Tom Paulin: Keynote Address

From the archive (legacy material)

Tom Paulin | Resisting Israeli Apartheid conference | 5 December 2004

It’s a great honour to be asked to address you here this morning – I want to begin with a poem by Walid Khazendhar, who is from Gaza. In translation, it’s called ‘Belongings’:

Who entered my room when I was out

and moved the vase on the mantelpiece just a tad?

who skewed that print – a Crusader – on the far wall?

and those pages loose on my desk

they’re a shade dishevelled aren’t they?


of course someone’s read them

and my pillow’s never been dented this way

not by any lovely head

that stray shirt I’d never leave on the floor

some shit’s dropped it

so who came into my room? who?

and who’ll put the vase back exactly

as it was? who’ll

straighten the mailed knight in his corner?

and who’ll restore to my shirt and pillow

their full rights as citizens

of my single room?

I began with a poem because rather than offer an opening polemical address, I want to say something about the role of art -about music and literature – about the creative imagination and about journalism -and their role in the struggle in which we are all engaged. What I have to say is in the nature of a personal statement, rather than a polemical argument, and I’ll try to relate it at times to what has happened in the North of Ireland over the last more than thirty years.
In a recent interview in the Guardian (15 November 2004), the heroic Mordechai Vanunu said: ‘What we have now is an apartheid state’. Michael Ben-Yair, who was Israeli Attorney General from 1993-6, wrote two years earlier:

We enthusiastically chose to become a colonial society, ignoring international treaties, expropriating lands, transferring settlers from Israel to the occupied territories, engaging in theft and finding justification for all these activities. Passionately desiring to keep the occupied territories, we developed two judicial systems; one – progressive, liberal – in Israel; and the other – cruel, injurious – in the occupied territories. In effect, we established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories immediately following their capture. That oppressive regime exists to this day (article in Haaretz , 3 March 2002)

Given the assertion by two such authoritative figures that Israel practices apartheid towards the Palestinians, why has this failed to attract the attention of many radicals and liberals in the West? Here, I would stress the importance of journalism in the struggle – we all read newspapers – and many of us here today will have read the substantial obituary to the war criminal Lieutenant-General Rafael Eitan, which was published in the Guardian on 25 November 2004. The author of the obituary, Lawrence Joffe, said:

Leftist Israelis condemn him for masterminding the 1982 invasion of Lebanon ‘and for dashing peace hopes as a minister in the 1990s. Some journalists still recoil from his legendary brusqueness. And Palestinians will never forget how Eitan once likened them to “drugged cockroaches scurrying in a bottle.” He opposed all attempts to afford them autonomy in the occupied territories.

The obituary was accompanied by a large colour photograph of Eitan, which may have been intended as a compensatory editorial balance for the drugged cockroaches remark, but notice how that racist – racist? – that seems a bit soft – how that remark is offered in context – the lieut-general’s legendary brusqueness humanizes him to some degree, and then it is stated that Palestinians will never forget him likening them to drugged cockroaches – what about the rest of humanity? This is how segregation works – the rest of us have either never heard the remark or have forgotten it, only the Palestinians remember and only the Palestinians react to it. Everyone must be given the opportunity of remembering, and this means that certain stories must be told over and over again. One such story, not at all well known, concerns a member of Lloyd George’s cabinet, Edwin Montagu, who was active in opposing the politicians who were working towards the Balfour Declaration.
In my source -I owe it to Karl Sabbagh who generously gave me access to his archives -Montagu argues vigorously against the declaration which Weizmann and his team had persuaded the British government to issue by arguing that that their views were shared by most British Jews. Weizmann and team had seen off the two Jewish leaders who criticized the idea of a Jewish-run Palestine, but Edwin Montagu didn’t share Weizmann’s views and pointed out, in fact. That the only vote that had ever taken place among British Jews that could be interpreted as addressing the issue of Zionism was almost evenly divided between pro and anti. He passionately opposed a Zionist state and laid out his case forcefully in a series of letters and. pamphlets and speeches. At a Cabinet meeting in September 1917 he picked out the phrase ‘home of the Jewish people’ and said that this would ‘vitally prejudice the position of every Jew elsewhere’. In a memorandum to the Cabinet, Montagu wrote:

I wish to place on record that the policy (toward Palestine) of His Majesty’s Government is anti-Semitic in result and will provide a rallying ground for anti-Semites in every corner of the world … Zionism has always seemed to me to be a mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom.

