Sunday, September 10, 2006

In time of war: reason amid rockets

Fred Halliday (article includes many useful external links
11 - 8 - 2006

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the LSE, and visiting professor at Cidob, Barcelona. His books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003) and 100 Myths About the Middle East (Saqi, 2005).

The violent conflict in the middle east makes it ever more urgent to listen to voices of universalism and human solidarity in the spirit of Isaac Deutscher and Hannah Arendt, says Fred Halliday.


The cycles of memory work in unexpected ways. The current war involving Israel, the Hizbollah movement and Lebanon provokes a recollection of the first time I came face to face with the Arab-Israeli dispute. It was in October 1964 at a debate in the Oxford Union, only days after that momentous 15-16 October on which Nikita Khrushchev fell in Moscow, the Chinese exploded their first atom bomb, in Xinjiang, and (more parochially) the Labour Party won the British general election, ending thirteen years of Conservative rule.

It takes an effort of imagination to recall now how different then was the balance of public attention and sympathy between Israel and the Palestinians compared to today. Israel enjoyed enormous authority – not so much as a close ally of the west, which at that time it was not (the alliance with the United States took shape only after 1967) but as the site of an experiment in socialist economics and living which the kibbutz system epitomised.

By contrast, nearly everyone in the west who thought about the matter, on left or right, regarded the Palestinian issue as being one of "the refugees" and the obstacles to their resettlement – as if they were a late, post-second-world-war residue of the millions of "displaced persons" whom the great European conflict had shunted across frontiers.

The Palestinian guerrilla movement emerged only with the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Cairo in January 1964. It was initially under the control of the Arab states, and of Egypt in particular; its first armed action – an attack on a power station near Galilee – occurred in January 1965.

Any sympathy for such "Arab" causes on the left at that time focused more on the experiment in "Arab socialism" under Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and on the experiences of workers' control and peasant cooperatives that had arisen out of the Algerian revolutionary war of 1954-1962; perhaps also, a few were dimly aware and supportive of the remote but reputedly resolute imamate of Oman (which had, in fact, ceased to exist).

All of this was to change after the six-day war of June 1967, with the emergence of the Palestinian resistance movement in the West Bank and in Jordan, and the gradual loss of sympathy for Israel across much of the world. This latter process did not take place overnight: Cuba, for example, maintained relations with, and admiration for, Israel until after the war of 1973.

A sudden end

The Oxford debate of October 1964 thus took place before the enormous shifts of sentiment and solidarity, evident today in relation to Lebanon and the Hizbollah movement, towards Arab causes and away from Israel. I was then a student in my first weeks at university, with the general interest in what were then known as "third-world" struggles characteristic of that time, but with no knowledge of this particular question. I sat in the balcony and watched the two main speakers make their respective cases: on the Israeli side, the urbane, silver-haired Labour MP (and part-time novelist) Maurice Edelman; on the Arab side, the Lebanese writer and longstanding pro-Palestinian campaigner Edward Attiyah.

The debate was conducted along already (and still) familiar lines: on one side, evocation of the genocide of Jews in Europe under Nazism (the term "holocaust" came into general use only later), the Arab refusal to accept the 1947 United Nations partition plan, the Arab responsibility for the flight of the Palestinian population in the war of 1947-1949; on the other, the violence of the Zionist acquisition and conquest of Arab land, the betrayal by Britain of its many promises to the Arabs up to its unilateral backdoor scuttle from Palestine in May 1948, the hypocrisy and passivity of the international community thereafter.

As it continued, however, the atmosphere became more disputatious. Edward Attiyah's speech was interrupted by the shouts, way beyond normal heckling, of a group of young supporters of Israel who rose to their feet in unison, seeking to silence the speaker by accusing him of being a "Nazi" and raising their arms in mock-Hitler salute. This must have been hard to take for the author of the elegiac autobiography of a Lebanese upbringing, Having Been an Arab, who (in common with other modern Arab intellectuals such as George Antonius, Albert Hourani, Hanan Ashrawi and Edward Said) was brought up as a Protestant, and in his case had identified England as his spiritual home.

