Children of Abraham v sons of Ibrahim

On a visit to human rights groups in Israel and the West Bank, Sigrid Rausing senses a growing tensi

There is silence on the scrubby hills overlooking Bethlehem. The hills are dotted with cylindrical Israeli guard towers, looking down into the valleys. Tiny fields of olive trees line the roads; the disputed areas, here at least, are so small. We are just above the wall dividing Israel from the West Bank. It is deceptively peaceful, almost somnolent. Sparrows dive in and out of the glittering razor wire on top. From the hill you can see how close it is to the Palestinian homes of Bethlehem, how comfortably distant from Israeli homes.

Most of the land in Israel is owned by the state. The uneven distribution of facilities, from sewerage to education, remains a problem. In addition to communal disadvantages, the privileges that flow from army service, such as subsidised education and housing, are also denied to individual Palestinians, who do not serve in the army. Hebrew remains the language of teaching in the universities, which affects Palestinian students. And yet many Palestinians in Israel fear that, in the eventual peace deal, their villages will be traded for land in the West Bank with Jewish settlements, depriving them of Israeli citizenship.

Persecution, the tragedy of exile and the wish to return to the land of the forefathers are part of the DNA of Jewish culture. These are now clashing with another strand of the culture which is about social revolution, human rights, equality and secularism. The conflict is no longer simply about Palestinians v Jews, nor about the ultra-Orthodox v the secular; it is also a bitter cultural civil war between beleaguered human rights organisations - the remnants of the Israeli left - and the secular right.

This is not about Zionism. If you are a Jew living in Israel you are, for better or worse, a Zionist. But human rights activists, along with many Israelis, remember the original dream of Israel as a refuge for all Jews and a democracy where no one is discriminated against on the grounds of race or religion. They remember the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which states that Israel

will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

They believe in keeping Israel accountable to its origins and ideals, even in the face of war and terrorism.

People on the right are concerned with security, listen to the anti-Semitism of the Muslim world and take seriously the openly anti-Semitic charter of Hamas. Liberals, by contrast, listen to Palestinian narratives of oppression and discrimination. Conservatives believe that the forces that want to destroy Israel and drive the Jews into the sea may prevail; liberals believe that peaceful coexistence is possible. Conservatives believe that liberals co-operate with the forces that conspire to bring about Israel's destruction; liberals believe that conservatives exploit Israel's exceptionalism, particularly the memory of the Holocaust, in the name of security. Liberals abhor racism and oppression, while many conservatives, especially supporters of Avigdor Lieberman, now believe in permanent separation. For conservatives, external criticism of Israeli policies is always a sign of anti-Semitism or self-hatred. They also increasingly argue that internal criticism of Israel delegitimises the nation, undermining Israel's very right to exist.

I am here to visit the Israeli grantees of my charitable foundation. Israeli human rights organisations are almost entirely funded from abroad. To a greater or lesser extent, that is true of all Israeli institutions, and the country does indeed have an affluent sheen about it that speaks of generous grants from funding bodies. For the human rights organisations, however, foreign funding has led to a certain disconnection from Israelis themselves. Advocates are turning towards the international audience rather than the domestic one, to English rather than Hebrew. As a result, they have become somewhat isolated within Israel.

Yet they have achieved results. Palestinian detainees are no longer hooded or put into stress positions, or threatened with the arrest and maltreatment of relatives. Their shackles now have to be at least 50cm long, rather than 30cm. Detainee maltreatment is carefully monitored by NGOs.

The Supreme Court, too, has helped with many favourable rulings in cases brought by human rights groups. The ban on torture and the improvements to detainee conditions are sometimes used as arguments against human rights organisations, on the grounds that they are "unnecessary". The internal debate is combative, mirroring in many ways the American debate on torture in the Bush era. Many Israeli hawks are American-born (though, now, probably more of them are Russian), and many American hawks are deeply engaged in Israel.

We visit Hebron with one of the organisations we support. In Kiryat Arba, the settler suburb, we stop off at the Meir Kahane Memorial Park. There is the tomb of Baruch Goldstein, who killed dozens of unarmed Palestinians in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque, in 1994. Israeli soldiers looked on, bewildered and motionless, until finally he was killed by members of the public.

Goldstein, born in Brooklyn, joined the ultra-nationalist Kahane's Jewish Defence League and lived in the Hebron settlement. The Hebrew inscription on his tomb states:

Here lies buried the holy one Dr Baruch Kappel Goldstein . . .
He gave his soul for the people of Israel, for the Torah and for the land. Clean of hand and pure of heart. Murdered while protecting the Nation of God.

