The horror comes home

In Britain, the assault on Gaza has provided a dangerous rallying point for both the hard left and t

As the the dust and white phosphorus settle over Gaza, two questions present themselves immediately. What happens if the rockets fired on southern Israel stop? And what if they continue?

If they stop, Israel will feel fully justified in its strategy of a combined air and ground assault on Gaza, which left an estimated 1,300 dead, many of them women and children. If they continue, as appears to be Hamas's suicidal intention, the ­Israeli army and air force have already shown what the consequences are likely to be.

International opinion is largely irrelevant here. The Arab world remains paralysed by its internal divisions, while western leaders have expressed their horror at the brutality of the war. Amnesty International has called for an investigation into alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza and this may yet happen. But it will make no difference to the Israeli government's ­position. When I travelled to Israel earlier this year, there was a clear consensus among the government advisers, soldiers and political analysts I met that Israel was doing the west's dirty work for it by containing Hamas. It is certainly the case that its citizens have been in the front line in Sderot and other southern cities.

It is also true that the Hamas government in Gaza has been utterly reckless with the lives of its citizens. From the outside, the grotesque tally of the dead (over 1,000 versus 13 Israelis) looks hideously unjust. But from inside Israel and Palestine, there is another way of looking at it (and this is bleak, indeed): which side did best in protecting its own people?

Israel will now argue that the neutralisation of Hamas makes the prospects for a genuine peace based on a two-state solution more likely. Perhaps that's true. It really is impossible to know at this stage.

But even if you accept, as I do, that Hamas represents a strain of totalitarian Islamist thought akin to fascism, what happened in Gaza cannot be justified. Even if you accept, as I do, that Hamas must be defeated as a military force, this was not the way to go about it. Even if you accept, as I do, that Hamas used women and children as human shields, this does not mean that the terrorist organisation should take the entire blame when Israeli weapons kill innocents.

When I wrote a piece for this magazine last May called "The great betrayal", intended as a critique of the British left's attitude to Israel, it turned out to be one of the most controversial articles I had written. It ­argued that some opposition to the Zionist state on the left was only explicable as anti-Semitism. I described the Israel-Palestine conflict as "a terrible faultline on the British left". The piece was seen in some quarters as over-sympathetic to Israel, but it contained the following important paragraph: "On the face of it, the answer to my question [Why does the left hate Israel?] is simple. The British left hates Israel because it has abandoned its Enlightenment principles and set about the systematic oppression of a people whose land it occupies. The invasion of southern Lebanon in the summer of 2006 was a new low point that caused international outrage. For most people on the left in Britain, support for Israel is out of the question." Now there is a new low point. However, before we assume that everyone agrees with the left consensus that Israel is to blame, it's worth looking at the recent Sunday Times/YouGov poll, which showed that 39 per cent blamed both sides equally and 24 per cent blamed Hamas. Only 18 per cent blamed Israel.

No one denies that what happened in Gaza is horrible, not even the Israeli government. I was struck by an interview during the conflict, on Radio 4's Today programme, with Mark Regev, the Israeli prime minister's tough-talking foreign press spokesman. Asked whether he had any doubts when he saw the results of Israeli bombing, he answered: "Yes, of course I do." Over the past few weeks, Britain's most passionate supporters of Israel have been forced to search deep into their consciences.

On 6 January, when Israel hit a UN school in Gaza, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (Bicom) issued the following statement: "Israeli voices are indicating that there was a hidden weapon store in the school, but clearly there can be no defence of civilian casualties."

In Britain, the main consequence of the Gaza War has been to provide a rallying point for the motley alliance of totalitarian sympathisers of the hard left and Islamic radical right. It is not the responsibility of the Israeli government to consider the consequences of their actions on the rise of militant Islam in Britain and Europe. But the dangers are real. The Islamist tendency represented by self-appointed representatives such as the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain was on the retreat. The Gaza War has given them new life, as shown by their prominence in the recent demonstrations, and across the media.

Whether the Hamas rockets stop or not, either outcome will be used to justify the unjustifiable

It is telling that Ed Husain, author of The Islamist and one of the most effective opponents of Hamas sympathisers in Britain, issued a statement calling on the British government to intervene with ­Israel. "The UK government cannot seek to win hearts and minds across Muslim communities while failing to stop Israel from murdering Palestinians en masse," he wrote. More worrying, in a way, is the renewal of an official narrative of compromise with Islamism, as demonstrated by David Miliband's peculiar intervention during his trip to Mumbai where he warned: "The more we lump terrorist groups together and draw the battle lines as a simple binary struggle between moderates and extremists or good and evil, the more we play into the hands of those seeking to unify groups with little in common, and the more we magnify the sense of threat." The uncomfortable fact is that many of these groups do have a unifying ideology, which is anti-Enlightenment, anti-women, anti-gay and anti-Semitic.

I have written widely about the Islamic radical right in Britain and I have always been depressed at the size of the ­psychological space occupied by the Palestinian struggle in the minds of young British Muslims. It has always seemed ­peculiar that bright and politically committed members of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi community are so particularly concerned with the alleged abuses of the Israeli government. If half the energy expended by the south Asian diaspora in ­defence of the Palestinians was spent campaigning for justice and political transparency in Pakistan and Bangladesh, then the prospects for reform in those countries would be vastly enhanced.

To return to my original questions: what happens if the Hamas rockets stop? And what happens if they don't? The ­awful truth is that either outcome will be used to justify the unjustifiable, whether that is the killing of Israeli innocents by Hamas terrorists in the name of resistance, or the bombing of Palestinian innocents by the Israeli military in the name of ­national security.

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Daniel Trilling

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage