Thursday, November 26, 2015

The less we know, the easier it is to hate ...

The less we know about each other, the easier it is to hate. And did you ever get the impression that, for all our technological advances over the past few decades, we live in increasingly intolerant times?

Last week, it seemed that a third of the people I knew on Facebook turned their profile photos blue, white, and red in sympathy with the victims of the terrible terrorist atrocities in Paris the previous weekend.

Of course they had every right to do so, they were horrified by the images they'd seen on their TV screens.

But why sympathise with victims in one place, and not another? Those who wondered why Sky News don’t broadcast 24/7 from bombed out cities and towns in Syria, Palestine, or Afghanistan were told that people have a right to sympathise with terrorism victims in Paris, simply because they live closer to us.

US troops in Shannon: How many of us ever ask what destruction they cause?
And it’s true. The Irish do have more connections with the French than we do with people in Palestine, Iraq, or Syria. But we do the people in those countries a great disservice by airbrushing them out of our lives, when our own governments in the West play a big part in their troubles.

We let airplanes fly through our airports on their way to bomb them, we sell arms to despotic tyrants who abuse them, we turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, and then we wonder why some of them have an irrational hatred for people in our part of the world.

We didn’t see Sky News outside the Afghan hospital bombed by the US last month, but the channel spent an entire week broadcasting from Paris, interviewing victims, who had gruesome stories to tell about how a night out at a rock concert, a football match, or a restaurant turned into a nightmare in which 130 innocent people lost their lives.

Significant elements of the media make it clear that some lives are more important than others. Whether due to geography, inconvenience, or simple editorial policy, Sky never showed us interviews with the victims of the Beirut terror attacks which claimed 43 lives just 24 hours before the Paris attacks.

A suburban neighbourhood full of ordinary people became a "Hezbollah stronghold".

A few weeks earlier it was “politically inconvenient” to dwell on the bombing, by US forces, of the Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) hospital which claimed 30 lives. It wasn’t an act of terror, it was “human error” we were told. And it doesn’t rest easily with our narrative about who the good and the bad guys are.

So the victims of bombings in Afghanistan or Beirut never make it onto our TV screens and we don’t play their national anthems to honour their dead at our football games.

We say it “could have been us” when we talk about Paris or London, but never consider that ordinary people in far more troubled places are also trying to just get on with their lives.

Perhaps some of the refugees fleeing Syria are ISIS terrorists, hell-bent on causing havoc across Europe. But the vast majority are ordinary people who are escaping horrible lives in war zones. No father or mother puts a toddler into an unsafe boat to cross the Mediterranean Sea unless they are fleeing genuine horror.

Selective viewing renders a joke of objectivity. When 2,200 people were murdered in Gaza last summer, it was hard to find a reporter in the UK or Ireland – apart from Jon Snow on Channel 4 and a few others – who was willing to travel to the enclave and gather heart-breaking stories from the survivors.

So we didn’t get exposed to their grief, in the same way as we’ve been horrified by the loss of so many innocent lives in Paris.

It’s been horrible to go on social media in recent months and to see all the Islamophobic bile being spread about the thousands of refugees who are seeking new lives in Europe as an escape from the war-torn Middle East.

We didn't hear about the French air raids on Syrian towns back in September and few make a connection between European intervention in that strife-torn region and the terrorism on our own doorstep. But how could they not be related?

So the people who set off suicide bombs in Paris are a threat to civilisation, but the people who drop bombs on Syria and Iraq with no risk to their own personal safety are hardly ever highlighted by the media.

They don't strap on suicide vests outside crowded theatres, they press a button well out of reach of their victims.

Since 9/11, Muslims are blamed for the misdeeds of a tiny minority of extremists in a way which would have been absurd if the same criteria were applied to the Irish during the IRA bombings in the UK in the 1970s.

Not all Muslims are terrorists, but you’d never think that if you read through the comments on some social media sites. I’ve seen people call on their Governments to “nuke the bastards” as though wiping out the entire population of some cities or regions would eliminate the threat posed by terrorists, instead of creating a whole new generation of jihadists.

It is in the interests of the extremists on both sides that ignorance should prevail.

And it takes some degree of ignorance and extremism to believe that a place in paradise awaits those who shoot young rock fans in a crowded theatre on a Friday night.

When we go to Egypt, Morocco, Jordon or Tunisia on holidays, we get to enjoy fun times with ordinary, decent Muslims. The interactions work both ways – they get jobs in the tourism industry and to see that not all Westerners are as decadent or arrogant as they’ve been portrayed in their own biased media.

