Saturday, 10 January 2009

Discouraged and hopeful

A few days ago, a THM reader asked why no one here had written about Gaza*. I'd been thinking about it, but I was utterly discouraged by the insignificance - really, the uselessness - of my blogging efforts in the face of a horror which continues to unfold.

Last week, I spoke to some Muslim women, gathered with other protesters on Lambton Quay in a vigil to support Palestinians. They had set up a table of articles and information on Palestine; these featured pictures of young Palestinian men lined up against a wall by Israeli soldiers, as if to be executed. I asked the women, have you had much support? 'No', one of the women answered simply. I went away trying my darndest to suck back the tears that threatened to embarrass me in public.

The last time I felt so politically hopeless was in the weeks building up to the Iraq invasion. I marched, protested and signed petitions, as did millions around the world, in full knowledge that the decision had already been made - by a Texan nutter thrown into an important job by a malfunction of history.

In another odd moment of recent history (my personal history, not the world's), my family and I happened to meet Stephen Fry on New Year's Day. He was on Somes Island making a documentary about interesting endangered species, and the DOC worker accompanying him - my partner's nephew - introduced us. My partner and Mr Fry had a brief and friendly chat, to my partner's huge excitement.**

By coincidence, my partner had been reading about Stephen Fry a couple of days beforehand. He was researching Harold Pinter, the British playwright who died some weeks ago, and found that Pinter and Stephen Fry were both members of Independent Jewish Voices, a group of preeminent British Jews who oppose Israeli aggression in Palestine. The group formed in opposition to Jewish groups which indiscriminately support Israel's actions, no matter how belligerent or brutal. Pinter and Fry both won my respect for this - their stance was courageous, and I've no doubt it drew criticism and strained friendships.

My family's brief celebrity encounter has temporarily enhanced our street cred within our social circle. Yesterday, I had coffee with a friend who plied me for details. He then told me about a TV programme he'd seen while living in the UK, about Stephen Fry's lineage. Fry's mother was an immigrant to Britain and a Slovakian Jew - one of a small number in her family to survive World War Two. The others were killed in Auschwitz.

If there is anyone in the world from whom you could understand, if not condone, support for Israeli aggression, it is the relative of those who perished in the Holocaust. Terrible human suffering is no abstract thing for the family of Mr Fry - and in the face of it he has chosen to be not belligerent, but humane.

It gives you pause for thought, and even a little moment of hope.

* Julie has written since.
** The topic of the chat was that Lower Hutt is really quite a pleasant place to live. I've got a feeling Mr Fry will not remember it with the same excitement as we do.

NB John Minto is right - what we're seeing is Apartheid, and it's time the world got serious about it and put sanctions in place. Naomi Klein makes a good case for it here.


Lita said...

Fry is a genius. Your street cred has raised with me also.

There is a desperate feeling of helplessness re: Gaza, in general. It's like we see things clearer these days, but it somehow makes us even more powerless than we were when ignorant. UGH.

Asher said...

Fry is awesome. QI is genius.

I'm a part of a group called Aotearoa Jews For Justice (like Independent Jewish Voices, but further to the left politically). You can check out a letter than another member had published in the Herald a couple of days ago at

The best statement I've seen on the situation in Gaza is Gaza: Against war and warmongers! by the Brighton Solidarity Federation (a branch of a UK-wide anarcho-syndicalist group). It can be read at

Oh, and for whatever it's worth, I had plenty of family murdered during the Holocaust. My great grandmother, her daughter and other members of that side of my family were forced into their synagogue along with the other Jews in their town, and burnt alive (my grandfather had already escaped from Poland by this time). Plenty of other members of my family were also killed during the holocaust, but I don't know (and probably won't ever be able to find out) where, when or how...

Anna said...


I've just now worked out that you're the person whose name appears on the media release I read last night. Thank you also for sharing what you've just written, and contributing to the solidarity we have to build around this horrific crisis - and any other like it, regardless of the nationality or religion of the people involved.

Kia kaha

Brett Dale said...

Is John Minto outraged that the Hamas leader has said that there will be "NO PEACE"

Is he going to yell verbal abuse at young female Palestinian tennis players???

