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Writers on the Middle East Question by GARETH RUBIN The Independent In 1937, the Left Review, house journal of British progressives, performed a celebrated literary-political experiment. A questionnaire was circulated to the leading writers of the day, asking for straight answers to two simple (if slightly loaded) questions: “Are you for, or against, the legal […]

Writers on the Middle East Question

by GARETH RUBIN The Independent

Writers on the Middle East Question

by GARETH RUBIN
The Independent

In 1937, the Left Review, house journal of British progressives, performed a celebrated literary-political experiment. A questionnaire was circulated to the leading writers of the day, asking for straight answers to two simple (if slightly loaded) questions: “Are you for, or against, the legal Government and People of Republican Spain? Are you for, or against, Franco and Fascism?”

The exercise–initiated by (among others) WH Auden and Stephen Spender and published as a pamphlet entitled Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War–has passed into literary legend: all but 21 of the 148 who replied declared themselves “for” the republicans and “against” Franco, although there was no shortage of literary heavyweights among the dissenting minority (TS Eliot and Ezra Pound declared themselves neutral; Waugh supported Franco). Samuel Beckett was the most succinct of the respondents (“Up the Republic!”). Orwell, who declined to participate, was none the less among the most passionate: “Will you please stop sending me this bloody rubbish… If I did compress what I know and think about the Spanish war into six lines you wouldn’t print it.”

Auden and Spender’s justification for the exercise was that, as their questionnaire put it, “It is impossible any longer to take no side.” Thirty years later, Auden took a different view. “Why writers should be canvassed for their opinions on controversial political issues, I cannot imagine,” was his response to Cecil Woolf and John Bagguely’s survey, Writers Take Sides on Vietnam. But that exercise, too (published by Simon & Schuster in 1967), produced a fascinating snapshot of what “the unacknowledged legislators of mankind” thought about the burning issue of the day.

Participants in the survey–which asked “Are you for, or against, the intervention of the United States in Vietnam?”and “How, in your opinion, should the conflict be resolved?”–included Kingsley Amis, Heinrich Boll, Italo Calvino, Simone de Beauvoir, Allen Ginsberg, Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, John Updike and Gore Vidal. Most advocated US withdrawal, with Amis and Updike among the dissenters. Updike was “uncomfortable” about the war, but added: “I do not see that we can abdicate our burdensome position in South Vietnam.” Vidal’s was one of the most stirring of the anti-war voices: “Should the war in Vietnam continue after the 1968 election, a change in nationality would be the only moral response.” Other big names declined to participate, provoking the Times Literary Supplement to lament “a very widespread retreat indeed from the sort of generous and poetical involvement which led some writers to take sides in the Spanish War as well as on it”.

Today, the defining, dividing, intractable issue that preoccupies the thinking classes of the West is that of Israel/Palestine. So it seems legitimate to ask: where do today’s unacknowledged legislators stand on it? In the summer, The Independent circulated many of Britain’s leading writers with another, equally polarised political question: “Who have most justice on their side? a) The Israeli people and their leaders? Or b) the Palestinian people and their leaders?” The writers could choose one or other of the two options, or a third: “c) Don’t know.” They were allowed 100 words in which to explain their answer.

Given the passions that this issue arouses, and the vituperation that generally descends upon those whose public pronouncements on it are deemed offensive by one side or the other, we were not surprised to find a much higher abstention rate than in the previous two surveys. Today’s writers are more media-savvy than their predecessors. But the answers we did receive suggest they are no less passionate. Their responses are likely to provoke anger and thought in equal measure; and, indeed, our shamelessly simplistic question seems to have done much the same.

Many of the answers draw attention, rightly, to the impossibility of reducing such a complex issue to such a simple choice. Cynics may ask why we bother at all. If the world’s finest political minds cannot find a way out of the Israel/Palestine morass, what hope have a few cocooned writers? But that is to miss the point. The exercise doesn’t tell us about the Middle East so much as it tells us about ourselves. What writers think today, others think tomorrow; and if today’s literati seem overwhelmingly disapproving of Israel’s leaders– instead either favouring the Palestinians or refusing to take sides–that tells us something about the way the tide of opinion is moving.

