Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Breaking down the barriers

When I was a youngster, the only British people I knew wore uniforms, pointed guns, and seemed to have hatred in their eyes.

For a couple of years in the 1970s, my parents lived right beside a militarized border which contained watch towers, a barbed wire fence, and was patrolled by heavily armed soldiers.

Crossing the bridge between Donegal and Tyrone was an ordeal; my parents and their friends had to psyche themselves up for routine journeys to places like the nearest supermarket or dentist's.

On one occasion, I remember my father being hauled out of the car by the men in uniforms after he dared to speak back after a long and tiring day spent visiting cousins in Monaghan.

The people of Lifford never knew whether or not they would be hauled out of their cars at gunpoint by young men from places like Sheffield and Sunderland who probably hadn't a clue why they had been sent to Northern Ireland in the first place.                          
Nigel Farage MEP addressing the European Parliament yesterday

Even though I was only five or six years old, I can still remember the agonizing fear in the car as we used to approach the border; our parents cajoling us to be as quiet as mice in the back in case we'd antagonize a hostile, or perhaps even trigger-happy, young soldier.

I remember a customs post up in flames or bombs going off, lighting up the night sky across Lifford and Strabane.

Some neighbours used to celebrate terrorist murders because some of them really believed that the victims deserved to die and you could almost feel the tension and hatred in the air.

People never mixed with the "other side". They'd go to separate schools, play separate games, work in different places and live in different neighbourhoods.

"Our" side had the GAA and Catholic schools, "their"side had cricket or rugby. To this day many people in places like Derry cannot bring themselves to support the Northern Ireland football team which is why James McClean, from the Creggan, plays for the Republic even though he grew up North of the border.

Two teams, a nation divided, and yet we live in peace in 2016.

In the 1970s, some members of my tribe, the Catholics, used to claim that there was no point in even looking for a job because discrimination was institutionalized. In those days it was almost impossible for a Catholic in Derry to get a Council home.

When 14 unarmed people were shot dead during a Civil Rights march my parents decided they'd had enough and they managed to orchestrate a move back to Galway. They did not want their five children to grow up in such a tense environment.

That tension was still in the air when I used to travel to Derry to cover Galway United games for my local newspaper in the 1990s.

You always felt fear or discomfort when you crossed that border and watched the military helicopters flying over the Brandywell on Sunday afternoons, even though the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the deeply unpopular police force) had an unwritten agreement with Derry City that they would not enter the football ground.

Years passed before I really got to know English people. Even when, as a third level student, I spent lengthy summer holidays working in London, I only really mixed with the Irish or Jamaicans; there was a lot of distrust of the Irish, while the IRA "campaign" provided a negative backdrop to our experiences as young migrants in the British capital.

It was in London that I first encountered casual racism, but I knew that didn't mean there were more racists in the UK than back home in Ireland. In those days, you could probably count the number of black people in Galway on two hands.

For me, strangely, the catalyst for change was my love for scuba diving. My two regular diving buddies on the west coast of Ireland both had young families and didn't have the time or the money to travel with me on my underwater adventures.

So I booked the first of many holidays to Egpyt and - shock, horror - found myself on a boat full of English people. I braced myself for a tense week and, yes, sometimes there were cultural misunderstandings or comments made through ignorance rather than hatred.

My fears were unfounded and I even began to make life-long friends who would contact me twice a year to see if I'd like to join them on trips to the Red Sea. By mixing with each other, by sharing our passion for a wonderful hobby, we broke down barriers which we had allowed to build up over generations.

During a wonderful gap year in 2010, I became a professional scuba diver. Every day I mixed with English people at Blue Planet Divers, some of whom had military backgrounds and had even served on tours of duty, pointing guns at Irish Catholic people in Northern Ireland.

Some of them also became life-long friends.

At the turn of the Millennium, I also renewed my love affair with Liverpool FC, honed as a child in the 1970s back in Ireland. I travelled all around Europe with Scousers and could not feel more accepted or have had more fun.

I'm never going to sing 'Rule Britannia' or 'God Save the Queen', but by mixing and having the 'craic' with English people I have completely banished the prejudices I built up in my mind as a child.

With the Brits having voted to leave the European Union this week, Ireland is in shock as many of us worry about an uncertain future as an isolated island off the north-west coast of the vast continent.

Everyone is focusing on the perceived racism and xenophobia of some of those who voted for Brexit last Thursday.

How quickly we forget how undemocratic, or even anti-democratic, the EU has become.

When our parents voted to join it in the 1970s, the European Economic Community led to economic prosperity on an island which had been ravaged by decades of stagnation, unemployment, and hopelessness.

They didn't vote for a system which would allow bureaucrats in Brussels to bully small countries such as Ireland, Greece, and Portugal.

