an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Archive for the ‘nationalism’ Category

palestine 5 – the turbulent thirties and forties, towards the Nakba

leave a comment »

The 1930s saw a growing animosity among the native, mostly Sunni Moslem population towards Zionist claims to and appropriation of Palestinian lands. Sentiments about the future of the region were diverse, animated and increasingly dogmatic. There are no clearly ‘representative’ figures, but the career of Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem from 1921 to 1948, illustrates some of the complexities of Arab-Zionist-European relations in the period that includes WW2.

Husseini was born to a prominent Palestinian family in Jerusalem (his father and his half-brother also served as the city’s mufti). At the outset of WW1 he joined the Ottoman army, but switched his allegiance to the British after their forces captured Jerusalem, seeking their support for Arab independence against the Ottoman Turks. After the war he became a prominent writer and activist, and a supporter of the short-lived Arab Kingdom of Syria. Later, after securing the position of mufti (and exalting the title to Grand Mufti), he sought to limit or stop Jewish-Zionist immigration to Palestine, in direct opposition to the Balfour Declaration and the British position on the region. Interestingly, it was only through British string-pulling that he was able to secure the job of mufti, a lifelong sinecure. For more than a decade Husseini was seen as a British ally in the region, in spite of his increasing interest in Arab-Palestinian nationalism and his antagonism towards Zionism, but the Arab Revolt (1936-39) obliged him to take sides against Britain. Evading an arrest warrant, he fled Palestine and finally took refuge in fascist Italy and Germany, where he sought Nazi support for Arab independence in the Levant. As a propagandist for the Nazis he was implicated in war crimes. He found refuge in Egypt after the war, but was still active in political life, expressing opposition to the 1947 UN partition plan, and helping to organise an All-Palestine government in Egypt-controlled Gaza. Though supported by many Arab states, it was limited in effect and was superseded by the PLO in the sixties. Husseini died, a controversial and complex figure, in Lebanon in 1974. His connection with Nazism and with the anti-semitism that has since been such a feature of Arab nationalism appears to have been his major legacy.

Husseini’s increasing anti-Semitism mirrored to some extent the Arab nationalist movement as a whole, at a time when post-war Europe and the USA were moving in the opposite direction after the revelations of the Holocaust. These shifts have been momentous in terms of international attitudes to the Arab world and the foundation of the nation of Israel.

Against this backdrop, and after a spike in Jewish immigration to the region, a nationalist revolt against the British mandate in Palestine, which began as a general strike organised by Husseini in 1936 and was at first confined to political action, became increasingly bloody and widespread in response to repressive British measures. According to the Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi – whose figures are probably more reliable than those of the British – ‘over ten percent of the adult male Palestinian Arab population between 20 and 60 was killed, wounded, imprisoned or exiled’, while Jewish casualties were relatively small.

The Arab Revolt (1936-39) was an almost inevitable response to increased Jewish immigration and aggressive land acquisition, leading to an increasingly impoverished and desperate Palestinian Arab peasantry. It failed, of course, against the superior military forces of the British and their European allies, but it led to a more organised Arab resistance movement in the region, though this was countered by increased British support for Zionist militias such as the Haganah – the precursor of the notorious Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).

British attempts during its mandate to limit Zionist appropriation of Arab lands were half-hearted and easily circumvented, with the result that the native population suffered the usual consequences of colonisation – marginalisation, impoverishment and disconnection from traditional custom and culture. This also led to an Arab nationalist movement that became increasingly conservative, harking back to a supposed pre-colonial utopia.

Unrest leading up to the revolt caused the British to set up a Royal Commission, which recommended partition of the region into Jewish and Palestinian sectors. The Jewish sector, though smaller, comprised the land already appropriated, which was of course the best agricultural land. The Commission also put forward a more radical proposal, of transfer of Palestinian Arabs from the region to Transjordan – east of the Jordan River. This strongly appealed to Jewish leaders of the period, such as David Ben-Gurion, who favoured Zionist monoculturalism. The commission’s proposals were rejected outright by Arab leaders, and with war in Europe looming, the Brits were anxious to avoid creating enemies in Palestine and the rest of the Arab world. Finally the idea of partition was rejected, or temporarily shelved.

Meanwhile, indiscriminate acts of violence and terror on both sides were stepped up throughout 1937 and 1938. Concentration camps were constructed to accommodate both victims and perpetrators, and collective fines added to the burdens of impoverished Palestinians. The Zionists were uncompromising in their ambitions for the region and this created an us-and-themism in the Palestinians which hadn’t existed before, at least not to such an extent. Elsewhere, as the ill-treatment of Jews in Europe was becoming known, Jews were offered the chance to emigrate to the US, Canada and Australia, but Zionists opposed these offers, as Morris Ernst, international envoy for refugees under Roosevelt, describes:

active Jewish leaders decried, sneered and then attacked me as if I were a traitor. At one dinner party I was openly accused of freer immigration (into the US) in order to undermine political Zionism.

