Social Theorist and Philosopher

The Holocaust and The Nakba

Chronicles from the West Bank

Much of the international community looks on in horror at the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and the increasing loss of Palestinian lives. The broad facts are not in doubt, however, what is hotly disputed is who is to blame. The facts on the ground are these: Hamas stormed from Gaza, a fenced-in enclave inhabited by around 2.3 million Palestinians, most of whom are descendants of refugees, into southern Israel on 7 October, killing about 1,200 people,1 mostly civilians, and taking approximately 240 hostages. In response, Israel has executed the most powerful bombing campaign in the 75-year-old history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as laying siege to parts of the West Bank, killing 11, 500 to date and rendering Gaza without the material resources to sustain the remaining life. Israel’s stated aim is the annihilation of Hamas; Hamas’ stated aim is the annihilation of Israel. 

Is Hamas, an alleged terrorist organisation with a genocidal Islamist ideology, to blame? Is it the Israeli government, and the Occupation, which has led to militant resistance by a Palestinian population fighting for its freedom? 

While this slaughter continues, binary narratives of good and evil are played out in simplistic form. The Jew is either a passive victim of centuries-long historical hatred, or he is a Zionist villain. The Palestinian is either a victim of geopolitics or an anti-Semite almost indistinguishable from Hamas. The social commentariat which over the years has become my “tribe,” in particular because of our shared critique of identity politics, has waded into the fray with their binary. Almost as one, commentators call for energies to be directed to a fight against anti-Semitism given a new lease of life by a powerful mix of Islamist ideology and identity politics. They reductively describe those who support or participate in the demonstrations as either Islamist Hamas defenders or hapless, “useful idiot” “lefties” who haven’t got a clue about geopolitics, much less history.

I’m afraid I have to disagree and distinguish my ethical position from the commentariat.

I lived in Bethlehem in the West Bank for three months in 2005. The inhabitants were still traumatised by the Israeli suppression of the Second Intifada or uprising against the Occupation. Bullet holes peppered the outside walls of the concrete houses of Aida Refugee Camp where I worked with women and children. The Separation Wall had just been built separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem. The old women still wore the keys around their necks to their family homes taken off them in 1948 and the creation of Israel, in the naïve hopes that one day the international community might broker a right of return. Life on the ground for the ordinary Palestinian was impotent for a whole variety of reasons. Let me give you one example. 

Just before I returned to the UK and the resumption of my academic career, I attended a small demonstration in a village that needed more folks from the surrounding area, including any stray visiting Westerners, to help swell its numbers for an organised protest against the theft of its land (the source of food and self-sufficiency). I found myself at the front of perhaps two or three hundred people. It was June and very hot in the Middle Eastern noon-day sun. Metal barriers policed by the IDF had been erected to prevent the protest from getting onto the land where bulldozers had reduced vast swathes of countryside to flattened sandy soil as far as the eye could see. Another swanky settlement would be built as well as a motorway that would link it to Israeli territory such that the settlement dwellers would never have to clap their eyes on Palestinian life. 

The soldiers’ faces were sweating under their military helmets. The swell of the crowd pressed me so close I could see the make of their guns, courtesy of the USA. The atmosphere was electric with the threat of violence. My thoughts were these: “I’m going to get killed”; “Do I want to leave this earth by being shot on foreign soil?”; and “Am I being recklessly irresponsible to my four children?” I took a calculated risk and decided to stay in my position. My Palestinian sisters and brothers needed a Westerner beside them—first, so I could bear witness and second, because the soldiers would be less likely to indiscriminately shoot, thereby creating an international incident. 

The soldier immediately in front of me was not much older than my youngest son, and he was possibly doing his obligatory National Service. A teenage boy to the left of me was not much younger than my son. He was picking up stones and lobbing them at the soldier. The soldier and I had an intense eye conversation where, to my mind at least, the cacophony of screaming fell silent. I told him that I understood he was suffering but trying hard not to “lose it.” I turned to the boy and pleaded with him to stop, and he obeyed. I turned back to the soldier. I told him I recognised him as a fellow human being, doing his best. He thanked me for stopping the stone-throwing. A moment of violence was averted, and human connection was achieved in the madness and terror.

By the time I left the West Bank in the summer of 2005, I was in no doubt that the Occupation was an evil of epic proportions. I knew it was a moral imperative to free Palestine from its yoke, and that then, and only then, will Jews as well as Palestinians be safe.

I look back at that period in my life as a time when I was still politically innocent. When I arrived home, I recounted my eyewitness accounts thinking people would be able to hear. I described how I had woken up every morning in Bethlehem to the far-off sound of settlement-building near Jerusalem, despite the UK and international media repeating the Israeli government’s lie that settlement-building had ceased so peace talks could take place. I told them soldiers routinely search for suspected insurgents in Aida Refugee Camp and throw tear gas into the alleyways, an event so ordinary that mothers jump with alacrity at the first whiff, shutting the windows to protect their toddlers. “Are your eyes hurting Heather,” my friend Halla asks. 