I was never to find out. Attiyah battled on, his voice rising intermittently above the din, before a sudden pause. A throttled sound came from his throat, and he fell to the floor, victim of a heart attack. He was dead. I shall never forget the sound of his body hitting the union's wooden floor.

Two voices

The next few years were (in another phrase not yet current) a steep learning-curve for a young student. A watershed moment in the redrawing of intellectual and political battle-lines was June 1967, when Israel conquered all of mandate Palestine in a lightning war. In its wake, the strategic relationship between Israel and the United States began to be forged, and an international leftwing movement of solidarity with the Palestinian people grew.

The six-day war precipitated a new phase of political alignment and argument in and about the middle east. In their essentials, the controversies, issues and even the language of the thirty-nine years that have followed have remained constant. This indeed is confirmed by the familiarity of the so much of the mass of material published and broadcast since the outbreak of the Hizbollah-Israeli conflict on 12 July 2006 that is now consuming Lebanon.

Hence, at least for those of my generation formed in the 1960s, the arguments of those times remain often bitterly relevant. Amid the unconscionable violence, targeting of civilians, and appeals to unreason and ethnic identification that such modern wars entail, it is all the more necessary to retrieve the example of those who sought to defend core values that crossed boundaries of prejudice and narrow partisanship.

I have already honoured one of those in this openDemocracy series of columns: the great French scholar of the Muslim world, Maxime Rodinson (see "Maxime Rodinson: in praise of a 'marginal man'" (September 2005). Two more such figures were formative in articulating an internationalist position – one (Isaac Deutscher) within a Marxist framework, the other (Hannah Arendt) within a broadly liberal perspective.

Isaac Deutscher, the son of a rabbi in Poland and a committed socialist political activist there in the late 1930s, survived Nazism and Stalinism to write pathbreaking biographies of Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. Soon after the 1967 war, Deutscher gave an interview to three editors of the London-based Marxist intellectual journal New Left Review: Tom Wengraf, Peter Wollen and Alexander Cockburn. In it, Deutscher struck a note that has diminished to near-invisibility in more recent debates, where claims of identity prevail over universal principle, where identification with one side or the other predominates, and where the atrocities and callous political blunders of each combatant readily find their intellectual defenders.

Deutscher's approach rested on three clear and courageous premises:

that both leaderships, Arab and Israeli, were guilty of demagogy and misleading their own people, above all by promising a victory that was unattainable and by stoking hatred of other peoples and religions
that the antecedent histories of both peoples (genocide in Europe for the Jews, and denial of national rights for the Palestinians) could not be deployed to legitimate the maximal current claims of either side
that – a principle Deutscher resolutely adhered to – the Israelis and Palestinians were peoples with legitimate claims, which should be recognised on a sensible, and lasting, territorial and political basis.
Deutscher built on these premises an argument – couched in tones of anti-clerical, universalist disdain, something all too lacking in these days of grovelling before "identity", "tradition" and "faith communities" – that was clear in its rejection of the invocation of the sacred, the God-given, in political debate. Deutscher rejected Talmudic obscurantism and bloodthirsty Arab calls for vengeance alike.

The work of the German philosopher Hannah Arendt (who had found refuge in the United States by the time the second world war broke out) was not directly related to the Arab-Israeli question, but her liberal internationalist outlook does have immense relevance to it. This is especially true of Eichmann in Jerusalem, her 1963 book on the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. This is best known for its controversial phrase, born of watching this shifty and apparently "normal" man in the glass dock, "the banality of evil". The controversy it has generated is something of a distraction, as the vast literature on killing in other dictatorships and massacres across the world suggests: the architects of Stalin's gulag or the Serb massacres in Bosnia were no less "banal".

