"Who now remembers the Armenians?", Hitler is supposed to have said, a week before the German invasion of Poland in 1939. The implication of his words being: "If nobody now remembers the mass killings of Armenians that began in 1915, then who will notice if we now commit our own mass killings of Jews and others?" There is actually some doubt as to whether or not Hitler used these words on this specific occasion, and some doubt as to what the exact words might have been, but they are still utterly chilling. Who now remembers the 1982 Hama massacre, when thousands of Syrian people were butchered by their country's government?
Actually, this week, quite a few people are indeed recalling those events of 1982, in light of what's happening in Syria right now; I can't fairly accuse the mainstream media of not today giving ample coverage to events in Syria. But turning again to the events of Hama in 1982, it's fair to say that they are surely not as well-known as they ought to be. When, over the years, people have referred to "the historic injustices of the Middle East", have they had Hama in their minds? Most pro-Palestinian campaigners will have heard of the appalling Sabra and Shatila massacre, which also took place in 1982, but how many of them, until recently, had also heard of Hama? It's a fair question.
I do not question the significance of Sabra and Shatila, an incident so terrible that it prompted 300,000 Israelis to take to the streets and demand that their government investigate. Israel's indirect responsibility for the massacre has placed "Sabra and Shatila" high in the lexicon of the country's harshest critics; the massacre itself is an incident that does indeed deserve to be condemned, and for what little it's worth, I personally here condemn it (and I am aware of how very bathetic and Pooterish that might sound). Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin is supposed to have remarked, with some pertinacity, "Goyim (gentiles) kill goyim and the Jews are blamed," as the Sabra and Shatila massacre was actually carried out not by the Israelis, but by the Lebanese Christian Phalangist movement, but I don't dispute that Israel bore indirect responsibility for what happened.
Why, then, is "Sabra and Shatila" such a well-known incident, while "Hama" had largely been forgotten? One could equally ask why so many of the people who rightly remember Deir Yassin don't also remember Mount Scopus? I would argue that this selective amnesia is a symptom of the same malaise that often leads people to say "the Middle East" when they mean "Israel/Palestine".
The Middle East is a huge region populated by hundreds of millions of people, of whom Israelis and Palestinians are but a fraction. A glance at a map shows that Israel is a tiny country, roughly the size of Wales. It is a country in the Middle East, but it is not "the Middle East". I remember hearing people refer to "Iraq" as one thing and "the Middle East" as another, when, for crying out loud, Iraq is itself obviously in the Middle East. It's just nonsense. "The Middle East" is not a conflict, it's a region, and a quick glance at that region's headlines shows that most of its problems have absolutely nothing to do with either Israel or the Palestinians.
The tendency to define the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as some great uber-conflict that trumps all others is misguided, muddle-headed and wrong. As Robin Shepherd has perceptively written:
The obsession with Israel is not just making us sick – societally, morally, civilisationally – it is also making us stupid. People watching and reading the major media outlets can tell you the names of suburbs of east Jerusalem. Ask them to name the capital city of Jordan, and most will struggle.
It blurs our vision of everything else that is also happening in the world, including some tragic events that barely get reported at all. London's role as a strategic hub for the campaign to delegitimise Israel makes it all the harder to have a rational discussion about these matters in this country. On most issues, people accept the need to change their views when the facts change, but do most people accept that need when it comes to issues affecting Israel?
All of this, meanwhile, creates a climate of opinion in which events in the Middle East lead directly to attacks (including violent attacks) on British Jews who have absolutely nothing to do with Israel. It would be grotesque for anyone to today attack Anglo-Syrian people because of anger about events in Syria; if such attacks occurred, they would amount to racial or religious hatred. Well, similar such attacks on Jews, including graffiti on London bus stops saying "Kill Jews", are just as much racial or religious hatred as would be such attacks on Anglo-Syrian people. As Nick Clegg has said:
...it is outrageous as well that some people’s feelings about a conflict in the Middle East should create a climate of opinion in which British Jews are attacked and threatened both verbally and physically. No amount of anger about overseas events can ever justify hostility, let alone hatred, towards British Jews.
That does not, however, stop some people with otherwise impeccable anti-racist credentials saying utterly bizarre things about this issue.
One also frequently hears the argument that "ending the conflict in the Middle East", by which is meant "ending Israel's conflict with the Palestinians", would somehow massively reduce the amount of terrorism around the world. Ending Israel's conflict with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for all sorts of reasons, but, sadly, I believe that, come the day when we bring about a two-state solution that delivers peace, justice and security to Palestinians and Israelis alike, it will not make much difference to the forces that motivate people to become and remain terrorists.
Just look at two terrorist atrocities that have been perpetrated today. Somalia's Interior Minister has been murdered in a suicide killing. Would that killing not have happened if we'd justly ended the Israel/Palestine conflict? At least twenty-one people have been blown up in Afghanistan. Are you seriously telling me, given everything that is happening in Afghanistan, that these bombings would not have happened today if we'd previously succeeded in creating a viable Palestinian state?
I accept, of course, that a reduction in sources of discord across the world will presumably be a disincentive towards some people becoming and remaining terrorists, although, given the nature of the ideologies that sustain and promote terrorism in its many and varied forms, I sadly question the extent to which such a reduction is likely to be achieved. Just as it is not always reason that drives people to start being terrorists, so it is not always reason that drives people to stop being terrorists. To imagine that "solving the Israel/Palestine problem" is a magic bullet that will strike at the heart of terrorist recruitment is to indulge in wishful thinking of the very worst kind.
In arguing all of this, I leave myself open to the question of why I myself am writing about Israel; if I am saying that disproportionate attention is devoted to this subject, then why am I myself here adding to the mountain of verbiage? One answer to that is to say that Israel/Palestine obviously is both interesting and important, including politically, so I'm not arguing that everybody should cease entirely to write about it. Another is to say that, as a British Jew with relatives living in Israel, I take a special interest in events affecting that country, and I would argue that that is fair enough. And another is to say that I would like nothing better than for all these issues to somehow be resolved, and for Israel to become about as newsworthy as Liechtenstein, so that we can all start talking about other things. But while the political debate about these matters is as badly skewed as it often appears to be, I believe that I have no option, as a political activist, but to share my views on these things with anyone who is interested in reading them, in the hope that I can at least get people to consider a range of different perspectives on these highly complicated and divisive issues.