Rage to the left of me. Outrage to the right. Here I am.
I rarely comment on the situation in Israel for so many reasons. This post is not about my position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is about how I’m more often than not, too scared to voice it. For fear of being shouted down by either and both sides.
Last time I wrote anything remotely linked to the Middle East and the conflict that simply won’t end, it was about a small Israeli theatre and dance company show being cancelled in Edinburgh after pro-Palestinian groups protested.
The hypocrisy and singling out of Israel for this kind of boycotting to the point of danger so it meant cancellation (or as I saw it, caving to the threat of violence) was what pushed me to write about it with great sadness sitting in a heavy heart. Sadness for the silencing of artistic voices who did not deserve to bear punishment for actions of their government. Just as Palestinian civilians don’t deserve to bear punishment for their government, who act violently upon clear and self declared terrorist motives.
There is no place for the middle ground in this conflict. There is no time for a moderate opinion, one that sees the treatment of Palestinian people in Gaza and says that both the Israeli government and Hamas should be doing better than this for everyone’s sake. The middle ground sees a shared responsibility. But historically, these two groups of people share nothing but the fight. The centrist view sees that we are too deeply into a decades long conflict to take any individual incident in isolation or to try and unpick the threads that have led to this tangled mess. Every action is a reaction to something and so often it goes all the way back to what is seen as the beginning in 1948. But to ignore the historical context of the forming of the state of Israel is irresponsible and a disservice to the Jews who were systematically slaughtered between 1939 and 1945. The forming of the state of Israel was not the beginning, the extreme antisemitism leading to the highly organised extermination of Jews was. It is the height of hypocrisy to call for human rights action while ignoring what Israel started as – one of the largest havens in history after one of the worst atrocities, so terrible it gained its own word; holocaust.
To ignore the many offers of peace deals that were rejected is to rewrite history. But to ignore the suffering of people who have a governing body that runs on terror and corruption is to deny reality and avoid our own collective moral compass. To fall back on the holocaust as a reason why we cannot do better today is a disservice to ourselves and to the memory of those who perished. But we should not forget either. To forget is to erase and to erase gives way to real danger.
There is no space to find the balance of those huge things. There is no space for squaring past inflicted inhumanity with finding humanity now. There is no space to see that Israel as a country must protect the lives of its people but that the Palestinian civilian lives are just as worthy of protection. A life is a life is a life.
When online expression is one of the most frequently used and public forms of communication, it is hard to imagine that there might not be space for something. But I am too afraid to post about my sadness when there are deaths on both sides. I am nervous to express my frustration at organisations who gloss over Israel’s responsibility to constantly reassess the measure of its response to potential and enacted threats, while simultaneously expressing my frustration with groups who support terrorist activities and deny documented history, while also wanting to express my sadness and frustration that there are people who feel so desperate, living in an environment so toxic that they resort to acts of terror, so immersed in this ideology of hate that they are convinced it is worth sacrificing their own lives in attacks that result in their suicide. There’s more of course. Bigger feelings, sadder statements on both sides and there is no sentence long enough to encompass them all. So uncharacteristically, I shut up.
My thoughts are tangled and sometimes it feels like there is not enough space in my head nor out of it to express a compassionate but uncompromisingly honest middle ground. Certainly not one that anyone who takes a firm one side or the other position will hear. Sometimes I struggle to hear it because it goes round and round and on and on and the thoughts circle but do not land anywhere except they keep trying to do the impossible and be on both sides.
There is no room made for those who want to shine a light onto both sides and bring both sets of agendas and operations out of the shadows and into that light. There is legitimate fear. There is death. But there is no meeting in the middle.
In an extreme situation, only extreme opinions are welcome. You’re either for or against, there is no in between so get off that fence. To show moderation is weakness. I find when I do talk about this, I’m always taking the other side to the person I’m speaking to because if they’re further along the scale in one direction than I am, I feel compelled to point out the other side. There are staunchly pro-Israel people who would describe me as a Palestinian sympathiser and ally. There are fully Palestinian supporters who would describe me as their enemy. I feel I am neither and perhaps I am both. I am not on the fence for there is no fence. I am in no man’s land.
I don’t post my moderation because when I see others bravely try, it only elicits shouting from both sides, incendiary comments and inflammatory statements. Of course there is some support but mostly it descends into heels dug in, insults and a shut down on hearing the other side.
I hear of people with their bags packed waiting to see if they’ll have to leave the UK because they don’t feel safe here. Where will they go? To Israel, where they’ll feel safer and will be accepted. Jews fleeing for safety was the very reason for which the state of Israel was built after all. I see people declaring how no one understands Israel and we should not judge what we do not know. I see all Jews being branded as murderers for believing in the right of the state of Israel to exist because of what happened to their grandparents or Torah or a whole bunch of other reasons. I see this branding from the same people who claim they’re definitely not anti-Semitic, just anti-Israel. For every point one side can make the other side has 7 statements that start with “Yes but what about….” and this goes both ways because the conflict is long and messy and tangled and you cannot untie it. You cannot undo it. It is too late for that, when so much has been done. I see people over simplifying to the point of absurdity. If it were simple would we, the world, not have fixed it by now? We will not and cannot know the full story for it extends backwards and forwards in time, on and on and on and we are not there. We do not know.
