At the start of the year, I wrote a post on nations, states and the one-state solution, which ended with an invocation of John Lennon’s “Imagine”. It was pretentious, self-dramatising and exaggerated to talk about a “defining moment” in the way I did, and I cringe to re-read that final paragraph of the post. Hopefully, I am not alone in having lots of “defining moments” in my political life, moments that forced me to re-think my assumptions. This series describes some of those defining moments, the twists and turns in my political journey. I hope I keep on having them and that I am not eternally that fourteen year old in the back of the camper van.
That was my one and only visit to Israel, and the whole visit was probably a “defining moment”.
The British left (which I already felt a part of back home) then held “national liberation” as a sacred principle. This was the period when “national liberation movements” – and a whole pantheon of their various initials (FSLN, ANC, PFLP, PLO) – were worshipped by first world leftists. My experience in Israel forced me to think through that aspect of the leftist religion, and see its hollowness.
On one hand, I was surprised by the depth of emotion (“patriotism” in Orwell’s sense?) I felt for Israel, even though I was raised in a household without even the tiniest, faintest trace of Zionism. I felt a sense of belonging, attachment, recognition that was new to me.
On the other hand, the injustice afflicting the quotidian lives of Palestinians (for example, the difference between the bus service in East Jerusalem and that in West Jerusalem) was strikingly, shockingly apparent.
It was towards the end of my brief time in Israel that my “Imagine” moment occurred, and I had already been thinking about these issues. Driving past the Sea of Galilee in the soft warm night, within sight of the Golan Heights glowing the in the last of the sunlight, back to my cousins’ kibbutz in their battered old VW van, “Imagine” came on the radio. Probably just a singalong sentimental pop song to most people hearing it over the airwaves, it hit my adolescent ears pretty hard. Hearing “Imagine there's no countries/ It isn't hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for” while in bullet range of the disputed border with Syria was, well, salutary.
All the madness I’d glimpsed in Israel – the frenzy of longing for the land on both sides, the killing that came out of this – was not, I thought while listening to John Lennon, emphatically not the “inevitable” result of “age-old” “tribal” loyalties and hatreds carried in our two peoples’ hot desert blood, as the British media would tell us.
The frenzy and the killing are products of hopes, dreams, fantasies, stories, songs. They are contingent, subject to change. And, surely therefore (as I pretentiously wrote before), can we not forge our own futures if we open our imaginations?
I took my new-found confused/sceptical sensibility home to Britain, and before long I was doubting some of the most basic shibboleths of my left milieu. For instance, I began to reject the Irish Republicanism that was also part of the cultural code of the British left. (The extent to which it was is probably clear from the fact that John Lennon saw no contradiction between the no borders sentiments expressed in “Imagine” and the ethno-nationalist sentiments expressed in “Sunday Bloody Sunday”.) Why, I thought, did oppression sanctify one people’s national self-determination at the expense of another’s? Why does the left compromise its universal humanism for the murderous ideal of the nation-state?
And the catastrophes of the last quarter century – the killing fields of Sudan, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and the tragic unfolding of the story of Israel and Palestine – have done nothing to change my rejection of the idea that the nation is a sane way to imagine our world.
The First Intifada, the intifada of stones, began soon after I returned home. Having seen the mundane indignities that made up Palestinian life, I had a basic, visceral sympathy with the stone-throwing kids. But the part of me that was in that VW van listening to John Lennon knew that a genuinely “free” Palestine would not be created by Palestinian national self-determination, and that dignity does not come from nation-states. After the hopeful remission of the Oslo years came the Second Intifada, the intifada of suicide bombs and rockets. I knew then that the possibility of imaginations being opened was receding, but I still hold the faint hope that another world is possible.
Previous: Beautiful Boy; On nations and states; On the need for an anti-nationalist politics.
Elsewhere: Martin: From nationalism to Niebuhr and the nature of evil; HiM@N: Love techno, hate Britain.