Brian Eno: In a world of horrors, why I single out the war crimes of Israel

Brian Eno . Posted in News

When Brian Eno asked in his Letter to America, why the US supports Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, he got a response from Jewish-American writer Peter Schwartz

Brian Eno and Peter Schwartz

BRIAN Eno's Letter to America, titled Today I saw a weeping Palestinian man holding a plastic bag of meat: it was his son, went viral within a day of being published, clearly striking a chord with many people around the world seeing the pictures of Israel's brutal assault on Gaza. His letter provoked a long reply from the Jewish-American writer Peter Schwartz, which can be read in full here.

In his response, Brian concentrated on two central issues raised by Schwartz. Firstly, Schwartz asked why Israel was singled out for worldwide opposition and opprobrium, given how many regimes there are in the world whose crimes are as bad, and in some cases far worse.

Secondly, Schwartz asked whether criticism of Israel is 'some new form of antisemitism, another stick with which to beat the Jews?'

Brian Eno replies

Dear Peter

Reading your letter I very much appreciated the historical summary. There are a few places where I don't agree, but they're not important enough to make this letter even longer than it already threatens to be.

It seems we're in accord about how awful the situation and the government in Israel is, and I'm with you pretty much all of the way until you ask: 'Why single out Israel? In a world of horrors, why pick on this one?'

And I think that veils another concern: 'Is this some new form of antisemitism, another stick with which to beat the Jews?'. Given their history, that's a fair enough question.

I'm aware that there are those who actually welcome the Gaza disaster for that very reason. They're fundamentally anti-jewish and this is an acceptable way for them to say that in polite company. To the rest of us, these people are fatal - because they give the apologists for Israel the perfect let-out: "See? It's just antisemitism..". There's always a contingent of them turning up at demos and wanting to speak. Needless to say, they aren't given the microphone.  

So I'd like to let you know that I didn't 'single out' Israel. In my lifetime, I've been active in several movements that involved events in other nations: Vietnam, South Africa, Bosnia, Iraq and now Israel. In each case my government was actively involved, but the policies it was pursuing struck me as idiotic and immoral. In each case also there were those who asked me the same question: why single them out? 

Well, part of my answer is that above: we're already involved, but I think we're involved in the wrong way. So this is my general answer: it isn't just about Israel for me, but about what my government is doing in my name. The money we pay in taxes is helping to support this situation. I can see all the reasons you've listed as to why our respective governments have ended up with the stances they have, but understanding isn't the same as condoning. I want to make it clear to them that "A lot of your citizens don't support you". This is what I understand as democratic participation, civic responsibility.

The other cases you mentioned: the Saudis, the Qataris, the Iranians, the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Russians, the Nigerians, the Taliban, the Venzuelans, the Zimbabweans, the Sudanese, the south Sudanese, the Central African Republicans… frankly, what do they have to do with me? I don't understand them, and I don't know that my government has any particular role within them. If I were suddenly to become involved with, say, Sudanese politics I would feel that your question 'Why Single Them out?" had validity.

But my main point is to pick the fights you can win. Whereas I don't have any instruments at all with which to affect Sudanese politics (even if I wanted to), I do have some power to change the way that Britain relates to Israel.

Why would I want to do that? Because unlike you, I don't see the Middle East as a lost cause. Israel, unlike the other countries you mention, claims to be like us, part of the Western First World, part of the same set of moral assumptions  - and many Israelis (though apparently not the ones in government) are.

Despite the haze of nationalistic propaganda there's a committed Jewish counterculture in Israel which, along with the Palestinians, is appealing to us for help. They know they can't change it working only from the inside and they want support - as indeed South African trade unions asked the outside world for support in the 60's and 70's, and Bosnians did in the 90's. These aren't people who want to destroy Israel: they want to save it from a course which they see as taking it further and further from the ideals on which it was founded. 

There's something else as well which makes Israel a particularly sore issue for the British: we had a big hand in creating the problemby cavalierly 'giving' the Jews Palestine and turning a blind eye when that generation of settlers drove Arabs off their land, as we turned a blind eye to what the Arab nations were doing. In the grand imperial tradition of 'Make a mess and then pull out' we left behind a palpably unworkable arrangement. And just to make the problem really intractable, Israel was founded (as it happens, on the day I was born - 15 May 1948) as a specifically Jewish, and therefore religious, state.

To create a state that specifically, and from the very beginning, excluded so many of its extant inhabitants from participation was a terrible move. I have enormous sympathy for anyone trying to make sensible decisions in the wake of World War 2, and I'm sure there were many good intentions paving the road to this particular hell, but it was that thoughtless and arbitrary (and British) partition that kick-started the whole thing. 

My penultimate point is that this is about more than Israel - in my mind anyway. I touched on this in the letter: how do you think it looks to the rest of the world when they see Israel mincing the Palestinians in Gaza and then discover that America is (still) giving them about 18 million dollars in military aid each day - while righteously proclaiming about Human Rights?

And how do they feel when they see Tony Blair receiving a $1 million dollar Peace Prize from some Israeli institution presumably for managing to remain completely unresponsive to the Palestinians?

It looks terrible - sheer, unvarnished hypocrisy. It makes you understand why Arabs can hate us (though I'm continually surprised by how few do). One of the reasons I want to demonstrate is to say "Don't judge us by our governments" - which is one of the things that Israeli Jews say to me. You probably think it hopelessly idealistic, but I think it does make a difference when people see that the other people - the ones they're supposed to hate - are objecting to what is being done in their names. 

I remember speaking to a Palestinian taxi driver in Israel. It was shortly after that Raving Nazi Anti-Semite Jimmy Carter - I took that description of him from Israeli press reports - had just published his book where he suggested that Israel was becoming an apartheid state. The driver said to me wearily: 'why do they always realise this just after they have lost the power to do anything?' 

I thought about that a lot. Of course, while they're in power they're effectively neutralised. Without a HUGE popular mandate - huge enough to offset the lobbies and the news channels and the weapons companies and the general apathy - people in power won't - or can't - do anything. With enough people behind them, they might. Kwame Anthony Appiah's book is about this, about the moment when a society changes from applauding something to finding it shameful. The American Civil Rights movement is a stellar example.

It can happen very quickly, and I think it could do so in Israel if she weren't pumped up with US supplied testosterone. But it depends on people in government being able to cover themselves by saying "I had no choice - those bloody voters forced my hand". And it depends on something similar happening in the Arab world too…which might be at the point when they stop being important enough to our energy supplies for us to stop kissing their arses. But you know much more about that subject than me. 

Last point (phew!), about singling-out. In this recent crisis Israel has bombed or shelled about 120 UN buildings in Gaza. Mary's sister Rachel tells me that the UN sends precise coordinates of all its buildings to the Israelis, so these attacks are unlikely to be mistakes. 70 of those buildings were schools or hospitals, some of them occupied at the time. Can you think of any other country that could get away with this? That's another kind of singling-out.

Late Addendum: I recommend a letter that just appeared in The Lancet, England's medical publication of record, from a group of doctors and medical scientists who have worked in Gaza. It's worth reading.

Source: Stop the War Coalition


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