Where all the peace groups???? The leader of Hamas has just declared that he doesn't want peace.

Where is the outrage?

Anna said...

History, Brett. Palestinians have been living in exile conditions which have become increasingly like prison camps over the last 60 years. It's also painfully obvious after the last six decades that Israel will accept no terms of peace which allow Palestinians adequate or dignified living conditions. It's quite possible to understand how Hamas's position arose without condoning it.

Brett Dale said...

History huh, yeah and we all know that the Jews have had it easy the past 60 years.

I also think if your a true peace protester, your for peace for peace sake and politics don't come into it.

I find it interesting that people who would say they are feminists and for woman's right, seem to take the side of groups and people who's treatment of woman is still in the dark ages, yet you all get upset if there is a photo of ten white businessmen and only two white woman.

I guess you can only be sexist if your a white christian businessman.

The point is, if your a true peace protester you wouldn't care about politics, you would just be as upset no matter who is doing the violence and I don't see this, I see excuses for Hamas and nothing but condemnation for Israel, I find that hypocritical myself.

David said...

this post from Chris Trotter makes interesting reading.

Asher, considering your family history at the hands of Hitlers Nazis, I find your support of Hamas quite bizarre. The experiences of your family during WW2 would make pleasant bed time reading to the average member Hamas. There will not be any peace in the Middle East while groups like Hamas deny the existence of not only Israel but the Jewish people themselves.

Jason said...

The roots of today’s Middle East conflict may have more to do with Hitler’s Nazi holocaust than many in the west realise. As Israeli forces pound Palestinian and Hezbollah positions on a sporadic basis, and suicide bombers wreak havoc in Jerusalem, it is difficult to reconstruct history’s divergent strands and work out where the conflict has its origins. Difficult, perhaps. But not impossible. IAN WISHART traces the background

As tank shells and machine gun rounds rip holes in buildings and people alike, it is easy to point the finger in the Palestine conflict and make moral judgements. But where did the battle really begin? Why is there such enmity between both sides?

Western news reports usually focus on the creation of the Israeli state in 1948 as the catalyst, but increasingly experts are dusting off old news clippings and government reports dating back to the First World War to get a handle on the problem. Why? Because it seems the popular view of heavily-armed Jewish settler/terrorists kicking Palestinians out of their homes in the late 1940s may be only half the story.

It actually traces back to the emergence of two men – one the uncle of current Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the other regarded as the father of modern Israel.

In 1893, in a dusty stone abode in what was then Turkish-controlled Palestinian Jerusalem, a baby boy named Haj Amin el-Husseini entered the world, oblivious to the course his life would take. That course was already being determined thanks to the work of Theodore Herzl, a Zionist who envisioned the return of the world’s Jews – scattered since the Roman times – to Israel.

Herzl was organising the return of Jews to the area, admittedly in small groups at first.

As a teenager El-Husseini began to resent the Jewish immigrants, but put his personal feelings on hold to fight in World War One as part of the Ottoman Imperial Army against the British. When the Turkish were defeated, Britain took control of the Palestinian area under a League of Nations mandate and, in accordance with its own stated policies, announced the creation of a Jewish National Homeland in Palestine (the Balfour Declaration).

The problem was, British officials governing neighbouring Egypt who sympathised with the Palestinians had previously indicated Britain would favour Arab interests above the Jews.

Although Jewish immigrants were at this point buying land and businesses, not seizing them, the immigration wave and growing political and economic power of the Jews was causing societal tensions, in much the same way but on a much larger scale to the Asian immigration wave to New Zealand of the nineties.

By 1920 tensions on the ground had risen to boiling point, and British officials on the ground gave 27 year old Haj Amin tacit approval to attack Jewish settlers. It came in the form of a meeting between British Colonel Waters Taylor and Haj Amin just a few days before Easter 1920.

According to official British records of what followed, the Colonel told him “he had a great opportunity at Easter to show the world…that Zionism was unpopular not only with the Palestine Administration but in Whitehall and if disturbances of sufficient violence occurred in Jerusalem at Easter, both General Bols [Chief Administrator in Palestine] and General Allenby [Commander of Egyptian Force] would advocate the abandonment of the Jewish Home. Waters-Taylor explained that freedom could only be attained through violence.”

