Some thoughtful Jewish commentators, faced by the killing in Gaza, have reminded us of the truth that the real lesson of the Holocaust was not the fact that humans were capable of terrible evil, but that ordinary decent people could look on, and let it happen.
They are talking primarily about the people of Israel, who seem largely supportive of what’s being done in their name (though it’s hard to trust the reporting of this “fact”, a point I’ll come back to.)
In other parts of the world social networks have been buzzing with outrage (again I’ll come back to this), provoking others to argue that there must be two sides to every story, or that Hamas must bear the primary blame.
This is another kind of complicity, made all the worse by the fact that it’s actually rooted in decent if misguided impulses.
Or in another kind of evasion, decent people have said that we need to forget about history and blame, and just get on with making peace. This is the positive mirror image of a despairing argument, which suggests the region has been rife with conflict for centuries and the tensions cannot be resolved. Although this argument can have the look of being even-handed, it wilfully draws a curtain over what’s actually happened since the end of the Second World War, in the process taking its place as part of a great lie.
We cannot hope to deal with the present, cannot hope to deal with the fears, the anger, the pride and the greed driving the conflict unless we understand where all these feelings come from, even in living memory. Nor is there likely to be a just (and therefore sustainable peace) unless the protagonists take responsibility for what each has done in the past, and in this sense blame is necessary and important.
The question of passive complicity goes deeper. In Ireland, an obvious precedent for what might be a way forward in the Middle East, ordinary decent people in the Catholic community who would have no truck with violence in their lives gave passive support to the various versions of the IRA. They did this because the memory of Britain’s bloody history in Ireland was kept alive by present injustice and state-sponsored violence, covert and overt. The IRA was the vicious mirror image of a much bigger aggressor.
For the first decades of my life the division looked as intractable as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does now. There are still some underlying tensions in Ireland (memories don’t vanish overnight) but there is also peace. Both sides found face-saving rhetoric, and that seems a small price to pay for the fact that Martin McGuinness and (most surprising of all) Ian Paisley were able to sit down together in government, and begin to forge a better future for the whole population.
(It’s worth noting too that the countries of Western Europe have spent most of the last thousand years at war with each other, but since the end of the Second World War and the emergence of the EU such conflict already seems unthinkable.)
Apologists for Israeli aggression like to point to the fact that Hamas is a democratically-elected government in the Gaza strip, taking this as a sign of active support from the whole population for anti-Israeli violence. We need a more nuanced view. It’s true you’d have to be desperate to support the lunatics in Hamas, but the ordinary decent people in Gaza have been made desperate by the continuing aggression and intransigence of the Israelis.
This is why it matters to understand the history. It’s a bit like one of those “can you guess what it is” pictures; if you can isolate an object from its context it’s likely people won’t know what they are looking at.
So with an eye on that history, and as clear as possible a view of the present, I think it’s right to acknowledge that in its warped way Hamas is probably trying to provoke Israel into atrocity, to turn world opinion against Israel, at whatever cost to its own people; it’s hard to think of any other reason why they would continue to fire rockets that have no other effect, thanks to Israel’s “iron dome”. But the real lunacy has to be in Israel’s obliging them so fully in their murderous response. Hamas itself is not capable of turning world opinion against Israel; that’s something Israel can only do to itself.
Perhaps Netanyahu believed that the world would continue to turn the same blind eye it’s always done. He was quite right to assume that this was how western governments would respond, even to the absurd extent that the US could in one breath express “grave concern” (which is supposed to be serious in diplomatic terms) while in the next voting to top up Israel’s arsenal. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.
Netanyahu also probably felt he could rely on a complicit western media, and left to themselves they might have obliged. It’s a curious facet of so one-sided a conflict that a worthy ambition to show balance in your reporting could actually be harnessed to distort the truth. Certainly much mainstream reporting has been grotesque in its blindness, a point nailed by Jon Stewart simply by showing two TV correspondents offering “balanced” views on the violence, the one in Tel Aviv wearing an open-necked shirt, the one in Gaza City wearing a bulletproof vest.
To be fair, there have been some notable exceptions to the mainstream bias, including Jon Snow on Channel 4 here in the UK, and the reliably expert Robert Fisk in the Independent.
In any case we live in changed times, and social media quickly told a different story, with the result that western governments now seem out of step with the outrage in their populations. Whether anything will come of this remains to be seen. Foreign affairs have rarely been an issue in national elections, and it’s not as if any of the opposition parties are offering much of an alternative.
But nor are our governments quietly representing our real interests by ignoring our outrage. While it might be true that a cornered Israel would be a dangerous force, our choices are not polarised between unconditional support for Israel or the Palestinians. Indeed nobody who cared about the long term interests of Israel could possibly support its current stance or actions. Negotiation in good faith could still secure peace around a two state solution, but Israel, for historically-grounded reasons, would have to abandon what international law has always deemed its illegal claims on the territory beyond its 1967 borders. Nobody could force this change like the US, and without that change the US pre-eminently has the blood of Gaza’s children on its hands.
But nor can Europe continue to sit on its hands: that is to perpetuate the horror of the Holocaust, a horror our grandfathers fought to destroy. We cannot dishonour their memory, and nor can our representatives. We’re not talking about victory for Hamas, but for the spirit of human decency.