Ranjona Banerji | Another TV war, with no solution in sight

The so-called heroism of Leon Uris' fiction appeared now to be just that

Like many of my generation, I grew up reading the thrillers of Leon Uris. Books like Exodus, Mila 18, especially Exodus, presented a thrilling story of the struggle for the new nation of Israel, set up by followers of the ancient persecuted religion of Judaism. We were in those years still in the shadow of World War II. Films and books and conversation still revolved around Hitler, Nazis, Germany and the horrors of the Holocaust. Against that backdrop, a fictionalised account of brave Zionists setting up their own nation despite all the odds was heady stuff. Add to that the much longer shadow and far more emotive presence of India’s own freedom struggle to my generation and so many aspects of the tribulations of the nation of Israel, formed just a year after India, rang true.

The Diary of Anne Frank, The Fiddler on the Roof, The Merchant of Venice, Odessa File, from a young girl’s diary to a musical to an Elizabethan play to a spy thriller, the horrific treatment of Jews across Europe, from pogroms to little daily cuts to the massive barbaric scale of concentration camps, was part of our adolescent understanding of the world.

Every year, of the few Hollywood movies that reached our shores, Willaim Wyler’s Ben-Hur and Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, both starring Charlton Heston, were staples on the summer holiday round. The bravery and travails of Jews in ancient times told Hollywood style.

Uris made heroes of Zionists and enemies of the rest. For all his readers, because he certainly had the consummate skill of an ace story-teller, his words had to be the ultimate truth. Surely, no one could contest this version, full of heroism and determination? It’s hard to describe just how realistic and exciting the story of Uris’s Exodus was.

It was only later, with a bit of maturity, that a more complete picture emerged. Of the people of Palestine ousted from their lands and contained because of the consequences of a war that started in Europe. Thereafter, the news in the 1970s was usually filled with the “Middle East”. In the 1980s, the Lebanon war, the fight for nationhood by the Palestinians, the emerging figure of Yasser Arafat, the role of Egypt, and the story gained so many more dimensions. You realised that Independent India stood with Palestine, as Israel’s domination, power and money grew.

This was the dominant international discussion of those days. When I say discussion, I do not mean television because television did not exist in India as we understand television now. I mean books and newspaper and magazine articles. There was always violence, there was always those who favoured violence against one over the other. And there were always brave voices which went against the worship of violence, often from those at the forefront of other freedom and equality movements.

One of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th century, the Palestinian scholar Edward Said, in an article for the London Review of Books in 1985, about Beirut, battered and destroyed by the Lebanon War, wrote: “Beirut was a free place (for those who could afford it), it had a free press, it furnished the Arab world with the most cosmopolitan of entertainments and loisirs. Little of this seems to have lasted, although paradoxically Lebanese books, newspapers and magazines are still easily the liveliest in the region… The second thing about Beirut’s unhappy fate is the insidious role played by religious and sectarian conviction.”

Said was one of the rare voices out of the West, a clear, sharp analytical voice which spoke for the rights of the Palestinians, and changed perceptions for many of us on how Israel was dealing with its neighbourhood.

This was the world in which we lived, long before Gulf Wars and Patriot missiles and Benjamin Netanyahu made famous by CNN. We knew it swirled around us all the while. Then came the fragile peace of the Oslo Accords.

But anyone who followed the state of Palestine and the Palestinian people knew that this peace was in name only. Palestinians were driven into corners and enclosures of what was once their own land.

The so-called heroism of Leon Uris’ fiction appeared now to be just that. Battered for years by European torture, Israel had now shaken hands with Europe and forgiven it its trespasses and made an enemy of Palestine and Muslims. The lone light of democracy in this troubled area of Arabs. A lone light under an extremely right-wing political establishment has only trampled on almost all rights for Palestinians.

I promised myself when I started writing this column that I would stay away from politics. There’s enough about politics everywhere, painful, divisive politics, without including it down the beaten track.

But I failed. No matter what I tried to write, my mind has gone where the world’s mind has gone today, in 2023. The terrible attack by Hamas on Israel over last weekend and the Israeli response, massive in scale and intensity has consumed me.

Given how connected the world is, the response from the general public across nations was as intense, vicious and divided. It is not just fake news, of which there is too much. It is not just Islamophobia, of which there is too much. It is the intractability, the your-side or my-side discourse, the glorification of suffering and invariably, the double standard arguments. You must condemn this, but I won’t condemn that. If you feel sorry for X then you are an enemy of Y.

Said quotes the English essayist, William Hazzlitt on the “pleasure of hating”: (It) “eats into the heart of religion, and turns it into rankling spleen and bigotry; it makes patriotism an excuse for carrying fire, pestilence and famine into other lands: it leaves to virtue nothing but the spirit of censoriousness, and a narrow, jealous, inquisitorial watchfulness over the actions and motives of others.”

As we watch one more TV war, we see how humans are simplistic in their need for hatred and so complicated in searching for solutions.

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