Haj Amin took it on board, but rather than adopting the traditional British technique of subtlety, he openly led the riot that followed. As part of what was supposed to be the secret arrangement, British soldiers and police were withdrawn from Jerusalem over Easter, which allowed Arab mobs to attack Jews and loot their shops without interference.

When Jewish settlers regrouped and counter-attacked, they were arrested by the British and received up to 15 years’ jail. Haj Amin, because of his public role, was also arrested but escaped, and was sentenced to 10 years’ jail in absentia.

It was a token punishment. Just one year later Haj Amin’s allies in the British administration had arranged for him to be pardoned, and promoted to Grand Mufti – the official Muslim leader of the territory. Within three weeks, forces loyal to Haj Amin massacred 43 Jews in riots, the first of many attacks. Again, Jews who fought back were often arrested as part of the nudge and wink agreement between the British authorities and Mufti Haj Amin.

In 1929, rumours were spread by Haj Amin’s forces that Jewish religious ceremonies at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount would be used as a pretense by the Jews to attack Islam’s Dome of Rock. The huge Arab population were incensed and attacked the Jews, killing 133 and injuring 399.

An official investigation by British officials determined that the riots were caused by Arab fears about increased Jewish immigration, and the inquiry determined that Jewish immigration and land purchases should be restricted.

The Mufti, meanwhile, consolidated his status with the Palestinians by fundraising internationally for a refit of the Dome of the Rock, raising enough money to plate it in gold, but he was forced to flee Palestine after fomenting a rebellion in 1936 that finally put him offside with Britain.

Ironically, Haj Amin’s agenda was not the creation of a Palestinian state: he firmly believed Palestine was part of Jordan and Syria.

Haj Amin el-Husseini resurfaced in 1941 in Hitler’s Germany, meeting with the Fuhrer on a number of occasions and urging him to step up his ethnic cleansing against Jews, not just in Europe but in the Middle East.

The Grand Mufti formulated 15 drafts of declarations he wanted Germany and Italy to adopt, including declaring the Jewish homeland in Palestine illegal and giving Arabs free rein to adopt holocaust methods against the Palestinian Jews, by according “to Palestine and to other Arab countries the right to solve the problem of the Jewish elements in Palestine and other Arab countries, in accordance with the interests of the Arabs, and by the same method, that the question is now being settled in the Axis countries.”

Haj Amin knew the methods Hitler was using, having toured Auschwitz and, according to Nazi records, urging the gas chamber guards to work more “diligently” in wiping out Jews.

During his time in Germany, according to testimony to the Nuremberg Trials, the Palestinian leader was also instrumental in sinking a deal being brokered between Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann and the British that would have seen German POWs in Britain freed in exchange for the Nazis agreeing to release 5,000 Jewish children from concentration camps.

Haj Amin managed to torpedo the prisoner exchange, convincing the Nazi party to instead transfer the children from holding camps in Bulgaria to the main camps at Auschwitz and Belsen. Most are believed to have perished.

Speaking on Radio Berlin in 1943, Haj Amin el Husseini urged Muslims in Europe to join the Nazis in exterminating the Jews, “Kill the Jews wherever you find them – this is pleasing to Allah.”

The Palestinian leader also travelled to Bosnia in 1943, personally recruiting Bosnian Muslims to a special division of Hitler’s Waffen SS troops. The Bosnian division slaughtered more than 9,000 Bosnian Jews, and destroyed Serbian churches and villages. The seeds of much of the recent Serbian aggression against Bosnian Muslims were sown here.

Nazi SS chief Heinrich Himmler was so impressed with the Bosnian SS that he established a “Mullah Military School” in Dresden.

When Germany ultimately lost the war, Haj Amin was captured by French forces and indicted as a Nazi war criminal, but again managed to escape and fled to Egypt to continue his battle against Israeli Jews.

The creation of Israel was mandated by the United Nations in 1947. It split the region in half. Ironically, had the Palestinians accepted this settlement they would have been far better off than they currently are.

Instead, the Grand Mufti and the Arab nations decided to wage war for a reclamation of 100% of the Palestinian region and a desire, particularly on Haj Amin’s part, to finish the job that Hitler started. He didn’t want Jewish settlers captured. He wanted them dead.