There is a shoddy bus shelter next to the little park. The streets are empty.

In 1929, 67 Jews were killed in Hebron, ending Jewish life in the city. The settlers started to reoccupy Hebron in the late 1970s, house by house. Kiryat Arba now has some 600 inhabitants, guarded by 1,200 soldiers. Hebron itself is divided into two sectors - H1, home to about 180,000 Palestinians, and H2, the four square kilometres at the heart of city, which is under direct occupation.

There, on the narrow streets around Abraham's tomb, all shops are closed and sealed. People still live on the first and second floors. Every window is covered with a light metal mesh. The Palestinians' laws prevent them from selling their houses to the settlers, so the inhabitants of H2 are financially locked in. Houses are sometimes abandoned when owners die or move away. Settlers drape Israeli flags on them - another victory for Zionism, another (self-imposed) defeat for the Palestinians.

There are a few settler quarters in H2 as well. They are affluent and orderly, in contrast to the dismal Palestinian streets. On some streets, Israelis can drive and Palestinians cannot. In some places they have to walk on the other side of concrete barriers. Israeli soldiers, armed with machine-guns, complain only about the settlers, who often try to provoke fights with the Palestinians.

Our grantee has handed out video cameras to Palestinian families to record settler attacks, which are many and frequent. If there is a fight, the soldiers will step in - the post-Holocaust ideology of the Israeli state mandates that Jewish lives must always be protected. Without that protection, there would be guerrilla warfare in the West Bank.

We chat with a soldier in a watchtower. There is a bag of rubbish on the floor: chocolate wrappers, cans and paper, the detritus of the young. Outside, Breaking the Silence, a group dedicated to soldier testimony of abuse of Palestinians in the occupied territories, is taking a group of visitors around. Next to them is a conservative group, showing the settlements. The atmosphere is tense; the soldiers are watching in case they clash. I ask if the liberal groups ever attack the conservative ones, and our guide laughs and shakes his head.

Confrontation in Israel is now the domain of the right, like the young activists of the neo-Zionist Im Tirtzu who recently targeted the progressive New Israel Fund with posters depicting its Israeli director with a horn in her forehead. A few streets away, settlers have painted naive scenes of Jewish life on a wall, political graffiti minimising the oppressive force of the occupation. The captions are in English:

Living together
A pious community
Destruction 1929
Liberation, return, rebuilding 1967
“The children have returned to their own borders." cf Jer 31:17

We visit the tomb of Abraham and Sarah, where Isaac, Jacob and their wives are also interred. Herod built a memorial temple over the tombs.

Pieces of paper - prayers - are thrown into the sealed rooms of the tombs. Birds fly in and out; padlocks seal the doors. Children, tourists, Orthodox men and women talk comfortably, drifting from tomb to tomb. A man sleeps on a plastic chair. I look into Abraham's tomb. Diagonally across from me, a Palestinian woman simultaneously looks through the bars of her identical window; Abraham is locked in between the two sides.

Later, we visit the mayor of a Palestinian village on the sea. His family accounts for 40 per cent of the population. He seems a little sleepy, talking about education, culture and sports, but without any enthusiasm - those words represent grants, and, like with Potemkin façades, the reality behind them is uncertain. This is the poorest village in Israel, between Haifa and Tel Aviv, and next to the wealthy Jewish village of Caesarea, where Prime Minister Netanyahu has a weekend house. The inhabitants of Caesarea built a sand barrier between the two villages.

The mayor's dream is a €50m holiday home development on the beach, funded by the European Union, temporarily stopped because of ownership issues. I can't imagine a holiday resort on this littered beach, despite the blue sea. We stand there, deep in thought, when suddenly an Arab horse canters by, and then another - fleeting images of Palestinian freedom and defiance.

The saddest thing we saw was not Hebron, or the partly bulldozed Palestinian cemetery in the Mount Carmel National Park, or the barrier wall. It was a prison outside Tel Aviv that houses asylum-seekers. Most of the male detainees are Africans, lounging on narrow beds in fairly open conditions. Some have walked across the Egyptian border. There is a ping-pong table in the open-air common-room; a cockroach crawls along a wall.

The female detainees are Asian and eastern European. A Ukrainian woman is thought to have been trafficked, but can't be helped unless she says so herself - she was picked up from a brothel, and is not saying. Her grey, expressionless face and bleached hair are haunting. But the saddest thing is the children's ward. Two boys are locked in a cell. They look about 12; younger than that and they are detained in boarding schools. The locking up is, I believe, temporary, like the stench from the garbage that is being removed as we stand there. I don't know where they were from - Sudan, perhaps. But the sight of them, the same age as my own son, was indescribably sad.