They didn't vote for a dictatorship which would tell the Irish people that they made the "wrong" choice when they rejected the Lisbon and Nice treaties.

They didn't vote to impose severe hardship on the Greeks or to make a murky deal with an awful Government in Turkey, just to keep the migrants out in the face of growing racism across many of the 28 member states.

They didn't vote for the annihilation of Irish fishing rights or a loss of power by nation states which ensures that the Irish Government no longer seems able to decide whether or not it can abolish deeply unpopular water charges.

They didn't vote for a parliament which refused the right to Irish MEPs to comment on a vote which will have more of an impact here than anywhere else yesterday. Luke 'Ming' Flanagan MEP, from one of the most remote regions in Europe, claimed that he and the other MEPs from the Republic were effectively being 'gagged' yesterday.

But Brexit proved one thing, emphatically - ordinary people across Europe feel alienated from the EU institutions which govern them.

The EU needs reform, it's just that people like the racist Nigel Farage MEP (UKIP) and opportunist Boris Johnson MP (Conservative) are not the ones to provide the solutions.

It's a sad day for Ireland when our nearest neighbour and biggest trading partner leaves the EU, but in all of the noise over xenophobia and racism let's not forget that there were very valid arguments about how undemocratic the EU has become during the Brexit debate too.

This is a time for healing wounds and building bridges.

Nobody wants to see a militarized border separate the Republic from the North again.

Luke 'Ming' Flanagan MEP,
not allowed to speak yesterday
And few want a divisive vote about a United Ireland right now, either. Not while a million people see themselves as British, even if the Britain they know seems to be falling apart.

Before we talk about that we need to start following the same teams, drinking in the same bars, living in the same neighbourhoods and mixing with each other to break down the barriers.

I had to go all the way to Egypt and Thailand to learn that I could make friends with ordinary English people, and be accepted for who I am, yet how many of us have made no effort to find out about the "others" who live just down the road.

Racism and xenophobia only fuel ignorance and offer no solutions, while isolation is simply impossible in the 21st century.

I do think British people made the wrong decision last Thursday, but only a fool would claim that the EU is not in need of sweeping reforms.

As for the border; well, nobody, but nobody, wants a return to the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s. There are too many connections between our two islands and our communities within this island to allow that to happen.

It's a time to build bridges, not to put up new fences, customs posts, passport controls, and watchtowers, long after many of us were so happy to see them being dismantled.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

If you dare to criticise Israel, you must be "anti-Semitic"

Last week, a blog post I wrote following a talk by a Holocaust survivor was described as “hate-mongering”.

In the piece, I dared to suggest that it was deeply saddening that the descendants of the people who suffered so much in 1930s and 1940s Europe had become oppressors themselves.

I wrote that some Israelis and Palestinians had “dehumanised” the other side in ways which were eerily similar to what went on in Germany back in the 1940s.

There is no doubt that the whole of Europe should have collective shame over the extermination of six million Jewish people by the Nazis during World War Two.
Jewish children in a Nazi concentration camp.
The world should never forget the horror of the Holocaust.

That shame extends to Ireland, where our Government – just a few years after independence – did next to nothing to help those who were trying to escape from persecution.

It was natural and understandable that revulsion over the Holocaust led to widespread public support across the globe for the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948.

The only problem was that nobody seemed to take the needs or rights of the native Palestinians on board when Israel came into being.

And so began a myth that here was a “land without a people for a people without a land”, as those who had earlier been colonised by Britain either did not exist or had no right to their own self-determination.

The relatively minor abuse last week got me to ponder how far Israel has shifted to the right since the days when enthusiastic young Europeans used to travel there to volunteer and live in cooperatives known as kibbutzim. Not any more.

My Twitter feed soon filled up with abusive attacks.

I am no expert on the Middle East, but I have been to that part of the world on about 15 occasions and love the hospitality and culture of the people.

I am no expert on Israel and Palestine, but I do recognise a gross injustice when people are colonised, forcibly ejected from their homes, or forced to live as second class citizens.

As an Irish person, whose land has a long history of oppression and colonisation; it’s natural to feel a tendency to side with the oppressed.

The abuse I received came just a month after the British Labour Party was torn apart by accusations of “anti-Semitism”.

Former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, of all people, was given this label after he made some ill-advised comments about Hitler and Zionism.

Nowadays, it seems, it is impossible to criticise Israel in any way without being smeared.

Palestinian loss of land since 1946
The on-line abuse got me to thinking …

If you think that villagers have a right to return to the land and homes they were forced to flee by colonising settlers in 1948 or 1967, you must be anti-Semitic.

If you find it appalling that more than 550 children were murdered in one of the most crowded places on earth in just a few weeks in 2014, you must be anti-Semitic. (After all, their parents voted for murderous Hamas terrorists).