The crushing of the Arab Revolt by the British military was somewhat softened by an attempt to curb Jewish immigration. The Brits declared that it was ‘not part of their policy that Palestine should become a Jewish state, that 75,000 Jewish immigrants should be admitted over the next five years, but no more after that without the approval of the Arabs’. This declaration was followed until the end of WW2, after which the revelations of the Holocaust weakened British resolve and essentially sealed the fate of Arab opposition to the creation of the state of Israel. Some idea of what the Palestinians were up against is given in these lines from Paul Heywood-Smith, a Queen’s Counsel and Chairperson of the Australian Friends of Palestine Association:

The Jews not only intended to introduce an alien culture, they planned to make it the only one in the country: culturally, politically, economically and demographically. They insisted on Hebrew, separate schools and hospitals, self-segregation and the exclusion of Arabs from every institution they established.

Combine these drastic and uncompromising intentions with increasing support from the powerful nations of Europe and later the USA, and it becomes clear that the native non-Jewish inhabitants had far less than a fighting chance of having their voices listened to and their rights upheld.

By the end of WW2, Zionists were openly hostile to British attempts to contain the situation in Palestine. Jews were being smuggled into the region at increasing rates, many of them of course in traumatised condition. Non-Jews still outnumbered Jews by a substantial proportion, but organisations such as the Irgun, a well-organised paramilitary organisation which was as violently anti-British as it was anti-Arab, made this disproportion largely irrelevant. Terrorism sometimes does work.

On November 27 1947, the newly formed UN General Assembly adopted a partition plan for Palestine (Resolution 181 II), terminating the British Mandate for the region. There wasn’t much in the way of consultation with the native Palestinians, who rejected the proposal out of hand, along with every other Arab state. The Zionists were willing to agree to it, no doubt as a stop-gap measure, but in any case nothing came of it, because civil war broke out immediately after the plan’s adoption. The British were by this time primarily interested in removing themselves from the region with a minimum of casualties. Their Mandate expired on May 14 1948, and on the same day David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s future first Prime Minister, declared Israel an independent state. The civil war, however, was still ongoing. This war and its aftermath, known in Arabic as the Nakba, (catastrophe in English) is probably the most important event in this several-part narrative, so I’ll save it for my next post. 

I’ll end this post by looking again at the UN situation. In 1947 the UN voted 33 to 13 for partition of Palestine, with 10 abstentions. The people of Palestine had no vote in the matter. It was convenient for powerful western nations (whose doors were largely closed to Jewish refugees) to support a solution which gave 54% of Palestinian land to the Jewish minority. At the time, many Afro-Asian nations, who would certainly have taken a more dispassionate view of the issue, weren’t part of the General Assembly. Heywood-Smith adds some interesting colour to the vote – revealing much of the bullying shenanigans that have hampered UN votes right up to the present:

… of the 33 who voted in favour many went against their better judgment but were overborne by diplomatic violence and arm-twisting by the Truman White House. A war-devastated France was told it would lose US aid if it voted against partition. Liberia, an impoverished African state, was told that American investment in the country would not proceed unless it voted yes. Latin American delegates were told that the proposed Pan-American highway would be more likely if they voted yes. The Philippines changed its vote after intense pressure and after its delegate initially spoke against the plan.

In any case, partition didn’t occur, and after the civil war, many hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were forcibly removed from their homes and out of the new nation of Israel, to which they have never been allowed to return.

References

Paul Heywood-Smith, The case for Palestine, 2014

https://www.paljourneys.org/en/story/14310/guerrilla-warfare-and-mass-strike-1936-revolt

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1936–1939_Arab_revolt_in_Palestine

https://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/29/nov-29-1947-united-nations-partitions-palestine-allowing-for-creation-of-israel/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amin_al-Husseini

Written by stewart henderson

March 10, 2019 at 10:33 am

some thoughts on the importance of nations

leave a comment »

America – the most important country in the world (Fareed Zacharia)

There have been many most important countries in the world throughout human history. Usually self-styled. They become important through economic and military success. And they think, everyone of them, that this success gives them moral authority. This is the fundamental error of every powerful state in history, so tedious to relate. The fact is that Americans are no way morally superior to Mexicans, Australians or Koreans, or whoever. Every country, or state, or tribe, is full of individual humans striving equally to thrive – like every other life form.

If you believe, however, that you’re a member of the most important country in the world, that may play on your mind a little. It may move you, just a little, to believe, just a little, that you’re just a little more important than people from less important countries.

