Latest posts on Christian Aid

Why 'Christian Hate?'? An introduction to the blog

Places Christians shouldn't go A quick tour of Christian Hate?'s case against Christian Aid

Christians and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Read all my posts on this topic

Friday, June 29, 2007

Policemen, PMs, etc.

I don't know about you, but I'm intending to make the most of the Brown years. Say what you will about the man, he has the outstanding virtue of being (significantly) older than Grumpy, whereas it's a pretty safe bet that his successor (from whichever party) won't be. Long may he reign.

Another little victory against the onward march of Time: there is still a board game in which humans have got computers licked. Rather humbling for chess fanatics like me, though, to see our game (with a mere 30-odd moves to choose from) relegated to a status marginally above noughts and crosses.

Mossad strikes in London...

...with a perfectly timed diversion from the Katsav scandal. This can surely be no coincidence - plainly, a man who knew far too much.

Mr Grumpy: bringing you the best conspiracy theories before the news breaks.

(technical note: this will appear in ironic typeface, if your browser supports it - if not, please use your imagination)

Friday, June 22, 2007

Straight from the horse's mouth

OK. Cyrus, you're always banging on about how the security barrier saves lives. How can you be so sure?

Maybe because Hamas tell me so.

Totally sickening

Latest news from the Most Evil Country In The World.

Socialist Workers Party spokesperson Deirdre Spart, Professor of Moral Gymnastics at the University of Bognor Regis, said 'we in the SWP and Respect are totally committed to the struggle against this sickening homophobia which is so typical of fascist Israel, and we'll be out in force at next year's Pride march in Gaza'.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The innocence of remembering: Norman Finkelstein on Jan Gross’s Neighbors

Note: this article is ‘one I made earlier’, and I’m posting it now because it has become topical in the light of the row over Norman Finkelstein being refused tenure by DePaul University (a round-up of debate on this topic can be found here). The impulse to write it came not from any wish to do a Finkelstein piece as such, but from my sense of shock at the disjuncture between a book I had read and the way Finkelstein reviewed it. I don’t know (though I have my suspicions) whether the review is typical of his output; I do know that if it is, DePaul’s decision is amply justified on purely academic grounds – which should be the only ones that count. Scholars don’t have to be nice people, they don’t have to have nice opinions and they don’t have to argue in a nice way. They can, however, be expected to have arguments that consist of more than character assassination and abuse.


Jedwabne is a small town in Poland. In 1941 it had around 3000 inhabitants of whom roughly half were Catholic Poles and half Jews. A few days after German troops entered the Soviet-occupied half of Poland in which Jedwabne was located, members of the Polish population drove the town’s Jews into the town square, herded them into a nearby barn, and set the barn alight. One man managed to escape from the barn; a dozen or so people had fled from the town and hidden in the surrounding countryside; a few, by a grotesque irony, saved themselves by taking refuge with the German police; seven were hidden by a Polish farmer’s wife for the rest of the war. The remainder of the town’s Jewish population perished. The perpetrators were plainly aware that the German authorities would not object to their action, but the evidence shows overwhelmingly that they were acting on their own initiative, and not on German orders. The town’s Catholic priest turned away the Jews who appealed to him for help, and did nothing.

This is a synopsis of a little book which I read recently, entitled ‘Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland’, by Jan Tomasz Gross (Princeton, 2001). (A review by George Steiner in the Guardian gives a fuller account)

My emotional response to this tale may be taken as read. Indeed, it is hard to conceive that more than one response could be possible. Such, nevertheless, is the case. When I had finished the book I googled it out of curiosity, and came across a review by one Norman Finkelstein. This is, to put it mildly, a remarkable document, and it is worth examining it closely for what it reveals about its author.

Finkelstein is an important figure among people interested in knowing ‘how far they can go’ in their anti-Zionism without convicting themselves of anti-Semitism. He provides them with a benchmark which reassures them that they can in fact go rather a long way. For is he not at once a serious scholar, a man of the Left, and the Jewish son of Holocaust survivors? What he says, they can say too, with confidence that they can lean on his authority to help them rebut the charge of anti-Semitism.

Let us note first that Finkelstein’s piece was published in a Polish newspaper, and recall that Poland is a country in which the history of the German occupation and the country’s relationship to the Holocaust is still a matter for fierce controversy. Were the Poles purely victims of aggression, or were they also collaborators in genocide? I found some clear signs of the level of denial surrounding these issues when I was on holiday in Cracow in 2005. For instance, the Polish-authored Dorling Kindersley guidebook to the city contains an entry on nearby Auschwitz which, astonishingly, makes no explicit mention of the Jews. Clearly this state of affairs ought to impose a responsibility on any outsider who contributes to the debate via the Polish media.

How, then, does Finkelstein live up to this responsibility? One thing becomes clear in the first couple of sentences. He is very, very angry with Jan Gross. In fact, it’s hard not to conclude that he’s far angrier with Gross than with the perpetrators of genocide in Jedwabne. Without having a single criticism to make of the book’s factual accuracy, he sets out to discredit its author. After six paragraphs of denunciation of Gross, Finkelstein finally makes a grudging acknowledgment that he has told a true story and that it needed to be told:-

‘It seems, however, that Poles haven't come to grips with their "Jewish question" and Gross did unearth some new material. The shock and sensation which Gross's book evoked in Poland suggests that Poles have been in denial about ugly aspects of their past. Thus, however incomplete and ideologically tainted, Neighbors has the potential of stimulating a useful and necessary debate in Poland.’

