Fear and Loathing – the fight for sanity in the Middle East and beyond.

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The saying goes that the first casualty of war is truth – but when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians it seems that it’s sanity that goes out of the window as the firing begins. This conflict is the political equivalent of LSD – distorting the senses of all those who come into contact with it, and sending them crazy.

For the first time in decades I find myself neither living the conflict nor working on matters concerned with it. But despite the five thousand miles between Washington and the Middle East, it is still able to exert a grip upon my attention and emotions, distracting me from work every few minutes to check online, on the latest developments. To paraphrase – you can take the boy out of Israel but you can’t take Israel out of the boy.

As I study the latest pictures on the internet, I try to identify where the missiles have struck in Israel, the location of the Iron Dome batteries, and the areas that have been hit in Gaza. My upbringing and experience of more than ten years living in Israel mean that I am not, and will never be, an impartial observer to the conflict or anything concerning the country and its neighbours. I feel guilty about not being there with friends and family, while at the same time harboring relief that Lysette and the girls aren’t enduring the fear of missiles falling from the sky.

But what I continue to find fascinating (and not in a good way) is how that this conflict manages to elicit such strong emotions and opinions even among people who are far removed from it by background, experience or location.  And also how each new outburst of violence seems to be accompanied by increasingly stronger reactions. This stands in contrast to other parts of the world where the longer the conflict the greater the disinterest. While tens of thousands of civilians have died as a consequence of war in Syria, South Sudan and elsewhere, and while countless millions live under brutal oppression in North Korea and Iran, it is this diminutive triangle of real estate at the far end of the Mediterranean that rules the air-waves and the op-ed pages. Where people have failed to come out and demonstrate at the injustices being wrought in Aleppo, Pyongyang, Juba and Tehran, crowds have gathered in recent days to give vent to their anger, outrage and hatred (overwhelmingly directed at Israel).

When I was a journalist I concocted a theory to explain the disproportionate attention and passion afforded to Israel and the Palestinians. It is simply the Bible and Koran brought to life 24/7 on-line, on TV, Radio, and in print. Billions of people around the world, overwhelmingly Christians, Moslems, and Jews, know of the ‘Holy Land’ from their holy texts. They have imbibed the ‘notion’ of this place as an idea or representation of faith and identity, and have it as frame of reference. It may not bear any relationship to current realities, but it acts as a license for people to feel strongly about the here and now. Add to that, millennia of bloody history between the monotheistic faiths, as well as among them, post-colonial carve-ups, post-colonial guilt, anti-Semitism, philo-Semitism, Arab nationalism, Zionism, oil, water, demography, geography, Islamism, Islamophobia, secularism, fundamentalism, global power plays, local disputes, and much, much more – and you have the perfect cocktail for hallucinogenic properties of the this conflict.

And like an ageing hippy whose brain cells are addled from too many drugs, so every new outburst of conflict brings less coherence and makes the possibility of any reasonable discussion ever more impossible. Seemingly obvious and innocuous points such as the fate of civilians caught in conflict, the importance of intent in carrying out actions in war, the inexcusability of racism and more, are all lost in the foam-filled ranting of the impassioned. Nuanced views (such as in this recent piece in the Independent) are few and far between, and only seem to open up their proponents to abuse.

When conversations are reduced to screaming matches it is better to remain silent. I have been to Gaza more times than I can count, spent half a year living in Asheklon, spoken to Hamas’s leaders as well as much of Israel’s current leadership. But all this stands for nothing in the midst of the psychosis that has gripped people in the Middle East and far beyond, regarding this latest spasm of violence.

By way of conclusion, I remind myself that I was never interested in hallucinogens, and don’t intend to start ingesting them now.

Let me know why you think this conflict gathers such attention and if anything can be done to make any discussion of it more measured and less hysterical.

6 thoughts on “Fear and Loathing – the fight for sanity in the Middle East and beyond.

