Notes From the Margins…

Jonathan Freedland is tired

  • November 25, 2012
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Pity the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland.    Looking down from his column at the smouldering aftermath of Israel’s bloody assault on Gaza Strip, the wise sage confesses himself afflicted by ‘a deep fatigue with this struggle, with the actions of both sides and, sometimes especially, with their cheerleaders abroad.’

Goodness.   What has caused this weariness and disappointment?   As a compassionate man who likes to wear his heart on a sleeve,   Freedland is weary  first of all by the death toll from the latest confrontation, since  ‘ The immediate consequence, the hardest and most numbing, is the grief of the bereaved: from this round, some 150 Palestinians and five Israelis dead.’

This ‘numbing’ is only one component of Freedland’s exhaustion, however:

I’m weary of those who get so much more exercised, so much more excited, by deaths in Gaza than they do by deaths in, say, Syria. An estimated 800 died under Assad during the same eight days of what Israel called Operation Pillar of Defence. But, for some reason, the loss of those lives failed to touch the activists who so rapidly organised the demos and student sit-ins against Israel.

Freedland has made this non-point before, in a column written before Operation Pillar of Defence, which accused ‘the left’ of phony internationalism because protests against Israel are not matched by similar expressions of outrage against Assad – a disparity that he insinuated was due  to latent anti-Semitism.   These allegations are steeped in Freedland’s own bad faith.

The Syrian civil war is a vicious confrontation between a brutal and authoritarian dictatorship and an armed opposition that is often no less brutal and no less authoritarian.

From its earliest stages, Western powers and Syria’s neighbours have done everything possible to transform the conflict into a programme of regime change – regardless of the previous consequences of such interventionism in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

Assuming that Freedland is not looking to recruit international brigades to fight in Syria, the ‘internationalism’ that he is calling for essentially consists of support for external interventionism of the sort that is already threatening to transform the Syrian conflict into a major regional war,  and which has long since made the possibility of a negotiated political solution remote, if not impossible.

Freedland does not say explicitly what kind of ‘internationalism’ he would like to see in Syria, because he is essentially only interested in using Syria as a stick to bash Palestinian solidarity.  And not only Syria:

‘I  see only a fraction of the outrage that’s directed at Israel turned on the US a western nation for its drone war in Pakistan  which has cost an estimated 3,000 lives, nearly 900 of them civilians, since 2004.’

This is nonsense.  There has been plenty of outrage from the left at the US drone war – but not from Freedland.   Google ‘Jonathan Freedland condemns US drone war in Pakistan’ if you don’t believe me.  But it isn’t only the failure of Palestinian ‘cheerleaders’ to call for intervention against Assad that is tiring our troubled sage.

 ‘I’m tired of those who like to pretend that Israel attacked unprovoked, as if there had been no rockets fired from Gaza, as if Hamas was peacefully minding its own business, a Mediterranean Sweden, until Israel randomly lashed out. I’m tired of having to ask whether any government anywhere would really let one million of its citizens be confined to bomb shelters while missiles rained down.’

Maybe if Israel had not blockaded the Gaza Strip, controlled its land, sea and airspace, and done everything possible to undermine its elected government and effectively imprisoned and collectively punished its population, then these rockets would not be fired.  And the Palestinians are not the only ones firing them, as Freedland is well aware, though you wouldn’t know it from this statement:

‘But I’m weary of having to point out that, yes, occupied peoples do have a right to resist, but that right does not extend to taking deliberate aim at civilian targets schools and villages which is where all but a handful of Gaza’s rockets were directed.’

Maybe.  But according to figures published by Gideon Levy in an article for Ha’aretz,  59 Israelis have been killed since the first Qassam rocket was fired from Gaza in 2001, compared with 4,717 Palestinians.   So if Hamas and the other Palestinians are  indeed taking ‘deliberate aim at civilian targets’ then they clearly aren’t very good shots.

And still there’s more:

 And I’m especially tired that so many otherwise smart, sophisticated people apparently struggle to talk about Israel-Palestine without reaching, even unwittingly, for the dog-eared lexicon of anti-Jewish cliche, casting Israeli leaders as supremacists driven by  a (misunderstood) notion of Jews as “chosen people” or, hoarier still, as international puppet-masters.’

