Palestine dreaming: sailing out of the storm

The SS Free GazaIf only there were a ten-point plan that would safely navigate Palestine and Israel out of the eye of the storm – for good. Such a thing seems like a far-fetched dream, as the silence of a thousand funerals hangs over Palestine and the pall of grief and despair drifts towards its belligerent neighbour; as a thousand brows furrow their restrained anxiety around the offices of governments and NGOs worldwide and talks of a ceasefire brush the charred remains of shattered lives under the carpet.

But dreams, as we know, can come true. I am fully unqualified to comment on the intricacies of the situation in the Middle East, or indeed any issue of international politics, but as a human I’d like to speak on behalf of dreams. Here’s one.

During the onslaught, at some futile emotional moment like many must have experienced as we watched from our comfortable homes, it was easy to become absorbed in the despair and anger of the Gazans, to understand why Hamas feels impelled to fight, to feel overwhelmed by the horror, the brutality, the injustice and the justifications and to want to do something that stops it.

The motivation comes more easily still when we peer behind media analyses and detect forces working on our behalf to excuse the aggression, maintain the dominant power, and sidestep the suffering, and the measures that avert our gaze from those forces. These are manifested throughout British and American media, often in the form of ‘appropriate’ language and considered omissions. Media Lens dissects these habits in a typically eye-opening essay, ‘An eye for an eyelash’, which highlights among many other points the refusal of the Western press to mention the Israeli occupation of Gaza, to mention that so many Palestinians are refugees driven from their homes by settlers, or to use words like genocide for acts committed by Western allies.

And it might be easier again to imagine siding with the resistance if we only knew the half of it, if we had some sense of the shocking reality of what has been visited on Palestine, much of which is deliberately omitted from the press, as Felix Grant points out in ‘Nightmares hidden in plain sight’. In this he reminds (from direct experience) that ‘the most horrifying picture … cannot even begin to hint at the experience of not just seeing corpses of friends and neighbours and family but wading through them, hearing them scream …’.

The most poignant impressions in catastrophes like these are always those left by the personal, human stories. Take ‘Children of Gaza, run to the Angels’ from the Palestine Chronicle, a heart-breaking description of recent scenes of murdered children and bereft parents, one of which begins: ‘A little girl’s brown curly hair covered in dust and eyes wide open is all that can be found of her…. her father frantically searches among the rubble for the rest of his daughter, where could she be? I whisper again, “you will be made whole again in Paradise. Run to the angels”’.

Another attempt to fill the gaps is made by Dr C’s determined and persistent postings throughout the invasion of Gaza of photos depicting more of the reality.

Insights like these spark emotions; emotions produce action. Yet even empathetic emotional responses, which could motivate compassionate action, appear to have no place at the international negotiation table. They are considered a distraction, as is any evidence on the human scale. Yes, emotion can cloud issues, but is there really no place for an appreciation of the human reality in the peace-making process?

The African philosophy of Ubuntu has as its central tenet that ‘I am because you are’ – our humanity exists and is defined by those around us and our relationship with them, and we should aim to reflect others’ humanity back to them. This concept is illustrated beautifully by tales of humanity told by Chris Abani, a poet and former political prisoner in Nigeria. He illustrates, with a moving tale of his mother’s resilience in extreme danger, how even the strongest among us can “steel our heart against any kind of trouble, any kind of horror, but a simple act of kindness from a complete stranger will unstitch you”.

The power of kindness is sorely underestimated in our culture and its value all but unrecognised as an agent for profound change. Kindness is long overdue for a renaissance (also recognised elsewhere). How would world politics work if compassion on a human scale were held in higher esteem than the egos of leaders and the grievances of the past?

This is the dream I am talking about. Before it could ever unfold, however, everyone must acknowledge that is as important, and as easy, to identify with Israeli reactionaries as it is with Palestinian outrage. It doesn’t matter how much we balk at either or both of these. Each must be possible in our minds. It’s not difficult to think Israeli: to imagine the mixture of fear and insecurity at rockets coming over the border at your neighbourhood at any time, to conjure the sense of entitlement, indignation and disdain, the fierce pride that comes from coming through your own history of oppression, and the urge to weave all this into a semblance of virtue and self-validation.

The relevance of this is that it leads to an understanding of how our emotional responses and behaviour are determined by circumstances and social structures. Our culture becomes us wherever we are. We are interchangeable. If we get this, we can empathise with whoever we consider to be the other party. If we have empathy we have the prerequisite for kindness. Then kindness can blossom in surprising places, and if this is allowed to happen enough, the effect might be so profound and powerful as to undermine the structures, rewire the habits and change the behaviours of decades.

Why shouldn’t we aim for a world politics in which compassion on a human scale is held in higher esteem than the egos of leaders and the grievances of the past? In its final state it would be almost unrecognisable to us now; perhaps sharing something with the age-old standard of chivalry; perhaps encompassing elements of Ubuntu. Military intervention would be rare and its motives transparent. Peace-building would get more funding than war-making.

Surely a modern version of chivalry offers the best hope for a peaceful resolution for Israel and Palestine; and surely their leaders would go down in history for pioneering the dream.

Who should start being chivalrous, and why? It may be that the people can lead the way, those who live as neighbours in Israel and Palestine, by somehow tunnelling under the complex maze of international forces and cultural blinkers to find their own path toward long-term peace.

Those of us outside it all can be chivalrous by refusing to judge, by committing to educate ourselves and others, and by resisting and challenging the obfuscating arguments in the media.

Leaders themselves might take steps by offering themselves up to Transactional Analysis, or TA, a currently fashionable (but nonetheless valuable) psychoanalytical approach to improving patterns of exchange in relationships. As a rough, inexpert overview, in TA parties are considered to adopt one of three ego states: parent, adult, or child. In parent mode, they can be either nurturing or critical. In child mode, they are either natural or adaptive (which can include naughty). Most situations in which someone feels dominated, criticised, or otherwise made uncomfortable by another can be explained by the TA roles taken up by the participants in an exchange (or transaction), and many can be diffused by a conscious shedding or shifting of those roles.

This may be the first time it has been attempted but anyway: let’s see what happens if we apply TA to entire countries.

In the Middle East, Israel is playing the critical parent, goaded by the rebellious child that is Palestine into losing its temper and showing the child in brutal terms how it must behave. According to TA theory, their transaction pattern falls into a mode that traps both parties into a sequence of repeated actions and reactions and keeps them in an endless cycle of oppression, reaction and recrimination, unless the pattern is interrupted. TA outlines the process by which this interruption can happen so that both parties can become adult – the desirable, mature ego-state uncluttered by historical scripts and habit. I am not equipped to go further here except to observe that a first step might be for Israel to shift into nurturing parent, a good way of addressing adaptive child. This would involve, guess what: compassion and kindness.

Palestine, on the other hand, must also make efforts to give Israel no excuse for playing critical parent. This means taking an adult view: accepting inch-worm progress and rising above its resentment and pain. It means respecting Israel’s position and the feelings of its people.

An intriguing analysis by Karl Lam could help Palestine rise to this by throwing a different light on Israel. In a recent email to a group forum he reminded how the ruling classes in Western Christian societies have a long history of inviting stateless Jewish people into our countries, into ‘roles that were carefully chosen so that the Jews became the immediate, ‘visible face’ of oppression:  e.g. money lender, banker, etc,’ thereby enabling the rulers to maintain a positive image among the general population. Then, whenever the repression of the majority reached levels that might prompt revolt, the Jews were offered up to the workers as scapegoats, by means of anti-Jewish propaganda.

Once the pogroms and enforced deportations were over, the ordinary people who had carried out the atrocities were crippled by their guilt into a state of passive submission, open for further exploitation by the ruling classes. Karl applies this model to recent history, setting the scene as follows:

‘The West extracts natural resources from Middle Eastern states by buying off the local ruling class; [by putting] in place repressive regimes who, for personal gain, sell off the country’s natural resources. These repressive rulers need an external enemy, so their population can be kept busy fighting it, rather than noticing they’ve been sold out.’

‘Israel,’ he says, ‘is deliberately manipulated into that role.’

Karl’s suggestion is that Israel now occupies a place on the world stage long familiar to Jews: that of the visible face of oppression, while the real oppressors hide behind them, offering them up to the anger of the oppressed peoples. This perspective, whatever its flaws, could be enormously helpful not only in letting both parties step back, but also in shedding new light on the motives of the West, the bias of the media, and the culpability by ignorance of us all. Now we can feel more sympathy than anger for those caught in the recurring nightmare of the Middle East and greater determination to uncover our own countries’ complicity in it.

Meanwhile … perhaps a ten-point plan informed by this wider view and based on transactional analysis and chivalry would only need five points. The process might just, in time, catalyse such an outpouring of relief and purpose that people would take their own aspirations and forge them into the path to reconciliation. Idealistic, perhaps, but surely a dream worth pursuing?


  1. Thank you, Felix.

    The NY Times article is I agree insightful and sensible (and a surprising contribution from its author). Well worth a read.

    I was also interested to see an article from a Native American academic called Julia Good Fox, who says Stop the re-creation of ‘Indian country’ in the Holy Land. Her perspective on the cultural mindset of the US and Israel and its parallel with that which allowed the genocide of American Indians is eye-opening.


    “Ill fares the land, to yet worse ills falls prey,
    Where hate accumulates and hopes decay.”
    ~ Oliver Goldsmith

    “A land where the light is a darkened breath:
    A darkened land in the shadow of death.”
    ~ adapted from The Book of Job

    At the very best of current thinking,
    all that will be done after this latest
    round of lunatic killing is over
    is to bind up bleeding wounds that will not
    be healed. It is radical re-thinking
    that is needed now, and more than ever…

    The beginning of a poem on Israel and Palestine by
    TONY WALTON, January 2009

    Contact Vivid for the full text.

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