ABE and Ruth Sirton were good friends of ours in Ghana in the early 1960s. As I recall, Abe had been seconded to Ghana by the Israeli shipping line, Zim, in which he had held senior positions both on shore and at sea.

His task in Ghana was a formidable one — to help the development of the Black Star Line, the Ghanaian shipping line which the recently independent country was being pressed to develop by the increasingly manic president, Kwame Nkrumah. Israel’s support for this project and many others throughout Africa, at that time, reflected its concern to add technical assistance to diplomacy in an effort to win support from Third World nations, especially by way of votes in the United Nations. In the event the strategy was only modestly successful because Black Africa was simultaneously being duchessed by countries in North Africa, the Middle East and the Communist bloc as it then was.

The Sirtons were a delightful couple — intelligent, good-humoured, worldly, tough and blessed with great generosity of spirit. Abe was very big man — tall, strong and not carrying any excess weight. Ruth, on the other hand, was a tiny wisp of a woman but not to be taken lightly. In this latter context, Abe told me one evening that in the 1950s, when Israel was under constant threat from various Arab foes, Ruth served in the Israeli army at the very front of the front line and her particular expertise was garrotting! As a feather-stepping slip of a woman it was her task to glide up behind Arab troops and, to put it kindly, render them lifeless with a piece of fine, strong wire. It is not a pretty story but it was the temper of the times and a tactic used by both sides.

For all that however, the longer the Sirtons were out of Israel the more they liked it. They enjoyed the freedom from a seemingly eternal state of war and from the belligerence and the tension and the pervasive sense of threat. And so, as I recently discovered, the Sirtons moved to the UK after three or four years in Ghana. Abe died in 1993 and Ruth is active — as would Abe have been — in activities such as Joint Action for Israeli-Palestinian Peace and Jews for Justice in Palestine. I am not at all surprised that their lives should have taken this turn. The Sirtons were strong people of independent spirit and they did not see Israel as where they wanted to live because in large measure they did not share all the official views and popular sentiments. So, notwithstanding friendships and other ties, they turned their backs on the Jewish homeland and went elsewhere.

The other Israeli couple whom we knew well in Accra were the Mors, Dan and Miriam Mor. Dan was Charge d’Affaires in the Israeli embassy for much of the time we were in Ghana and, from all accounts, he went on to serve with distinction in other posts and at a senior level in the Israeli foreign ministry. They too were a delightful couple — warm, intelligent, amusing and good company but, where Abe and Ruth were free spirits, Dan and Miriam were very much part of the Israeli government establishment. Abe and Ruth went where their many skills and diverse interests took them; Dan and Miriam went where the Israeli government determined albeit with the Mors doubtless given increasing discretion as Dan rose in rank and status in the foreign service.

Attempt to destroy Judaism

The story of the Jews is one of the great themes in world history. In the “modern” historical sense it can probably be said to have started with the Judeans who remained in Babylon after the Babylonian exile, some six centuries before Christ. There was early consolidation in Judea (Palestine) but, while Judea remained their spiritual focal point, the original population dispersed over subsequent centuries until a return to the homeland accelerated from the latter decades of the 19th century. In between all that there was the Syrian attempt to destroy Judaism in the first century or so after Christ; war, slavery, sackings and exile under the Romans; then a few centuries of oppression and various kinds of nastiness from the christian churches; greater tolerance from the sixth century onwards, especially so when emancipation came in western Europe in the seventeenth century, except in Russia where endemic persecution continued; a return to barbarism under Hitler, with some six million Jews perishing in the Nazi Holocaust; and finally a refuge — of a kind, given recent events — was established with the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.

It is an incredible saga and — having regard to all the races and attitudes and triumphs and sadness that make up the story of the Jews — it is one which still echoes with discordant themes of love and hate, peace and war, humanity and venality, life and death, hopes realised and dreams dashed. I pass no definitive personal judgement and yet I can’t be anything but in awe of what is surely one of the epic stories of all time. And that observation should not be taken as in any way reflecting adversely on the Arab peoples of North Africa and the Middle East whose journey has been no less spectacular than that of the Jews and whose contribution to humankind has been as diverse and substantive as any other region on the planet. Indeed, for those of us from an Anglo-Saxon background, it is salutary to remind ourselves that the Arab and Chinese peoples, among others, had advanced civilisations when our own ancestors were still running around in bearskins!