So why the anger, and what are the ideological taints in a book that came across to me as a sober factual account based solidly on eyewitness testimony?

Happy endings

Here by way of a curtain-raiser is one sample of Finkelstein’s vitriol:-

‘Absurd formulations also dot the pages of Neighbors. Gross maintains that Holocaust survivor testimony casts Jewish suffering in a too positive light. "It is all skewed evidence, biased in one direction: these are all stories with a happy ending. They have all been produced by a few who were lucky enough to survive." (10) This is laughable. Do the testimonies of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi brim with joy?’

Sorry, Norman, but I don’t get the joke. Of course Gross is not seeking to deny that the testimonies of Holocaust survivors are unbearably grim. His chilling and anything but absurd point is that the typical experience of the non-surviving majority must have been still worse.

Jedwabne, Rwanda and the singularity of the Holocaust

Finkelstein takes great exception to Gross’s contention that Jedwabne is ‘at its core, a mystery’, seeing this as typifying the ‘dogma’ of Holocaust literature that ‘the Holocaust marks a categorically unique historical event’. ‘In Jedwabne, up to 1,600 Jews were slaughtered by their Christian neighbors. In Rwanda, more than 500,000 Tutsis were slaughtered by their Hutu neighbors. Rwanda, however, is comprehensible: it's not The Holocaust’, he retorts.

To take the body counts first, if we really wanted to make a point by playing the numbers game it would have to be the opposite one from that which Finkelstein seeks to imply. As I have already noted, the 1,600 were virtually the entire Jewish population of the little town of Jedwabne. Proportionally speaking it was much worse than Rwanda – or even than the Holocaust as a whole.

Does Gross say that Rwanda is comprehensible? No, not altogether unsurprisingly for a book about something that happened in Poland in 1941, he doesn’t mention Rwanda at all. I assume he would not in any case consider himself qualified to write about it. To decide how comprehensible or incomprehensible the 1994 genocide was would require a level of knowledge of Central African history and culture which, I suspect, is restricted to a rather small circle of scholars. The little knowledge I have suggests that there is a history of endemic violence between Hutus and Tutsis, and that in the past the Hutus were oppressed and exploited by the physically stronger Tutsis. If this is correct it in no way excuses the genocide, but it does make the relevance to Jedwabne and its comprehensibility all the more questionable. We certainly need more scholarly studies of the Rwandan genocide, and perhaps Finkelstein is even now working on one. There again, perhaps Rwanda only interests him for as long as he can make a cheap debating point out of it.

This, incidentally, is just one instance of Finkelstein’s proficiency in the ‘What about…?’ debating tactic. This involves dragging in a completely unrelated issue, asserting a spurious moral equivalence and using it to make an accusation of double standards. Thus in Finkelstein’s peroration What About Vietnam? becomes the basis for accusing Gross of moral cowardice. Gross’s discussion of Poles who successively served Nazism and Stalinism with equal alacrity provokes from Finkelstein an admonishment to consider ‘his own colleagues at New York University like Professor Tony Judt who moved from fashionable leftism to fashionable anti-Communism as the winds shifted in American cultural life’. Anti-Communism being plainly a point of view which no honourable person could conceivably embrace.

Jan Gross and the Holocaust Industry

Norman Finkelstein enjoyed a succès de scandale with his book The Holocaust Industry. I haven’t read much of it, and this article should make it clear why I have little confidence in what I have read. Not that I suppose that there is no truth to be found in it. Jews, being human, are not all saints, and it would be surprising if there were not some who had exploited their victim status. Some of those in respect of whom compensation claims have arisen were, after all, very rich indeed.

But in the Jedwabne article we see to what dark places Finkelstein’s preoccupation with this aspect of human frailty has brought him. ‘Tragically, the outcome of Poland's soul-searching will likely be a revival of the ugliest anti-Semitic stereotypes’ he writes with breathtaking disingenuousness before launching into a lengthy tirade against the Holocaust Industry, which, he warns his Polish readers, is plotting claims that will bankrupt their country.

What relevance does this have to Neighbors, exactly? To answer that question we must consider who Jan Gross is as well as what he writes. Gross is a Jew. More than that, a Polish Jew. More even that, a Polish Jew who left his native country in 1969, in the wake of a Jew-baiting campaign run by the Communist regime under the cover of ‘anti-Zionism’, and settled in America. This seems sufficient to make him a highly suspicious character in Finkelstein’s eyes before he writes a word.

And, far from being on his best behaviour, see what he does: ‘a chapter of Neighbors is devoted to "Who took over the property?"’, and this constitutes ‘elevation of this question to a "big subject"’.

The chapter in question is one of seventeen, not counting the Introduction and the Postscript. In the German translation which I read it consists of three and a half pages of text, which probably equates to rather less than three in the English original. So much for the ‘big subject’. Gross does little more here than document the evidence that the ringleaders of the massacre subsequently helped themselves to the victims’ property, and suggest that this is likely to have been a motivating factor – although there were certainly no vast fortunes involved, indeed nothing, apparently, of greater value than the victims’ modest homes.

