How many of you are uncomfortable with the phrase ‘oppression of Palestinians’? In the packed room, just a few heads nodded

Israel/Palestine
on 82 Comments

The opening event at an international literature festival in Ireland this month was on the subject of Israeli theft of Palestinian land, history and identity. The inaugural speaker, British journalist John McCarthy, is famous for being held hostage by Lebanese Shi’a militia between 1986 and 1991, and his new book, You Can’t Hide the Sun: A Journey Through Israel and Palestine, tells the story of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, from the Nakba to the present day. The publication – and book tour – is significant for two reasons: first, BBC broadcaster McCarthy is a ‘national treasure’ of sorts in the UK and Ireland – held alongside Irish hostage Brian Keenan for much of his 5 years in captivity, he is a dignified, modest hero known for his commitment to human rights causes, and writes of his captors, ‘They, too, were underdogs’; second, he is not a public figure of whom it can be said, ‘Well, he would say that wouldn’t he‘ (in the words of one of the book’s detractors, ’he comes across as a perfectly decent and reasonable bloke, without agenda or malice’). The book is a personal, at times highly emotional journey, and McCarthy is careful to add the disclaimer that this is not an academic work. 

9780593059470

Ben White’s book on the same subject, Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy, is clear about its findings from the outset, not least because it includes a foreword by outspoken Member of Knesset, Haneen Zoabi. Neither the title nor the cover of McCarthy’s book give much away. Indeed, his narrative of Palestinian dispossession is a nasty surprise for Israeli officials and apologists. In response to a favourable book review in the Irish Examiner this July, Nurit Tinari Modai, Deputy Ambassador and Cultural Officer Embassy of Israel in Ireland, submitted a hasbara letter to the editor that began in a very peeved tone: ‘It is good to see that John McCarthy, who survived five years of brutal captivity in Lebanon at the hands of Islamic terrorists, has not been deterred from returning to the Middle East to expand his knowledge and understanding of that troubled region.’ Another apologist made no pretence of his survival and return being a good thing: ‘With all McCarthy’s shameful disinformation about Israel and Jews, we can only be sorry that he is not still [chained to a radiator in Lebanon]’.

At the 2012 West Cork Literary Festival, John McCarthy was in discussion with the Northern Irish writer Glenn Patterson. At one point Patterson admitted he had approached the book with ‘suspicion’, and addressing the packed auditorium he asked if anyone felt uncomfortable with the phrase ‘oppression of Palestinians’. Turning around, I saw only a few heads nodding. It was an extraordinary moment: the vast majority of people had come to see that this was an accurate and fair statement with which they had no argument. Patterson’s decision to reach out to the minority of Israel apologists at once legitimised their feelings of hostility towards Palestinians as perfectly reasonable, and was an attempt to get them to join him in his conversion by adding the plea: ‘All I can say is read it’. 

For readers of this site, as opposed to the average festival audience member, the learning curve will not be steep, and they may feel Israel gets off relatively lightly; the power of the book lies, however, in the telling of ‘a story that has needed to be told for a long time’, through poignant encounters with individual Palestinians affected by Israel’s ongoing project of ethnic cleansing and Judaisation inside the Green Line.

Existing and new fans of McCarthy’s work accompany him on a journey in which he reflects that,

I grew up with accounts of this period [1948] that portrayed the Jewish people as desperate and ill-prepared, facing a monolithic force of well-armed, modern Arab armies attacking from every direction.

He learns, instead, that in the spring and summer of 1948,

such scenes of civilian flight occurred in many Palestinian towns and villages. In fear of imminent attack from Jewish forces, people raced from their homes, abandoning all their belongings. Crowds trampled over fallen neighbours, the old or sick were left or forgotten and mothers lost their children. Abandoned by the educated and political elite, finding the British unwilling or unable to protect them, unable to protect themselves, the Palestinians had fallen prey to the insidious, creeping terror of voices announcing imminent doom. By mid-May fewer than 4,000 out of 65,000 Palestinians remained in Haifa.

To respond to Nurit Modai‘s skepticism as to why a victim of Islamist violence would write such a book, McCarthy is clear that it is through his kidnap experience that he ‘began to appreciate how much conflict is born out of fear, and a desire to preserve or gain a safe home. I developed an empathy with people who don’t have a voice, who are dispossessed, who are denied freedom’. It was in Lod, several years ago, while visiting a Bedouin family whose neighbourhood had been bulldozed by the local Israeli council, that McCarthy happened upon the story of Palestinians within Israel that needed to be told. The book thus begins:

I CANNOT BELIEVE THAT ANYONE CAN CALL THIS PLACE HOME. What might once have been houses are now piles of shattered concrete, baked by the stifling mid-morning heat … On the ground I feel as though I am walking through the aftermath of battle.

McCarthy’s father had served in the British forces in Mandate Palestine before being demobbed in the spring of 1946. In July of that year the Zionist militia, the Irgun, bombed the British headquarters in Jerusalem, the King David Hotel, killing ninety-two people, a terrorist attack celebrated in Tablet magazine just this week. ‘The Conflict that had dominated my father’s visit to the region had led, though indirectly, to my being chained and blindfolded in Beirut.’ The journalist explains that, in Beirut, ‘in the pathetic hope of learning something, I started talking to the two guards about Palestine and Israel and Britain’s role in their recent history’. One guard gave him a succinct history in broken English: ‘Balfour gave Palestine to the Jews. Britain no good.’

He narrates that in Haifa, Arab resistance was defeated by the five thousand-strong Haganah brigades, noting that the AA Explorer Israel guide makes no reference to the violence of 1948 which saw much of the city’s Arab population fleeing from its port. One interviewee, Abu Adnan, does not remember getting on the boat in Haifa as a child but he woke up in Acre where his family took refuge in a monastery. Less than a month after the fall of Haifa, Acre was conquered by the Jewish forces. Abu Adnan tells McCarthy that since that day he has never felt safe.

McCarthy asks the festival audience a rhetorical question: If I was reduced to a frightened man, chained up underground, what would it be like to live all your life like this? He means this particularly in regard to the Palestinians: an entire people taken hostage.

You can watch the video of John McCarthy at West Cork Literary Festival here.

    Leave a Reply