Sigrid Rausing is the publisher of Granta and founder of the Sigrid Rausing Trust.

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask

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Goodbye to the Confederate flag

After the shootings in Charleston, the Republican right showed it was finally ready to reject the old symbols of the Confederacy.

On 27 June, an African-American activist named Bree Newsome woke up before dawn, put on her climbing equipment and scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the lawn of State House in Columbia, South Carolina. She then removed the Confederate battle flag that flew from it. “We can’t wait any longer,” she explained later in an online statement. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy.”

After she was led away in handcuffs, the flag was raised again.

Newsome’s protest reflected a growing impatience within America’s black community and anger about liberal inaction. Political rallies by the Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been disrupted by the Black Lives Matter campaign against violence committed on young African Americans and the cultural and legal biases that justify it. While promoting his book on race in the US, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that, to African Americans, the battle flag represents a lingering attempt “to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery”.

Yet, on this matter, to everyone’s surprise, the black civil rights movement and many southern Republicans have proved to be of one mind. On 9 July the House of Representatives in South Carolina voted to lower the battle flag for good. It stood, representatives said, for racism. It had to go.

The context of this agreement was a painful one. Ten days before Newsome’s act, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to his room-mate, he wanted to start a race war. The TV screens showed a photo of him holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other.

If the demands for redress made by civil rights groups didn’t come as a surprise, conservative acquiescence did. The Republican Party had built a solid base in the South by courting white voters who cherished the memory of the Confederacy. Yet the party’s presidential hopefuls from both the North and the South – including Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and George Pataki – said that the battle flag ought to be lowered. The most striking intervention was made by the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who denounced the use of the Confederate flag and signed the bill removing it. Haley is now tipped to figure on the list of potential vice-presidential nominees.

The volte-face of the US right is in part a result of the horror of the Charleston shootings. Yet it also occurs in the context of major shifts within American society. There are still many conservatives who will defend Confederate heritage as a matter of southern pride but the culture wars are changing as the US becomes increasingly European in outlook. This is taking place across the country. It just happens to be more pronounced in the South because no other region has fought so violently and so long to resist the liberal tide.

The story of the battle flag is the story of the South. The first official Confederate flag used in the civil war of 1861-65 caused confusion during fighting – through the haze of gun smoke, its design of 13 stars and red and white bars was hard to distinguish from the Stars and Stripes. An alternative blue cross was rejected for being too sectarian; the racist Confederacy was anxious not to offend its Jewish citizens. So the cross became a diagonal X. This flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate army. In the years after the war its use was infrequent.

There was little need to visualise southern difference in a flag. It was self-evident in the physical signs of racial segregation: separate schools, pools and drinking fountains; black people confined to the back of the bus. Political displays of the battle flag of Dixie (the historical nickname for the states that seceded from the Union) only really resurfaced when that racial order was challenged by northern liberals. In 1948, the Democrats – then the party overwhelmingly in control of the South – split over modest calls for civil rights. The conservatives who refused to support that year’s presidential ticket, the “Dixiecrats”, triggered a rev­ival of flag-waving across the region.

The old battle flag suddenly appeared on private lawns, on cars and at political rallies. Supposedly ancient cultural traditions were invented overnight. For instance, the 1948 student handbook of the University of Mississippi confessed: “Many Ole Miss customs are fairly new; they lack only the savouring which time brings . . . Ole Miss has adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of the Mississippi spirit. Each football game finds the scarlet flag frantically waving to the rhythm of the Rebel band.”

I can confirm that this “tradition” was still going as recently as in 2005. That year, I attended an American football game at Ole Miss and was surprised when the band played “Dixie” at the end. White boys and white girls stood up and belted out the folk song of the Confederacy, while black students filed out.

In 1958, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the battle flag. Three years later, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war, it was hoisted above its Capitol building in Columbia. That day, there was a struggle in the US Congress to keep federal funding going for segregated schools.

So clear is the link between the postwar white resistance to civil rights and the battle flag that many see it as the symbolic equivalent of the N-word. Jack Hunter, the editor of the conservative website Rare Politics, says: “Some people insist that it’s not about racism, not about slavery, not about segregation. But it’s about all those things.” Hunter grew up in Charleston and used to skateboard in the car park of the church that Dylann Roof attacked. When he was a young journalist, he appeared on local radio as a rabidly right-wing masked character called “the Southern Avenger”. His past was exposed in 2013 while he was working for Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, and Hunter stepped down from his position. He publicly renounced his youthful association with racial conservatism. He now eschews any romanticism about the Confederate cause and its demand for states’ rights. “States’ rights to do what?” he asks: the right to discriminate against African Americans? He is glad that the State House flag is gone. He ascribes its longevity to ignorance, which was corrected by Roof’s rampage: “It was the first time that [southern Republicans] were able to see a different perspective on this symbol.”

