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Recognising Danger
Last uploaded : Wednesday 16th Jan 2002 at 23:59
Contributed by : The Editor


Twice in the past twelve months, I have been called a ‘racist’ by old friends because I have criticised Palestinian and extremist Arab groups. Nine months before September 11th, I wrote privately to a colleague at the Guardian newspaper warning that its relentless diatribes against Israel could result in violence amongst British Arabs due to continuous incitement. Because of a blunder in the Guardian’s offices, my private message was printed as a letter to the editor. It provoked surprise and consternation amongst those who had known me to be a supporter of the peace movement. As I tried to explain to the incensed, it is possible to remain a supporter of the peace movement whilst valuing Jewish lives.

The Muslims I know are erudite people and one could not blame the young, impressionable and hot-headed amongst their kin for resorting to extreme acts if they read, day after day, inflammatory articles in one of Britain’s most respected broadsheets. My letter provoked cries of ‘racist!’ from many good souls amongst my inner circle, but it had been inspired by my alarm at the increasingly provocative and one-sided attitude of The Guardian.

Nine months later came the attacks on America.

A story I use when trying to explain to those who would brand me a racist runs like this. In 1998, a relatively peaceful time in Israel, I was filming a documentary in London about the three monotheistic faiths. For some months we filmed happily at the local churches and synagogue. Aside from the fact that for nearly a year we had tried to get someone at the Central London Mosque to offer us the courtesy of answering our letters or returning our telephone calls, my Libyan cameraman had warned me of the ‘dangers’ involved in such a shoot. Eventually he managed to get permission for us to film at the mosque, but only after a complicated series of manoeuvres through a network of Arab ‘fixers.’

He told me that it would not be possible for me to accompany the camera crew, as I would be ‘killed’ by the ‘crazies’ who attend the Mosque on a Friday. I thought he was pulling my leg. I would be killed producing a local video in leafy St John’s Wood in my own city? He told me that the danger was serious and that I must stay at home. It was the first time in my long career in television that I had had to stay away from a shoot on one of my own programmes.

In the past week, a group of Muslim clerics who had assembled in Lebanon has declared suicide bombings worthy of praise, and has issued a declaration calling for the elimination of Israel. In last week’s ‘New Yorker’ magazine, Mahmoud al-Zahar, a surgeon who lives in Gaza City, is quoted by journalist David Remnick as saying, ‘What is the final goal of Islamic peoples everywhere? It is to establish an Islamic State in Palestine, in Egypt, in Lebanon, in Saudi Arabia..There is no role for a Jewish state in this.’ In chilling tones, peppered by what Remnick describes as a knowing laugh, he suggests there might be a role for a Jewish state in Los Angeles or Brooklyn. The otherwise urbane and cultured surgeon adds that a non-Islamic state is intolerable on Islamic land, and that Anwar Sadat was assassinated because he did not implement Sharia in Egypt.

Mr al-Zahar tells Remnick that Muslims are calling for the purification of the world. He justifies the killing of Israelis by reminding his visitor that all Israelis have served in the military and that all men remain soldiers for most of their lives. That makes every Israeli a legitimate target.

For those of us who were mortified at the sight of child stone-throwers being shot during the height of the present Intifadah, al-Zahar’s fury about the blood of Palestinian children makes uncomfortable reading. ‘As the Koran makes clear,’ he concludes, ‘en eye for an eye.’

In this week’s Jewish Telegraphic Agency wire , it is reported that a group of 130 Muslim clerics and scholars from thirty countries who met in Lebanon approved a final statement calling for the elimination of Israel, and declaring that suicide attacks on Israelis are legitimate.

With whom can one sympathise? Three years ago, long before this Intifadah, and when Arafat was riding high , my cameraman said I would be killed for filming at the London Mosque. Whom had I hurt? At that time, when peace seemed hopeful, what eye was I for whose eye?

To wit, it is said that the World Trade Centre atrocity had been years in the making. Does this mean that when Yitzhak Rabin was mulling the handover of the Golan Heights and everything else won by rivers of Jewish blood in the 1967 war, plans were already being made to destroy Israel and America anyway? The same colleagues who call me a racist also like to scream at the top of their voices that September 11th ‘had nothing to do with Israel’ and that the anger of bin Laden is that of the world’s Muslims at the presence of American troops in the Gulf.

In a recent BBC documentary, Syrian journalist Rana Kabani referred to Muslim perception of the American behaviour in the Gulf as ‘pernicious’ and ‘a circus.’ She interviewed a Palestinian man, Atef Helwa, who had lived for many years in the UAE, and when he showed her a picture of himself as a child, they agreed it could have been a photograph of a Jewish refugee from the Holocaust. (For those of us who are born Jewish and whose collective memory from earliest childhood resonates with 2,000 years of brutal persecution and genocides, this comparison is hurtful.) Mr Helwa, who seems to be living a prosperous and happy life in the UAE (like thousands of Jews who have been driven from their homes to make new lives across the globe) remarks that his dream has been destroyed and that there is nothing to be put in its place.

He describes the Israeli aircraft frightening him as he fled Sfat, and Miss Kabani shows a photograph of what the Israelis destroyed and put in its place in his village. What she never mentions is that the Jews of Israel never chose war, ever, but that the constant siege from Arab neighbours resulted in such unavoidable human tragedies.

What dismays me about such a programme is its irritating one-sidedness; Miss Kabani, who makes Israel and the USA look like the worst villains of the world since Hitler and Stalin, never mentions the pernicious (her word) behaviour of Middle Eastern countries towards their Jews – not to mention their own Muslim women -- refugees who were rescued by Jewish aid organisations. One million Jews – many of whom had laid claim to their farms and homes for generations -- were removed from Iraq, Iran and other Muslim countries for their own safety, and not one has ever asked to return.

What is also sad about such a programme is that Laurence Joffe, a Jewish writer I respect, is credited as a Researcher. One suspects he provided background but that Miss Kabani decided to provide her own agenda, with, of course, the blessing of the BBC.

In the same week in which Rana Kabani’s documentary was shown, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ was broadcast. The poignant final scene of the film, in which Tevye, his family and hundreds of other Jews are expelled from Anatevka, gave me pause for thought. The brutal forces of the Czar arrive to order the villagers out, and the Jews can only reflect on where they will go next to study Torah and start a new life. Luckily for Tevye he decides to go to America, but one can only grieve at the fate awaiting the children of this village a few decades later.

The eye for an eye pronouncements of the Palestinian surgeon, and the fatwa against Israel from the international synod of Muslim clerics gives one little comfort. Oddly enough, in the Washington Post this week, Marwan Bhargouti, head of the Palestinian Tanzim militia, provides what appears to be a sincere plea for an agreement and for cultural and economic exchanges between Israel and the Palestinians. His voice gives a tiny fillip of hope to this parlous situation, though he expects to be assassinated by Israel before too long.

Never has the Middle East, and the combined destinies of its Jews and Arabs, looked so bleak.


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