I wanted to write a post this week defending the legitimacy of the Zionist project but I quickly realised that with this conflict, most of the arguments have already been made.
Just as some people are right-handed and some left, everybody seems to have an inbuilt bias on the Middle East dispute.
People with no interest in politics whatsoever nevertheless reserve a space in their hearts for either the Jews or the Arabs of the near-east, rarely both. They may have never met a Jew or an Arab in their lives, but they still fight for ‘their’ side with all the determination of a brother coming to the aid of a brother.
If you think about it, this is actually quite strange. It certainly isn’t the case with other conflicts. When the Sinhalese and the Tamils fight each other in Sri Lanka, a majority of people require an explanation as to who the Sinhalese and Tamils are before the reasons behind the conflict themselves are elucidated. Some might even need an index finger on a map to show them where Sri Lanka is.
Why is Israel and Palestine different? One reason could be religion.
I grew up in a religious household and remember going to Sunday-school each week where I read the Bible with the teachers. The word ‘Israel’ was familiar to me long before I knew anything political, as were Jews, Syrians, Egyptians, Lebanese Cedar trees and the concept of the promised land. When I become politically aware and learned about Zionism, I already had a basic grasp of the actors and religious stakes involved.
Most Westerners (or at least Christian Westerners) therefore are bound to see the conflict as an interesting one. The same I imagine is true of Muslims, who are taught from an early age about Mohammads alleged journey to Jerusalem as well as more explicitly about the politics of Palestine.
Another reason of course is race. The Jews are a subject of unending fascination for Europeans, who can’t quite fathom whether to adore or despise them. In America too, the Jewish people are both liked and disliked but rarely ignored.
Anything involving Jews therefore tends to attract scrutiny.
Reflecting this interest, the Middle East conflict has inspired passionate and important political books on both sides of the debate. On the Pro-Israel side there are volumes like “The Case for Israel”, “From Time Immemorial”, and “Shackled Warrior”. On the anti-Israel side, there is “Beyond Chutzpah”, “Fateful Triangle” and “The Gun and the Olive Branch”.
Some of these books have become classics of political writing and their authors are looked to as intellectual sages not just on the Middle East but World Politics more broadly.
But for me, the strongest political argument for Israel arises naturally from an examination of the realities on the ground.
Israel as a country can easily deceive people. It looks so Western and sophisticated, so calm and cosmopolitan that it’s scarcely believable to think that in a coastal strip just to its south, there is a nightmare territory of illiteracy, genital mutilation, veiling and stoning to death.
Just a mile from beachfront Israeli coffee shops, in which young Jewish women and young Jewish men drink Cappuccino and chat about sport, literature and fashion, there are other women, forbidden to leave the crumbling houses of men they were forced to marry as children, and whose children dance on the unpaved streets outside praising suicide bombing.
These are not, as if often claimed, ‘two different cultures’. These are two different stages of cultural development. One is in the 21st century, and the other in the 13th.
In Israeli cafes, a heated argument might break out over which marks the greater artistic leap forward, “The Bends” or “OK Computer” (the answer incidentally is the latter). In a Gaza shack, a brawl might ensue over whether music (of any kind) should be punishable by fine or amputation.
It pays to remind oneself every so often just how weird this contrast is. Imagine Denmark sharing a border with Afghanistan. Switzerland with Pakistan. Tokyo with Darfur.
And yet – knowing all this – how does the West, so comfortable in its own version of the 21st century, react?
It gathers both sides together and shouts “Make a deal!…”, and then reacts with feigned surprise when nothing comes of it.
I suppose this isn’t strictly-speaking ‘betrayal’. Israel is not in Europe. It’s more a simple kind of hypocrisy, as well as a motivated failure to comprehend an obvious truth; that the age of mutilation, dogma, and suicide bombing cannot be reconciled with the world of fashion, irony and relaxed society. They are not equal and – more importantly – they are not equally valuable. This simple, cartoonish contrast may prove to be the strongest argument for Israel, even after all the academic head-scratching and moral grandstanding has fallen away.
If you wish to defend the West from Islamisation, and modernity from barbarism, you must be a supporter of the Jewish State and defend what it represents. It is a border of the civilised world and an armed front against its darkest enemies. The Jews are a talented, humane and indispensable race and their state should reflect this in security, prosperity and size.
These are the vital arguments. So if you’re asked again to choose between modernity and barbarism, or whatever else you might wish to call the same choice, ‘Civilization or madness’, ‘Israel or Palestine’…. don’t think too deeply about it. Despite the weighty books, complicated theorems and wars of interpretation, honesty alone should lead you to the century you belong in.