Guardian

Dear Nicholas Blincoe


Dear Nicholas,

I hope you don’t mind my using your first name, but given that you have done the same in your open letter to Israeli FM Avigdor Lieberman on CiF, I thought you wouldn’t object.

It certainly is a small world; by strange coincidence it seems that you and I are also neighbours of a sort, for whilst you were born and grew up in Rochdale, I was born only 9 miles or 14.48 km away from there, albeit several years earlier. That’s certainly closer than you are to Mr. Lieberman, as Nokdim is some 17.2 km to the south of Bethlehem. In fact your repeated suggestion that Nokdim is in Bethlehem is rather curious, but I guess since Beit Jala is apparently only your second home, your first being in London, then mistakes are easily made.

How strange though, that you forgot to mention that from your ‘pretty hill village’ over 400 shooting incidents targeting Gilo took place between 2000 and 2002 . What  a coincidence too that although you complain about Nokdim ruining the view from Mount Herodium, you forgot to point out that Nokdim was originally named after the former museum manager of that same historic site, David Rosenfeld, who was murdered in 1982 by two of his Palestinian employees. Oh, and then of course there’s the Daheisha refugee camp right next to Bethlehem – I’m sure you meant to point out that it was built by the Jordanians on land owned by the JNF.

You suggest that Mr. Lieberman take up the offer of Palestinian citizenship made by PM Salam Fayyad, but you must admit that when that same Prime Minister allows himself to be publicly photographed burning Israeli produce, that hardly bodes well for peaceful co-operation and normalised relations between Israelis and Palestinians. Neither, of course, does the suggestion by President Abbas that he would not even accept Israeli Arabs into his spanking new Palestinian State.

Now for the record, I am no supporter of Mr. Lieberman’s party but I do think you are being a little obtuse regarding his proposal for a loyalty oath for all Israeli citizens; after all, not only was the proposal rejected by the Israeli Knesset, but it was never intended to apply only to Arab citizens of Israel. You do have to admit though that we do have something of a problem with people like Azmi Bishara; I wonder how the PA would suggest we deal with people like him?

Also, you know, there really is no need to descend so low as to make snide remarks about Mr. Lieberman’s dress or former job. I realise that you have a bit of a background in politics (and now I think I understand where Nick Clegg gets some of his ideas about Israel from), but all the same, such cheap shots do nothing to convince Israelis that there is any kind of respect for them on the other side, which is surely a basic requirement for any kind of future treaty. Although it is true that Israel does not have a constitution in the formal sense, neither does the UK, and contrary to your assertion, Israel does guarantee equality by law for all its citizens – you could try asking some of the Palestinian members of Israel’s gay community about that.

You state that you are ‘deeply wary of Hamas’, and I will have to take you at your word about that, although I must say that it seems quite novel considering the fact that you have not only  co-edited a book about the ISM, but are also active in that organisation. That small world again! I happen to know a guy called Adam who used to be the chef at Mike’s Place – the Tel Aviv bar blown up in 2003 by two British terrorists who it later transpired had met with ISM members before the attack and eventually turned up in a Hamas video. Strange, that.

What is particularly interesting is that in all your various book reviews and writings you seem to have a remarkable ability to completely ignore the reasons why the Israeli army has been forced from time to time to go into West Bank towns or why the anti-terrorist barrier had to be built. Incidents like the Park Hotel terror attack for example. Mind you, I suppose that’s a bit of a pre-requisite for joining the ISM in the first place. Take this ISM event, for example; a ‘candlelight procession from the burnt Paradise Hotel in Bethlehem to Jerusalem’. No mention of how the hotel came to be burnt, but of course the implication is that Israel is to blame. Well, here’s that small world at work again Nicholas, because oddly enough, one of my sons was inside that hotel when it was set on fire, not by the Israeli army, but by Palestinian terrorists throwing Molotov cocktails into it in an attempt to harm the Israeli soldiers inside. My son and his comrades eventually managed to put out those fires, but occasionally he still has nightmares in which he is choking from smoke and burning to death in the Paradise Hotel. That same son was in Bethlehem again when the subject of your wife’s film, the siege of Bethlehem, was taking place. I do have to say that I find it rather curious that all blame for the plight of Palestinian Christians is apportioned to Israel in these political campaigns, when the evidence clearly shows that the main reasons for their exodus from Bethlehem and other towns under PA control  have little to do with Israel. Were I a cynic, of course, I might think that fiction is sometimes more ‘commercial’ than truth when one has a certain political agenda.

