Covent Garden Encounter

Ruth Hartley Storytelling, antisemitism, Art by Ruth Hartley, Conflict, Displacement, Freedom Fighters, Graphic Novel, Human rights, Installations, Justice, Politics, Power, Religion, War4 Comments

As I  walked up from Covent Garden Tube to Neal’s Yard I saw my teenage son coming towards me. We had not planned or expected to see each other there or then. As we smiled at each other in recognition we both became aware that a small demonstration was taking place on the street between us. To my right was a small Israeli shop selling Dead Sea products. To my son’s right was a small group of Palestinians waving banners and calling out to the Israelis. The Palestinians and the Israelis were young, beautiful and intelligent people who looked like brothers and sisters. They seemed surprisingly willing to talk and smile at each other as well as explain and demand. I looked at my son knowing his deeply-felt sympathy for the Palestinians as he knew my deeply-felt commitment to the right of Israel to exist. Each of us wanting peaceful solutions to the conflict in the Middle East. Benny Morris’s history of 1948 is essential reading

Read more: Covent Garden Encounter

On the way to Covent Garden

Many years earlier an El Al flight was hijacked by Palestinians on its way from Nairobi  to Tel Aviv and forced to land at Entebbe in Uganda. Jews were taken off the plane as hostages and threatened with execution. My family and I regularly flew over Uganda and occasionally landed there. I found it impossible not to feel fearful that something similar might happen to us. One evening in Islington walking home from an Italian restaurant with friends I confessed my anxiety to Jan, a Dutch friend.

“I’m not Jewish but my husband is.” I said. “If Palestinians hijacked the plane we were on I don’t think I’d have the courage to stay with him – what about our children.”

“ My mother was Jewish. My father isn’t. ” Jan replied. “ During the Nazi occupation my father sent me and my brother to live with farmers who pretended we were their children. My mother went to the gas chambers.”

Jan’s story was a reality. Mine just fear. Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night’ tells of his time in Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Birkenau as a boy.

Driven by left wing activism

I was politically left wing at Cape Town University -but opposition to apartheid was dangerous and I’m a coward. I knew young South Africans including Jews who did join the resistance. A few years later at LSE during the sit-ins, I realised that there are left wing people who are as authoritarian and tyrannical as some people on the right. I stopped to think. At the time there was an explosion of extreme left wing groups like the Angry Brigade, the Red Army and the Baader-Meinhof Gang. One of the hijackers at Entebbe, a young German, saw a concentration camp tattoo on the arm of a Jew held hostage.

           “I’m an idealist!”  he declared shouting down his shame. In the end he did not choose to shoot the hostages and was himself shot dead when they were rescued. Doris Lessing’s brilliant ‘The Good Terrorist’ is a compelling story of confused idealism.

Choosing any political allegiance is complicated and uncertain. You will be compromised and complicit in actions that you did not approve. I recently discovered that in 1930’s Russia, Stalin had used antisemitic memes to discredit independent thought among the Jewish intelligentsia and therefore separate them from his chosen cadres. Stalin’s antisemitism was gratefully received and applied by Hitler to turn the working class against the Jews of Germany. I was shocked to find antisemitism  still alive and serving the same purpose in the British left wing support for Hamas in 2017. Support for Hamas is not the same as support for Palestinians. The analyses by Hirsh and Rich explain Labour’s problems.

A hidden world war

The BBC news talks of the war between Hamas and Israel as if they were the only protagonists. It isn’t the case now and never was historically. Pogroms. the Holocaust and two World Wars are  a bleeding and terrible wound connected with the Middle East past, present and future. Putin wants the Israel/Hamas war to distract Europe from the war in Ukraine. Russia is implicated in antisemitism in France, in supporting both Brexit and Trump to weaken the US and the UK. North Korea also wants chaos in the Middle East to distract the US. China sees an opportunity to take control of Taiwan. Iran has been fighting a proxy war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen and has funded Hamas. Hamas fighters come from Daesh, ISIS, Al Qaeda. Boko Haram, Hezbollah and fundamentalist extremists from everywhere. There are fundamentalists in every religion and in every branch of politics but they do not want freedom for everyone – they want power they can use for themselves. They want to impose their religion or politics and their gender or skin tone on the world. Human rights must remain universal. Satrapi’s book is a painful account of the problems of being a woman under a fundamentalist dictatorship.

Here are numbers that add to the confusion

Millions of Muslim have been killed in the last 25 years. Most by other Muslims but Muslims have also been persecuted in Chechnya, Myanmar and China. There are  just over one million more Jews in Israel now than were killed in the Holocaust. There are about the same number of Palestinians in the Occupied territories and Gaza. Most Israeli Jews were displaced from Arab and North African countries following the Nakba. It’s a mess needing solutions, difficult decisions and good leaders. The actions of Netanyahu and the West Bank settlers are not defensible and neither are the actions of Hamas. Joe Sacco’s Palestine is a BD that is shocking and painful.

Over thirty years later

So many grieving hearts, so many deaths, so many broken promises over the years since we met in Covent Garden. My son and I speak together with sadness about the current conflict in the Middle East. We are now both old enough to understand that the whole world is mixed up and confused. We didn’t choose and we do choose to be where we are. We want a kind and hopeful world with a future and plans to deal with climate change and universal human rights. We want peace for Palestinians and Israelis together. I’ve tried to use my art to explore the tragic conflicts of our need for freedom and human rights. Here is a write up from one installation.

4 Comments on “Covent Garden Encounter”

    1. Ruth Hartley

      I think that feeling confused is wiser and safer than thinking you know the answers to this complex situation. Taking one side or the other isn’t helpful.
      I feel like you but so want something good to finally happen

  1. Aviva Ron

    This is brilliant and the book descriptions are so valid today. We hardly know what to be sad about right now, or tomorrow or the next day. It is very hard to be happy about anything, even a birthday. I don’t want my great-grandchildren to have to fight anywhere.

    1. Ruth Hartley

      Oh Aviva – the fact that you think this post is okay means an enormous amount to me. I feel so helpless and things are so bad at the moment – we need utopian thinking and great leadership and democracy and wisdom. I’m always thinking of you all.

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