Balcony over Jerusalem, John Lyons, 2017
The problems with the Middle East, as in most trouble spots in the world, start with God. From time to time, the English and American peoples have indulged in the conceit of thinking that they were the chosen people. No outsider took them seriously.
But one people claims the right to that title and to have it direct from God. And their source in scripture says that God backed up his promise of land to his chosen people by helping them to annihilate any other people who got in their way. So, their claim to land is not just divinely granted; it has been won with blood and the sword. Not all that unlike the way another faith would be said to have spread from that part of the world – by the sword.
Does more than say one in ten Australians who might be fairly described as Christian – a phrase that does not extend to this lapsed Protestant – believe in the literal truth of those propositions? I think not – if only because you have to be mad to believe in the literal truth of the creation myth.
But – truth is not a criterion of faith, and it does appear that most people of one faith in Israel believe that those propositions hold good for them. And it is hard if not impossible to deal with people who have God in their corner, and who are convinced that their title to land comes directly from God.
Zealots or puritans can be a pest in any faith. In The House of Islam, Ed Husain says: ‘How can mainstream Muslims engage in dialogue and try to dissuade Salafis who want to kill those who disagree with them? They can’t.’
But what a falling off was there to find that God plays favourites among his children? If you want to know just how venomous that can be, imagine giving a ukulele to each of your two children for Christmas – and one is obviously better than the other. Of if God calmly announced – ‘By the way – I am a Collingwood supporter.’ Those suggestions are so dreadful that they featured in my own loss of faith.
When people believe that they are different to other people, they rarely believe that the others got the better deal in life. But when they believe that they have been chosen by God, it must be nigh on impossible for them not to believe that they are in some way more blessed, better off, or superior to other people.
Allowing that I substitute ‘people’ for another word, we come then to the condition described in the Compact English Oxford Dictionary (2000) as follows: ‘1 the belief that each people has certain qualities or abilities giving rise to the view that some peoples are better than others 2 discrimination against or hostility towards other peoples.’
That is one of the two subjects that claimed my attention in Balcony over Jerusalem, by John Lyons. Mr Lyons looks to me to have a real vocation and capacity for his chosen profession. He does honour to journalism. He writes very well. The book is decently structured and well presented. It oozes credibility and it reeks of disturbing truths.
What we get is a picture of the dominant people in Israel treating other people with contempt and cruelty. The author comes to the same conclusion as friends of mine of that faith – unless the people directing Israel change their ways, that nation is morally doomed.
There is nothing new in any if that. It is discussed openly and candidly on a daily basis in Israel, a nation proud of its open and democratic structure – at least until recently. But that takes us to the second and for me more disturbing subject of the book. What happens when you raise these issues outside the Promised Land – in Australia, for example?
About twenty years ago, I had some dealings with Sharan Burrow, then the President of the ACTU. Sharan is one of the most sensible and decent people I have met in public life. You quickly sense that you can talk sensibly and frankly with her and that you will get things done. (The last time I saw her on television, she was advising Spanish coal miners. She remarked, coolly enough, that there are no jobs on a dead planet.) Sharan told me that she had given up speaking about Israel. She had enough strife on her plate without being subjected to the orchestrated cacophony she was bound to get in response.
That remark stayed with me. It struck me as being at best odd that someone in a free country could be bludgeoned into silence by those claiming to act in the interests of another country that claims to be free. Just what were those people scared of? Is it really the case that I have more freedom to talk about the governance of Israel in Israel than I do in my own country?
Mr Lyons documents this process in scrupulous detail.
First, people in Israel and their agents in Australia encourage Australian journalists coming to comment on the Middle East to come to Israel – just so that they can be better informed, you understand. Standard practice, my dear fellow. All expenses paid, and none spared. It does sound rather like the treatment that the Crown Prince meted out to the Trump menagerie – and what a great investment that was! It is on a moral par with a bank customer shouting his bank manager and his wife dinner for two at the Tour d’Argent – with first class return tickets to Paris. Subtlety is not on the menu. But, then again, bribery and corruption come with the geography in that part of the world. Prime ministers and their wives are particularly susceptible.
