I’m on a bit of an Israel/Palestine buzz in this post…..how very uplifting of you Florry…..understandable I guess with all that’s going on recently. Regardless however, it is an intriguing and infuriating topic that we should all want to learn more about in order to (try to) understand what’s going on right now. The first book I’m looking at is How Israel Lost (2004) by former Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, author and screenwriter Richard Ben Cramer, who died of lung cancer in 2013.
Firstly let’s try and get an idea of how the situation in the region developed….strap yourself in for Florry’s crazy history lesson. Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire until the latter’s destruction following the First World War, at which point Britain took control. At that time Arabs were in the majority in Palestine, along with a small number of Jews. However more and more Jews immigrated there during the 1930s and 1940s, particularly following the rise of the Nazis and the horrors of the Holocaust. Violence grew in the region between Jews and Arabs, and in 1947 the UN voted for Palestine to be split between both. The British departed Palestine in 1948, leaving ‘some legacies particular to the British Empire, such as red post boxes, a comprehensive civil service, a deeply divided people, talk of partition and problems that made eventual descent into ethnic cleansing, bloody war and chaos inevitable’. The state of Israel was officially declared on 14th May 1948, leading almost immediately to war with neighbouring Arab countries who supported the Palestinians. Thousands of them were forced out of their homes, with Israel ultimately victorious. Jordan occupied land which became known as the West Bank, and Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip. Following the Six Day War of 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and it still occupies the former to this day, continuing to build illegal settlements. As we have seen in the last few weeks, tensions run high between both sides, with Israel bombing Palestinian territory and Hamas returning the favour with their rockets.
In his work, Richard Ben Cramer cites a line often used to justify Israeli actions – ‘Israel was a land without people for a people with no land’. Except it wasn’t a land without people. It was full of those pesky Palestinians. He went on to describe the situation thus – ‘here’s where things stand in Palestine: an Arab population of more than three million – an educated and cultured people – is being abased….The Palestinians are basically an unarmed people – with no military force that deserves the name – that is in daily confrontation with one of the world’s best armies’. Israel’s actions in Palestine are supposed to be self-defence but instead seem to be almost designed to create more recruits for Hamas. The author accuses Israel of torturing prisoners, assassination as an official policy, targeting of civilians, and the seizure of Arab land for new Jewish settlements.
Cramer highlights the understandable effect of the Holocaust on the Jewish obsession with security, pointing out that some Jews see similarities in the modern struggle against radical Islam. This is an endeavour that finds much common cause in the United States. But there is a deeper reason for the unwavering American support for Israel. Right wing Christians in the US (of which there are many) believe that the Bible states that only when the Jews are gathered in Zion will the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus occur. In the next book I review, David Lynch also highlights how Christian Zionists in the United States are huge supporters of Israel, but they also pray for its destruction. These people are driven by the Book of Revelations and a desire to bring on the return of Jesus Christ to earth and the subsequent Apocalypse, events foretold in the Bible, which can only happen once the Jews inhabit the entire land of Israel. And of course Jesus is gonna love these nutters and condemn the rest of us. Riiiight. Well at least it’s not a crazy reason.
Cramer also uses very loaded language when he speaks of ‘the ghettos of Gaza and the West Bank’, considering that the Jews were driven into ghettos at different points in their history, most notably during the Second World War. In fact, he uses very accusatory language throughout towards Israel and Zionists (and the ridiculousness of organised religion in general) especially surprising given that he is Jewish himself.
Overall this is a very interesting and easy read, giving the reader a viewpoint of the conflict from a Jew who is against the occupation, and definitely doesn’t improve one’s opinion of Israel and its tactics….not that the last few weeks have done much for Israel’s international image either. Next I’m taking a look at a work written by an Irish author, who from the beginning is also very critical of Israel and its approach to Palestine. A Divided Paradise (2009) is an account of freelance journalist David Lynch’s experiences in the Holy Land between 2005 and 2008. Sadly it seems little has changed or improved in the intervening decade and a bit.
Lynch moves the story on from the time Cramer ends his work. Speaking about the January 2006 parliamentary election success for Hamas, Lynch highlights how the west (especially London and Washington whom he titles the architects of the ‘War on Terror’) were not happy with this – ‘the Palestinians had held democratic elections, and yet the choice that they freely made would be thrown back in their collective face by the international community, who were unhappy with the Palestinians’ choice’. As colonising powers the world over have learned over the centuries, it’s never a good idea to give the peasants a voice in their own futures.
Interestingly, given the aforementioned recent events in Gaza, the author emphasises the overwhelming importance of the Israel Defence Force (IDF) in holding society together. The compulsory service in the IDF was, and is, crucial to building national identity. It saw young Jewish men and women living and serving together, and created in Israeli eyes a sense of strength and morality…..the latter not something we have seen too much evidence of lately however.
Similarly to Cramer, Lynch also emphasises the impact of history on the current Jewish Israeli mentality and refusal to back down. Again (unsurprisingly) the Holocaust appears to me to be the one event most affecting current day Israeli policy – ‘unlike the stereotypical Jewish person who lived in ghettoes across the world in the Diaspora who was seen as weak, compromising and afraid of anti-Semitic attacks, the new Jewish identity in Israel was to be of a hardy, independent, brave and powerful people. The IDF was, and is, central to this modern Israeli Jewish identity’. Lynch emphasises the Jewish fear of a recurrence of the Holocaust and Israel’s role as a refuge for the world’s Jewish population, which does help to explain (though not condone) Israel’s actions – ‘modern Israel has to be strong, brutal and harsh with its enemies, because never again will the Jews be coerced into the gas chambers’.
Lynch spent some time living and studying in the region, and vividly describes the horrendous conditions in the West Bank and Gaza. He speaks of the daily ordeal of trying to move about as a Palestinian and the inherent difficulties to be overcome – ‘the checkpoint is like the overall experience of the Israeli military occupation for the Palestinians, frightening, disconnected, inhuman and unassailably powerful’. Lynch views life in the occupied zones as akin to incarceration, especially considering those Palestinians who live there are not free to come and go as they please. Ultimately he feels that ‘you are doing time, collectively as a people, in the open-air prison that your reality has become’.
As we have seen, anytime there is an outbreak of violence, the numbers of dead on the Arab side far outweigh those on the Israeli side. The most recent clashes saw Palestinians make up the bulk of the victims, with approximately 95% of the deaths, including a disproportionate number of children. Strangely, Israel seems to broadly escape censure for their attacks on Palestinians. Lynch states that the reason for this is that Palestinians ‘are the victims of history’s most high-profile victims, an unenviable position from which to make a case for nationhood globally’. Even when Israel suffers international condemnation, it rarely seems to influence their subsequent actions.
Overall these are two very interesting and informative works, especially Lynch’s. The only issue I would have with them is no fault of the works themselves but instead of the passage of time. They were both written in the early years of the 21st century, and I would love to read a much more recent account of travels and experiences in the region….though I’m guessing little has changed, if the events of recent weeks are anything to go by.