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Voices from an unwinnable war

Until now, young Israelis have been able to ignore the plight of Palestinians in Gaza. The invasion

Within an hour of Israel's ground invasion of Gaza on Saturday 3 January, word had spread around downtown Jerusalem. Young people who would normally be out socialising returned home or remained there to watch the TV news. Everyone you meet in Jerusalem and beyond is obsessively following the events in Gaza: what the daily newspaper Haaretz is calling "the First Gaza War".

For nearly all Jews in Israel, the connection is very personal. Because of conscription, with the exception of those in the tiny, ultra-Orthodox religious minority, almost everyone will themselves have served or be serving, or expect to serve in the army, or have children or relatives who do. Yael Aviv, a 26-year-old part-time waitress at Mona's, a fashionable nightspot, shudders as she describes learning of the deployment from a colleague.

"It gives me the shivers," she says. "I know someone down there [at the border, where thousands of troops are amassed] and I have many friends who are soldiers. Tomorrow I'll go to college and we will all be talking about those we know who are serving."

Picking at an eggplant salad, Ouria Tadmor, a 31-year-old photographer, expresses his fears for his family in the south. His mother and brother - who has three children - live in Yavne, close to Ashdod, which the Hamas rockets have targeted for the first time. He himself grew up in Beer Sheva, also hit (also for the first time) just before the ground invasion.

"There is nothing they can do - they each have a bomb shelter in their home; the kids don't go to school and don't leave the house," he says. "My mother is deaf in one ear and doesn't hear the alarms." And why are there so few people out in what is Jerusalem's rough equivalent of Leicester Square? "As long as it's only the air force attacking [Gaza], people don't really care. But as soon as the kids go in, everybody watches." Yael agrees. "I prefer not to see the news all day, but I am following this," she says.

It is hard to find Israelis who - for now, at least - do not support the confrontation with Hamas. People want an end to the rocket fire that has killed 24 in Israel since the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000 (though many would acknowledge that this is a modest number compared with the hundreds, some claim thousands, of Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza over the same period). And there is national pride, too, assuaging the failure of the outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert's prolonged war against Hezbollah in Lebanon during the summer of 2006.

Both Ouria, who describes himself as a "liberal centrist", and Yael, who craves a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians, support the troop invasion of Gaza. "If you do something, you've got to do it right," says Ouria. This view is backed by polls, which - at the time of writing - show a little more than half of all Israelis supporting the Gaza operation. Figures published in Haaretz put support at 53 per cent, even though only 19 per cent had said they wanted a ground invasion before it took place.

This relative unanimity among Israelis has palpably increased the tension with Palestinians in neighbouring occupied East Jerusalem. As protests began to spill over into the Old City early this month, armed soldiers hurried towards al-Aqsa Mosque, where Muslims were gathering for Friday prayers.

In secular Tel Aviv, however, the war feels a long way away. Hamas militants in Gaza may chant "Bomb Tel Aviv" but it is an oasis of indifference. I visit a former soldier who describes the general mood in the city as "denial". "You could live in this seaside, modern city without thinking about the conflict for a minute," he says. "We live in a bubble."

Bubbles occasionally burst. His girlfriend was late for our meeting because, just down the coast in the ancient Arab town of Jaffa, the bus in front of hers was rocked back and forth by angry protesters. And as the troops went in on Saturday night, several thousands held a ceasefire rally in the square where the former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

As Israel risks another military quagmire amid growing condemnation from abroad - with more dead soldiers and apparent defeat because the rockets from Hamas have not stopped landing in southern Israel - it is a stand-off that is too much to bear.

In the near-empty bar of Mona's, Ouria says he's had enough of living in a divided city and within an hour of the destruction in Gaza.

For the first time, he has "no one to vote for" in next month's elections, elections that cynics believe explain the timing of this war. "I'm actually looking for a European wife and to get the hell out of here," he says with a sardonic smile. "You should write that down, because quite a lot of my generation feel as I do but they won't say it."

Photo by Quique Kirszenbaum

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The destruction of Gaza

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

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