But if the soft sell does not succeed in colouring our reporting on Israel, especially the settlements, then those defending the status quo go on the attack. And they do so by their agents in Australia in the manner that Sharan Burrow described to me and which Mr Lyons recounts. In doing so, he identifies one or two people who as a result look to have crossed over to the side of those governing Israel – to the detriment of at least one Australian colleague.
So, we have people claiming to act in the interests of a foreign power influencing political discussion in Australia. That is not the first time for us. But ‘influence’ may not be the right word. Mr Lyons speaks of many cases of ‘self-censorship’ – both here and the UK, and of course the US.
Last century, this nation was blighted by what looked to be blood feuds between Catholics and Protestants – but the impact of Ireland as a national entity was not a great factor. Nor was it when migrants from the Balkans imported some of their strife here. But Mr Lyons gives details of how agents of a foreign power are affecting our political discussion and process.
This is all very unsettling. Is it a matter for ASIO?
Under its act of 1979, ASIO is to ‘obtain, correlate and evaluate intelligence relative to security’ (s. 17). ‘Security’ is defined (in s.4) to include ‘acts of foreign interference.’ They in turn are defined to include ‘activities relating to Australia that are carried on by or on behalf of or are directed or subsidised by or undertaken in active collaboration with a foreign power being activities that are …. clandestine and deceptive and …are carried on for the purpose of affecting political or governmental processes…or are otherwise detrimental to the interests of Australia.’
You can decide for yourself. It does not matter if the foreign power is seen to be benign or malign. ‘Clandestine’ sounds sinister, but you would have to be naïve to believe that all contacts relating to agents and journalists are arranged above the table. The reference to ‘subsidies’ may be of interest on the paid trips – which the media owners should just ban. The interference may be with ‘political’ as well as ‘governmental’ purposes. One Australian minister was persuaded to alter a statement about Israel’s nuclear capacity, and another minister was driven to descant upon the difference between ‘Occupied’ and ‘occupied.’ If she was in doubt, she could have stepped outside and asked the First Nations people in their tents how it feels to be unlawfully occupied. And the catch-all in the definition is so broad, it could have brought tears to the eyes of Senator McCarthy.
Now, I don’t know what ASIO thinks of these agents, but there’s one thing I do know. I don’t want birdies like foreign agents fluffing around in my nest. And that’s putting it very softly. I have no doubt that if the interference was going from Melbourne to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, the reaction would make Krakatoa sound placid.
The work of Mr Lyons is invaluable in showing us the hopeless misery and misgovernment across the whole of the Middle East, not least Israel. It also illustrates the processes infecting our public life here.
Mr Lyons contends that the Netanyahu governments sought to sink the Oslo accords and entrench the settlements so that they would become de facto irrecoverable. Our First Nations people know all about that – and they and the whole of this nation are paying a fearful price as a result.
Mr Lyons points to problems in the settlements arising from recent imports – from, say, Russia. They come from a country which has never been decently governed in the whole of its history, and which knows nothing of human rights or the rule of law. Now it is their time to walk all over other and lesser people and, with God on their side, zealously lead their new nation into outlawry. Commissars or Cossacks? They are all equally unlovely, and they might remind us of the detritus that the English unloaded here on the indigenous peoples in and after 1788.
Do the settlers and their supporters – both in Israel and here – not realise that there is something not just wrong, but downright evil about occupying land owned – owned – by others, in order to achieve living room – the German word is lebensraum – on the footing that their view of their place in history, and their convincing military supremacy, allows them to do just that?
If they are in any doubt, they should ask the First Nations peoples here or in the US, Canada, New Zealand or just about anyone in Africa south of the Sahara. The worst crimes against humanity were committed in South America, where lands and gold were seized and natives massacred in the name of Christ, and the Holy Father was good enough to consent to preside over a geographic division of the spoils.
But we, here in Australia, have firsthand knowledge of the guilt that comes with living off stolen land. We can wave our tawdry flags as much as we like, but we will never rid ourselves of the stain that comes with a guilt laden inheritance.
And now it looks as if the indigenous peoples of Palestine are being asked to pay for the sins of others. History makes plain how dangerous it is when people seek to hold one generation responsible for the sins of a prior generation.
But here we must observe a distinction that was not apparent to our former prime minister John Howard when he opposed saying sorry to our First Nations. It is very wrong to seek to hold one generation morally responsible for the sins of their parents and ancestors. But the political responsibility of a nation is altogether different. I entirely concur in the opinion of Hannah Arendt that a nation has to accept political responsibility for the crimes of its predecessors. And I think that the people of the nations of Germany and Japan now accept that judgment too. It is just one factor arising from our scarred past that we here in Australia have to take into account.
As it is, I can see dark days ahead for people here when their children will have to live with the denunciations made by their parents. And at about that time, they will start to be haunted by the question that has tormented Catholics in English speaking lands since the failed invasion by the Spanish Armada: ‘Just whose side are you on?’ This was part of the cancer that blighted Ireland and infected us here. We don’t need another strain of imported threat to our peace.
This clamp down on criticism of Israel, or any discussion of the settlements, serves to foster the illusion that when political discussion comes to Israel, there are some no-go areas – untouchables, if you like. The short answer is: ‘We don’t do caste, here, Mate. If you must have it, the nearest stop is India. But there is religious strife up there. The current Hindu nationalist regime is clamping down on a minority. All two hundred million of them. Does that perhaps ring a bell?’
Allow me one other example of the ‘untouchable syndrome.’ If I criticise the Australian Prime Minister, it would be ludicrous to suggest that people can infer from that criticism that I regard Australians, white people, Pentecostals, or people of any faith, as in some way inferior. But had I criticised Mr Netanyahu, it would have been just a matter of time before I had copped precisely that sort of inane response.
It is not just a shabby smear from the department of dirty tricks. It is a barefaced lie uttered as a form of moral blackmail by people who know better. And it debases the currency of those who might otherwise have a fair dinkum claim to be treated as victims of actual adverse discrimination.
And that is why I refuse to use the two terms most often invoked in this context. The frequency of their abuse has debased their currency. And that I think is another failing for which future generations may be called on to answer for. That is very sad. It is here that people invoke the observation of Mark Twain, that if history does not repeat itself, it occasionally rhymes.
The nation of Israel was created because most of the world thought it should be after one people sought to annihilate another. It now looks like imploding when most of the world thinks it should because one people is treating another as inferior. Abraham Lincoln asked whether a nation conceived as his was could long endure. The people of Israel might ask the same question. The issue is the same – a refusal to recognise the dignity of other people just because they are different. The text, for those who need one, is at the beginning of the book of Ecclesiastes.
The tragedy that led to the creation of Israel arose when a civilised nation empowered its leader to murder another people. (And one other people was to be killed or enslaved.) The evil is beyond human understanding. It also distorts our reading of history. Some say the French emperor was not as evil as the German fϋhrer. That issue might be left to God, but the bellicose vanity of Napoleon did lead to the deaths of five million people.
Such is the potency of evil that mere goodness can unsettleus. When Satan saw us, he ‘felt how awful goodness is.’ John Claggart could not live with the innocence and beauty of the hero of Billy Budd. Herman Melville wrote: ‘The Pharisee is the Guy Fawkes prowling in the hid chambers underlying the Claggarts’.
