In time of war: reason amid rockets

Fred Halliday
10 August 2006

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.

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).

Fred Halliday's "global politics" column on openDemocracy surveys the national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across the world. The articles include:

"America and Arabia after Saddam"
(May 2004)

"Terrorism and world politics: conditions and prospects"
(March 2005)

"An encounter with Mr X" (March 2005)

"Iran's revolutionary spasm" (July 2005)

"Political killing in the cold war" (August 2005)

"Maxime Rodinson: in praise of a 'marginal man'"
(September 2005)

"A transnational umma: myth or reality? " (October 2005)

"The 'Barcelona process': ten years on" (November 2005)

"The United Nations vs the United States" (January 2006)

"Blasphemy and power" (February 2006)

"Iran vs the United States – again" (February 2006)

"Terrorism and delusion" (April 2006)

"The forward march of women halted?"
(May 2006)

"Letter from Ground Zero" (May 2006)

"Finland's moment in the sun" (June 2006)

""A Lebanese fragment: two days with Hizbollah"(July 2006)

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.

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