Friday, July 21, 2006

last thoughts on a busy blogging day...

I make a living by teaching this stuff. I teach a course called the International Relations of the Cold War, one week of which is devoted to conflict in the Middle East. So we talk about 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1978-82, the first intifada, the second intifada. And I teach all of this like history, trying hard to play devil's advocate, hoping that the students will be pro-Israeli so that I can fulfill my pedagogical duties faithfully by saying what I really believe (If the students are pro-Palestinian, I have to do just the opposite - I am not paid to do propaganda, 'good' or 'bad'. Thankfully, most of the time it is not a simple for and against conversation, with my having to remind them of all the other axes of confrontation involved - not just Israel against Palestine, but the superpowers against each other, Arab states jockeying for leadership of the region, Arab states against the Palestinians, etc.) But it is all history. Now 2006 will need to be added to this list like a number in some mathematical progression. I am feeling rage, distraction, impotence, frustration at the thought of having to teach this stuff like a spectator, watching it happen, not being able to do very much beyond helping people understand, interpret, rationalise what appears - at first glance - to be madness. It is one thing to bring these skills to bear on the past, quite another to have to apply them to events that unfold in your adult politically-conscious lifetime.

And I don't even have a personal stake in this conflict. I have never been to the countries involved, I don't know anyone who lives there, I know people here who have people there, but that's about it. For me, the anger comes out of political beliefs, abstractions. God knows abstractions can drive people to madness, but I think personal contact and intimacy push one into an exponentially more acute realm of experience.

The moral choices in a given situation always appear more clear-cut, almost self-evident, in retrospect. How could people have been racist, imperialist, pro-apartheid, we wonder. How could they have sat around and debated the pros and cons of apartheid? Yet debate they did (why do you think sanctions took so long?) in student unions and sports associations and parliaments, weighing what against what I can't quite fathom, but some weighing was evidently going on. Our children are going to ask us this question - how could we have debated the pros and cons of what Israel is doing? How could we have seen Oslo, with its legacy of an archipelago of moth-eaten bantustans, as anything but power and control for Israel without responsibility? How could we have seen Gaza disengagement as anything but a rectification of the demographic problem, from Israel's point of view, and the creation of a giant open-air prison? How could we have accepted Israel's bombardment of civilians in Lebanon? How could we not have sanctioned Israel? What were we sitting around and talking about? Tony Blair, Margaret Beckett and the whole sorry lot will be remembered in the same way that we think of Thatcher and Reagan - as egregious holdouts in the campaign for sanctions against apartheid South Africa. That is how sickening and odious all these political choices are going to look in retrospect.

Our children will look back on Palestine as the Spanish Civil War of our time. If we didn't take a stand on Palestine, they will ask, what did we stand for? In the same way that we judge intellectuals of the interwar period by their attitude towards the creeping fascism of the time, we will be judged by our attitude towards politics in the Middle East. How, if we took the colonial taboo seriously, could we have tolerated Zionism? How, if we claimed to be liberals, could we have endorsed a claim to land based on a religious belief in the destruction of a temple and a mass exodus two thousand years previously? How, if we took the apartheid taboo seriously, could we have tolerated the Occupation and the Separation Barrier? And when they put us in the dock, it will not do to say something mealy-mouthed like 'I supported the two state solution' (everyone from Netanyahu to the little old ladies who run the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign supports two states - we just all have very different views of what those two states will look like). And just as we memorialise and celebrate George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway as brave artists who had the courage of their convictions, the bulldozer-hugging ISM activists whom lots of us would like to see as naive and ridiculous will be feted by our children. Their books will be read. Their words will inspire another generation.

I am optimistic. I am optimistic that our children will indict us for sitting around on our sorry arses.

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