When we stop travelling – which is understandable in the wake of suicide bombings – our Governments can stoke up hatred against the Muslim world and continue to justify the sale of arms to regimes which have no regard for human rights.

We have seen this type of ignorance in Ireland for too long. When Catholics and Protestants attend different schools, play different games, support different sports teams, and even work in different places, it’s too easy to build up an irrational hatred for each other.

But it’s also in the Catholic Church’s own interest to keep children of different faiths apart from the moment they attend school.

Technology has changed our lives so much in recent years. We can now record or watch the news on our mobile phones 24/7. We can be connected no matter where we are, day or night.

But if we continue to put barriers between ourselves and ‘other’ civilisations we continue to be as ignorant about each other as Muslims and Christians were a thousand years ago, during the Crusades.

When our media only highlight terrible loss of life in Paris, New York, or London, rather than atrocities which take place around the world with far more regularity, they add to the false perception that there is some sort of Holy War going on between “us” and “them”.
Protesting against US troops in Shannon

Most people, whether they live in Paris or Beirut, only want peaceful, happy lives. But you’d never think that innocent lives in Beirut matter much if you relied on the likes of Sky News for your information about what’s happening in the world.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Why are we so selective in our grief?

Unlike many of my Facebook friends, I didn’t change my profile photo this week. I got home after a Saturday afternoon in town to find that a host of people had adopted the blue, white, and red tricolour after being prompted to do so by Facebook itself.

It’s not that I don’t care. France was the first country I visited outside the island of Ireland as a teenager in the 1980s. A summer holiday on the west coast opened up a whole new world of possibilities for a youngster who had never been outside of Ireland until he was 14. 

I like France. My brother is fluent in the language and once lived in Paris. My cousin married a wonderful Frenchwoman. I’ve had fantastic holidays scuba diving off the coast of Hyeres, partied and enjoyed rugby games in Toulouse, and enjoyed city breaks in Lyon, Paris, and Marseille.

The terrorist attacks in Paris were horrific and the reaction completely understandable. 

I have been teaching English part-time as I build up a freelance journalism and content writing business and one of my students missed class on Monday and Tuesday because his mother lived near the scene of one of the attacks. He had been sick with worry all weekend.

But seeing all these flags as I flicked through my timeline made me feel uncomfortable. 

I wondered why so many of my Irish friends were expressing public sympathy with the French victims of terror when so many horrible events happen every week without any reaction on our shores.

I didn’t see any Lebanese flags on my timeline after 43 people in Beirut were blown up by the same horrible ISIS terrorists just 24 hours before the French attacks.

I didn’t see any Russian flags when so many people were blown up over the Sinai desert the previous weekend.

I’m probably unusual for an Irish person in that I’ve been to the Sinai at least a dozen times, thanks to my love of scuba diving. I’ve become good friends with Egyptians, Bedouins, and British people thanks to all my travels, which proves that travel broadens the mind.

People I know are hurting right now because people are afraid to visit Egypt, understandably, any more. Their businesses are suffering and they could yet close down if people from Europe stop flying to the Muslim world.

Understandably, the tourism industry in Tunisia disintegrated after the shocking gun attack on tourists on a beach a few months ago. People want to relax on holidays, not to be in fear for their lives.  

But this separation of the world into "us" and "them" is part of the problem.

If people don’t travel, we don’t get to meet ordinary Muslims. We don’t break down barriers. And they lose their jobs in countries which don’t have any social welfare systems, playing into the hands of the extremists who want them to hate the decadent western world.

It’s easier to hate people when you never meet them, as I found out during a gap year in Nicaragua in 2010 when I was astounded by the amount of American expats who had an irrational hatred of Muslims.

43 people were blown up in Beirut on Thursday and nobody mentions it on Facebook. It got a five minute mention on BBC or Sky News.

A sad dog in Paris, considered more newsworthy than a dead child in Palestine 
A MSF hospital was bombed by the U.S. three weeks ago and we didn’t see interviews with the survivors on our news.

Almost 130 people were killed in Paris on Friday night. They were ordinary, innocent people enjoying a night out, at a rock concert, a restaurant, or a football match. Yes, it's horrible. But suddenly BBC and Sky News were broadcasting for 48 hours non-stop from the crime scenes and people changed their profile photos.

If Kay Burley and Sky News broadcast 48 hours non-stop from Gaza last summer maybe they might have influenced public opinion and stopped the murder of 2,100 people, including 550 children.