What a pity then, Nicholas,that you have not seen fit to stand by your own words;

“[N]ovelists are very, very bad at being involved in politics, because they always want to do and say their own thing.”

Let me suggest that you try listening to your own advice. As someone once wrote; it might be the saving of you.

66 replies »

  1. exiledlondoner

    “And Mr Baker is probably descended on the male line from someone who baked bread … Barbara Windsor got nothing, while Brenda got to be queen.”

    Hey — thumbs up mate! Quite a refreshing little bedtime story there!

    SilverTrees

    “AKUS, your live and let live philosophy is admirable..”

    Wow! That’s not the venom-spitting, flying-off-the-handle, truth-bending AKUS that I fondly remember from our shared Comment is Free days!

    Cif Watch must be good therapy for him then…

  2. The point is, exiledlondoner, that the Mughrabis, Masris and Najis nowadays claim that they are the arch-ancient natives of the land of Palestine, when in reality many of them come from fanilies who immigrated within the last 200 years or so, and particularly since Jewish immigration led to improved living conditions and better economic prospects. At the same time, the ancient Jewish roots, and the uninterrupted presence of Jews and Jewish attachment to Zion for millenia is denied by Arabs, even though it is often enough they who are the relative newcomers, and many of their villages were built over the ruins of Jewish villages — just as their Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa were built on the Jewish Temple Mount in a bid to deny the site to Jews.

  3. Sababa – “the Mughrabis, Masris and Najis nowadays claim that they are the arch-ancient natives of the land of Palestine, when in reality many of them come from fanilies who immigrated within the last 200 years or so, and particularly since Jewish immigration led to improved living conditions and better economic prospects.”

    “Masri” is Arabic for “Egyptian” (Hebrew is “Mitzri”).

    “just as their Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa were built on the Jewish Temple Mount in a bid to deny the site to Jews.”

    Wasn’t it astonishingly convenient that right in the middle of Jerusalem was this huge platform propped up by an amazing wall on the West side that was jst waiting for someone to come and build a mosque there?

  4. Hi Exiled
    Good that you are back.
    Regarding the family names – the problem is that the vast majority of these people arrived to the area less than 150 years ago, exactly like the Jewish immigrants. Before that the Holy Land was a hardly populated vasteland with Jews and mostly Christian Arabs dwelling in small cities (Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron etc.) and nomadizing Bedouins in the Negev and the Galilee. (see Mark Twain’s account from the XIX. century.) There were some concentration of Druze Arabs in some places, mostly in the Haifa area and the Golan, and Muslim peasants working on the fields of absentee Turkish, Egyptian and Lebanese landlords. The Gazans were considered by the Turkish rulers and by themshelves Egyptians.
    Don’t misunderstand me – I consider their presence here exactly as legitimate and final as of the Jews. It’s not me but Mr. Zahalka – who by the way is the worst enemy of the Israeli Arabs – tries to make believe that they were here from the beginning of times – an outright falsification of documented history.

  5. Exiled
    As my father is fond of telling me – it’s not the name that links you to the past, it’s the inheritance.

    Your father is correct. Have you ever heard about the thousands of years old Jewish pesach greetings: next year in Jerusalem?

    I happen to know that I’m descended on the male line from a Norman Knight in the 11th century

    So your ancestor was an illegal occupier… The indigenous Saxons’ nakba happened almost a thousand years ago at Hastings…
    Hail Harold!

  6. Hi Peter,

    “Regarding the family names – the problem is that the vast majority of these people arrived to the area less than 150 years ago, exactly like the Jewish immigrants.”

    No they didn’t – I doubt there are many 150 year old Arabs or Jews.

    Most people there now, whatever their culture, are descended from 20 or 30 different people of the mid 19th century – some will have lived in the area, some will have lived in the region, and some will have lived far away. There are probably very few who can trace all of their great great grandparents to the holy land.

    “Before that the Holy Land was a hardly populated vasteland with Jews and mostly Christian Arabs dwelling in small cities (Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron etc.) and nomadizing Bedouins in the Negev and the Galilee.”

    It was certainly less populated than it is now – quite apart from anything else, the Jewish population has increased ten-fold in a hundred years – but “hardly populated” is ridiculous. The area has one of the longest documented histories of continuous habitation anywhere in the world. It is one of the world’s great crossroads, so yes, there has been much coming and going, but the myth of a land without people is just that. a myth.