At this point Finkelstein grabs the opportunity to catch Gross out in a contradiction: he has called the massacre a mystery, and now here he is ascribing it to something as banal as greed. As if there were no difference between coveting one’s neighbour’s possessions and putting into practice a plan to appropriate them by murdering him in cold blood. In fact the real contradiction is on Finkelstein’s side. On the one hand he wants to suggest that this motivation is so obvious that it scarcely merits a mention at all. On the other hand he seeks to deny that there is any legitimate basis for a claim for restitution of property. So which part of ‘if stuff was stolen it ought to be given back’ does Finkelstein have a problem with?

In his opening paragraph Finkelstein states ‘Neighbors bears the unmistakable imprint of the Holocaust industry. By Holocaust industry, I mean those individuals and institutions exploiting the Jewish genocide during World War II for political and financial gain.’ What exactly is he saying here? That Gross expects to profit personally from compensation claims brought on behalf of the tiny handful of Jedwabne survivors, their relations or relations of the victims? The insinuation is scarcely mistakable, though Finkelstein is canny enough to insure himself against litigation by the insertion of the word ‘political’.

The entire substance of his charge against Gross may be tabulated quite simply:

  1. There are Jews planning inflated compensation claims against Poland.

  2. Gross is a Jew who has written a book about Jews who were murdered by Poles.

  3. Gross has suggested that the murderers helped themselves to their victims’ property.

  4. Gross has written elsewhere about the need to make symbolic restitution (not the same as compensation) of Jewish victims’ property.

  5. Therefore Gross is part of the conspiracy to make ruinous compensation claims against Poland.

Yes, that really is all there is. No shred of evidence that Gross has sinister connections; nothing more except malevolent bluster. Shared Jewishness is sufficient to establish the link that proves a conspiracy. Finkelstein’s animosity towards Neighbors seems to me capable of making only one kind of sense: the position he has arrived at is that Jews have forfeited the moral right to commemorate or even document the events of the Holocaust. There is no space in which they can do so innocently. There are victims, for sure, but the moment they break their silence they compromise their victimhood and become either active participants in the Holocaust Industry or, at best, its dupes.

Finkelstein cannot, of course, be held responsible for the use others make of his views. But it should surprise nobody to discover that they are highly congenial not just to sundry right-wing Polish nationalists, but also to those for whom Holocaust history is still further ‘tainted’ by being entirely fictional.

Gone away

On one section of Neighbors Finkelstein maintains an eloquent silence. At the end of the book are twenty five pages of photographs. First we see Antonina Wyrzykowska, with three of the seven Jews whose lives she saved by hiding them on her farm until the end of the war. The remainder of the photographs portray some of those who were herded into the barn. There are just four exceptions, where the captions note laconically ‘went to Palestine’.

Who can look at these faces and assert that anyone’s desire not to have them around should have taken priority over their need for a place of refuge – that they should have stayed in Jedwabne and helped keep Palestine judenrein? Can Norman Finkelstein say so? Normally so eloquent about the evils of Zionism (another of his moral equivalences likens Israeli soldiers engaged in a conflict with armed militants to the murderers of Jedwabne), he evidently prefers not to answer the question when it is put in this starkly human manner. All the more reason, then, for him to rage against the author who poses it.


I am not Jewish, and my parents enjoyed relatively secure middle-class childhoods in wartime England. Do my views on these matters therefore lack a certain authenticity compared with those of Norman Finkelstein? I am less interested in the claims of identity politics here than, simply, in those of our shared humanity, which has never been more radically denied than it was by the Holocaust, Jedwabne’s ‘little’ Holocaust included. The demands that shared humanity makes are no respecters of persons, so let us speak plainly. If you consistently hate Jews more than you hate anybody else you are anti-Semitic, even if you are a Jew. If you compulsively denigrate those who testify to the realities of the Holocaust, you are ideologically and morally first cousin to the Holocaust deniers, even if you are the child of Holocaust survivors.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Déjà Vu

Here we go again. I can only hope the ill wind blows Denmark some good - there can surely only be so many countries these people can be enraged with at any one time.

Howard Jacobson on the academic boycott

'My point, anyway, is simply this: few nations make a good job of winning even when the victory is, as one might say, clean. But when the war never finishes, when those with whom you thought you had made peace transmute into your enemies in another guise, and when they are more ruthless in their ideology and methods than any state dare ever be, it should surprise no one if terrible injustices ensue. We saw what happened in London when bombs went off in the underground; we saw our police force lose its nerve and an entirely innocent man shot dead. Now multiply that by a hundred and conceive it happening every day. And nobody is threatening to drive us into the sea.

'Imagining how the Six Day War might have turned out had the Arabs not so quickly lost it might be futile now but it wasn't futile at the time. One cannot overestimate the sense of foreboding felt by Jews around the world, and indeed by Gentiles not yet poisoned by prejudice and propaganda, in the weeks before the war was fought. Relief is a word one hears again and again in documentaries about the war, relief felt by even the most battle-hardened soldiers that a war which might so easily and catastrophically have gone against them was won. If this relief was extreme and gave rise, in some instances, to extreme policies, that was because the fear had been extreme. No one offering to have an opinion about Israel dare discount this fear. You do not, if you are Jewish, have a short memory. And if you are Jewish and Israeli catastrophe exists in a continuum that encompasses both past and future. Yesterday's victory is only yesterday's victory. Tomorrow can easily bring defeat. Never mind the size of your armoury. Someone else will always get a bigger one. That this logic will not make you an easy or relaxed adversary hardly needs saying. Continuous war and fear of war must make wary and suspicious even the kindest of hearts. Considering this unceasing agitation and dread, it strikes me as miraculous how many of the civic arts of civilisation and culture have managed to flourish in modern Israel.