The Hebron settlement is febrile with fundamentalist Zionist settlers, even those newly arrived from other countries, who believe Yahweh promised the land to them. They routinely attack Palestinians, including children on their way to school. Village homes are routinely demolished, demoralising the inhabitants in preparation for land seizure. The imprisonment of teenage boys without trial for stone-throwing is normalised. Palestinians are made to carry coded personal documentation restricting free passage, a technique of control that Jews had themselves suffered not so long ago. In the early morning half-light at the checkpoint in Bethlehem, there is a surreal spectre of men huddled in caged areas, waiting to be checked out for the day as cheap Palestinian labour for settlement building. This daily spectacle is regularly heralded by right-wing Israeli press as evidence that Israel is not oppressing—but instead helping—Palestinians. I could go on.

My eyewitness accounts sounded too nightmarish and phantasmagorical for a Western ear accustomed to thinking of Israel as a liberal democratic country and a final haven for Jews. In response to what I would tell people back home, I would hear the following: “This can’t be true.” “You must be mistaken, biased, or exaggerating.” “Perhaps the Palestinians deserve it.” “Aren’t they all crazed suicide bombers?” “Didn’t I know about the Holocaust and Jew-hating?” Yes, I do. I also know about the Nakba (النكبة), Arabic for catastrophe, and the word Palestinians use to describe how in 1948 they were violently displaced and dispossessed of their homes and land, and many lost their lives through acts of terrorism. What Israel celebrates as a War of Independence, the Palestinians experience as the destruction of their society, culture, identity, political rights, and national aspirations. The Holocaust was not of Palestinian making, but the USA and Europe salved their conscience, the Palestinians paid the price, and the world has looked on ever since while Israel turned bully. 

In the UK, several demonstrations have taken place sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, protesting against the Israeli government while not condemning Hamas. Thousands have flown the Palestinian flag, carried placards that say “Free Palestine!” and shouted “Ceasefire Now!” Many have chanted “From the River to the Sea.” A tiny minority overtly called for the elimination of Israel. In the eyes of many commentators, these demonstrations are anti-Semitism writ large.

Tom Slater, the editor of Spiked, has characterised the pro-Palestine marches as hate marches. Not holding back on rhetoric, he says: “Yes, they are ‘hate marches’. They are organised by Hamas fanboys and stuffed with anti-Semites. Stop making excuses for them. ‘Hate marches’ is almost too polite a phrase to describe the sewer that has consumed London in recent weeks.” While Slater accepts that not all the protestors at these “carnivals of Jew-hatred” are “racist pricks” and “Islamist scumbags,” he states that some are just “woke leftists” or “supposed centrist sensibles” who are either “blissfully ignorant” or too preoccupied with “simplistic moral posturing.”

Fraser Myers, Deputy Editor at Spiked, says those who call for a ceasefire i.e. “those who are keen to lecture Israel to lay down its weapons” are effectively asking it: “To render itself defenceless against its tormentors. To surrender its civilian hostages to the enemy. To give free rein to Hamas’s genocidal hostility.”

Denis Kavanagh, lawyer and director of Gay Men’s Network, claims the marchers are nothing but “an unregulated rabble” that the Metropolitan police “refuse to police.” He declares fulsome allegiance to Israel, saying “Israel forever.” He offers his huge sympathy to his Jewish friends: 

The silent majority are with you … I see on the streets of Europe right now an iteration of the 1930s/40, I see them attack Jewish schools and synagogues. I understand when they say ‘river to the sea’ they mean the destruction of your people and your state. I understand when they say ‘ceasefire’ they mean … a pause so they (Hamas) can re-arm.

Giles Fraser, Anglican Vicar and social commentator, without any apparent reflection on the Christian testimony to peace-making and loving one’s enemy states in his recent Unherd article: “Don’t be fooled by the march for peace.” Without any even passing reference to the mass slaughter by Israelis of innocent children, women, and men, his ethical concern is focused solely on Jews. He declares that “October 7 shows what Jews face when they are not secure in their own land.” In his view, if one doesn’t show unequivocal support for Israel, one is either a Hamas enabler or a “genteel, middle-class, soft-Left, hand-wringing antisemite.”

Claire Fox, Director of the Academy of Ideas, normally to be relied on for common sense and a sound moral compass, urges no one to attend pro-Palestinian demonstrations. She insists the demonstration should be against Hamas since it is this terrorist group that is responsible for the brutal regime and the current conflict. What we need to worry about, she insists, is the anti-Semitism that has been allowed over the years to “rise and fester” in the UK. There are two reasons for this: first, the rise of Islamism, an ideology that people have been too frightened to openly challenge in case they are charged with Islamophobia; second, the growth of identity politics, and the idea of white privilege, which puts Jews at the top of the white privilege hierarchy. In identity politics, Fox claims, the alleged victims are always right, and the Palestinians have become the quintessential victims, and Jews the quintessential villains. The result is a ‘toxic mess’ where the police don’t arrest people on the march when they break the law.