Yes I know.  It is indeed a tragedy for Israelis, Palestinians, and indeed the whole  world that not everyone can be as smart and sophisticated as Freedland, but we will just have to live with that.  What is more difficult to live with however, is his straw-man attempts to pretend that there is no supremacist component to Zionism by depicting those who argue otherwise as ‘anti-Jewish’ — an argument that he supports with the following smear:

‘It pains me that too many fail to realise that while, of course, there is a clear line that separates hostility to Israel and hostility to Jews, that border is porous. Traffic moves across it both ways. Witness the Lazio thugs who bombarded Spurs fans with anti-Jewish chants   “Juden Tottenham” among them during their match on Thursday night, but also brandished a Free Palestine banner, deployed not to declare solidarity with Gaza but to taunt a club with large Jewish support.’

You might wonder why Freedland is talking about the behaviour of Italian fascists at a football match in the context of a bloody and gratuitous assault that has killed 156 Palestinians and left more than a thousand injured.     But don’t go thinking that Freedland’s exhaustion is simply a response to the Palestinian ‘cheerleaders.’   For he’s also ‘ weary of an Israel that persists in believing it has a military solution to every problem’ and suffers from an ‘impaired vision.’

Freedland therefore insists that Israel to talk to Hamas, even though

‘  the organisation is brutal, its charter peppered with vile antisemitism,    but that’s why it is Israel’s enemy. If Hamas were the Mothers’ Union, the two sides would not be at war.’

Looked at from another perspective, one could also say that if Israel were the Mothers’Union, then the two sides would not be at war.   One might also point out that Gaza is not the same thing as Hamas.   Whatever is written down in Hamas’ charter, it has made various attempts at a longterm ceasefire and declared its willingness to enter into negotiations, all of which have been rejected or sabotaged by Israel.

In Freedland’s view however, even the clumsiest and most kneejerk expressions of Israeli violence are always reactive and retaliatory, and now it has sent a message that ‘Hamas, which uses force, gets results starting with the easing of the Gaza blockade while Fatah, which practises non-violent diplomacy, gets nothing: the occupation of the West Bank endures.’

So should the blockade be continued?  Freedland doesn’t say.  But to say that ‘the occupation of the West Bank endures’ doesn’t even begin to describe the continuing dispossession of the Palestinians that has taken place as a result of Fatah’s ‘ non-violent diplomacy.’  Freedland notes that ‘the constant expansion of settlements renders ever more complex the eventual task of partitioning historic Palestine into two viable states, one for each people.’

This expansion certainly does make this task ‘more complex’ and the more cynical might be tempted to think that it was in fact intended to make a Palestinian state impossible.   But Freedland is weary, not cynical, in his attitude to Israel.   He notes that

‘ military commander Ahmed Ja’abari was no dove, but Israel could do business with him: he was the broker of last year’s prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit. And last week they killed him.’

They did indeed, at precisely the point in which Ja’abari was apparently seeking to ‘do business’ with Israel.   Why would Israel do something like that?  Could it be that its actions in Gaza were not about ‘stopping rockets’ but with deliberately provoking a confrontation? Freedland doesn’t pause to ask, because he has still one more source of disappointment:

‘I’m tired, too, of Israeli public figures who don’t merely resort to violence, but seem to revel in it, whether it’s the interior minister  demanding Israel “send Gaza back to the Middle Ages”, or the son of Ariel Sharon  advocating that Gaza be flattened. ‘

By this time Freedland’s weariness is so great that you wonder how he can move his fingers across the keyboard, but he is still able to rouse himself for one last sanctimonious straw man flourish:

‘I’m weary of the two sides’ followers, waving the flags of Israel and Palestine as if these were rival football teams: black v white; my team all good, their team all bad: my team the perennial David, the pure, unblemished victim; their team a permanent Goliath, capable only of wickedness and immune to pain. Those who feel anything at all for these peoples, or even just for one of them, need to end this wearying, deadening obsession with scoring points and winning righteous vindication and focus on the only question that matters: how might these two peoples live?’

At which point I must confess to a profound weariness with Jonathan Freedland, and his faux-humanist disgust, and with this kind of shallow and ultimately vapid analysis that is unlikely to shed any light whatsoever on the question with which it closes.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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