What does it mean though, to be more important? Is it about power? We can think of an elephant being a more powerful animal than a squirrel, but does that make her more important?

Maybe importance can be measured by imagining the country, or animal, not existing. If the USA, and all its people, disappeared tomorrow, that would have a much bigger impact than if, say, Fiji and all its people disappeared, and presumably not just because this compares 325 million with less than one million. A better comparison would be between the USA and China or India. Both these countries have more people than the USA but are less important, according to Zacharia. 

I’m guessing that Zacharia’s presumably offhand description of US importance has mostly to do with that country’s impact on the world. This surely gets to the nub of the matter. But this surely has no moral dimension. I’m not sure whether Zacharia meant to suggest a moral dimension to the USA’s importance. 

My view is that nations are like animals. Large animals tend to leave a larger footprint, metaphorically speaking. The main focus of any animal or nation is to sustain itself, and more. Other nations, or animals, are seen as a means to that end. So nations will see other nations as either exploitable (prey), helpful in the exploitation of others, dangerous (predators), or simply irrelevant. True, there are symbiotic relationships, and exploitation is perhaps a loaded word, but the world of the living goes on living by consuming other living beings. At least, that’s how it has gone on so far. 

Important countries consume more. Maybe that’s a negative, but they may do so by being smarter, or by hitting upon some clever and effective ruses before anyone else. So size isn’t everything, though it helps. Also, their cleverness or effectiveness teaches others – their prey as well as interested observers. They make the world wise up, quicken up. Remember the Mongols, an important nation of the past, or Hannibal, an important general. 

But I feel I’m being too male, thinking too much on destruction and aggression. The importance of nations today should be, and generally is, based on a different kind of cleverness, ingenuity, innovation. Yet we find this everywhere, as ideas spread more quickly than ever before. A young African boy generates wind energy for his village through internet-based DIY. This is important, and a great leveller. 

The internet is still largely American, and so on that basis alone, the USA should rightly view itself as the most important nation in the information age. Or is it simply the English language that has become most important? Science and technology are international, of course, but must be translated into English, if required, for best effect. This has been so for some time – think Mendel’s 1865 paper on the laws of segregation and independent assortment. It didn’t appear in English until 1901, years after Mendel’s death, as a result of some pioneers finally lighting upon it. English is surely an important language. 

So what would happen if the USA suddenly disappeared under the waves, with all its people, its weaponry and other technology, its industry? This would be a terrible tragedy, of course, for those loved and loving ones left behind. And yet, in the information age, surprisingly little, if any, of the technology and industry would be lost. The internet would survive, and with it the means for making bombs, multiple examples of beautiful or other people having orgiastic fun for the tutelage of our youth, the Khan Academy’s video lessons on physics, chemistry and assorted other subjects, and an endless variety of examples of dog, cat, bird, elephant, octopus and other cleverness, or silliness. In short, the human world would certainly progress, or continue, more or less unabated, proving that, however important the USA is, it isn’t indispensable.

But surely, if the USA disappeared, another country would take its turn as the most important country in the world. And what then, and which? 

That’s a very interesting question. The USA won’t, of course, disappear below the waves, and many if not most Americans firmly believe that their country must remain the most important for a long long time into the future. As did the British in their heyday, and the Romans, and the Egyptians, and the Sumerians, no doubt. And yet, our human world goes on, and seems to progress, with all its rises and declines.

They say that China will be the next most important country. I don’t see that happening in my lifetime. I’m skeptical of it happening as long as China retains its current political form. The age of major military conquest is over, I believe, so conquest will have to be of a different type, a much more subtle type, perhaps more subtle than I’m capable of foreseeing at present. Too many nations have sampled, for too long, the flavour of freedom, participation and dissent to be guiled by China’s top-down, controlling approach to administration. China will become more and more of an outlier. In any case, I don’t see the USA relinquishing its prominent position ‘any time soon’, as the Americans like to say. Ever the optimist, I’m hoping that the USA will bounce back from the Trump debacle with a much-reformed political system (especially with respect to presidential power and accountability), a renewed commitment to international relations, and a chastened sense of its failings and fragility, and the limits of its democracy.. 

But it’s important, always, to remember that nations are not people, and that people are always more important than nations. 

Written by stewart henderson

October 21, 2018 at 4:46 pm

nationalism, memes and the ANZAC legend

leave a comment »

Canto: Okay, I get livid when I hear the unquestioning and unquestioned pap spoken about the Anzacs, year in year out, and when I hear primary teachers talking about their passion for Anzac Day, and teaching it to impressionable young children. Not sure how they will teach it, but when such remarks are followed by a middle-aged woman knitting poppy rosettes and saying ‘after all, if it wasn’t for them [the Anzacs] we would’t be here’, I’m filled with rage and despair about the distortions of history to suit some kind of nationalist pride and sentimentality.

