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Our only hope is to talk

Israel must speak to the Palestinians: it is the sole strategy by which Israelis themselves will fin

Like the pairs of foxes in the biblical story of Samson, tied together by the tail with a flaming torch between them, we and the Palestinians are dragging each other into disaster, despite our disparate strength, and even when we try very hard to separate. And as we do, we burn the other who is bound to us, our double, our nemesis, ourselves.

So, in the midst of the wave of nationalist invective now seeping Israel, it would not hurt to keep in mind that this latest military operation in Gaza is, when all is said and done, just one more way-station on a road paved with fire and violence and hatred. On this road you sometimes win and you sometimes lose, but it leads in the end to ruin.

As we Israelis rejoice at how this campaign has rectified Israel's military failures in the Second Lebanon War, we should listen to the voice that says that the Israel Defence Forces' achievements are not indubitable proof that Israel was right to set out on an operation of such huge proportions; it certainly does not justify the way our army pursued its mission. The IDF's achievements confirm only that Israel is much stronger than Hamas, and that under certain circumstances it can be very tough and cruel.

But when the operation ends completely, and when the magnitude of the killing and devastation become apparent to all, perhaps Israeli society will, for a brief moment, put a hold on its sophisticated mechanisms of repression and self-righteousness. And then perhaps a lesson of some sort will get etched into Israeli consciousness. Maybe then we will finally understand something deep and fundamental - that our conduct here in this region has, for a long time, been flawed, immoral and unwise. In particular, it time and again fans the flames that consume us.

The Palestinians cannot be absolved of culpability for their errors and crimes. To do so would be to show contempt and condescension towards them, as if they were not rational adults responsible for each of their mistakes and oversights. True, the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip were in large measure "strangled" by Israel, but they, too, had other options, other ways of voicing and displaying their plight. Firing thousands of rockets at innocent civilians in Israel was not the only choice they had. We must not forget that. We must not be forgiving of the Palestinians, as if it goes without saying that when they are in distress, their almost automatic response must be violence.

But even when the Palestinians act with reckless belligerence - with suicide bombings and Qassam missiles - Israel, which is many times stronger than they are, has tremendous power to control the level of violence in the conflict as a whole. As such, it can also have a profound influence on calming the conflict and extricating both sides from its cycle of violence. This most recent military action indicates that there does not seem to be anyone in the Israeli leadership who grasps that.

After all, the day will come when we will want to try to heal the wounds that we have just now inflicted. How can that day come if we do not understand that our military might cannot be our principal tool for establishing our presence here, opposite and with the Arab nations? How can that day come if we do not grasp the gravity of the responsibility imposed on us by our fateful ties and connections, past and future, with the Palestinian nation in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and in Israel itself?

When the clouds of coloured smoke clear - the smoke of the politicians' declarations of comprehensive, decisive victory, when we realise what this operation has really achieved, and how large the gap is between those declarations and what we really need to know in order to live a normal life in this region; when we acknowledge that an entire nation eagerly hypnotised itself, because it needed so badly to believe that Gaza would cure its Lebanon malady - then we can turn our attention to those who time and again have incited Israeli society's hubris and euphoria of power. To those who have, for so many years, taught us to scorn the belief in peace, and any hope for any change at all in our relations with the Arabs. To those who have persuaded us that the Arabs understand only force, and that we thus can speak to them only in that language. Since we have spoken that way to them so often, and only that way, we have forgotten that there are other languages that can be used to speak with other human beings, even enemies, even enemies as bitter as Hamas - languages that are mother tongues to us, the Israelis, no less than the language of the airplane and the tank.

To talk to the Palestinians. That must be the central conclusion we reach from this last, bloody round of war. To talk even with those who do not recognise our right to exist here. Instead of ignoring Hamas now, it would be best to take advantage of the new situation and enter into a dialogue, in order to enable an accommodation with the Palestinian people as a whole. To talk, in order to understand that reality is not just the hermetically-sealed story that we and the Palestinians have been telling ourselves for generations, the story that we are imprisoned within, no small part of which consists of fantasies, wishes, and nightmares. To talk in order to devise, within this opaque, unhearing reality, an opportunity for speech, for that alternative, so scorned and forlorn today, for which, in the tempest of war, there is almost no place, no hope, no believers.

To talk as a well-considered strategy, to initiate dialogue, to insist on speech, to talk to the wall, to talk even if it seems fruitless. In the long term, this stubbornness may do more, far more, for our future than hundreds of airplanes dropping bombs on a city. To talk out of the understanding, born of the recent horrors we have seen, that the destruction we, each people in its own way, are able to cause each other is a huge and corrupting force. If we surrender to it and its logic, it will, in the end, destroy us all.

To talk, because what has taken place in the Gaza Strip during the past three weeks places before us, in Israel, a mirror that reflects us a face that would horrify us, were we to gaze on it for one moment from the outside, or if we were to see it on another nation. We would understand that our victory is no real victory, and that the war in Gaza has not brought us any healing in that place where we desperately need a cure.

David Grossman is an Israeli author and film-maker

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling

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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