Not everyone agrees. Richard Hines – a former South Carolina legislator, Reagan campaign state co-chair and senior activist with the Sons of Confederate Veterans – insists that the flag is “an enduring symbol of the southern fighting man”. Indeed, a poll in July found that 57 per cent of Americans think it stands for southern heritage, rather than racism. Yet that heritage has a political dimension. “Southern people are proud of who they are and there is a leftist assault to destroy the best part of America,” Hines says. “The Trotskyite elite in control of the establishment wants to root out the southern tradition” – a tradition of religious devotion, chivalry and military honour. It is possible to cast the battle flag as a pawn in a much larger cultural conflict.

In 2000, civil rights activists lobbied hard to get the battle flag removed from the top of the South Carolina Capitol and succeeded in having it shrunk in size and relocated to the grounds of State House. The issue came up in that year’s Republican presidential primaries – an unusually poisonous contest between George W Bush and John McCain. Supporters of Bush put out a false story that McCain had fathered an interracial child out of wedlock. McCain added to his woes by opining that the battle flag was “a symbol of racism and slavery”. An organisation called Keep It Flying flooded the state with 250,000 letters attacking him and he lost the crucial competition here to Bush.

The battle flag has retained a strong emotional power for a long time. This makes the Republican establishment’s abandonment of the flag all the more surprising. Then again, those who run the South are probably the people most likely to grasp how much the region has changed in just a decade.

***

In 2010 I took a trip through North Carolina. The landscape told a story. Dotted along the roadside were abandoned black buildings, the old tobacco sheds. The decline of the rural economy had rendered them obsolete. Over the fields that would once have been full of farmers were freshly tarmacked roads, stretching out to nowhere. My guide explained that these were supposed to be cul-de-sacs for new houses. North Carolina was going through a property boom. But who was going to buy all those homes, I asked? The answer: damn Yankees.

Demography is destiny. This once agri­cultural region developed fast from the 1960s onwards by keeping union membership, taxes and regulation as low as possible. Yet capitalism proved disastrous for southern conservatism. Northerners flooded in, seeking work or retirement and bringing their own values. The forecast is that North Carolina’s Research Triangle – the South’s Silicon Valley – will grow by 700,000 jobs and 1.2 million people in two decades.

White migration was accompanied by an influx of Spanish speakers as the service sector flourished. Between 2000 and 2010, the white share of the population of North Carolina fell from 70 to 65 per cent. The black proportion remained at roughly 21 per cent. The Latino proportion, however, jumped from 4.7 per cent to 8.4 per cent. Today, the proportion of people who are non-white and over 60 is about a third. But it’s approaching nearly half for those under 18. As a result, politics in the South is no longer biracial: a contest between white and black. It is increasingly multiracial and uncoupled from the region’s complex past.

The impact of these changes is reflected in voting patterns. In 2000, the South was still overwhelmingly Republican in presidential contests. Even the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, a southerner, lost his home state of Tennessee. But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama took those states with the fastest-changing demographics: Florida and Virginia. He won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012 – but by less than 100,000 votes. It is true that the Republicans won back control in the 2014 midterm elections, with the result that the Deep South now sends few Democrats to Congress; but the region’s political masters are not quite as traditional-minded as they once were.

The Republican relationship with the Confederate past is complex. As the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the GOPs’ southern support was historically small. But in the 1960s the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights and alienated its once loyal southern following; the Republicans took the opportunity to steal some conservative white voters.

The growing southern Republican vote had a class component. Its success in local and congressional races was built more on winning over middle-class moderates than on appealing to the working-class racists who filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. The southern Republican Party did enthusiastically embrace the Confederate battle flag in many quarters. But some office-holders did so only with ambiguity, while large sections of the party never identified with it at all. The period of Republican ascendancy in the South was, in reality, linked with a softening of the area’s racial politics.

