Thursday, January 15, 2009

For what it's worth

Long, long ago, the Semites lived in the not-yet-Middle-East.

And then Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren....... Oh, and, by the way, Isaac also begat Esau.

In fact Esau and Jacob were twins, and Esau, as the elder, should have inherited all Dad's (and Grandad's) worldly goods, prestige, divine approval, and some really good footnotes in Genesis, Mathew, etc. - but apparently sold his birthright to his brother for .......... wait for it............ 'a mess of pottage'. (Hence the oft-misquoted adage: The way to a man's hearth is through his stomach.)

The upshot was that the descendants of one bro - Jacob -became the Jewish people (aka God's Chosen People); while the descendants of Esau (All together now, "loooozuurrrrrrrr") became .... the Arabs! Interesting huh? Family Drama B.C.

Anyway, the Arabs were of no further interest to the writers of the Old Testament, while the Jews basked in God's love, which must indeed have been lovely. Unfortunately, it would appear that no-one had explained this to the Romans, who presumably thought that the Promised Land had in fact been promised to them - subjectivity can be such a problem between neighbours.....

So the Romans moved in, and waited for the locals to recognise that they were now a conquered people, keep their heads down and their noses clean, pay their taxes, and be good little subjects of Rome. Got that one wrong, didn't you, boys?

(Pop quiz: name one Arab people in the last couple of millennia which has knuckled under to an invader.................. take your time......... see?)

So after a while, the Romans got a little fed up with being constantly dragged away from their banquets and orgies, and never seeing the end of the circuses, all because the bloody locals kept mounting rebellions and holing up in mountain fortresses (where they'd stashed all the best weed too, damn their eyes) and even going so far as to set up some smooth-tongued, appallingly dressed Holly Roller hick from the sticks as their leader - a hippy Peace&LoveMan weirdo who wouldn't know a barber if he bumped into him in downtown Jerusalem on a Thursday night ...... Of course, they sorted him out in the end; with a bit of help from the local Chamber of Commerce (Those guys knew which side their bagel was loxed on.) But the locals were still revolting, so the Romans came up with a Final Solution.
Destroy their Temple and encourage them to LEAVE.
All of them.
Declare their country a non-country.
End of story.

I blame the Romans.

And the 'Wandering Jew' became part of European (eh? Where? Sorry, wrong century.) Christendom's world view. Ah, Christendom (i.e. Amost Everywhere.) named after that Peace&LoveMan man that................ the Jews killed. Hmm. Some people have baggage.

Landless people scatter, assimilate, intermarry........blend. Or just die out. Generations later, their artefacts are dug out of burial chambers and displayed in museums for others to marvel at. Scientists do DNA searches. Curious individuals trace their genealogy, and perhaps discover that Abraham XX begat Isaac LV, begat Jacob CIX, begat Mike, begat Brian, begat Jack - and look! Here's the scan of little Jack! Ah!

On the other hand, expats will often cling to the comfort of traditional ways, celebrate the richness of their own songs, recipes, stories, and festivals. They will send their children to expat or international schools - maybe even boarding schools 'back home'. They will make friends among their own community, creating a base of familiarity and mutual recognition - a microcosm of their old world - from which to step out into the wonderful strangeness of their new home from home - and where they can recharge their sense of a shared identity from time to time. Ex-pats often go 'home' once a year if they can afford it - and while they might complain about the travelling, the endless unpacking and repacking, and the long round of visiting and catching up; in the end, this constant maintenance of the lines between old and new lives and relationships also frees many to get more involved in the culture and experiences that their 'foreign' base has to offer. Many will in fact choose to retire and stay 'abroad'. Most, I think, go 'home' in the end, carrying the memories and influences of their experiences with them.

Expats may feel like exiles at times but, unlike exiles, most know that they can go home eventually.
Exiles. Refugees. Diaspora.
Armenians. Jews. Palestinians.
These can never go home. Sometimes, home no longer exists.

The Armenian diaspora - descendants of the refugees of 1915 - outnumber their cousins 'back home', where the Soviet Union expanded into the space left by the Ottomans.

There are Armenian communities, with their own schools and churches, in the Middle East, Europe and the US. These communities nurture a sense of identity and heritage, and continue to act as pressure groups for a review of the events of 1915 - which Hitler would later acknowledge as, if not his inspiration for the Holocaust, at least an example of what a sufficiently powerful invader - conqueror, to use an old term - could get away with under the disapproving noses of other nations - with ruthless will and watertight organisation.