And here we are again, in 2006, revisiting this saga that started some centuries before Christ. Can we address it now? Solve it? Can a civilised accommodation be reached? Can we move on from blood and tears and death and guns? I truly don’t know but, if I have any regard for the lessons of history and the rhetoric and venality and bloodlust that has characterised these past few weeks then any optimism must be faint and highly qualified. Politics is never far from the surface in issues of this kind and the truth is that many more people have died in this latest conflict than should have been the case. I believe this was so because the United States allowed the fighting to continue for so long, doubtless at Israel’s urging, in an effort to so wound Hezbollah as to maximise the duration of its recovery. Another potent factor in this regard would have been the Jewish vote and campaign contributions in the United States.

For yet another twist in this story I draw the reader’s attention to a long piece in The Australian of 14 August, 2006 by the Lebanese journalist Michael Behe. What he has to say merits quoting at length. He commences by declaring that “The politicians, journalists and intellectuals of Lebanon have, of late, been experiencing the shock of their lives. They knew full well that Hezbollah had created an independent state in our country. What they did not know — and are discovering with this war, and what has petrified with surprise and terror — is the extent of the phagocytosis. In fact, our country has become an extension of Iran, and our political power also served as a political and military cover for the Islamists of Teheran. We suddenly discovered that Teheran had stocked more than 12,000 missiles, of all types and calibres, on our territory and they had patiently, systematically, organised a suppletive force, with the help of the Syrians, that took over, day after day, all the rooms in the House of Lebanon.”

After referring to the indecision, cowardice, division and irresponsibility of the Lebanese leadership he asserts that the country’s army had been so reshaped by the Syrian occupier that it did not have the capacity to tackle Hezbollah. “It is easy now’, he says, ‘to whine and gripe, and to play the hypocritical role of victims. We know full well how to get others to pity us and to claim that we are never responsible for the horrors that regularly occur on our soil. What rubbish. The Security Council’s Resolution 1559 — that demanded that our government deploy our army on our sovereign territory, along our international border with Israel and that it disarm all the militia on our land — was voted on September 2, 2004. We had two years to implement this resolution and guarantee a peaceful future to our children, but we did absolutely nothing. Our greatest crime — not the only one — was not that we did not succeed, but that we did not attempt or undertake anything. And that was the fault of none else than the pathetic Lebanese politicians.”

Let down by their politicians

That final observation is a telling one and a recurrent theme in commentaries on the Lebanese situation. It seems that, as the presence and pressure of Iran and Syria mounted — along with their support, nurturing and arming of Hezbollah — there was a concomitant outflow of courage and sense of purpose from those whom the Lebanese people had elected to represent and defend them. It is by no means the first time that voters have been let down by their politicians but at least in our kind of democracy it rarely causes such appalling loss of life and destruction to homes and public infrastructure.

There have been no winners in this awful return to violence and death in the Middle East but an awful lot — much too much — of death and destruction and hate and all the other primal results of primal behaviour. It has been ever thus and I am saddened to think that I shall probably never see it otherwise.

Ernest Bevin said in the House of Common is 1945 “There never has been a war yet which, if the facts had been put calmly before the ordinary folk, could not have been prevented … The common man, I think, is the great protection against war.” I agree with Ernest Bevan but the trouble is that, these days — more than half a century after Bevan spoke those words —  the common man is a statistic, not a source of advice. His views are determined by remote control —  where he lives, what he does to earn a living, how much he earns, his marital status and all sorts of other scraps of bloodless data that provide him with a pigeon hole in which to live and work and see out his days. And so it is all around the world, including Lebanon and Israel where the last thing that ordinary people want is death and destruction. They want to get on with their lives with their families and their jobs and their aspirations for their children. They may cast a vote now and then but it never seems to make much difference, chiefly because whoever they vote for becomes a politician — rather than a representative!

I really didn’t need all those words to talk about conflict and brutality and other such unpleasant things when a French novelist and journalist, Alphonse Karr, put it all in one neat sentence:

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
(The more things change, the more they are the same.)

Nick Evers

Ernest Bevin said in the House of Common is 1945 “There never has been a war yet which, if the facts had been put calmly before the ordinary folk, could not have been prevented … The common man, I think, is the great protection against war.” I agree with Ernest Bevan but the trouble is that, these days — more than half a century after Bevan spoke those words —  the common man is a statistic, not a source of advice. His views are determined by remote control —  where he lives, what he does to earn a living, how much he earns, his marital status and all sorts of other scraps of bloodless data that provide him with a pigeon hole in which to live and work and see out his days. And so it is all around the world, including Lebanon and Israel where the last thing that ordinary people want is death and destruction. They want to get on with their lives with their families and their jobs and their aspirations for their children. They may cast a vote now and then but it never seems to make much difference, chiefly because whoever they vote for becomes a politician — rather than a representative!