Trapped in the moment of birth
My friend Peter Reading wrote a paper about the British National Health Service a few years ago in which he argued that organisations got captured in the moment of birth – and never completely escaped. When faced with a crisis, they would respond with a pattern which was familiar from their early history. The same thing seems to be true of Israel’s attack on Gaza.
I don’t have Peter’s paper any more, sadly, but he’d worked in the NHS for more than 20 years after gaining a history Ph.D., so it wasn’t a theory floated on a whim. And of course, famously, Nye Bevan later asserted that after two years of negotiating with the British Medical Association to create the National Health Service that to resolve their differences he’d “stuffed their mouths with gold”. It’s a description which 60 years on NHS professionals will still recognise; doctors still have disproprotionate power and when the government recently wanted to reform the delivery of primary care it did so by paying GPs salaries which have since been the source of continuing criticism.
The connection with Israel and Gaza may seem obscure, but this morning I was reading an article by Avi Shlaim, an Iraqi-born Jew who grew up in IsraelI, now teaches in Oxford, and who served in the Israeli army in the 1960s. It started with a quote from a British diplomat to Bevan’s near namesake and fellow Cabinet Minister, Ernest Bevin, then Labour Foreign Secretary, as the nascent Israeli state was created with “partisan American support” in 1948.
“On 2 June 1948, Sir John Troutbeck wrote to the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, that the Americans were responsible for the creation of a gangster state headed by “an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders”. I used to think that this judgment was too harsh.”
It’s impossible to write about Israel and Pelastine without becoming the subject of criticism. The emotions runs too high: the holocaust is still too close to the surface. Indeed, some writers, perhaps provocative, perhaps ironic, have made implicit comparisons between the ghetto-like conditions existing in Gaza even before the current attack and the Nazi-run Jewish ghettoes of the second world war.
Violence, it’s sometimes said, is frozen politics (and, one step further, capitalism is frozen violence). Both seem to apply in Gaza, with sanctions and blockades ensuring that it has become a source of cheap labour, and little more, and the Hamas rockets – in some interpretations – a response to the economic and political blockade. Gary Younge has shades of Brecht in an article this week:
“What I think we need to do is to reach a situation in which we do not allow Hamas to govern,” said Vice-Premier Haim Ramon. “That is the most important thing.” … He does not want to change the government of Gaza, he wants to change the people.
One of the problems here is that Hamas is one of the few democratically elected authorities anywhere in the Arab world, and this is a problem in two different ways. It makes Palestine a threat to the ranks of Arab dictatorships – and there is evidence of convenient complicity between Israel and quite a lot of the Arab rulers. But it also creates a problem for Israel. If – under well-monitored elections – people choose to elect hard-line representatives, that says quite a lot about their view of their economic and political conditions (just as the British government found it hard to appreciate why Sinn Fein representatives were elected by Catholics in the north of Ireland ahead of the apparently more benign SDLP).
Avi Shlaim is unequivocal about Israel’s behaviour.He points to the economic and humanitarian blocakde imposed by Israel on Gaza, before the rockets.(Gaza’s unemployment rate is – officially – 49%). He argues that it was not Hamas which broke the 2008 ceasefire but the IDF, in a raid which killed Hamas men. And he memorably describes the current offensive as not so much “an eye for an eye” as “an eye for an eyelash”. It is, he says
difficult to resist the conclusion that it has become a rogue state with “an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders”. A rogue state habitually violates international law, possesses weapons of mass destruction and practises terrorism – the use of violence against civilians for political purposes. Israel fulfils all of these three criteria; the cap fits and it must wear it.
Which leaves the difficult question of whether it ever possible to escape the moment of formation, or whether one is doomed to repeat it, in different versions of the same tragedy, and rarely as farce. The runes are not good. Systems tend to reaffirm themselves, responding to the threat of change with the smallest possible adjustment – a phenomenon that Donald Schon described as “dynamic conservatism“.
It seems to take huge – and symbolic – energy to overcome this tendency. Two stories from Nelson Mandela underline the scale of the effort needed.The first, from memory, is that as he was being released from jail, Mandela said to himself that he needed to have forgiven his jailers by the time he reached the end of the driveway, or would otherwise find himself in a cycle of revenge. The visible moment of that forgiveness came during the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, when he appeared, as President, wearing the Springbok rugby shirt, the symbol of Afrikaans aspiration and ascendancy. For me that remains an astonishing moment. Depressingly, perhaps the ability to make such transcendent gestures needs some years of quiet reflection in a prison cell.