'What, like the wall dividing Israel from the West Bank? Well, we are strange about walls. As walls go this one certainly isn't the prettiest. If it is still there in a thousand years time, as I sincerely hope it isn't, our offspring will not visit it on aesthetic grounds as we visit what is left of Hadrian's Wall or the Great Wall of China, but it serves an identically practical purpose, which is to keep out enemies. Never mind that Palestinians are not barbarous tribes from somewhere else, bent on invasion. As long as they come into Israel primed as human bombs, that is how they will be viewed.

'They are, of course, in their own eyes, justified in blowing up any bus they can climb aboard. Violence does not come out of a clear blue sky; and, however complex the causes of their suffering, the Palestinians have as much reason to be bitter as any people on the planet. But to understand the motives of a suicide bomber and not the motives of those who seek to keep him out is to understand nothing. In the present climate, however, it is almost impossible to make the case that some of Israel's most detested actions (I do not say all) are themselves responses to provocations. At a certain stage the pieces are pushed from the table. Israel can make no legitimate response to a provocation because Israel is not itself legitimate. This, too, is a change from the Left's earlier position. Israel was not considered illegitimate when it fought the Six Day War. Nor is it held to be illegitimate in those UN resolutions it is frequently called upon to honour. The illegitimacy of Israel is a rabbit pulled out of the hat. A defeated, diminished or depleted Israel would have posed no problem of legitimacy. We could have visited its remains in sorrow, as we visit Auschwitz. Israel only became illegal when it did not go away.'

Read it all.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

An argument against Islamophobia

Better late than never department...

If there's one thing that could raise Ed Husain higher in my estimation than when I first wrote about him, it's seeing him achieve the distinction of being patronized by Maddy of the Sorrows:-

'One of the book's shortcomings is its failure to acknowledge that just as Husain has been on a dramatic journey, so have some of the UK's different expressions of Islamism.

'It is as if, just as Husain once swallowed large chunks of Hizb ut-Tahrir propaganda, he now seems to have swallowed undigested the prevailing critique of British Muslims. He has no truck with the idea of Islamophobia, which he dismisses as the squeal of an Islamist leadership pleading special favours; he criticises Asian racism and castigates Muslims "who go back home to get married" and produce "another generation confused about home". On issues such as segregation, he is confident it is the fault of multiculturalism.

'One suspects the naivety which took him into Hizb-ut Tahrir has blinded him as to how his story will be used to buttress positions hostile to many things he holds dear - his own faith and racial tolerance, for example. A glance at the blog response to a Husain piece in the Telegraph reveals how rightwing racism and anti-Islamic sentiment are feasting on his testimony.'

He means well, poor chap, but why, oh why couldn't he have just kept quiet? Or if he really had to tell his story, couldn't he have let someone with a bit of political nous ghost-write it for him - our Maddy, for instance? And why does he have to let evil Tony Blair off the hook by retreating into apolitical Sufism? Doesn't he know how many cuddly varieties of Islamism there are for him to choose from?

Maddy doesn't let us into the secret of which the OK 'expressions of Islamism' are, but I rather suspect she may be among those who see Tariq Ramadan as a paradigmatic figure. In which case it smacks more than a little of asking somebody who's just bailed out of a neo-Nazi paramilitary group why he doesn't sign up with a good, solid, reputable organization like the BNP.

As for the charge of inflaming Islamophobia, well, of course confirmed racists will register only what confirms their prejudices. But for those of us who fear some 'expressions of Islamism' because we have good reason to fear them (yes, Maddy, really), Husain's courage, integrity and humanity, combined with his continued devotion to his faith, constitute an argument against Islamophobia of the best possible kind.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Lost in translation

Since I must surely by now qualify as a Learned Elder honoris causa, I'm pleased to note evidence that the plans for world dominion are bearing fruit. For instance, someone recently tasked Google with translating one of my posts into Portuguese. I can only hope that the result made some kind of sense, but since the translator was stumped by words ranging from 'Holy' to 'rot' I'm not too sanguine.

Or if you prefer...

Desde que eu devo certamente por agora qualificar como um causa instruído dos honoris da pessoa idosa, eu sou satisfeito anotar a evidência que as plantas para o dominion do mundo são fruta do rolamento. Por exemplo, alguém tasked recentemente Google com traduzir um de meus bornes no português. Eu posso somente esperar que o resultado faça algum tipo do sentido, mas desde que o tradutor era stumped pelas palavras que variam de “Holy” ao “rot” que eu não sou demasiado sanguine.

I suspect that 'rolamento' means 'bearing' as in 'ball-bearing'. Human translators aren't going to be out of work for a while yet, are they?

