What war is good for: Jonathan Freedland and the empty platitudes of ‘peace’

“War is an ugly thing but not the ugliest of things;
the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feelings
which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.
A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight,
nothing which is more important than his own personal safety,
is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free
unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”

- John Stuart Mill

The memo at Guardian HQ explaining the ‘root cause’ of Israel’s operation ‘Pillar of Defense’ evidently has been distributed far and wide within their coven of activist journalists.

While Guardian reporters, and ‘Comment is Free’ contributors, have varied in the degree of malice they impute to the Jewish state for launching strikes against terror targets in Gaza, the message they’ve conveyed to their readers is clear: Don’t believe the Israeli ‘narrative’ that the state is acting to stop thousands of rockets from being launched at their cities by a malevolent Islamist terror group committed to its destruction.

Harriet Sherwood, Simon Tisdall,  and, of course Steve Bell, are among the Guardian reporters and commentators who are vexed by the idea that the Jewish state would see fit to defend its citizens from a well-armed terrorist movement on its border, and see something more cynical – indeed something much darker – in the decision to launch ‘Pillar Of Defense’.

Jonathan Freedland’s video commentary – ‘Why has Israel decided to attack Gaza now?‘, focusing almost entirely on the supposed electoral reasons behind the war – is a telling case because Freedland is a unique Guardian journalist; he’s a proud Jew who supports Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

Not that Freedland hasn’t in the past succumbed to ‘J Street/Yachad/Peter Beinart leftist narrative which mistakes love for Israel with obsessive criticism, but, by all accounts, he is a decent, reasonable and mostly sober commentator.

However, as you watch this video, you’ll note that Freedland spends about 2 minutes and 37 seconds (out of a 2 minute and 52 second interview) on the alleged electoral reasons, and only 15 seconds explaining the context of Hamas rocket fire.

Additionally, in a full commentary about the war at ‘Comment is Free’, Freedland, in ‘The battle between Israel and Gaza solves nothing, Nov. 15, repeats the same reasoning:

“Why did Israel hit back now? The Hebrew press immediately assumed the key date was political, not military: 22 January, when Israelis go to the polls. There are plenty of precedents for outgoing governments taking military action, hoping to create a wave of national unity that will carry them to victory: Cast Lead itself fits that pattern. Binyamin Netanyahu may well have wanted to push aside his Labor rival and prevent his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, making a planned comeback – forcing both to fall into line as patriotic cheerleaders. Similarly, Barak found a way to remind voters of his supposed indispensability.”

However, Freedland’s suspicion of Israeli motives is as notable as his facile understanding of the broader issues of war and peace. 

His commentary ends, thus.

“Above all, the pain and anguish inflicted by yet another round of civilian deaths and injury will sow hatred in the hearts of another generation, who will grow up bent on revenge and yet more bloodshed. This keeps happening, decade after decade, for one simple reason: there can be no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both sides will say the action they have taken is necessary. But it will solve nothing.” [emphasis added]

This last highlighted passage gets to the heart of the matter, and defines, as much as anything, the false, and dangerous, political assumptions of the Guardian Left.

A basic understanding of Israeli history, it seems, would inspire Freedland to take note of the fact that it was the use of force, and the credible threat of force, which has protected the Jewish state from Arab efforts, over the last 64 years, to ‘throw the Jews into the sea’.  Negotiations with its enemies didn’t occur organically, but only as the result of Israeli military victories which prompted its defeated foes to grudgingly accept that they did not have the capacity to fulfill their destructive aims.

By what means, other than through military force, would Jonathan Freedland suggest should be used by Israel to defang terrorist groups in Gaza (Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Popular Resistance Committees, and others) which possess thousands of rockets and the will to martyr thousands of their citizens in the cause of Jihad?

The perception of weakness and a lack of resolve – for any nation, yet alone the tiny Jewish state –  represents a dangerous provocation.

‘Peace’, when dealing with an enemy committed to your destruction, is not a serious strategy, but merely an empty and quite dangerous platitude.

The overwhelming majority of Israelis, their passionate supporters abroad and defenders of Western democracy more broadly understand this intuitive moral and political fact. 

BDS-promoting Palestine Festival of Literature supported by British public funding.

Last December CiF Watch published an article about the Palestine Festival of Literature (or ‘PalFest’ as it is more frequently known), its origins and its connections to the Guardian. For those wishing to refresh their memories, the article is here

Unsurprisingly then, the Guardian’s culture section carried an article by Alison Flood on May 2nd about this year’s PalFest which is scheduled to begin this weekend in Ramallah, and then to travel to Gaza and Cairo. 

The May 5th event in Ramallah will feature, among others, Guardian employee Rachel Holmes and BBC World Service producer Bee Rowlatt. Among those appearing at the events in Gaza starting from May 6th will be PalFest founder and Guardian writer Ahdaf Soueif, Alaa Abd el-Fattah (who has also contributed to the Guardian and is Ahdaf Soueif’s nephew), Suad Amiry (whose books are available via the Guardian bookshop) and Selma Dabbagh, (who has also written for and been reviewed by the Guardian). 