Although we would nowadays recognize that Montagu was speaking before the Holocaust, and we would also, many of us, not share Montagu’s view that that it is impossible to have two national loyalties, his passionate opposition to the movement that led to the Balfour Declaration on 9 November 1917, is not part of the cultural memory (I was recently praising Isaac Deutscher’s great biography of Trotsky to a group of undergraduates, when I realized that not only had they never heard of Deutscher, they had never heard of Trotsky either). Literature, drama, journalism are vital in constructing and extending the cultural memory, and as all journalists and editors know anniversaries play a large part in inspiring newspaper articles. We need to read articles about Edwin Montagu – there should have been a large number last month on the subject of the 87th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. There are many more unwritten articles – articles for example which trace the inspiration Herzl drew from Cecil Rhodes – according to David Hirst he was particularly impressed by the manner in which Rhodes had wrested control of Matabeleland from its inhabitants. Other, as yet unwritten, articles would discuss Herzl’s remark that the aim was to follow the native population’s land and to

gently expropriate Arab property and try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our own country.

I take this quotation from the historian David Gilmour’s DISPOSSESSED: THE ORDEAL OF THE PALESTINIANS . Gilmour, in that powerful work, points out that it is untrue to say that Arab radio broadcasts urged Palestinians to flee. Again this fact, and the propaganda based on the supposed truth of those broadcasts, ought to be the subject of journalistic articles. I would also of course call for more poems, plays, novels on these subjects.
Arnold Toynbee’s remark in 1931 that land purchases in Palestine in their exclusive nature ‘means what in South African is called ‘segregation’, is another subject.
Here I want to develop some points which I was unable to discuss at any length in the tribute to Edward Said, which I published in the Guardian on the first anniversary of his death, the 25th September, this year. But before I do this, I want to mention that that article came about because when I had the idea shortly after Edward died, I waited until I thought the time was right to approach the Guardian -I got in touch with them last spring, suggested the idea- the 25th September was a Saturday, when the Guardian Review appears -they said yes and I went ahead.
During Edward Said’s 1991 trip to South Africa recalled Walter Sisulu telling him that one reason for the ANC’s victory was its international campaign against apartheid. In the same book, Said says that the incoming settlers who created Israel cannot be ‘mechanically reduced to the status of white colonists like those who settled both North and South Africa’. In THE PEN AND THE SWORD , he describes how, when he met Mandela in Johannesburg, Mandela told him that ‘we will never desert the Palestinians a) because it’s a matter of principle and b) because of your -that is, the Palestinians- help for us’. While the ANC was in its worst moments in the 1960s and 1970s, they were getting help from the Palestinians. The point is that the Palestinians are part of a big historical. In THE POLITICS OF DISPOSSESSION , Said remarks that a lot of people who are happy to attack apartheid or U.S. intervention in Central America are not prepared to talk about Zionism and what it has done to the Palestinians, and in the same book he says nothing he saw in South Africa ‘can compare with Gaza in misery, in sheer programmed oppression, in confinement and racial discrimination’. In THE END OF THE PEACE PROCESS, he reminds his readers that Nelson Mandela, whose organization had been completely ‘defeated’ by the South African regime,

whose colleagues were either in exile or killed, and who himself was a state security prisoner for twenty-seven years, never compromised on the truth of his struggle, which was to hold out without change in the original political goal of one person, one vote It was that, and neither an air force nor secret decisions … that brought about the defeat of apartheid, which was morally confounded and compelled in the end to submit to the greater truth of the human power of Mandela’s courage and principle.

Later, he returns to his conversation with Walter Sisulu. What exactly did the ANC do to turn defeat into victory? he asked Sisulu. ‘You must remember’, Sisulu told him,

that during the eighties we were beaten in South Africa; the organization was wrecked by the police, our bases in neighboring countries were routinely attacked by the South African army, our leaders were in jail or in exile or killed. We then realized that our only hope was to concentrate on the international arena, and there to delegitimize apartheid. We organized in every major Western city; we initiated committees, we prodded the media, we held meeting and demonstrations, not once or twice, but thousands of times. We organized university campuses and churches and labor unions, and business people, and professional groups’

He then paused for a moment, and said:

Every victory that we registered in London, or Glasgow, or Iowa City, or Toulouse, or Berlin, or Stockholm gave the people at home a sense of hope, and renewed their determination not to give up the struggle. In time we morally isolated the South African regime and its policy of apartheid so that even though militarily we could not do much to hurt them, in the end they came to us, asking for negotiations. We never changed or retreated from our basic program, our central demand: one person, one vote.

