a partner in crime.
The Koran says: Don’t kill yourselves, God will have mercy on you. It also says: He who kills a believer intentionally his recompense is Hell, and the wrath and curse of Allah are upon him… In Amman about this time last year suicide bombers blew themselves up inside the wedding reception of two Muslim families, with most of the women wearing veils. They would be also in the wrong if they kill non-Muslims. The instructions of the Prophet and his first orthodox Caliph Abu Bakr to their armies are categoric about this point.
You’ve heard it said many times, and it is true, that Islam is a moderate religion. The Book says: … in it are verses basic or fundamental; they are the foundation of the Book. Others of are not of well established meaning. (My translation would be that some verses carry more than one meaning). Every religion has elements of tolerance and prejudice in it. I hope that I don’t insult the sensitivities, or sensibilities, of Muslims when I say that in explaining the text with no “well established meaning” the most restrictive, or narrow, interpretation is almost always adopted.
This is especially true of the veil. I left London last week with the Jack Straw controversy continuing unabated. I arrived in Cairo to find the minister of culture, Farouq Husni, embroiled in a similar controversy after denouncing the veil. I was asked in a public debate and in a magazine interview about the veil. I said that I had a position but I won’t make it public. If I say I am for the veil half the people would say I am backward. If I say I am against the veil the other half would accuse me of apostasy. I have a position, but not a cause; the veil is not worth it as an issue. My understanding of the Koranic text is that women are not requested to cover their faces or even their hair. But if all Muslims say the veil is mandatory, who am I to say otherwise. Al-Azhar University and the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia have come out in support of the veil (Al-Azhar condemned Farouq Husni) so that should settle the matter.
From the Koran
Prophet tells thy wives and daughters and believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their persons.
And when you ask (his women) for anything you want ask them from behind a screen.
You say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty, that they should not display their beauty and ornaments, except what (ordinarily) appears thereof. They should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to … (family)
Marry woman of your choice, two, or three, or four, but if you fear that you will not be able to deal justly (with them) then only one…
You are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is your ardent desire.
(The above is from The Meaning of The Holy Koran, translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali.)
I am a member of a group called the C-100, part of the World Economic Forum that is involved in the Muslim-Western dialogue. Some members are leading experts in their fields and I have heard them all talking about education and the need to improve it. I agree with them but this is a generation game, and it pains me to confess that I can see Islamic extremism continuing for years to come.
The other extremist
All surveys of Palestinian and Israeli public opinion show a majority in favour of peace. Still, the Israelis have been led by extremist governments for the last ten years. Ehud Barak led a labour government between 1999-2001 but that was only because he found no place for himself in Likud. If I may be allowed to go back to my bad luck theory it was not only that Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an extremist but his deputy was Shimon Peres, a professional loser, so Benjamin Netanyahu squeezed in with a majority of one half of one person in 1966. The peace process lost three years as a result, while on the other side Yassir Arafat was hesitating and at times obstructing the process. I got so frustrated with Arafat that I finally wrote him an open letter in my column asking him to resign (15/05/04).
Israeli extremist do no kill like the Islamic extremist, but that is because the Israeli government kills on behalf of the settlers and their rabbis, Israel Beitunu and other secular and religious extremist parties. The news this week is encouraging and I hope and pray that the new Hudna will survive, but we have all been disappointed before. As I have no crystal ball I will only dwell on what I know to be absolute fact: between September 29, 2001, or the beginning of the second Intifada, and the end of last month, Israel killed 779 underage Palestinians, against 119 underage Israelis killed by the Palestinian groups in the same period of time. I have other figures from B’tselem but I chose the underage children to make my case clear. Since 2001 Israeli governments have been seven times as terrorist as all the Palestinian groups put together.
Because there is so much talk of Islamists extremism I often feel disheartened. Then I find solace in the other side; they also have extremists. A story will explain this point. During the summer war I wrote a column claiming that real enmity is not between Muslims and Jews; the Christian West has been killing both peoples for the last 1000 years. I sighted the Crusades, colonialism and the holocaust. Readers’ letters were few and disappointing. In October I tried again after reading a column under the headline “The Holocaust Arab Heroes” by Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In my book, Satloff is an anti-Arab extremist so I was surprised to read him saying that after four years of research and scores of interviews in eleven countries he unearthed stories of heroism by Arabs in North Africa who took great risks to save Jewish lives. He said that about one percent of Jews in North Africa (4000-5000) perished under Axis control in Arab lands, compared with more than half of European Jews. I was reading at the same time Eamon Duffy’s review of Christopher Tyerman’s book “God’s War: A New History of the Crusades”. I will quote here from only two paragraphs in the long review:
Many of the crusaders perished on the journey, many became disheartened and returned home, and those who made it to the Middle East were plunged into three years of famine, disease, and bloody and unrelenting conflict whose savagery would become legendary—notoriously, crusaders besieging Muslim strongholds catapulted the heads of executed prisoners over the walls to demoralize the defenders. The First Crusade culminated in a spectacular and apparently miraculous victory. After a desperate siege, Jeru-salem fell to the combined Western armies on July 15, 1099 . The bloody aftermath, though Tyerman makes it clear that it was exaggerated by contemporary chroniclers, would leave a permanent stain of genocide on the reputation of crusading. The victors, elated by success and agog both for loot and for vengeance after three long years of desperate danger and hardship, swarmed into the city and butchered everyone they found. Most of the Jewish population were burned alive in their synagogues. Muslim prisoners were coerced into carrying mounds of the dead outside the walls for cremation, and were then slaughtered themselves; the gutters ran with blood, and unburied corpses were still putrefying in the streets five months later. Blood was the cement for the rickety and quarrelsome federation of crusader states, known as "Outremer," the land overseas, which now formed around the Holy Sepulchre, its precarious symbolic center at Jerusalem presided over (eventually) by a king, and spiritually by the Latin patriarch.