People wait to hear what will happen. The question hangs in the air – will the Jews align to condemn or condone Israel? The feeling I get from outside the community is that we’re all somehow responsible, somehow united. But are we? The expectation is that one Jew with one opinion will speak for us all but how can that ever be true? Have we learned nothing from the division on our own turf with our own politics? Outside the Jewish community it feels as if you can only be accepted as a Jew if you renounce ties to Israel and condemn everything they do. Inside the community it sometimes feels as if you’re branded a traitor or self-hater if you don’t support Israel’s every move. Typically, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. And at the same time as wondering how I could be deemed physically responsible for this, I do feel part of that collective moral responsibility. There is no way to win for the moderate, thinking Jew.
When you stand in the middle of such a conflict and look both ways it is hard to find hope. There is fury and there is fear. Righteous indignation runs through the veins of both groups of people whose lives are lived against the backdrop of a living volcano made from layers of human lava. There are beacons of compassion in some organisations and people who work with people on the ground to build community bridges but it seems to me that this will not be fixed from the bottom up and those at the top are so far removed they can’t hear us. We cannot control what either side does. We cannot control what a country such as America does, when they choose to stoke the fire and feed the flames.
I do not post about this much because I feel like I will never know enough to feel confident putting something out for the world to see. It is too hard to unpack and write coherently all the conflicting feelings I have and try to justify them all. I can turn it over and over and over in my mind but I cannot fix it. My opinions, my feelings do nothing and leave me feeling impotent and ignorant and wrong whichever way I turn because there’s always the other side. I have no impact on a conflict a continent away. My prayers for peace are not heard and no one cares what I think really anyway. It is hubris to suggest otherwise. This is not to say that one should do nothing, rather that I do not know what is to be done.
My younger brother is in the Israeli army and I can’t decide what scares me more – the fact that he will face terrorist groups or the fact that he will hold a gun that he is trained to use while he does it.
This Spectator article says some of what I wanted to say about the cancellation of the Incubator (an Israeli theatre company) show The City at the Edinburgh Fringe. I disagree with some of it – the fact that the article dismisses the show as being automatically rubbish because it’s a hip-hop opera is potentially a flippant joke, but is actually a fairly idiotic comment. The genre of the show is irrelevant and so is the writer’s taste in theatre. The content of the show is relevant though. The show does not appear to be incendiary in any way. It’s not about the conflict. At least, I don’t think it is.
One of the many sad things here is that the company didn’t get the chance to perform their show once. They should have been judged, like all art, on the basis of merit and quality. Not on the fact that they come from a country that happens to be in the middle of a cyclical and on-going conflict. Further to that, it sets an unnerving precedent for other groups who enjoy a good protest. Oh, the EDL don’t like a show with mixed races in? Quick, stage a big enough protest and venues like the Underbelly will cancel the show. That’s not what the arts are about.
There are people on both sides suffering. But what’s reported is how many are dying. A friend of mine asked me recently in a heated and interesting conversation we were having if I wanted the Palestinian people to succeed in killing more Israelis and by proxy more Jews. She asked if that’s what I would prefer to the Israelis killing Palestinians. Perhaps I should be horrified but having thought about that, part of me wants to say yes. Because then the world would take note. If the planned Rosh Hashana attack had gone ahead, if the tunnels were successful and the death toll on the Israeli side rose, the world might not see Israel as terrorists. I don’t agree with the scale of the attack or with all of the decisions of the Israeli government, but the terrorism does not come from the side of Israel. That is the wrong word to use.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski said about China:
“Broadly targeting an entire religious or ethnic community in response to the actions of a few only increases the potential for violent extremism.”
He said it about China, but it applies here and it applies both ways. It applies to Israel’s treatment of Gaza and it applies to the way the world is treating Israelis and starting to treat Jews.
I don’t believe every Palestinian person is a terrorist bomber or rocket builder or launcher. I don’t believe every single one of them is evil. I do believe they live in a state of fear between the rock of Israel and the hard place of Hamas. I do believe that your average run of the mill Palestinian person is terrified because they face being dead if they do and dead if they don’t.
In their shoes, I’d probably decide that Israel was the less terrifying enemy too, and choose to fight them and here’s why:
Israel, eventually, will stop. There’s the possibility that if you stand there holding your child they won’t kill you. That’s why they keep using the children as human shields.
Hamas does not seem to show that kind of mercy so it makes a weird kind of sense to ally with them because although they are less powerful, if you fight them they probably won’t turn around and let you live. They may be less powerful but they’re more dangerous. What a horrible and terrifying choice to have to make. To allow your children to be brought up in a culture of hate and violence but to have no real way out aside from death.