On the poisoning of wells: the Accompaniment Programme comes to church (part 2)

(part 1 is here)

4. The poisoning of the wells

One of our Accompaniers told us that Jewish settlers poison the Palestinians' wells. Now this was a charge that caught me off balance. I could only suspend judgment until I got home and was able to do a bit of research. Because I certainly don't dispute that some of the most extreme elements in Israeli society are to be found among the settlers, and that racial hatred, religious bigotry and a propensity for violence are not far to seek. But when I did my googling what I found made this look to me like the epitome of what is wrong with the 'advocacy' of EAPPI and their like.

First, a word on the media. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be one of the most intensively reported in history. There are more foreign correspondents based in Israel than in the whole of Africa. Many of these reporters are only too ready to believe and write up anything that is to Israel's discredit. Sometimes they report crimes that never happened: the Jenin 'massacre' in 2002, or the use of depleted uranium shells in the war in Lebanon last year (found to be an unfounded claim by the UN Environment Programme, but the London Independent, which had made the allegation in a cover story, never published a correction). Sometimes crimes are attributed to the settlers before they have been investigated. When a thirteen-year-old Palestinian boy was found stabbed to death near Nablus in July 2005, the story that he had been killed by settler youths winged its way around the world. The following day the Palestinian police made an arrest, and it emerged that the boy had been the victim of a family feud. Some media outlets which had carried the original accusation published a correction, most did not (my source is again this German document - see p.5).

So the point of this detour is that, if there is hard evidence of anything as supremely discreditable to the settlers as the poisoning of wells, it's not likely to have any trouble finding its way into the international news media.

What then, did my googling yield?

A BBC report from April 2005 says:-

'In July 2004, Israeli police said they suspected Jewish settlers were responsible for poisoning a Palestinian well in the same area [i.e. near Hebron].'

In October 2004 Aljazeera, not exactly the most unbiased source, reported:-

'In addition to terrorising olive farmers, Jewish settlers are increasingly resorting to a worrying tactic: poisoning Palestinian water sources.'

That 'increasingly' looks like a good Aljazeeraism, since what the report goes on to describe is a series of attacks on one village well:-

'On Monday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Jewish settlers had poisoned a major well near Nablus, which supplies drinking water to a local Palestinian village.

'Sources said Palestinian villagers at the small hamlet of Madama have of late started to have liver problems as a result of drinking contaminated water.

'The well was targeted by settlers on several occasions, who sneaked in at night to throw used nappies and dead animals into the water.

'Every time local residents, with the help of the British charity Oxfam, took preventive action, the settlers succeeded in removing the concrete covering and poisoning the well water.'

I haven't been able to find the Ha'aretz report - the paper doesn't seem to keep an on-line archive. Here, however, is an article which quotes a July 2004 Ha'aretz article as saying:-

'Last week settlers poisoned a well at Atawana, in the southern Mount Hebron region, and the police are investigating.'

So this is clearly the same case as referred to by the BBC.

A USA Today article from 2001 refers to a case of well poisoning. It also has a correction stating that:-

'In early 2004, a team of journalists found strong evidence that [the author] former reporter Jack Kelley fabricated substantial portions of at least eight major stories and lifted nearly two dozen quotes or other material from competing publications'.

To summarize: in 2004 two village wells were allegedly poisoned, one of them repeatedly. Settlers were considered the prime suspects but this had not been proved. There was a third case in 2001 - according to a clearly untrustworthy source.

The methods alleged to have been used are not sophisticated - dead animals and dirty nappies - and there is no evidence of anyone having died from poisoning. I make these points not because I want to trivialize a serious crime, but because to refer to well-poisoning without qualification is to conjure up a picture of something potentially much worse than what actually occurred.

And since 2004 no cases have been reported.

Numerous references to the Madama and Atawana (or At-Tuwani) cases can be found in pro-Palestinian/anti-Israeli partisan websites. These range from Christian Peacemaker Teams (another group which believes it contributes to 'peace' by demonizing one side and whitewashing the other), through to sickeningly anti-Semitic Holocaust denial sites. On none of these sites, however, did I find any specific cases referred to other than these two.

I checked sites ranging from Amnesty International to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Not a shred of evidence for a systematic campaign of well-poisoning.

Our speaker could have told us, 'On two or three occasions a very small number of settlers have apparently poisoned Palestinian wells', and that would have been acceptable. 'The settlers are poisoning Palestinian wells' - which is what the audience at the presentation were led to understand - is not. It's essentially no different from 'the Palestinians are terrorists' - the language of prejudice.

And this particular prejudice matters not only because it's untrue, but because there is a special reason why those Holocaust deniers prick up their ears when they hear poisoned wells mentioned.

'For three hellish years (1348-50) Jewish comunities all over Europe were torn to pieces by a populace crazed by the plague [the Black Death] which, before it ended, carried off one third of the population. Bewildered by the plague's ravages people looked for a cause. Before long the inevitable scapegoat was found. Who else but the archconspirator and poisoner, the Jew? This time, too, the weird formula for the well poisonings - elicited by torture - was discosed: a concoction of lizards, spiders, frogs, human hearts, and, to be sure, sacred hosts. The story that Jews in Spain had circulated the death-dealing drug to poison the wells of all Christendom spread like wildfire. It was first believed in Southern France, where the entire population of a town was burned. From there the trail led into Northern Spain, then to Switzerland, into Bavaria, up the Rhine, into eastern Germany, and to Belgium, Poland and Austria.'


