Thursday, May 29, 2008

Israel has few friends - but we should be one of them

Sixty years have passed since the state of Israel was founded, and in those six decades, the Jewish people of the Middle East have not known a single minute of pure, unbroken peace. And what is most surprising about this tragedy is the complete lack of sympathy that so many Irish people feel for such a beleaguered minority amid such a sea of unquenchable enmity.

The cause of the Palestinians has long been sanctified in the Irish mind, most especially in that most morally elastic of organs, the Irish liberal conscience, whereas the plight of the people of the state of Israel is treated as a vaguely unreal matter which need not bother the rest of us. After all, was not the state of Israel based on theft? Yes, it was. But then most states are based on theft from someone or other. The great families of England are descended from the ruthless Norman land-grabbers of the 11th century. The USA, Australia, New Zealand were built on lands taken from the aboriginals. South Africa was stolen by Bantu and by Boer from the Koi and the San peoples. Czechs now occupy the Sudetenland, where Germans had lived for hundreds of years, and from which they were expelled, amid much murder and rape, by the million in 1945.

No restitution is possible for those exiles -- nor may it realistically be sought. When such displacements have occurred, and new polities have emerged to fill the vacuum left by the departed or expelled peoples, the process becomes irreversible. Only Israel is considered to be exempt from this general historical rule; and only Israel's neighbours are forgiven for their great historical crime of refusing to give to their fellow Arabs the home and the identity which brother should gladly yield unto brother.

I am not a Zionist. I think what happened from the period of the Balfour Declaration to 1948 was a crime against the Arabs of the Ottoman province of Palestine. (The term "Palestinian" is a recent invention, reflecting its modern political connotation: in terms of real identity, it has little or no real historical meaning). But I am a realist. Revisiting history, as a political programme, is for idiots. What's done is done. Israel now is, and that's that.

The Arab world is the size of the USA. Israel is smaller than either the province of Munster or the state of New Hampshire; yet across the Arab landmass, from the Horn of Africa to the Atlantic Ocean, regardless of local tyrant, poverty or injustice, the one great unifying political issue is that of "Palestine". It displaces others that are far more pressing and far more real. This demented obsession, about events possibly thousands of miles away, has corrupted an already stultified, self-obsessed and backward Arab imagination, which apparently exults in hatred and in ignorance. Fewer foreign books have been translated into Arabic in the past four centuries than are translated into Spanish every year. Yet every famished fellah-urchin in every soukh can roll his tongue around the curse Israel.

Surrounded by such enemies, what is Israel meant to do? What concession can it give to the Arabs on the West Bank and in Gaza which will cause Islamic Jihad, or any other lunatic group, to accept Israel's right to a peaceful existence? No such concession exists. The certain consequence of Israel removing any of its security wall is the deaths of Israeli civilians by suicide bombers, and Arabs dancing in jubilation on the West Bank.

To be sure, there is the option of the Israeli state going into liquidation and its population being dispersed -- which is something the Jews of Israel are unlikely to submit to, having experienced a diaspora or two in their history. And anyway, where would they go? Which state is bidding to house several million displaced Jews? None was found in 1939 or 1945,and there seems to be few enough contenders this time round.

Six decades on, six more decades of war seem set to follow, and another six beyond that; and no people, Jewish or otherwise, can escape the contamination which is caused by endless conflict and by the unceasing confiscation of merriment from youthful lives. And that is one of the most striking features of Israel: for all the pride that Israelis properly take in their own survival, theirs is a society almost without visible evidence of joy.

How could it be otherwise? Dawn has risen on its ramparts for over 60 years, and the sentries there are still watchfully squinting down their gunsights into the hostile dunes beyond. Their parents minded those parapets, as did their parents' parents, as in time -- or so it seems -- will their grandchildren. And perhaps worst of all, in the greater world Israel has few real friends who genuinely feel some sympathy for its excruciating existential ordeal, unremitting down the decades. I wish I could say Ireland is such a sympathetic friend. It is not, and that truly is our national shame.

No comments: