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Editor's note: Award-winning British Jewish writer of "The Finkler Question," Howard Jacobson writes a response to Alice Walker's decision to support and join an international flotilla of boats sailing to Gaza to challenge Israel's blockade of the territory. He explains why he thinks her actions will not help the situation.
It should not need arguing, this late in the ethical history of mankind, that good people can do great harm. One of the finest and funniest novels ever written -- Don Quixote -- charts the damage left in the wake of a man who would make the world a better place.
Human beings are seldom more dangerous than when they are sentimentally overcome by the goodness of their own intentions. That Alice Walker believes it is right to join the Freedom Flotilla II to Gaza I do not have the slightest doubt. But beyond associating her decision with Gandhi, Martin Luther King and very nearly, when she talks about the preciousness of children, Jesus Christ, she fails to give a single convincing reason for it.
"One child must never be set above another child," she says. A sentiment that will find an echo in every heart. But how does it justify the flotilla? Gaza is under siege, Israelis will tell you, because weapons are fired from it into Israel, threatening the lives of Israeli children. If the blockade is lifted there is a fear that more lethal and far-reaching weapons will be acquired, and the lives of more Israeli children endangered.
You may want to argue that had Gaza been treated differently it would have responded differently, but if the aim of the flotilla is to ensure that one child will not be set above another it is hard to see how challenging the blockade will achieve it. All an Israeli parent will see is a highly charged emotionalism disguising an action that, by its very partiality, chooses the Palestinian child over the Israeli.
The boat on which Alice Walker will be traveling is called The Audacity of Hope. Forgive me for seeing a measure of self- importance in that reference. It will be carrying, Alice Walker tells us, "Letters expressing solidarity and love." Not, presumably, for Israeli children. Perhaps it is thought that Israeli children are the recipients of enough love already. So what about solidarity? It is meant to sound innocuous. "That is all."
Alice Walker makes plain, "its cargo will be carrying." But what will these letters of solidarity be expressing solidarity with? Solidarity is a political term implying commonality of interest or aspiration. So what interest or aspiration do Alice Walker and her fellow travelers share with the people of Gaza? A desire for freedom? Well we all aspire to that. A longing to live in peace?
If they have such a longing we must be solid with them in that too, though the firing of rockets from Gaza is not, on the face of it, an expression of such a longing. And what about the declared hostility of Hamas to the very existence of Israel? Hamas, we are often told, is the elected government of Gaza, a government that fairly represents the wishes of its people. In which case we must assume that Hamas's implacable hostility towards Israel fairly represents the implacable hostility felt by the people of Gaza. Are Alice Walker's letters of love and 'solidarity' solid with the people of Gaza in that hostility?
"If the Israeli military attacks us, it will be as if they attacked the mailman," she says. Wrong on a thousand counts. As a writer, Alice Walker must understand the symbolic significance of words. The cargo is a cargo of intention. It is freighted with political sympathy and attitude. It means to blunder into where it isn't safe, clothed in the make-believe garments of the unworldly, speaking of children and speaking like children, half inviting a violence which can then be presented as a slaughter of the innocents.
Even before the deed, Alice Walker has her language of outraged moral purity prepared -- "but if they insist on attacking us, wounding us, even murdering us..." The Israeli response is thus already an act of unprovoked murder, no matter that the flotilla is by its very essence a provocation. Whatever its cargo, by luring the Israeli military into action which can be represented as brutal, the flotilla is engaged in an entirely political act. To call it by any other name is the grossest hypocrisy.
Alice Walker might be feeling good about herself, but by giving the Palestinians the same old false comfort we've been doling out for more than half a century, and by allowing the Israelis to dismiss it as yet another act of misguided and uncomprehending adventurism -- further evidence that its fears go unheeded - her political gesture only worsens the situation. The parties to this conflict need to be brought together not divided: but those who speak disingenuously of love will engender only further hatred.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Jacobson.