What followed at the urging of Haj Amin can be directly blamed for the Palestinian refugee problem. On May 15, 1948, he appealed to the Arabs of Palestine to leave their homes and leave the country, because Arab armies were about to come in to drive out the Jews. The Palestinians did leave, but their liberators didn’t bother to show up, as a Jordanian newspaper noted in February 1949:

“The Arab states, which had encouraged the Palestinian Arabs to leave their homes temporarily in order to be out of the way of the Arab invasion armies, have failed to keep their promises to return.”

As another displaced Palestinian lamented: “The Arab governments told us ‘Get out, so that we can get in’. So we got out, but they did not get in.”

One of the Grand Mufti’s most enthusiastic recruits was his nephew, Abd al-Rahman abd al-Bauf Arafat al-Qud al-Husseini, who set up the Palestinian resistance movement el-Fatah in response to the huge boost in Jewish immigration to the territory. Abd al-Rahman’s first troops initially greeted him and Haj Amin with the infamous Nazi salute.

Today, Abd al-Rahman is better known to the West as Yasser Arafat.

In 1956, after Egypt nationalised the Suez canal and Palestinian resistance groups stepped up attacks on Israeli settlements, Israel lashed out by invading Egypt, capturing the Sinai desert on the east bank of the canal. When the dust settled, a United Nations peacekeeping force was installed to act as a buffer and prevent further attacks on Israel from Egyptian insurgents.

By 1967, however, after months of sabre-rattling on both sides, Egypt signed a military treaty with Syria and Jordan, re-invaded the Sinai desert and closed the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping. Israel responded with a devastating pre-emptive strike, shattering the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies in just six days and capturing huge tracts of new territory, including much of the now disputed West Bank.

In 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise counter-attack on the eve of a Jewish religious holiday. It was only through American intervention in the form of weapon supplies that Israel survived and was able to defeat the invasion forces.

Why did America become involved? A primary reason was the involvement of the Soviet Union behind the scenes in supplying Egypt and Syria with weaponry. In fact, Russia was preparing to send its own troops into the region to help finish Israel off, and was only deterred when the United States placed its armed forces on “full nuclear alert”.

At the end of the war, the US insisted that Egypt and Israel thrash out a workable peace deal. That peace process continued throughout the eighties and nineties, resulting in the creation of Yasser Arafat’s self-governing Palestinian Authority in 1993.

But always just under the surface have been competing agendas – from the Palestinian side the growing allegiance to Islamic fundamentalism based on the Koran’s instruction to “kill the infidels where you find them”, and from the Israeli side by right-wing governments continuing to allow Jewish settlers to build homes on captured Palestinian land.

The problem with modern journalism is that much of the past is being ignored. The new book by New Zealander Lloyd Geering, Who Owns The Holy Land?, for example, fails to mention the extensive Nazism of Grand Mufti Haj Amin, leaving readers with an arguably unbalanced picture of the passions at the heart of this conflict.

And Geering’s glaring omissions are typical, rather than the exception. One peace group, the MidEast Web for Coexistence, a joint Islamic/Jewish friendship organisation, has recently fired a number of bullets at zealots who deliberately hide the truth:

“What is not told is as important as what is told. The pen of the Jewish extremist makes the massacre of Deir Yassin disappear – over a hundred dead people are banished to nowhere. The pen of the Palestinian partisan erases the siege of Jerusalem and the Arab invasion of 1948. A writer in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, waves his magic pen and the Holocaust disappears. None of it happened. The Jewish extremist erases the Palestinian refugees. Reality is rearranged for convenience.

“Time and again, words create reality and programme actions. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic forgery of the Czarist secret police, is enshrined in the charter of the Hamas and propels Muslim extremists to their death. Osama Bin Laden wrote his Fatwas against America, and the words toppled mighty buildings. The Mufti of Jerusalem said ‘the Jews are destroying the holy Mosque of Al Aqsa’ and the riots of 1929 began. The same rumour started bloodier riots in 1997 and again in September 2000 [the start of the current uprising].