    “Don’t misunderstand me – I consider their presence here exactly as legitimate and final as of the Jews. It’s not me but Mr. Zahalka – who by the way is the worst enemy of the Israeli Arabs – tries to make believe that they were here from the beginning of times – an outright falsification of documented history.”

    No doubt Mr Zahalka’s motives are every bit as unsavoury as those who claim exclusive history for the Jews, but I cannot see that the way to challenge him is to deligitimise Arab history.

    Any reading of the bible should tell us that the Jews were just one of a large number of groups based in the holy land – what happened to the others? We may call those who are there “Arabs”, but the history of populations is not that simple. Distinct groups do not just vanish into thin air – they combine and merge with other groups.

    There’s every reason to believe that there has been an unbroken non-Jewish population in the region since the time of Moses, most of whom would have embraced Islam or Christianity, and at some point, become “Arab”.

    I see this debate as the flip-side of the accusations about “Khazhars” – I find the concentration on “lineage” and “blood” rather distasteful. As far as I’m concerned, your children (if you have any) have the same right to belong in the place of their birth as someone who can trace their lineage back a thousand years.

    As I’ve said before, I have a personal interest – only two of my grandparents were English-born, and if you go back the 150 years you mention, three-quarters of my ancestors were nowhere near Britain. Does that make me less British?

  7. Peter,

    “So your ancestor was an illegal occupier… The indigenous Saxons’ nakba happened almost a thousand years ago at Hastings… Hail Harold!”

    Not at all. At least not an illegal occupier of Britain.

    My ancestor travelled with William of Normandy (the very same William, of Hastings fame), and set up shop in Southern Italy. His descendents did invade Britain, but not until 800 years later….

    It might explain the family’s tardiness?

  8. Sababa,

    “At the same time, the ancient Jewish roots, and the uninterrupted presence of Jews and Jewish attachment to Zion for millenia is denied by Arabs, even though it is often enough they who are the relative newcomers…”

    This comment rather highlights the idiocy of the debate.

    Yes, there has been an uninterrupted presence of Jews for millenia, but there has also been an uninterrupted presence of non-Jews for millenia (whether you call them Arabs, Palestinians or whatever).

    Arabs are no more or less “relative newcomers” than Jews – if a diaspora Jew can claim lineage through the everpresent Jewish population, then why can’t a Palestinian?

    In truth, there are probably few on either side who can demonstrate that more than half of their ancestors were there 200 years ago – either through a lack of reliable records, or through being elsewhere.

    You are merely mirroring the deligitimising claims that you criticise others for – just because there were Jews in the holy land for millenia, it doesn’t mean that your forebears were – just because there were Arabs in the holy land for millenia, it doesn’t mean that their forebears were.

    I find the whole debate rather distasteful, as it implies a lesser right to live in the land of your birth for “relative newcomers”. As I said to Peter, I have a rather personal interest in debunking that particular idea….

  9. Exiled

    No they didn’t – I doubt there are many 150 year old Arabs or Jews.

    So let me correct myself:

    Regarding the family names – the problem is that the vast majority of the ancestors of these people arrived to the area less than 150 years ago, exactly like the Jewish immigrants.

    It was certainly less populated than it is now – quite apart from anything else, the Jewish population has increased ten-fold in a hundred years –…

    It was less populated 150 years ago than it was before the start of the mass immigration of the Jews – not only today.

    …but “hardly populated” is ridiculous.

    Maybe this is true… Mark Twain had definitely very good sense of humour.

    …but the myth of a land without people is just that. a myth.

    No it is true – meaning that the land didn’t belong to any people as a nation in its contemporary sense.

    There’s every reason to believe that there has been an unbroken non-Jewish population in the region since the time of Moses, most of whom would have embraced Islam or Christianity, and at some point, become “Arab”.

    A very insignificant part of them probably did. Have you ever heard of the Samaritans?

    Distinct groups do not just vanish into thin air – they combine and merge with other groups.

    Or leave the area as it happened with many groups during the history of the place.

    As far as I’m concerned, your children (if you have any) have the same right to belong in the place of their birth as someone who can trace their lineage back a thousand years.

    Absolutely agree. And yes I have children born in Hungary. They were told by their fellow countrymen in the most unambigous and clear form that they don’t belong to there. (BTW they can trace their Hungarian lineage to the XVII. century – but it didn’t help.) Hungary is a proud member of the EU now.

  10. Peter,

    “So your ancestor was an illegal occupier… The indigenous Saxons’ nakba happened almost a thousand years ago at Hastings… Hail Harold!”

    Just as an off-topic aside, to illustrate the complexity of these issues….

