We did some bad stuff to the native Maori people of New Zealand back in the 19th century. Well, when I say ‘we’, of course I don't mean my actual family - they were all perfectly nice people. Bad things were done, is what I wanted to say. We Caucasians moved into their country and gradually took over. We raised our flag and insisted that the locals honour it and the system of government it stood for. We brought diseases to which they had no natural resistance and decimated their population. We belittled the local language and culture, and insisted that the people speak English, become Christian, wear clothes and stop eating each other. When they resisted, we made war on them and, after defeating them with our superior technology, we confiscated their land as a punishment for their disloyalty to Queen Victoria.
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Surprisingly, some of these people managed to survive, even to retain remnants of their cultural heritage, and for the past thirty years or so, successive NZ Governments have been making attempts to compensate for the wrongs of the past. Undoubtedly there are some members of the dispossessed indigenous race who see the only fair solution being for all of us pakeha whitefaces to up sticks and go back where we came from. On the other hand, I know for a fact there are others who have achieved success in the modern English-speaking world of the twenty-first century and have no interest in harking back to the Stone Age past of their ancestors. Between these two extremes there is a broad spectrum of opinion such that finding a solution satisfactory to all is pretty unlikely.
My paternal grandfather's grandfather brought his family to New Zealand in one of the very early immigrant ships from Britain back in 1842. Written history in our part of the world doesn't go back much further than that. Even the Maori people we displaced only arrived about one thousand years ago. Before that, New Zealand was an empty land of primeval forests and happily ambulating birds that, to a greater or lesser extent, had lost the motivation and in some cases, even the wherewithal, to fly.
In the lands of the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean, such a time frame barely counts as history at all. Turks trace their arrival into Asia Minor/Anatolia back to 1071 CE - and some of their neighbours are still of the opinion that they should go back to Central Asia where they came from. Nevertheless, as I suggested above, even that historically minuscule period of 170 years is sufficient to ensure that, for the majority of New Zealanders, there is no going back. I'm reasonably sure that some of my relatives in Scotland would welcome us to the land of our fathers and mothers - but I don't want to go, and I don't know many who do. There we are, for better or worse, white-faced English speaking New Zealanders, physically and emotionally attached to our island outpost of empire in the vast emptiness of the South Pacific Ocean. And I have no doubt that, if the need arose, we would fight for it again.
Which brings me back to the Middle East, and, in particular, the seemingly insoluble ongoing problem related to Israel and Palestine. However much sympathy one has for the Jewish people, it is a sad fact that, for most of their history, they have not had a self-governing state to call their own – well, perhaps that’s one reason we have so much sympathy for them. Apart from the conquests by Babylonians and Egyptians documented in the Bible, defeat and exodus continued under the Romans after their invasion of the region in 63 BCE. The original meaning of the word diaspora refers specifically to the exile or dispersal of the Jewish people that went on for perhaps a thousand years, continuing even after the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. Christians seem, in fact, to have been the worst offenders, blaming Jews for the rejection and killing of Jesus Christ – somewhat perversely, one might think, given that his death, as I recall, was largely a matter of personal choice, and fundamental to the essential doctrine of Christianity. Still, who looks for logic in organised religion?
Interestingly, the return of Jewish people to their ancestral homeland seems to have begun in the late 19th century, while Palestine was part of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. I have written before on the special relationship between Jews and Ottomans, a relationship continued until recently by the modern Republic of Turkey. The Ottoman Government welcomed Spanish Jews fleeing from the atrocities of the Inquisition in the 15th century. Several Turkish diplomats, at considerable personal risk, rescued many Jews from the gas chambers and ovens of the German Third Reich. It’s possible that the Ottomans might have found a better long-term solution to the Palestinian problem – but the Brits took over after the First World War, and that was the end of that possibility.
The trickle of Jews into Palestine became a flood as pogroms in Eastern Europe metastasised into the full-scale genocide of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’. European states that ‘care’ so much today closed their doors to Jewish refugees in those days. The British Government went a step further and prevented many from entering Palestine, setting up detention centres in Atlit on the border, and in Cyprus.
In 1948, with the assistance of the United Nations and the USA, Jewish nationalists laid claim to, fought for and won the right to occupy (if might is right) a patch of turf in the southeast corner of the Mediterranean. Small it may have been, but people were living there who had to be displaced to create the new state of Israel. Of course there is a historical argument to be made for the right of Jewish people to a homeland of their own where Abraham led his wandering tribes in fulfilment of God's promise, and Solomon built his fabled temple. And there was a whole heap of collective guilt to be assuaged at the end of World War II. Of course it was the Germans who were responsible for the horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau - but Europe has a long history of persecuting the Children of Israel - and the Bible has few kind words for Philistines, if you need further justification.
So the modern state of Israel came into being on 14 May 1948, and with a tad of imagination, we can think that there were others in the vicinity who were not one hundred percent happy about that. Certainly the immediate response from local Arabs was an invasion and a war that went on for a year. It was roughly two thousand years since the Hebrew race had governed themselves in that land, and the new state had to be populated with willing migrants from countries abroad where their ancestors had dwelt for centuries, if not millennia. Still, once they were there, possession became nine-tenths of the law. And after two generations, use and habit added strength to possession. Without doubt, the people of the new state have worked wonders to create a modern, wealthy powerful nation. And who can blame them for wanting to create also a buffer zone to insulate themselves from those neighbours who still harbour resentment?