“At this moment, as is usual in our area, a battle is raging. The words are fighting alongside the tanks and bombs. Partisans are busy rewriting history. Suicide bombers are being written out by one side, civilian casualties are being written out by the other.

“Words are changing history, and people are being programmed to act on the words, never mind what happened. So the words help to create reality.”

Among the “words” being bandied around is the figure of 590,000 displaced Palestinians, turned into refugees by the creation of Israel in 1948. But a lesser known figure is the 850,000 Arab Jews who were forced to flee from their homelands in ten Arab states when the fighting broke out, also leaving behind homes and belongings, businesses, land and flocks. Those Jews were taken in by Israel. None has been compensated by the Arab states for the money and property they left behind.

In other words, it cuts both ways.

Strip away the rhetoric, and you are left with two men: Yasser Arafat, the one-time protégé of a self-confessed Nazi collaborator whose wish was to see all Jews gassed, and Ariel Sharon, holocaust survivor, Israeli terrorist turned military leader.

While you could point to Sharon’s involvement in the Deir Yassin massacre of Palestinian women and children in 1948, you could also point to Arafat’s uncle personally ensuring the deaths of thousands of Jews in Europe. You could point to the wave of Jewish immigration in the early 1900s, but you could also point to the Palestinian massacres of those same Jewish settlers.

Neither side is innocent in this conflict, but commonsense shows that had the Arab states accepted the UN fifty-fifty carve-up of Palestine in 1947, the Palestinians would have owned a lot more land than the 22% they currently occupy as a result of Israel capturing territory during failed Arab invasions. Having taken a gamble on the “might is right” option and lost, the Palestinians now seek to recover the territory they gave to the victors through a diplomatic solution.

Whilst there is an overwhelming pragmatism to such a solution, any Palestinian claim to occupy the moral high-ground is looking increasingly dubious.

Anna said...

Brett, to say peace should be sought at any cost is absurd. If the cost of 'peace' is wide scale mistreatment of an entire group of people, clearly that's not peace in any meaningful sense of the word.

The strategy for peace you seem to be proposing is Palestinians putting up with being progressively being herded into ever-smaller, walled areas, like animals. Did you advocate that black South Africans put up with Apartheid to keep the peace?

Peace is very difficult to obtain without some fundamental justice - you are misrepresenting John Minto to say he is concerned with peace at any cost.

If the calibre of this debate doesn't pick up I'll feel obliged to close down the comments. I hope never to see the name of Ian Wishart mentioned in serious conversation again.

Anonymous said...

A feminist perspective would be quite interesting in this case. I have a friend who studies in Jordan, he has been in Gaza during the last week and when looking at his photos there wasn't a woman to be seen. Most of what I know about life for women in Palestine I learned from an Israeli friend and I accept that her perspective might not be the most objective, however, I remember there was concern after the 2006 election that Palestinian women might have less freedom but I haven't been following things since then. Can anyone suggest any good links??


Anonymous said...

BTW the Hamas position is that there won't be a truce negotiated "under fire". This isn't "no peace".

Mkura said...

Dang, nothing brings out the nutters like talking about Apartheid in the holy lands...

Hugh said...

So this is who we look to for our ideas - an actor who plays intellectuals on TV.

Think about that next time you make fun of some right winger for hanging on Ann Coulter's every word.

Asher said...

Anna - Cheers :)

David - Try reading the article I linked to before accusing me of supporting Hamas. I'm happy to have a discussion about Middle Eastern politics if you want (although this may not be the place), but not if you keep misrepresenting my position on this. Of interest may also be the article My Enemy's Enemy Sure As Hell Isn't My Comrade, at , which I wrote during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006.

For what it's worth, I've lived there, worked on co-existance projects with Jewish and Palestinian children and studied the history and current status of the conflict for about 6 years, so I'm fairly secure in my knowledge of the situation.

Anna said...

Hugh, that's deliberately obtuse. It's quite possible to admire someone for showing some moral courage or solidarity without relying on them for 'ideas'. The misrepresentation of other people's positions is symptomatic of the Israel/Palestine debate, I have to say.

Hugh said...

I have nothing against Fry speaking his mind and I happen to agree with him more than I disagree with him. I just object to the idea he's a 'genius'