There is no reason to believe that the scribbling classes are any wiser, or better informed, than any other section of society. But they are, at a much deeper level than journalists, opinion-formers. The world-views of future historians will be shaped by writers such as these, as will those of future politicians.

Those who seek to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable passions and prejudices that underly the Palestinian conflict would do well to heed their voices, with all their varied nuances.

Question: Who have most justice on their side? a) The Israeli people and their leaders. b) The Palestinian people and their leaders c) Don’t know..

ANTONY BEEVOR

The tragic answer is both and neither. The Israelis forfeited sympathy because of their occupation of the West Bank and above all their illegal settlements; meanwhile, the Palestinians support terrorist suicide bombings against civilian targets. The extremists on both sides have managed, as the Nazis and Communists did more than half a century ago, to manipulate false alternatives and create a centrifugal effect to destroy hopes of compromise. Such totalitarian tactics inevitably dehumanise their enemy even more.

Answer: c) … an indefinable balance of justice and injustice. (I object to ‘don’t know’.)

ALAIN DE BOTTON

The Independent must be trying to foster a reputation for macabre humour by deliberately missing out what can be the only possible answer to this question: namely, “both sides have some justice and some injustice”. It is only when the conviction ends among certain Palestinians and certain Israelis that their side has a monopoly on justice and truth that the two sides will be able to resume a dialogue. Unfortunately, both sides are at present (and how one can understand them) far too preoccupied with their own suffering to spare a thought for those they have come to call “the enemy”. For anyone not as afflicted as they are to pile in on one side or the other seems grotesque.

Answer: c)

CLIVE SINCLAIR

Such a question, so composed, compounds the problem. It moots a vertical division; Israelis on one side, Palestinians on the other. In fact the majority of both–pace their leaders–want to dwell peacefully within mutually acceptable borders. Such pacific longings could be speedily accommodated if only both nations could bring themselves to shun those among them who recognise no earthly boundaries, and establish a horizontal alliance of secular democrats. The Israelis–who have the power to make the first move–are susceptible to gestures. Hamas understands this only too well. The other Palestinians should remember how Sadat regained Sinai.

Answer: none of the above.

DEBORAH LEVY

One can use many emotive words, but really the present situation comes down to an abuse and violation of human rights. History has shown us in South Africa that it was the poor and dispossessed who had to help white South Africans recover their humanity. The actions of the suicide bombers will never do this. Perhaps it will take a new generation of Israelis who refuse to obey the orders of the likes of Ariel Sharon to begin a process of truth and reconciliation. This would be so much more courageous than driving the tanks that roll into Jenin or shooting down children throwing stones.

Answer: b)

FREDERICK FORSYTH

I sympathise with Israel–not that I have anything against the Palestinian people. But I do believe that over the 53 years since the birth of Israel, the Palestinians have probably been the most disastrously, calamitously, badly led people on the planet. Their leaders have been universally appalling. The most appalling of them all is Yasser Arafat, but they keep on electing him. He has been an unmitigated disaster since he was just another street thug. The extremist Israelis have Yasser Arafat acting as their recruiting sergeant, which is madness. I don’t like Sharon and I didn’t like Netanyahu. I did like Ehud Barak–he really held out huge concessions at Camp David, which were rejected with contempt. In the end you run out of patience with people who seem so determined to produce their own undoing.

Answer: a)

WILL SELF

It would be divisive for me to offer my opinion. I think input from outside constitutes trying to put a fire out with gasoline. The time has come to step back and put pressure on our governments to remove themselves from the sphere of influence. That means Britain should no longer be a poodle of the United States in terms of Middle Eastern policy. America should not be involved either. I don’t have any great faith in the capacity of the United Nations to broker peace — I think they should be left to slug it out. I don’t believe in supranational resolutions to conflict. I think they are a fig leaf of deluded moralising humanitarians, used to hide from sight the fact that we live in an ugly, unpleasant world. I have sympathy for everybody involved in the conflict except for the extremists who believe that violence is a solution.