'It is impossible to determine the extent of Jewish casualties during these years. In all, over 200 Jewish communities, large and small, were destroyed. [...] One may imagine the scope of the tragedy by the 10,000 casualties reported in Poland, where they were comparatively light. Well over 10,000 were killed in Erfurt, Mainz and Breslau alone.'

(Fr. Edward H. Flannery, The Agony of the Jews, (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1985) pp. 109-110)

That was a long time ago. This is not. In a 2003 article in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, the head of a London-based Palestinian group attributes an outbreak of typhoid in Acre during the 1948 war to the poisoning of the water supply by the 'Zionists'. The article has the trappings of a serious investigation, but in reality the thought process at work has not changed in the slightest over six and a half centuries: an outbreak of disease, a need for a scapegoat, a hatred of Jews that makes them the perfect candidates for that role. Nor is Mr Abu-Sitta content to leave it at this. At the end of the article he enumerates no less than 20 diseases inflicted on the Palestinians between 1950 and 1990 by the archconspirators and poisoners.

In the same vein, the Israelis have been accused of deliberately spreading AIDS among the Palestinians. A year ago a speech by an advisor to President Ahmadinejad of Iran referred to the mediaeval well-poisoning accusations as a prelude to hinting at Jewish responsibility for AIDS, SARS and bird flu (as well as denying the Holocaust):-

'"Historically, there are many accusations against the Jews. For example, it was said that they were the source for such deadly diseases as the plague and typhus. This is because the Jews are very filthy people. For a time people also said that they poisoned water wells belonging to Christians and thus killed them," Ramin said.'

Let me be clear. We didn't hear any of this from our Accompanier. But what we did hear was suggestive of someone who has drunk all too deeply from the poisoned well of anti-Zionist rhetoric. After the poisoned wells, it was not surprising to hear that a sinister Lobby is behind American support for Israel (heaven forbid that democratic politicians should want to support the one functioning democracy in the Middle East as a matter of principle!) and that an 'anti-Semitism club' is used to silence all criticism of Israel (German 'Antisemitismuskeule': the fact that this is now a stock expression - nearly 10,000 hits on Google - tells its own worrying story). Actually, the only club being swung in church was the one used to silence a woman from our neighbouring German Lutheran church, who tried to protest against the one-sidedness of the presentation. A Palestinian man who had come along with the speakers interrupted her before she could finish her first sentence.

To change my metaphor: I've mapped out a No Man's Land bounded on the one side by a world in which real dead chickens are fished out of a real village well, and extremism and hatred provoke real people on both sides of a bitter conflict into committing real evil deeds, but bounded on the other side by the ravings of pure racist paranoia. In this wilderness our Accompanier and many others like him seem to have no fence to stop them from drifting towards the wrong side, and they show all too little awareness of the need to build one.

Who told him about the poisoned wells? What did he do with the information? Did it ring any warning bells for him? Did he ask any awkward questions - where, when, how, who? Or did it fit too neatly with his existing prejudices to be challenged, as I fear will have been the case with some of those who heard it from him in church on Pentecost Sunday?

PS I'm grateful to Israeli blogger Snoopy the Goon for pointing out to me that the origins of the well-poisoning very likely lie in a misinterpretation of the Jewish religious ritual Tashlich, which is inspired by Micah 7:19 - 'You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea'.

(part 3 in preparation)

On the poisoning of the wells: the Accompaniment Programme comes to church (part 1)

On Pentecost Sunday the two members of my church who have participated in the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel gave a presentation on church (I've already posted my reaction to their written statements). Let's not beat about the bush: I wasn't expecting a balanced account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I didn't get one. Indeed these two idealistic people seem to have convinced themselves that presenting one-sided propaganda is a positive moral imperative for them - but more of that later.

I'll begin by dealing relatively briefly with three fairly predictable manifestations of propaganda, before going on to a more detailed examination of one which took me aback.

1. The security barrier

Photographs of the barrier looking ugly and menacing (though not quite as ugly as the scene of a suicide bombing), maps showing how far it strays from the Green Line, descriptions of the hardships it inflicts on Palestinian farmers. Not a word about its life-saving function from the Israeli perspective. Or only very indirectly: figures for Israeli and Palestinian fatalities in 2006 were compared in order to make the point that Israeli use of force is disproportionate - not, of course, to make the point that the barrier has been remarkably successful in reducing what would otherwise have been a far higher toll of Israeli civilian lives. Lest we forget, the last suicide bomber to make a successful entry into Israel crossed the barrier-free border with Jordan.

Clearly the barrier is not the best thing since sliced bread. I would like nothing better than to see simultaneous commitments by Palestinian militant groups to stop sending suicide bombers into Israel and by the Israeli government to pull down the barrier. What was said about the barrier was not wrong, but it was only half of the story. And to the extent that the half of the story which concerns Israeli civilian lives is considered too unimportant to mention, I feel I am being told something not very attractive about what the self-styled peace movement understands by 'peace'.

2. Whose racism?

We heard about racist Jews in Israel, but not that Hamas is an organization with an overtly anti-Semitic ideology.