Yet Armenians also marry outside their own communities, even if this may at times resemble the plot - if not the script - of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.... Life goes on. Cultures mix. Sometimes people are happy, and sometimes not. The usual sort of thing. Perhaps two hundred years from now, people will be tracing their family trees back to a plot of land in Yerevan, as Americans now make pilgrimages to small villages in Ireland.

Yet if Armenians have achieved this balance within a century, it begs the question of why - or how - Jewish culture has managed to not merely survive, but flourish, for two thousand years, in a world where Jews have routinely been reviled and persecuted at every change in the political wind. As with Armenians, and more fortunate Palestinians, Jews have contributed to the communities in which they have settled: some of the most celebrated artists, composers, songwriters, actors, directors, writers......... businessmen.......... surgeons............... intellectuals........... stand-up comedians..................(I'm sorry, but I draw the line at Seinfeld) are Jewish. As in identity, not as in amateur genealogist who discovered an ancestor who might have been a night cleaner in the Temple back in 12 A.D.

I come back to the expats. Not military or relief workers, but teachers, oil engineers, insurance and banking personnel. Life is made easier because most foreign postings are on well-trodden routes which have the infrastructure and cosmopolitan character to accommodate expats. And you've got an Embassy, a passport and a contract. You may be concerned, if you're on a longterm, or open-ended contract, that your circumstances may deprive your children of a central plank of their sense of themselves and their place in the world - not to mention alienating them from cousins and grandparents back home. To avoid this, you are perhaps more careful than you would be back home to preserve habits and traditions that will nurture roots, and enable your 'third culture kids' to grow straight and strong in this exotic environment - and cope with seasonal repotting. Still, you're probably in a safe environment, so you settle, and so do the kids.

There are places where you would not be welcome on political, social or religious grounds, but as a rule of thumb, most international companies are cautious about setting up shop in countries where foreign leaders are burnt in effigy twice a week, and there is a grey area regarding the legality of lynching Customer Service personnel in the absence of a money-back guarantee on electrical goods.


American Bible Belters and Iranian clerics do an equally good job of stirring up resentment, fear and anger among their own, and proselytising their unfortunate point of view, but if your beliefs make you a target for their rhetoric or invective, there are still plenty of places where you and your way of life will be accepted and respected, if not necessarily understood or shared.

Unfortunately for medieval Jews, the sermons and writings of some very influential Christian clerics in the first five centuries A.D. accused Jews of all manner of appalling vices, and made it clear that the Jewish nation were forever culpable, and to be punished for their torture and murder of Jesus Christ.

I blame the Christians.

There are numerous examples, spread across territory and time, of Jews, Christians and Muslims - the People of the Book (i.e. the Bible) - basically agreeing to differ, and co-existing as peacefully as human beings ever can. Yet, writing or preaching to their own Christian congregations, the Church Fathers warned in the most hideous rhetoric against anything that smacked of participating in, watching or enjoying Jewish traditions.The fact that such extreme rhetoric was deemed necessary in order to discourage fraternisation or judaising suggests that the early Christians were entirely too comfortable with their Jewish neighbours for the Christian priests' peace of mind. This was the language of war - for the hearts and minds of their own congregations.

However, as these sermons were published, circulated and debated over the centuries, they came to be treated as justification for making life as difficult as possible for these Christkillers. As inflammatory labels go, that has to be right up there with The Great Satan.

Hitler's Holocaust was merely the most blatant and concentrated assault on Jews - amongst others. For centuries, in many places, Jews were restricted in what cloth their clothes could be made from (though other members of the population also lived with such restrictions in feudal times) in where they could live, how they could earn their living, what thy could own. They were the bogeymen of bedtime stories. If disease broke out or the land flooded or parched or split apart, then God was displeased that Christians were tolerating Jews in their midst. And that would have to be rectified. However easygoing a community might be, and however much business and trade might be done between the peoples of these different faiths, there was ultimately no security, because if a scapegoat or a distraction was needed, then the Jews were it. Round 'em up. Lock 'em up. Burn 'em.