Much more controversial (and neglected) is Arendt's critique of the legal and moral case made by the Israeli prosecutors against Eichmann. For, whereas the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi war criminals had been conducted under what at least purported to be some form of "international" law – the precursor of later codes of universal jurisdiction, crimes against humanity and the International Criminal Court – Adolf Eichmann was prosecuted for the taking of Jewish lives and in a Jewish court.

A case that in 1946 had been (if weak in some points of principle) confident in its universalist aspirations, had by the early 1960s been converted into something derived from the ethnicity of the victims. And this ethnicisation of the victims was, at the same time, deemed to convey a particular right, if not responsibility, on the state that lay claim to representing those victims, namely Israel. This was what Hannah Arendt identified.

A time of regression

What Isaac Deutscher and Hannah Arendt noted contains truths that the contemporary middle east, and the world, sorely need. Their relevance is to much more than the Arab-Israeli question; it applies in principle to any of the numerous other national or inter-ethnic conflicts across the world where local rhetoric and partisan solidarity from outsiders have reinforced each other in a dance of death, as if one side were angels and the other devils – Cyprus, ex-Yugoslavia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland. In regard to the middle east, Muslims and Arabs across the world identify with the Palestinians (or, more recently, Hizbollah) on ethnic, religious and communitarian lines; Jews do the same, in support of Israel. Even many of those Jews who oppose the policies of the state of Israel speak as Jews ("not in my name").

There is an enormous historical regression involved here. It involves seeing membership of a particular community, or claims of affinity, ethnicity or religious association with others, as conveying particular rights (or particular moral clarity) on those making such claims. In purely rational terms, this is nonsense: the crimes of the Israelis in wantonly destroying Lebanon's infrastructure, and the crimes of Hizbollah and Hamas in killing civilians and placing the lives and security of their peoples recklessly at risk, do not require particularist denunciation. They are crimes on the basis of universal principles – of law, decency, humanity – and should be identified as such.


(In this regard, ethnic and religious diasporas are among the last people who can offer rational explanation or moral compass in regard to such events. Recently, when interviewed by a BBC panel set up to consider accusations of bias in regard to the Arab-Israeli dispute, I was given a list of the British-based groups the panel had consulted – Muslim and Arab on one side, Jewish and Zionist on the other. My recommendation to the panel was to ignore completely what any of them said and to question whether they should have any standing in the matter.)

In such times, the moral clarity of Isaac Deutscher and Hannah Arendt is essential, even where subsequent history and philosophical debate have moved arguments on. Any hope, for example, that a solution to inter-ethnic conflict could be found on the basis of proletarian solidarity must be dispelled as ineffectual at best, dangerous at worst: proletarian solidarity did not save the Jews of Europe in the 1940s and has not reconciled Arabs and Jews thereafter.

Equally, a condemnation of the actions of militarised states and guerrilla groups must be based on more than a rejection of their demagogy and chauvinism; it requires a quality that has been long neglected (including by the left, as is evident in much discussion of the war in Iraq), namely respect for the laws and norms of war, as in the Geneva protocols (1949), the additional protocols (1977), and related documents. Across the world there are movements of solidarity – including with Hamas, Hizbollah, or the "Iraqi resistance" – that, while invoking universal principles of war against Israelis, fail completely to apply the same principles the behaviour of the guerrillas and other groups, even though many have committed terrible acts of barbarism, murder, intimidation of civilians, and fostering of inter-communal hatred.

This is vividly apparent in the way that esteemed voices of the British left, high on anti-imperialist rectitude, revel in the slaughter of civilian United Nations officials in Iraq (in the bomb of 19 August 2003 which killed Sergio Vieira de Mello and twenty-one others, including the human-rights scholar and openDemocracy columnist, Arthur Helton); while they and others finesse or condone the killing of civilians in Israel, and the wanton sacrificing of the security of the whole population of Lebanon in the name of a self-proclaimed "national resistance". Much of this rhetoric comes from groups in Palestine and Lebanon that for years sought to destroy the one real chance for coexistence and peace between Israelis and Palestinians, namely the Oslo accords of 1993. In opposing the accords and then trampling them into the ground , they were at all times vigorously supported by fellow-travelling intellectual acolytes in the west who are relentless in a rhetorical "solidarity" which does so much disservice to those it ostensibly champions.

