A picture taken from the Israeli border shows the sun setting over the Gaza strip. Photo: Getty
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A reply to Jason Cowley on Gaza

Alan Johnson responds to the NS editor’s article about Israel, Gaza and the left.

I write in reply to Jason Cowley’s blog in which he referenced my Daily Telegraph blog about Jon Snow.

My blog claimed that Jon Snow has three illusions about Hamas: he thinks Hamas are a negotiating partner-in-waiting being ignored by Israel, but they aren’t; that Hamas grew as a popular reaction to the blockade, but it didn’t; and that the ordinary people Snow talks to in Gaza can speak freely about Hamas, but they can’t.

I also suggested that these delusions were rooted in some tendencies found on much of the liberal left – what US social democrat Paul Berman called its “rationalist naivete” and what Natan Sharanky identified during the cold war as its tendency to blur the line between democracies and totalitarian / authoritarian states and movements.

How did Cowley critique my argument? Not, I suggest, by meeting its full force and rebutting it, that’s for sure.

First, he “spun” the debate to make his opponent sound like an idiot and the argument very easy for himself. “It shouldn’t be a question of either you support Israel, no matter what it does, or you are on the side of the Islamists,” wrote Cowley. “Ah,” the reader is supposed to say, “this Johnson thinks everything Israel does should be supported and he is having a go at Snow because he is willing to criticise Israel – boo!”

The trouble with Cowley’s argument is that my blog was about Snow’s illusions in Hamas, not his criticisms of Israel. More: every issue of Fathom, the online journal I edit, carries criticisms of Israel. Fathom readers are introduced to sharply critical perspectives on the occupation and the settlements from Ahron Bregman, Raanan Alexandrowicz, Sayed Kashua, Dror Moreh the director of The Gatekeepers, the Palestinian activist Hitham Kayali and others. Fathom showcases the full spectrum of political views about Israel, including those of the peace camp. Cowley ignores that and pretends I am a crude Israel Firster.

Second, Cowley reminds me that “We should care about all of the innocents [killed in the various Middle East wars]” implying my blog did not. Actually, on this point my blog praised Snow: “His broadcasts reflect the anguish of millions who identify with his passion about the ‘innocent children too broken by battle to survive’.”

Third, Cowley responded to my claim that it was not the Israeli-Egyptian blockade that caused the Hamas rockets (“The one begets the other” Snow had tweeted) but the other way round, not by challenging the accuracy of the claim itself, but by some sneering: “Well, useful to get that learnt, as Philip Larkin wrote.”

Larkin’s line is about a man who reduces a complex personal experience – the poem is about a failed romantic relationship of seven years and 400 letters – to a trite “lesson”. I guess the implication is that I reduced a complex historical experience to a talking point. But I did not. I was challenging a tendency on the left to reverse cause and effect so that our understanding of the conflict in Gaza, and what is needed to end it, is utterly distorted. Elsewhere I have set out the sequence of events after the 2005 disengagement more fully. Unfair, on the basis of one paragraph in one blog, to dismiss me as Larkinian Man.

Fourth, Cowley criticises me for not writing a different blog about a different subject. I wrote a blog about Jon Snow’s political illusions in Hamas but Jason criticises me for not writing about something else, the humanitarian plight of the Gazans. Again, it is feels like I am being framed rather than engaged in debate. “Never once does Johnson mention the conditions inside Gaza... Nor does Johnson condemn the shelling of schools, hospitals and a home for the disabled in Gaza. Why not?” Well, because it was a blog about Jon Snow’s “disabling illusions about Hamas” not about the terrible plight of the Gazan people. As far as the blog touched on that plight, as I say, I was full of praise for Snow.

Would it be fair of me follow suit by pointing out, with much finger wagging, that Cowley’s own article does not mention the terror tunnels? Would it be fair to ask the rhetorical question, “Cowley does not condemn the murder of Israelis or the traumatisation of Israeli childhood. Why not?” No, it would not be fair.

Fifth, Cowley says I do not mention the occupation as I have “no wish to discuss the facts on the ground”. Well, I edit a journal devoted to the facts on the ground. I have written policy papers, addressed overseas think tanks, and toured campuses making the case for “two states for two peoples”.