So, when a renowned and respected figure like Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s former national security adviser, says explicitly on national television that Israel has been behaving

like the white supremacist regime of apartheid South Africa, one can be certain that he is not alone in his view.

In considering the nature, the principles and the strategies involved in the struggle against an apartheid state, I’m reminded of the protests made by a number of young Dublin women who worked on the checkout tills in a chain of supermarkets – Dunne’s Stores – they protested against having to handle South African goods and spoke out against the regime. The protest attracted media attention in Britain, then it was over. There wasn’t an equivalent protest, as I recall, in this country, but it made me realize that just as there was in the South of Ireland and among northern Irish Catholics a considerable identification with South African blacks under apartheid – and now with the Palestinian people –there was an equivalent identification with white South Africans and with the State of Israel among northern Irish protestants. Today the Palestinian flag flies over working–class nationalist estates in Belfast, and the Israeli flag flies over protestant estates. Ian Paisley and his deputy Peter Robinson visited both Israel and apartheid South Africa, and were photographed there –both times at an army post, as I recall. They were drawing an analogy for the benefit of their supporters– an analogy first drawn by a British civil servant in the 1920s, who protested against the creation of another Ulster in the Middle-East (quoted, I recall, some years back in an article in the Guardian by Seamus Milne). But it may be that this Tuesday, Paisley’s party will do a deal with its old enemy Sinn Fein and 700 years of historical struggle will be laid to rest.
As we know, things change, and in 1985, when Margaret Thatcher and the Irish Taosaich, Garrett Fitzgerald, signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement the Loyalists felt betrayed. Though they never said so, the British and Irish governments had established the principle of joint sovereignty over the North of Ireland. The Loyalists protested bitterly and in their daily morning paper, The Newsletter , articles and letters appeared likening their experience to that of South African blacks under apartheid.
A few years earlier, I got involved in something in Ireland which might fall under the rubric of ‘strategies’ in the title of this conference. Here, if you don’t mind, I’d like to say a little about my personal experience of becoming involved in a cultural struggle that was and is also a political struggle, and that is the struggle to articulate a central political fact – the Northern Irish State or statelet, established in the Downing Street peace talks in 1921 had failed. The extent and depth of that failure was hard to perceive or accept, for those protestants, like myself, who could remember the IRA campaign in the 1950’s, and who were fundamentally opposed to the paramilitary violence, which has caused such suffering.
One prominent defender of that Northern Irish State was a then well-known writer and intellectual, Conor Cruise O’Brien, who put his revisionist guilt about the excesses of traditional Irish nationalism at the service of the beleaguered state. An admirer of Edmund Burke he used certain low propagandist tricks to characterize anyone who described themselves as a republican and a believer in a united Irish state as a fellow-traveller with the IRA. (He was for several years editor in chief of The Observer and sacked that great journalist, Mary Holland, who died earlier this year.) Subsequently, he wrote a substantial book in defence of Israel, The Siege , and became a supporter of a small, some would say, batty Unionist party, the UK Unionist party, led by Robert McCartney, which believes that the Northern Irish State, in the analogy of French Algeria, though they don’t say this, should be permanently incorporated in the British State. Having admired O’Brien extravagantly in my early twenties, I came to see that he was committed to a Unionist position, and published a long review essay in The Times Literary Supplement criticizing him. Around this time, Brian Friel and Stephan Rea formed the Field Day Theatre Company, and asked Seamus Deane, David Hammond, Seamus Heaney and myself to become directors. We put a play on every year – a play we took on tour throughout the island – and published pamphlets and the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing . We aimed to challenge sectarian divisions in the North of Ireland, to put the ‘two traditions’ as they’re called (protestant and catholic) in some sort of communication, and to imagine a culture beyond partition. Edward Said contributed a pamphlet on Yeats and Decolonization in 1988 – that pamphlet links the Irish historical struggle with the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, and issues from Said’s strong identification with Yeats, Swift, and the Irish historical experience. Robert McCartney, the Unionist integrationist I mentioned earlier, contributed a pamphlet on the protestant idea of liberty to Field Day, a pamphlet which argued that a proper state constitution had to recognize and protect the rights of minorities – there could not be simple majority rule – and here he was, without saying so, looking forward to a future united Ireland with a substantial protestant minority.
In Field Day, we held, as Edward Said so passionately did, to a secular enlightenment narrative which rejects identification with a particular ethnically – based ideology. Such identifications run deep in Irish politics on both sides – as we can see from Joyce’s portrayal of Mr Deasy and the Citizen -antisemites both – in Ulysses – and we stood out against them.
My point here is that a struggle against embedded prejudices and institutions which aim to equate people into tribes and enforce apartheid is an imaginative struggle, a struggle which does not demand that a work of art should be constrained to and interpreted by a single ideological position, but should be part of a shared appreciation and debate. There is a famous passage in his essay on Coriolanus , where William Hazlitt confronts the problem that the left opposition is so often nervous of the imagination and unwilling to employ it:

