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January 28, 2009

Israel, Gaza and criticisms and controversy in the UK

Israel and the Middle-East are emotive issues and the question of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is no exception. The BBC has prevented the broadcast of humanitarian appeals for funds for Gaza on the basis that it needs to preserve its “neutrality" as a trusted international broadcaster, a stand that has led to further political controversy. The trouble is that there does not seem to be any “neutral" position to occupy when it comes to civilian deaths and humanitarian aid to Gaza. The BBC has found this to its cost. Its decision is seen to be pro-Israeli rather than neutral, as the veteran labour-party politician Tony Benn argued on BBC news just a few days ago. During the conflict itself, Sir Gerard Kaufman, Labour MP for Manchester Gorton gave a critical and challenging speech in the House of Commons comparing Israel’s policy towards civilian deaths as typical of “Nazi behavior". What was his argument and how has it been evaluated?

Kaufman has been consistently critical of Israel over the years but he is also well-informed of conditions in Israel and Palestine. Kaufman was careful to present his credentials as someone brought up “as an Orthodox Jew and Zionist" and as coming from an immigrant family whose grandmother was shot in bed by a Nazis soldier. He cannot be accused of anti-Semitic behavior though clearly he is not pro-Zionist or at least not uncritically pro-Zionism. This has not saved him from being called a “self-hating Jew", an accusation that would seem, given his record on humanitarian issues, grossly unfair. In the speech he flourished his contact with the Israeli establishment (“Golda Meir was my friend") and used his own family’s experience to reject Israeli policy towards civil deaths in robust and indeed startling language: “My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza. The current Israeli Government ruthlessly and cynically exploits the continuing guilt among gentiles over the slaughter of Jews in the holocaust for their murder of Palestinian. The implication is that Jewish lives are precious, but the lives of Palestinians do not count". This quote more than any other has rattled pro-Israeli groups. Kaufman is no stranger to controversy and has held for many years to the fact that peace needs justice for the Palestinian and willingness to compromise on the part of Israel. He also turns personal family history against Tzipi Livni (Israel’s foreign minister) who has stated that she will not enter into discussion with Hamas. Livni’s father was engaged in terrorism against the British. Kaufman is concerned about peace and quotes Abba Eban’s words: “You make peace by talking to your enemies.".

The speech has promoted controversial discussion and Kaufman has been covered in abuse and not only by the Israeli right. An Israeli spokesperson pointed to the fact that many of the soldiers who were fighting had lost family members in the holocaust but they saw the need to defend themselves. Others responses, taken from various web sites around the world, compare Hamas to the Nazis and pointed out that Hamas used civilians to hide behind. Kaufman was careful to point out that Hamas “is a deeply nasty organization" though he stopped short of calling them fascist, as many in Israel see it. Others dismissed the idea that the Holocaust has anything to do with Israel attitudes and that Kaufman’s speech was the worst form of historical revisionism. The country was simply responding to the missiles coming from Hamas militants. Even if Israel got it wrong, its supporters argue, it warned civilians of intended strikes in an effort to reduce civilian deaths. Kaufman, on the other hand, insists that Hamas grows in a soil that Israel fertilizes by its everyday treatment of Palestinians. So many civil deaths may intimidate but at the same time such a large number of deaths and the destruction associated with them will only enrich the soil on which Hamas grows. Humanitarian aiud is not only good in itself but it can change the political climate as well.

The philosophy of “an eye for an eye" (an aspect but not the sole aspect of the notion of righteousness) suggests proportionality in violent response and it does seem to many people that Israel has been disproportionate in this respect. Israel has the right to defend itself but the size of the civilian deaths and the unintended consequences of military action has exposed it to high levels of criticism and moral outrage of which Kaufman’s speech, is one of the loudest and most startling. 15, 000 people have complained the BBC about its decision not to broadcast the Disasters Emergency Committee’s appeal for aid to civilians in Gaza. Discussion, according to the New York Times, has been heated with staff in the BBC divided on the issue. Criticism of the BBC's stand has come from all sections of society and on Monday 26th January masses of demonstrators took to the streets in protest. The BBC today has decided to set up a committee of its Governing Body to investigate the complaints.