If you cannot, in your wildest imagination, see any justification in the bomb which killed four young boys on a Gaza beach, you must be anti-Semitic.

If you think it’s a war crime to bomb a hospital, you must be anti-Semitic. (Don’t you know that the patients inside were being used as human shields by dangerous terrorists?)

If you oppose a wall which cuts through farms and villages on occupied land, you must be anti-Semitic.

If you think it’s racist or even a form of Apartheid when roads are reserved for one particular race or religious group, at the expense of another, you must be anti-Semitic.

If you think ‘peace’ is impossible now that 800,000 settlers have built houses on occupied land in the West Bank, you must be anti-Semitic. (Even the UN, hardly great supporters of Palestinian rights over the years, recognise the 1967 border as ‘legal’).

If you think it’s hypocritical to talk ‘peace’ while stealing land which is outside your country’s borders, in contravention of the Geneva conventions, you must be anti-Semitic.

If you oppose institutional discrimination because you think it’s just as bad as the South African regime in the 1980s was, you must be anti-Semitic.

If you question why the US gives $3 billion a year in military aid to one of the richest armies on earth, who then try out new arms in heavily populated areas, you must be anti-Semitic. (Israeli arms dealers actually boast that new weapons are “tried and tested” in Occupied Palestine).

If you understand why people who have been cut off by land, air, and sea by colonisers might want to smuggle essential goods through tunnels, you must be anti-Semitic.

If you think it’s not ok to murder 2,200 people, because some of them may have voted for appalling terrorists, you must be anti-Semitic.

If you feel the people of Gaza should be allowed lift the siege in order to rebuild their homes, you must be anti-Semitic. (They cannot even get concrete in, for God’s sake).

If you call for a boycott of companies who locate their factories on stolen land in the West Bank, you must be anti-Semitic. (They do employ Palestinians, but at a fraction of the cost of hiring Israelis inside the recognised 1967 borders).

If you see no hope for children who are tear gassed on their way to school in Hebron, you must be anti-Semitic.

If you think the villagers of Bili’in have a right to protest after the huge wall cut them off from their own olive fields, you must be anti-Semitic. (Almost every Friday for years now, they have been fired upon by occupying soldiers).

If you don’t think it’s right to appoint a racist (with widely-reported anti-Arab views) as Minister for Defence, you must be anti-Semitic.

If you think it’s hateful for a Prime Minister to spread fear about a minority’s voting habits on the eve of an election, in any country, you must be anti-Semitic.

If you think groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace are heroes for exposing and denouncing atrocities committed in their name, you must be anti-Semitic.

If you laud the bravery of the ex-soldiers in Breaking the Silence who fear the toll this cruel occupation is taking on both sides, you must be anti-Semitic.

If you pay attention to the human rights abuses exposed by Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, you must be anti-Semitic.

(Even though all three of these organisations are predominantly made up of Jewish members.)

It doesn't matter if you agree that Holocaust-denial is a crime. It is simply ludicrous to deny that six million Jewish people were murdered by the Nazis, in what was the darkest period in the entire history of humanity.

It doesn’t matter if you think Hamas are murderous thugs or that the Palestinian Authority are guilty of corruption.

It doesn’t matter if you think public executions, which are sometimes authorised by Hamas and seen on the streets of Gaza, are crimes against humanity.

It doesn’t matter if you recognise that “radical Islam” is a scourge which threatens the entire world.

It doesn’t matter if you think ‘Sharia Law’ is an abomination and that women deserve equal rights in every country on earth.

It doesn’t matter if you completely oppose the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel, rockets which have killed innocent civilians.

It doesn’t matter if you think that ‘suicide bombers’ are deplorable and that attacks on Israeli civilians are terrible.
A graphic which examines the similarities between South Africa
under Apartheid and modern-day Israel. 

It doesn’t matter if you think all human life is sacred, that the shooting of four innocent people sitting at a cafe in Tel Aviv last week is as much of a tragedy as the killing of the young boys playing on the beach in Gaza in 2014.

Yes, all human life, without distinguishing between Muslims, Christians, Jews, and non-believers.

It doesn’t matter if you think Egypt, by closing the Rafah border, is just as complicit as Israel in the terrible siege of Gaza.

It also doesn’t matter if you recognise that the Governments of Egypt, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya, etc, are controlled by tyrants and that Israel does have a right to defend itself.

Because, if you dare to criticise Israel in any way, you run the risk of being labelled as “anti-Semitic” or a “hate-mongerer”. Even if you know, deep in your heart, that there will never be peace in the Middle East, not while one side chokes the life out of the other and brutalises a whole new generation of hopeless children.