Answer: c)

JOHN MORTIMER

The question is too black and white, but at the moment the Israelis are more to blame. If we are going to have a war against someone because they disobey the UN and have weapons of mass destruction, then that is Mr Sharon. That is the key to the upheaval in the Middle East and anti-American feeling. Why they want to bother about Iraq, I cannot imagine. The people who must be restrained and made to obey the UN are the Israelis. Meeting terrorism with terrorism is their way to behave. They have killed more Palestinians and Palestinian children than the Palestinians have killed Israelis and Israeli children. But, as for the conflict as a whole, it’s like a marriage. It’s like saying: “Who’s to blame for a divorce?”

Answer: b)

LINDA GRANT

I support a two-state solution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, one based on the end of the occupation, the withdrawal of all settlements, a divided Jerusalem and the rights of refugees to be settled by substantial compensation. I support all individuals and organisations who are working towards this aim. I do not support those individuals and organisations who seek to characterise living, breathing human beings with their own thoughts, opinions and feelings as walking symbols of “Zionism”, “colonialism”, “terrorism” or “fundamentalism”. However, I will not answer the question.

TOM PAULIN

I support an independent Palestinian state. Only a Swift or a Levi could describe the atrocities the Israeli government is being allowed to carry out.

Answer: b)

AL KENNEDY

Israeli leaders have betrayed Israel and stepped beyond the bounds of any understanding of justice by routinely torturing Palestinian prisoners, murdering Palestinian civilians and condoning official and unofficial human rights abuses in Israel and the occupied territories. They have misled the Israeli population, appropriated Palestinian land and property, destroyed or confiscated land-ownership records and condemned generations of Palestinians to ghettos, camps and exile. By condoning the murder of Israeli and Jewish civilians, by routinely torturing Palestinian prisoners and by maintaining power through a reliance on human-rights abuses and the manipulation of despair, Palestinian leaders prove themselves little better.

Answer: b) — with the above qualification.

MATT THORNE

For me, this is not a question of choosing a side, but recognising an injustice.

Answer: b)

CAROLE ANGIER

Ordinary Israelis and ordinary Palestinians have equal justice on their sides: ie, there should be a Palestinian state, which should recognise Israel’s continued right to exist. Extremist Israelis and extremist Palestinians are equally culpable. Israeli leaders have differed very much, with Rabin and Barak having most justice on their side, Sharon least. Arafat has little justice on his side, and (for once I agree with Bush) should be replaced. Your question, which lumps all these groups together, is therefore tendentious and unanswerable.

Answer: I reluctantly accept c) as the closest available.

JOHN BYRNE

In a Glasgow suburb in 1950, while canvassing door-to-door for Our Lady of Lourdes Scout Group’s Bob-a-Job Week, I was asked by a kindly lady resident if I was “a little Jewish boy?” I remember being inordinately thrilled by the question–we 10-year-olds had seen enough newsreels to know that the recently-founded and hard-won state of Israel was a very special place indeed and that to be taken (however briefly) for one of its people, who’d fought and died for a homeland in the wake of the Holocaust, was a compliment beyond price. That was then, this is now… I am a Palestinian. No mistake this time round.

Answer: b)

KAMILA SHAMSIE

Neither my reservations about the Palestinian leadership nor my sorrow at all civilian deaths alters the basic fact that the occupation of the Palestinian territories is not justified under legal or moral grounds. Moreover, state-sanctioned terrorism, such as that carried out by the Israeli forces, cannot be justified by merely slapping the word “self-defence” on it. On the part of the rest of the world, to largely ignore the lives and deaths of those (many) Palestinians who play no part in violence but have violence — in its varied guises–inflicted on them is the gravest injustice of all.

Answer: b)

ANTHONY JULIUS

Two national movements, each with a claim to a narrow strip of land. I am committed to the movement for Jewish national self-determination, the Zionist project. This commitment does not entail rejecting the legitimacy of the Palestinian movement. As for the “greater justice”: it must be with the movement that has always favoured co-existence, each people in their own state. Israel is ready, but are the Palestinians?