Jewish culture - I would suggest - evolved from being permanent expats on a hardship posting. What doesn't kill you - or every member of your family - makes you strong, encourages self-reliance, co-operation and mutual support. You know who you are. You know what you care about. You know that while you're being harassed from one quarter, you will always be supported from another - by the people who have to deal with all this nonsense too. If you can find a way to make it feels better - music's good, and a sense of humour comes in handy - then so much the better. And if you can learn that it's what you do, not what you have, that matters - and combine that with some self-respect and a serious work ethic - then the world is your oyster, my dear. (And I may well be talking absolute rubbish, but at least I'm trying to work something out!)

Hitler may have pushed the envelope beyond anything previously imagined, but anti-semitism is ingrained in Christian attitudes and practice, and the Christian viewpoint (aggressively defensive) has underpinned the evolution of western philosophy and human society from Russia to the Americas for two thousand years.

However, I'm not bashing Christianity, though it probably appears that way. Human beings are a strange mix of cerebral and physical. At the base of the large upper, more recently evolved part of the human brain lies the hypothalamus, the most ancient and primitive part: anger and fear make this baby light up, and particularly at stages in our life when hormones are washing about, provide the drive that effectively overwhelms the rational higher brain.

Xenophobia - wariness of the unknown - an instinct to protect and justify what is ours - a need to feel justified, secure, part of something; and it's corollary, a need to identify the other (whatever that might be - haircut? religion? cooking smells? colour? generation?) as something to be ignored, converted, rejected, or removed. This is primitive, essential, survival stuff, however we dress it with words. And the words we use to rationalise such feelings and needs can be used to to appeal to those same feelings and needs in others.

Marketing sermons from fifteen hundred years ago are just this little lot in their Christian guise. If it hadn't been Christianity it would have been something else...... oh yes.... let's call it Islam. God may exist, and we may be looking at the same deity from different angles and calling it God, Jehovah, Yahweh or Allah. Or Buddha. Or Ra. But to insist that there is no God/Jehovah/Yahweh/ Allah/Buddha/Ra but God/Jehovah/Yahweh/ Allah/Buddha/Ra, and that if someone disagrees with you, then they are ignorant, wilful, backward, deluded and in need of being saved from themselves - for my money, that's the hypothalamus talking. And when they've got minerals, fossil fuels, aquifers or a virgin market for manufactured goods, then that 'ol hypothalamus is in evil alliance with the upper brain.

I do believe that the League of Nations was pursuing its avowed aim of working to prevent another world war when it decided in 1917 to establish a national home for the Jewish people, all but acknowledging that the Jews had had a very raw deal for a very long time - and it was time everyone made it up to them. I believe - though I'm not sure - that other options had been considered, including a large, unpopulated space in North America. However, we know which patch they chose - a patch of desert with no-one very important on it, who would of course understand that the Jews needed their country back. Colonialist attitudes prevailed.

The UN, which replaced the League of Nations in 1945 after World War II proved how ineffectual it was, seems to have been entirely blind to the needs and rights of the existing Palestinian population - as I say, colonialism, or paternalism perhaps. I don't think that people from highly developed European countries can appreciate what land means to settled people in the Middle East, a place which is still full of community traditions that go back a very long way. Your land is your part of your identity, your link to your grandparents, your gift to your children, the place where you live and are recognised. You don't just relocate. It was only after World War II, when Britain started clearing slums to build streets in the sky that they began to realise that the built environment has other dimensions beside its obvious physical solidity: realised that the physical and emotional connections that run through and between communities are partly shaped by the physical layout of buildings. Architects and townplanners are still working through the implications of this.

In 1947, disregarding the absolute opposition of the Arab League, and in line with best practice at the time (as demonstrated by the British)the UN redrew the map, intending to partition the land into three territories: a Jewish nation, an Arab nation, and a UN buffer zone. The thousands of Arabs who were displaced from land their families had held for generations were not happy. And the rest, of course, is bloodshed.

Israel is a fact. Creating it was an attempt to turn the clock back. Bad move. Trying to do it again? Yeah, that's really going to work.

However, the current map of Israel and Palestine is virtually a negative of the 1946 pre-Partition map (Where have we heard the word partition before? Always good for the locals.)

Israel had to defend itself against its neighbours, but the expansionists, or Zionists of the early years set about driving Palestinians off land that was designated as theirs. Sometimes they worked by stealth, through a blizzard of paperwork and the full weight of bureaucracy, where generations of people had lived in their houses and worked their land, back to a time when - - when - well no, actually there wasn't a formal written contract or bill of sale stating dimensions et. etc. etc., but my great-great-great grandfather bought this land from that family over there - just ask them, they'll tell you - and built this house and.....(Living in Spain, I can say that there are rural properties here that don't have proper boundary maps, but everyone knows that from that ridge there, to this boulder here is ours, and next door's place goes up the hill to that fence......). No papers, or the wrong stamp, or no stamp, or if the paper had your great-uncle's name on it, but he had died childless and given the deed and the place to your father on his deathbed, and your father hadn't got it changed because everyone knew how it was.

