Gore Vidal said that one should never turn down an invitation to have sex or appear on television. A couple of years ago, I overlooked an email inviting me to take part in The Big Questions, a TV show that blends Question Time with Kilroy and is (to a greater or lesser extent) intended to be a religious-affairs programme. It's on BBC1 at 10 o'clock on Sunday mornings and so will be unfamiliar to those of you who tend to spend that hour in bed, in church, jogging, in the pub or listening to The Archers (or perhaps doing more than one of those things at once, given the invention of the MP3 player).
I was asked to take part in 2008/9 during the Gaza War (and Gore Vidal was right, about this if not much else), in light of which invitation I was interested, on yesterday's episode, to see a vigorous discussion on: "Is it time to free Palestine?" Many people reading this will challenge the premise of the question. We're not trying to 'free Palestine', we're trying to negotiate a two-state solution that will create a free, secure state of Palestine living in peace alongside a free, secure state of Israel. That is different from: "Is it time to free Palestine?"
Having said that, it was actually really good TV and well worth a look (thirty-one minutes, thirty seconds in). This was not a programme on which people with moderate, consensual views approached Israel/Palestine in reasoned tones from different sides of the argument. No, instead, it was a lively opportunity for some very strong pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian (and anti-Israeli) views to be expressed in what became a right old shouting match, well-chaired by Nicky Campbell. Shouting matches can obviously be of limited utility, but I enjoyed watching this one.
This was not a meeting of minds. Some participants were attempting to calmly, reasonably have a political debate about how to achieve some very important compromises; others were motivated more by an emotional outpouring of anger at perceived injustices. Some were interested in offering facts and analysis; others were interested in shouting, denouncing and interrupting. A debate is one thing; a cry from the heart about injustice is another thing - so neither the debaters nor the heart-cryers will get very far in convincing the other. But it still made great television.
It's clear that some people have decided that Israel is unremittingly evil, rather as sci-fi monsters are unremittingly evil, with these people thus seeing no scope for discussion about Israel's side of the argument. One man said that to suggest meeting Israel's needs alongside the Palestinians' needs is to disgracefully talk about meeting the needs of "the oppressor", by which he meant Israel. This is what Israel's friends mean when we complain of attempts to delegitimise what one panellist called "the artificial State of Israel" (and, by extension, to delegitimise anyone who supports Israel) - it seeks to deny that Israel is a normal country, entitled to the same rights as any other country, even before one gets into the important questions surrounding Israel's relationship with the Palestinians.
On this programme, one woman's summary of the debate about Israel/Palestine was: "All I see is women and children being thrown out of their houses while Jewish people move in and go 'Ha ha! I've got another house!'". It could be very difficult to have a sober debate with someone who sees things that way and expresses themselves so glibly. And I'd say the same about people on the pro-Israeli side who can be similarly simplistic in their arguments.
Incidentally, one guy referred to "the Dayton Accord" as having had something to do with Israel/Palestine; he was presumably referring to the 1995 Dayton Accords, which ended the war in Bosnia and have absolutely nothing to do with the Israelis and the Palestinians. But, were one to be charitable, then one might argue that someone who is so very hazy about the simple facts might still have some insights into the human condition, I suppose. But that is to be very charitable indeed.
What's also fascinating is the almost wilful blindness of some people towards the Hamas charter, which was written not hundreds of years ago, but in 1988. The day may well come when we have to get past the significance of the Hamas charter, but can we not deny that significance, given what it actually says? It says what it says. Let's be honest about that and then decide what to do about it.
So, frankly, I despair, but I enjoyed watching the programme. If you want a simple summary of where I stand on Israel/Palestine over all, then I recommend an article that I wrote for a 2007 edition of Liberator, which can be found on pages ten and eleven.