As a result, I doubt one western protester in a thousand against Israel’s crimes could name the leaders of Hamas or describe their world vision. It’s not just that they don’t know, they cannot know. They must blank out the reality of religious dictatorship.
When Entebbe is released next month, most cinema audiences will enjoy an exceptional drama documentary. With luck, it should also annoy all the right people for all the right reasons. Supporters of the Israeli government will protest at how a great act of daring – the 1976 Entebbe airport rescue by Israeli special forces of Jewish passengers held by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Baader-Meinhof gang – ends with an appeal for Israel to negotiate with its enemies. That the film-makers show a compassionate German terrorist disobeying orders to kill Jewish hostages in the seconds before the Israelis soldiers reach them will not please the right either, I imagine.
The pseudo-left will denounce the film because, when all its politics play out, it is still a story of Israeli heroism and still presents Israel as a lifeboat state for the victims of European and Arab antisemitism as well as an oppressor of Palestinians.
Fewer will comment on the shift in the world and the shift in our sensibility since the 20th century. I cannot imagine anyone making a morally complex drama today about the battle between Hamas and Israel, the Syrian bloodbath or any modern conflict with the possible exceptions of the struggles of the Kurds and Ukrainians.
You can map how far we have moved by looking at the polemics of the past. In 1950, Bertrand Russell mocked the “fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed”. Generally, it was an excuse offered by oppressors. Victorian society denied women property rights and the vote, but justified itself by saying the dainty wife had an angelic nature which sexual equality would ruin. Naturally, it never entertained the notion that men would undergo spiritual improvement if they were stripped of their rights, too.
The fallacy could also be found in the minds of opponents of the status quo. The old socialists romanticised the working class as nobler and kinder than the greedy bourgeoisie. Yet if they truly believed poverty and slums eradicated selfish individualism, they would have campaigned for everyone to enjoy the benefits of a poor education, bad food and overwork. “Obvious as this argument is,” said Russell, “many Socialist and Communist intellectuals consider it de rigueur to pretend to find the proletariat more amiable than other people, while professing a desire to abolish the conditions which, according to them, alone produce good human beings.”
Until recently, it was commonplace to imagine oppression overseas also ennobled its victims. It was not enough, for instance, to say apartheid was wrong. If you looked at how members of the anti-apartheid movement were honoured, the writers who endorsed its struggle garlanded with Nobel prizes and Nelson Mandela turned from politician to saint, you might have concluded that the more oppression there, was the better humanity would become.
Or, to take an example closer to home, leftists have produced whole books denouncing conservative gays as traitors. It never occurred to the authors that once the right stopped supporting the judicial persecution of homosexuality, a conservatively inclined gay man was as likely to support a rightwing party as a conservatively inclined straight man. In the 21st century, Russell’s fallacy has all but vanished. A realistic understanding that freedom means the freedom of women, the working class, subject peoples, ethnic minorities and gay and lesbian people to be as good or bad, left or right, interesting or dull, crooked or honest, radical or conformist as the white, male middle class has not replaced it. Instead, we have a blindness that does not romanticise the oppressed but refuses to look at them.
To understand the phenomenon, imagine a screenwriter trying write a drama about Israeli troops shooting dead Hamas demonstrators on the Gaza border at the end of last month. The writer could not paint Benjamin Netanyahu as a compromised but sympathetic politician in the mould of his predecessor as Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. At the time of the Entebbe raid, Rabin was impressing on his colleagues the need to negotiate with enemies. He paid with his life for that in 1995 when a rightwing fanatic assassinated him for supporting the Oslo peace process. By contrast, Netanyahu, whose brother died saving the Entebbe hostages, not only failed to negotiate, but his policy of colonising the West Bank makes it impossible for a successor to negotiate.
If the Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had taken power in the 1970s, it would have produced another murderous dictatorship. But in theory at least its solution of a one-state Arab nation with Jews as a minority was not inhumane. Outsiders could look at it without shuddering. Radical Islamists, who not only want to drive Jews into the sea, but establish a sexist, homophobic, inquisitorial theocracy, as Hamas has done in Gaza, long ago surpassed the old Marxists. As a result, I doubt one western protester in a thousand against Israel’s crimes could name the leaders of Hamas or describe their world vision. It’s not just that they don’t know, they cannot know. They must blank out the reality of religious dictatorship.
In the 20th century, interested outsiders wanted to learn about a Mandela or a Havel. If they fell into Russell’s trap of romanticising them, you could explain the foolishness as natural in people who had reason to believe their values of liberalism and economic justice were on the march. In the 21st century, the ascendant values are illiberal: ethnic nationalism in the west, China and Russia; religious sectarianism in the Middle East and India.
Refusing to look too hard – or at all – is a reaction to a world where there is too much to fight against and too little to fight for.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist
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