First came the Arab spring (followed, in some lands, by the harshest of winters) and now Hamas and Fatah have signed a deal for unity. Naturally, Israel is as panicked as are Arab despots by the shifts and quakes, the shaking ground beneath their boots. Israel depended on an everlasting, adamantine status quo. Nothing will ever be as it has been. Successive Israeli governments and their global cheerleaders and backers across the world are guilty of crimes against the humanity and rights of the Palestinian people, they who were made to pay for the European Holocaust. Hitler's unspeakable annihilation project can't be laid to rest and shouldn't. But excruciating historical experiences do not entitle a nation to grab land, to humiliate, to destroy the livelihoods of others and to expect no censure; in effect to be above international law.
I am as pro-Palestinian as the next leftie and try to do my bit; to speak up against repressive Israeli policies and acts, which is never easy, as many of us have had to learn. We go to protests against the collective punishments meted out in Gaza and elsewhere in Palestine and on Arab citizens of Israel; others lobby influential people; the brave ones go on flotillas, and the less brave but committed refuse to buy Hass avocadoes and instead purchase olive oil from the West Bank. All of us need to stop and think, to use this moment of upheaval to scrutinise ourselves and our habituated responses to the Middle East.
For many years now, British and American Zionists have complained that progressives pick on Israel, expect higher standards from that government and most iniquitously, that any criticism of their land is in effect a lightly disguised and now approved expression of anti-Semitism. Using a combination of guilt, suggestion and aggression they have managed to, if not suppress, certainly inhibit fair and free debates on the Zionist nation. Think of it as global super injunction. The unreasonable, absolutist supporters of Israel include some crazies but are mostly highly educated, talented professionals and fierce advocates of free speech.These days they are heeded less and so are getting more strident. But what if some of their complaints are valid and justifiable? Do I dare think that, and then say it? And if I do, is that a betrayal of a righteous cause?
These thoughts have been spooling round and round in my head this last month. As Gaddafi systematically massacres his people and the country descends into civil war, as armies slaughter civilians in Yemen and Bahrain, now Syria, I ask why good people have focused only on Palestine/Israel for more than half a century and not attended to the brutality and oppression endemic in the Islamic states. Is it OK for dictators to do what they wish within their own borders to crush democratic demands? I think not, and strongly. No flotillas for their victims? One fact that is kept tightly sealed and buried is this: More Muslims are killed by their brethren in religious and power struggles than are killed by foreign powers and that, as far as I can ascertain is true even after the war on Iraq. It could be that some of the relentless focus on Israel does indeed rise out of a deep stream of anti-Semitism. It is also a useful displacement activity.
Last week I drove past the Syrian Embassy – where I know and like some individuals – and there were a handful of protesters outside, looking hopeless and pathetic. No massive demos pass outside the grand Saudi or Bahraini sites in London either while boys are being hanged in Bahrain for daring to dissent. Why the double standards? We have an obligation to judge all governments and rulers by the same universal values, to listen to Zionists who complain of unfair treatment and open our minds as we enter a new era in the Middle East.
Reading nuanced analyses by thoughtful Jewish thinkers has been illuminating. Change is in the air. On the website of the Union of Jewish Students you can find, for example, the text of a speech by Mike Davis at the Herzliya conference: "[the unfolding events] show that the world can change with alarming speed and that our basic assumptions can be overturned in the blink of an eye. They and the reactions of the West demonstrate the potency and very real nature of the security challenges faced by Israel at this juncture in history...". Davis goes on to tackle the "line between criticism of Israel and delegitimisation". "Not every criticism of Israel is delegitimisation. Not even every untrue or unfair criticism of Israel is delegitimisation. In fact, the link between 'criticism' and 'delegitimisation' is sometimes overstated, damaging the credibility of our responses ... If the Israeli government had internalised and prioritised the threats to its legitimacy then perhaps it would have understood the need to be seen to be doing everything possible to break the deadlock. We control the land. We hold the people. It is up to us. We need to accept that burden."
We Muslims need to accept our burdens too. Whilst still holding Israel to account, we must stop dumping blame on it for all Middle Eastern grievances. The same happened to South Africa under apartheid. It was necessary for the world to come together and help topple that loathsome, racist regime. What was never right was that the worst African dictators were allowed to get away with more violence and viciousness against their citizens while sounding off about evil South Africa. It's always the same. Humans easily excuse themselves and their own for foul acts they condemn in their enemies.
The mulishness and narrow-sightedness of the most unrelenting Zionists is today almost matched by the mulishness and narrow-sightedness of their unrelenting counterparts, anti-Zionist activists. I am not abandoning my total support for Palestinian nationhood and right of return, and here renew my vow to that cause. But that struggle is only one in the big fight for freedom in the Middle East. It is no longer morally justifiable for activists to target only Israel and either ignore or find excuses for corrupt, murderous Arab despots. That kind of selectivity discredits pro-Palestinian campaigners and dishonours the principles of equality and human rights. It has enabled hideous Arab ruling clans to carry on disgracefully for too long.