Palestine is the most popular foreign cause of the moment. The world view is that small, Third-World nations are self-evidently victims of other powers, in this case Israel, the US, Britain, Hitler's Germany, even selfish Arab states.
Plenty of scope here for feel-good bursts of hate and self-hate on the part of radicals in the media, universities, trade unions and political parties. They are arousing and inciting public opinion, recruiting true believers committed to waving the flag and catching the attention of governments. A Palestinian state is the immediate objective. Whether that entails exile, ruin or death for Israelis remains a rather vague aspect of the cause at present.
To be successful, a cause has first to be promoted by prominent personalities, and it was Gamal Abdul Nasser, the President of Egypt, who invented the Palestinian cause. He, and then other Arab rulers, intended to exploit the cause for nationalist purposes of their own. Skilful politicians, from Yasir Arafat to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the leaders of Hamas, have gone further, building Palestine into the challenge to Israel and the wider West that it has now become. Nationalism is no longer the issue.
Islamism has brought the cause of Palestine to be part of a general conflict of culture or civilisation. The Organisation of Islamic Countries and the United Nations, especially its Human Rights Council, now provide the international context for the delegitimisation of Israel and justification of the cause of Palestine. The Goldstone Report, Israeli Apartheid Week, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that has multiple ramifications, the NGOs that organise flotillas to Gaza or specialise in finding fault with Israel, are spin-offs from the cause as well as tributes to the inventiveness of those who dream up these incitements.
President Obama and Tony Blair are behind the times in calling for a state of Palestine alongside Israel. Overtaken by Islamism, the famous and long-drawn-out peace process has dwindled to wish fulfilment.
Murders by Palestinians are recorded without judgment
Why one particular issue and not another becomes a cause is also rather vague. Nobody seems to be agitating on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of Tamils or Darfuris murdered in Sri Lanka and Sudan respectively. The Chinese suppression of Tibetans passes almost unnoticed. For that matter, the murders by Palestinians of Israeli children, including just recently a three-month-old girl, or even of activists sympathetic to their cause, like Juliano Mer-Khamis and Vittorio Arrigoni, are recorded, if at all, as humdrum facts that do not merit moral judgment. But the commitment of today's radicals to a cause with mass violence and war built into it, even the projection of another Holocaust, is an obvious moral dereliction. Also a refusal to learn from history: one of Hitler's first measures in power was a boycott of Jews, an ominous precedent for those pressing today for a boycott of Israel.
The Arab and Muslim world offers a wonderful stage upon which the self-righteous can enact their hate and guilt while also patronising the poor benighted foreigner. Richard Burton, the celebrated 19th-century explorer, loved to pass himself off as an Arab or Muslim. England, he liked to say, was the only country where he could never feel at home. The poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt was probably the first to conclude that Arab society was morally and spiritually superior to others. For him, Islam was the "Cause of Good" and England the "great engine of evil." At his inherited estate in Sussex, he liked to dress as an Arab.
T. E. Lawrence famously accused the British of putting their own interests first in the Great War. Millions of Arabs have adopted his false and damaging conviction that they had been promised independence only to be betrayed by Britain. Lawrence also wore Arab dress at inappropriate moments, for instance the Versailles peace conference. Those lady academics who sport dresses made out of the Palestinian flag may be more conventional than they realise.
Today's Palestinian cause is only the latest displacement of hatred, this time targeted against Israel instead of Britain. Some think this is simple anti-Jewish prejudice, but there is also something deeper: Israel's wish to survive sets it apart politically, intellectually and emotionally from much of the western world, where the instinct of self-preservation is failing. For true believers, whatever violence Palestinians do to each other or their neighbours, they are never in the wrong but always wronged by someone else. So Palestinians are relegated to live in a fantasy world in which their actions have no consequences, as though they did not qualify for responsible adulthood.
This does no favours to them or to anyone. As is almost invariably the case with foreign causes of this kind, after the commitment and the incitement, come reality and the corpses.