I have no problem with the desire of Jewish people for a self-governing homeland. It's a perfectly understandable wish, and history has not treated them kindly in that respect. Nevertheless, there are two indisputable facts to set against the logical and emotional appeal of the self-determination argument.
First, there is historical reality. Tribes, races, nations and empires do conquer each other, occupy their territories, subjugate their people and generally impose their will on the conquered. After a few generations have passed, it becomes difficult to determine who exactly is who, and, even if you could, where you would send the descendants of the conquerors in order to restore the land to its original owners. Forget New Zealand and its Maoris, what about the Anglo-Saxons, or the Norman French in England, US citizens of European ancestry, and descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors of Latin America?
Second, there is the problem of enforcement, and the need to deal with the unpleasantness and misery caused by the displacement and relocation of all those people who had very likely been living contentedly in the disputed territory for generations, and had come to think of it as their own. Here we can think of the forced population exchanges that followed the independence and partition of India and Pakistan, and the foundation of the modern Turkish Republic. And of course the problem does not end with uprooting and resettlement. Resentment lingers, and may result in outbreaks of violence and attempts to reclaim former homelands. Such violence is never far below the surface in Northern Ireland, and Turkey is still struggling to find a solution to its Kurdish question.
So, the United States and its allies helped to establish the modern state of Israel, and once again let me make it clear that I am not arguing against that. Unfortunately, their good deed could not end there. Without US financial and military support, the fledgling state would not have survived. The need to back Israel is a constant determiner in US foreign policy, and is possibly the single most important factor standing in the way of a lasting peace in the Middle East.
No one loves nuclear weapons (we fervently hope) but most of us accept the argument that they are an unfortunate necessity in the modern world. If I don’t have them, and my enemy does, he may be tempted by the power imbalance thereby created, to take advantage of my weakness. 'Mutually Assured Destruction' has long been the ironic insurance against nuclear annihilation. Nevertheless, limits must be imposed, and clearly we do not want ‘rogue’ states having access to a nuclear arsenal. This was the justification for George Dubya’s invasion of Iraq (though it subsequently turned out to have been unfounded) – and may yet provide a pretext for a new invasion of, or at least a punitive strike on Iran.
Leaving aside the question of whether the 2003 Iraq invasion could be retrospectively justified on other grounds, it is clear that a secondary motive for US use of military force in the Middle East (if we assume that the first is oil) is to ensure there is only one state in the region with nuclear capability. In the eyes of US policy-makers, and the Government and people of Israel, this motive may be wholly justifiable – but it is never going to be an easy sell to neighbours who feel threatened or angered by Israeli expansion. Who in the world recognises Jerusalem as the capital of Israel apart from the Israelis themselves? The borders of the modern state of Israel have never been officially drawn, so gradual infiltration followed by annexation seems to be the time-honoured practice. Unfortunately for successive US administrations, the good intentions of their post-war predecessor, Harry S Truman, paved a road for them that is leading to the hell of ongoing war in the Middle East.
Three years ago I wrote about that special relationship between the Turkish and Jewish peoples. My motivation was an incident at the Davos Summit in 2009 where the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, took his Israeli counterpart to task for the aggressive policies of his government. Sad to say, that special relationship seems to have deteriorated further, and one thing is clear: the tide of world opinion has turned, to the point where the Turkish PM now probably represents a majority view on this issue.
Recently I was sent a link to a YouTube video satirising three leaders of countries in this volatile part of the world. The video is entitled ‘The Three Terrors’, and presents Prime Minister Erdoğan, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad of Iran and Bashar al-Assad of Syria as three well-known opera singers. In a deceptively light-hearted spoof, the trio sing of their unholy alliance to bring terror to the USA, ‘Jihad is Sweet, Jihad is Fun’, to the tune of the Italian song ‘Funiculi Funicula’.
Well, I love satire as much as the next man. As a peaceful tool to combat the chicanery of politicians, it has no equal. However, I have to say I found this particular spoof disturbing. It portrays PM Erdoğan as a widely despised ‘jerk’ laughably trying to rebuild the Ottoman Empire while allying himself with Syria’s Assad and Iran’s nuclear aspirations. US President Obama is ‘dumb’ for exercising caution before committing his armed forces to another costly invasion - costly in lives as well as money.
The reality, as I see it, is that Mr Erdoğan’s government has, in ten years, succeeded in raising Turkey’s domestic standards of living, and its international profile to the point where it is now taken seriously on the stage of world affairs. Far from allying itself with Assad’s government, Turkey has been accused of arming and otherwise supporting the rebel forces. Admittedly, the AK Party Government’s attempt (in partnership with Brazil) to broker a deal aimed at easing tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme came to nothing – but you can’t blame them for trying. On the face of it, searching for a peaceful compromise would seem preferable to bombing an ancient world culture back to the Stone Age.
Sometimes I wonder about the source of the seemingly (to me at least) excessively vituperative criticism of Mr Erdoğan’s government circulating on the Internet and in some international journals. Check out that video yourself, and watch it through to the end credits. Is it just me, or did you also feel there was some common element in those names? Who loaded the video? Some entity calling itself Latma TV. Google them and you’ll find most of the material is in the Hebrew language. They also recommend you to visit a site called We Con the World, which seems not to exist any more – but you can find a YouTube video on that too.
Two lessons here for the modern world:
- Trying to rewrite history is going to cause more problems than you bargained on.
- If you want to be loved, you should make some effort to be lovable.