Or they built Israeli houses around Palestinian houses, cutting neighbours off.

Or they sent the bulldozers in - to clear out troublemakers. To teach people a lesson. To protect their people from Palestinian harassment and aggression.

Israel has appropriated more and more Palestinian land under the pretext of creating buffer zones to protect its citizens. It's been doing it for half a century. It has allowed the building and occupation of illegal settlements.

Then the Israeli government considers Palestinians unreasonable when they start throwing things? Start arming themselves? Start fighting back? Start thinking it's better to die a martyr and perhaps achieve something than live to be old and broken at 40 like your father?

Better build a fence. Better blockade routes in and out and make it impossible to move raw material or finished goods - impossible for someone to feed his family - impossible for someone to get to hospital when her pregnancy goes badly wrong - impossible to do anything.

Better push them into a life or death struggle, with no right to fight back. Better crowd them into the smallest possible space, so that there's nowhere safe for them to store or fire weapons, and then you can bomb them, and kill hundreds of them, and hold press conferences about these craven cynics who use their own children as shields. Better hit hospitals, UN food stores, schools. Better do it quickly - before January 20th.

And more and more people keep moving to Israel, a place that has been a warzone for decades. You have to wonder why. I expect they'll need houses.

Generations of Palestinians have lived and died in the camps. Other Arab countries won't give them passports, because this would undermine their claim to their land.

Non-Arab countries and international organisations stand in judgement, and when Palestinians elect Hamas to government in free and fair elections, partly in disgust at the bloated self-satisfaction of Yasser Arafat's old guard, and partly because, for years, Hamas has consistently done what no-one else seemed able to do: got food and medicine in to people who would otherwise have starved and died - when that happens, the Free World raises its pale, manicured hands in horror. Those foolish Palestinians, what are they playing at, electing a terrorist organisation? Better cut off their aid. Better let them starve, and succumb to every virus and infection. Better leave another generation of children to grow up physically stunted, uneducated and feral, wide open to the older guys, the heroes, who are doing something to make a difference, who could show them how to make a difference too, if they're brave enough.........
That will teach them.

It doesn't matter how many music programmes and theatre programmes etc. etc. these people manage to come up with to put some hope and colour in their children's lives. It doesn't matter how much parents love their children, or how much teachers can do with almost nothing, and with little or no income. It doesn't even matter how optimistic and enthusiastic the children may be, in the face of all odds. If Israel's intention is to push the Palestinians into a small space and annihilate them once and for all; and the rest of the world is prepared to let Israel do that because those bad Palestinians keep firing rockets into southern Israel, and only elected governments are allowed to fire rockets, because otherwise it's terrorism, and we don't approve of terrorism....................... well, I suppose they'll all be dead in the next 96 hours.

That'll teach 'em.

Everyone has to stop fighting, decide what moral and physical territory they're prepared to give up, and go talk to each other, listen to each other, and make it happen.

Northern Ireland seemed a lost cause to me as I grew up, but they've just about got themselves sorted. It can be done.

What is the point of any more people - Israelis or Palestinians - living in fear and suspicion - and then dying in a moment, and the whole nightmare constantly repeating and growing? I can't see it myself.


Keefieboy said...

Wow, you know some stuff!

alexander... said...


I would also consider:

- The crusades and the role of Christianity in the Levant and the Levant in Christianity.

- The role of zionism, a movement that by no means enjoyed the wide support of international Jewry, and its association of 'Israel' with 'Jewishness'.

- The remarkable influence of classically trained Brits who bought the argument that Palestine's 'original people' deserved a home, for instance Storrs and Lawrence.

- The failure of British efforts to force a 'status quo' and stop settlement in Mandate Palestine because the empire was dying and America was so much more powerful - particulaly after the disaster that was lend lease and the US' late entry into WWII.

Oh. It's going to be the longest essay, isn't it?

Jan and Steve said...

Wow, that was some post, and very educational as well.

The Spear said...

Excellent post, I really enjoyed this.

This is issue is much more complex than people think.