It's not as if EAPPI haven't had direct experience of the bigotry of some Palestinians. Last year, when the 'Mohammed cartoons' affair blew up, their Danish volunteers had to be sent home for their own safety, and even now, although there are several Norwegian and Swedish accompaniers, there are no Danes. But the only bigotry we heard about in church was Jewish bigotry.

3. Whose refugees?

We were told about the Palestinians expelled from Israel in 1948, but not about the similar number of Jews ethnically cleansed from the rest of the Middle East. Still less was a significant difference between the two cases pointed out: whereas today there are over a million Arabs living in Israel - those who chose to stay put in 1948 and were not expelled, plus their descendants - the Arab nations are by now virtually judenfrei. A loaded word, that last one, and not to be used lightly, but surely a salutary one for those who feel free to liken the Israelis to the Nazis. And perhaps especially salutary for Germans who feel free to liken the Israelis to the Nazis - to whom I commend this link.

Since so many on the Left acclaim Hezbollah as a resistance movement, it should be recalled that the small Jewish community which hung on in Lebanon until the 1980s was then helped on its way by a spate of kidnappings and murders conducted by that very same Hezbollah.

And what was it that took me by surprise? Find out in Part 2...

The incumbency of violence

'About his father, Tariq Ramadan writes, in a passage that has been translated less than gracefully: "Often, he spoke of the determination in his commitment, at all moments, against colonialism and injustice and for the sake of Islam. This determination was though never a sanction for violence, for he rejected violence just as he rejected the idea of an 'Islamic revolution.'" The rejection of an "Islamic revolution" in this context means the rejection of armed uprisings or coups in favor of the slower, more cautious, yet still militant proceedings of the Muslim Brotherhood. Violence does not offer the road to success, from this point of view. But the passage continues. The time frame is evidently the late 1940s:

'The only exception was Palestine. On this, the message of al-Banna was clear.
Armed resistance was incumbent so that the plans of the terrorists of Irgun and
of all Zionist colonizers would be faced up to. He had learnt from Hassan
al-Banna, as he said it one day: "to put one's forehead on the ground." The real
meaning of prayer being giving strength, in humility, to the meaning of an
entire life.

'So there is an exception. It is violence against Zionists--against the plans of all Zionists and not just the Zionist extreme right wing, the Irgun (who were in fact terrorists, just as al-Banna says). But the peculiar note in that passage emanates from a single word, "incumbent"--a word suggesting that anti-Zionist violence is obligatory. A duty, not just a tactic. Moreover, a duty linked with prayer, forehead on the ground. A duty that gives meaning to an entire life. A religious duty.

'That is a heartbreaking passage. The entire tragedy of the Palestinian people can be found in statements such as this one--the ideological dogma that has led so many Palestinians to look on violence as a principle, therefore as something that can never be abandoned. If only the Palestinian national movement had been able to look on violence as merely a tactic, the movement's leaders, and not just a handful of freethinkers and pragmatists, might have noticed after a while that, realistically speaking, violent tactics were proving to be counterproductive and ought to be exchanged for better tactics--perhaps something that might actually succeed in building a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel, as could very likely have happened years ago. But if violence is obligatory, if it is "incumbent" on the partisans of al-Banna's Islamic renewal, if violence is an obligation that (as al-Banna observes) distinguishes anti-Zionist struggles from all other struggles against colonialism and injustice, well, there can be no question of surrendering a principle, regardless of the practical cost. And so it has been, in the history of the Palestinian movement; and the cost has been terrible, to the Palestinians above all.'

- from an article on Tariq Ramadan, currently perhaps the most prominent western Muslim 'public intellectual', by Paul Berman in the New Republic (n.b. Hassan al-Banna, founding father of the Muslim Brotherhood, was Ramadan's grandfather). It's a long, wide-ranging and thoughtful piece, critical but by no means a crude hatchet job (and in fact more critical of some of Ramadan's non-Muslim admirers than of the man himself). Worth spending an hour or two on (hat tip: Mick Hartley).

By the way, the surprising and very disappointing contribution of Timothy Garton Ash to the trahison des clercs has also been noted by yours truly.

A digression before I get to the quoted passage. I'm very much with Berman in rejecting soggy multiculturalist relativism. Where I can't go along with him is in his rather triumphalist identification of universal values with a post-Enlightenment liberalism which consistently frames morality in terms of individual rights alone. To take one example: I naturally have no difficulty in agreeing with Berman that stoning as a punishment for adultery (or for anything else) is barbaric, and that no quarter should be given to Ramadan or anyone else who equivocates on this point. But I suspect that in arriving at this point of view Berman (and, doubtless, the average TNR reader) has one big advantage over a devout Muslim: he doesn't, ultimately, think adultery is such a big deal. Obviously I don't mean this on a personal level - Berman is very likely a devoted husband who would be devastated to discover that his wife had been playing away. But the point is that for the liberal adultery is, precisely, a private, personal issue, a lifestyle choice. The notion that it might have such consequences for the wider community as to merit punishment simply doesn't have even a marginal place in this discourse. However much it may, for example, devastate children's lives, adultery remains part of the individual's right to sexual self-determination.