The cause of the people is indeed but little calculated as a subject for poetry; it admits of rhetoric, which goes into argument and explanations, but presents no immediate or distinct images to the mind, ‘no jutting frieze, buttress, or coigne of vantage’ for poetry ‘to make its pendent bed and procreant cradle in’. The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power. The imagination is an exaggerating and exclusive faculty: it takes from one thing to add to another: it accumulates circumstances together to give the greatest possible effect to a favourite object. The understanding is a dividing and measuring faculty: it judges of things not according to their immediate impression on the mind but according to their relations to one another. The one is a monopolizing faculty, which seeks the greatest quantity of present excitement by inequality and disproportion: the other is a distributive faculty, which seeks the greatest of ultimate good, by justice and proportion. The one is an aristocratical, the other a republican faculty. The principle of poetry is a very anti-levelling principle. It aims at effect it exists by contrast. It admits of no medium. It is every thing by excess. It rises above the ordinary standard of sufferings and crimes. It presents dazzling appearance. It shows its head turreted, crowned and crested. Its front is gilt and blood-stained. Before it carries noise, and behind it leaves tears’. It has its altars and its victims, sacrifices, human sacrifices. Kings, priests, nobles, are its train-bearers. Poetry is right-royal. It puts the individual for the species, the one above the infinite many, might before right.

In opposing the practice of apartheid by the Israeli state, we need of course to use the understanding –the intellect– to seek what Hazlitt calls ‘the greatest quantity of ultimate good, by justice and proportion’. This means existing in a constant state of critical alertness. In a recent article in the Guardian Saeb Erekat pointed to the fact that in July this year the international court of justice ‘unanimously reaffirmed that Israel’s West Bank colonies and the wall violate international law’. He then said:

The EU’s reluctance to take decisive action in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not only teaches Israel that the EU can be ignored, but also it sullies the laudable values of freedom and the rule of law that the EU seeks to promote. There is an inherent contradiction in supporting the International Court of Justice decision and opposing Israel’s illegal colonies, while simultaneously providing Israel with preferential trade relations in the form of the EU-Israel agreement. By doing nothing to end the “apartheid regime” in the Palestinian Territories, which “is worse than the one that existed in South Africa” – as described by John Duggard, South African law professor and special rapporteur for the UN on human rights in the Palestinian territories – the EU erodes its international credibility as a non-biased facilitator of peace while placing itself squarely in opposition to democracy, freedom and law enforcement. This is hardly the kind of policy that would induce Ariel Sharon to take the EU seriously. Indeed, he does not.

This point needs to be made ceaselessly, and there needs to be a rapid-response facility to refute the untruths that are so often repeated. For example, an article in The Observer (7 November 2004) on Arafat said that he had refused an Israeli offer of peace, which was the best offer ever likely to be made – this is untrue, and I hoped that there would be a letter the following Sunday pointing this out. No such letter appeared – which isn’t to say that none were sent – but this was an example where if there had been a flood of letters refuting the lie pedalled by Clinton and others The Observer might have felt constrained to publish at least one.   Such a letter might have pointed out that the Bantustans invented by the South African regime actually provided the models for the US –Israeli proposals for Palestinian territories at the Camp David negotiations of 2000, according to a report by the National Intelligence Council. The common thread here is a particular type of protestant culture, which pervades life in the United States and Britain. That evangelical, emotional, narcissistic and overweening protestant individualism, which Blair and Bush and many of their followers hold to can be detected in a curious essay by one of Blair’s advisers, Robert Cooper, which was published in The Observer (7 November 2004). Entitled ‘Why we still need Empires’, Cooper argues that what he calls the ‘old-fashioned states outside the post-modern continent of Europe’ need to be handled by ‘the rougher methods of an earlier era – force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the 19 th -century world of every state for itself’. Cooper is nostalgic for a benevolent imperialist commonwealth that would provide its citizens with some of its laws, some coins and the occasional road’. This represents precisely the type of anti-democratic ideology that was rejected by the South Africans’ Congress of the People, who struggled to liberate themselves from the Bantustan camps the apartheid government imposed on them.
These points need, as I say, to be ceaselessly articulated, so that a rigorous critical attitude of mind is elaborated and strengthened that points not just to those untruths that are so often promulgated by certain journalists, academics and hired experts, but also to those glitches and evasions which can be detected in imaginative treatments of the subject. Here, I’d mention an exemplary critical study, Literature, Partition and the Nation State , by Joe Cleary, who offers a compelling study of how certain novelists – in Ireland, Israel, Palestine and South Africa address and sometimes evade the political situations whose social and human configurations they are imagining.      My point here is that it is essential to continue and develop the critical struggle and argument – publishers did not rush to accept Edward Said’s ORIENTALISM , but it became probably the most influential work of criticism ever to be published – its origins are in literary criticism and it has been translated into over thirty languages.
There is a sequel to ORIENTALISM , which is waiting to be written – this is a book which will study how the Book of Exodus informs, pervades and structures British and American Protestantism -Clinton, Bush and Blair all share that evangelical protestantism which links them with Ian Paisley. Such a study would also need to consider the often fictive stories and figures -David, for example- which the Old Testament contains .Philip Davies’ study IN SEARCH OF ANCIENT ISRAEL – he puts ‘ancient Israel’ in inverted commas, as Abba Eban was always doing to the Palestinians -this study argues that the biblical Israel is what he calls ‘a literary construct’ -a construct that has been treated by scholars as if it was historical. Most of the biblical period, he argues, consists not only of unhistorical persons and events but even tracts of time that do not belong to history at all.
Such a work belongs to the republican faculty of the understanding – it requires years of research in libraries and archives, but as we know from the great achievement of ORIENTALISM such a work can become a banner, a beacon, an inspiration – its argument and lessons are applied – we see this, for example, in the film treatment of MANSFIELD PARK which draws on the chapter on Jane Austen in CULTURE AND IMPERIALISM , a work that bounces its title off Matthew Arnold’s influential, but empty and largely reactionary work CULTURE AND ANARCHY . But it also becomes an inspiration to further research, further writing. And there are other complementary approaches – I recall Edward Said’s essay on his meeting with the great film director, Ponteorvo, whose THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS, is one of the greatest statements against colonialism. Edward hoped that Pontecorvo might make an equivalent film about the Palestinian struggle, but nothing came of their meeting. That film waits to be made. It is in music that the imaginative struggle has been most successful – the East-West Divan, the noble and continuing efforts of Daniel Barenboim to energize people to see the situation for what it is.
In London, the concert given on 16 October in the Brixton Academy by PRIMAL SCREAM, SPIRITUALIZED, Nick Cave and THE BAD SEEDS and 3D of MASSIVE ATTACK. Its 5000 tickets were sold out, and £78,000 was raised for Palestinian children in refugee camps. A friend who was at the concert said it was as though an evil spell had been broken – passivity and hopelessness had gone, it was possible to move forward on a united wave of commitment and imagination.
A couple of years ago, when I was teaching at Columbia University in New York I read an anthology of Palestinian poetry and prose, translated into English and published by Columbia University Press.- the translations of the poems were all worthy, but they had no music no beauty no kick no fire – the exception was the sense I got from the translation of Walid Khazendar’s ‘Belongings’- I had a go at reworking that translation and then asked a young Arabic scholar to translate a volume of Khazendar’s I was able to get hold of through the internet. I’ve done versions of those translations and three of them and ‘Belongings’ are in a new volume of translations I published in October. I mention this really to talk about how one seeks for opportunities to write and to witness. One of the inspiring effects of listening to Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim in conversation in New York two years ago was to send me to Goethe’s EAST-WEST DIVAN and to then do versions of four poems in that volume – I realized the eurocentrism that seems to ring fence the imagination of those of us brought up as white Europeans – I went back to CULTURE AND IMPERIALISM and the great chapter on Camus which shows both his limitations, his ideological agenda, and the limits of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s critique of Camus. My point here is that this intellectual critique is paramount. It is a great moral struggle we are engaged in and it calls for the exercise of the understanding and the imagination both.