Why this obsession with Israel and the Palestinians?
I’m not alone in my disproportionate interest in Israel – but why do so many of us pick away at this conflict like it’s a giant scab?
Robert Fowke, 22 June 2010
I think of myself as an average sort of Englishman, a little to the left of centre politically but within the moderate middle ground. I like good beer and country walks. My tastes are boringly average.
So why do I, so far away and so much a product of my own country, take such an interest in the Israel-Palestine conflict? Where does my disproportionate interest come from, considering that other conflicts around the world are equal or worse in their unpleasantness?
I devour articles about Israel-Palestine on Cif; I look at Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, al-Jazeera and other commentaries. When things heat up, it is close to an addiction. Why am I not so worked up about Zimbabwe? North Korea? Sudan? Tibet? Burma?
I am not alone. Comments posted on the internet by Israel supporters, by Palestinian supporters and by trolls on each side show that there are millions of us around the world, millions upon millions, picking away at this one conflict like it’s a giant scab.
What are the implications of such a level of passionate interest? Perhaps I am an antisemite? Seen from Zionist eyes, where Israel does little that is not justified, this has to be the first and most likely explanation for why I follow their affairs so closely. Restricting the word to its definition in the Concise Oxford dictionary, and ignoring all the meanings to which “antisemitism” is being irresponsibly stretched nowadays, it is fair that I ask myself the simple question: does my interest in Israel spring from hostility to Jews?
Does some horrid antipathy towards them rise to the surface from my European bones whenever Israel is mentioned? I am obliged to entertain the thought.
But delving into my deepest heart, I cannot honestly say that I am more hostile to Jews than I am towards Scotsmen and Welshmen. And since normally, far from being hostile, I rather like the Scots, Welsh and Jews that I meet, antisemitism can hardly be the reason for my interest in the Israel-Palestine conflict. That one is out of the window before we start. Sorry.
There is another aspect to my relationship to Jews, however, which does significantly affect the interest I take in Israel. I have many Jewish friends, I went to school with boys from Jewish backgrounds and consequently I do not think of Jews as being foreign. It would be as absurd for me to call my Jewish friends foreign as it would to call my Quaker friends foreign; they are as English as I am. It is a religious category for me and nothing more, and quite rightly so.
The trouble is that Israel promotes itself as the state for all Jews, including – despite themselves – my friends. And because some of my friends are Jews and it is therefore their country, it is in some subliminal sense my country too. This produces a particular attitude towards Israel – it means that I do not think of Israel as truly foreign either. It is foreign, of course, but not emotionally, not like Thailand or Uzbekistan, and I do not respond to it as I do to most other foreign states. It is, emotionally, almost an English county planted on the Mediterranean shores.
Israel’s non-foreign status is amplified by the extraordinary support it enjoys in the corridors of power in Britain. As many as 80% of Tory MPs are members of Conservative Friends of Israel. The same cannot be said for Conservative friends of Thailand or Uzbekistan.
So not only is it in effect an English county, but many of my rulers appear to be its devoted citizens, subjectively speaking. All those shrill arguments over water or settlements, all that killing, all that fear and loathing, are not far away from me at all, no further away than Belfast.
So I judge this by domestic standards, not foreign ones. I do not expect Israelis to behave like Burmese generals; I expect them to behave like Englishmen, like my friends.
Supporters of Israel complain frequently and loudly that they are singled out for special attention and criticism. What about your own country’s misdeeds, or China’s, they say? And they are right. Israel is singled out for special attention. The Tibetans scarcely get a look-in compared to the Palestinians.
The number of news items about Israel-Palestine has created a self-reinforcing cycle – my appetite for yet more items is whetted by each new article or drama. All of which would appear to vindicate the complaints of the pro-Israel lobby – except that they should consider how they themselves contribute to this.
One reason why Israel is singled out for so much attention is because its supporters are so very vociferous, pushing their agenda at every opportunity. As a consumer of news, the speed of their responses and their sheer ubiquity inflames my interest and my antipathy. Why do they persist in trying to defend the indefensible?
Another reason for my disproportionate interest in this conflict is that I feel I have been lied to, and I feel that people are still trying to lie to me and I don’t like it. Why try to convince me that those Turkish activists on board the Mavi Marmara were terrorists? Whatever else they were, they patently were not that. If the word “terrorist” is to have any meaning at all it must refer to those who attack innocent civilians. From an Israeli propaganda perspective, silence would be better than lies.
I can remember a time back in the 1960s when I accepted a view of Israel as a plucky little state full of kibutzes busily taming the desert. At that time I had scarcely heard of the Palestinians. Then I discovered the other narrative.
My purpose here is not to go into the rights or wrongs, but to point out that if Israel had been described to me from the start as the product of remorseless expropriation of some else’s land (not the full story, I know), I might well have lost interest by now.
But having been told how heroic and wonderful it was and then to find out that, at the very least, there is a different and more troubling story running in parallel, that affects me emotionally.
When I see Binyamin Netanyahu and his colleagues putting their side of some event, I do not see honest men and my emotions are the same as those I experience when I see burglars and con-men – distaste and disapproval. And yet they won’t shut up.
I am not sure where all this leads, all these millions of us from both sides picking away at this particular scab. The sheer number taking so much passionate interest is in itself dangerous. Dogs must bark before they can bite. This relatively small conflict has the potential to destroy on a colossal scale.