The interesting parts of Flood’s article are these: (emphasis added) 

“PalFest, a festival of public events, student workshops and meetings with civil society leaders, is set to run from 5 to 9 May in Gaza, with an initial event in Ramallah on the 5 May and a finale in Cairo on the 11 May. Supported by organisations including Arts Council England and the British Council, with patrons including Chinua Achebe, Seamus Heaney and Philip Pullman, it endorses the Palestinian call for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, and states as its mission the reinvigoration of “cultural ties between Arab countries, ties that have been eroded for too long”. Soueif is its founding chair.”

“Dr Haidar Eid, a literature professor at Gaza’s Al-Aqsa University, said the festival was “a sign of the growing solidarity across borders in our struggle against racism and oppression”.

“Intellectuals and writers played a key role in ending apartheid in South Africa; likewise, Arab cultural figures are visiting Gaza this year to show solidarity with Palestinian academics and artists in support for their call to increase the global BDS [Boycott Divestment and Sanctions] campaign against apartheid Israel,” he said. “On behalf of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, we deeply appreciate the Arab writers’ principled and consistent support for the Palestinian civil struggle for justice and peace in Palestine.” “

 The Arts Council England receives funding from the British government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport to the tune of £350 million after the recent cuts. It also enjoys further public financial support via National Lottery funding.

The British Council received £196 million in government grants via the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2010-11. It is a registered charity and comes under UK embassy and Consular auspices. 

The BBC World Service (Bee Rowlatt’s employer) is also publicly funded, amongst others by DFID – the Department for International Development – and at present, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  

On the other hand, in 2008 the British Council’s CEO Martin Davidson said that:

The British Council is firmly opposed to an academic boycott of Israeli universities. Academic boycotts are bad in principle, and would be bad in this specific case… dialogue is unlikely to be sustained without exchange between academics and academic institutions…”   

And in 2009 the British Embassy in Israel claimed on behalf of the previous government that:

“The British government is opposed to any kind of boycott of Israel.”

So which is it? For boycotts or against? 

Unfortunately, the publicly-funded Arts Council made its stance more than clear last November when, in response to criticism of its funding of an event featuring proud anti-Semite Gilad Atzmon, it issued a statement saying:

“It is not the Arts Council’s role to dictate artistic policy to a funded organisation, or to restrict an artist from expressing their views. What our policies and procedures do ensure is that we fund a wide range of organisations and individuals who, collectively, present a diverse view of world society.”

It would, however be interesting to hear what the tax-paying British public thinks about the fact that organizations and government departments which it funds even in these difficult economic times see fit to support a project such as PalFest which openly declares its aims to be contrary those expressed at least by the former British government.

It would also be interesting to hear representatives of the FCO, DFID and DCMS explain their departments’ involvement – albeit indirectly – in promoting the aims of the BDS movement and PACBI, which rejects normalization of any kind and aspires to dismantle the Jewish State.  

Until they do, many may continue to think that ambivalent British government policies, actions and statements do much to contribute to the increasingly unpleasant atmosphere on the streets of the UK as well as undermining Britain’s stance as an honest broker in the Middle East. 


The Guardian, PalFest and the ‘culture’ of anti-Israel activism

A recently published article at ‘Harry’s Place’ highlighted the refusal of Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish to take part in a discussion at a literary festival which included an Israeli author on the panel. Whilst the subject of the cocktail of politics in the arts and art in politics is an interesting one in itself, for those of us with one eye on the Guardian, the story has a broader relevance.

Najwan Darwish was one of the organisers of and participants in the Palestine Festival of Literature – or PalFest as it is better known – in 2011 and has taken part in previous years too. Anyone who has been reading the Guardian for the last four years or so will be familiar with the annual PalFest event which was established in 2008 because, in addition to this meeting of Western and Palestinian authors having been widely featured in the Guardian, a significant proportion of the participating writers are either Guardian employees or have frequently graced its pages. In fact, one could even go so far as to say that the Guardian played something of a role in the establishment of this yearly Israel-bashing session in literary fancy-dress known as Palfest.

Eleven years ago, in December 2000, the Guardian sent Egyptian-born author Ahdaf Soueif to produce a ‘special report’ on the then two-month old Second Intifada.  As a novelist, Soueif was perhaps unfettered by journalistic constraints such as the need to appear ‘fair and balanced’, but even so, her subsequent series of articles did not commence well.

“I have never, to my knowledge, seen an Israeli except on television. I have never spoken to one. I cannot say I have wanted to. My life, like the life of every Egyptian of my generation, has been overcast by the shadow of Israel. I have longed to go to Palestine, but have not wished to go to Israel. And now I am going there.”