Two of the Republicans’ current southern stars are Indian Americans: Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the anti-flag governor of South Carolina. There are just two black people in the US Senate and one of them is a Republican, the Tea Party-backed senator for South Carolina, Tim Scott. Marco Rubio, the Floridian senator and presidential candidate, is Cuban American, and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush is married to a Mexican-born woman and speaks fluent Spanish. Bush has tried to push a more moderate line on immigration, in deference to how the GOP will struggle to win the White House if it appeals only to angry white voters. The Kentucky libertarian senator Rand Paul, Jack Hunter’s former boss, has called for legal reforms to correct the trend of keeping far more black than white people in prison. And he is not the only Republican to have been moved by recent race riots sparked by police violence.

***

Violence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, confirmed that there still is a culture war in the US. Yet its character has changed. In the past, civil disturbances were typically leapt upon by conservative politicians as evidence of social decline. The 1992 LA riots were blamed on single parenthood and rap lyrics. In contrast, conservative leaders today are far more likely to acknowledge the problems of white racism. There is no place in their ranks for the likes of Dylann Roof. White supremacists are tiny in number.

Jack Hunter claims: “The KKK is like 12 guys in a telephone booth. Liberal groups will use their threat for fundraising but it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t properly since the 1960s.” Roof’s actions say more about gun control, mental illness and the angst of the young than they do about popular, largely liberal views on race, as polling shows.

We can see a similar liberal shift in other areas of the historic culture war. In May 2015 Gallup released the results of a “moral acceptability” survey charting changes in national attitude across all age groups, from 2001 to 2015. Approval of gay relationships jumped from 40 to 63 per cent; having a baby out of wedlock from 45 to 61 per cent; sex between unmarried men and women from 53 to 68 per cent; doctor-assisted suicide from 49 to 56 per cent; even polygamy went from 7 to 16 per cent. Abortion remained narrowly disapproved of: support for access has only crept up from 42 to 45 per cent. This is probably a result of an unusual concentration of political and religious opposition and because it involves a potential life-or-death decision. But the general trend is that young people just don’t care as much about what consenting adults get up to.

Why? It might be because old forms of identity are dying. One way of measuring that is religious affiliation. From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as Christian fell from 78 to 71 per cent. Today, only a quarter of the population is evangelical and 21 per cent Catholic, down despite high immigration. Then there is the decline in civic or communal activity. Since 2012, the organisers of Nascar, the stock-car races, have not published attendance figures at their tracks, probably because they have fallen so sharply. The decline of this most macho and working class of sports parallels the fall in conservative forms of collective identity such as southern traditionalism.

The old culture war was, like the racial politics of the old South, binary. In the 1950s, around the same time as the South invented its tradition of flying the battle flag in colleges, the US constructed an ideal of the “normal” nuclear family unit: straight, white, patriarchal, religious. On the other side was the “abnormal”: gay, black, feminist, atheist, and the rest. The surest way to get elected in the US between 1952 and 2004 was to associate yourself with the economic needs and cultural prejudices of the majority. The approach was once summed up by a Richard Nixon strategist thus: split the country in two and the Republicans will take the larger half. But that is changing. The old normal is no longer the cultural standard but just one of many identities to choose from. The races are mixing. Women want to work more and have children later in life, possibly without marriage. Many religious people are having to rethink their theology when a child comes out as gay. And the enforcers of the old ways – the unions, churches or political parties – are far less attractive than the atomising internet.

***

Politicians are scrabbling to keep up with the diffusion of American identity. Democrats got lucky when they nominated Barack Obama and chose a presidential candidate who reflected the fractured era well: interracial, non-denominational Christian, and so on. In the 2012 presidential race the Republicans got burned when they tried to play the old culture war card on abortion. They won’t repeat that mistake. After the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage across the country in June, the right’s response was not as uniformly loud and outraged as it would have been in the past. Some protested, but serious presidential contenders such as Jeb Bush grasped the implications of the defeat. There is a cultural and political realignment going on and no one is sure where it will lead. It’s encouraging caution among the Republican top brass. It is time, they think, to abandon lost causes.

The death of southern traditionalism is part of the ebb and flow of cultural history. Identities flourish and die. As political fashions change, you find the typically American mix of triumph on one side and jeremiad on the other. Richard Hines stood vigil as the battle flag was lowered in Columbia and noted with disgust the presence of what he described as “bussed-in” activists. “They pulled out all these gay pride flags and started shouting, ‘USA, USA, USA!’ It reminded me of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Hines reckons that more southerners will now fly the flag than ever before and says he has attended overflow rallies of ordinary folks who love their region. He may well be correct. The faithful will keep the old Confederate standard fluttering on their lawns – an act of secession from the 21st century. But in the public domain, the battle flag is on its way down and in its place will be raised the standard of the new America. The rainbow flag flutters high. For now.

Tim Stanley is a historian and a columnist for the Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars