The Middle East debate has more to do with the fashion for revolutionary tourism than real politics

Why isn’t the same level of concern shown for the world’s many other seemingly intractable problems?


What is it about the dispute between Israel and Palestine that causes so much vituperation? Even people who appear to know next to nothing about politics seem to have a view on the long-running conflict over a tiny strip of land.

What’s worse is that everyone seems to think their opinion is important or even original.

And why isn’t the same level of concern shown for the world’s many other seemingly intractable problems? Every death is a tragedy, but those with an overtly ideological take on the conflict in Israel/Palestine come across as, well, more than a little bit deranged. But still, an opinion on the conflict is absolutely de rigueur among political types. 

Honestly, though, I’m actually pretty bored with it all, for several reasons:

Because when Arabs are killing Arabs no one cares

The loss of life in Gaza and the Hamas rocketing of Israel is certainly regrettable, but both pale in comparison with the situation in Syria. Pro-Palestinian ‘activists’ often make a point of emphasising the large number of Palestinian deaths in contrast to the relatively few Israelis killed in the conflict between the two nations; but one might say the same about Syria when compared with Gaza and the West Bank. Where was the placard-wielding self-righteousness about the gassing of children in Damascus last year? Indeed, most ‘anti-war’ protests were mobilised for the purpose of deterring any action to punish the dictator who had been starving Palestinian refugees in Damascus.

To those who say that one Israeli life equals the lives of 10 Palestinians – well perhaps that is true. But 10 dead Palestinians equals about 1,000 dead Syrians (or 10,000 dead Africans). A great deal of the ‘concern’ for Palestine appears not to really be about human life at all, but rather about the politics and making a fashionable gesture.

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Because transferred nationalism is tedious

Politics in Britain is often dull, and people are therefore inclined to project their desire for ‘struggle’ onto the seemingly exotic disputes of people in the developing world. Intellectuals and middle class students are especially prone to “wallowing before a healthy barbarism”, to paraphrase the French writer Pascal Bruckner. Some actually visit the scene of the cause that interests them: having spent several summers in Cuba I have witnessed at first hand the credulity of the revolutionary tourist. Initially full of idealism, they leave the country either utterly disillusioned or even more zealous – ideology acting as a powerful buffer against reality. Rather than see a complex society with progressive and regressive forces, the activist sees only black or white – tyranny or utopia, oppressor or victim.

Politics is shaped by temperament as much as by material circumstance, and there are in every society a small number of people who are unable to get out of bed in the morning if it isn’t for the existence of some cause that is greater than themselves. “A map of the world that doesn’t include Utopia is not worth even glancing at”, as Oscar Wilde put it. For the past 30 years this has meant throwing one’s lot in with movements overseas, including organisations like the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) or states like Israel. Most non-political people are for obvious reasons relatively immune from this sort of thing, but it’s important to recognise the symptoms the next time you see a middle-class student from Hertfordshire wearing a keffiyeh and gesticulating about ‘Zionism’.

What you are saying has been said before

If a straightforward solution to the conflict in Israel and Palestine were obvious then we wouldn’t be where we are today. However that doesn’t stop a great deal of pontificating about ‘What X needs to no to end the conflict with X’ – or more annoyingly, ‘Why I think X about X, and why it matters’.

Now you might be the genius who can finally crack it, but I think it’s fairly safe to assume you probably aren’t.

There is a naive but widespread assumption here that the conflict is ‘key’ to unlocking peace and harmony right across the Middle East. Oh really? Because that seems just a tad simplistic, to put it generously. As a friend sarcastically remarked: “Sunni and Shia, Kurd and Persian and Arab, despot, democrat and Islamist, will all have just been waiting for Israel-Palestine to be solved before sitting down and settling their differences over a nice cup of tea”.

Some try to lend force and originality to their arguments by prefacing them with a disclaimer that ties them to one side or the other, usually the side which they are opposing. So a condemnation of Israel will begin with the words ‘speaking as a Jew’, as if this gives the opinion greater force. Really though, there is very little reason to believe it should.

Read more:
Why doesn't the media ever mention the lack of progress in the Middle East?
When both Palestinians and Israelis think we are biased, we must be doing something right
Why I'm on the brink of burning my Israeli passport  

There really is something to be said for both sides

Not in the parochial way that Nigel Farage foolishly believes Vladimir Putin to be no worse than Barack Obama, but in the sense that both sides have legitimate grievances. Building settlements on stolen land is an affront to Palestinian self-determination, but then the virulent anti-Semitism of Hamas is also a threat to Israel. The Israeli incursion into Gaza may be disproportionate, but there is no country in the world that would tolerate the firing of rockets at its major cities.

Don’t fall, either, for the naive assumption that Islamist anti-Semitism is in some sense the by-product of the Israeli occupation. Racism and bigotry should never be credited with a ‘why’. Jew-hatred is pathological, and as should be quite obvious, it long predates the existence of the state of Israel. An old left-wing slogan used to have it that ‘fascism means war’. What ever happened to that? This is as true today as it ever was. Get over the idea that fascism is restricted to white men flinging their arms in the air and shouting ‘sieg heil’. Fascists can have brown faces too.

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