It has been a while since I posted a set of my father’s letters from Palestine. The latest set can be found here.
I have been watching the turmoil in the Middle East just now. The awful acts of horror and barbarism we have been shown – the beheadings and the way in which the victims have been played with – are beyond any sort of rational explanation. They are without justification and are rightly condemned by all right thinking peoples.
And I wonder, as I have done with my previous posts, on the historic parallels. In my previous posts I have sought to draw some of these parallels between the behaviour of the parties involved in the transition to Partition in the late 1940s and the behaviours today between the Israelis and its neighbours. War, terrorist atrocities – they are often rehashed and repeated with the historic connections ignored, the lessons clearly not learnt. But this reversion to the mind-set of the Middle Ages, this ISIL and its nascent Caliphate, it has the hallmarks of the 12th Century not the 21st. Can there be any links? Surely not? In exploring Dad’s letters and the seemingly intractable problems that the creation of a Jewish homeland (or its recreation, if you adopt classic Zionist thinking) imposes on the Middle east, I have always assumed there could be a dialogue, a way to negotiate a settlement. As Sting had it in his 1985 song ‘Russians‘ (when he bemoaned the cold war and the seemingly insoluble stalemate based on the certainty of guaranteed mutual destruction) ‘I hope the Russians love their children too’. At the end of the day, if life is more important than death there will be a solution; the need to secure a future for our children demands it. But can you expect to negotiate with someone who thinks the opposite, who sees all death as glory? Jonathan Powell, who helped broker the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland, thinks so but I’m not so sure.
I have also read Anne Goodwin’s post on the traumatic aftershocks from the Japanese occupation of Thailand, as related in a new novel by Richard Flanagan. History tells us the Japanese were cruel – arbitrary in their punishments, compassionless and ruthless. Rather than focus on the acts of barbarism, the interesting story is how then did the survivors, both on the side of the oppressed and those from the oppressors deal with a reversion to pre-war norms of behaviour ex post facto? And that made me ponder what these awful events might be doing to those directly involved in the latest atrocities (assuming they survive)? It is difficult – no I find it impossible – to care for the callous, the barbaric offenders involved now, today – I wanted them stopped and punished. But later? 20 years? 50 years hence?
Similarly how did my father, involved to a much lesser extent in any direct action, cope with the horrors he witnessed? They stayed with him but were suppressed and sanitised. What does the inhuman and degrading actions do to both sides? It is easier, with the perspective of history to see both as victims and the current power imbalance and reign of terror in the Middle East as a direct consequence of the scars inflicted both back then and in the subsequent period. How can these vicious cycles be broken when there is too much raw flesh, too many deep wounds that demand a recompense, a rebalancing of the scales? Once more Britain is bombing somewhere dry and dusty. It could be 1947 and my Dad. A young man, often bored, occasionally full of bravado, sometimes scared witless and increasingly pained by what he is being asked to do – and all the while the politicians dither and blather and more people, if they are not killed, are scarred by their experiences. Peace couldn’t – can’t – come soon enough.
What is remarkable about any negotiated peace – in Palestine, in Northern Ireland, in Vietnam – is not so much that it survives but that it happens at all. But that very fact – that it is almost inconceivable – is no reason not to try.
One interesting point Anne highlights, and one which applies to my father, is how, over time, the characters sanitise their memory so that what started out as a horror filled experience is eventually stripped of the horror, the pain and the degradation and becomes a completely different memory, a best of time, not a worst of times. Dad’s letters tell one story – the underlying awfulness of it all. Yet in his later years, he told a very different tale which, without the benefit of these letters, I could never contradict – it never occurred to me to contradict it – even if looking back it was clear his version seemed unlikely.
When we left dad last time, he was becoming self-obsessed and developing a distinct sense of victimhood as he perceived no one had the ‘guts’ to let the British forces stop the terrorists. In the background the politics were becoming more frantic. American presidential elections meant the leading contenders for the White House were playing to a home gallery and sympathy for the British was in short supply. In Britain the nation, nearly bankrupt, was fed up with war. Tensions were building up with the Russians anyway – Churchill’s famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech was now a year old – and the last thing politicians or the public wanted was bad news from a dusty corner and, more to the point, dead British soldiers being brought home in bags.
The mood had changed. While the strategic importance of the Middle East remained strong it ceased to have the same trumping effect on the drag of public opinion. The Labour government had undertaken some of the greatest social reforms Britain had ever known, during a time of huge austerity – rationing was if anything harder than during the war and the winter of 1947 was the harshest for many a long day.