So, what do I think of the marches?

On Armistice Day 300,000 people gathered together, almost without incident, and only a handful of arrests. Free speech advocates may wish to make the case that more people should have been arrested for their speech, but it is for them to square that circle. I endorse the march as a peace march which was wholly commensurable with remembering and mourning another moment in history and the senseless loss of young men in the First World War. 

I agree that Israel must respond to the appalling acts of violence by Hamas and the catastrophic slaughter of its citizens and soldiers. But Israel’s military response has been vastly disproportionate and is seen by many as a frenzied revenge by a deeply-embarrassed and compromised Netanyahu. It is a matter of moral repugnance to me that critical thinkers, normally sensitively attuned to the ideological narratives of politicians who nudge the populace into compliance either through psychological techniques or direct authoritarianism (for example, concerning the coronavirus and lockdown), have thrown in their naïve lot with one of the most right-wing prime ministers Israel has ever seen. Netanyahu argues that Israel must be allowed to bomb everywhere, including hospitals because Hamas is everywhere. I agree that Hamas, an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement), which arose in 1988, 40 years into the Occupation, is an Islamist organisation that would like to see the erasure of Israel. But it was Israel itself that turned a bunch of fringe Palestinian Islamists in the 1970s into one of the world’s most notorious militant groups. Moreover, while the social commentariat opines on the alleged inflammatory symbols of the Palestinian flag flown by the marchers, it has made no moral condemnation of the genocidal language that has emerged out of the mouths of politicians or that Hebron settlers are deep in the heart of the Knesset. Nor has it commented that the Prime Minister, the head of an alleged liberal democratic state, references the Hebrew Bible as a moral justification for his actions.

But even if, unlike me, one has a touching faith that Israel is completely blameless, and the deaths of thousands of innocent babies, children, women, and men are the unfortunate tragic consequence of its legitimate right to defend itself, Israel will not succeed in defeating Hamas. Razing Gaza to the ground to erase Hamas is an impossible mission. But for as long as the Occupation continues, Israel will not kill the ideology driving Hamas. Israel might succeed in killing some, or almost all, of the significant militants, but new individuals will replace them. The small Gazan boys clinging in terror to their mothers’ skirts or witnessing the murder of their mothers and fathers will burn with injustice and these children will likely be Hamas’s next generation of recruits. Nor will the bloodbath in Gaza retrieve civilian hostages who, as I write this, have not yet been returned, and the more brutal the force that Israel applies, the less likelihood of their safety. 

Israeli Journalist Gideon Levy has recently written that Israel’s vulnerability as a nation-state will not be reduced by the bloodbath in Gaza, noting that the cycle will repeat itself, as long as the apartheid state remains in place. The international community, in particular the USA, for the reasons of realpolitik, occasionally smacks Israel’s wrists; however, on the whole, the US government turns its face away at Israel’s repeated flouting of international human law. The truth is that no Israeli government—not even for one day—has stopped building the illegal settlements, rendering the two-state solution an impossibility. Levy continues, stating, “if Israel resists examining its own failures, another war awaits us.”

In temporarily walking alongside ordinary Palestinians, my experience was not of a people driven by Islamic fundamentalism. Although Palestinians are largely Muslim, with a sizable demographic of Christians, they are culturally Muslim in the way we in the UK are culturally Christian. The driver that inflames the Palestinian man and woman is not Islam but Occupation. Reducing the rights and wrongs the Israeli/ Palestine conflict as a fight between the principles of liberal democracy and a murderous genocidal Islam is simplistic, reductive and dangerous for us all.

The anti-Semitism that is being given a new lease of life in the UK is only tangentially related to Islamist ideology and identity politics. The Palestinians have a right to live as equal citizens from the river Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea. A one-state solution, in which Palestinians AND Israeli Jews can live in freedom as equal citizens is the only way Hamas will be defeated and that Jews in the UK can ever be truly safe. The slogans “Free Palestine” and “Ceasefire now” speak to a moral principle and the marchers (naïve or not, hateful or not) who take to the streets to declare it, are drawing attention to the shocking crime against humanity in Gaza perpetrated by Israel under the banner of freedom and justice.

In 2005 I told people on my return to the UK that if Israel had tried to create Islamist terrorists who fervently believed themselves to be freedom fighters against the terrorism of fundamental Zionism, they couldn’t be doing a better job of it than by subjecting the children to violent apartheid. I am being proved right. 


On 23 November, Haaretz clarifies the fatality numbers: “Of the total number of fatalities on our current list, 851 are civilians (including 59 from the police force and 13 from the emergency services) and 368 are IDF soldiers. Of these, 1,105 died on October 7.”

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