The savagery of the First Crusade would remain a recurrent feature of crusading, not merely in the confrontation with Islam (in which both sides perpetrated atrocities) but in the targeting of other victims. In the wake of Peter the Hermit's preaching in 1095 and 1096, a wave of anti-Semitism swept through Rhineland Germany, and beyond. If battle was declared on the remote Muslim enemies of Christ, what of those other age-old enemies within the gate, the Jewish communities scattered through Europe, whom preachers now declared guilty of Christ's blood? Why travel to the East to confront Islam, demanded the crusaders at Rouen , when "in front of our eyes are the Jews, of all races the most hostile to God"? Mobs en route to the Holy Land paused to lynch Jews, desecrate cemeteries, and burn synagogues in the cities through which they passed. As Tyerman notes, "Nothing in official Christian doctrine justified slaying Jews." But in the new mood of vengeful zealotry, doctrinal niceties like this carried no weight. The pogroms were denounced by local bishops, and the Jews of Mainz were given refuge in the archbishop's palace. But such help was often halfhearted, and almost always ineffective. Confronted with the inflamed and murderous mob, the archbishop of Mainz fled, leaving the Jews to their fate: his palace was stormed and the entire Jewish community slaughtered. Official Church teaching might differentiate sharply between Muslim and Jew; but a new level of Christian animus toward the Jews had been established. Every successive wave of crusade enthusiasm would set off further pogroms.
The material supported my October 14 column so I returned to the idea, in effect telling the Arabs and Jews: Hey, you are not enemies. You have a common enemy. Again, the action of the readers was subdued. Few days later I came across an article by William Hughes, a Baltimore attorney and author, under the headline “What if Israel Had Never Been Created.” He said the world would have been different in 25 ways or cases. I chose few ideas in one paragraph from the two page article and did not endorse the writer in any way. I continued quoting moderate Jews and Israelis hoping that the column would be balanced. Whenever I criticize the Israeli government I add material about moderate and peace-loving Israelis. It is a refrain in all my columns. Suddenly I was inundated with letters from angry Israelis and other Jews, many being racist or rude, using the F word, or wishing death unto the Arabs. Not one of them was stirred enough to comment on the conciliatory column four days earlier, and not one of them had bothered to read to the end and see that I was presenting the other argument. A few days later I wrote a column about the letters.
It was reassuring to confirm (I already knew) that extremism is not exclusively Arab. The extremists on both sides justify the existence of each other and we will not move forward until they are neutralized.
While extremists are on both sides, Jewish and Israeli peace groups are more effective than their Arab counterparts and activists’ voices are louder. I would like to thank:
Peace Now which recently revealed Israeli government maps showing that 39 percent of the land held by Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank is privately owned by Palestinians.
B’tselem, the Israeli information centre for human rights in the occupied territories, which produces regular casualty figures from both sides in the ongoing confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians. This human rights group has labeled the air strike on Gaza’s only power station as a war crime.
The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. It defends Palestinians facing the demolition of their homes and tries to defend them against the settlers.
Jewish journalists. After the second Intifada broke out on September 29, 2000, some of the best coverage was by three journalists: Amira Haas of Ha’aretz who moved house to Gaza to be near the news, Suzanne Goldenberg of the Guardian who continued to show sympathy for the Palestinians even after her newspaper transferred her from Israel to Washington D.C., and Deborah Sontag of the New York Times who filed copy worthy of “the most important newspaper in the world”.
I will also add the name of Naomi Klein the Canadian-American author and commentator who always writes with sympathy about the Palestinians.
There must be a thousand others but I will only mentioned two brave Israeli academics: Professor Ilan Pappe of the University of Haifa whose latest book documented the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948, and Professor Rachel Giora of the University of Tel Aviv who backed the boycott of her own colleagues saying “I support every form of open criticism of the policies of the Israeli government.” We know that Professor Stephen Rose of the Open University and his wife launched the boycott of Israeli academics.
A few words in the New Statesman last month caught my eye. Darcus Howe’s Muslim taxi driver likened the situation of Muslims in Britain today to the Jews just prior to the Holocaust. Many Muslims now feel that they have become the Jews of the world when it comes to racism.
Jews think they have cornered the market on racism, or anti-Semitism. It’s not true. Only last weekend a French mob shouting “death to the Jews” after a football match also shouted “filthy black” and “France for the French” on seeing a black police officer. Under the thin veneer of civilization all people are racist, most of them unknowingly. I have stories to tell.