    The Saxons were not, of course, indigenous – they hailed from Saxony in Germany. Anglo-Saxons are generally considered to be those Angles and Saxons (from Germany) and Jutes (from Jutland in Denmark).

    Though often seen as a battle between Anglo-Saxons and Normans, the succession to the throne was more of a three-way battle between three largely Norse claims – Harold Godwinson, Earl of East Anglia, marched north to defeat Harald Hardrada of Norway, before marching south again to face William of Normandy.

    If anything, he was the champion of the Norsemen of Britain, against their Scandinavian and French cousins.

  11. Peter,

    I’m not sure that we actually disagree on the basic principle of what “belonging” actually means? If that’s the case, we seem to be debating an issue that we both regard as irrelevent to the rights of those involved.

    But anyway,

    “Regarding the family names – the problem is that the vast majority of the ancestors of these people arrived to the area less than 150 years ago, exactly like the Jewish immigrants.”

    Vast majority? That depends on how you look at it. I would suspect that most Palestinians born in the area have some long-term ancestral link to the area, even if that doesn’t represent the majority of their ancestors.

    As time passes, and the immigrant Jewish community inter-marries with the local Jewish community, Israeli Jews will increasingly be able to say the same.

    “It was less populated 150 years ago than it was before the start of the mass immigration of the Jews – not only today.”

    It was, and nobody is denying that there was a historic movement of people, largely because there was little distinction between the various parts of the Ottoman empire.

    “Maybe this is true… Mark Twain had definitely very good sense of humour.”

    I suspect that he meant that people lived in the towns, and the (largely desert) land between was virtually unpopulated – the same is true of much of central Spain.

    “No it is true – meaning that the land didn’t belong to any people as a nation in its contemporary sense.”

    Well no, but then neither did most of the rest of the middle east, Africa, or north and south America – the nation state is largely a western concept, exported by colonialism. Tribal societies tend to think in terms of “the right to inhabit and use land”, rather than ownership of it.

    “A very insignificant part of them probably did. Have you ever heard of the Samaritans?”

    Why insignificant? The history of Muslim conquest is full of the assimilation of separate groups.

    “Or leave the area as it happened with many groups during the history of the place.”

    So where did the Samaritans go?

    “Absolutely agree. And yes I have children born in Hungary. They were told by their fellow countrymen in the most unambigous and clear form that they don’t belong to there. (BTW they can trace their Hungarian lineage to the XVII. century – but it didn’t help.) Hungary is a proud member of the EU now.”

    Tell me about it! The rise of extreme nationalism, and barely concealed racism in eastern Europe is very worrying – Hungary is no exception, though it seems to receive less publicity than Poland or the Baltic States.

  12. Exiledlondoner

    My knowledge of Great Britain’s history is very superficial, (but I know about the Danes, Brit, Celts etc. as the predecessors of the Saxons).
    Calling you an occupier because of your Norman ancestry was only a poor attempt of humour.
    Let me to tell you an interesting episode of my life regarding the knowledge of your own people’s history. Due to my many Hungarian friends’ visits in Israel, I’m pretty well versed in the past of Acre, it is close to my place and I used to take every guests of mine there. Some ten years ago when I was a kibbutz member I was asked to take some English volunteers to Acre and guide them in English. Acre has a very rich crusader past and many archeological sites. In one of them I was asked by a young English lady (fantastic Celtic features!) about the meaning of the signs in English “The crusaders’ castle”. This lady (in according to herself she was a mamager of a bookshop in Central-London) simply didn’t know what the word “crusader”. I tried to mention Richard the Lyonheart… blank stare… Plantagenets… speaking Chinese… Ivanhoe… nothing… Sir Walter Scott…Swahili… Robin Hood… finally an intelligent reaction! Yes Peter I know about him – Kevin Costner!

  13. Peter,

    I’m afraid that the ignorance of your British visitor doesn’t surprise me – I would know little more than she does if it weren’t for my love of books. One of my proudest possessions is the three volume History of the Crusades, by Stephen Runcimann – though I must confess, it’s almost 20 years since I read it.

    So yes, Acre, Antioch, Tyre, Sidon, Ascalon and even Gaza, have meanings way beyond the headlines of today – one could think of the current conflict as merely an extension of a process that started with Pharoah, or even with King David, but that would be just too depressing…

  14. AKUS

    “Wasn’t it astonishingly convenient that right in the middle of Jerusalem was this huge platform propped up by an amazing wall on the West side that was jst waiting for someone to come and build a mosque there?”

    Brilliant!