It's no wonder why the latest protest against Israel's separation wall has gone awry

When emotion rules, every fool thinks that he is holy. Knowledge is a sort of sacrilege

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The Independent Online

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Nothing beats a biblical admonishment. “Judge not, that ye be not judged”, the Gospel according to St Matthew. “The simple inherit folly: but the prudent are crowned with knowledge”, Proverbs. “For we are but of yesterday and know nothing”, the Book of Job. “You need to shut the fuck up”, Penn and Teller.

In this age of immoderate opinion unhampered by knowledge, we could do with a few more exhortations to quiet. “The rest is silence,” said Hamlet finally. Even the wordiest of men know there’s a time to button it. Whereof one cannot speak, etc. In fact, that sentence doesn’t quite mean what it seems to mean and it wasn’t Jesus or Hamlet or even Penn and Teller who delivered it. It’s actually the concluding sentence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a work whose title alone scares me off. I find understanding Eric Cantona hard enough.

I once gave a character in a novel my inability to get past the same point in any work of philosophy, that moment when seeing is suddenly occluded and you know you can go no further. Page 14, paragraph 3, it always is. I can best describe the experience as believing you are talking to a sane man only to discover, in the opposite to a flash of light – an explosion of obscurity, let’s call it – that you have all along been talking to a blithering idiot, though I accept that the blithering idiot is probably me. Upset by my bemusement, a distinguished Oxford philosopher kindly began a correspondence with me in the hope of removing this recurring obstacle to my comprehension. 

Lucid letter followed lucid letter. Yes, yes, I saw it. Thanks to him, the word “epistemological” was no longer a problem. The term “logical positivism” neither. Another fortnight of this, I thought, and I’d be reading Heidegger for light relief. But then, in what turned out to be his final letter, came page 14, paragraph 3, and I was hurled once more into the Stygian night.

All this is but a prologue to my admitting that I don’t grasp what philosophical problem concerning language and reality the sentence “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” addresses – but I am going to employ it, anyway, against those who don’t know their arses from their elbows and ought to shut the fuck up. 

Am I thinking of anyone in particular? Well yes, although it is invidious to choose a fool from among so many, yes, actually, I am. And it is not a single fool but a whole troupe of them. Fools by profession, whose folly takes the form of political intervention. You will have guessed that the fools in question are the Spanish clowns who stripped off in front of the separation wall in Bethlehem the other day, to demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinian cause, only to discover that they had thereby enraged the very people they had thought to help. “Disrespectful”, “stupid” and “disgusting” was how Palestinians described their actions. And of no value whatsoever in their struggle against Israel. Every struggle has its dignity.

To be clear, I abhor the separation wall. It is an eyesore in itself and makes tangible the failed diplomacy and cruel short-sightedness that causes such misery in the region. No Palestinian can see that wall and not wonder if the Israelis mean it to stay there for ever, a constant reminder of what they never intend to change. I have been to Bethlehem and breathed the poisoned air. Build that wall and you might as well expunge all hope.

That the wall has done the job for which, in no small part, it was intended, cannot be denied. Fewer bombs now go off in the cafés of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. This is not a negligible consideration. Viewed utilitarianly, it justifies its construction. But when hatred festers in human hearts, no edifice of brick or steel will subdue it. What the wall prevents other means will be found to enable. So the infernal logic continues. Hate, bomb, wall, hate, and anyone’s guess what happens next.

What makes the Israeli Palestinian conflict tragic, Amos Oz has long argued, is that it pits right against right. More recently he has spoken darkly of wrong against wrong. Either way, as he describes it, Israelis and Palestinians are partnered in intransigence and despondency. It is, in the end, irrelevant and meddlesome – and so far has been of little assistance to anyone – to apportion sympathy or blame. Whoever would effect change must act in full possession of what makes this tragic situation tragic. And to be in full possession of a tragedy is to understand what has before happened and been decreed, what immemorial fears and bloody histories motivate the actors, on what wheels of fire they are bound, how all participants explain justice and injustice to themselves. And should heed Othello’s plea to Lodovico: “Nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice.”

Naked of knowledge and imagination, and mouthing banalities – “When you stand before this shameful fence all humanity is naked” – the Spanish clowns rushed in, buoyed by their own conceit. Were ever fools more ludicrous in their folly, or solipsists more the victim of their own unenquiring solipsism? That they knew so little of Palestinian culture as to be unaware what might constitute gross indecency to a religious people only shows how little they knew – and how little they thought they were obliged to know – of the place in which they’d made their intervention. We can guess how much they knew, or cared to know, of Israeli culture. 

They are not alone. When emotion rules, every fool thinks that he is holy. And knowledge? Why, knowledge is a sort of sacrilege. Who needs it, anyway, when you can pick up what to feel from any foul rag-and-bone shop of hand-me-down convictions, put on a clown’s nose and drop your pants. Though we are but of yesterday and know nothing, we will not let ignorance stop our mouths. 

Whereof one cannot speak, yet one will.