January 8, 2009

Wrocław (Poland) and the past in the present.

We can live life in the presence of the past or reject it and start again, as the revolutionary Thomas Payne argued in the late 18th century. The religious reformers who destroyed the Lady Chapels in England in 1548, roughly two centuries prior, chose to rub out the past and destroy with hammers elaborate gothic ornamentation, in passionate acts that subsequent ages would think of as little short of vandalism. The United States of America has been characterized, by Gore Vidal , as the “United States of Amnesia". The Vietnam War is practically unknown to the present generation of college students. World War II is even more remote. The same is not true for European memories of WWII. The European Union was born out of the desire, in the aftermath of the second war, for a peaceful continent. Berlin is still coming to terms, in the sphere of public commemoration, with the fate of its Jewish citizens under the Nazis regime. In Eastern Europe, where borders were disrupted and populations moved the past and the present weave together into the very fabric of life, particularly in the city of Wroclaw, a significant city in modern-day Poland but a city with a complex past. How then does the city cope with the relationship between the present and a Polish past with a "gap", of six hundred years when the city itself was under, in turn, Austrian, Prussian and German rule?

The first generations of Polish school children in Wroclaw were told: “ we were here, we are here and we will be here in the future". Roughly 30% of that Polish population came from Lwow and other Eastern cities now in Ukraine. Wroclaw had been devastated by wartime damage and the urgent need was to re-develop and restore. In the early days, German cemeteries were covered over and built upon. There are still buildings with bullet marks from the fighting that took place between Nazi regime troops, who held out to the last, and the advancing Russian army, though the city is largely restored. Breslau (the former name of Wroclaw) was the last of the significant German cities to surrender.

Such a negative approach to the past was not sustainable. The decision to restore the city’s architectural heritage as accurately as possible implied a different kind of relationship with its history though it took time, and democracy, for the implications to be worked out. Why deny, say, that the German Kaiser attended the opening ceremony of what is now called the Grunwaldzki Bridge? The city in the late 19th century and early 20th century was largely German in origin but with significant minorities of Poles and a commercially active and significant Jewish community, brutally eliminated by Nazi racial policy. This past has been acknowledged in the restoration of the 19th century Jewish, cemetery now maintained as part of the city’s museum. The Nazi period is critically explored in the sinister but compelling detective stories of Marek Krajewski , avidly read, not only by people in Wroclaw but also, in translation, by an international audience. The past to be acknowledged is complex and far from easy. A recently published guide to the city by the publishing house Via Nova compares restored areas of the present day city of Wroclaw with matched postcard images of Breslau. A detailed history by Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse (2002), a work produced in collaboration with many informants/residents knowledgeable about the city, and given political backing, set out the city’s complex and often dark history. Sensitivities have changed helped by the courageous decision of progressive political leadership in the city. Rather than denying the past, it is now acknowledged and even cautiously celebrated. German tourists, for example, are now a significant part of the tourist trade.

On New Year’s Eve I attended a concert given by the City Orchestra. Central to the concert was the performance of four tenors from the Ukraine. The well-blended tenor voices sang many popular pieces from the classical repertoire but they also sang, with great gusto, a popular Polish song, in Polish, about the beauties of Lwow. Think of it: Ukrainian performers singing a Polish sentimental song about a city that is now in the Ukraine. The irony was not lost on at least some of the more discerning in the audience. The presentation was of great nostalgic significance for an aging audience and became the subject of the enthusiastically received encore. That is all that it was, nostalgia. There may have been a few extreme nationalists, for they do exist, in the audience but for the vast majority this nostalgia was not part of any political program, simply a romanticization of personal memory. It could not have happened outside of Wroclaw’s reputation as city with a sensitive approach to the past. The past is there, but recognized, acknowledged, domesticated, tamed, open for reflection but neither suppressed nor denied. Simple amnesia, so often encountered in the United States, is not an option. Democratic political leadership in Wroclaw has created a good basis for a healthy society.