One last point. About some troubling habits of mind on parts of the left, I found Cowley’s response to be intellectually complacent. Move along, move along, nothing to see here. But there is a lot to see. Today, there are forms of anti-Zionism that demonise Israel and fuel hate, from the academic theory of Judith Butler and Gianni Vattimo to the historiography of Shlomo Sand, from the popular street phenomenon of the “quenelle” to the ugly rise of “Holocaust inversion”.

Oppression is no guarantee of political goodness or even of political decency. It can breed its own pathologies, and it can be, it often is, exploited by people who have no leftist commitments at all. The militants who act in the name of the oppressed are sometimes the agents of a new oppression – ideological or religious zealots with totalising programs and a deep contempt for liberal values. And then they should be met with hostility by leftists the world over: because they don’t serve the interests of the people they claim to represent and because they don’t advance the cause of democracy or equality. But often, instead, our illusions are regnant.

That’s what my blog about Jon Snow and Hamas was about.

Alan Johnson is a senior research fellow at BICOM, the Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre, and the editor of “Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region

Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region and senior research fellow at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM).

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Ansbach puts Europe's bravest politician under pressure

Angela Merkel must respond to a series of tragedies and criticisms of her refugee policy. 

Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, is supposed to be on holiday. Two separate attacks have put an end to that. The first, a mass shooting in Munich, was at first widely believed to be a terrorist attack, but later turned out to be the actions of a loner obsessed with US high school shootings. The second, where a man blew himself up in the town of Ansbach, caused less physical damage - three were seriously injured, but none killed. Nevertheless, this event may prove to affect even more people's lives. Because that man had come to Germany claiming to be a Syrian refugee. 

The attack came hours after a Syrian refugee murdered a pregnant Polish woman, a co-woker in a snack bar, in Reutlingen. All eyes will now be on Merkel who, more than any other European politician, is held responsible for Syrian refugees in Europe.

In 2015, when other European states were erecting barriers to keep out the million migrants and refugees marching north, Merkel kept Germany's borders open. The country has resettled 41,899 Syrians since 2013, according to the UNHCR, of which 20,067 came on humanitarian grounds and 21,832 through private sponsorship. That is twice as much as the UK has pledged to resettle by 2020. The actual number of Syrians in Germany is far higher - 90 per cent of the 102,400 Syrians applying for EU asylum in the first quarter of 2016 were registered there. 

Merkel is the bravest of Europe's politicians. Contrary to some assertions on the right, she did not invent the refugee crisis. Five years of brutal war in Syria did that. Merkel was simply the first of the continent's most prominent leaders to stop ignoring it. If Germany had not absorbed so many refugees, they would still be in central Europe and the Balkans, and we would be seeing even more pictures of starved children in informal camps than we do today. 

Equally, the problems facing Merkel now are not hers alone. These are the problems facing all of Europe's major states, whether or not they recognise them. 

Take the failed Syrian asylum seeker of Ansbach (his application was rejected but he could not be deported back to a warzone). In Germany, his application could at least be considered, and rejected. Europe as a whole has not invested in the processing centres required to determine who is a Syrian civilian, who might be a Syrian combatant and who is simply taking advantage of the black market in Syrian passports to masquerade as a refugee. 

Secondly, there is the subject of trauma. The Munich shooter appears to have had no links to Islamic State or Syria, but his act underlines the fact you do not need a grand political narrative to inflict hurt on others. Syrians who have experienced unspeakable violence either in their homeland or en route to Europe are left psychologically damaged. That is not to suggest they will turn to violence. But it is still safer to offer such people therapy than leave them to drift around Europe, unmonitored and unsupported, as other countries seem willing to do. 

Third, there is the question of lawlessness. Syrians have been blamed for everything from the Cologne attacks in January to creeping Islamist radicalisation. But apart from the fact that these reports can turn out to be overblown (two of the 58 men arrested over Cologne were Syrians), it is unclear what the alternative would be. Policies that force Syrians underground have already greatly empowered Europe's network of human traffickers and thugs.

So far, Merkel seems to be standing her ground. Her home affairs spokesman, Stephan Mayer, told the BBC that Germany had room to improve on its asylum policy, but stressed each attack was different. 

He said: "Horrible things take place in Syria. And it is the biggest humanitarian catastrophe, so it is completely wrong to blame Angela Merkel, or her refugee policies, for these incidents." Many will do, all the same.