Isaac Deutscher and Hannah Arendt were intellectuals of their time, whose ideas were forged in the war against fascism and the critique of western and Soviet narratives of the cold war. Their inheritors may be found today in the work of the best non-governmental organisations as much as among their intellectual inheritors: among them, human-rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that resolutely and with as much accuracy as war and propaganda allow, document and condemn the crimes and violations of all sides.

The sustained independence of mind and clarity of principle of figures such as Deutscher and Arendt should guide judgment and commentary on the latest middle-east war. The alternative is more missed opportunities for peace, and more debates (like that I witnessed in October 1964) where vitriol and the refusal to listen replace the deliberation, understanding, and reason that the global public sphere desperately needs.

1 Comments:

At 1:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

INDIAN LOK SABHA MP MR OWAISI GOES TO LEBANON AND SPEAKS OUT HYDERABAD LOK SABHA MP ASADUDDIN OWAISI IS THE FIRST INDIAN DIPLOMAT TO VISIT LEBANON AFTER THE WAR ACCORDING TO THE ETEMAAD URDU DAILY AND DECCANNEWS AND ISLAMIC NEWS OF SYRIA MR ASADUDDIN IS ON A PRIVATE VISIT TO LEBANON AND SYRIA AND NOT REPRESENTING THE UPA GOVERNMENT OVER THERE IT IS SAID TO BE A GOODWILL VISIT AND TO SHOW SUPPORT OF INDIAN MUSLIMS IN THE WAKE OF DEATH AND MASSIVE DESTRUCTION OVER THERE ACCORDING TO THE REPORTS MR OWAISI FLEW FROM DELHI TO DAMASCUAS CAPITAL OF SYRIA AND WAS WELCOMED THERE BY INDIAN EMBASSY STAFF AT THE AIRPORT AND WHILE HIS STAY IN DAMASCUAS THERE FOR 3 DAYS HE VISITED HISTORIC AND ISLAMIC HOLY SHRINES AND EVEN VISITED THE GRAND UMMAYD MOSQUE AND AFTER THAT HE WENT TO BEIRUT AND ON HIS STAY THERE HE ALONG WITH HIZBULLAH MPS VISITED THE SOUTHEREN PART OF BEIRUT CITY WHICH WAS THE MOST BOMBED AREA IN BEIRUT WHICH WAS REPETADELY STUCK BY ISRAELI WARPLANES AND FROM THERE HE ALONG WITH VARIOUS OTHER SOCIAL AND AID ACTVISTS HE WENT TO QANA AND VISITED THE PLACE WHERE A BUILDING WAS COLLAPSED AFTER A ISRAELI AIRSTRIKE IN WHICH 57 CIVILLANNS WERE KILLED AND MR OWAISI HAS EVEN VISITED THE PORT CITY OF TYRE WHICH WAS DESERTED AT THE TIME OF WAR AND BINT JEBIL AN AREA IN SOUTHERN LEBANON WHICH WAS THE MAIN BATTLEFRONT BETWEEN HEZBOLLAH FIGHTERS AND ISRAELI ARMY AND IS SAID THAT THE WHOLE VILLAGES IN THAT AREA HAVE BEEN DEVASTED BY THE FIGHTING WHICH LASTED FOR 34 DAYS AND ON HIS VISIT TO BEIRUT THE HYDERABAD MP GAVE AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW TO THE HEZBOLLAH RUN TV AL MANAR AND IS SAID THAT HE HAS CAME TO LEBANON TO SHOW HIS SOLADIRTY WITH THE LEBANESE PEOPLE AND SAID HOW INDIAN PARLIAMENT HAS CONDMENNED THE WAR IN LEBANON AND HAS OFFERED AID WORTH 10 CRORES DOLLARS TO LEBANON HE EVEN MET WITH MANY CIVILLANS AND OLD AGE WOMEN WHOSE SONS WERE KILLED WHILE FIGHTING THE ISRAELI ARMY MR OWAISI WILL STAY IN LEBANON AND MEET LEBABNESE MPS AND EVEN WILL VISIT INDIAN EMBASSY IN BEIRUT AND MEET INDIAN EMBASSY STAFF AND AMBASSADOR .THERE ARE SOME REPORTS SUGGESTED BY ISLAMIC WEBSITE THAT HE EVEN MET HEZBOLLAH LEADERS WHILE HIS STAY IN BEIRUT REPORTS SUGGEST HE MET HIZBULLAH COMMANDER IN SOUTH HASAN HUBALLAH IN A SECRET LOCATION AND WHILE COMING OUT OF THERE WAS SURROUNDED BY HIZBULLAH GUNMEN HE EVEN MET HIZBULLAH CHAIRMAN FOR ECONOMIC AND RESARCH DEVELOPMENT DR ALI DIAD AND WITH THE TYRE CITY MAYOR AND EVEN MET WITH VARIOUS OTHER LEBANESE POLTICAL LEADERS AND MPS OF VARIOUS PARTYS SPEAKING OUTSIDE LEBANESE PARLIAMENT AFTER COMING OUT MEETING WITH LEBANESE PARLIAMENT SPEAKER NABIL BERRI THE MAJLIS PARTY LEADER OF HYDERABAD SAID ISRAEL HAS COMMITTED ACTS OF STATE TERRRORISM BY TARGETING INNOCENT CIVILLANS AND DESTROYING ITS INFRASTRUCTURE WORTH BILLIONS AND THIS WILL OR NOT DAMAGE THE HIZBULLAH AND THE LEBANESE PEOPLES WILL TO FIGHT AGAINST ILLEGAL OCCUPATION HE SAID PEACE CANNOT BE ACHIEVED IN THE MIDDLE EAST UNTIL ISRAEL WITHDRAWS FROM ALL PALESTINIAN OCCUPIED TERRORTRIES HE SAID NEGOTIOTANS SHOULD START AS SOON AS POSSIBLE HE SAID THE HAMAS LED DEMOCRATICALLY ELECTED GOVERNMENT HAS BEEN LOOKED DOWN BY THE SAME COUNTRIES WHICH ARE PREACHING DEMOCRACY IN THE MIDDLE EAST HE ALSO SAID THAT IRAQ HAS BECOME THE MOST LAWLESS COUNTRY DUE TO THE AMERICAN POLICY AND EVERDAY MORE THAN 30 IRAQIS ARE BEEN KILLED AND WIDESPREAD OF ANARCHY HAS HAPPENED AND MANY HISTORIC AND ISLAMIC SHRINES HAVE BEEN DAMAGED IN AN ORGANIZED MANNER HE ALSO SAID HEZBOLLAH LEADER HASSAN NASRALLAH HAS BECOME MORE POPULAR IN THE ISLAMIC WORLD DUE TO THE ISRAELI WAR ON LEBANON HE SAID UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD CHANGE ITS POLICIES IN MIDDLE EAST AND NOT ATTACK IRAN IN THE NAME OF WAR ON TERROR HE ALSO SAID INDIA HAS BEEN EFFECTED BY CROSS BORDER SPONSERD TERRORISM HE SAID WEST SHOULD COOPERATE MORE WITH INDIA TO FIGHT TERRORISM HE SAID MANY INNOCENT WERE KILLED IN MUMBAI BLASTS FOR NO REASON HE ALSO ACCUSED WEST OF DOUBLE STANDARDS ..

 

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