It’s been a week of invitations: invitations to join protest marches on pro-Gaza, pro-Israel, pro-peace and anti-terror.
I’ve realised it’s a reflection of my attempts over the last few years to understand the perspective of both sides and to inform myself as much as possible about what goes on in the Middle East. So, my inbox sees a variety of newsletters and accordingly a variety of invitations. They are from organisations genuinely trying to provide balanced information, so it’s interesting that these invites to protest made me a little uncomfortable.
After some reflection, I decided it’s because a protest march does not permit nuance. The slogans and chants are simple and clear. Pro-this, anti-that. Everything reduced to black and white which sometimes doesn’t matter, but not in this case. Not in an area of multiple, even infinite, shades and textures of perspective and narrative.
Some things I find are easy to state unequivocally. Thus, Israel has a right to exist. Palestinians have a right to self-govern and flourish free from occupation. Terrorism against innocent civilians is wrong. People have a right to defend themselves.
BUT (and it’s a huge BUT) if you tip all these rights in a pot and mix with reality and history and emotion and politics, nothing is simple any more.
The only slogans I feel comfortable with these days are those expressly showing compassion for both sides, because there are innocents on both sides and ill-considered actions and immoral actions on both sides (and indeed by many other nations world-wide at all stages in history, including the UK). A good example of the sort of thing I read with relief is the Facebook site Jews and Arabs Refuse To Be Enemies which is a treasure trove of inspiring photos evidencing clear humanity.
Marching “pro Israel” (however much I believe in Israel’s right to exist and defend itself) and marching “pro Gaza” (however much I feel torn up with horror at what is happening to civilians) is not something I feel helps anyone. It polarises and reinforces the whole wretched partisan taking-sides aspect that makes me so uncomfortable. Forceful declarations of pro-whatever carry an implication of being anti-the other, whether or not this is the case, and so I can’t do it.
And yet, there is a troubling undercurrent too in terms of current pro-Gaza sentiment.
Yesterday in Leeds city centre there was a powerful pro-Gaza art installation protest in the middle of Briggate. A representation of dead civilians lying across the pavement with a comment encouraging passers by to carry on walking past because these people don’t count for anything. (I may not have remembered this exactly but that was the general thrust)
I suddenly felt very, very uneasy. I suddenly remembered (again) all the deaths of recent months in Syria and Iraq. And the Christians of Mosul in Iraq being given the choice of paying a tax, converting to Islam, or being beheaded.
I stood looking at the protesters and wondered suddenly: Where are the impassioned art installation protests about these other issues? Where are the marches about Syria and Iraq? What is it about Israel-Palestine that prompts such particular passion? I’m scared to take this line of thought any further.
With the Leeds protest, I approached the young veiled girls who were part of the group. I said I was struck by the power of their installation and understood their compassion and feeling for the victims. They eagerly listened to me and nodded. We talked some more. I asked them whether they were thinking about extending this protest to the thousands of other victims of 2014 in the Middle East, for example in Iraq and Syria?
They slowly nodded. Why not indeed? I said I thought it was interesting and understandable their focus was Gaza this week, but there was so much more that needed saying. Then I finally told them I was Jewish. They were fascinated and said they welcomed my response; because they said “everyone blames and assumes Jews don’t care” about what’s going on in Gaza, and they seemed genuinely surprised (and appreciative) to hear a slightly different, more nuanced response to their protest .
I’d like to think I made them see the difference between the Israeli state and Jews in general, and that Jews do not lack compassion for the innocent victims in this conflict. I hope they might possibly now see current terror in the Middle East in wider, more complex terms. And for the record, I genuinely didn’t feel they were anti-Semitic despite the throwaway comment about Jews.