Answer: a)

ESTHER FREUD

It is like the grimmest of experiments. You humiliate and brutalise a group of people for so long that eventually a generation is born that feel they have so little to live for that they are prepared to use their own lives as a scream for help.

Answer: b)

HOWARD BRENTON

In two years of violence, 1,750 are dead on the Palestinian side and 613 on the Israeli side. The Palestinian figure includes more than 70 suicide bombers, executed informers, 13 Israeli Arabs killed in pro-Palestinian riots and a German resident of the West Bank. The Israeli figure includes four non-Jews killed in Israeli army uniform, a Filipino worker and two Chinese killed in a suicide bombing, two Romanian workers and a Greek monk killed in a roadside shooting. To discuss “the most justice” seems an obscene Western parlour game. The conflict won’t stop until the Palestinians have a truly sovereign state.

Answer: I don’t want to give one of the three replies.

JONATHAN COE

To answer your question, I believe that the Palestinian people and their leaders have most justice on their side. I have nothing to add to this, except to say that I don’t see why the opinions of writers on this issue should carry any more weight, or be considered any better informed, than the opinions of journalists, historians or indeed anybody else.

Answer: b)

ALAN SILLITOE

Every newly formed country has to fight for its existence. Even if Israel “traded land for peace” by going back to the pre-1967 borders, attempts by Islamic extremists to take over the rest of the country would continue. So Israel has to go on defending itself for as long as it takes, to ensure its survival as a nation.

Answer: a)

MARINA WARNER

The stark answer is that the Palestinians have more right on their side because they are clearly at a huge disadvantage. Acts of cold-blooded aggression against civilians undertaken by an army are just not acceptable. But it is vital to remember that the government of Israel is not the Israeli people or the Israeli nation. Their conduct has set in doubt their legality, especially as the governing party of what is supposed to be a democratic state. I think it’s important not to be trapped into the argument that a criticism of Israel in some way implies anti-Semitism. There is no intrinsic connection between the policies of Israel at the moment and the character of the Israeli state as it was conceived. To say you are anti-Semitic if you criticise Sharon is like saying an attack on Harold Shipman is an attack on GPs.

Answer: b)

EDWARD BOND

The conflict cannot be related to the Spanish Civil War. Then the enemy was fascism and the sane, moral answer was clear. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are fascists. Historically they share the same problem — both are people of a diaspora. It will only be resolved when they share the same solution — nationhood. They have more reason than any other people to understand each other. Yet they kill each other — and really, in the abstraction of history, that means they kill themselves. To answer the question either way is to share in their despair and anger without their excuse.

Answer: none

BENJAMIN ZEPHANIAH

Palestinians are no angels, but an occupied people will use all means necessary to gain freedom; they are desperate. Israel and its apologist must face up to the fact that they are an illegal occupying force. And shame on the rest of the world for standing by and allowing this genocide to continue; if this were any other region there would at very least be a UN presence there.

Answer: b)

NORMAN DAVIES

Your survey assumes that the dispute is between the Israeli people and the Palestinian people as if there were some sort of rough equivalence. Yet a large part of the problem derives from the fact that the Israeli people have a powerful internationally recognised state and a fully fledged state apparatus, whilst the Palestinian people have nothing more than the remnants of a semi-autonomous, semi-dismantled “authority”. In other words, the Israelis already possess almost everything to which the Palestinians can only aspire. This glaring discrepancy lies at the root of the problem. Not least on the negotiating table where Israelis have only to make concessions, whilst the Palestinians try to make fundamental demands. The solution can only be put in place by a powerful and neutral mediator. Alas, no such mediator is on side.

Answer: c)

PHILIP HENSHER

The idea of Israel as a victim state whose actions are licensed by the assaults of “terrorism” and the legacy of the European destruction of the Jews has been shown to be a cynical and opportunistic manipulation of history and contemporary realities. The Palestinian people, having no prospect of equitable treatment within Israel, have the right to their own lands, and to self-determination; to suggest that only Palestinian leaders who are acceptable to Israel and the US will be tolerated is to withhold any prospect of liberty, and to breed further acts of despair and hopelessness.