But this has no bearing on a hip-hop opera from an Israeli, government funded theatre company. Incidentally, if the theatre group were from Gaza and funded by Hamas, an actual terrorist organisation posing as a political party governing Gaza, they wouldn’t have cancelled the show because there wouldn’t have even been a protest.
To the venue and protestors: You should be ashamed. Because you’ve taken a rare opportunity to allow something positive to come out of a country that has been at war and rather than embrace it, you’ve destroyed it. You’ve prevented something good coming out of that Israeli government money you hate so much and at the next budget meeting, perhaps that money won’t go into art, because they’ll see it as wasted. Perhaps next time, that money will go into weapons. How short sighted you are. Rather than protecting the art, standing by your choices as a venue, you caved instantly. Giving in to hate is never the answer. There appears to be no hate in this show. The art itself is not controversial. But you’ve shied away from the controversy that is political and that cannot be what art is. Surely that is where art should have the strength and support to stand up, to be seen and heard? Israel is not entirely defined by this conflict and it shouldn’t have to be. By destroying this art, you’re forcing a country and all its people into a box that is defined only by war.
Plus who are you all kidding? When a government gives grants to shows in the arts we don’t then give that money back to the government. It goes into developing more art. It’s not as if the ticket sales money is going straight into building another tank. And anyway, it’s the EDINBURGH FRINGE – you’ve basically created another dimension if you come out with any money at all, let alone a profit.
Qatar is a country that still has slavery and we’re holding the World Cup there. I don’t see any borderline violent protests about that causing them to change that decision or cancel the World Cup. And I think an entire culture of slavery where hundreds of people die from being over worked is worth protesting about. Where’s the big scene outside World Cup HQ? Anyone? Anything? No. Of course not.
The fifty arts figures who signed the petition to stop the show should also be ashamed and check to see if they’ve done that for the countries mentioned in the Spectator article I’ve posted at the beginning of this. I strongly suspect they haven’t. Never mind that this theatre group advocates peace and dialogue; they’re Israeli so they must be silenced and stopped. A better protest would be to not buy a ticket or to see it first and then decide whether it’s offensive to have it on. A better way for the Underbelly to respond would be to offer free tickets to the protestors and give them the opportunity to decide whether the show was offensive or not, again, based on the show itself not on where the people are from.
For some reason people don’t approach this conflict with moderation in their opinions. The extreme supporters on both sides, littering my Facebook wall and twitter feed, don’t allow there to be people from Israel who are just people or people from Gaza who are just people. The extreme supporters on both sides refer to the other as animals. None of them are animals. Don’t ever forget that.
In my first fringe, some years ago, I sat through a play at the fringe with genuine antisemitism in it. I felt uncomfortable sitting in the room and I would have left had I not managed to get my leg stuck and had it not been pouring outside. That play ran all the way through the fringe. I complained to the venue that it made me feel unsafe because of the violence of the antisemitism, the feeling in the audience that seemed to be supportive, and the way it was expressed. A wise representative said it’s part of the play and that art should explore things that make us uncomfortable. The theatre is a safe environment within which we can and should look at the parts of the world, at parts of ourselves and humanity that we don’t want to admit to or face.
By cancelling this show the message is that Israeli artists are not welcome here. The theatre is not a safe place for them because of where they are from, regardless of their message. I highly doubt the show will find another venue. No one will want to touch them. That show won’t be seen in Edinburgh.
The overspill and blurring of lines between attacking Israel and attacking Jews is starting to crop up and is being reported: The signs going up around Europe that Jews aren’t allowed in shops and cafes. The Belgian doctor refusing to treat a Jewish patient. You know, in Israel the Israeli doctors do not discriminate about who they treat? And you know that many of those doctors are Jewish? They treat Palestinian and Israeli and Arab and Jewish and Muslim and French and Belgian and English and Scottish and Chinese patients alike.
Is the hip-hop opera being cancelled in Edinburgh the same as what’s growing in Europe? I’m not sure. I’m very reluctant to cry antisemitism, but the interchanging of “Jewish” and “Israeli” is starting to look very much like that and, as a Jew who is not Israeli, I find that terrifying. Do not punish me for the actions of people on another continent. My actions are not the same as theirs and yes, I am Jewish and some of them are Jewish, but if you gave me a gun I wouldn’t know what to do with it. I would be afraid of pulling the trigger, assuming I knew how to take off the safety lock. If you put me in a tank, I’d sit there, useless and probably cry. I thought, naïvely perhaps, that we had moved past this system of judgment.
It is one of the saddest starts to the Edinburgh Fringe I have ever experienced. And I would be sad wherever the company were from. I might actually be sadder if the theatre group had been Palestinian and cancelled because it would probably mean that Jews who support Israel had been protesting and I don’t want Jewish people to be responsible for the death of expression. I don’t want Jewish people to be responsible for the death of anyone.