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Blood on hands

More than Jew or Arab, it is Britain, Germany, and especially America that are responsible for the creation and perpetuation of the long-enduring and apparently insoluble conflict in Palestine

Ramachandra Guha Published 27.01.24, 06:44 AM
Linda Grant.

Linda Grant. Sourced by the Telegraph.

Trawling through one of Bangalore’s wonderful second-hand bookstores, I came across a novel called When I Lived in Modern Times. I had not heard of the author, Linda Grant, but the title intrigued me, as was the fact that the novel was set in Palestine shortly before the State of Israel was created when the territory was controlled by the British. That was enough for me to buy the book and bring it home. With the conflict in Palestine dominating the headlines, I thought a fictional portrayal of its distant origins might be illuminating.

I was not disappointed. The novel is told from the viewpoint of Evelyn Sert, a Jewish woman in her twenties raised in Britain, who moves to Palestine after the end of the Second World War to see what she can do in (and for) the new Jewish State-to-be. She finds her way to a kibbutz, whose éminence grise is a Russian Jew of socialist beliefs. He is intensely focused on making the desert bloom.


This hardened leader of a kibbutz has considerable contempt for the Arabs who have lived in Palestine from long before he has. “If the British go and we rule benignly,” he tells Evelyn, “then some of our ideas will rub off on them [the Arabs], they will be roused from their tribal loyalties to a modern consciousness. That, or they should leave. Surely they can find some kind of niche for themselves in these vast Arab lands that surround us?… We offered them money for their land and they sold it to us, that is their absentee landlords did. We gave them a very good price, we didn’t cheat them. It was them, not us who let it go to rack and ruin. I don’t know how long they’d been here ­— centuries, I think — but look what we did in just twenty years. And why? Because of what we believe in, which is the future.”

Reading these words, I was reminded of the strikingly similar sentiments expressed by the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, in a letter to Mahatma Gandhi in the year 1938. While, unlike the dogmatic Zionist, Buber believed in reconciliation between Jew and Arab, he nonetheless saw the former as a teacher to the latter. Complaining about the “primitive state of fellah agriculture,” he claimed the Jews were necessary to modernise the Arabs and their ways. As he put it, “Ask the soil what the Arabs have done for her in thirteen hundred years and what we have done for her in fifty! Would her answer not be weighty testimony in a just discussion as to whom this land ‘belongs’?”

Martin Buber regarded the Arab residents of Palestine as — in a technological sense — a distinctly inferior race. “This land recognizes us,” he told Gandhi, “for it is fruitful through us, and through its fruit-bearing for us it recognizes us… The Jewish peasants have begun to teach their brothers, the Arab peasants, to cultivate the land more intensively. We desire to teach them further.”

The narrator of Linda Grant’s novel tires of kibbutz life and makes her way to the very modern city of Tel Aviv built in the style of the German Bauhaus architects. Renting an apartment in an all-Jewish neighbourhood, she befriends a Mrs Linz, a sophisticated lady, originally from Berlin. “We have in our Jewish city some of the best-educated men and women in the world,” says Mrs Linz: “We have scientists and historians and musicians and lawyers and doctors, everything. The Arab on the street is simply an illiterate man who knows how to sell watermelons. Can an industrious, well-organised minority who are the receptacle of all the most advanced ideas of the modern age be governed and dominated by a majority so patently inferior to us in energy and education and administrative experience?”

In the city, Evelyn begins an affair with a young Jewish radical, an activist with the armed group, Irgun. He shows no remorse about the bombing by Irgun of the King David Hotel in which many innocent Jews also died (apart from the British officers who were the main target). When the narrator chastises him, the revolutionary replies: “Listen Evelyn, there is nothing as transforming as a bomb. If you want to reinvent a city you put a bomb in it. Everything will be flattened and you can start again from scratch. You can impose any dream you like on a bomb site.”

The novel ends with the narrator, now in her seventies, looking back on her life. After a year in Palestine, she returned to England, where she married a Jewish musician and had two children. Decades later, after her husband’s death, she decides to go back to Tel Aviv and spend her last years there. Her former neighbour, Mrs Linz, is still around, now campaigning against the oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli State and the Israeli army. When Mrs Linz tells her of these atrocities, Evelyn finds that “I can’t stomach too much, it makes me sick to think anyone could do these things, especially a Jew. The Palestinians are themselves, of course, capable of equally ghastly deeds such as torture but, as the people I met from the camps had taught me, suffering very rarely ennobles. Primo Levi is the exception, not the rule.”

The book’s last paragraph mentions a play Mrs Linz and Evelyn had just seen “about atrocities committed by our soldiers in Gaza.” The next sentence speaks of a place where “Hamas bombed a café and fragments of cake were hurled through the neighbouring windows.”

When I Lived In Modern Times was written in the 1990s, as the failure of the Oslo Accords became apparent, with the surge of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the rise of the Palestinian Intifada. This prompted Linda Grant to venture a fictional account of the conflict’s origins in the 1940s. Reading the book now, when the conflict has taken what may be its most savage turn yet, was a moving and sobering experience. The cultural condescension towards the Arabs and the justifications for violence articulated by right-wing Israelis today were very clearly present at the founding of the State. At the same time, the novel reminds us of the unparalleled suffering of the Jews themselves, of the rampant anti-Semitism in Europe, of Hitler’s Holocaust, and, after Israel was created, of the persecution of Jews in countries across the Middle East. The new State became the only safe place that Jews anywhere had ever had; hence the desperate desire to protect it.

After finishing her novel, I googled ‘Linda Grant’ to learn of her high standing in the British literary world. I also found an article published last November, expressing Grant’s anxieties as a British Jew in the wake of the latest round of violence. She complains, more in sorrow than in anger, about prominent British writers and actors who, in their support for the Palestinians, could not “bring themselves to speak in concrete language about the murder of Israeli civilians.” She was herself sickened both by the horror of the atrocity committed by Hamas on Israel and by the Netanyahu government’s savage response, the bombing of Gaza and the cutting off of food, water and power supplies for its civilian population. British Jews, she says, seem incapable of providing “a political strategy that squares the contradiction between the Israeli right’s maximalism and Hamas’ nihilism.” “Perhaps the conflict is insoluble,” she concludes.

Perhaps, or perhaps not. In my view, if there is any chance of the conflict being resolved, then the lead must be taken not by Jew or Arab but by the nations which caused the problem in the first place. Grant’s novel quotes a British officer as saying: “To get back to the Arabs, their difficulty has always been lack of leadership and organisation and this is where the Jews beat them hollow. At the end of the day, though, the land belongs to them and the Jews are interlopers, however it might serve our national interests to have a European presence here.”

Through the Balfour Declaration of 1917, promising a National Home in Palestine for the Jews, the British gave the first major impetus for the formation of Israel. Through the persecution of Jews and, then, the Holocaust, the Germans gave the second major impetus. Once Israel was created, and particularly after the war of 1967, its consistent violation of the rights of Palestinians has been encouraged and enabled by the United States of America, which has armed and financed the Israeli State, turned a blind eye to the expansion of Jewish settlements, and vetoed proposals for peace at the United Nations. More than Jew or Arab, it is Britain, Germany, and especially America that are responsible for the creation and perpetuation of the long-enduring and apparently insoluble conflict in Palestine.

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