Am I a neocon or appeaser?

Gaza is impossible to avoid when writing about British politics


How does the political editor of the Jewish Chronicle write about Gaza? I asked myself this question during the Christmas break as I read Joe Sacco’s extraordinary graphic novel, Footnotes in Gaza.

This ingenious, obsessively researched book examines the history of the killing of Palestinians by Israeli troops when they entered the Gaza towns of Khan Younis and Rafah in 1956. Though profoundly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, the author doggedly returns to the theme of myth-making and the unreliability of memory. This is not the simple portrait of Israel as a pariah nation we have come to expect, because Sacco refuses to take the stories he hears of atrocities at face value.

As a result of my reading, I sent out a message on Facebook asking people the simple question with which I began this article. I wouldn’t usually use this “crowd sourcing” to inform my opinions, but people took my question seriously and their responses are revealing.

The first to respond was a leading UK Jewish writer who said, bluntly: “Very f***ing carefully”. The reaction from a war photographer who has done his time in Gaza was chilling: “Every day Israel rules over others and denies them what was once denied them, is a day it is closer to its own demise. A democracy cannot thrive at the expense of others. Gaza is a product of the occupation and the truth is self evident.”

I do not accept that the centre ground must be abandoned

Such is the perception of the JC’s pro-Israel line that a Kashmiri journalist told me to “write and resign”, or not attempt it. A Muslim film maker told me to “do the opposite of your colleagues at Press TV” (the Iranian-funded British channel which slavishly follows the Tehran line).

A Muslim blogger urged me: “Just write without emotional attachment to any side and relax.” Easier said than done.

One of the most interesting responses came from a Jewish musician and writer (no, not Gilad Atzmon) who said: “The problem is… the JC. Their readership just don’t want to read anything that shows Israel or Jewry in a bad light.” I have to say I do not believe this is the case, although this newspaper’s readership is often perceived in this way. The comment pages of the JC are some of the most diverse and lively in journalism.

So where does this leave me? On the face of it, the subject lies outside my brief. I write about Westminster politics for this newspaper, not the Middle East. Yet the global war on terror long ago made it impossible to separate foreign policy from internal British security issues. The fall-out from Operation Cast Lead — the UK government’s response to the Goldstone report, the arrest warrant for Tzipi Livni — has meant that Gaza has permeated deep into the domestic agenda.

It is simply not possible to avoid the question. One easy answer would be that I should defend Israel’s actions to the last ditch, arguing that its actions to destroy Hamas’s military capability were justified to protect its citizens from attack and that any civilian casualties were the result of the Islamists’ use of the Palestinian people as human shields. Another would be to argue that the disproportionate use of force by Israel has rendered it a pariah state, a rallying cause on which all right-minded liberals can agree, the new South Africa.

As anyone who has attempted to occupy the middle ground will discover, positions have become so seriously entrenched on Gaza that one risks being represented as either a neo-con apologist for Zionism or an appeaser of Islamofascism.

I do not yet have the answer, although I recognise it will not be possible to duck it in 2010. However, I do not accept that the centre ground must be abandoned to those who argue that Israel’s actions in Gaza are beyond criticism or to those who wish to make common cause with Hamas and the Islamist totalitarian right.

Joe Sacco (in the form of comic strips) has succeeded where so many conventional journalists and commentators on the subject have failed — by setting aside personal preconceptions and looking at the facts. I will humbly try to take his lead.

    Last updated: 3:57pm, March 25 2010

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