  1. Regarding your choice of metaphor, along with the distortions of the senses, hallucinogens tend to induce a variety of reflective states and deep self-analysis that are almost entirely absent from the current commentary, and the insanity is usually temporary.

    If you are looking for accurate drug comparisons, from the behaviour of the leaders on both sides in this, those guys are hardened addicts and can rationalise the most ridiculous course of action to themselves as being not only sane, but the only possible option available. It is far more like the political equivalent of crystal meth.

    And if you are looking for advice on how to get people to engage in discussion rather than screaming matches, to extend your metaphor possibly past breaking point, a little LSD or possibly some mushrooms might not hurt. Nothing else seems to have worked anyway, so spiking both sides with psychedelics at the next round of talks might just be worth the risk, and at the very least it might make it harder for them to direct the rockets and the tanks for a bit.

    • Mrs Tiggwinkle,

      My expertize in this area is limited and I defer therefore to your suggestions (not of course that I am suggesting anyone indulge in illegal mind-altering substances). But how about some valium for all in place of mushrooms to induce a more relaxed state (or alternatively some – strictly legal – marijuana!)?

      Regards and thanks for your comments,

      Richard

      • Speaking in my capacity as a slightly addled middle-aged hippy, I would suspect that valium and marijuana are already being consumed by many of those under command and many of those under bombardment, purely as a coping strategy. I think it would be wasted on the leaders however, unless we properly dose them till they can’t actually stand. Hash is not necessarily a tool of peace either, considering Marco Polo’s stories of the Old Man of the Mountain.

        Then perhaps Edward De Bono is right and they are all missing zinc. In which case the drugs are merely a red-herring and we shoud start sending in the marmite.

        The one thing we must not do is take the current leadership on either of the sides seriously any more, or give them one iota of gravity. They surely have used up the right to expect that by now. To indulge in serious discussion requires a basic level of sanity and that is next to impossible while hurling metal at your neighbours is being justified with a straight face through tortious distortions of Saladin and Sampson stories.

  2. Your points are totally true. And what is the answer? For people like you to express their much more nuanced opinions.

    I appreciate that you’re pointing out the extremity of the arguments out there, but as long as you are afraid or loathe for whatever reason to say what it is that you think about the actual situation and not just comment in the second order, I’m not sure that you can add positively to the discussion.

    And why is it that people seem to be afraid to express those more nuanced points of view? That’s an interesting question as well.

  3. Why do people engage with this more than others?

    Maybe it’s because people see Israel as ‘like us’. Israel is a democracy, and people probably feel that they act with consideration and intent.

    With that, I think it makes the whole conflict feel more tragic and avoidable.

    North Korea is an esoteric dictatorship – ‘bad people do bad things’ — the same with Syria. It all feels so inevitable. But with Israel, perhaps it’s because people don’t consider Israeli’s to just an evil dictatorship, that it makes the whole thing more inevitable.

    I’m not sure.

    I wonder how people felt about Northern Ireland in the 1980s. Obviously a different scale of conflict, but was it similar?

    • Kevin,

      Thanks for your points – which I think raise a number of valid and important points. I think it’s true that people have higher expectations of Israel than they do of North Korea and Syria which is a good thing. But there is also a worrying sense that Israel is being judged on a completely different basis also from Western developed countries. A 2013 BBC poll involving 26,000 people worldwide put Israel almost at the bottom as one of the least popular countries in the world just above North Korea but below Pakistan. I think that Israel is also often judged solely through the lens of the conflict between it and the Arab World. Was every aspect of the UK and the US judged through the lens of their presence in Iraq and Afghanistan? Thousands of civilians died also in those conflicts, and yet we don’t see the kind of scrutiny or criticism applied to them (or other Western countries who’ve been involved in recent conflicts) as we do to Israel. As to your question about the UK and the Northern Ireland – I think people made a distinction between the actions of British governments and the British people and State. That is missing in many people’s treatment of Israel

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