The Guardian described Soueif’s reports as a “remarkable account” and indeed they were. Remarkable for their one sidedness, for the stereotypical portraits of the few Israelis she described, for the deliberate repeated omission of context and even for downright lies which may – if we’re being charitable – be a product of Soueif’s Egyptian upbringing, but which the Guardian chose to print nevertheless.

This Guardian sponsored and initiated trip, together with a subsequent one in 2003, appears to have been the catalyst which prompted the acceleration of Ahdaf Soueif’s political activism on behalf of the Palestinian ’cause’. She is a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, a member of CAABU and a supporter of ‘Britain2Gaza‘ which has links to Hamas activists in the UK.  In 2008 she and others set up the UK registered charity Engaged Events’  (number 1123273)  which is, according to its own report, “the registered name of the Palestine Festival of Literature”.

PalFest’s creative producer, film-maker Omar Robert Hamilton, who is Ahdaf Soueif’s son and – like his mother – also a Guardian contributor, described its birth as follows.

“Ahdaf Soueif and Brigid Keenan were talking — as they almost always do — about what they could do to help Palestine.  They came up with the idea of encouraging authors and artists working in English to visit Palestine and take part in literary activities alongside their Palestinian colleagues.”

Hamilton also runs the PalFest blog where he cites under the heading ‘useful books’ some of the more infamous works by Ali Abunimah, Ben White, Eyal Weizman, Ghada Karmi, Ilan Pappe, Shlomo Sand and Mearsheimer & Walt, among others.

Given the political tone which inevitably pervades the writings of PalFest trustee Ahdaf Soueif and other participants describing their experiences, one may reasonably conclude that this festival is more about getting Western household names to join in the assault on Israel’s legitimacy than about bringing English Literature to the Palestinian people. Unfortunately, the Charity Commission of England & Wales is notorious for ignoring its own guidelines on the subject of political activity by charities.

“However, a charity cannot exist for a political purpose, which is any purpose directed at furthering the interests of any political party, or securing or opposing a change in the law, policy or decisions either in this country or abroad.”

“However, trustees must not allow the charity to be used as a vehicle for the expression of the political views of any individual trustee or staff member”

Co-founder of PalFest and also currently a trustee is author and diplomatic wife Brigid Keenan Waddams who is married to former UK and EU ambassador Alan Waddams. Like her husband (here describing Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin as a ‘spiritual leader’), Keenan Waddams appears to hold opinions which have underwhelmed some readers of her books.

Here are two such online reader reviews:

“I was a bit shocked by all the political “anti-Israel” sentiment which seemed very out-of-place in a book described as “laugh out-loud” funny. And I certainly found nothing funny about her comments regarding Richard Burton and “Jewish moneylenders”.”

“My main problem with Ms Keenan was that she constantly harps on about her views on Palestine. As it happens, I’m pretty much of the same opinion as the author and her husband but I do think she mentioned the subject too many times, mostly without any apparent need. Furthermore, her comments about Jewish moneylenders had, I felt, no place in this book.”

Rather predictably, Keenan Waddams is also a serial letter-writer and petition-signer on Israel-related subjects.

PalFest’s financial support comes from a variety of organisations including the George Soros Open Society Foundation, the British Council, the A.M. Qattan Foundation (which has also funded, among others, Al Shabaka and Miftah), the American Colony Hotel, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and several universities. According to self-declared information on Engaged Events’ partner page at the Anna Lindh Foundation, it has also received funding from the Ford Foundation and UNESCO.

In PalFest’s first year – 2008 –  out of a total of 17 participants the Guardian associated writers who took part were Pankaj Mishra, Ian Jack , Victoria Brittain (also a former trustee of ‘Engaged Events’), William Dalrymple, Andrew O’Hagan , Raja Shehadeh and Ahdaf Soueif.

In 2009 twenty-one writers took part in the festival including Guardian-associated Ahdaf Soueif, Victoria Brittain, Raja Shehadeh, Rachel Holmes, Robin Yassin-Kassab, Henning Mankell and Deborah Moggah .

2010 saw the Guardian-associated writers making up five of the twelve participants: Ahdaf Soueif, Raja Shehadeh, Geoff Dyer, Adam Foulds and William Sutcliffe.

At the 2011 festival, out of a total of 20 participants, Ahdaf Soueif and Raja Shehadeh were joined by Guardian-associated writers Gary Younge, Ursula Owen and the director of the Guardian’s own Hay Festival, Peter Florence.

PalFest’s organisers claim to be inspired by the late Edward Said’s call to “reaffirm the power of culture over the culture of power”. Najwan Darwish’s latest outburst together with the connections of Ahdaf Soueif to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign – increasingly embroiled in racism-related scandal – and the Hamas-linked Britain2Gaza might perhaps prompt the disproportionate number of Guardian-associated writers and staff regularly invited to take part in this annual Israel-bashing fest to ask themselves exactly what kind of ‘culture’ they are helping to promote.