I am an Irishman from a half-Jewish background – the other half is Presbyterian, so I am utterly untypical of people in this republic. However as a person with such unusual antecedents, I feel reluctantly impelled to add my two ha’apence worth to the millions of words on the terrible disaster unfolding in the Middle East. As with so many of these blogs, I am going to borrow unashamedly from journalists and commentators who are much better-informed than me.
My first conclusion is to agree with that fine Irish Times columnist, Justine McCarthy.1 She writes that two wrongs – the horrific massacre by Hamas of hundreds of Israeli civilians and Israel’s equally appalling revenge bombings of thousands of Palestinian civilians in Gaza – do not make a right. “True friends would caution the aggressors in what we used to call the Holy Land that the way to a genocidal cul-de-sac is paved with retaliation,” she says. She quotes a Japanese proverb that, when you are seeking revenge, you should dig two graves – one for yourself.
I know that nothing will be simple in the armoured tunnels and teeming tenements of Gaza, but if the Israelis go beyond an understandable mission to cripple Hamas’s military capacity, and kill thousands of innocent people in the process, they will be only storing up more hatred and anti-semitism and catastrophic violence for the future. If you continually oppress a whole people – as Benjamin Netanyahu’s dreadful governments have done to the Palestinians for so many years – they will fight back with all the means (some of them appalling) at their disposal.
Netanyahu has promised “mighty vengeance” for the Hamas attacks, and most of the Israeli people appear to agree with him. The Israeli government says it is determined that, after ‘Black Saturday’, 7th October, it must wipe Hamas off the face of the earth, and its allies, led by the US, seem to have given it a green light to try. That way surely lies mutually assured destruction and genocide.
As so often in these desperate situations, I turn to the views of brilliant left-wing Jews. The author and climate change activist Naomi Klein writes that callous displays of international indifference to (and even celebration of) Israeli deaths are “a gift to militant Zionism, since they neatly shore up and reconfirm its core and governing belief: that the non-Jewish world hates Jews and always will – look, even the bleeding-heart left is making excuses for our killers and thinks that Jewish kids and old ladies deserved death merely by living in Israel.2
“For Zionist believers (I’m not one of them), Jew-hatred is the central rationale for why Israel must exist as a nuclear-armed fortress. Within this worldview, anti-semitism is cast as a primordial force that cannot be weakened or confronted. The world will always turn away from us in our hour of need, Zionism tells us, just as it did during the Holocaust, which is why force alone is presented as the only conceivable response to any and all threats.”
So how do we confront the violent ideology of both the Israeli government and Hamas? Klein writes: “For one thing, we can recognize that when Israeli Jews are killed in their homes and it is celebrated by people who claim to be anti-racists and anti-fascists, that is experienced as anti-semitism by a great many Jews. And anti-semitism (besides being hateful) is the rocket fuel of militant Zionism.
What could lessen its power, drain it of some of that fuel? True solidarity. Humanism that unites people across ethnic and religious lines. Fierce opposition to all forms of identity-based hatred, including anti-semitism. An international left rooted in values that side with the child over the gun every single time, no matter whose gun and no matter whose child. A left that is unshakably morally consistent, and does not mistake that consistency with moral equivalency between occupier and occupied. Love. It’s certainly worth a try. In these difficult times, I’d like to be part of a left like that.”
One practical (or maybe not so practical) example: it is a great shame that the enfeebled United Nations could not fly in 15-20,000 armed peacekeeping troops (including Irish soldiers) to enforce a humanitarian corridor to allow hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people from Gaza to find temporary refuge in Egypt.
The Guardian columnist, Jonathan Friedland, writes that all the 16 million Jews around the world feel more vulnerable after the Hamas massacres.3 He points to anti-semitic attacks quadrupling in the UK in the days afterwards and pro-Hamas demonstrators in Sydney chanting “Fuck the Jews! Gas the Jews!” He calls those attacks “a pogrom…multiple pogroms in fact, as lethal as any that cut down the Yiddish-speaking Jews of the early last century or, in repeating patterns, the centuries before.”
He goes on: “I suspect there are some progressives who – even unconsciously – hesitate before expressing full sympathy for the murdered young festival-goers and ageing kibbutz peaceniks because they worry that, if they do, that will somehow diminish their support for the Palestinians. That is a mistake.
Because Hamas is not identical with the Palestinian cause: it is a curse on it. With a founding charter, never revoked, packed with explicit, medieval anti-Jewish hatred, it has become an Isis-style force of bloodcurdling cruelty, one that brings calamity down on its own people – a calamity that threatens now to become even more devastating.
It isn’t that difficult. You can condemn Hamas and name its actions as evil, even as you support the Palestinians in their quest for a life free of occupation and oppression. And there should still be room in your heart for a Jewish child whose last moments were filled with unimaginable terror – the same terror his grandparents, and their grandparents, thought they had escaped for ever.”
Back at home, I find myself agreeing more with former Progressive Democrats leader Michael McDowell, a man of the moderate right, than my left-wing friends who are passionate supporters of the righteous cause of Palestinian self-determination and independence. McDowell writes: “If Hamas deserves to be toppled – and it does – how will the reduction of Gaza to stone-age rubble address the long-term security needs of Israel? How will that play across the Islamic world? Who knows how the Saudis and the Gulf states will view the Hamas massacres, or how they will play out if Gaza is razed and many thousands of Palestinians die? Could Israeli-Arab rapprochement survive?4
Europe sat on its hands on the annexation of the West Bank. Those of us in the Seanad who passed the Settlement Goods Bill as a small but important symbolic rejection of the creeping illegal annexation of the West Bank were described by the Israeli government as anti-semitic. Ireland must now shout out loud against total war in Gaza. The only response that will avoid further long-term catastrophe is restraint and adherence to international law. Israel’s right to self-defence must be proportionate, lawful and humane. That response might echo across the generations.”
In a letter on the following page of the Irish Times, my friend Betty Purcell, whom I know as a good and decent left-wing person, says that Ireland must make its voice heard by calling for the dismantling of what she calls the anti-Palestinian “apartheid’ system in Israel. But in her lengthy letter, she has not a single word of condemnation of Hamas’s murder of over a thousand Israeli civilians.
1 ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right, they make a vortex of horror’, Irish Times, 13 October
2 ‘In Gaza and Israel, side with the child over the gun’, Guardian, 11 October
3 ‘After the pogrom in Israel, the angel of death is licking its lips’, Guardian, 13 October
4 ‘Gaza must not be made pay for Hamas atrocities’, Irish Times, 11 October
Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.