Where do I stand with “Pro/tests”?

20140727-140845-50925285.jpgProtesting on behalf of innocents in Leeds 26 July 2014

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.

However, the big question still remains: how do you protest in nuanced terms?

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7 responses to Where do I stand with “Pro/tests”?

    • Thank you for articulating so well what I too feel when I see these protests. A question I carry is how you can bring a moral dimension into geo-politics without making judgments – in other words coming down on one side or other of the fence. The anti-apartheid movement gained so much ground when the moral case shone through the political complexity. A book that has influenced T$P’s work over the years is called The Moral Imagination by Jean Paul Lederach who says cycles of violence can be broken when people are enabled to imagine a different future (often through the agency of creativity).

      • Gillian – Author

        I will definitely have to read that book at some point. Interestingly, one if the most profoundly moving articles I’ve read thus last week is by an Israeli-Yemini singer songwriter who creatively imagines an alternative way forward: here’s an extract below. My son shared the post she wrote and I was amazed that someone commented on his timeline that “it was unrealistic and wouldn’t be practicable”. And all I could think was, and why not?
        “Only dialogue from a place of respect and empathy can save us. Only a concerted effort to strengthen the moderates and thus marginalize, as much as possible, the radicals, can afford us some hope. As much as we in Israel justifiably despise Hamas, it does not look like they are going anywhere. Have we seriously considered the conditions they pose for a cease fire? Many of them make sense! Why not attempt to alleviate the suffering of the Gazans, enable them to flourish economically, return dignity to their lives and gain a 10 year cease fire…10 years is a long time! Young minds can be opened; even modest prosperity can be the catalyst of change! Why assume automatically that these years will be used ONLY to strengthen Hamas military power? The conditions include international supervision. Maybe the years will create a reality in which Hamas, with a younger generation of leaders who see a different horizon, be drawn into the Political circle in a way that will, finally, enable dialogue??

        I ask myself, and Netanyahu: why don’t we surprise ourselves!? you, Mr. Netanyahu, are known to be a clever man: why not go 180 degrees, change the rules of the game, think out of the box? Welcome Abu Mazen, stop the building in the settlements, support the unity government, open Gaza and enable commerce with international supervision, embrace the Palestinian’s aspirations alongside our own, welcome international intervention, and gain a real ally AGAINST the waves of extremism?? Check mate!”

  1. Thank you for this ‘still small voice of calm’ amid the strife and the grief so evident in current news bulletins. This piece calls to my mind The Jewish Voice for Peace, recently brought to my attention by my Quaker Friends. I am fortunate to have grown up in a relatively safe and secure environment and have no direct personal experience of the kind of gut-wrenching conflict we are witnessing on our TVs now, so am in no real position to comment – although my formative years were spent living with public information films about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack and with the very real threat of IRA bombs. My hope, however forlorn, is that one day the small voice of calm will prevail and that those divided peoples will find a way to live together in peace. Shalom.

    • Gillian – Author

      Thank you Kathryn, not least to alerting me to the Jewish Voice for Peace website which proved a feast of excellent sources and writings.

      Like you I remember the horrors of sixties nuclear threat fears (those awful civil defence siren alert practices were the stuff of nightmares) and living with IRA bomb threats. It does distort assessment of real risk and threat, and I was reminded of this atmosphere of constant impending threat when I stood a year ago on a main street in Sederot (the Israeli town near the Gaza border which hitherto has had the brunt of rockets) and realising that if I heard the attack siren, I was too far away to run to anywhere safe and didn’t know where I would run to in any event. I had spent the previous four days travelling in the Palestinian territories, and this moment of huge vulnerability really reminded me of why Israel feels as it does despite to the outside world appearing to be a tower of strength.

      Anyhow, the JVP stuff was fascinating. Thank you.

  2. It can be quite a complicated feeling to have empathy with one side, and understanding on the other. Especially when you have friends in both camps. You start to feel that you are letting one side down when you go to support the other. I find the best way is for you to be honest with your friends, let them know what you are uncomfortable with, and at the end of the day agree to disagree.

    There are so many injustices in the world that we would tear ourselves apart trying to cover each one of them. You are perfectly correct that the suffering in Syria, and Iraq does not get the same treatment as the current conflict in Gaza. The world media is fickle and will move from one news item to another within days depending on what they feel will be the audience’s interest.

    You also have to realise that people become anesthetised to the horrors of war, in fact i would go as far as saying that they get bored of it. Being beamed into their world through their television or computer everyday it just becomes part of life. We have to hold onto a part of reality that tells us that we care.

    I continuously get told that it is a young persons world and when it comes to changing the present all efforts are put into education, and getting young people involved in social change. Although i do agree that the energy levels that young people bring to a campaign or debate are admirable, we can sometimes miss the knowledge and experience of older people. I personally believe that the excellent work that the Holocaust Education Trust is doing will continue the legacy into future generations. What is missing is the education around why wars start, and what aspirations people have when they go to fight a war either on the front line or on the home front. We easily forget the real reasons behind why our parents/grandparents fought in the Second World War, it was not just for social change, it was to defeat an ideology. This ideology will return or could be argued has never gone away. The increased level of Anti-Senitism cannot solely be blamed on the Gaza conflict, and the exodus of Jews from some countries in Europe is a sign to us that not everything is right. We have to learn from the experiences of your forefathers and speak out against incitement, whether it be aimed at Jews, Muslims or the Gay community. If we fail a second time to speak out against radicalism or extremism we may not get a second chance to survive.

    • Gillian – Author

      Thank you for taking the time to add these valuable comments. Interestingly, I no longer feel any conflict at all in my heart or mind about what I think about all this in terms of human suffering. It’s actually helped in the last few years to have a clear fix on not needing to take sides any longer and not wanting to be judgmental, but just seeking to understand and above all listen to people.

      I’ve been very non-confrontational with non-family for most of my life, so I used to hate openly disagreeing with people. Now I’ve found it’s perfectly possible to agree to disagree and be honest as you say in a compassionate way, I feel so much happier in my own sense of self being honest openly.

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