Answer: b)

AHDAF SOUEIF

The Palestinians are fighting for their survival in the face of a brutal occupation. They demand their own state on 22 per cent of their ancestral lands. They have accepted — unwillingly– Israel’s existence on 78 per cent of these same lands. What exactly does Israel want? All the land? Empty of Palestinians? Or with Palestinians permanently happy to provide a market and cheap labour? Plus peace?

Answer: b)

BLAKE MORRISON

One side has lost its land, the other gained it. One side has stone-throwers, the other tanks. One side has international law on its side; the other has the US. Israel shouldn’t be demonised — all shades of opinion flourish there, many are working hard for peace — but its government has been brutal in suppressing Palestinian civil rights, education, culture and freedom of movement. The Palestinians shouldn’t be sanctified — the cult of the suicide bomber is sick and self-defeating — but who can blame them for their sense of powerlessness? It is David against Goliath. And it is the story of the abused child growing up to be an abusive adult.

Answer: b)

MICHELE ROBERTS

Answer: b)

LOUIS DE BERNIERES

Both sides are simultaneously right and wrong. First, Israel has been adopting tactics which are reminiscent of the Nazis. Second, the Palestinian leadership is corrupt, pusillanimous and incompetent. There is no attempt at proper liberal democracy, whereas Israel at least makes an attempt at it. Third, the Israelis have a powerful but ridiculous religious lobby who seriously think that God gave them Palestine (all of it) in ancient times, and therefore they can do what they bloody well like. Fourth, the Palestinians have powerful and equally ridiculous religious factions who seriously think that they have a divine mission to kill Jews (any or all of them) and that this will get them to paradise. Fifth, Palestine is a state founded by ex-terrorists who aren’t very “ex”, and Israel was also founded by terrorists. So what hope was there ever?

Answer: none

CARYL CHURCHILL

I feel so strongly about this that I have recently become a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign

Answer: b)

ANTONIA FRASER

Although I applaud your idea of a survey, I cannot take part in its present form owing to the way you have framed the questions. I would like to be able to differentiate between the “people” and the “leaders” in both cases.

Answer: none

ANITA DESAI

Answer: b)

HELEN SIMPSON

I think your survey is misconceived. I can’t believe my views on the Arab-Israeli conflict are more worth having than anyone else’s. You mention the 1937 survey, but this conflict is nothing like the Spanish Civil War; if anything it is more like the situation in Northern Ireland and you might as well have asked writers whether they were for or against the Republicans or the Loyalists — and to give their reasons in “up to 100 words”. No, I think you should have gone to the historians on this one; that might have been genuinely illuminating.

Answer: none

HARI KUNZRU

I am not interested in looking at the Middle East conflict and terming one side’s violence “just” and the other’s “unjust”. Israel’s right to exist should be recognised by the Palestinians and their Arab allies. Likewise Israel should recognise the Palestinians’ right to a viable state of their own.

Answer: c) — although I would like to add a d) option–it’s not that I don’t know, more that I find the three given options simplistic.

IRVINE WELSH

I once took my family to the poshest restaurant in town. Unfortunately, the town was Tranent, but that’s another story. I noticed that my mother was snooty and offhand with the waitress. I said: “Show some empathy, Ma, you waited tables long enough.” She frostily replied: “I had to put up with it.” So being oppressed, brutalised or bullied only apprentices you in those dark trades. “Take no shit” easily becomes “give it out to others”. Thus the Israelis were educated by the Nazis and the Palestinians suffer. Who should live there? There’s room for both. There’s always room for everybody.

Answer: depends on how the concept of justice is defined.

MARGARET DRABBLE

The Palestinian people are powerless, stateless, weaponless and hopeless. They are ill led by Arafat, who vainly plays to the cameras. One must sympathise with a people so tragically abandoned by history. No wonder they throw stones, and worse than stones. Sharon is a disastrously provocative leader, whose insistence on retaining the occupied territories is wholly unjustified — a view with which many Israelis agree. I admire Shimon Peres for staying with the problem. He is a brave man.

Answer: Your question brackets people and leaders as indivisible.