Part of the Government wanted to continue to manage the Mandate and find ways to either accommodate or defeat the Israel insurgents. However an increasingly vocal group wanted out. If the United Nations wouldn’t support firmer action – if America wouldn’t come out and support the British – then what was the point in continuing with this poisoned chalice? And so, the idea of Partition, which had been dropped in the 1920s became attractive once more. There was no point holding on for a one state solution because neither Jew nor Arab would accept the other as being in overall charge. And if the UN and America wouldn’t accept that fact then Britain would hand the Mandate back and let someone else sort it out.
And dad? Where was he while all this was going on?
He starts in the mountains before finding himself moved about – Nazareth, near the Sea of Galilee and Haifa. He is at Brigade HQ and on patrol. He does guard duty and attends the funeral of executed terrorists. He still wants ‘excitement’, he still feels he and his fellow soldiery, if given its head, could sort things out but the mode is changing. Not only does he sound flat and depressed at times, he also shows a sympathy for the Jewish populous. He is also sending out mixed signals about the situation at home. And he has the nerve to tell Mum that having a job isn’t so important for a girl. I bet I know how that went down.
On 20th March he writes:
Everyone is now waiting to see what the UNO will do with the problem.
And 7th March, The terrorists have been having fun around the country again – gun battles in Tel Aviv is the latest game. It’s damned annoying for us – stuck up here in the mountains, miles away from any of the excitement.
But his mood changes as he’s involved in boarding some of the refugee ships, turning the passengers away and sending to the camps in Cyprus.
Tuesday 11th April. I told your mother in a letter that I didn’t like this immigrant catching. I wouldn’t dare say this to the rest of the chaps – they’d think I was getting soft, but I can’t help feeling sorry for some of these illegals. After all, they are only looking for a home where they can live in peace and they are a very pitiful sight when they are taken off the ships. Hollow-cheeked women, terrified children and life-weary men are not quite my mark. I don’t mean that they are ill-treated – those stories are just terrorist propaganda – but their disappointment at being made to go to Cyprus is heart rending…. I would prefer chasing terrorist gunmen.
He sees a similar depressing situation but with expats.
6th February A couple of days ago I was one of the escort for a lot of British women and kiddies down to the evacuation point at Haifa. Rather pitiful and very reminiscent of England in’39.
On a lighter note, his prudish side is a little shocked in his letter of 28th March
I had a most interesting talk with an Austrian Jew who… told me all about the settlements, how they are run and so forth – then he said, ‘But sometimes it is lonely’. I said that as they had their families with them surely it couldn’t be too bad. His answer shook me – ‘We are all unmarried, but you can see for yourself, the girls are young and healthy, so it is like being married!’ There were a number of kiddies running about so I gather that ‘free love’ is the order of the day. I knew the Jews were endeavouring to build their nation up, but I certainly had no idea that this was one of their methods.’
Finally, in an incident that must have stayed with him but which he never mentioned, he reports on 22nd April
‘Dov Gruner and his three pals… were hanged on Wednesday… It was thought that the terrorists might try to pinch the bodies so we were made into a guard at the burial. The relatives and friends… were present and when they beheld Gruner & Co wrapped in shrouds they kicked up quite a shindy… Those of us who were just more or less armed spectators tried to be all hard and callous but personally I hope I never see the faces of a hanged man again.
Today Gruner is a hero of the fight for liberation – one of the Olei Hagardom, Jewish pre-independence fighters executed by Ottoman and British authorities. He refused to recognise the court that tried him and took what he and his fellow fighters saw as a principled stand that led to martyrdom. It depends on which side of the line you stand. As in the discussions over ISIL today, do you fight or do you negotiate and compromise (or, as some nations do, pay a ransom)? Gruner would never compromise. It was either you give in or you die. Is there a parallel with ISIL? It seems so, with the benefit of history, ill though it might seen today to suggest it. It was he who said, at his trial, about those who tried to prevent the Jews retaking what they saw as their historic homeland ‘Whosoever tries to sever it—his hand will be cut off and the curse of God will rest on him for ever’. He never had the chance to put his words into action. Of course he should never have been executed, but equally – no, more so – the conditions that allowed him to air such views, to allow him to be in a situation where he believed he had to express such views and, maybe, carry them out – those conditions should never have been created. That was the real crime and we would be wrong to forget it. So today, we should not forget who created the vacuum into which ISIL have poured as we (rightly) condemn its appalling actions.
I leave you with this thought. If there is one historic lesson to be drawn, it is this: if you see a hornet’s nest and you kick it, don’t be surprised if you get stung.