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.


No bigots on our march, thanks

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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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood