"UNTIL the Palestinians are given back their rights we're going to have instability throughout the Middle East," declared John Pilger on ABC1's Q & A last night. "That is central to everything."
16 February '11
Yet, one of the most striking things about the uprising in Egypt was the lack of pro-Palestine placards. As Egypt-watcher Amr Hamzawy put it, in Tahrir Square and elsewhere there were no signs saying "death to Israel, America and global imperialism" or "together to free Palestine". Instead, this revolt was about Egyptian people's own freedom and living conditions.
Yet on the pro-Egypt demonstration in London on Saturday, there was a sea of Palestine placards. "Free Palestine", they said, and "End the Israeli occupation". The speakers had trouble getting the audience excited about events in Egypt, having to say on more than one occasion: "Come on London, you can shout louder than that!" Yet every mention of the word Palestine induced a kind of Pavlovian excitability among the attendees. They cheered when the P-word was uttered, chanting: "Free, free Palestine!"
This reveals something important about the Palestine issue. In recent years it has moved from the realm of Arab radicalism, where Egyptians and other peoples frequently demanded the creation of a Palestinian state, and has instead become almost the exclusive property of Western middle-class radicals, such as Pilger.
Emptied of its nationalist vigour and militancy, the Palestine problem, it seems, is now of little immediate interest to protesting Arabs and is instead the ultimate cause celebre for Western liberal campaigners who like nothing more than having a victimised people they can coo over.
The power and allure of Palestine in Western radical circles is extraordinary. Palestine is the only issue they get excited about. But there is nothing progressive in their pro-Palestine fervour. It is not driven by future-oriented demands for economic development in a Palestinian homeland in the West Bank or Gaza. Instead it is driven by a view of Palestinians as the ultimate victims, the hapless and pathetic children of the new world order, who need kindly, wizened Westerners to protect them from Big Bad Israel.
Today's pro-Palestine leftism is more anthropological than political. It treats Palestinians less as a people who ought to have certain democratic rights and more as an intriguing tribe to be prodded and preserved. Some Western radicals have even adopted the fashions of their favourite tribe. Step on to any university campus in the West, or join any left-wing march, and you'll see concerned-looking youths wearing the Palestinian keffiyeh scarf, a politically correct version of blacking up.
This is the politics of pity rather than solidarity. Groups of Western middle-class youth have taken Palestinian pity holidays in the West Bank and Gaza. They turn up and marvel at the dignity of this beautiful besieged people, like those wives of old Victorian colonialists who discovered they rather liked the African tribes they had been sent to Christianise. "I've never met people like the Palestinians. They're the strongest people I've ever met", gushed British peace activist Kate Burton, who hit the headlines in 2006 after being kidnapped by a Palestinian faction in Gaza.
Of course, Westerners have often gone on moral adventures overseas, whether as missionaries or revolutionaries. What's different about Palestinian pity tourism is that these Westerners seek neither to convert Palestinians to a religion nor to take up arms with them, but simply to empathise with them, to immerse themselves in what they consider to be the ultimate victimhood experience. One pity-tripper wrote in the New Statesman about her experience living "under siege" in Bethlehem. "I'm beginning to understand what it must be like to be a Palestinian," she said.
That is the ultimate aim of these empathy tours, to have an experience that makes real the politics of victimhood that so many of these Western activists subscribe to. Where some bored Western youth who feel their everyday lives lack zest go on bungee-jumping trips in Peru, Western leftists who feel politics at home has been zapped of urgency go on tank-stopping trips in Palestine.
There is a profound narcissism in the pity-for-Palestinian movement. When American activist Rachel Corrie was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza in 2003, it gave rise to a play called My Name Is Rachel Corrie. The killing of British peace activist Tom Hurndall in Gaza in 2004 led to a film called The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall.
This is clearly all about Us - the good and pure Westerners who went to find themselves in Palestine - rather than about Them, the actual Palestinians.
There's now also a ship called the MV Rachel Corrie, which was one of those attacked by the Israel Defence Forces as it sailed to Gaza last year. Everyone who's anyone in Europe's liberal set is desperate to sail in her. MPs, thinkers, Nobel Peace Prize laureates, novelists . . . all have taken the MV Rachel Corrie to Gaza, super-keen to promote their whiter-than-white decency by standing, Kate Winslet-style, on the deck of a ship that is Against Israel. Because being "for Palestine" today is ultimately a self-serving way of advertising that you are Good, Decent, an opponent of the modern-day "Nazism" being practised by the Israeli state.
For these historically ignorant campaigners, Israelis are the New Nazis and Gaza is the new Warsaw Ghetto. As the title of a recent talk in London put it: "A New Hitler for a New Age? The Rise of Israeli Terror."
Palestinian pitiers have no time to think about the inconvenient fact that Hamas is an intolerant political entity that has no time for gay rights or women's equality. Instead, everything gets reduced to a Narnia-style story of wicked witches v happy fauns, because this is ultimately about providing vacuous-feeling Westerners with some much-needed momentum in their lives, not about untangling a messy political reality.
It's very revealing that Palestine has become less important for Arabs and of the utmost symbolic importance for Western radicals at exactly the same time. With the Palestinian people somewhat deflated, the Palestine issue can become perfect political fodder for the victim-oriented, fancy-dress radicals of the modern West.
Brendan O'Neill is the editor of Spiked Online
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