But that’s the problem. Sky News don’t focus on all the hardship the people of Gaza, effectively trapped in an open air prison, have had to endure over the years. 

Kay Burley brought journalism to a new low this week when she tweeted a photo of a dog looking sad in Paris. She was rightly ridiculed.

The Daily Mail used the Paris attacks for their own right-wing agenda, likening migrants fleeing the war in Syria to rats just as the same paper demonised the Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

News channels spend a full week broadcasting 24/7 from Paris so we are bound to have more sympathy with the victims. They treat a bombing in Beirut as a ‘non-story’ and move on as though nothing has occurred. We don’t care because we don’t see the victims on our TV screens.

If the wide world could witness the huge injustice being suffered by the people of Palestine, perhaps their lives could change for the better and they would feel less of a grievance against those of us lucky enough to be born in Western Europe.

We didn't see their families or the survivors being interviewed constantly over a 24 hour period on Sky or BBC last year. It’s easy to label them as “terrorists” when we never see them, even though 1.8 million people – many refugees from what is now Israel – have been living in deplorable conditions for years.

ISIS are depraved fundamentalists, but they are not fools. They see that killing people in France generates ten times more publicity than a bomb in Beirut.

Meeting ordinary people in the Middle East challenged my own preconceptions built up through the Western media.

By being so selective in our grief we play into the hands of the extremists and the cynical people in the West who sell them arms.

Wasn’t it George Orwell who wrote that some lives were more important than others? Well, the media in Europe and America make that abundantly clear every day.

The ignorance about Muslims in America and now Europe is alarming. The more we divide up the world into important (Paris, New York, London) and unimportant (Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq) victims, the worse the division becomes.

ISIS are scum and that doesn't mean I disrespect the grief French people have been going through over the past week.

By all means mourn the terrible loss of life in Paris.

But let's not be so selective about our grief. The loss of any innocent life is a tragedy, whether it's in Paris, Beirut, Gaza, Sharm, or London.

We are all human. It might be easier to relate to a tragedy in Paris, simply because we’ve been there, but that should not prevent us from learning about gross injustices in other parts of the world.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Learning compassion from absolute horror

One of the things which dismays me most about the seemingly never-ending “conflict” between Israel and Palestine is the way in which a people who suffered so much (or their descendants) have been able and willing to inflict such suffering on others.

It forces you to question human nature when you see how Zionists have occupied, colonised, and demonised the people of Palestine over the past seven decades; even though we should never forget the absolute horrors which prompted so many Jewish people to seek a new homeland in the 1940s.

It’s appalling to think that there were 11 million Jewish people living across Europe at the start of World War Two and that the Nazis’ insane “Final Solution” resulted in the loss of six million of them in just a few years.

Europe should, rightly, feel shame. That shame extends to the island of Ireland, where a closed society in its second decade of independence effectively shut its doors on the persecuted Jewish people who tried to flee the Nazis in the 1930s. 
Tomi Reichental wore a yellow star during his talk in Galway

Our own shameful history was alluded to during a talk in a crowded lecture hall in Galway yesterday, when a survivor of the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp said that lessons from the Holocaust should be applied to the current refugee crisis facing Europe.

Over 300 people crammed into the lecture hall at NUI Galway to hear Tomi Reichental speak, and everyone of us was overwhelmed by his generosity of spirit as he recalled a childhood which was unthinkable to every Irish person in the room.

Tomi has written an absorbing book about his experiences as a Jewish child in war-time Slovakia and his subsequent transfer to the concentration camp where so many people lost their lives.

Just nine years old when he was captured by the Gestapo, Tomi urged Irish people to embrace diversity and to learn to live with different traditions when he referred to the thousands of refugees who are currently fleeing the Middle East for new lives in Europe.

“People tend to blame other people for their problems,” said Mr Reichental. “We have a lot of foreign people in Ireland now. If you hear somebody blaming somebody else because they are a foreigner or have a different skin colour, speak out. Don’t become a bystander. Get involved. It’s wrong.

“In the 1930s, Ireland closed the door to the Jewish people. We have a refugee crisis across Europe now. We have to learn to live with different traditions and embrace them, not to exclude them. The Holocaust must not be compared to anything that has happened since, but we must learn from it.”

Mr Reichental, who lost 35 extended family members in the Holocaust, said that he did not speak about his experiences at Bergen-Belsen for over 55 years.

He never discussed his experiences with his late wife, although she knew he was a Holocaust survivor. It was only when he retired, and after she passed away, that he began to write down his experiences 12 years ago.

He has since become a hugely popular figure with schoolchildren all over Ireland, as he regularly tours the country to talk about the Holocaust and what it was like to be a nine year old boy playing among piles of decomposing corpses.

“It is very important that I can speak to as many people as I can, because I feel that I owe it to the victims. I lost 35 people from my family. By speaking to young people, I hope that the memory of the Holocaust will be carried for generations to come,” he said.

“For over 55 years, trauma stopped me from speaking about it. But there are not many of us left, especially here in Ireland, who can talk about our experiences in the concentration camps.”

Tomi recalled an idyllic early childhood in rural Slovakia, where his family had been a part of the community for generations. All that changed when he was six years old, when the Government introduced harsh anti-Jewish laws.

“In 1939, the propaganda against the Jews began. Hatred was building up against Jewish people. I remember my aunt sewing a yellow star onto my coat. I was kicked out of the village school because I was Jewish and had to attend a separate school in the town.”

Yesterday, he wore a yellow star on his jacket with pride, to remind everyone in the room of the indignity faced by people living under the Nazi regime.

He said that deportations began in 1942 and 58,000 Jewish people were transferred from Slovakia to Germany. His father, a farmer, had a special document which allowed him to stay because he was contributing to the Slovak economy.

But his parents eventually had to flee their home village. They changed their names and he was with his mother, grandmother, brother, aunt and cousin when they were picked up by the Gestapo in Bratislava in 1944.

He recalled the crowded ‘cattle car’ which transferred them to Germany and the fear in the eyes of the adults, who had heard about the gas chambers and extermination camps from people who had managed to escape and return to Slovakia.

“The moment the door closed behind us, our civilised life ended. I will never forget it. There was no privacy, no hygiene. I remember the smell and that people were crying. The people in the camp were like skeletons in their striped pyjamas. Their heads were shaved and we could not tell if they were men or women.”

He said Bergen-Belsen was not an extermination camp, but people could not live on the amount of food they were allocated each day. The calories allocated to the prisoners were insufficient for many of them to survive.

“There were 1,000 people living in huts which were designed for 200 people. We used to play ‘hide and seek’ among the decomposing corpses. That’s how dehumanised we were. We were living in this open graveyard for months, with bodies all around us,” he told the audience.

“Typhoid and diphtheria were the biggest killers, but people were dying of starvation and cold in their hundreds. The soldiers who liberated the camp in April 1945 said they could smell the stench for two miles before they reached the camp.”

Mr Reichental moved to Ireland in 1959, but said he never wanted to talk about his experiences until he retired in 2004. Since then, he has spoken to thousands of students in schools all around Ireland and featured in an RTE television documentary. 

“My wife never knew what happened to me,” he said. “She just knew I was a Holocaust survivor. I lost her to cancer 13 years ago. Then I retired 12 years ago. I thought I would enjoy my retirement, but then I realised I needed to tell my story. I realise now that I am one of the last witnesses of this horror and I feel that I owe it to the victims.”

During a question and answers session after his talk, I was the only person in the audience to raise the issue of the occupation of Palestine with him.

I asked him whether or not it upset him that Palestinians were now being “dehumanised” by the Israeli media, and Jewish people “dehumanised” by the Palestinians, in ways which were eerily similar to how Jewish people were portrayed, horribly, in the German and Slovak media in the 1930s and 1940s.

Clearly uncomfortable with the subject, he said that the Middle East should not be judged by the same standards as European countries.

He said that he had served in the Israeli Army for a while in the 1950s and had never, ever been trained or taught to hate the Palestinians.

His message was one of peace and he encouraged the Irish to embrace refugees, to offer them meaningful and viable lives, as a response to the current crisis.

Children in a Nazi concentration camp
Mr Reichental received a standing ovation at the packed NUI Galway lecture theatre, before staying on to sign copies of his book, ‘I Was a Boy in Belsen’.

His powerful story was a timely reminder of the absolute horror which led to the foundation of the state of Israel, even though I firmly believe that the Holocaust no longer provides an excuse for how badly the Palestinian people have been treated under the occupation for decades.

Those of us who care about Palestine and the Palestinians sometimes tend to forget the trauma suffered by the entire Jewish population of Europe just seven decades ago.

Not that the Holocaust provides any excuse for the barbarism inflicted on the people of the West Bank and Gaza in recent years.

Like Tomi, we all have to learn from the horrors of the past, to ensure that people are never discriminated against because of the colour of their skin or their religion. If we were all a bit more like Tomi in respecting diversity, there might be some hope for the people of Israel and Palestine.