The tragedy currently being endured by the people of Palestine may seem pale compared to that which led to the birth of Israel – unless you happen to be one of the victims – but the ultimate cause is the same – one people treating another as inferior. And the millions of their own people killed by Stalin and Mao are also beyond count and human understanding. That is the problem that Professor Tim Snyder faced in comparing the evil wrought by the two worst murderers of last century. The numbers sabotage the moral compass, and mock the insight of Hamlet that there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow
So, the evil that led to the birth of Israel may lead to its passing. That is not irony. It is history. It is not facile to say that the difference is in the numbers. The whole point is that each and every person has his or her own worth or dignity. You can get that from the Sermon on the Mount or the enlightenment of Kant. And there is no room for exceptionalism in describing how different people have been diminished by the violation of that principle.
The horror, the evil that lurks in us all, has always been with us. Hannah Arendt saw that. The Romans threw Christians to the lions. Christian Crusaders under guidance and promises from Rome got into training to extinguish Islam by massacring other unbelievers on the way. They, too, entered the Holy Land in the name of God. And they indulged in an orgy of slaughter when they got to Jerusalem. This was the insight of Arendt: ‘The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are terribly and terrifyingly normal.’
Edward Gibbon recorded it all. Thomas Carlyle saw that we could all slip back to the primeval slime at any time. He understood the horror and madness in us all. Auschwitz did not come from nowhere. Between 1789 and 1793, another nation thought to be civilised, France descended into Hades.
One other thing, or rather two other things, we will still mention, and no more: the blond perukes; the Tannery at Meudon. Great talkers of these Perruques Blondes: O reader, they are made from the Heads of Guillotined Women; the locks of a Duchess, in this way, may come to cover the scalp of a cordwainer, her blonde German Frankism his black Gaelic poll, if it be bald. Or they may be work affectionately, as relics, rendering one suspect? Citizens use them, not without mockery; of a rather cannibal sort. …. Still deeper into one’s heart goes that Tannery at Meudon; … ‘There was a tannery of Human Skins; such of the Guillotine as seem worthy flaying: of which perfectly good wash-leather was made; for bleaches and other uses. The skin of the men, he remarks, was superior in toughness (consistance) and quality of shamoy; that of the women was good for almost nothing, being so soft in texture …’ Alas, then, is man’s civilisation only a wrappage, through which the savage nature in him can still burst, infernal as ever? Nature still makes him: and has an Infernal in her as well as a Celestial.
So, God’s fingerprints are all over the tragedy of the Middle East. And they are spreading to here. We knew that, but as I settle down in my own twilight and last post, I have sadly lost patience with any manifestation of God here on earth.
I look back at the misery caused by sexual abuse and the attempt to defraud the victims of their compensation. Then you see the rift in the fabric of decency wrought by Evangelicals in the U S, and the even more bizarre Christian Zionists in Israel and the U S, and the most recent attempted assault on our most vulnerable young people by Pentecostals and that dreadful outfit called the Australian Christian Lobby. And that’s before you get to the schism in Islam that blights the Middle East and North of Africa, or the evil being wrought by Hindus and Buddhists in Asia. And it’s also forgetting that frightful lie about Original Sin, that has been used to hold down half of the human race since. And so it goes. I am fed up with all religion. Or, as a mate says – enough already!
And all this comes to you from someone who now reads in the press that his prime minister has dragged his wife on to national television to tell a breathless audience that he prays for miracles every day. This was all for politics of course; like Martin Luther, he could do no other. But what on earth made him think, if he did, that God might take an interest in Australian politics?
People of faith believe that there is something off-color, at best, with all faiths other than their own. My only difference is that I have no exception.
Religious people here in my view have had far too much to say about how the rest of us – a very large majority – want to live. On, say, abortion, same sex marriage, gay and trans people, and assisted dying. You are all free to stay your own course between yourselves, but can you at least keep your dogma and prescriptions and proscriptions and crosses and curses and miracles and grudges and wars out of my life?
And in the name of God, may I at least be permitted to die in the manner I choose? The only regret that I have about dying is that, by definition, I will not live to feel that immense surge of relief when the lights finally go out.
Israel – foreign interference – ASIO – Australian politics – religion in politics – Israeli lobby – Australian Christian Lobby