So I think it's worth saying that for Christians a cosy accommodation with this position is as much a betrayal of the gospel as an accommodation with Muslim stone-throwers would be. For it must be clear that this is not at all the sense of Christ's intervention to save the woman taken in adultery from stoning (John 8, 1-11). Her judges are challenged to strip off the veneer of hypocritical self-righteousness and confront their own shortcomings. But the woman remains a sinner called to repentance and in need of forgiveness - 'go thy ways and sin no more'. Jesus does not patronize her by trivializing her sin; rather, through forgiveness, he opens up for her the liberation of repentance.

End of digression. I've exerpted a passage which cuts to the heart of what left-liberal opinion believes it knows about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - the myth through which every piece of news is filtered. There is an original sin committed by the Israelis in 1948/67, and there are Palestinian reactions to what has been done to them. Thus the violence of the suicide bomber expresses 'despair' over oppression. And so the greater the violence, the greater the despair must be, and thus the greater the Israelis' offence. The bad things Israelis do show how bad they are, and the bad things Palestinians do show how bad the Israelis are.

It never seems necessary to explain why other oppressed peoples do not resort to this method of expressing despair. Or is it, quite simply, that nobody else is oppressed as the Palestinians are? Nor what young men from Bradford are despairing about when they blow themselves up on the London Underground, or Sunni Arab Iraqis when they self-destruct in Shi'ite market-places. How, exactly, does the overthrow of a dictator and his replacement by an elected government make life no longer worth living?

Once we see terrorism as the product of an ideology, and one, moreover, which was in process of formation years before 1948, things become simultaneously intellectually clearer and morally more complex. For within this ideology the grievances created by the ethnic cleansing of 1948 and the occupation of 1967 are not the heart of the matter, however useful they are for propagandist purposes. The primary, non-negotiable, grievance is the presence on part of Islam's patch - no matter how small a part - of Jews who refuse to play the subordinate role which Islam traditionally allots to them.

Add to this an obligation to rectify the situation by violence, and the logical consequence is to make it entirely predictable that a full Israeli evacuation from the Occupied Territories and a right of return for the 1948 refugees would lead to more violence, not less. Just as the withdrawals from Gaza and South Lebanon brought fresh attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah in their train.

This is not to say that there are no genuine grievances created by ethnic cleansing and occupation. Of course there are, and so long as they are not redressed they act as recruiting sergeants for the terror groups. The point is that the Islamist ideology, with its core grievance, is an actor in its own right, and that there can be no peace worthy of the name that does not involve its defeat. Not unless you are prepared to attach the label 'peace' to the aftermath of the wiping of Israel off the map.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

All jews together

'All jews together in a cosy little nest,makes you feel good yeah?'

- the comment posted by someone identifying himself as Mr Barnett of Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, on an article in the Times by Irwin Stelzer supporting President Bush's choice of Bob Zoellick to head the World Bank. At the time of posting it has disappeared, but it was up for at least a couple of hours earlier in the day. Methinks somebody in the comment moderation department needs a little extra training in recognizing racist morons.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Of brass monkeys and boycotts

Two scenes from the annual conference of the University and College Union...

1. UK profs reject plan to spy on students

The government thinks academics should keep an eye open for students who may be drifting towards terrorist groups. Nothing doing, says conference.

'Critics said the plan unfairly singled out Muslims for surveillance and threatened free speech and academic freedom.'

Even if a lecturer catches a student watching bomb-making videos in the college library the three brass monkeys approach is mandatory...

'"Lecturers want to teach students," said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the union. "If they wanted to police them, they would have joined the force."'

So presumably if Ms Hunt was being assaulted by a student she wouldn't expect any lecturers to come to her assistance.

What's more...

'"You want them to be radical. That's the whole point: universities are where you encourage people to think outside the box."'

... says union spokesman Dan Ashley, in whose case our presumption must be that the more students sign up with the British National Party the happier he is. Or is that by any chance the wrong kind of radicalism?

What's particularly inane about this soundbite is that 'thinking outside the box' is not only a mindless managementspeak cliché, and as such an instance of not thinking outside the box, but also the precise opposite of the reality of most student radicalism. For a student radical such as I was some time towards the end of the Wars of the Roses, it's about finding a small, snug box where all the thinking has been done for you and where you can shelter from the terrifyingly large and open-ended box which is the university. I don't believe for a moment that the appeal of Islamist groups today is any different; the difference lies in their ability to act as ideological conveyor belts leading towards the groups where you really do learn about making bombs.

2. Boycott motion passes at UCU conference

'UCU conference just passed a motion to support the campaign for an academic boycott of Israel.'

Clearly, no danger at all that this will threaten free speech and academic freedom, or that Jewish students will feel unfairly singled out by the singling out of the Jewish state for demonisation.

Thank goodness the students are wiser than their teachers...

'Responding to today's University and College Union (UCU) boycott vote, NUS National President Gemma Tumelty said:

'“NUS does not support the principles behind an academic boycott of Israel. Such a boycott undermines the Israeli academics who support Palestinian rights, and hinders the building of bridges between Israelis and Palestinians. Retaining dialogue on all sides will be crucial in obtaining a lasting peace in the Middle East '

(from - and there's lots more at the Engage site)

Blair in Africa

'“Wealthy nations and Africa face a choice,” he said. “Our challenge is to support the good. Africa’s challenge is to eliminate the bad.”'

I couldn't have put it better myself, and I agree with the Times: whatever else one may want to say about Tony Blair, he has surely been a force for good in Africa.