Jacinta: Yes, that sort of thing leads to innocent, impressionable young children parroting the meme ‘they died so we could be free’.

Canto: Or in this case the even more absurd ‘they died so that we could exist’…

Jacinta: On the other hand, to be fair, many young people go off to Anzac Cove to commemorate their actual grand-fathers or great-great uncles who died there, and they’re captivated by their story of sacrifice.

Canto: Yes, and this memory should be kept, but for the right, evidence-based reasons. What did these young men sacrifice themselves for, really?

Jacinta: Well as we know, the reasons for the so-called Great War were mightily complex, but we can fairly quickly rule out that there was ever a threat to Australia’s freedom or existence. Of course it’s hard to imagine what would have happened if the Central Powers had won.

Canto: Well it’s hard to imagine them actually winning, but say this led to an invasion of Britain. Impossible to imagine this lasting for long, what with the growing involvement of the US. Of course the US wasn’t then the power it later became, but there’s little chance it would’ve fallen to the Central Powers, and it was growing stronger all the time, and as the natural ally of its fellow English-speaking nation, it would’ve made life tough for Britain’s occupiers, until some solution or treaty came about. Whatever happened, Australia would surely not have been in the frame.

Jacinta: Britain’s empire might’ve been weakened more quickly than it eventually was due to the anti-colonisation movement of the twentieth century. And of course another consequence of the Central Powers’ victory, however partial, might’ve been the failure or non-existence of Nazism…

Canto: Yes, though with the popularity of eugenics in the early twentieth century, master-race ideology, so endemic in Japan, would still have killed off masses of people.

Jacinta: In any case your point still holds true. Those young men sacrificed themselves for the British Empire, in its battle against a wannabe Germanic Empire, in a war largely confined to Europe.

Canto: But really in order to understand the mind-set of the young men who went to war in those days, you have to look more to social history. There was a naive enthusiasm for the adventure of war in those days, with western nations being generally much more patriarchal, with all the negative qualities entailed in that woeful term.

Jacinta: True, and that War That Didn’t End All Wars should, I agree, be best remembered as marking the beginning of the end of that war-delighting patriarchy that, in that instance, saw the needless death of millions, soldiers who went happily adventuring without fully realising that the massive industrialisation of the previous decades would make mincemeat out of so many of them. I’ve just been reading and watching videos of that war so as not to make an idiot of myself, and what I’ve found is a bunch of nations or soi-disant empires battling to maintain or regain or establish their machismo credentials in the year 1914. With no side willing to give quarter, and no independent mechanisms of negotiation, it all quickly degenerated into an abysmal conflict that no particular party could be blamed for causing or not preventing.

Canto: And some six million men were just waiting to get stuck in, an unprecedented situation. And what happened next was also unprecedented, a level of carnage never seen before in human history. The Battle of the Frontiers, as it was called, saw well over half a million casualties, within a month of the outbreak.

Jacinta: And so it went, carnage upon carnage, with the Gallipoli campaign – unbearable heat, flies, sickness and failure – being just one disaster among many. Of course it infamously settled into a war of attrition for some time, and how jolly it must’ve been for the allies to hear that they would inevitably be the victors, since the Central Powers would run out of cannon fodder first. It was all in the maths. War is fucked, and that particular war is massively illustrative of that fact. So stop, all teachers who want to tell the story of the heroic Anzacs to our impressionable children. I’m not saying they weren’t brave and heroic. I’m not saying they didn’t do their best under the most horrendous conditions. I’m certainly not saying their experience in fighting for the mother country was without value. They lived their time, within the confines and ideology of their time, as we all do. They played their part fully, in terms of what was expected of them in that time. They did their best. And it’s probably fair to say their commanders, and those above them, the major war strategists, also did their best, which no doubt in some cases was better than others. Even so, with all that, we have to be honest and clear-sighted and say they didn’t die, or have their lives forever damaged, so that we could be free. That’s sheer nonsense. They died so that a British Empire could maintain its ascendency, for a time, over a German one.

Canto: Or in the case of the French and the Russians, who suffered humungous casualties, they died due to the treaty entanglements of the time, and their overlords’ obvious concerns about the rise of Germany.

Jacinta: So all this pathos about the Anzacs really needs to be tweaked, just a wee bit. I don’t want to say they died in vain, but the fact is, they were there, at Gallipoli, in those rotten stinking conditions, in harm’s way, because of decisions made above their heads. That wasn’t their fault, and I’m reluctant, too, to blame the commanders, who also lived true to their times. Perhaps we should just be commemorating the fact that we no longer live in those macho, authoritarian times, and that we need to always find a better way forward than warfare.

Written by stewart henderson

August 21, 2017 at 10:56 pm