"My parents came to Britain as refugees from Poland. Most of their families were subsequently murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust. My grandmother was ill in bed when the Nazis came to her home town of Staszow. A German soldier shot her dead in her bed. My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza." (Sir Gerald Kaufman MP, address to the House of Commons, 16/1/09)
David Burchell is a senior lecturer in humanities at the University of Western Sydney. He recently wrote a particularly irritating opinion piece for The Australian called Empathy for sale: Hamas has won over Westerners who embrace exotic political creeds in the name of compassion (12/1/09). His theme was empathy and how our capacity for it is supposedly compromised these days by political affiliation.
Burchell opens with: "Until our own times, few civilizations showed much emotional interest in distant peoples." Prior to WW1, he claims, we sympathised with our own - "British soldiers... overrun by African tribesmen at Mafeking." After it, we transferred our sympathies to "the victims of European colonialism," embracing Gandhi, for example. But then the rot set in as we began to switch our sympathy to "more troubling heroes, from Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh to Yasser Arafat," and, "in the process empathy in effect became a handmaiden of ideology." The result today, according to Burchell, is that we sympathise with the victims of the Americans, but not those of the Viet Cong, with the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, but not those "wretched political inmates of Cuba's Guantanamo Political Prison, a few hundred metres away."
A broad brush indeed. But you push on... until you come to the bit about the leaders of a Dutch demonstration against Israel's invasion of Gaza, who were reportedly chanting 'Intifada, intifada, Palestinian state!' while others "in the background" were allegedly chanting 'Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas!' Jeez, how off is that, you think. Never heard that at a pro-Palestine demo before.
But then Burchell's agenda fully emerges: "And so here they were together: the warm heart of the global conscience and the icy blood of Hamas, united within the same pulsing breast." You're presumably meant to read all sorts of nasties into this: 1) empathy for brutalised Palestinians is a mere cover for naked anti-Semitism; 2) Hamas is Nazism in Middle Eastern guise; 3) pro-Palestine demonstrators are really just dupes of Hamas. And perfectly timed too to distract from Israel's butchery in Gaza and blunt sympathy for its victims.
But back to his theme of selective empathy: "For the discriminating empathist," Burchell claims, "Israel presents special problems as an enemy. After all it's hard for someone who trades in the currency of sympathy to deny any moral capital whatsoever to a state founded as a refuge for one of the most persecuted peoples on the planet."* Really?
One problem with this proposition is the fact that Israel was not founded to accomodate the Jewish victims of the Nazi genocide. Zionism, the colonial-settler movement to carve out a Jewish state in Palestine, long preceeded the Nazi genocide, and was concerned primarily with re-establishing a presumed ancient Jewish sovereignty over Palestine, a Jewish national home from which Jews had supposedly been 'exiled' and to which they supposedly longed to 'return', not with providing a refuge for persecuted European Jews. (See the discussion of Zionism's foundational myths in Gabriel Piterberg's excellent The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics & Scholarship in Israel, 2008) In fact, it is precisely his Zionism that explains David Ben-Gurion's remarkable lack of empathy for the fate of European Jewry. As Israel's first prime minister said in 1938: "If Jews will have to choose between the refugees, saving Jews from concentration camps, and assisting a national museum in Palestine, mercy will have the upper hand and the whole energy of the people will be channelled into saving Jews from various countries. Zionism will be struck off the agenda... If we allow a separation between the refugee problem and the Palestine problem, we are risking the existence of Zionism." (Quoted in The Myths of Zionism, John Rose, p145) Talk about discriminating empathy.
[* Prime Minister Rudd echoed this when speaking to his shameful 12 March parliamentary motion "celebrating and commending" Israel on its 60th anniversary: "... the story of the establishment of the state of Israel begins with the unimaginable tragedy of the Holocaust." See my 14/3/08 post The Israeli Occupation of Federal Parliament 3]
The other problem with Burchell's reasoning is that even if Israel were the underdog's underdog, even if it were "founded as a refuge for one of the most persecuted peoples on the planet," as he maintains, why would that accord it any "moral capital" if it was founded at the expense of another people?
[Before I leave this post, however, I couldn't help but note Burchell's scoffing at the proposition allegedly put forward by Gretta Duisenberg, one of the two Dutch pro-Palestine activists mentioned above: "According to Duisenberg, Israeli rule in Gaza is worse than wartime Nazi rule in Holland." Let's test the proposition: "The Dutch army had tried to resist, but on easy terrain they did not last nearly as long as the Norwegians. On 14 May, a massive Luftwaffe bombing raid took barely 10 minutes to turn the centre of Rotterdam into smouldering rubble and charred timber, killing nearly 1,000 people and leaving more than 78,000 homeless... the Dutch quickly capitulated... [Hitler] brought in a civilian administration [headed by Seyss-Inquart]... he was told to reassure the Dutch and encourage collaboration. Unlike Germany's previous conquests, the Netherlands was a colonial power and Hitler was particularly anxious to prevent its colonies from breaking away and escaping German control... Seys-Inquart therefore tried to assuage the Dutch by immediately proclaiming that Germany had no 'imperialistic' designs on the country... He allowed most of the political parties to continue in existence and he held conversations with conservative politicians. Meanwhile, senior Dutch civil servants carried on the real business of administering the occupation under German supervision, and Dutch law remained in force unless explicitly revoked or amended. As a result the occupation proceeded with only a relatively small German staff to oversee it." (Hitler's Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe, Mark Mazower, 2008, pp 105-106) Far fewer people killed than in Gaza recently (not to mention over the decades), far fewer homeless, no settlements, relative political freedom, Dutch administration and law. Duisenberg:1 Burchell: 0]
Oh, and where is Burchell's empathy for the victims of Israel's latest rampage?