Thursday, July 24, 2014

Palestinians in Gaza vs Cubans in Miami

Let's just consider for a moment the similarities between the situation of the Palestinians in Gaza and the Cubans in Miami. 

These are far from perfect analogues, yet somehow I think the comparison is instructive, not least because one consistently exercises the conscience of well-meaning European chatterers in a way that the other never has, or will. 

Here are two exiled communities that woke up one morning and found that a new state founded on a wholly antipathetic worldview had popped up  seemingly out of nowhere  and taken everything from them. Deprived of all their property they had to flee to a neighbouring territory, where they have spent more than half a century harbouring an essentially irrational belief that one day they will return to their homeland and all will be restored to them. This will of course never happen. The world moves on. 

So, the originating historical 'injustices' underlying these two situations do bare some comparison, whether progressive-minded people like it or not. 

The similarities tend to end there of course, because in Palestine the new state and the exiles have been engaged in determinedly bloody conflict ever since. 

It is also true that none of the friendly neighbouring powers stepped in to welcome and integrate the Palestinians in the same way that United States did with the anti-Castro Cubans. And now, after several generations, both the longing and the hostility is starting to wane as younger, US-born Cubans start to rethink their identity. 

Something a Norwegian friend of mine said about resisting conquest the other day got me thinking. He was referring to his own family and resistance to German invasion during WWII. The implication was that conquest is always a bad thing and that violent resistance to it is always the most admirable approach. 

The trouble here is that the behaviour of Germany in the last century now has a highly distorting effect on any attempt to draw usefully balanced lessons from the historical past, whether the issue under consideration is appeasement, ethnic cleansing, or indeed civilian casualties from bombing.* Sometimes one has to force oneself to look a bit further back in order to achieve a proper perspective. 

In a world full of murder and mayhem there's no denying that Palestine too has a massively disproportionate hold on the consciousness of educated outsiders, plus a claim to geopolitical significance that is in some senses dangerously self-fulfilling. 

Victims of US drone attacks in Pakistan can surely only dream of the attention that those of Israeli missile attacks have been getting these past few weeks. 

The island where I was born was subjected to multiple invasions and conquests in its early history. First came the Romans, and of course that hilarious 'What have the Romans ever done for us?' scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian accurately pinpoints some of the obvious paradoxes behind this particular variety of subjugation. 

When Roman imperial power in Britain collapsed the islanders were Christian in faith and the legend of King Arthur suggests that they were none too pleased with the arrival of the pagan Anglo-Saxons. Many fled into the far corners of the land, effectively creating Wales and Cornwall — the Gaza Strips of Dark Age Britain. 

DNA evidence nevertheless suggests that the majority stayed put, and as the Anglo-Saxons took up Christianity, they in turn adopted early-English. Both sides adapted to the change at the top and got on with their lives, in part because in the end there was no fundamental conflict of worldview to keep them at each other's throats. 

Then in 1066 two alternative versions of my Norwegian friend's ancestors decided they wanted to take over political control of England. The first lot  the authentic variety  were quickly defeated, but the second of these simultaneous invasions, led by Francophile Norwegians, aka the Normans, was successful. 

These French-speaking Norwegians are possibly the most intriguing race of conquerors in the history of the world. Utterly brutal in achieving their goals, once settled in their newly-acquired territories they usually revealed themselves to be highly open-minded and adaptable. The societies they established in southern Italy and, most notably, Palestine, were astonishingly pluralistic and tolerant from a cultural (and religious) perspective. Conquest in these territories looked briefly like what we moderns would call a win win, even for the Normans' Jewish and Muslim subjects. 

In England they took control of the state and all the land, leaving the previous elite with nothing. The conquered were not displaced however; they stayed and kept their language and some of their traditions and ultimately it was the Normans who ended up speaking English, just as they had switched to French on the continent. 

Norman civilisation was at once both superior in some respects and inferior in others to that of the societies that fell under its sway. The Normans themselves seemed to get this and applied their stranglehold in a manner that can look oddly malleable to us today. At one stage they even set their sights on Constantinople. Perhaps their only real cock-up was Ireland, the long-term consequences of which have been lamentable.

Norman rule in Palestine was short-lived partly because a new race of recently-arrived and recently-converted Muslims  the Seljuk Turks — brought a fervently Jihadi perspective to ownership of the Holy Land. And so it has continued. The Normans had jumped on the Holy War bandwagon as a means to an end. For subsequent would-be conquerors of this very troubled part of the globe the reverse has more often been the case. 

Could Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims ever find a way to cooperate in fostering a tolerant, pluralistic society of the kind the Normans specialised in? Right now this seems the least likely outcome, and yet of course it is the only one that could provide a pathway to lasting peace. 

* More French 'innocent civilians' died on D-Day than American soldiers i.e. more than 5000. If someone had filmed them their dead bodies would have looked much like Palestinian dead bodies this week.