Palestine, the touchstone for Western morality

The misshapen igneous wreckage of destroyed Gaza finds its parallel in Europe’s shattered pretensions and punctured claims to cultural pre-eminence.

Published : Feb 21, 2024 19:32 IST - 6 MINS READ

Palestinian men, women, and children line up for a free meal in Rafah, Gaza Strip in February 2024 as the war against Israel rages on against the backdrop of increasing number of deaths, starvation, and widescale displacement.

Palestinian men, women, and children line up for a free meal in Rafah, Gaza Strip in February 2024 as the war against Israel rages on against the backdrop of increasing number of deaths, starvation, and widescale displacement. | Photo Credit: AP Photo/Fatima Shbair

In ancient times, the purity of precious metals was gauged using a touchstone: a small tablet of dark fieldstone, slate or lyddite on whose finely grained surface soft metals such as gold left a visible trace. From its earliest known use by the Harappan civilisation of the Indus Valley, this simple test of authenticity travelled to Europe and beyond, its symbolism as well as its practical application intriguing philosophers of every epoch, from classical Greece to the modern era.

Today, the metaphorical sense of the touchstone—as a basis for comparison, a reference point against which other things can be evaluated—has become part of everyday language, evoking particular resonance in situations that pose great moral questions or matters of life and death. If one scans the current international landscape, several examples spring quickly to mind: the people of Myanmar confronting a junta of surpassing brutality; the struggle for survival in Sudan and the People’s Republic of the Congo; the fortitude of the Yemeni people, among the poorest on the planet, under bombardment from a Saudi Arabia-led alliance (backed by the West) these past nine years.

How do we stand in relation to these touchstones, these immense concentrations of human suffering? And what about those who act for us on the global stage?

Also Read | Will Gaza’s displaced Palestinians return home in the future?

Arguably no greater moral courage or rock-like determination to survive as a people is currently being shown than by the two million plus inmates of the world’s largest concentration camp: the 365 square kilometres known as the Gaza Strip. As Israel has attempted erasure of this penned-in, unimaginably traumatised population plays out in plain sight on our smartphones and computer screens, as Gazans confront the end of time from bombarded tent redoubts and mutilated hospitals in Rafah, as big global players duck and weave their way around issues of genocide and war crimes of the first degree, Palestine is indisputably the touchstone of our times.

This helps explain why my inaugural column for Frontline—the first of a sequence of snapshots and analyses loosely connected to my residing in France—levels its gaze firmly beyond the shores of Europe. There are, of course, multiple indissoluble links between Europe and West Asia. In my head, I can hear the tramp of conquest through the ages, from medieval crusaders to the exhausted British soldiers, my grandfather among them, who wrested Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire in 1917. I can visualise, too, the French and British luminaries who, as the Great War scythed its way across Europe and further east, sat down together to carve up the future of West Asia.

Yet even this interminable meddling by European powers in the ancient cultures of West Asia cannot account for this compelling need of mine to make Palestine my starting point.

What, at this moment, is conjured up when one thinks of Palestine? For many of us what comes to mind can barely be captured in words. Incessant scenes of carnage. Children are in agony as doctors stanch wounds and stumps of limbs without the benefit of anaesthetics. Lines of lifeless human bodies swaddled in white. An urban landscape pulverised into a grotesque, grey, rubble-strewn hell on earth. The targeted detonation of every hallmark of a civilised people—hospitals, schools, universities, law courts—the moment sometimes captured for eternity by jubilant Israeli troops drunk on death. Death everywhere. Close to 30,000 identifiable remains now, 12,000 of them those of children. Perhaps a further 7,000 corpses rotting beneath the rubble. Food supplies in crisis; aid-bearing trucks held up for hours at Israel checkpoints or blocked by gleeful Israeli protestors intent on having the ‘enemy’ starve.

What is this we are witnessing? Ethnic cleansing? ‘Plausible genocide’, to use the cautious language of the International Court of Justice?

As I write, I find myself reaching for the language of psychology. Cognitive dissonance, dissociation, and alexithymia (the inability to describe feelings and emotions): are the words I need in my attempt to convey something of the current lived reality here in Europe. Here, a bleak surrealism rules, the misshapen igneous wreckage of destroyed Gaza finds its parallel in Europe’s shattered pretensions and punctured claims to cultural pre-eminence, in the dull echo of lofty phrases stripped of substance and humanity.

In the case of those occupying the top seats in Europe—the elected leaders have given much to extolling the virtues of democracy, the bureaucrats running the machine, the media empires, and establishment-friendly journalists who police the flow of information and set the limits of debate—the annihilation of Palestine seems to amount to little more than a marginally discomforting sideshow.

Also Read | What the UNRWA crisis means for Palestinian refugees beyond Gaza

Barring a handful of honourable exceptions, the leaders of Spain, Belgium, and Ireland chief among them, no ringing, enlightenment-infused declarations of moral outrage have been forthcoming from Europe’s rulers, most of whom exhibit robotic adherence to a script:

• Item 1: Thou shall at all times back Israel without qualification. As Ursula von der Leyen, an unelected head of the European Commission, memorably declared back in October, “Europe stands with Israel!”

• Item 2: As per the definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA, whose equation of anti-Zionism with Anti-Semitism has acquired the status of canon law across large parts of Europe), all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.

• It follows that any attempt to contextualise the Hamas-led attacks of October 7 by offering historical perspectives or drawing parallels between the current assault on Gaza and the 1948 Nakba (the ‘great catastrophe’ by which 7,50,000 Palestinians were made refugees in their own land) is anti-Semitic.

• International law, including that relating to genocide, can and should be ignored.

• In all United Nations General Assembly debates involving calls for a ceasefire in Gaza, we shall ‘align’ our stance with that of the Biden administration.

• Ditto regarding our funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). (Let us draw a veil over the fact that this agency is by far the biggest distributor of aid to Gazans, 90 per cent of whom are facing starvation).

• As for those irksome protestors, those tens of thousands across Europe who persist in hitting the streets week after week to wave their placards and chant their support for Palestine: they must be reined in. Free speech? Right of assembly? What, here in Europe? Bah humbug!

I reach for my touchstone. My starting point is Palestine because I have no alternative.

Susan Ram has spent much of her life viewing the world from different geographical locations. Born in London, she studied politics and international relations before setting off for South Asia: first to Nepal, and then to India, where fieldwork in Tamil Nadu developed into 20 years of residence.

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